I want to revisit the art and occultism from a practical angle for a post. To do this, I’m turning to geomancy (Remember geomancy?) to provide a model for what happens. The geomantic principles discussed travel well and can be used to better understand our everyday spiritual lives. As a side benefit, they provide some ground for distinguishing between a religious and an occult spiritual sensibility.
I am feeling this one out as I go, so caveat lector.
Okay, how about a little refresher? The geomantic sign describes something in terms of its engagement in four levels of being. While this relationship is often portrayed linearly, as a descent from fire to earth or an ascent from earth to fire, the relationship can also be described circularly. The elements of a geomantic sign can be mapped onto a quartered circle as easily as they can be drawn along a line.
The difference between the two modes of representation is subtle but profound. The occult sensibility rests more comfortably in the circle while the religious sensibility favors the line. The key difference lies with the relationship of fire and earth. In the circle, fire and earth touch, like the snake biting its tail, while in the line the two are separated by a gulf filled with water and air.
At the heart of any spiritual sensibility lies a concern with fire, because it is with fire that the mystery of the numinous intersects with that of the phenomenal. When we consider the two sensibilities, then, we consider two ways of relating to that mystery. The religious sensibility holds the two as far apart as possible, while the occult sensibility fuses them.
(Here again I am defining my terms more narrowly than their common use. Plenty of those who identify themselves as occultists possess what I call a religious sensibility while many who identify themselves as religious have what I call an occult sensibility. There is nothing wrong with these other uses, just keep in mind that I am using the terms restrictively.)
The religious sensibility, unsurprisingly, emphasizes fire by drawing attention up and away from earthly concerns. Emotion and words need be ordered just-so, that the fire may pass easily through them to the earth and that we may easily look up through them to the fire. Think of religious rites–they cultivate, often quite carefully, a scene through which thought and feeling are organized and settled to make the ascent and descent easier.
(There is a reasonable discussion to be had here about how changes in the temperament of a people can change how rites are experienced, though not necessarily change their connection to the spiritual fire. That is probably a few posts all on its own, though that provides some insight into how the ritual artifice of the past can become the occult tools of the present.)
The occult sensibility emphasizes the diffusion of the fire into the other elements. What is more, by joining earth and fire, occultism posits that fire may flare up directly from within the earth, unmediated by air or water. The religious practices that ascend toward fire make sense within occultism, but as one practice among many that work with the divine fire. We can make sense of ‘occult’ in a very literal sense–as an interest in the ways that fire becomes occulted, concealed, within other elemental formations.
(Following from my previous parenthetical remark: Similarly, there is a discussion to be had about why occultism tends to flare up in times of crisis and stress. As religious rite may become less vital, occult exlorations may become more vital, offering alternative rites that may be more in sympathy with the temper of the times. Still, a discussion for another time.)
That tendency to dwell with the earthly makes occultism a more natural ally of the aesthetic and literary ‘modern,’ which tends to dwell in the middle ranges of air and water, in thought and emotion. While fire is rarely absent from art, it is appreciated indirectly through the medium in which it manifests. Much of what we call ‘artistic inspiration’ derives from this sense of fire, though it is artistic skill (air) that most often moves (water) us.
This also helps us get at why modern aesthetic forms are relatively unstable vessels. Their focus on the air and water in themselves provides fire with little to endure within. It takes a great deal of care to manage fire within these elements and when the fire itself is not an object of attention, it tends to go out. When fire is united with air, it tends to dissipate quickly. While it may drive virtuoso moments or the heady thrill of sudden insight, there isn’t much staying power. For it to acquire durability it must either restrain itself and hold itself within the fires (sun in the sky, sun in the day) or move quickly into from the realm of air into the water.
The purple prose of Lovecraft and the lurid poetry of Baudelaire exemplify this water-ward motion. The fast heat of the sky becomes a roiling affect, simmering emotion. The heat produces all manner of emotion-limned images. These are potent and relatively durable, but they act slowly and undergo mutation easily. If they do not find passage into more stable earth, they too will eventually dissipate.