“It is likely that no one ever masters anything in which he has not known impotence; and if you agree, you will also see that this impotence comes not at the beginning of or before the struggle with the subject, but in the heart of it.”—Walter Benjamin, “A Berlin Chronicle” in Reflections (4)
Finding this quote set me to flipping pleasantly through the pages of Reflections. Ah, Benjamin, such a pleasure. The double movement of Benjamin into the city and into his past, the opacity of its material forces and the opacity of his family wealth…well, if I wonder down this side street, I might never get to what I want to write about.
The world is a market. Been here before, right? I come back to it with the Yeatsian material now. I wrote recently about the interaction of the individual’s capacities developed under a spiritualist program of work and the terrain of technique that circulate through grimoiric channels, and I realized that this opened into a discussion of the Body of Fate and the Intellect in the Yeatsian system.
Before I get to far, though, I want to clarify a little more clearly what exactly I am talking about. When I use terms like ‘grimoiric’ and ‘spiritualist’ I am attempting to be deliberately vague because I think that vagueness is better suited to capturing a set of historically relationships that are themselves amorphous, polyvalent, and never fully conceptualized. While we favor rigorous definition in discourse, these practices operate in a different domain, with different patterns of meaning.
So when I talk about ‘spiritualism,’ I end up talking about a domain of loosely aligned communal practices, some of which precede what we can rigorously define as spiritualist. What unifies these practices are, to my mind, a focus on the spiritual development of the individual within a community of practitioners through the cultivation of spiritual gifts through a personal relationship to spirits. Spiritualism in name and fact just seems like an exceptionally well-developed and spirit-rich expression of this.
When I talk about the ‘grimoiric,’ I am talking about a domain of loosely related texts, oral and written, which relate technical operations, some more clearly ‘spiritual’ than others. These texts are unified by an orientation to secret or occult knowledge which they promise to reveal, either directly in the text or through a series of magical operations that the texts provide. In almost all cases, these texts have a practical orientation. They promise readers actionable knowledge or occult influence.
These two streams frequently cross in historical circumstance. A grimoiric ritual will pass into spiritualist community’s repertoire and a practice developed in a spiritualist community will find its way into a grimoire’s body of techniques. Still, I think we can differentiate the two streams meaningfully according to their animating structures. Spiritualism emphasizes participation, with spirits and people, whereas grimoires emphasize expertise honed by practice.
There are many hybrid forms that developed in the criss-crossing of these streams. The early Golden Dawn and other occult lodges, the contemporary ‘grimoire tradition’ practices, and the covens of various neopagan practices, seem to be various permutations on fusing these two attitudes into more rigorously defined social structures. Me being me, I tend to see them as temporary standstills on the verge of breaking up into new streams of spiritualism and grimoires, but that’s definitely just this author’s informed opinion.
Part of the ‘informed’ part of that, though, is my sense of what both the primary streams provide, an occasion for an individual to develop themselves. Any given instance of the practice is likely to be, at its best, something between an amalgam suited to a family of similarly disposed individuals and a well-realized exemplar of an individual’s personal development.
It is the ‘similarly disposed’ part that returns me to the Yeatsian material. While a disposition entails the will, it more strongly focuses on the Intellect, the various sorts of active capacities an individual possesses for navigating their world, i.e., the Body of Fate. A disposition, an Intellect, can only be fully appreciated when it is understood in relationship to the situation, Body of Fate, that provides it opportunities for development.
The Body of Fate doesn’t just include this or that event, it includes overlapping horizons of events, through which the individual falls back onto their Intellect to navigate. Those events provide opportunities but they also provide limitations. This gets us into the world of social and economic possibilities, through which the Intellect must accommodate itself in order to thrive.
This gets us back to the quotation that opened this entry, which emphasizes that the active capacities of the Intellect aren’t entirely active. They are startled, mystified, seduced, or otherwise overwhelmed into action and the various occasions that provide that jump become constitutive of the Intellect’s development.
In the essay from which that quotation was drawn, Benjamin engages in an exploration of Berlin alongside his having grown up within it, and his fascination for its socio-economic depths develops out of, and alongside, his grappling with his youthful exclusion from his family’s socio-economic depths. Exploring the city’s streets, he is also following the threads of his family’s purse.
We can’t identify those events strictly as the cause of Benjamin’s interest, because they become so only insofar as Benjamin’s Intellect allows him to make himself an equal to those events. The Intellect’s capacities dictate the possibilities that can be realized from a situation, and a different person might respond to a similar situation in a very different fashion, striking out into the Body of Fate through another path entirely.
All of which makes those things carved out in the Body of Fate ancillary to the spiritual progress of an individual. The degree to which they provide assistance varies in accordance to which they provide assistance to the challenges upon which the Intellect has set itself. In spiritual matters, the Intellect expresses itself in its most personal fashion and so the patterns of its development are exquisitely personal.
While this means that there are limitations to the aid any community or grimoire can provide, it also highlights the virtues of their distinctive forms. The variations to which spiritualist and grimoiric techniques are subject reflect the variable nature of the personal encounter with spirit. They are tailor-made to be broken apart and reassembled into practices suited to the Intellects taking part in them.
The more closely our Intellect’s fate-driven capacities match those cultivated within a grimoire or spiritualist community, the less those practices will need to undergo transformation. However, often enough, exposure to these communities or texts entails a long apprenticeship of exertion and accommodation through which the practices acquire a proper place in the Intellectual operations that define our specific spiritual life.
One of these challenges is overcoming the Mask these practices present to us, a Mask that has been born and shaped in a foreign Will and Intellect. The practice as presented has often been crafted from the stuff of someone else’s Body of Fate and if we can’t appreciate that, we will fall into a practice of Intellectual mutilation, a Procrustean act of accommodating our capacities to someone else’s product.
There is a critical path through which this can be undertaken, in which we immerse that Mask into our Body of Fate. Here we move beyond synchronicity and pass into the realm of chance, where we take the alien Mask and force it to become for us one more object among many objects that we encounter in the Body of Fate.
Through this process, we can reclaim the alien Mask as an element for our own Intellectual work and proceed to disassemble and reorganize it for our own ends, perhaps even eventually recreating a new Mask for ourselves from the operations undertaken. We can, to an extent, undertake this process with others. The Yeatsian spirits note that the Mask isolates but the task of undoing a Mask can be undertaken with others. However, there is inevitably a point at which the work must be continued in private, through personal practice rather than public study.
This is where the witchy possibilities open up again, because you can take a ragged ride over the terrain of dissolving Masks that emerge along the unbound pages of grimoires and the undoing of a community’s intimate enclosure. Here the techniques of both are caught up in a still more personal encounter between the Intellect and the Body of Fate, in which spirits dress themselves in the tattered fragments of broken worlds and stretch themselves toward new and fertile soil by riding the witch’s back.
That’s perhaps a bit purple, but I will leave the less purple elaboration for another post.