Friday, October 22, 2010

Found Imagery: The Invisible College.

These oil paintings by Stephen Appleby-Bar, part of series inspired by "Fraternity, alchemy, history", remind me a little of the work of comic book genius Mike Mignola:

Voyage into the Antartic Unconscious (Not sure of the source for this one):

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Letters from Uqbar: The Castle, the Garden, and the Books. (Part 1)

On the 24th of February, 1613, Frederick V, who would become the Elector of the Rhineland Palatinate on his 18th birthday, was married to Elizabeth Stuart, the daughter of King James I of England. The marriage, celebrated with the performance of two lavish masques, was largely one of political calculation and expediency - James I sought a strong Protestant union between England, the Palatinate, the Dutch House of Orange-Nassau, and Denmark. Nevertheless, a warm, affectionate relationship developed between the young couple; he was a Calvinist and mystic, and she an ardent admirer of the theatre, which could still claim a largely retired William Shakespeare among its living practitioners.

In June of that year, Elizabeth travelled with Frederick to Heidelberg Castle in the Palatinate. A year later, in honour of his new bride, Frederick commissioned the construction of a Baroque garden on the grounds of the castle, which came to be known as the Hortus Palatinus. This extraordinary and ambitious project was undertaken by two men - the British architect and stage designer Inigo Jones, who had conducted the first serious survey of Stonehenge, and the French engineer Salomon de Caus, a prodigious figure who is sometimes credited with the invention of the steam engine, and was reputed to be steeped in the Hermetic, alchemical underground of the period.

Bare descriptions of the garden and its contents suffice to engender a reverie, to evoke a strange but familiar dream. Situated on a large, multi-level terrace that formed a L-shape around the castle, and surrounded on its exterior by woodland, the garden was a labyrinthine masterpiece of horticultural design, architecture, and mechanical engineering. There were mazes, grottos, and statues, including an animated statue of Memnon designed to emit a mechanical sound when the sun's rays struck it; there was a water organ modelled on that of the classical Roman author Vitruvius, coupled with exotic fauna imported from the freshly discovered tropics; the songs of nightingales and cuckcoo's joined the garden's uncanny chorus of sound, emitted by clockwork automata birds. Writing in The Rosicrucian Enlightenment, Francis Yates suggests that the Hortus "must have made Heidelberg as 'full of noises' as Prospero's island."

The intuition of the Gothic literary school is inescapable: all landscapes are mental landscapes. All environments are mediated through our subjective mental processes. The landscape informs our thoughts and moods, and in a subtle, indivisible act of reciprocity, our thoughts and moods inform our experience of the landscape. This process becomes more pronounced and complex in relation to man-made environments; these we can envision as the externalisation of interior mental states, as an architecture of ideas, moods, and unrealized desires and dreams.

Such ideas would have appeared perfectly natural and sound to the consciousness of the late Renaissance period in which the Hortus Palatinus was constructed. This was a consciousness which was steeped in allegory, in the visual embodiment of ideas and mental states as symbols and avatars, and in the notion of the world itself as a carefully designed allegorical landscape. It has been widely theorized that the gardens of Heidelberg were conceived as a grand hermetic treatise, a "botanical cosmos" into whose architecture had been coded the emblems of an ancient tradition of hidden knowledge. By this logic, the Hortus Palatinus was an attempt to emulate the harmony believed to pertain between macrocosm and microcosm, to map out the contours of the cosmos and its mirror image in the divine spark of human imagination. Time has rendered the garden, its mechanical marvels and mathematical harmonies largely a creature of the imagination, and it is there we will leave it for the moment, to consider other matters.

Between the years of 1607 and 1616, there appeared in Germany two anonymous pamphlets which have cast minor but persistent ripples ever since: the Fama Fraternitatis Rosae Crucis and the Confessio Fraternitatis. These manifestos expressed themselves for the most part in a mode of strident Protestant apocalyptic, calling for a "Universal Reformation of Mankind". Underlying their political message, however, the manifestos claimed to derive from a secret fraternity of illuminated philosopher/mystic/doctors. This tiny band of illuminates claimed to possess a "Pansophia", or universal, all-encompassing wisdom, which they had derived from their founder Frater C.R.C. (Christian Rosenkreutz), and passed on from generation to generation. In 1616, the two manifestos were joined by an allegorical romance called the Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz, which details the events of a heavily symbolic wedding in a castle of mazes, miracles, and wonders. Thus, while Jones and de Caus were overseeing the construction of the Heidelberg gardens, somebody was trying to propagate a belief in the existence of an Invisible College of alchemists and social reformers.

To understood the substance of the Rosicrucian manifestos, one must conceive of a period where the sciences as we understand them today were emerging in tandem with a massive resurgence of antique, esoteric traditions. Though always constituting a small minority, a recognisable type had emerged: a Christian mystic with an obsessive, all-consuming passion for esoteric knowledge. The esoteric aspect of his mental existence constituted those disciplines and habits of mind which are now called occult: alchemy, Cabala, the magical Hermetic texts attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, and, underlying all else, an incorrigible belief in a perennial wisdom transmitted through the ages by a tiny band of initiates. This great tradition of Renaissance syncretism was palpably on the wane in the period we are discussing, but in its twilight years it had become an underground network. The primary fruits of this network were a series of illustrated manuscripts, whose enigmatic texts and alchemical emblems and iconography form a landscape as evocative and uncanny as the groves of the Hortus Palatinus.

Continued shortly.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Outsider Art from the Cryptonomicon: Toynbee Tiles

The third key can be found under the soles of your shoes....
Varelli, in Dario Argento's Inferno (1980).

We owe our scientific knowledge of the world to certain habits, predilections, and assumptions which are hard-wired into the human psyche. These include the recognition of patterns, an acute sensitivity to structure, order, and harmony, and an utterly incorrigible addiction to mysteries and puzzles of every kind. Paradoxically, these same intuitions and habits of mind underlie the kind of ideas that are most repugnant to contemporary rationalists and practitioners of scientism. The mainstream of rational discourse espouses the particular varieties of pattern recognition which have been sanctioned by the scientific method. Meanwhile, just as individuals ascribe mystical properties to personal experience of coincidence, the folk/pop culture imagination revels in the contraband logics offered by conspiracy theories and cabalistic codes of every imaginable kind. Though these divergent ways of viewing the world appear antithetical to one another, they arise out of the same essential wellsprings.

Conventionally, it is reasoned that while scientific theory and paranoid delusion do indeed emerge from the same source, the former is measured for accuracy against evidence, while the latter remain faulty products of an excess in the human proclivity to connect and organise disparate phenomena. The scientist is a moderate drinker, carefully selecting the wines that accompany his wholesome repast; the paranoid seer, on the other hand, is completely intoxicated by a sea of connections and patterns that are all of his own invention.

It seems like a clear, easy distinction to make, but in practise the line between healthy moderation and inebriation is ever a fine one to traverse. Johannes Kepler once famously described the rapture he felt at the development of his theories regarding planetary motion: "I yield freely to the sacred frenzy; I dare frankly to confess that I have stolen the golden vessels of the Egyptians to build a tabernacle for my God far the bounds of Egypt. If you pardon me, I shall rejoice; if you reproach me, I shall endure. The die is cast, and I am writing the book - to be read either now or by prosperity, it matters not. It can wait a century for a reader, as God himself has waited six thousand years for a witness."

Kepler's notion of "sacred frenzy" alerts us to the ever close proximity pertaining between illumination and mental collapse, between the refinement of logic and hermeneutics on the one hand, and their implosion into paranoiac excess on the other. These states of mind appear to occupy adjourning buildings in the same district, which Robert Anton Wilson has labelled the Chapel Perilous, and the popular imagination often visualizes as the tumble down Carroll's Rabbit Hole. The following are some cryptic street-signs that may guide the unwary traveller on his way to this eclectic district.....

Toynbee Tiles.
Thomas Pynchon's novel The Crying of Lot 49 basically charts the initiation of its protagonist Opedia Mass into the existence of a possibly all-encompassing, possibly delusionary conspiracy. The chief spur to her initiation is the discovery of a symbol - the iconic muted post horn with one loop - literally everywhere in the Californian landscape through which she moves. We find a fascinating real-world analogue to Pynchon's post horn in the form of the Toynbee tile. Roughly the size of an American license plate, and thought to be made of linoleum and asphalt crack-filling compound, Toynbee tiles have been discovered underfoot in two dozen major cities in the US, as well as four capitals in South America. In some respects, these mysterious tiles might qualify as a modest urban equivalent to the crop circle, albeit with a major difference both in scale and focus. While the circles have alluded to a whole slew of concepts and ideas, Toynbee tiles simply reiterate slight variations of the following cryptic expression: TOYNBEE'S IDEA, in Kubrick's (or Movie) 2001, RESURRECT DEAD ON PLANET JUPITER.

On the face of it, the tiles don't seem either miraculous or even particularly mysterious. They would appear to be the work of either a marginal crackpot, who genuinely believes that some correspondence between the works of historian Arnold J. Toynbee and the movie 2001 allows for the possibility of mass resurrection of the dead on Jupiter; or the work of a more self-conscious, surrealist street artist who composed the odd juxtaposition of elements merely to screw with our heads. However, an attempt to discover the elusive author of the tiles, and the specific origin of the Kubrick/Toynbee/Jupiter juxtaposition, leads us into a very puzzling hall of mirrors indeed. Enter dramatist, film-maker, and Zen master of muscular, stylized dialogue, Mr. David Mamet.

Speaking to the website Suicide Girls in 2007, Mamet had the following to say about curious instances of flattery:
"This is the weirdest thing that ever happened. I wrote this play about a million years ago that was a homage to Larry King when he was a late night talk show host on the radio in the 70s. A guy calls in and he's talking about the film 2001 based on the writings of Arnold Toynbee. The Larry King character says I think you'll find that 2001 is based on the writings of Arthur C. Clarke. The guy says No Larry, I believe you're wrong there. 2001 based on the writings of Arnold Toynbee tells us that all human life will be reconstituted on the planet Jupiter. They had this rather silly conversation for about ten minutes. It turns out that now you can go on the internet and look up Toynbee tiles. There are these tiles that are showing up all over the country that say in mosaic: Toynbee says all life reconstituted on Jupiter".

It is clear from the interview that Mamet believes that he originated the Kubrick/Toynbee idea (in his short vignette 4 A.M. written in 1983, and published in the collection Goldberg Street: Short Plays and Monologues in 1985), and the tiles themselves constitute a bizarre tribute to his imagination. Which would, once again, all make perfect sense - except that, under closer analysis, the existence of 4 A.M. only complicates the mystery further.

James Morasco and the Minority Association.
In March of 1983, the same year Mamet wrote 4 A.M., a Philadelphia Inquirer staff writer named Clark DeLeon penned a short human-interest piece about one James Morasco, a local eccentric who headed up a Philly-based organisation called the Minority Association. The piece, entitled Theories: Wanna Run That One By Me Again?, begins:
"Call me skeptical, but I had a hard time buying James Morasco's concept that the planet Jupiter would be colonized by bringing all the people of Earth who had ever died back to life and then changing Jupiter's atmosphere to allow them to live. Is this just me, or does that strike you as hard to swallow too? Morasco says he is a social worker in Philadelphia and came across this idea while reading a book by historian Arnold Toynbee, who's theory on bringing dead molecules back to life was depicted in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey".

So, if this second datum is correct, and Mamet is sincere in the interview, then we have the peculiar presentiment of two individuals, one an established playwright and the other an obscure eccentric, both hitting in 1983 on the idea of combining Toynbee, 2001, and Jupiter into a conspiracy theory. We have a playwright creating a fictional crank with a particularly incongruous and unlikely belief system, and an actual crank in Philadelphia espousing that very belief system to a journalist. There is something distinctly tricksterish in this whole business. Recently, researchers who are putting together the "Resurrect Dead" film about the phenomenon have added yet another layer to the onion, claiming to have uncovered evidence that in 1980 the elusive Tiler made a late night phone call to - you guessed it, Larry King. Tentatively ruling out (for the moment) some exotic Jungian explanation, it would seem that the tiles, play, and idea all derive from a common source. But where?

The only James Morasco in the Philly phone book turned out to be a carpenter from the Chestnut Hill district. He passed away in 2003, and his wife insists that he had nothing to do with the tiles. Some rumblings have been heard of an unnamed "Street Prophet" who hung around the Centre City district in the 80s, frequently heard to "babble" about Kubrick, Toynbee, Clarke, and the promise of resurrection on Jupiter. Coincidences continue to swirl around the Toynbee tiles. Arthur C. Clarke published a short story in 1953 called Jupiter Five, which involves one of the Jovian moons turning out to be an artificial construct created by reptilian aliens; it contains several references to Arnold Toynbee. Among the more recent fever dreams of the Posthumanists is the "Jupiter Brain": "a brain approximately the size of Jupiter. The Transhumanist Terminology defines a Jupiter Brain as A posthuman being of extremely high computational power and size. The term supposedly originated due to an idea by Keith Henson that nanomachines could be used to turn the mass of Jupiter into computers running an upgraded version of himself." I only raise this because one of the wilder ideas mooted in Posthumanism is that super-computers such as the Jupiter Brain could potentially resurrect every human who has every lived, and allow them to live forever in a simulated environment.

So what really gives with the Toynbee tiles? Did Mamet consciously poach the idea from the Philadelphia Inquirer? Or did he hear the Tiler call Larry King back in 1980, forget about it, and subsequently incorporate the main ideas into his tribute to King without remembering the source? Did Mamet walk over a Toynbee tile and unconsciously record its contents, thus becoming an unintentional spokesman for the bizarre ideas of the Tiler? Or was some beacon in the Collective Unconscious beaming out a signal in 1983.....Toynbee......Kubrick.....Jupiter......a message that found a home, as in the stories of Lovecraft, in the dreams of the creative and the unhinged? Keep watching the skies.......and the ground.

(The full text of Mamet's very brief 4 A.M. can be found here, and is well worth a look.)

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Addendum to The Strange Life and Times of Gustav Meyrink:

While searching for Austin Osman Spare artwork for the previous post, I discovered the work of Fredrik Soderberg, a contemporary occult-themed artist based in Stockholm. The following are examples of his work, and you can find more at his website here.

The Strange Demise of James Webb.

I found much of the background material for the Meyrink post in James Webb's book The Occult Establishment. Webb was a brilliant Scottish historian who developed an exhaustive study of the occult revival of the late 19th and 20th centuries over the course of two books: The Occult Underground (also known as The Flight from Reason) 1971 and Establishment 1976. Though completely lacking the truculence of much of the contemporary sceptic movement, Webb's attitude towards the occult was clearly that of the sociological interest of a confirmed rationalist. The penultimate paragraph of Establishment sums up the attitude he maintained towards the occult throughout most of his life: "The flight from reason, by departing from certain fixed categories and opening the floodgates of the imagination, may contain within itself the potential for expanding the limits of human existence. It is more likely that it will, instead - as has happened in the past - shipwreck man on a desert island separated form all that is humanly satisifying by an ocean of illusion. Unreason exists to be made reasonable, and reason is to be extended by the discovery of possibilites initially outside its comprehension." Later in life, however, his thinking about the supernatural experienced a dramatic and tragic reversal. The strange and unsettling tale of this reversal can be read here.

Literature and the Occult: The Strange Life and Times of Gustav Meyrink.

The relationship between art and occultism is a varied, deep-rooted, and fascinating subject. Many artists have professed a interest in the occult, and flavoured their artworks with the peculiar ambience and iconography of the Art. Of these, some were actual practitioners of magic, some armchair dabblers, and others outright sceptics who merely adopted esoteric emblems for aesthetic effect. Aleister Crowley was a poet, and occasionally wrote novels, such as the Moonchild, which expounded various aspects of his doctrine. Austin Osman Spare, whose pastel The Vampires are Coming is pictured above, was a remarkable artist and magician for whom both activities were complimentary aspects of the same essential process. Edward Bulwer-Lytton, whom we encountered before in relation to The Coming Race and the Vril craze, published a novel called Zononi in 1842 which was essentially an allegory of Rosicrucian initiation. The Welch author and mystic Arthur Machen's anti-modernism and belief in esoteric doctrines produced a small body of highly influential weird fiction, including the Great God Pan and the almost grimoire-like The White People.

On the other hand, H.P. Lovecraft produced an enduring vision of Occult forces flowing into our world from Outside which has influenced generations of occultists and practitioners of rejected knowledge. But Lovecraft himself was an avowed rational sceptic and materialist. WB Yeats famously threw himself into the shenanigans of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, but turn of the century Theosophy and occultic revivalism receive a more sardonic treatment in Eliot's Waste Land and Joyce's Ulysses.

Nevertheless, even where no explicit or conscious connection exists, the artist and magician are bound together by a persistent congruence that is suggestive of shared origins. The classical poetic tradition of invoking the aid of the muses reflects the essential character of unfathomably ancient ceremonial magic: the summoning of supernatural entities and familiars to provide the magician or poet with extraordinary knowledge and abilities. (Though we have now largely replaced the idea of the muses with that of individual genius, the principal of inspiration remains a very mysterious force. Writers and artists in general feel the greatest sense of satisfaction and creativity when they have stopped trying; when some voice in the head or divinely inspired autopilot takes over the reins.) Further to this, the fictional world that emerges in artistic creation bears many similarities to the real world as experienced by the occultist.

The various worlds that emerge from literature and the arts are symbolical landscapes and products of a grand underlying design; they are places where no accidents ever occur, where correspondence and coincidence abound, and the artifice and intentions of the author provide a kind of Cabalistic code underlying the surface of the text. In this sense, Joyce's Ulysses is a supreme work of literary Cabala and occult imagination, a imaginary universe whose apparently quotidian and random character betrays endless interconnection, and the working of a grand, intricate design. ( Ulysses contains the following passage, one of my favourite in all of literature, which is distinctly occult in character: "He found in the world without as actual what was in his world within as possible. Maerlinck says: If Socrates leave his house today he will find the sage seated on is doorstep. If Judas go forth tonight it is to Judas his steps will tend. Every life is is many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love. But always meeting ourselves".)

Gustav Meyrink was assuredly no stranger to wondering strange mental topographies and urban labyrinths, only to find his own reflection gazing back at every turn. Born the illegitimate son of a Baron and actress in Vienna in 1868, Meyrink spent most of his life in Prague, that grand miasmal mindscape of literary disorientation and angst. He was a contemporary of Kafka who was much admired by Max Brod, having achieved a considerable fame with his early novels of the uncanny The Golem and The Green Face. It has often been said that the prodigious strangeness of Meyrink's novels is eclipsed only by the details of his own life. A brief biographical abstract should leave the reader in no doubt of the validity of this claim.

Meyrink actually started out in life as banker, a profession wherein he enjoyed considerable early success. Between the years of 1882 and 1902, he was a director of the Meyer and Morgenstern Bank in Prague, and enjoyed an extravagant reputation as a bon vivant and fashionable man about town. All, however, was not quite well behind the glittering fa├žade. Meyrink suffered from severe depression which ultimately culminated in nervous breakdown and attempted suicide.

On Assumption Eve, 1891, Meyrink was twenty four years old. He stood by the table in his apartment, holding a revolver in his hand, ready to end his life. Suddenly, he heard a rustling noise coming from the door. Upon investigation, Meyrink discovers that somebody has shoved an occultic pamphlet through the door. It is entitled "Afterlife."

This bizarre coincidence understandably set Meyrink off on a prodigious, life-long quest for occult knowledge and spiritual awakening. Later in the same year of his aborted suicide attempt, Meyrink became a founding member of the Theosophical Lodge of the Blue Star. He was "put to sea" in an endless tide of esoteric books and philosophies, studying and experimenting avidly with Cabalism, Freemasonry, yoga, alchemy, and hashish. There seems to have been no extreme to which he would not go in order to induce visions of the Other World. According to James Webb's book The Occult Establishment, "during the period of his strictest regimen - which probably coincided with his contact with the headquarters of the Theosophists - he took only three hours sleep a night, observed a strict vegetarian diet, performed arduous exercises, and drank gum-arabic twice a day in order to induce clairvoyance. At the end of these privations he had a vision like that of the Emperor Constantine and of abstract geometrical designs."

There was no stone Meyrink would leave unturned in his valiant attempt to attain the Great Work of spiritual transcendence. At one point, his practical experiments in alchemy lead to the shit quite literally hitting the fan: "All the necessary conditions for the alchemical "first matter" as he thought, were fulfilled by an element called "Struvit" or "Ulex" which had only been discovered in Germany, and always in ancient sewers. It therefore arose, argued Meyrink, in human excrement; and the substance fulfilled all the conditions laid down in alchemical texts. So from a "primaeval cess-pit" in Prague, he took a lump of excrement about the size of a nut and followed the instructions of his textbooks. The necessary color changes took place, but at a crucial point of the process his retort burst and the half-transformed prima materia hit the aspiring alchemist in the face."

In 1902, Lady Fortune gave a sharp turn to the wheel of Meyrink's destiny. He was about to get married for the second time, but severe disagreements with his future brother in law lead to him fighting an interminable series of duels with various officers of a Prague regiment. Worse still, rumours were swirling around Prague that Meyrink was running the affairs of the Meyer and Morgenstern Bank according to advice from the spirit world. In the ensuing scandal, he was thrown in jail, wherein he is thought to have broken his spine, and temporarily lost the power of his legs. Meyrink spent just two and a half months in prison, but it had left him financially ruined, and requiring all his reserves of yoga training to heal his shattered body. It was during this period of recuperation that he began writing, and embarked upon an initially successful career as a novelist.

This is only really scraping the surface of Meyrink's adventures in the occult. Another fascinating story suggests that in 1917, agents of the German government encouraged him to write a novel suggesting that the First World War was started by the Freemasons. He later backed away from the project, apparently under pressure from high-ranking Freemasons. Ill-fortune and eerie coincidence seemed to remain constants in his life. In the winter of 1933, Meyrink's son Harro (or "Fortunat" according to the wikipedia entry, which would make the tale even more bizarre if true) injured his backbone while skiing. The injury would effectively have confined him to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. However, he committed suicide at the age of 24; the same age his father would have gone, had the "Afterlife" pamphlet not came rustling through the door. Less than a year later, Meyrink himself passed away, in the villa in Starnberg, Bavaria, known, after a hunted building in The Golem, as "The House at the Last Lantern."

More on Meyrink's Writing Shortly.