Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Temple of the Sleeping Sages.

It is said that group of renowned sages were once convened by the Emperor in order to resolve the age old question of what kind of thing the world was, and what business men had being in it. The Emperor promised the wise men whatever resources they required while engaged with the task, but asked that they did their utmost to resolve the question quickly, as he was an old man, and wanted the answer to be known in his lifetime. The sages set about the Emperor’s task with the utmost rigour, but found themselves beset with profound difficulty from the outset. They first tried to use reason to resolve the question, assuming as men of their generation did that reason was the most natural instrument to apply to any such intellectual endeavour. They quickly discovered, however, that knowledge arises out of a conflict between intuition and reason, intuition having the function of producing premises, and reason the function of questioning the premises arising out of intuition. Intuition, they found, was a powerful thing, but it was as fallible as such red-hot passions as are engendered by the candle-light and the warmth of the third wine glass, and yet might vanish in the light of the new day as swiftly as those places visited in dreams, that never were before, and never will be again. Reason, on the other hand, was like the wily companion who warns you of the distempering effects of candle-light and wine; he may be right, even to the majority of instances, but how many fine passions were lost through his wise but bloodless council; how many nights under the stars, lost forever like those places in dreams that never were, and never will be again?

And thus it was that those sages resolved nothing, and the Emperor died, like all Emperors before him, without knowing what kind of thing the world was, and what business men had being in it. The new Emperor was a young man, at the outset of his journey through the days that march at first so slowly, and then so rapidly, that it would seem in either instance as though they didn’t march at all. He thought that surely in his lifetime the sages might resolve the question, and so he continued to offer them whatever resources they required. But the sages were old men, and they had become disillusioned. In their youth, they had put their faith in reason; but in the course of the passing days they had found that reason was an instrument that was designed to question things, but not resolve them; and, as such, reason would question all its own conclusions, until a man was certain of nothing but his own ignorance, and not even certain of that, so had endless reasoning and questions unsettled the certainty once offered by his intuitions. So the sages took the Emperors gold, and fed themselves handsomely on it, and lead lives of such comfort and luxury as it afforded them. And the sages elaborated a doctrine, whereby they said that the world was just such a thing that happened to a person, during the time that he was alive, as a sprained ankle was such a thing which might afflict an athlete who had chosen to run in the games; and since the prudent course to the runner who had inadvertently sprained his ankle was to seek what comforts the physician might offer him, so the person who had encountered the world by being born into it was best counselled to feed himself handsomely, and lead a life of such comfort and luxury as the world afforded him.

The Emperor quickly tired of that dissolute party of sages, and had them expelled from their lavish apartments and citadels of learning. He then assembled the wisest young men in the Empire, and offered them the same terms, if they might resolve the question in his lifetime. This younger generation had turned their backs on reason, and sought again the certainties offered by intuition. They had elaborated a doctrine which held that since the greatest insights arise spontaneously and without conscious striving, then it must be that the surest path to knowledge was through a deliberate inducement of that part of the brain, hidden from ordinary wakeful consciousness, which causes the sudden flash of intuition, and facilitates the putting together of puzzle pieces that the conscious mind gathers in random heaps about itself. Some say that they derived this doctrine from the Mystery Cults that practise their initiatory rites in the hot desert lands in the East, where the Ibis and Jackal headed gods are worshiped; others say that the doctrine was whispered to them by the phantasms of their dreams, since it is sometimes said that the phantasms of dreams would have the men that dreamt them sleep forever, so that their substance would never flitter away, and go the way of all such phantasms that never were, and never would be again. However it may be, the second generation of sages sought to contemplate the question of the world consciously for a period of several years, after which they would induce in themselves the most profound slumber ever that the human body might experience; and in that profound slumber, or such was their hope, they would be visited by an oracular dream which would answer the question posed by their conscious minds. And the Emperor was satisfied by this course of action, both in terms of its apparent sincerity, and to the extent that its asceticism made less demands on his gold.

Hence, the second generation of sages went to a temple in a secluded part of the Empire, and set about their work. For ten years, they consciously contemplated the world in all its myriad detail, and some say that they created a whole map of the world and the heavens in their minds, and went hither and tither about it, probing and inquiring into all that they saw. This strenuous work they undertook for ten long years, and then they set about inducing their slumber. To do this, the second generation of sages had studied all the techniques of the meditative priests who came from the mystic continent in the East, were people were baptised in the waters of the same river to which their cindered remains would later be scattered; they had learned the secret arts of postmortem preservation practised by the priests in the lands of the Ibis and Jackal-headed gods, by which the kings of those lands sought to remain in the body forever; and they had studied the physiologies of all earthly beasts known to hibernate for long periods. And by all this accumulation of lore, the sages went indeed into a slumber so profound that they might have been dead men, and any creature that went into the temple of the sages, be it mouse, beetle, or bandit, fell also into that profound slumber, wherein they neither stirred nor aged; and any plant that was growing in the temple of the sages ceased to grow, and neither grew nor wilted all the time that the sages slumbered. And the Emperor knew where the temple of the sages was located; and he know the precise manner of their waking; and it was agreed that he would present himself at the temple after another ten years had passed, to wake the sages, and find out the answer their dream had given to the question of the world.

This was the plan; but alas things did not pass in the Empire and the world as they did in the temple of the sleeping sages. The Emperor grew out of the days that marched so slowly that it was as though they didn’t march at all, and he and the Empire passed into days which clattered down on the world like the hooves of great steeds over such villages as are painted on porcelain plates and teacups. And everything shattered under the pressure of those days; the Empire was invaded by a horde of barbarian chieftains that came from the deserts and the pirate routes of the ocean; and the Emperor himself was killed, and passed away, like every Emperor before him, without knowing what kind of thing the world was, was what business men had being in it. And all the while the sages slept, all the wisdom that the Empire had accumulated was lost, and its riches were plundered, and its temples and palaces razed, and there came a day when the Empire was but a memory in a land of savage and dispersed tribes. But there still lived a wizened old man who had been a page to the Emperor when he was a boy, and he remembered eavesdropping on the day the sages told the Emperor where their temple was located, and the precise manner of their waking; and this old man, being infinitely saddened by the passing away of the Empire, resolved that he would travel to the temple, and find out what answer the sages’ dream had given to the question of the world.

And that old man found the temple, and woke the sages, and this is what they told him:

Standing above this world is another one, which is infinitely greater and more complex than our own. In this higher world, objects do not extend in space merely by virtue of length, width, and height, but rather each of these spatial extensions possesses an extra-dimension undreamed of by our geometers: length extends inwards on itself, like a network of fluid, infinitely multiplying lattices that look inward on their outward openings; width extends outwards from its circumference in minute re-iterations of itself that spin infinitely fast, and move, as it were, like a tide, outwards and back to itself; height bifurcates itself in rivulets like flowing waterfalls that tumble down across itself. And these objects are always stationary, but to our eyes they are constantly rotating and morphing, and to look at them is like to falling into them. And time does not merely travel in a straight line, but rather moves forward, backward, and sideways; and backward along its forward, and sideways along the backward of its forward, and so on, so that it is like a labyrinth of infinitely many paths, heroes, beasts, and unfurling threads to guide the way back to the beginning of the quest.

And the beings that live in this world are like to humans in shape, but being extended across so many dimensions of time, it is as though an infinity of arms and legs extend behind them, dancing. And their faces are immobile, profound, and terrifying, like to our statues, and their skin is crystalline, reflecting as a prism the colours of the objects that seem to rotate and morph about them; but after long intervals their skin flashes a deep blue that casts its luminescence through all the spinning world about them, and this seems to be their native colour.

And it happened that once in the Higher World, a group of renowned sages were convened to resolve some difficult problem which had eluded even the minds of these god-like people; and these Higher World sages, knowing the sleeping mind to be infinitely wiser than the wakeful one, resolved to seat themselves in the Higher World, and go first into a trance, and then into a profound slumber, wherein they might be visited by an oracular dream; and hence they seated themselves, and their bodies became utterly immobile, even while their trailing arms and legs continued their endless dance across the forking Pathways of Time, and their skin lost its luminescence, but a flash of that blue, their native colour, continued to pulse faintly like a heartbeat, and that blue light went back along their trailing limbs across the forking Pathways of Time; and in such fashion, the Sages of the Higher World fell into a deep slumber.

And the dream that those Sages are dreaming is all our world, and everything that can be found or thought within it; and just as we, in our dreaming, forget many things, and create little worlds that are like to jumbled fragments of the one without, so our world is composed of partial memories of the Higher World, and hence our space has but three dimensions, and the Pathways of Time are shrivelled down to an arrow loosened from a bow, flying ever towards the western horizon; and just as we, in our dreaming, think not on our yesterdays, but rather become lifelong natives to whichever world we find ourselves, so the Sages have passed through our world, forgetting altogether the Higher World and the problem they sought to resolve, and they have been all things in our world as it grew, from the tiniest on earth to the largest in heaven; they have been the fire of the distant star and the sands of the desert it parches, and they have been the beasts in the air and the water and the land; and they have been incarnations of men as long as men have existed; and some of us living today are dream avatars of the Sages who sleep in the World Above, and who have travelled through all things from the beginning of this world, unconsciously articulating the question that would be answered at its ending; and when the Sages start to awake they will do so slowly, and parts of the Higher World will increasingly be seen in this one, and this will continue for long, strange eons, until the last one finally rouses from his slumber; and then all our world will be gone forever, and all that we knew will be only a strange, ineffable memory in the minds of the awakening Sages, fleeing their wakefulness, as all dreams must.

The tale does not record whether the sages were satisfied by the answer their dream had given them to the question of the world, or whether the wizened old man who had served the Emperor in his boyhood derived any comfort from it. It is an old tale, and I know not if it were a true record of events, or some yarn such as those that were fashioned to illustrate a moral or maxim, and have common folk profit by it, who were fond of such tales.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The God of Little Dreams and Fancies: Lord Dunsany and Sidney Sime.

Edward Plunkett, the 18th Baron of Dunsany, was a prolific author noted for his formative influence on HP Lovecraft, and the fantasy genre in general. It is said that he always composed his tales while seated on a crumpled old hat, which was subsequently stolen by a visitor to Dunsany Castle. Whether the loss of the hat occasioned any significant depletion to his imaginative faculty, I know not. The following text is a short extract from The Gods of Pegana (1905), and the wonderful illustrations are by Sidney Sime, an English artist of the late Victorian period, one of the many to emerge from the considerable shadow of Beardsley, who is best remembered for his illustrations for Dunsany's work.


Yoharneth-Lahai is the god of little dreams and fancies.
All night he sendeth little dreams out of Pegana to please the people of earth.
He sendeth little dreams out of Pegana to the poor man and to the King.
He is so busy to send his dreams to all before the night be ended that oft he forgetteth which the poor man and which be The King.

To whom Yoharneth-Lahai cometh not with little dreams and sleep he must endure all night the laughter of the gods, with highest mockery, in Pegana.
All night long Yoharneth-Lahai giveth peace to cities until the dawn hour and the departing of Yoharneth-Lahai, when it is time for the gods to play with men again.
Whether the dreams and the fancies of Yoharneth-Lahai be false and the Things that are done in the Day be real, or the Things that are done in the Day be false and the dreams and the fancies of Yoharneth be true, none knoweth saving only MANA-YOOD-SUSHAI, who hath not spoken.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

John Murray Spear: The Curious Tale of the Man who Tried to Build the Second Coming.

Ham Radio Operators of the Spirit World.

People have always sought to communicate with beings that exist beyond the boundaries of ordinary human experience. The question of whether there is actually anybody at the other end of the line is a modern one, and was largely moot until the last few centuries or so. Organised religions evolved formal, public, and highly bureaucratic institutions to govern and regulate our relations with the denizens of the Otherworld. Most of these institutions begin with personal, direct ecstatic experience, but gradually calcify into dogmatic organisations whose function is more political than visionary. Religion begins with some solitary, fool-hardly ape plucking up the courage to step off the beaten path and touch the Monolith; with some ecstatic, bedraggled madman discussing celestial geometry with angels in a cave. After this initial experience, a belief system is codified, an institution emerges around it, and the religious experience itself is diluted into a set of dogmas and ritual observances. Perhaps one of the reasons why faith is such an important concept to religious institutions is because the last thing they want is for people to figure out that they can go into the cave and attempt to talk to the gods and angels themselves – taking responsibility for their own religious convictions, and effectively cutting out the middlemen. Nevertheless, a tension runs throughout the history of religion between these two very different ideas of religion – between religion as a hierarchically controlled public dogma, and religion as personal, direct experience.

No matter how dominant the public institutional face of religion has been, it has never fully deterred the gnostic impulse to experience the divine directly. Like Ham Radio Operators of the spirit world, there have always been certain individuals who seek to storm heaven, and question the ancestors, angels, and gods for themselves. To achieve this, history is scattered with stories of people who have used whatever technologies were available to them – often their own minds and bodies – to establish a channel of communication with higher intelligences. Of these countless tales, few are as entertainingly offbeat as that of John Murray Spear, a reformist and former minister of the Universalist church of America, whose contacts in the spirit world instructed him to construct an unfathomable machine called the New Motive Power – an engine designed to somehow incarnate the divine in the everyday material world, and usher in a utopian era on earth. To avoid subjecting the reader to undue suspense, it can be freely acknowledged at this point in the yarn that the machine didn’t quite work.

Spear was born in Boston in 1804, and baptised into the Universalist church by one of its American founders, Spear’s namesake John Murray. Universalism is chiefly distinguished from the mainstream of Christian theology by a very reasonable supposition: that a truly loving God would never construct the world as a complex form of entrapment designed to ferret out sinners, and subject them to eternal damnation. Hence, the Universalist Church advocated the doctrine of universal salvation: the idea that everybody, ultimately, would be redeemed, saved, and lead to the eternal bliss of heaven. To such a viewpoint, the entire universe itself was a kind of alchemical engine, slowly tending towards the ultimate perfection and harmonization of all its individual parts. This optimistic, avowedly utopian vision of nature clearly had a profound impact on John Murray Spear, who became a minister of the church at the age of 24. From the very beginning of his career, Spear involved himself courageously in the crucible of progressive, reformist politics of the 19th century. He was outspoken in his support of women’s rights and the abolition of slavery, a stance that resulted in him losing several of his church posts, and being beaten senseless by an angry mob in Portland, Maine in 1844.

In 1947, the flying saucer arrived in the skies of America to fertilize the imagination of its gnostic underbelly with a new model for otherworldly contact. In 1847, it was the souls of the departed who came to fulfil a largely similar function. The Age of Reason was inaugurated in the 18th century, and was perhaps the shortest epoch in human history; according to the historian James Web, “Reason died sometime before 1865….after the Age of Reason came the Age of the Irrational.” In reality, reason and unreason were very closely intertwined in the 18th and 19th centuries, sharing an equal prominence and many of the same underlying metaphors and preoccupations. It was the age of the electrical current and the “animal magnetism” or “universal fluid” of Franz Mesmer; the age of the telegraph (1844) and the telephone (1876) and the medium and the séance. The spiritualist movement began in a farmhouse in Hydesville, New York, where the Fox family were troubled by the inexplicable sound of knocking and furniture moving late at night. On the night of March 31, 1848, Kate Fox (aged 12) challenged the spirit to respond to the rapping of her knuckles, and it allegedly did, with an equal number of “raps”. Kate and her sister Margaret claimed to have established contact with the soul of a peddler named Charles B. Rosma who had been murdered and buried in the cellar of the house five years earlier. The Fox sisters displayed their supposed mediumistic abilities publically, and an open source, DIY religious belief of sorts mushroomed very quickly around the idea of communication with the souls of the dead. Spiritualism was enmeshed in the same progressive, reformist politics as Spear – most of its most prominent mediums were women, and its adherents were chiefly abolitionist and supportive of women’s suffrage. Like Universalism, Spiritualism tended to reject the idea of eternal damnation, viewing the afterlife instead as a hierarchical system of spheres through which the soul progresses, cumulatively purifying and perfecting itself.

John Murray Spear was naturally drawn to this new movement, and in 1851 he departed from the church in order to pursue a career as a medium and healer. His early attempts, in which he claimed to channel the spirits of Emmanuel Swedenborg, Benjamin Franklin, and others, were apparently unremarkable, and Spear remained an obscure figure in the burgeoning Spiritualist scene. However, things took a turn for the surreal when he started to receive messages from a group of spirits that called themselves the ‘Band of Electricizers’. The Electricizers infused him with a vision of the future which was by turns prophetic and deranged, and give him the instructions for an electrically powered, mystically gestated machine that would make that future happen.

THE THING MOVES!: The Band of Electricizers and the New Motive Power.

Spear declared himself to be the "general agent on Earth” of an enlightened Congress of Spirits whom he called the Band of Electricizers. This group included Benjamin Franklin (again), Thomas Jefferson, and the Universalist physician Benjamin Rush. They had made Spear the mouthpiece of a visionary, utopian project to transform and perfect human society. As is typical of prophets of channelled material, the message of the Electricizers abounds with goofy neologisms. Their wisdom was imparted to Spear in a series of profound “Revealments”; the Electricizers themselves were part of a larger “Association of Beneficence” which also included Healthfulizers, Educationalizers, Agriculturalizers, Elementizers, and Governmentizers. While some elements of the Electricizer program for the regeneration of mankind were progressive and sensible (free love, increased rights for women), other aspects of their utopian project suggest the visionary dementia of the best Outsider Art. According to Peter Robertson in a Magonia review of Spear’s biography:

They teach a new physics and give him visions of a fabulous new technology. This is not technology as we know it, it is more akin to Renaissance magic, a kind of magical prevision of the technological world to come. Much of this is at a level of surreal madness that few can have reached before or since: boats made in the shape of giant ducks powered by the psychic energy of couples having sex for example, or sewing machines constructed by a mixture of performance art, ritual magic and, you've got it, sex again!

The most important task, however, which had been imparted to Spear was the construction of the mysterious “New Motive Power”, a machine whose ultimate purpose remains obscure, but which promised to infuse “new life and vitality into all things animate and inanimate.” The construction and putative “animation” of the machine took place at High Rock, a hill overlooking a small town called Lynn, situated north of Boston. As Robert Damon Shneck writes in a Fortean Times article, Lynn was once “well known for shoe manufacturing and has a history that is pure Lovecraft, full of witchcraft, sea serpents, spontaneous human combustion and rioting Quakers.” As such, it was the perfect location for what was to follow, a strange expenditure of human effort and energy which feels somewhat like an amateur scientific experiment mixed perhaps unconsciously with the distinct character of an occult working. High Rock contained a cottage which was owned by a pair of prominent spiritualists and reformers called the Hutchinsons; also supporting Spear was the Reverend SC Hewitt, editor of the Spiritualist newspaper New Era, and a mysterious woman who was called the “Mary of the New Dispensation”, and whose role was to somehow mystically give birth to the living machine.

The machine itself was constructed with zinc batteries, metal balls, and copper wires, enchased in a wooden frame, and equipped with a device for inhalation and respiration. A complex ritual process, evocative of much later cyborgian dreams of biological/mechanical interface, was undertaken to animate it. First, a group of individuals of both sexes were brought into contact with the New Motive Power, as though to somehow charge it with the animating principal of life. Next Spear, like a magus clothing himself in ceremonial robes, assumed a suit constructed with metal plates and gemstones, and went into a deep trance. According to an attendant clairvoyant, a “stream of light, a sort of umbilicum” linked Spear to the machine during the height of his trance. Finally, in the most bizarre and Cronenbergian section of the rite, the “Mary of the New Dispensation” was brought before the device. The woman, believing herself to be immaculately impregnated with the “living principal” of the machine, was laid prostrate before the New Motive Power . She underwent labour pains and kind of ritualized pregnancy, and, according to Spear, “at precisely the time designated and the point expected, motion appeared in the New Motor corresponding to embryonic life.” The New Era was jubilant, proclaiming “THE THING MOVES!”: “The time of deliverance has come at last, and henceforward the career of humanity is upward and onward – a mighty noble and a Godlike career.”

Of course, like all specifically dated apocalyptic prophecies and attempts to incarnate the miraculous or immanentize the eschaton, the New Motive Power was destined to be a damp squib. Even in the hothouse spiritualist environment of High Rock cottage, the putative movements of the machine were deemed to be feeble and underwhelming. The Electricizers then dictated that the New Motive Power be dismantled, and transported to Randolph, New York, where the change of air might further stimulate its spiritual powers. In Randolph, according to Spear’s sometimes contested testimony, his invention experienced the fate that is perhaps pre-destined for all such unholy, hubristic living machines: it was destroyed by an angry and superstitious mob. It was never rebuilt, and had never been photographed during its brief life-span.

The Spiritualist movement, though plainly fraudulent or delusionary in most instances, was nevertheless a pleasantly disruptive phenomenon that usurped the traditional authority of the male priesthood, and re-ignited the ever-present desire in people to experience the Otherworld directly and personally, rather than through the tired liturgies of an organised and earth-bound institution. It is easy to laugh at the innocence and eccentricity of John Murray Spear today, but his delusion of a redemptive, living machine is in many respects the reductio ad absurdum of the modern world’s faith in the idea of human perfectibility and transcendence through technological progress. We have not lost this notion, and it persists today in an equally extreme form in the writings of Ray Kurzweil and those who wait after the coming rapture of the Singularity. Having followed the dictates of the Band of Electricizers for two tough decades, Spear was undaunted, his final sentiments on the subject echoing the longing, common to both Universalism and Spiritualism, for the eventual redemption and bliss of all living things: "Dearly have I loved the work in which I was engaged. I have been helped to see that beyond the clouds that were round about me, there was a living, guiding, intelligent, beneficent purpose—the elevation, regeneration and redemption of the inhabitants of this earth.”

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Witchcraft Today 2: Simon, King of the Witches (1971)

Apparently more satirical, off-beat, and character-oriented than its sensationalized promo materials suggest. All credit to the unparalleled joys of living in the age of the internet, you can watch Simon, King of the Witches as the first half of a lovingly recreated grindhouse double bill with Werewolves on Wheels in Torgo's Drive-In Episode 10: Psychotronic Horror Double Bill right here. If you dare and so on.

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Occult Art of Rosaleen Norton.

Rosaleen Norton was an Australian occultist and artist whose work frequently ran foul of the law in the conservative Australia of the forties and fifties. In the early fifties, Norton moved to an area of Sydney known as King's Cross, a place which had become notorious as a red light district and nexus of organized crime and various bohemian/occult shenanigans. The Cross was also the home of the novelist, poet, journalist, and actor Dulcie Deamer, who was called the Queen of the Bohemians. Norton herself attained a significant degree of tabloid notoriety as "the Witch of King's Cross", amid a torrent of police raids, mostly unfounded tales of Satanic black masses and animal sacrifices, and a scandalous affair in which her friend and lover Eugene Aynsley Goosens was arrested by customs in possession of a considerable occult booty: some 800 erotic pictures, ritual masks and incense sticks. Something of the ambiance of the Cross in that period, and Norton's distinctive appearance and presence, is conveyed in this charming vignette: