About Me

My photo

Oliver St. John is the author of fifteen books covering Hermetic and Thelemic philosophy, Qabalah, operative magical Theurgy, the Tarot and astrology. He is a founding member of the Thelemic Magical Collegium, Ordo Astri, and has been a member of the Typhonian Order since 2000 e.v.

Friday, 15 April 2016

Magical Art of Surreal Romanticism

Throughout the long dark history of humanity there have been magi. While some are known for their works, be it art or literature, there must be countless men and women that have either failed to develop their innate gift or have succeeded in mastering it while keeping silence to the end. Of those that fail to develop the gift (or curse)—whether by refusing it, fleeing from it in horror or becoming insane, there is little to be said. Of those that master it, whether partially or fully, some are known and others will never be known since they did not utter a word.

The word of a magus is irrevocable, as we shall see, though it is said that failure to utter a word is equally irrevocable since it must beget an abortive child. The momentum of the immense forces that first push the soul onward and then draw the soul inexorably inward towards annihilation of ego identity is sufficient to split the atom or, in psychic terms, to fragment the soul until its very name is forgotten and it endures dispersion and ultimate oblivion. The magical child, however, of which it is the object of the art of magical alchemy or of the Great Work to produce, is not the result of any cause. The ancient chestnut of determinism has become a poisoned apple in the hands of modern philosophers and rationalists. The magical child of consciousness—otherwise termed the True Will—grows as a seed in the silence of the womb of the cosmic Matrix. The fruit and the flower, nonetheless, has preexisted the seed. For this reason, the magi have oft been reported as stricken with awe at the sight of a portentous star where no star previously was seen, or plunged into rapture at the sight of a wild orchid blooming in a desert where a single drop of rain would amount to a miracle.

The Magical Art of Surreal Romanticism (links to book information)

Tantrika Books: The Magical Art of Surreal Romanticism

Surrealism and the Occult

Automatism in the arts is frequently confused with mere techniques. True automatism is an inexorable condition of mind and soul that to all intents and purposes is exercised outside and beyond the will of the person, whether they are destined to become a master, a magus, or merely another victim swallowed up by an incomprehensible universe. For ordinary purposes, we may define artistic automatism thus:
“The avoidance of conscious intention in producing works of art so that subjectivity forms the primary basis of the work.”
Automatism was not an invention of the Surrealists, or of Sigmund Freud, but has always existed in magick and alchemy. Among the finest examples are the sigils or magical signatures of the Qabalistic Intelligences and Spirits of the planets as given by Cornelius Agrippa in Three Books of Occult Philosophy (1531) and centuries later copied into The Magus, by Francis Barrett (1801). These beautiful designs, along with other more abstruse signatures that can be found in medieval grimoires, were written on virgin parchment by the hand of the spirit, not that of the scribe. We also have the evidence of the Enochian language received through the invocations and skrying of Elizabethan mage John Dee and his assistant seer, Edward Kelley.

Occult artist and writer Ithell Colquhoun—a friend of André Breton, Aleister Crowley and later, Kenneth Grant—was a member of the Surrealist School. Ithell Colquhoun defined her use of automatism as super-automatism, presumably to distinguish the method from the same term that is used in psychiatry and law. We shall from hereon adopt the term as used by Colquhoun, super-automatism, when we are referring to spiritual, magical or artistic method or even natural inclination.

Within the modern Hermetic magical tradition there are some notable examples of super-automatism. Aleister Crowley claimed that he magically received, through the mediumship of his wife Rose, the Egyptian Book of the Law, Liber AL vel Legis, in Cairo 1904. When the book was first received, Crowley added a note to the manuscript saying:
“This is a highly interesting example of genuine automatic writing.”
Aleister Crowley later insisted the book was dictated by a praeterhuman intelligence named Aiwass, his Holy Guardian Angel. In fact, there need be no essential contradiction between magical super-automatism and contact with a praeterhuman agency. Crowley was very sensitive, however, as to how the book might be viewed by posterity. He did not want what he considered to be his most important work compared with drawing room séances and psychism.

The Magus of Power (1977) from the TARO of Ithell Colquhoun
The Magus of Power by Ithell Colquhoun

Artist Austin Osman Spare (1886–1956), who was associated with both Aleister Crowley and occult writer Kenneth Grant, used super-automatism in drawing, painting, and in the creation of magical scripts and even textual narratives. As super-automatism has been used in magical and Hermetic disciplines since time immemorial it can readily be seen why Surrealist artists shared ideas in common with occultists. Automatism is sometimes compared to free association, a method used by Sigmund Freud to plunder the so-called unconscious mind of his clients. The French poet André Breton, who published the Surrealist Manifesto in 1924, became aware of automatism through the work of Freud. Breton here defined Surrealism as follows:
“Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express—verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner—the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.”
The method used by Breton and others involved writing down as rapidly as possible anything that comes to mind. Thus modern automatism began as a literary method. Artist Max Ernst supplied the ‘first’ visual automatism by making collages from sections cut out from magazines, catalogues, advertisements or anything else that was available. Other painters enthusiastically took up automatism, from Joan Miro, André Masson and Ithell Colquhoun to Jackson Pollock, noted for his development of abstract expressionism. Although automatism is usually regarded as a separate method from that which Salvador Dali termed paranoiac critical, the end or object is really the same. Paranoiac critical can be defined as:
“The artist invoking a paranoid state with the intention of deconstruction of the psychological concept of ego-identity.”
Paranoia is taken to mean the fear that one is being manipulated or controlled by others. This may of course include the paranoid manipulation of others. Some of the tricks that Dali liked to play were very much inclusive of the ‘audience’, so the boundaries between who was doing what to whom were blurred, increasing the paranoia for all concerned! The aim of the method, however, is that subjectivity becomes the primary basis of the work. It is to defeat the rational mind, prohibitions and censorship that stem from ego.

Ithell Colquhoun (1906–1988) described her work as “mantic”. Mantic means, “pertaining to divination or prophecy”, and is derived from the Greek, mantikos, “divination”, mantis, “prophet”. Unlike other artists, Colquhoun deliberately wished to connect Surrealism with magick, both philosophically and in terms of method or technique. In her own writings she drew comparisons between visual art and the medieval art of alchemy. Colquhoun wanted to achieve a union of natural and spiritual forces as well as a union of the disciplines of art and the occult. The union of subject and object, the I-Self with all that is 'other', the Not-Self, is the goal of yoga or union, and is a prerequisite for magick and mysticism at advanced levels. 

Prophets, Seers and Sages

There is far more to rhabdomancy or “water divining” than merely using rods to determine the physical location of a hidden spring. The springs and fountains in question are the waters of space, cosmic consciousness and the mysterious current of life itself. When the natural flow of the life force is sent backwards to its source, union with the infinite is made possible. This has ever been the goal of yoga, and even prayer when that is understood in the true sense, but there are methods and techniques that greatly accelerate progress. Kenneth Grant (1924–2011) has frequently alluded to Vajroli Tantra and the Varma Marga or Left-hand Way of the East in his Typhonian Trilogies, and also made use of the expression, retroversion of the senses. Occultist and novelist Gustav Meyrink (1868–1932), known for his brilliantly inspired first novel, The Golem, referred to the ‘backward way’ of Vajroli Tantra in the dénouement of his Angel of the West Window, loosely based on the life of the Elizabethan magus John Dee. As in the case of automatism in the arts, we are entering an area where confusion exists between mere techniques and a very ancient spiritual and magical path of knowledge. To employ the outer methods without knowledge of the inner keys is to throw straws in the wind and hope to build a palace.

Automatism is no more an invention of Sigmund Freud than the Greek myths are an invention of Carl Jung. The method has been used by writers, poets and mystics since time immemorial. However, Carl Jung privately practiced the art of alchemy, as did Albert Einstein. Both men placed inconceivably deadly weapons in the hands of children. In the case of Jung, the weapon was the analytical sword of reason, applied to the human soul. In the case of Einstein, the weapon was the atom bomb. Psychoanalysis rests on the assumption—appealing finally to vain hope!—that it can cure the afflictions of human souls through placing them under professional guidance.

Thanks to this rationalist universal panacea, millions of persons now actually believe it is possible to be ‘happy’, ‘confident’, or ‘balanced’, and that it is even worth pursuing such banal agendas. Thomas De Quincey was a very spiritual man by natural inclination—that is, he had no desire or interest in pursuing the phantom of psychological happiness or wellbeing. De Quincey’s theme, of an ominous inevitability issuing from an eternal or transcendent realm, is misconstrued by the psychological or analytical thinker as resulting from determinism—a line of thought that is deterministic in itself. In his own words, De Quincey recollected his experience in the Whispering Gallery of St Paul’s Cathedral, London:
“That consideration [of consequences not foreseen] saddened me, and deepened more and more the ominous suggestion—the oracle full of woe—that spoke from those Belshazzar thunderings upon the wall of the Whispering Gallery.”
The Whispering Gallery and the Bore passages from De Quincey’s 1856 Revision provide a mystic key to the narrative of De Quincey’s famous book. The key is in the Latin warning that he cites in the Whispering Gallery account:
Nescit vox missa reverti, “A word once uttered is irrevocable”.
It is helpful to quote at length from De Quincey’s 1856 Revision. Here is the passage that gives full account of the Whispering Gallery episode:
“As an oracle of fear I remembered that great Roman warning, Nescit vox missa reverti (that a word once uttered is irrevocable), a freezing arrest upon the motions of hope too sanguine that haunted me in many shapes. Long before that fifteenth year of mine, I had noticed, as a work lying at the heart of life and fretting its security, the fact that innumerable acts of choice change countenance and are variously appraised at varying stages of life—shifts with the shifting hours. … This sentiment of nervous recoil from any word or deed that could not be recalled had been suddenly re-awakened on that London morning by the impressive experience of the Whispering Gallery. At the further end of the gallery had stood my friend, breathing in the softest of whispers a solemn but not acceptable truth. At the further end, after running along the walls of the gallery, that solemn truth reached me as a deafening menace in tempestuous uproars. And now in these last lingering moments, when I dreamed ominously with open eyes in my Manchester study, once again that London menace broke angrily upon me as out of a thick cloud with redoubled strength; a voice, too late for warning, seemed audibly to say, ‘Once leave this house, and a Rubicon is placed between thee and all possibility of return. Thou wilt not say that what thou doest is altogether approved in thy secret heart. Even now thy conscience speaks against it in sullen whispers; but at the other end of thy long life-gallery that same conscience will speak to thee in volleying thunders.’ ”
The defining quality of super-automatism is that once the dream or vision is fully encountered by the visionary, it is never forgotten—it cannot be sent back. This, by the way, undermines and refutes the whole basis of psychoanalysis, which is that by a process of professionally guided recollection and confession, the soul can be cured of its afflictions.

If Thomas De Quincey had by chance been born an Indian prince, or lived his life in the foothills of Tibet, he would no doubt have acquired a reputation as a great sage. As it was, he was born in England in the Romantic era and could not do otherwise than reflect the miasma or cumulative psychosis of his time and place. In spite of De Quincey’s seemingly untiring efforts to explain his Confessions, the book is still mistakenly supposed to be a book about drugs, since some of it deals with the intensification of thoughts, dreams and visions through the use of opium. De Quincey’s insistence that he experienced visions long before he discovered opium falls on deaf ears among editors and readers alike. De Quincey spent a good deal of time explaining and justifying his work to critics that failed to grasp what he energetically strove to convey—that the realm of the immortal is within the reach of human beings, and is not some abstraction to be accepted or rejected according to the whim of the intellect. Or, it might be said, of any critic.

The architecture of the Whispering Gallery is such that the merest whisper uttered at one end is magnified and heard with thunderous echoes at the other end of the gallery. De Quincey’s experience in the gallery, of his friend “breathing in the softest of whispers a solemn but not acceptable truth”, is central to his thesis: that all words, deeds, and even dreams, are not only never forgotten but may also recur with fulminating force. While a common dream, a vain or futile life, might be forgotten in time, it is the intensity of experience that determines whether a thing lives, is immortal, or dies the death of being forgotten. De Quincey used the word “impressive” to describe his experience, not in the sense that the experience itself might strike awe into the heart of the reader, but in the root meaning of the word, from the Latin imprimere, from whence “imprint”: to design or make an imprint; a seal or stamp. A further meaning of the word is to fix an idea in the mind, so it is remembered.

Traces of King Arthur (1957), Ithell Colquhoun (illustration from Living Stones Cornwall)

Traces of King Arthur, Ithell Colquhoun

Phallus of Cosmic Recollection

The usual abode of dreaming is the night. Hence Thomas De Quincey concludes the section on the Whispering Gallery with the following—even though he has been insistent that he was able to dream while fully awake:
“A sudden step upon the stairs broke up my dream, and recalled me to myself. Dangerous hours were now drawing near [nightfall], and I prepared for a hasty farewell.”
We now move from the airy fountain of sonic vibration as described in Thomas De Quincey’s Whispering Gallery, to the watery fountain of rhabdomancy, “divining by rod”. Here, De Quincey describes the backward flowing stream of consciousness that embodies the aim of Vajroli Tantra. De Quincey introduces rhabdomancy as a metaphor when giving an account of “forms of darkness shrouded within the recesses of blind human hearts”. For most persons, the “solemn evening service of the English Church—read by Mr. Lawson” might affect nothing more than a cure for insomnia, but to the sensitivities of De Quincey, long before he became acquainted with opium:
“Already in itself, without the solemnity of prayers, the decaying light of the dying day suggests a mood of pensive and sympathetic sadness. And, if the changes in the light are less impressively made known so early as five o’clock in the depth of summer tide, not the less we are sensible of being as near to the hours of repose, and to the secret dangers of night, as if the season were midwinter. Even thus far there was something that oftentimes had profoundly impressed me in this evening liturgy, and its special prayer against the perils of darkness. But greatly was that effect deepened by the symbolic treatment which this liturgy gives to this darkness and to these perils. Naturally, when contemplating that treatment, I had been led vividly to feel the memorable rhabdomancy or magical power of evocation which Christianity has put forth here and in parallel cases.”
De Quincey goes on to explain that the ordinary physical diviner merely wishes to find the earthly location of a hidden water well, or of minerals, “or hidden deposits of jewels and gold”, by magnetic sympathy between the magick rood or wand and the occult object of divination. He then speaks of a higher or more sublime form of rhabdomancy, by which magnetism may call up from the darkness, “sentiments the most august, previously inconceivable, formless, and without life”, so exalting their character as to “lodge them eternally in human hearts”. Furthermore, the “mysterious path of winds and tempests, blowing whither they list, and from what fountains no man knows, are cited from darkness and neglect, to give and to receive reciprocally an impassioned glorification, where the lower mystery enshrines and illustrates the higher.”

Before introducing the anecdote we have previously explored, the Whispering Gallery, De Quincey tells how prayer against the darkness automatically evoked for him the very thing it was meant to quell!
“Night and Darkness, that belong to aboriginal Chaos, were made representative of the perils that continually menace poor afflicted human nature. With deepest sympathy I accompanied the prayer against the perils of darkness—perils that I seemed to see, in the ambush of midnight solitude, brooding around the beds of sleeping nations; perils from even worse forms of darkness shrouded within the recesses of blind human hearts; perils from temptations weaving unknown snares for our footing; perils from the limitations of our own misleading knowledge.”
The Bore is a backwards flowing tidal surge that Thomas De Quincey encountered while standing on an artificial mound called the Cop by the river Dee, outside Chester. Owing to certain peculiar conditions, a tidal wave surges backwards along the river Dee—backwards to its source. This filled De Quincey with indescribable dread and horror. In the Whispering Gallery, the backwards surge was the power of Logos, the whispered utterance from one end of the gallery and received, according to De Quincey, as “Balshazzar thundering” at the other end.

De Quincey likens the end of the gallery to the end of life. The experience of the Bore is clearly related to the fountain of life itself, in this case experienced as chaotic and hostile. While De Quincey’s account of the Bore is undoubtedly one we can classify under the classical or alchemical element of water, it is nonetheless the sonic vibration that plays a central role in his experience. He therefore places emphasis on this by the repeated use of descriptive nouns such as “clamour”, “outcry”, and “sea-like roars”:
“From this unseen reach it was that the angry clamour, so passionate and so mysterious, arose: and I, for my part, having never heard such a fierce battling outcry, nor even heard of such a cry, either in books or on the stage, in prose or verse, could not so much as whisper a guess to myself upon its probable cause. Only this I felt, that blind, unorganised nature it must be—and nothing in human or in brutal wrath—that could utter itself by such an anarchy of sea-like roars. What was it? Where was it? Whence was it? Earthquake was it? Convulsion of the steadfast earth? Or was it the breaking loose from ancient chains of some deep morass like that of Solway? More probable it seemed that the ano potamon of Euripedes (the flowing backwards of rivers to their fountains) now, at last, after ages of expectation, had been suddenly realised. Not long I needed to speculate; for within half a minute, perhaps, from the first arrest of our attention, the proximate cause of this mystery declared itself to our eyes, although the remote cause (the hidden cause of that visible cause) was still as dark as before. Round that right-angled turn which I have mentioned as wheeling into the next succeeding reach of the river, suddenly as with the trampling of cavalry—but all dressing accurately—and the water at the outer angle sweeping so much faster than that at the inner angle, as to keep the front of advance rigorously in line, violently careered round into our own placid watery vista a huge charging block of waters, filling the whole channel of the river, and coming down upon us at the rate of forty miles an hour. … In fact, this watery breastwork, a perpendicular wall of water carrying itself as true as if controlled by a mason’s plumb-line, rode forward at such a pace, that obviously the fleetest horse or dromedary would have no chance of escape. Many a decent railway even, among railways since born its rivals, would not have had above the third of a chance. Naturally, I had too short a time for observing much or accurately; and universally I am a poor hand at observing; else I should say, that this riding block of crystal waters did not gallop, but went on at a long trot; yes, long trot—that most frightful of paces in a tiger, in a buffalo, or in a rebellion of waters. Even a ghost, I feel convinced, would appal me more if coming up at a long diabolical trot, than at a canter or a gallop. … The praeternatural column of waters, running in the very opposite direction to the natural current of the river, came up with us, ran by with the ferocious uproar of a hurricane, sent up the sides of the Cop a salute of waters, as if hypocritically pretending to kiss our feet, but secretly understood by all parties as a vain treachery for pulling us down into the flying deluge; whilst all along both banks the mighty refluent wash was heard as it rode along, leaving memorials, by sight and sound, of its victorious power.”
De Quincey transforms his experience of standing on the mound called the Cop into an eternal symbol. This may be compared with two irrationally constructed Greek words that appear in Aleister Crowley’s Egyptian Book of the Law, Liber AL vel Legis, III: 72:
“I am the Lord of the Double Wand of Power; the wand of the Force of Coph Nia—but my left hand is empty, for I have crushed an Universe; and nought remains.”
The Egyptian Book of the Law was, by Crowley’s own confession on the front page of the holograph manuscript, received by something akin to super-automatism. Coph Nia may be considered as the Qabalistic Ain Soph reversed; the Ain Soph, “limitless and without form”, is a key part of Qabalistic cosmology, and constitutes a veil preceding the formulation of light or projected consciousness. When the flow of consciousness is reversed it turns away from matter, the appearance of thoughts and things, and returns to the numinous source or absolute. The crushing or destruction of a universe is well known to those familiar with the terminology of Tantrik cults. Knowledge reaches its apotheosis in the meditative trance of Shivadarshana, as it is termed in the Tantras.

De Quincey’s reference to the ano potamon of Euripides reveals his meditation is upon the waters of life in the spiritual sense (potamon hudatos zoes), or in the sense of eternity. It is the flowing backwards of consciousness that is here indicated, a Tantrik or Left-hand path method not to be confused with regression or recollection in the psychological sense. Thomas De Quincey’s insights need to be understood in context. He has previously described his experience at the Whispering Gallery, where the merest whisper uttered from one end of the gallery is heard as a thunderous roar of echoes at the other end—that is to say, at the other end of life. Gustav Meyrink, in his last novel Angel of the West Window, employed the river Dee, outside Chester in England, as a metaphor for a magus, John Dee, as one that travels through (and transcends) time and space. Meyrink, like De Quincey, was not concerned with the popular myth of reincarnation but was exploring the imaginative possibilities of eternal recurrence.

De Quincey employed a type of super-automatism, comparable to Salvador Dali’s paranoiac critical; in so doing, De Quincey may have endured, and attempted to describe in his writing, the equivalent ordeal in a Rosicrucian Hermetic fraternity called the Curse of a Magus. Any attempt to describe the indicible is doomed to failure, hence the “curse”, for as cleverly suggested by Aleister Crowley in his The Book of Lies, there is a certain obligation to speak truth even while knowing full well it will be fatally misconstrued or otherwise perceived as alogia or simple incoherence.

Others will also see the utterer of the truth, the irrevocable word, as a liar, madman or fool. The magus must utter an irrevocable word yet must reverse consciousness to sail a vessel against the flow of time and return to the source of the fountain of all life. To meditate upon Wisdom herself (Sophia) is to behold divinity face to face, the magical power of Chokmah—it is also to court with madness. According to Thomas De Quincey (1856 Revision to Confessions):

“If in this world there is one misery having no relief, it is the pressure on the heart from the Incommunicable. And if another Sphinx should arise to propose another enigma to man—saying, What burden is that which only is insupportable by human fortitude? I should answer at once—It is the burden of the Incommunicable.”

© Oliver St. John 2016
Abridged from the book, The Magical Art of Surreal Romanticism.


View other books by Oliver St. John.

Subscribe to the Ordo Astri Newsletter, The 93 Current here.