Kali is a woman. Jupiter is a man. Athena is a virgin, but obviously a woman. Loki is sometimes transsexual, but he is a “he”, a man. Angels are asexual, but are also masculine. Baphomet is … what, bisexual, hermaphrodite, something, yet in a masculine way, right? He, Baphomet. At least, that was my unquestioning assumption, until one day the insight arose in me, that Baphomet is not a man.
The spirits are just as diverse in their sexuality as we are, and gender, grammatical and otherwise, is just as complex an issue on the subtle planes of existence as it is on our mundane one.
Instead of boring my readers with a long essay on sex, gender, their distinction, and their interplay and dynamics, here is a magical exercise inspired by an online Gender workshop (not magical) which I came across a few years ago. In preparation for the following working, I suggest at least scanning parts of this workshop, to get into the right mood.
Design a gender neutral sigil. Take your time, this is tricky, and it is also part of the exercise. Once you are satisfied, set it up in your favorite ritual space. Altar. Coffee table. Whatever.
Banish as follows: Think of an attractive person, notice the gender you attribute to them. Now deliberately “drop” the gender attribution by saying aloud (or thinking) the words “what a beautiful human being”. Notice the change in attitude and interest this brought about. Make a sweeping gesture to spread this new attitude all around.
Speak out loud: “It is my intention to communicate with a truly gender-neutral spirit now.”
Meditate in whatever posture you like, first staring at the sigil, then after a while closing your eyes and keeping your focus on the afterimage of the sigil until it fades. After some time, usually around ten to fifteen minutes, you will have had a vision or a reverie, or engaged in some other form of communication with the truly gender-neutral spirit whose sigil you created. Observe their appearance, visual or otherwise. Discuss a gender related subject with them. This is where having read parts of the previously linked online workshop is very useful.
When you are done, thank them and inhale then exhale deeply a few times.
Banish by doing a mildly sexual gesture, such as the sign of the fig or an erect middle finger, in the four cardinal directions.
Write down what you remember of your exchange with the spirit. Or, if you prefer, keep a recording device running during your meditation and dictate your experience to it.
Reviewing the recorded material is very revealing. The spirit is truly gender-neutral, therefore any discernible gender in their appearance must be on the part of our perception. This will make previously unnoticed preconceptions and stereotypes visible, for instance how I used to think of Baphomet as masculine.
In The Spell of the Sensuous (1997) ecologist and philosopher David Abram examines how our minds have become severed from sensory experience, and – consequently – our bodies disconnected from the natural world.
The blame for our current ecological plight he allocates predominantly to alphabetic writing, which destroyed the link between meaning and its basis in our physical participation in the processes and qualities of the natural world.
When linguistic signs become based on arbitrary vocal sounds (in contrast to pictographic symbols), then: “the larger, more-than-human life-world is no longer a part of the semiotic, no longer a necessary part of the system” (1997: 101). Consequently,
our organic attunement to the local earth is thwarted by our ever-increasing intercourse with our own signs […] Human awareness folds in upon itself, and the senses […] become mere adjuncts of an isolate and abstract mind bent on overcoming an organic reality that now seems disturbingly aloof and arbitrary. (1997: 267)
Specifically, it was the ancient Greeks who led us into this sorry state. “Socrates forced his interlocutors to separate themselves, for the first time, from their own words” (1997: 109). Myths and stories formerly provided a union with nature, which Plato’s writings undermined and destroyed. In an oral culture, a term such as “Justice” always has a context: it is expressed in stories as a specific occurrence, as an event that actually took place. Yet “Socrates attempts to induce a reflection upon the quality as it exists in itself” (1997: 111), and so we arrive – via Plato – at the sense of Justice as a thing-in-itself, an abstract entity with an existence somehow independent from the physical world. There is now scope for belief in a realm of ideas separate from nature, and Abram’s complaint is that we have become increasingly lost in this Platonic invention.
Abram’s book has been influential. His evocation of the role of sensation and perception in human cognition is powerful and compelling. He offers a philosophical foundation for shamanistic and ecological magicks. Yet I am troubled by his demonisation of Platonism, and his privileging of the body and nature above soul and intellect.
If, as Abram suggests, the invention of phonetic writing sealed us within a world of human signs, excluding the other in the body, in non-human species and the natural environment, then our conception of soul or spirit is a harmful, autistic delusion.
However, surely by coincidence, the very next book I read after Abram’s makes a similar but opposite argument. In The Primitive Edge of Experience (2004), psychoanalyst Thomas Ogden writes of a basic mode of human experiencing that he names “the autistic-contiguous position”:
Sequences, symmetries, periodicity, skin-to-skin “molding” are all examples of contiguities that are the ingredients out of which the beginnings of rudimentary self-experience arise. (2004: 32)
The elements of this level of experience, which first appears in early infancy, are perceptual sensations of bodily contact, hardness or softness, being rocked, rhythms of appearances and disappearances, all of which: “have nothing to do with the representation of one’s affective states, either idiographically or fully symbolically. The sensory experience is the infant” (2004: 35).
Yet whereas Ogden concurs with Abram that the use of language or symbolisation detracts from experience at this autistic-contiguous level, in Ogden it lacks the Edenic quality evoked by Abram’s writing. For Ogden, the autistic-contiguous is “preparatory for the creation of symbols” (2004: 59), and to dwell exclusively within it presents a dilemma of becoming “entrapped in sensory experience” (2004: 78). For Abram, the sensory is primary and language is an autistic detraction. For Ogden, sensation attracts the label of “autism”, yet without any sense of pathology, because this type of non-reflective experience provides an essential “bounded sensory ‘floor’ […] of experience” (2004: 45), “the beginnings of qualities of who one is” (2004: 54).
For Abram, the turning in upon human signs results in alienation from the body. But for Ogden, the turning in upon sensory experience results in a basic sense of self on top of which further maturational developments may accrue. Both writers are exploring similar territory, but from opposing points of view. Placing these authors beside one another, perhaps we start to see how this “autism”, the reflexive turning in upon oneself, is perhaps not by definition detrimental. And perhaps neither is sensation or symbolisation necessarily malign or benign. Increasingly, it may seem that we are labouring beneath a false opposition between the body and spirit.
Abram himself recognises a flaw in his privileging of the sensory and those indigenous means of apprehending the world that are deeply rooted in it. “If our primordial experience is inherently animistic,” he wonders, “how can we ever account for the loss of such animateness from the world around us?” (1997: 90). The argument that x is our primary mode of being, but that x has been forgotten, contains a glaring contradiction that the forgetting of x is evidently more primary than x itself. In that case, perhaps the ecological crisis is not a consequence of the invention of writing so much as the forgetting of nature because our (even more) primary mode of being is, perhaps, forgetfulness. Indeed, for Ogden, the autistic-contiguous is a “position” (2004: 11), a kind of stance or attitude that may be lost, or into which we may fall at any time, if more sophisticated levels of being are placed under stress. Our fundamental mode of being is maybe neither sensory nor cognitive, neither bodily nor spiritual. Perhaps our fundamental mode of being consists in not having a fundamental mode of being.
Enlightenment traditions present themselves as the antidote to habitual forgetfulness. Techniques for realising the absence of a fundamental self rely on cultivating a turning inwards, a kind of intentional autism that contrasts with the reactive type that both Abram and Ogden evoke. Within enlightenment traditions, it does not appear to matter what the objects of that turning inwards might be, whether sensations, thoughts or meritorious actions. The intention is to realise how whatever fills experience is not fundamentally what we are, because it is not invulnerable to forgetting.
Applying this to magickal practice, my view is that magick is wherever we find it. There are body magicks and shamanistic nature magicks. But there are also word and number magicks, and magicks of abstract contemplation. They are not of equal value, but neither is one of them necessarily of greater value than all the rest.
“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.