I have been blogging quite a bit about applying the concept of permutation detailed within the Sefer Yetzirah more broadly. Much of this has to do with my sense that this practice isn’t unique to the Kabbalistic material, though it has rarely been so thoroughly detailed. While looking at so much material as an expression of permutation may seem a little abstract, I think the takeaway from that is anything but.
Remember how people have been talking about how most magic workers tends to rely upon a few basic techniques? And that breakthroughs in magical work tended to come by becoming ever more familiar with them and the ways in which they could be combined? Well, that’s what we’re talking about with permutation in the Kabbalistic material. By broadening it out to encompass more and more of the magical landscape, I want to emphasize how deeply this is bound up with many magical practices.
It is by deliberately moving outside the Hebrew frame that I think we can see this, see that their is a dimension of universality to the operations which can’t easily be caged behind an easy label like ‘Jewish magic.’ It isn’t that I think the ancient Gnostics or Dumezil or Levi-Strauss or Hegel or who-have-you is a Kabbalist, but they are all (Gnostics, Kabbalists, Hegel, Dumezil, Levi-Strauss) encountering a common ontological dimension of consciousness, sometimes aided by exposure to each other’s work, sometimes not.
Back in my undergraduate days, Daniel Dennett made some waves with a sharp book titled Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. The book was an all out assault on the argument that the complexity of the world was evidence of a divine creator’s conscious plan. Instead, Dennett argued, the complexity of the organic world could better be explained by exploring the algorithmic implications of Darwin’s core model of evolution: variation, selection, and reproduction. Algorithm over design, iteration and testing over clockwork causality.
Given time and the variation to which matter is naturally subject, you can produce and reproduce quite a wide range of phenomena. Dennett went further than many in asserting that this approach yielded profound insights for a theory of knowledge. Dennet argued that our knowledge proceeded almost exactly like evolution, through a process of variation, selection, and reproduction. Rather than relay on the slow road of biological evolution, our peculiar form of consciousness made it possible to speed up the process with experimentation, both of the abstract-virtual thought variety and the actual concrete sort.
Look at the Sefer Yetzirah in this light. It manages to be so powerful and brief because what it provides to us is a series of algorithms for exploring the spiritual dimensions of the manifest world. The full development of those permutations doesn’t take place strictly at the textual level, but at the spiritual level, in the ritual operations (again, of the thought variety and concrete sorts).
It also brings us into contact with the virtual and spiritual dimensions of manifest experience, with the patterning process that subtly shapes the evolutionary algorithms running their course through the manifest world. Activating other algorithmic operations in proximity to them acts as a sort of strange attractor, distorting their operation slightly.
Along these lines we can get some sense for the mysterious power that understanding exerts in and of itself. We clarify our understanding in order to better draw the attention of patterning powers that are always extending themselves into the manifest world.
The apophatic dimension of this is essential to grasp, though. Once you evacuate the divine principles of content, it is all channels and permutation, which means that at every stage what you uncover in a given telling is a channel that is ready to be tested in ritual application. What happens when I open the doors between different fragments of the divine and let them rush in? What happens when I alter the medium through which this inrushing happens?
Again, it sounds abstract, but in application we are looking at something quite concrete. The best of these experiments take place over the long term, through the thorough development of a single medium (your being and life) to receive inrushing after inrushing. It is figuring out how to hone yourself and your life to experience your sense of the divine.
When I talk about distortion, I hope it is clear that I see distortion serving a productive function in this process. This is not a distortion that we always need to correct, but a distortion to which we must adjust. While it is easy enough to despair at the way in which the world seems to be irrational and crazy, unyielding to our desires, it is important to note that this resistance is what makes it possible to explore the permutations deeply, to explore their interactions and development.
Between apophasis and distortion, I believe we are getting quite a bit closer to a communicative mythology, too, that preserves the individuality of ritual-mythic practices in time and space while still permitting a good bit of room for them to inform each other.