Lately, I have been revisiting Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia. It is a beloved book, but this return has a spiritual undercurrent. During prayer and contemplation I found myself nudged toward it. I feel a bit like Brer Rabbit (“Oh no, don’t throw me in that briar patch!”), but a few weeks ago I stumbled upon the hard kernel that I was being nudged toward, the bit of grit to help me with my work. They are near the book’s conclusion, Adorno’s theses against occultism.
Adorno is no fan of occultism. He wrote a book about his loathing for astrology (Stars Down to Earth) and he is one of the folks responsible for getting the occultism-supports-fascism trend going (which is a mixed bag of accurate and inaccurate). More subtly, but no less critically, he also praises art as “magic freed from the lie of being truth” in Minima Moralia (which in isolation I can agree with, at least if you have a rich enough account of truth and lies).
The theses against occultism dial it up a notch, examining specific dimensions of occultism and the problems he sees with them. Much of their force derives from Adorno’s broader sensibility, one that is sympathetic to my own. The critical force of his statements against occultism are animated by premises with which I mostly agree. While some of his accusations hit close to home, I only outright disagree with a few a few of them. That said, I believe there is a form of occultism that can justify itself in the face of his criticisms. Or, more accurately, I believe that there is a counter-claim that occultism has against Adorno, through which occultism itself can improve itself.
Or, more straightforwardly: occultism can rise above its failures, but only so long as it confronts them as failures.
This sounds very manifesto and that is what I want. However, let me be clear that this is first and foremost about my own spiritual work and the direction I want it to take. But, if I’m serious about that and Adorno, I have to acknowledge the way in which my subjective concerns are entangled with objective situations. I’m not sure how deeply or how broadly entangled, so if you think this doesn’t hold for you, you may be right. You might also be wrong. Hence the precarious perch between self-reflection and declaration here.
So, here and there going forward, I am going to pull out this or that bit of Adorno’s theses and examine it in light of actual occultism, my own first and foremost. Let’s start in this post with one of the gut punches, that occultism is regressive.
Adorno means something fairly specific here. He emphasizes that in their original cultural context the ideas promulgated by occultists were cutting edge, that the obscurity that clung to them mirrored the obscurity that clung to the understanding and capacity of the people who used them. However, in the present, the obscurity isn’t necessary but turns obscurantist. The mysteries aren’t even mysteries, just outdated and superceded intellectual flotsam.
(I’d like to note that Adorno’s sentiments are at least partially shared by some occultists. Crowley’s disappointment with the banality of his Golden Dawn initiation as trivia dressed up wth poorly executed pomp comes to mind. So, too, does Alan Moore’s vocal frustration with magic’s tawdriness while the sciences were plumbing the mysteries. That’s important–occultism already has the beginnings of a response to Adorno.)
We can chip away at the mystification of alchemy on this point, too, as dedicated historians of science have revealed more than a few alchemical mysteries to be little more than abstract codes for describing chemical operations. Historian-scientists like Lawrence Principe have even been able to reproduce seemingly inexplicable and ‘magical’ results produced by some alchemists–finding their source to be entirely chemical, often deriving from impurities in the substances used or introduced by chemically reactive tools. The mystical trappings? Well, a portion of those are roughly contemporary with the same ‘mysteries’ that Crowley mocks, not original to the work of the alchemists.
Similarly, some of the Neoplatonic mysteries have their basis in the sorts of geometrical principles available to schoolchildren. Some of the geomantic mysteries are little more than simple mathematics and memorization. For all the talk around quantum physics and magical causality, there hasn’t been any magical work that has advanced quantum physics. Quite the opposite, magic is chasing after quantum physics (or biology) and not really catching up, a bit like the terminally unhip kid trying to dress cool.
The situation isn’t significantly different with the human sciences. The bigger shifts in occultism have been chasing after insights in this or that school of psychology (the unconscious in the case of Spare, contemporary cognitive psychology in folks like Gordon’s sigil innovations) rather than developing alongside them. Poor man’s life coach territory. Maybe you can make a pitch for the virtues of meditation, but that strikes me as less a matter of occultism and more a matter of cross-cultural exchange.
The humanities? There is something more of an open door there, but consider the instabilities between history and the tendency toward historical reconstruction among a lot of modern occultists. In only a handful of instances can we point toward an occultist whose work genuinely, qua occultist, informs the discussion rather than just parasitically draw upon it.
All of this recalls Nietzsche’s observation that some people pretend to be profound by muddying the waters so you can’t actually see their shallowness.
The arts, though, right? Well, Alan Moore and Adorno both have a point there, that occultism and art seem to be entangled in a more productive fashion. That said, the occultist is only occasionally an artist, and only more occasionally an innovative artist whose contributions change the direction of artistic production. The average talisman or mojo bag? Hard to make a case for that being particularly artistic.
Whew, wow, this is discouraging, right? Having flattened out the field a bit, let’s go back to Adorno’s original observation about regression, that the tools of the occultist’s trade were not originally regressive.
An interesting thing starts to happen if you start chewing that over and switch up the angle of approach. What if, instead of asking after teh present disconnect, we look more closely at the past connection between occultism and knowledge? If it wasn’t regressive then, what was it? Adorno seems to bet on it being incidental, an accident of ignorance, but I’m betting it is something else, that the occult dimensions of those earlier expressions played a constitutive and progressive role in the production of knowledge. Moreover, I would suggest that the association of knowledge advancement (whether it’s the Mahabarata or the grimoires) with teaching spirits reflects this, albeit in an exaggerated fashion.
This allows us to ask after the points (plural) of divergence, at which occultism and knowledge production parted ways. My take is that the last real moments of occult-physical science synergy occurred under the rubric of theosophy and spiritualism. The concern with spiritualism for things like cosmic rays, planetary travel, and telepathy helped lay the groundwork for more than a little science. The biological sciences parted way with occultism more recently, the last point of interface looking to me like New Age movement’s conception of holism that helped nursemaid a generation of ecological thinking. The human sciences are all over the place, some having parted with occultism long ago, others more recently (e.g., spiritualism, Jung, and some strains of psychology).
Let me wind it back a little, though. This begins more intimately than that. I have noticed in the last few years, that I have been stumbling upon/inspired with some distinct geometric motifs in my ritual work. I have found similar motifs by digging around things as diverse as yantras and firmas , but thos comparisons seemed pretty abstract to me. What caught my attention is that the geometric work also gave me occasion to reconsider more closely the geometric and mathematical qualities of the figures themselves and that e some of those properties related to the properties of the spiritual work I was doing.
Some of those features related back to the spiritual work, but not all of them. I would chase down a few bits of math and geometry out of curiosity and to make sure that there wasn’t a spiritual point further down the line. In general, there wasn’t. I learned a little bit and got back to center. If I were more mathematically inclined, those could easily have led me into expanses of mathematical inquiry unrelated to spiritual work.
It reminded me that there is a lot of evidence that tonal and geometric patterns often accompany threshold of revelation (thanks go to Gordon for sharing that phrase from Angels in America). Those patterns reflect something about the spiritual dimension of experience, but the spiritual dimensions of experience also share features with more mundane experience. Which means that a study of their physical manifestation will tell us something about the nature of physical nature and, per my experience, provide you with a point of entry into a domain of inquiry beyond that parallel. Hello Pythagorus.
There is fuzzy boundary between the revelation and that domain of inquiry. Along that fuzzy boundary, the study of spiritual pattern feels like a teaching or, if you prefer, like remembrance (e.g., Plato’s Meno and teaching the slave basic geometry). I received something that complemented my understanding.
To the extent that I set off toward these more mathematical and scientific dimensions, I would be moving away from the spiritual-occult practices that introduced me to them. That seems like a rough model for the sorts of divergence that lead to the divergence of knowledge and occultism generally.
This process is two-sided. I can go toward the geometric and mathematical, but I can also go deeper into the occult dimensions of the material. Toward the occult is, naturally enough, toward that which is harder to put into words and concepts, toward that which we justly call the invisible world. That movement is going to produce, again and again, the sorts of phenomena that I have been talking about. If my experience is representative, you’ll see alternating rhythms of complication and simplification as understanding develops through those images and signs.
While those resemble the products of discourses like literature or physics or mathematics, their internal logic is alien to them. It is properly occult. They are shoals, formed on the flows between visible and invisible. These shoals are also the foundation for occult influence (magic and siddhis), and that influence derives from their hybrid character. Such influence is often more modest than those who use it claim, in part because they themselves fail to grasp the disparity between the invisible and visible worlds, between spiritual and material modalities. Inversely, they are often more effective than non-occultists imagine because their basis lies in a different set of relations than are made clear in the visible knowledges.
It is the failure to grasp this disparity that forms the basis of occultism’s tendency toward regression. The occult regression takes place around a misunderstanding of analogy. The occult-science synergy takes place around a point of comparison, but too often the occultist erases the difference between domains upon which a comparison depends. The occult understanding is then held up as identical to a scientific or literary or what-have-you understanding and the distinct logic and aims of the distinct practices are lost.
This may get us back to the peculiar relationship between art and occultism in modernity. Occult thought exerts its greatest influence on other forms of knowledge through the production of analogies. Remember that bit about art being magic freed from the lie of being truth? Adorno is on to something there. Through artistic representation, the occult idea loses its force as a knowledge claim and becomes a set of formal relations. Those formal relations can be appreciated indirectly, educating even those who aren’t occult-inclined in a way of structuring their ideas. Art becomes a kind of analogy fuel.
On the flip side, for the artist, the occult shoals are a rich resource for inspiration. While they may or may not be concerned with the occult logic operating on the other side of the shoals, the way in which thought struggles to express the invisible and occult can throw up novel organizational forms. They can provide, in short, refreshing or suprising perspectives useful to an artist interested in just those things.
As with the relationship between the sciences and the occult, I don’t mean to imply that this is all that art does or is art’s primary purpose. I am just pointing out that art can and has provided a bridge between occult and non-occult forms of understanding. It has, at least in the modern period, provided occultism with a broader and richer form of influence.
Ironically, art has also provided occultism with an easier avenue of regression. The viscerality of art is more seductive than abstract concepts and theories. The affective stimulation of art, too, can more closely approximate the sense of presence at the heart of occult work. You can settle out pleasantly along the artistic side of the occult shoals and replace the occult work with the cultivation of an aesthetic sensibility.
That is hardly the worst thing in the world, but it is deeply problematic when aesthetism gets confused with occultism and then conflated with the knowledge it is capable of producing. Here we find the morass of people who believe that what they believe forms the substance of what is. I’m sure we could turn to Adorno for some insight into the influence of consumerism shapes and co-opts this position. Art doesn’t escape empire, after all.
This is a long post and I’m not done yet. How about a musical intermission? Use the restroom if you need to.
Okay, let’s get back to it.
This line of discussion helps us to get at a definition of regression that holds for occultism internally. When we are talking about an occult regression, we are looking at the abandonment of an occult enterprise proper (which I identify wholeheartedly with the traffic with spirits and deepening of spiritual gnosis) in favor of an idolatry.
We can talk about all kinds of idolatry here. It can be the idolatry of sentiment and aesthetics just mentioned, or the idolatry of a form of knowledge, as when someone attempts to dress up scientific principles with magical trappings. The core dynamic remains the same, though. Because the logic of art or science (etc.) differs from the logic of occultism, the transfer of their ideas wholesale into occultism demands that occultism become the dead repetition of a form derived from their process. Occultism becomes the pedantry of memory.
Worse, because the logic of the original practice is evacuated for the sake of occult repetition, the repetition lacks almost all educational value. The occult repetition preserves artistic/scientific/etc. form without providing the tools that allow for the recipient to develop or really even use the material they are provided with. Divorced from such practical concerns, the occult regression tends to become obsessed with the preservation of this or that way of repetition. Just as the occult has a close ties to force of inspiration in the arts, it also has close ties to the death of inspiration, to kitsch.
The occult fetish or talisman occupies the boundary between kitsch and inspiration. It can collapse into the sort of dead fetishism much-maligned at the turn of the century, but it can also sustain a lively intellectual foment. That lively foment requires that the occultist give over the sign to other forms of development without maintaining its occultism in those contexts and that the occultist not hold onto any too-specific occult use of the sign.
That second point deserves more elaboration. The signs and concepts, rites and myths, talismans and shrines, that develop from occult practice are the visible face of a largely invisible process. They are not the invisible process itself, but an instantiation of it that gives it stability and anchorage in our mostly physical and visible existence. The degree of stability varies from case to case, but they form something of a lynchpin in the occult work. They are placeholders for a spiritual process, a way of getting back to a point in the spiritual process more quickly, so that it may be continued rather than perpetually redone.
That there are complex and working ritual protocols should be no surprise, but what needs to be understood is that the protocols are efficacious only insofar as they provide a visible body for an invisible process. Where the process is absent, the protocols are kitsch. They may have an aesthetic, psychological, or even biological result, but they have ceased to form a part of a living occultism.
The relationship between living occultism and mediumship has something to do with this, with the active development of personal capacities and preparations in order to better receive and transmit the kinds of materials to which we are most suited. This isn’t strictly subjective, because the question of capacities is bound up so tightly with the visible materials, from concept to object, available to the medium and spirits.
Now, part of what we should start to see here is how closely occultism is bound up with the very heart of culture and with culture’s great ancilla, philosophy. Arguably, the traditional practice of philosophy is even closer to the workings of the occult than is art, for at the heart of the philosophical operation is the work of signification, of drawing significant comparisons. It gets us back to the sympathy of deconstruction and witchcraft, too.
This is where the image of the shoal comes in handy again. That boundary between visible and invisible is bound up with the dissolution and production of forms, not with their preservation. The workings of occultism are properly the workings of thought at the edge of the visible world, the edge of the concepts and images that compose it. There is a foundation, of sorts, but it isn’t a foundation built upon the long history of visible things. It isn’t older or rarer (which are more tricks of kitsch), but livelier and more potent. It should also be immediate, jarringly timely and untimely.
Now, here’s the thing. Knowledge, art, and all that, are the big cultural corollaries of an occult movement that goes on inside of your life. Remember Alan Moore’s complaint about magic wasting its time ‘bringing back your boyfriend”? Well, that isn’t actually wasting time when we stop approaching it as magic (“I get what I want”) and approach it as occult (“What is this mysterious thing?”). The lover you don’t have (or do have but want more from), the money that isn’t in your pocket, and the respect you don’t have, are all the stuff with which we pose the question of our lives and to which we struggle to give an answer.
The displeasure and dissatisfaction is the sound of the water against the shoals, the call to turn out toward the sea, to start watching the way that the waters are giving shape to the beach of your life. The lover, the money, the respect, all of those are the visible signs through which you must work to find the invisible movements of your life. The trick is that they aren’t the end of the process but its middle. That middle develops in two directions, toward the occult and its invisible mysteries, and toward the visible, toward a place in the world of sex, money, and power.
It is very rarely the same place for everyone. The mysteries that are yours and the life that is yours, rich or poor, lustful or celibate, famous or unknown, can’t be guessed at. They have to be discovered.