Let’s Dance

“Sometimes the answers just come in the mail.
And one day you get that letter you’ve been waiting for forever.
And everything it says is true.
And then in the last line it says: burn this.”
—Laurie Anderson, “Same Time Tomorrow”

At the end of one of my synchronicity chains this last week is a video, “Let’s Dance,” by the late great David Bowie. I’ve shared it recently, so I won’t link it again here, but I want to talk about it more. In doing so, I want to talk about it in a strange way, as a complex spiritual sign, as if the whole video were being taken up and spoken as a spiritual message. I don’t necessarily want to assert that the video was originally intended to be that message, only that like any message, like any set of words, it can be taken up and given new meaning according to the context in which it is spoken. In other words, I only mean to say that it can be used to mean what I am saying here, not that Bowie or the director intended it to mean what I say here.

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[NB] Shaman: a snapshot in the life of a word

“Anonymous writers were the norm, frequently German, Swedish, or Danish captives; among them, by the second half of the seventeenth century, ‘shaman,’ ‘saaman,’ and ‘shaitan’ were established as indigenous terms, applied to all groups living past the Ural Mountains. Later ethnographers would suggest that the term ‘shaman’ was specifically of ‘Tungus origin,’ but in the mid-seventeenth century the Tungus were…not a distinct ethnic tribe…. Judging from the historical evidence, the word itself is a generic label of Slavic origin via German transcription with negative connotations.”—Silvia Tomášková, The Wayward Shaman: The Prehistory of an Idea (77–78)

So, yeah, this word that has now become a tense spot in the dialogue around appropriating indigenous discourse, may very likely have had its origins in the imperial effort to catalog the margins of Russia. I’m not saying the dialogue around appropriation doesn’t matter, but it does suggest something funny that we have gotten tangled up in a word rather in the history or present circumstances of a people and a practice. Or, that we twist ourselves in knots to avoid appropriating a word while living the ins and outs of our days on the appropriation of their land and labor.

Does the concern over a word really help us or other people? Or does it slow us down, isolate us, divide us up so that we can’t communicate so easily with each other? While we need to have good definitions on the ground, I suspect that language policing benefits empire first and foremost.

The shoddy house on the edge of time: Sefer Yetzirah, the astrological take

As I have been reading about sidereal astrology, I have been trying to work out the conceptual points of contact and divergence between it, tropical astrology, and the material in the Sefer Yetzirah (SY). These last few days, reading the SY, it has begun to come into view. What I am seeing in even a summary account of India’s astrological traditions suggests that the tropical/sidereal distinction doesn’t capture the conceptual ferment in astrological antiquity I am glimpsing through the SY.

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[NB] Esalen, George Leonard, Liberation, and Potential

Still slowly moving through Kripal’s Esalen. It isn’t a difficult read, but I find myself putting it down a lot to chew over this or that discussion. I’ll admit to finding Esalen itself less interesting than the cultural networks in which it partakes and I think that makes me a little grumpy about some of Kripal’s approach. The central place he gives Esalen strikes me as excessive–it isn’t just that Esalen takes center stage because it is the topic of the book, but it seems like Kripal really believes it is the central stage.

Anyway. That isn’t what I want to jot down here. I have finally gotten to the point where he gives George Leonard direct attention. Leonard plays a big role at Esalen but what really catches my attention is the role of events outside of Esalen play in shaping George Leonard. Leonard’s conception of a ‘human potential movement’ is so much deeper & broader than the Esalen material, and I want to just make a note of how.

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Emancipation from Mental Slavery: Color Line and Empire

The would-be black savant was confronted by the paradox that the knowledge his people needed was a twice-told tale to his white neighbors, while the knowledge which would teach the white world was Greek to his own flesh and blood. The innate love of harmony and beauty that set the ruder souls of his people a-dancing and a-singing raised but confusion and doubt in the soul of the black artist; for the beauty revealed to him was the soul-beauty of a race which his larger audience despised, and he could not articulate the message of another people. This waste of double aims, this seeking to satisfy two unreconciled ideals, has wrought sad havoc with the courage and faith and deeds of ten thousand thousand people,—has sent them often wooing false gods and invoking false means of salvation, and at times has even seemed about to make them ashamed of themselves. (W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, 5)

The color line may seem like an odd thing for a gnostic and spiritualist blog to talk about, but the veil that defines the color line is one of the many that separates us from understanding and enlightenment. And, like Du Bois said, it isn’t just any old veil, but one of the defining veils of our era.

(Have I said this before? If not: while the obstacles to (human) gnosis are common to people regardless of place and time, the degree to which this or that obstacle manifests depends on the historical situation of the gnostic. That includes the gnostic’s personal history, their autobiography if you will, and the network of historical situations from which that autobiography is woven.)

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Don’t Make a Prison of Tradition

In the early days of anthropology, there was a lot of interest in exotic cosmologies. Part of the anthropologist’s job was to get at the model of the universe their informants had. That tendency had its roots in the philological habits of the ‘Enlightened’ European world and it produced a fair amount of scholarship that equated understanding a people with understanding their cosmology. This eventually gave way to a richer notion of culture that emphasized conceptual frameworks and sensibilities within anthropology, but it has had a lingering and stifling impact on occultism and occult-inflected new relgious movements.

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Unintended Consequences

In my last post, I proposed that a portion of what we might call spiritual technology is a good deal like other sorts of technology, i.e. it results from human experimentation rather than direct divine inspiration or straightforward exploration. From this perspective, spiritual traditions are a mish-mash of spiritual guidance, spiritual accident, and human cleverness.

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The Magic Wand of W. B. Yeats

If for some reason you have not yet wandered through this delightful online exhibition on Yeats, you really ought to, if for no other reason to take a look at some of the occult paraphrenalia on display there. My favorite piece, tucked in the bottom of the Golden Dawn case in the Celtic Mystic section of the exhibit, is Yeats’s magic wand. In all its glory, it looks like nothing so much as a crudely painted chair leg or, perhaps, a bedpost. Yes, this is what the great poet of Irish nationalism, mystic and sage, brandished for his magical rites.

I don’t mean that admiration in an ironic way; there’s something humane, silly, and charming about the wand. It also makes clear to me just how quirky the Golden Dawn was. It talked a good game, no doubt, adopting all kinds of elitist jargon and expectations, but when it comes right down to it? Painted chair legs, baby.

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