My partner has had a copy of Alison Butler’s Victorian Occultism and the Making of Modern Magic: Invoking Tradition lying about the place for a few weeks. I’ve cracked it open and start reading at random; so far, it has always been interesting. Besides thinking that the book would have sounded sexier had the title and subtitle been transposed, it is pretty much all I could ask for from a scholarly book on the matter. It embeds the Golden Dawn in a broader historical horizon and it does so with frequent appeal to biographical detail.
I don’t know if this is just a quality of spiritualist work or of the spiritual world more generally, but every time I discover a set of domains into which spirits may be organized and understood, those domains multiply by a process of reflection and internalization. I can, for example, sort spirits according to their affinity for certain sefirotic patterns, but then I find within each of those sefirotic patterns the entire sefirotic pattern replicated. I have glimpsed a parallel pattern in the Enochian material, but I can’t speak too deeply on that and, well, I wonder how much of the Enochian material might fall into the spiritualist framework.
Back in my first year or so of graduate school, I attended a lecture on the importance of writing in mysticism. I wish I could remember the name of the woman, but it escapes me. I carried a copy of it around with me through a few moves, but there have been just one or two many sharp turns in my life since then; it fell off the proverbial truck.
It was the late 1990s and she had come of age reading Derrida and De Man, but beneath the veneer of deconstruction there was an astounding core: for a group convinced of the ineffability and transcendence of the divine, mystics were obsessed with writing about it. It’s almost compulsive. Rather than a via negativa that opens to a pleroma, what if it only ever opens to a threatening negativa, which it is the work of writing to obscure?
[This is one of those speculative posts, so bear with me. I am not necessarily saying that I buy everything said here, but I do think it is is worth putting the model out there.]
It’s not too surprising that the Yeatses’ spirits address the source of artistic inspiration. Not only is it of personal relevance to W. B. Yeats, but the system they describe gives the aesthetic a key place. A Vision divides souls into two sorts, primary and antithetical. The primary souls are souls of action, the McBrides of the world in their various forms, but the antithetical souls are thoughtful souls, inclined to subjective, aesthetic, and intellectual pursuits.
That quotation from Yeats hasn’t ceased to needle at me;, it mirrors ideas that I keep revisiting in my notebooks. I followed the link back to the original source and tore through the text over a quiet evening (downloadable versions here). It’s…well, intriguing but also a bit infuriating. Yeats struggles mightily in the text to come to theoretical terms with his personal spiritual experiences: he’s thoughtful and sincere but the text lingers in the murky and indeterminate.
Okay, while I’m at the keyboard and thinking about consciousness and magic, I’ll gripe just a little. (And, by gripe, I do mean to imply a certain lightness to what follows–not a burning critique, just a little grousing.) Why in the world are some folks deadset on making magic and spirits something that emerges from some era untouched by the taint of modernity? I get that, yes, there are a number of cool techniques that have developed in history that got sidelined in the eager march of materialism and that some salvage operations are in order. I get, too, that some of those techniques are connected to specific sorts of spirits and so developing those techniques requires a little face time with spirits we have come to associate with a (more or less) distant past.