Category Archives: Non-fiction

“Those Who Don’t Believe in God Believe in Everything” by Umberto Eco

We live in a strange time, where large numbers of people are putting their faith in conspiracy theories, believing false information, and fervently defending lies that have been proven to be such. It causes one to pause and wonder why this is. In this essay, included in Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism, Umberto Eco explores the phenomenon.

Eco asks why it is that bogus information continues to reproduce itself, even after it has been refuted.

Because people are hungry for mysteries (and plots). All you need do is offer them another one. Even when you tell them that it was all cooked up by a couple of con men, they’ll swallow it right away.

. . .

When people stop believing in God, as Chesterton used to say, it’s not that they no longer believe in anything, it’s that they believe in everything. Even the mass media.

(Turning Back the Clock: pp. 300 – 301)

If this were not enough, Eco goes on to demonstrate that proving something to be false often has a reverse effect, where belief in the fiction actually increases. As an example, he talks about The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

The story of the Corpus came to mind some time ago, when Will Eisner’s The Plot was published (New York: Norton). Eisner, one of the geniuses of the modern comic strip (who died while the book was still in the proof stage), uses words and images to tell the story of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The interesting part of his tale is not so much the story of the creation of this anti-Semitic fake as what happened afterward, in 1921, when the London Times—followed by serious scholars everywhere—demonstrated that the Protocols were a fake. The circulation of the Protocols began to increase worldwide at exactly that moment, and they have been taken ever more seriously (just surf the Net a bit).

(ibid: pp. 305 – 306)

Eco concludes by stating that “the difference between true and false holds no interest for those who start from prejudice” (ibid: p. 306). This really sums up the problem, in my view. Too many people approach a subject with preconceived notions of whether it is true or not, and then any subsequent research is only done to affirm what has already be decided. “Facts” are only believed when they validate and support what an individual already believes. And this is one of the reasons we find ourselves in the situation we are in now.

I hope you found this post interesting, and I hope that it inspires readers to keep an open mind and to ask questions, always seeking truth and not just affirmation.

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“Psychonaut” by Peter J. Carroll

Psychonaut is the second text in this book (click here to read my thoughts on Liber Null, the first text). While Liber Null primarily focuses on individual uses of Chaos Magic, Psychonaut focuses on group practices, or what Carroll calls shamanistic work.

Rather than examining the ritualistic practices described in this text, I decided to instead write about the connections and contrasts between the mystical arts and conventional science, as addressed by Carroll in his book. Carroll begins by asserting that science is returning to magic, in a sense.

After some centuries of neglect, advanced minds are turning their attention to magic once more. It used to be said that magic was what we had before science was properly organized. It now seems that magic is where science is actually heading. Enlightened anthropology has grudgingly admitted that beneath all the ritual and mumbo-jumbo of so-called primitive cultures there exists a very real and awesome power that cannot be explained away.  Higher psychics now suggest that the universe runs on something more akin to sorcery than clockwork.

(p. 111)

Carroll follows up by positing that the next leap forward in human evolution and understanding will be in the realm of the psyche, an idea that I agree with. The new frontier for humanity is that of consciousness.

Science has brought us power and ideas but not the wisdom or responsibility to handle them. The next great advance that humanity will make will be into the psychic domain. There are many encouraging signs that this is beginning to occur. In this new field of endeavor we shall rediscover much of the magical knowledge that the ancient shamans once possessed. Of course, we shall know it under different guises and will eventually expand on their knowledge immensely.

(p. 113)

When exploring consciousness, the scientific method essentially fails, since consciousness is linked to perception and therefore cannot be observed in the traditional manner in which scientific observations are made.

Many scientific disciplines begin by not observing any sort of vital spark or consciousness in material events and proceed to deny that these things exist in living beings, including themselves. Because consciousness does not fit into their mechanistic schemes they declare it illusory. Magicians make exactly the reverse argument. Observing consciousness in themselves and animals, they are magnanimous enough to extend it to all things to some degree – trees, amulets, planetary bodies, and all. This is a far more respectful and generous attitude than that of religions, most of whom won’t even give animals a soul.

(p. 151)

Since the time of Carroll’s writing of this book in 1987, science has made many advances in the exploration of consciousness. Researchers using MRI imaging of the brains of people who meditate shows that meditation affects brain function. There has also been discovery in quantum physics that perception and consciousness have a direct effect on subatomic particles. Where will all this lead? Not sure, but it is certainly food for thought.

Thanks for stopping by and sharing in my musings.

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“The Crucifix, Its Uses and Customs” by Umberto Eco

In this short essay, included in the book Turning Back the Clock, Eco discusses whether it is appropriate to display religious iconography, specifically the crucifix, in institutions of public education. I found this to be particularly interesting, given that there seems to be a growing tension between religion and state institutions in the US. Heated debates have erupted over the inclusion of texts in schools, or the display of the Ten Commandments at government buildings, and there does not seem to be any abatement in this tension.

Eco uses examples from his home country of Italy to make his point.

In Italian universities there are no crucifixes in the lecture halls, but many students are members of Catholic groups like Communione e Liberazione. However, at least two generations of Italians spent their youth in classrooms where the crucifix was hung between portraits of the king and Mussolini, and out of every thirty students in every class some became atheists, others fought with the resistance, and others again—the majority, I believe—voted for the Republic. All anecdotal evidence, if you will, but of historical importance, and this tells us that the presence of religious symbols in schools does not affect the spiritual development of the students.

(Turning Back the Clock: pp. 274 – 275)

Eco makes a great point here. The exposure of young people to religious iconography and doctrine in no way ensures that those individuals will internalize the ideas, and conversely, the lack of these symbols does not mean that individuals will not develop along spiritual pathways. But what Eco adds later in the essay, which to me is the key point, is that tolerance of others is what must be taken into consideration in this issue, and that in a diverse society, if religious topics are to be taught in school, they should be inclusive of all religions.

School curricula of the future must be based not on the concealment of diversity but on teaching the techniques that lead youngsters to understand and accept it. For some time now people have been saying it would be nice, along with religious instruction (and not as an alternative for those who aren’t Catholics), if schools devoted at least one hour a week to the history of all religions, so that Catholic kids might understand what the Koran says or what Buddhists think, and so that Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists (and even Catholics) might understand how the Bible came into being and what it says.

(ibid: p. 276)

I agree with Eco. Personally, I enjoy reading religious texts from diverse traditions and faiths. The idea that one tradition has a monopoly on the truth has led to centuries of warfare and hatred. I feel that every spiritual or religious text has valid insights to share.

Anyway, I think I’ve said enough on this topic. Thanks for stopping by and reading my rambles. Have a great day and keep on reading interesting stuff.

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The Confessions of Aleister Crowley: Part 6 – At the Abbey of Thelema

As I have now finished reading all of Crowley’s autobiography, it’s probably time to address the question: Was Aleister Crowley the evil black magician that he was portrayed to be? The short answer is, I don’t know. To quote Hamlet: “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” And I think this was Crowley’s take on magick, that there is no good or bad magick, there is just magick. He uses the metaphor of music as an example.

Imagine listening to Beethoven with the prepossession that C is a good note and F is a bad one; yet this is exactly the standpoint from which all uninitiates contemplate the universe. Obviously, they miss the music.

(p. 838)

In a manner that is very familiar in our current political climate, Crowley blames the news media of his time as spreading “fake news” about him and his practices, asserting that what was written about him amounted to nothing less than slander.

I replied ‘Allegations utterly absurd.’ My only annoyance was having to pay for the telegram. Presently copies of the Sunday papers for November 28th arrived. I read them with tireless amusement. I had read in my time a great deal of utter balderdash, but nothing quite so comprehensively ridiculous. It gave me the greatest joy to notice that practically every single detail was false. There was, for instance, a description of the abbey, without a single failure to misstate the facts. If a thing was white, they called it red, if square, circular, if stone, brick; and so for everything.

(p. 914)

To sum up, this is a long book, probably longer than it needed to be, but interesting in providing context for the development of the occult ideologies that have had a profound impact on the ideas and practices of those circles ever since. I also, personally, ended this book with the impression that some of Crowley’s stories were embellished, either to establish a cult of himself, or to convey symbolically some mystical information to the careful reader who could notice the subtleties of metaphor woven into the text.

I will close this series on The Confessions of Aleister Crowley with a quote that is most appropriate.

‘The mind is improved by reading.’

(p. 853)

Hope you enjoyed, and keep improving your mind.

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“The Roots of Europe” by Umberto Eco

In this short essay, included in the book Turning Back the Clock, Eco provides a brief summary of how Christian Europe assimilated ideas and traditions from ancient and pagan cultures.

In our current society, the adoption of elements from other cultures is now deemed “cultural appropriation” and is definitely something that is frowned upon. But historically, this has not been the case, as Eco points out, and in the past ideas and traditions were shared and incorporated, the result of which was the blossoming of ideas and persistence of traditions.

Europe has assimilated Greco-Roman culture in law, philosophy, and popular beliefs. Often with a certain nonchalance, Christianity absorbed pagan myths and rituals and forms of polytheism that linger on in popular devotion. It wasn’t only the Renaissance that stocked up on Venuses and Apollos as it embarked on the discovery of the ancient world with its ruins and manuscripts. The Christian Middle Ages built its theology on Aristotle’s thinking, rediscovered by the Arabs, and while it knew nothing of Plato, it knew a lot about Neoplatonism, which had a huge influence on the Fathers of the Church. Nor could we conceive of Augustine, the greatest Christian thinker, without the absorption of Platonic ideas. The very notion of empire, which lies at the roots of a thousand years of struggle among European states, and between states and the Church, is Roman in origin. Christian Europe elected Latin as the language of holy ritual, of religious thinking, of law, and of university debate.

(Turning Back the Clock: p. 270)

Personally, I am OK with exploring ideas and traditions from other cultures, and incorporating those that resonate with me on a spiritual and intellectual level. But I will credit those other cultures and give them the respect and acknowledgement they deserve. And this is a very important thing to keep in mind. I believe it is acceptable to learn from other cultures and to incorporate elements for the advancement of humanity as a whole, but it is not permissible to steal from another culture as a way of diminishing or damaging that culture. Cultures are living organisms that benefit from diversity. Respect and consideration are critical, though. And if you are ever in doubt, best err on the side of caution.

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The Confessions of Aleister Crowley: Part 5 – The Magus

In the timeline of Crowley’s life, this section of his autobiography corresponds to a period when he spent a significant amount of time in the United States, and also began to sink into poverty.

During this period, Crowley became involved in Freemasonry and assumed a leadership position. He claims that one of the first things he set out to do was define Freemasonry.

I proposed to define freemasonry as a system of communicating truth – religious, philosophical, magical and mystical; and indicating the proper means of developing human faculty by means of a peculiar language whose alphabet is the symbolism of ritual. Universal brotherhood and the greater moral principles, independent of personal, racial, climactic and other prejudices, naturally formed a background which would assure individual security and social stability for each and all.

(p. 700)

While the Freemasonry stuff and his personal history were intriguing, what I found the most interesting in this section of the book is Crowley’s theory that there is a symbolic connection between Christ and the god Mercury. I have read plenty of texts comparing Christ with other manifestations of the divine (Mithras, Osiris, etc.), but this is the first time I heard of anyone attempting to establish a relationship between Christ and Mercury; and I must admit, Crowley makes a convincing argument.

In the beginning was the Word, the Logos, who is Mercury, and is therefore to be identified with Christ. Both are messengers; their birth mysteries are similar; the pranks of their childhood are similar. In the Vision of the Universal Mercury, Hermes is seen descending upon the sea, which refers to Maria. The Crucifixion represents the caduceus; the two thieves, the two serpents; the cliff in the Vision of the Universal Mercury is Golgotha; Maria is simply Maia with the solar R in her womb.

. . .

To continue the identification, compare Christ’s descent into hell with the function of Hermes as guide of the dead. Also Hermes leading up Eurydice, and Christ raising up Jairus’s daughter. Christ is said to have risen on the third day, because it takes three days for the planet Mercury to become visible after separating from the orb of the sun. (It may be noted here that Mercury and Venus are the planets between us and the sun, as if the Mother and the Son were mediators between us and the Father.)

(pp. 720 – 721)

Crowley cites other similarities, but I think this is sufficient to demonstrate his assertion.

Crowley’s ideas are difficult to grasp and often misinterpreted. As he states in the text, “you’re not the first people to fail to understand Mr Aleister Crowley!” (p. 755) But this is the challenge when approaching a text of this type. Mystical and occult literature is difficult to understand and the symbolic nature of it makes it prone to myriad interpretations. It is always prudent to keep this in mind when reading books of this sort.

Thanks for stopping by, and always read critically.

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Thoughts on “When Things Fall Apart” by Pema Chödrön

My wife recently bought and read this book and told me she thought I would like it. Since it is short (only 150 pages) I decided to squeeze it in between my other reading projects, and am very glad I did. The book provides practical, spiritual suggestions that are pertinent to coping with the stresses that we have all been dealing with during these chaotic times.

In her introduction, Ms. Chödrön encourages you to allow this book to help you to:

… settle down with your life and take these teachings on honesty, kindness, and bravery to heart. If your life is chaotic and stressful, there’s plenty of advice here for you. If you’re in transition, suffering from loss, or just fundamentally restless, these teachings are tailor made. The main point is that we all need to be reminded and encouraged to relax with whatever arises and bring whatever we encounter to the path.

(p. xii)

Pema eloquently reminds us that  these difficult times can actually impart important life lessons to us if we allow them to teach us.

Generally speaking, we regard discomfort in any form as bad news. But for practitioners or spiritual warriors—people who have a certain hunger to know what is true—feelings like disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, resentment, anger, jealousy, and fear, instead of being bad news, are actually very clear moments that teach us where it is that we’re holding back. They teach us to perk up and lean in when we feel we’d rather collapse and back away. They’re like messengers that show us, with terrifying clarity, exactly where we’re stuck. This very moment is the perfect teacher, and, lucky for us, it’s with us wherever we are.

(p. 13)

And it’s not just difficult times that teach us. All of life’s experiences, all of our spiritual learning and seeking, ultimately help us to discover who we are and instruct us on how to navigate the world around us.

Listening to talks about the dharma, or the teachings of Buddha, or practicing meditation is nothing other than studying ourselves. Whether we’re eating or working or meditating or listening or talking, the reason that we’re here in this world is to study ourselves. In fact, it has been said that studying ourselves provides all the books we need.

(p. 73)

There is a wealth of wisdom in this small book, and it is written in a style that is easy and conversational. We can all benefit from the insights that Pema shares, and I encourage you to read this book if you even have the slightest bit of interest. I am sure that, like me, you will be glad you did.

Many blessings, and thanks for stopping by.

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Thank You, John Lewis

I was sad to hear that the great John Lewis passed away on July 17, 2020. In a time when we are still actively struggling for the rights of black Americans, it was an inspiration to look to him and acknowledge the difference one person can make. He will be sorely missed during these trying times.

I would like to go back and share links to the reviews of his graphic novel series March, which he co-wrote. The books are outstanding and I highly recommend them if you have not read them before. I’m tempted to read them again.

Rest in peace, John, and thank you for your service.

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The Confessions of Aleister Crowley: Part 3 – The Advent of the Aeon of Horus

In the timeline of Crowley’s autobiography, this section pertains to the period associated with his writing of The Book of the Law, which he claims was channeled from a preternatural intelligence called Aiwass.

It may be said that nevertheless there may have been someone somewhere in the world who possessed the necessary qualities. This again is rebutted by the fact that some of the allusions are to facts known to me alone. We are forced to conclude that the author of The Book of the Law is an intelligence both alien and superior to myself, yet acquainted with my inmost secrets; and, most important point of all, that this intelligence is discarnate.

(p. 397)

Crowley believed that the Book would usher in the next phase of human spiritual evolution, which he calls the Aeon of Horus.

Through the reception of the Book, Crowley proclaimed the arrival of a new stage in the spiritual evolution of humanity, to be known as the “Æon of Horus”. The primary precept of this new aeon is the charge to “Do what thou wilt”.

(Source: Wikipedia)

Crowley spends very little time discussing The Book of the Law in this section of his autobiography, and instead returns to telling stories of his travels. Further on in the section, Crowley lets the reader know that the stories are symbolic, representing the Mystic Path, citing as an example his other works which symbolize aspects of the mystical journey.

This conversation led to my endeavouring to put a certain vividness of phraseology into my poetry. ‘The Eyes of Pharaoh’ was my first attempt to give vivid and immediate images. I chose my similes so as to strengthen the main theme. Later in the month, at Mandalay, I wrote approximately half of ‘Sir Palamede the Saracen’. The idea of this book was to give an account of the Mystic Path in a series of episodes, and each episode was to constitute a definite arrangement of colour and form. Thus, Section I shows the blue and yellow of the sea and sand, a knight in silver armour riding along their junction to a point where an albatross circles around a mutilated corpse.

(p. 464)

He immediately follows his clue with a story that appears to symbolically represent a mystical experience.

On November 15th we started up the Irrawaddy by the steamship Java and reached Mandalay on the twenty-first. I spent my days and nights leaning over the rail, watching the wavelets of the great river and the flying-fish. I became insane. There I was, lean, stern, brown and immobile; and there was a set of disconnected phenomena, each with a sufficient reason in itself, and the whole of them uniting to produce another phenomenon; but there was no connection between one set of reasons and the other. Each wavelet was caused by certain physical conditions and the effect of the total was to slow down the revolution of the earth. But neither the so-called transitory, nor the so-called permanent, phenomenon was ultimately intelligible. Further, what I called ‘I’ was simply a machine which recorded the impact of various phenomena.

(p. 465)

In this passage, I interpret the rail as symbolizing the threshold between ordinary consciousness and heightened awareness, or an altered state of consciousness. In order to successfully engage in magick and mysticism, one must shift states of awareness and then gaze into the abyss, where thoughts and energy pulsate in waves. When one is in this state, the practitioner is “insane,” for all intents and purposes. He is no longer grounded in this plane of reality. In this altered state, Crowley realizes that his ego, or normal consciousness, is separated from the stream of divine power, and that his “normal state of consciousness” is nothing more than a machine that records the effects of stimuli, but does nothing to create conscious change through the use of the will.

I will provide one more example from this section to demonstrate Crowley’s use of allegory. In the following paragraph, Crowley is using the metaphor of exploration to represent his spiritual quest and search for occult power. He cites examples of others who have pushed the boundaries by exploring forbidden paths and going against the established paradigm, and how they are all met with resistance, hatred, and violence.

I thought this story extraordinarily typical of human thought in general. Everyone admits that we have reached the summit of wisdom, scaled the loftiest pinnacles of morality, put the crown of perfection upon the cranium of progress, and everyone knows perfectly well how this remarkable result has been achieved. But at the first hint that anyone proposes to take a step farther on this road, he is universally set down as a lunatic of the most dangerous type. However, the most savage Lolos are content with that diagnosis, whereas the most enlightened English add that the pioneer is not only a lunatic but a pervert, degenerate, anarchist and the rest of it – whatever terms of abuse chance to be in fashion. The abolition of slavery, humane treatment of the insane, the restriction of the death penalty to serious offences, and of indiscriminate flogging, the admission of Jews, Catholics, Dissenters and women as citizens, the introduction of the use of chloroform and antiseptics, the application of steam to travel, and of mechanical principles to such arts as spinning and printing, the systematic study of nature, the extension of the term poetry to metres other than the heroic, the recognition of painting other than voluptuous coloured photographs as art, and of music other than classical melody as art – these and a thousand similar innovations have all been denounced as chimerical, blasphemous, obscene, seditious, anti-social and what not.

(pp. 481 – 482)

Crowley was certainly labeled as insane, perverted, blasphemous, and so on. Whether he was just labeled this way because of his brazen break with the established mores of his time is not for me to judge. But clearly he was aware of the criticism leveled against him, but he chose to continue exploring his path regardless.

Thanks for stopping by. I will share my thoughts on Part 4 once I complete reading it.

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The Confessions of Aleister Crowley: Part 2 – The Mystical Adventure

In this second part of Crowley’s autobiography, the focus is on a period of his life when he was traveling and exploring various spiritual paths in the process. It is almost like a travelogue from an occult perspective. Throughout the section, he unreservedly shares his opinions on the various cultures he encounters. There is one passage in particular where he compares his view of Americans with Europeans.

The psychology of these people really interested me. They had no experience of the kind of man who knows all the tricks but refuses to cheat. Their world was composed of sharps and flats. It is the typical American conception; the use of knowledge is to get ahead of the other fellow, and the question of fairness depends on the chance of detection. We see this even in amateur sport. The one idea is to win. Knowledge for its own sake, pleasure for its own sake, seems to the American mere frivolity. ‘Life is real, life is earnest.’ One of themselves told me recently that the American ideal is attainment, while that of Europe is enjoyment. There is much truth in this, and the reason is that in Europe we have already attained everything, and discovered that nothing is worth while. Unless we live in the present, we do not live at all.

(p. 209)

It seems that the assertion that the American ideal is attainment is still valid today. When I hear of the obscene amounts of personal wealth that some individuals have amassed, I cannot help but think that our system of values is flawed. At some point, the accumulation of more stuff does nothing to increase happiness, which for me is important. As I am now in the later stages of life, it is happiness and not stuff that is of value to me.

One idea that Crowley promotes which I am in complete agreement with is that an individual should explore all spiritual paths.

I sailed for Ceylon, chiefly because I had said I would go, certainly not in the hope of assistance from Allan. Perhaps because I had found my feet, he was, as will appear, allowed to guide them, in what seemed at first sight a new Path. I had got to learn that all roads lead to Rome. It is proper, more, it is prudent, more yet, it is educative, for the aspirant to pursue all possible Ways to Wisdom. Thus he broadens the base of his Pyramid, thus he diminishes the probability of missing the method which happens to suit him best, thus he insures against the obsession that the goat-track of his own success is the One Highway for all men, and thus he discounts the disappointment of discovering that he is not the Utter, the Unique, when it becomes plain that Magick, mysticism, and mathematics are triplets, and that the Himalayan Brotherhood is to be found in Brixton.

(p. 232)

This was something I learned in my youth. I read a book called The Perennial Philosophy by Aldous Huxley which taught me that various traditions essentially teach similar ideas, but are just presented differently. It was then that I realized that I need to explore all available paths, and to learn as much as possible from each one. It is an approach that has served me well over the years. I still have my old copy of Huxley’s book, and may have to reread it sometime soon. I’m sure it will be a different experience than it was 35 or 40 years ago.

The last thing I want to mention about this part of the book is Crowley’s definition of poetry.

A poem is a series of words so arranged that the combination of meaning, rhythm and rime produces the definitely magical effect of exalting the soul to divine ecstasy. Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Machen share this view.

(p. 345)

This is an excellent definition of poetry. I remember my days taking creative writing classes, and the professor would encourage us to read our poems out loud to ourselves to get a sense of how they sound, the cadence and intonation being critical in the evocation of emotion that the poet seeks to convey. For a while, I attended open mic poetry readings, and learned to appreciate how the spoken word can be vastly different than the written word. One need only attend a great performance of a Shakespeare play to validate this claim.

As I did when I finished Part 1, I will take a short break from this book and read some other stuff before moving on to Part 3. Thanks for stopping by, and always explore life’s paths with an open mind.

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