Tag Archives: French

“Transcendental Magic: Its Doctrine & Ritual” by Eliphas Levi: Part 1 – Doctrine

Many years ago, I owned a small business that was next door to a used book store. I had a nice little barter deal going with them, where they gave me books and I provided them with food and beverages. They knew the kinds of books I was interested in, and would let me know when books arrived that might be of interest. This was one of those books, and it has been on my shelf for 15 years, but I am finally getting around to reading it. I believe that we read books exactly when we are supposed to.

Eliphas Levi was a nineteenth-century occultist and magician, whose real name was Alphonse Louis Constant. “’Éliphas Lévi’, the name under which he published his books, was his attempt to translate or transliterate his given names ‘Alphonse Louis’ into the Hebrew language.” (Source: Wikipedia) The text that I have is translated from the French original by Arthur Edward Waite, famous occultist and poet, best known as the co-creator of the popular Rider-Waite Tarot Deck.

The book is divided into two parts: Doctrine and Ritual. I finished reading the first half of the book, and decided to take a break, allow myself to digest what I read, and share my thoughts. I plan on reading the Ritual portion in the near future and will write about that half when I’m done.

As with all great occult texts, much is hidden for the reader to discover, and this book is no exception. In his introduction, Levi points out that the structure of the text is symbolic.

The numbers and subjects of the chapters, which correspond in both parts, are in no sense arbitrary, and are all indicated in the great universal key, of which we give for the first time a complete and adequate explanation.

(p. 31)

As mentioned already, the text is in two parts, itself symbolic of divine duality: masculine/feminine, body/spirit, positive/negative, theory/application, as above-so below, and the list goes on. But now it gets deeper. Each of the two sections contains 22 chapters. These correspond to the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and to the 22 cards that comprise the Major Arcana in the tarot. This makes sense, since Levi stresses the importance and power of kabbalah and tarot as complete magical systems. So with this foreknowledge, each chapter should be read and interpreted through the lens of the corresponding tarot card, and the kabbalistic meaning of the corresponding Hebrew letter. Now, this level of interpretation is way beyond the scope of this blog post, so suffice to say that if you are not familiar with these magical systems, then this is not a text you should be attempting to read.

In the first chapter of the Doctrine (for correspondences, think Aleph and The Fool), Levi provides a definition of magic for those who are starting out on the path.

Before proceeding further, let us define Magic in a sentence. Magic is the traditional science of the secrets of Nature which has been transmitted to us from the Magi. By means of this science the adept is invested with a species of relative omnipotence and can operate superhumanly—that is, after a manner which transcends the normal possibility of men.

(p. 36)

So essentially, the study of magic is the study of the hidden laws of Nature. For me, this is why I see a strong relationship between physics and the occult. Both seek to understand the laws of Nature which form the inner and outer universes. Once an understanding of the natural laws is gained, then one can manipulate reality based upon interaction with forces that exist at the quantum level. But know that these things should not be taken lightly. Remember the Fool as he is about to step blindly off the cliff if he fails to heed the warning from the dog.

OK, if you’ve followed me this far and your head has not exploded yet, then you are ready for the last thing I want to talk about regarding the Doctrine. I’ll begin by citing Levi again.

Diseased souls have an evil breath and vitiate their moral atmosphere – that is, they combine impure reflections with the Astral Light which permeates them and establish unwholesome currents therein. We are often assailed, to our astonishment, in society by evil thoughts which would have seemed antecedently impossible and are not aware that they are due to some morbid proximity. This secret is of high importance, for it leads to the unveiling of consciences, one of the most incontestible and terrible powers of Magical Art. Magnetic respiration produces about the soul a radiation of which it is the centre, and thus surrounds it with the reflection of its own works, creating for it a heaven or hell. There are no isolated acts, and it is impossible that there should be secret acts; whatsoever we will truly, that is, everything which we confirm by our acts, remains registered in the Astral Light, where our reflections are preserved. These reflections influence our thought continually by the mediation of the DIAPHANE, and it is in this sense that we become and remain the children of our works.

(p. 108)

So the premise here is that our thoughts have a direct influence on the world around us. Basically, our thoughts create our realities. Now if this seems a little “new agey” you should know that this is supported by scientific experimentation in quantum physics. Photons react based upon the intended way that researchers choose to measure them. If it is decided to measure them as waves, then they become waves. If it is decided to measure them as particles, then they become particles. But they can only be one or the other, not both. Essentially, our thoughts and our will impact the structural reality of the world around us at a sub-atomic level. If you want to learn more about this, check out this article from Science Magazine.

So I have barely scratched the surface of the first half of this dense book. But that is all I feel I should share. Those who are interested in these studies can explore the text on their own. I will be sharing my thoughts on the Ritual portion of the book once I finish that. Until then, keep reading cool and interesting stuff.

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Thoughts on “The Punishment of Pride” by Charles Baudelaire

In those old times wherein Theology
Flourished with greater sap and energy,
A celebrated doctor—so they say—
Having stirred many careless hearts one day
Down to their dullest depths, and having shown
Strange pathways leading to the heavenly throne—
Tracks he himself had never journeyed on
(Whereby maybe pure spirits alone had gone)—
Frenzied and swollen by the devilish pride,
Like to a man who has climbed too high, outcried:
“Ah, little Jesus, I have lifted thee!
But had I willed to assault thy dignity,
Thy shame had matched they present fame, and lo!
Thou wouldst be but a wretched embryo!”

Straightway his reason left him; that keen mind,
Sunbright before, was darkened and made blind;
All chaos whirled within that intellect
Erewhile a shrine with all fair gems bedeckt,
Beneath whose roof such pomp had shone so bright;
He was possessed by silence and thick night
As is a cellar when its key is lost . . .

Thenceforth he was a brute beast; when he crossed
The fields at times, not seeing any thing,
Knowing not if ’twere winter or green spring,
Useless, repulsive, vile, he made a mock
For infants, a mere children’s laughing-stock.

(translation by Sir John Squire)

On my first read through of this poem, my immediate question was: Who is the doctor Baudelaire is referring to? My initial thought was John Dee, but upon my second pass, I didn’t think so. Dee did not have a tragic ending such as the poem depicts. Then I thought, “Lucifer?” No, Lucifer’s pride and fall predates the time when Theology flourished. So I did a little investigation online, and it seems that Baudelaire was referring to Doctor Faustus in this poem. That made sense to me, although, I think the dominant theme of the poem is universal and could be applied to many figures, historical and fictional. Just like the myth of Icarus—if you dare fly to close to the Sun, you will inevitably fall and suffer.

While the concept of pride leading to a fall is evident on the surface of this poem, I also got a sense of a secondary caution that is less obvious, but just as important. This is a warning to those who are called to follow the mystical arts.

We are told that the doctor traveled “Strange pathways leading to the heavenly throne.” I interpret this as the practice of occult rituals, with the intention of experiencing direct contact with the divine. While I applaud those who seek to glimpse the ineffable, every guidebook for those stepping onto the paths of mysticism emphasizes the importance of remaining grounded. Once you begin on the labyrinth, it is easy to lose one’s self and suffer the anguish of mental illness.

So the cautionary message Baudelaire is conveying to the seeker is two-fold. Remain humble in your accomplishments and in the light of divine majesty; and remain balanced and grounded, not allowing your spiritual quest to consume you to the point where you neglect and lose touch with earthly experience.

Thanks for sharing in my thoughts, and as always, if you have anything to add, feel free to do so in the comments section.

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Thoughts on “Don Juan in Hell” by Charles Baudelaire

Painting by Carlos Schwabe

The night Don Juan came to pay his fees
To Charon, by the caverned water’s shore,
A beggar, proud-eyed as Antisthenes,
Stretched out his knotted fingers on the oar.

Mournful, with drooping breasts and robes unsewn
The shapes of women swayed in ebon skies,
Trailing behind him with a restless moan
Like cattle herded for a sacrifice.

Here, grinning for his wage, stood Sganarelle,
And here Don Luis pointed, bent and dim,
To show the dead who lined the holes of Hell,
This was that impious son who mocked at him.

The hollow-eyed, the chaste Elvira came,
Trembling and veiled, to view her traitor spouse.
Was it one last bright smile she thought to claim,
Such as made sweet the morning of his vows?

A great stone man rose like a tower on board,
Stood at the helm and cleft the flood profound:
But the calm hero, leaning on his sword,
Gazed back, and would not offer one look round.

(translation by James Elroy Flecker)

So I read this poem through a couple times, and had no sense on what Baudelaire was expressing. Mainly, because I did not understand all the references within the text. So I systematically went through and looked up all the references, and then the meaning became clear. So before I provide my interpretation of the poem as a whole, let me quickly share what I found regarding all the names mentioned in the text.

Charon was easy enough—the ferryman who brings the souls of the dead across the River Styx to the Underworld. Antisthenes, I discovered, was a pupil of Socrates and was known for being very ethical and “advocating an ascetic life lived in accordance with virtue.” (Source) Sganarelle is a one-act play by Moliere, also coined “The Imaginary Cuckold.” “The story deals with the consequences of jealously and hasty assumptions in a farcical series of quarrels and misunderstandings involving Sganarelle (the imagined cuckold of the title), his wife, and the young lovers, Célie and Lélie.” (Source) Don Luis had a bet with Don Juan to see who could “conquer more women and kill more men than the other,” a bet which Don Juan won. (Source) And finally, Elvira is a reference to Donna Elvira, a lady of Burgos abandoned by Don Giovanni in the Mozart opera. (Source)

So, now that all the references are cleared up, we can look at the poem as a whole.

Don Juan is the antithesis of Antisthenes. He is an unrepentant womanizer and someone ruled by his baser desires. On his journey into Hell, he looks around at the souls of those he destroyed and used, and feels no remorse whatsoever. In fact, one gets the sense that he almost feels a sense of pride in regard to his past exploits.

So how does Baudelaire feel about Don Juan? This is less clear. I suspect that Baudelaire wishes he could be more like Don Juan, trampling through life ruled solely by his passions and not caring about people who he may use and hurt along the way. But my impression is that Baudelaire is not as void of feelings for others as he may appear. While it may make things easier for him to not harbor emotions for others, he does, and even though he is prone to giving in to his desires, he feels remorse, unlike his anti-hero Don Juan.

These are just my thoughts on the poem. If you have other thoughts or insights, I’d love to hear them. Feel free to share in the comments section. Cheers!

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“Man and the Sea” by Charles Baudelaire

Painting by Ivan Aivazovsky

Painting by Ivan Aivazovsky

Always, unfettered man, you will cherish the sea!
The sea your mirror, you look into your mind
In its eternal billows surging without end
And its gulfs are bitter, so must your spirit be.

You plunge with joy into this image of your own:
You hug it with your eyes and arms; your heart
Forgets for a time its noisy beat, becomes a part
Of a greater, more savage and less tameable moan.

In your own ways, you both are brooding and discreet:
Man, no one has mapped your chasm’s hidden floor,
Oh sea, no one knows your inmost riches, for
Your jealousy hides secrets none can repeat.

As the uncounted swarm of centuries gathers
You two have fought without pity or remorse, both
From sheer love of the slaughter and of death,
Oh, eternal wrestlers, oh, relentless brothers!

(translation by Ruthven Todd)

The use of the sea as a metaphor for the subconscious mind is not unusual in literature, but this may be one of the most clear examples of it. Right in the first stanza, Baudelaire describes the sea as a mirror that allows you to “look into your mind.”

The second stanza intrigues me. The idea that is expressed is that once a person connects with his or her subconscious mind, then that person loses awareness of his conscious self. One’s ordinary awareness is replaced by something primordial, something that exists in the deepest recesses of the psyche.

In the third stanza, we are faced with the mystery of consciousness. The subconscious mind is something that cannot be fathomed or comprehended by our normal state of awareness. Like the divine spirit, it is ineffable.

This brings us to the fourth and final stanza. We have here a struggle, between the rational and the emotional, between the physical and the spiritual, between our inner good and our inner decadence. But what Baudelaire does so eloquently is that he ties these personal internal struggles in with the greater cosmic struggles. The “eternal wrestlers” and “relentless brothers” conjure images Jacob wrestling the angel, as well as Jacob’s struggle with Esau.

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“Gypsies on the Road” by Charles Baudelaire

Painting by Sir Alfred Munnings

Painting by Sir Alfred Munnings

The dark-eyed ancient tribe that never rests
Took up the age-old journey yesterday,
The young on the women’s backs, and—should they cry—
Treasure awaits them at the hanging breasts.

On foot, the men, whose shouldered weapons gleam,
Trudge by the waggons where their families lie,
Their gaze is heavy as the scan the sky
With nameless shadows of a distant dream.

The cricket, watching from its sandy bower,
Greets their approach with loudest eloquence;
Cybele makes earth greener for their sake;

The rock becomes a spring, the deserts flower
Before these wanderers, as they march to take
The constant empire of the unknown hence.

(Translation by Naomi Lewis)

I really enjoyed this poem and find it to be very relevant to events currently unfolding within our world. Basically, Baudelaire is establishing a correlation between the gypsies of his time and the archetype of the Wandering Jew, roaming the desert in search of the Promised Land. But I cannot help but see the plights of Syrian refugees or Mexican immigrants reflected in this sonnet. These people pack up their families and what few possessions they can carry, and set out in search of a better life. I try to imagine the desperation that brings people to this point, and it is difficult for me to grasp. Thankfully, I have not had to experience that level of despair in my life.

I really don’t have anything else to say about this poem. It seems pretty clear and unambiguous to me, but if you see something that I missed, feel free to comment in the section below.

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“A Former Life” by Charles Baudelaire

Image Source: Wikipedia

Image Source: Wikipedia

Long since, I lived beneath vast porticoes,
By many ocean-sunsets tinged and fired,
Where mighty pillars, in majestic rows,
Seemed like basaltic caves when day expired.

The rolling surge that mirrored all the skies
Mingled its music, turbulent and rich,
Solemn and mystic, with the colours which
The setting sun reflected in my eyes.

And there I lived amid voluptuous calms,
In splendours of blue sky and wandering wave,
Tended by many a naked, perfumed slave,

Who fanned my languid brow with waving palms.
They were my slaves–the only care they had
To know what secret grief had made me sad.

(Translation: F. P. Sturm)

There are two main metaphors in this sonnet: the sky and the sea. The sky represents the real world and the sea symbolizes the poet’s memory and the source of his artistic expression.

In the second stanza, the relationship between the two is established. Baudelaire’s creative mind reflects his experiences through memory. All his thoughts and feelings swirl and undulate in the sea which is his imagination. The result is his poetry, which is a reflection of his collective experience.

The slaves in the final two stanzas can be interpreted in two ways. In his former life (the one symbolized by the sky and based upon actual experiences), they are likely prostitutes with whom Baudelaire sought solace from his loneliness and pain. But if the slaves are populating the creative and imaginative part of his psyche, then they likely represent his individual poems. Baudelaire would have viewed his poems as exotic vessels into which he could pour his “secret grief.”

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“Ill Luck” by Charles Baudelaire

The Poor Poet - Spitzweg

The Poor Poet – Spitzweg

So huge a burden to support
Your courage, Sisyphus, would ask;
Well though my heart attacks its task,
Yet Art is long and Time is short.

Far from the famed memorial arch
Towards a lonely grave I come.
My heart in its funereal march
Goes beating like a muffled drum.

— Yet many a gem lies hidden still
Of whom no pick-axe, spade, or drill
The lonely secrecy invades;

And many a flower, to heal regret,
Pours forth its fragrant secret yet
Amidst the solitary shades.

(Translation by Roy Campbell)

I really like this sonnet, and it is fairly accessible as far as poetry goes. This is essentially a poem about the “ill luck” of being born a poet or an artist.

In the first stanza, Baudelaire describes being an artist/poet as a Sisyphean task, a constant uphill struggle that will likely lead nowhere. But it is a calling and something he must heed. He also acknowledges that artistic expression often requires more time than one is allotted in life.

In the second stanza, he acknowledges his mortality and what he sees as in impending death. He realizes that with each beat of his heart, he is a moment closer to death. His heart is like a clock, ticking away the short time he has left on earth.

In the final two stanzas, he confesses that, even though he feels his death approaching, there are more poems inside him, more art that he wants to express. The hidden gems and the blossoming flowers are the unformed works of art still nestled within him. He longs to expose them, to carve and polish the gems and nurture the flowers of artistic expression.

Let this be a warning to all of us. Our time here is limited. If you have things to say, work to do, art to create, don’t procrastinate. If you do, you may awaken to the beating of your heart one day, like a metronome, and realize you don’t have time left to complete your life’s purpose.

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