Recently, I read up on hygienic macros in functional programming languages. (Unless you are into very geeky details of computer science, you do not have to follow that link.) Thought processes diverged and branched out and recombined, and I present you with the resulting definition of Hygienic Magic:
Hygienic Magic is magic whose working is guaranteed not to cause the accidental capture of mental identifications.
To further parody the Wikipedia article I linked: The general problem of accidental capture is well known within the magical community. Magicians will use banishing rituals and dedicated temple spaces to define the location and duration of a ritual, and to remove any residual, unwanted identifications, for example after invoking an entity.
In other words, most formal, ceremonial magical acts are hygienic.
So what about the everyday intentional, magical acts where we do not set up a temple and banish thoroughly before and after? Should we be worried about contracting astral diseases off door handles? Should we expect demons behind every street corner ready to possess us? Will we ourselves become vehicles of contagion?
No. But there is a class of intentional acts which carry a high possibility of capturing mental identifications: reading or otherwise accessing or interacting with information. To a degree, the new identifications are desired and expected: by reading a book on Chaos Magic, I want to identify with being someone who knows more about the subject.
What if the book carries other, less overt information suitable for identification? By reading a text by Julius Evola for example, I will also be exposed to his latent fascism and appreciation of the nazi “order” of the SS. Will this turn me into a reactionary genocidal black brother? Not immediately, I am sure. And maybe not in the long term either, depending on my other identifications and preferences. I already know that the author had ideological affiliations which I reject, so I will be alert and my magical act of intentionally reading Evola will likely be a hygienic one.
How about reading Peter Carroll’s blog, an influential writer who is very competent in magic but whose political leanings were not previously on my mental radar? Are the identitarian overtones which I encounter there worthy of my consideration because I am so used to having my preconceived notions about reality challenged by this magician, or are they just more of the murky banality of the dark enlightenment? Or did Peter Carroll himself neglect hygiene by picking up this stray right-wing identification? And of course, questions like these should arise in me not only when accessing texts by magical writers, but when interacting with any information in general.
Unfortunately, I know of no simple banishing ritual that will wipe away all traces of accidentally captured identifications. It is tempting to believe that wearing a suitable sigil or chanting a certain mantra will give me the magical equivalent of a condom protecting me from the exchange of fluids and energies during intellectual intercourse, but I am convinced that nothing short of a personal transformation into being more watchful and critical – and hygienic – in the everyday magical act of consuming information is necessary.
“The Monkey’s Paw” (1902) is a supernatural tale of suspense written by W.W. Jacobs. And monkeyspawed is a slang-term I’ve heard, used by magickians to describe a particular way in which magick can rebound.
For instance, Boffo and I monkeyspawed ourselves handsomely in a recent working. I had been suffering from recurrent headaches and devised a ritual to balance my ajna chakra. Boffo was assisting, so I broadened the intention to include him. “It is our will,” we declared at the beginning of the ritual, “to balance our ajna chakras”.
It was a couple of weeks, and required the acumen of a third party, before we arrived at an explanation of the puzzling outcome of the working, because, the next day, I had my usual headache (although not quite as bad as usual) and Boffo had one as well. So we had indeed “balanced” our ajna chakras, in the sense that Boffo’s ajna chakra had been rendered as equally fucked-up as mine.
The paw in Jacobs’ tale is a dried-up talisman with the power to grant three wishes, but it has left a trail of unhappiness. Its magick, we are informed, comes from a holy fakir who placed a spell upon it because: “He wanted to show that fate ruled people’s lives, and that those who interfered with it did so to their sorrow”. The hero of the tale, Mr. White, wishes for some cash to pay off his mortgage, only to receive the sum he requested as compensation for his son’s death in an industrial accident. Distraught with grief, Mrs. White persuades her husband to wish for the return of their son, and later that night knocking is heard at their door. Mr. White identified their son’s body, saw how badly mutilated he was by the accident, and can’t prevent himself from thinking how being buried for the past ten days might not have improved matters. And so White deploys the remaining wish, just as his wife flings open the door and – to Mr. White’s relief – discovers no one is there: “A cold wind rushed up the staircase, and a long loud wail of disappointment and misery…”
However, the lesson of “The Monkey’s Paw” cannot be simply that magick is evil or inevitably produces harm, because the fakir who made the spell is described as “a very holy man”, and his magick (unlike White’s) is successful in realising its purpose. Yet the demonstration of the fakir’s teaching is made at the expense of others who fail to see in advance that by using the paw and asserting their own desire, they are in fact subjecting themselves to someone else’s will.
Is it not odd that a morality tale highlighting the inadequacy of individual will should hinge so crucially upon language? “Getting monkeyspawed” usually implies a magickal intention that is verbally incomplete or ambiguously worded, as in the example of Boffo and I screwing ourselves over with the word “balance”. Wiccans habitually append the expression “an it harm none” onto their magickal intentions, and it might be supposed that if Mr. White had taken this simple measure it would have protected him from much distress, or at least have posed a greater challenge to the fakir’s intentions. Yet the Wiccans, sweet as they may be, are really only hedging the issue, because identifying what we don’t want to happen (i.e. harm) has always been easier than ascertaining and taking responsibility for our true desire.
And is it not equally odd how the notions of imposing will and of faults in linguistic expression match so closely the two definitions of magick bequeathed to us by Crowley? Namely: (1) ‘the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will’ (1913: 124); but also (2) his less-quoted definition of magick as ‘a disease of language’ (1913: 185). What is this strange link in magick between the vulnerability of will and the inadequacy of language?
“Disease of language” is an expression taken by Crowley from Max Müller’s ideas on the formation of myths. Müller asserted that myths were a linguistic corruption caused when abstract concepts become personified (1866: 12). Crowley describes – for instance – how Thoth was originally just a guy who invented writing (1913: 185), not the terrible ibis-headed deity that sprang into being after writing itself was personified. Yet the advantage of personification is the creation of a linguistic hook to assist further thought. Magick, like myth, Crowley suggests, is a linguistic process for bringing the abstract into manifestation through personification.
From this perspective, magick as ‘Change in conformity with Will’ is complementary, for when we will this too is a process of personification: we experience an impulse and then we own it and experience it as “ours”. Will is the personification of desire, because each time we say “It is my will…”, this is an identification with experience. Suddenly, a desire belongs to someone; it becomes what that someone wants. The act of willing brings into existence an entity every bit as mythological as Thoth: the I. For if the disease of language is personification, then every “I”, “me” and “mine” is a symptom.
Given that magick consists in personification of or identification with desire, this creates the possibility of intentions that fulfil a desire which turns out not to be “ours”. In the case of Boffo and I, we both experienced headaches when we actually wanted to be free from them. A desire was fulfilled, but the identification with that desire was not. We got what we did not want because we identified a desire rather than identifying with it. We fell victim to language in its literal mode rather than the diseased form in which magick resides. Our language wasn’t diseased enough to prevent what happened from fitting the intention. If our language had been diseased enough there would have been only what we wanted in the intention (because it would have been “ours”), and so what actually happened wouldn’t have appeared to fit, and would have passed without notice.
In “The Monkey’s Paw”, presumably Mr. White is identified with the desires he expresses in his three wishes. However, we have seen already that there is another desire in play, the desire of the fakir, which is namely that others shall realise their wants are ineffectual and that they are subject purely to fate. Anything Mr. White wishes for is therefore foiled from the outset. He cannot use language magically to personify his desire, because he himself is a personification within the diseased language of the fakir, a personification of the typical person who is incapable of realising his desire.
The only wish of Mr. White’s that is fulfilled is the wish to send back his son to the grave. As a personification, Mr. White’s desire to cease desiring is the only one that can be met, which is associated in the tale with wishing dead the one that he loves.
“The Monkey’s Paw” is a morality tale, a genre that relies on personification to transmit its message. At this level, the fakir is presumably a personification also – but of what? A number of possibilities suggest themselves. Maybe he represents the Divine, as the ultimate source of all experience. On a more psychological level, maybe he is the unconscious. Or maybe he is language itself. In any case, he represents a force that alienates us from our desire. What the story seems to demonstrate is not that magick is necessarily evil, but that its efficacy – and ours – is undermined when we are barred from the process of expressing and exploring our own desire. When we cannot use diseased language to personify desire, we are trapped in a nightmarish world where what is said is literally what is, with no space for change.
The horror of “The Monkey’s Paw” is how we cease to be people and become personifications when our capacity to wish is taken away. Magick fails not when we wish for too much, but when we are prevented from engaging with our true desires.