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“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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“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 51” by Lao Tzu

Image Source: Wikipedia

Tao gives them life,
Virtue nurses them,
Matter shapes them,
Environment perfects them.
Therefore all things without exception worship Tao and do homage to Virtue.
They have not been commanded to worship Tao and do homage to Virtue,
But they always do so spontaneously.

It is Tao that gives them life:
It is Virtue that nurses them, grows them, fosters them, shelters them, comforts them, nourishes them, and covers them under her wings.
To give life but to claim nothing,
To do your work but to set no store by it,
To be a leader, not a butcher,
This is called hidden Virtue.

This passage is interesting and somewhat challenging. I read it a couple times, and I think I have a sense of what Lau Tzu was trying to convey.

The Tao is the source of all existence, and hence, all things that exist in our universe, whether those things are animate or inanimate. Everything is a manifestation of the divine source, or, explained in terms of physics, everything is comprised of energy.

So how does Virtue come in to play? I think the problem is that we’ve been trained to relate virtue with ethics or some form of moral code, which really only applies to sentient beings. But I don’t think that this is what Lau Tzu was referring to. I feel that what he meant by Virtue is the interconnectedness and relationship between all things, that there is really no separation. We are part of the environment, and the environment is a part of us. We share an intrinsic connection with all living things, plant and animal, as well as a connection to the elements. To understand and respect this relationship is the source of wisdom, which is the goal of individuals on the path of the Tao.

I’m not sure if this is what Lau Tzu meant, but it is the impression I get from reading this passage. As always, if you have other insights to share, please do so in the comments section.

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Thoughts on “The Magicians” by Lev Grossman

I’ve had my eye on this trilogy for a while. Everyone I know who has read Grossman’s Magicians Trilogy has raved about it. I’m just always hesitant to commit to a trilogy. But at last, I bought the first book and read it, and I have to say that it certainly lived up to all the hype.

Basically, Grossman takes aspects from some of the best fantasy books and weaves together a tale that is unique, yet seems familiar. I had impressions of Harry Potter, Narnia, Game of Thrones, and Lord of the Rings. But there is also a modern edginess to the book, which works well in my opinion.

There is a lot that can be explored in this text—addiction, power, corruption, escapism—just to name a few. But since brevity is the soul of wit, I’m just going to focus this post on the topics of magic and the multiverse.

Early in the book, Quentin enters a school of magic, and one of the professors offers an interesting definition of magic.

“The study of magic is not a science, it is not an art, and it is not a religion. Magic is a craft. When we do magic, we do not wish and we do not pray. We rely upon our will and our knowledge and our skill to make a specific change to the world.”

(p. 48)

This definition resembles Aleister Crowley’s, which states that magick is “the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will.” And as Quentin continues his studies, he learns that the actual practice of magic is quite difficult, and is not something that comes easily, which is how magic is often depicted in books.

One thing had always confused Quentin about the magic he had read about in books: it never seemed especially hard to do. There were lots of furrowed brows and thick books and long white beards and whatnot, but when it came right down to it, you memorized the incantation—or you just read it off the page, if that was too much trouble—you collected the herbs, waved the wand, rubbed the lamp, mixed the potion, said the words—and just like that the forces of the beyond did your bidding. It was like making salad dressing or driving stick or assembling Ikea furniture—just another skill you could learn. It took some time and effort, but compared to doing calculus, say, or playing the oboe—well, there really was no comparison. Any idiot could do magic.

Quentin had been perversely relieved when he learned that there was more to it than that.

(pp. 148 – 149)

As a writer, I understand that words are just symbols intended to represent aspects of our reality. Which is why I was intrigued by a passage that asserts that magic somehow dissolves the boundaries that exist between language and reality, that it merges the symbol and that which the symbol represents into a single form.

“But somehow in the heat of magic that boundary between word and thing ruptures. It cracks, and the one flows back into the other, and the two melt together and fuse. Language gets tangled up with the world it describes.”

(pp. 216 – 217)

After graduating the school of magic, one of the young magicians, Penny, discovers a way to access parallel dimensions of reality, or what theoretical physics would call the multiverse. He terms this portal to the other dimensions the City (also Neitherlands), which seems like a type of matrix that allows one to pass from one reality to another. Penny goes on to explain to his friends what this means to our limited view of reality.

“The thing is, the more I study it, the more I think it’s exactly the opposite—that our world has much less substance than the City, and what we experience as reality is really just a footnote to what goes on there. An epiphenomenon.”

(p. 250)

Penny proposes exploring an alternate world (Fillory), which was described in a book that the other young magicians had all read. Quentin is reluctant, but Penny pushes the issue, stressing that the exploration of hidden dimensions is truly the greatest quest that humans can embark upon.

“So what?” Penny stood up. “So. What. So what if Fillory doesn’t work out? Which it will? So we end up somewhere else. It’s another world, Quentin. It’s a million other worlds. The Neitherlands are the place where the worlds meet! Who knows what other imaginary universes might turn out to be real? All of human literature could just be a user’s guide to the multiverse! Once I marked off a hundred squares straight in one direction and never saw the edge of this place. We could explore for the rest of our lives and never begin to map it all. This is it, Quentin! It’s the new frontier, the challenge of our generation and the next fifty generations after that!”

(p. 260)

As Hamlet so eloquently put it: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” I strongly suspect that there are multiple universes existing beyond our current scope of perception, and just maybe, ancient mystical arts once provided glimpses of these hidden realms. It certainly warrants further exploration. If we dismiss ideas and potential knowledge because they conflict with our present paradigms, we are doing so at our own risk.

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Thoughts on “The Sandman, Volume 9: The Kindly Ones” by Neil Gaiman

So I finished this book a couple days ago, and have been digesting it and trying to decide how I will approach writing about it without spoiling the ending (Note – do NOT read the introduction to this book unless you want to know how it ends). And also, how do I write about something that contains so many layers of complexity? After stepping away, then going back and reviewing my notes, I decided I will focus on the theme of responsibility, and how that is tied to an individual’s nature.

The first scene I want to examine is when Delirium visits Dream and tries to convince him to join her on a search for her lost dog. The Dream Lord tries to explain to her why he cannot leave the dream realm at the present time.

Delirium: So can you come with me? And look?

Dream: Sister, I have responsibilities. I cannot leave the Dreaming at this time.

Delirium: You use that word so much. Responsibilities. Don’t you ever think about what it means? I mean, what does it mean to you? In your head?

Dream: Well, I use it to refer to that area of existence over which I exert a certain amount of control and influence. In my case, the realm and action of dreaming.

Delirium: Hump. It’s more than that. The things we do make echoes. S’pose, f’rinstance, you stop on a street corner and admire a brilliant fork of lightning — ZAP! Well for ages after people and things will stop on that very same corner, and stare up at the sky. They wouldn’t even know what they were looking for. Some of them might see a ghost bolt of lightning in the street. Some of them might even be killed by it. Our existence deforms the universe. THAT’S responsibility.

This is profound. Not only do our individual actions affect the universe, no matter how small (think the butterfly effect), but our consciousness molds reality and existence on a cosmic level. Nothing we do, nothing we say, and nothing we think is trivial. Everything we do has consequence. Every individual is responsible for the direction that reality takes. Our thoughts and actions ripple across the universe, forming and “deforming” the very fabric of being. The fact that I am writing this, and the fact that you are reading these words, will have an impact on the unfolding of future events. We must, as sentient beings, never take anything for granted.

In the realm of Faerie, the Lady Nuala asks the trickster Puck why he is the way he is.

Nuala: Why do you take such joy in confusion, Robin Goodfellow?

Puck: Because I am true to my nature, Lady Nuala.

This echoes the words of Shakespeare: “To thine own self be true.” Puck knows he is an incarnation of the trickster archetype, and it is his responsibility to accept his true nature. We are all responsible for acknowledging our nature and adhering to it. It is when we deviate from who we are, when we pretend to be something we are not, that we create disharmony in the universe. Honest self-evaluation is requisite for living a genuine life. Do not deny your essence—embrace it, as Puck does.

And this leads us to the final passage I want to share, in which Dream accepts his true responsibilities, understanding that he must make sacrifices in order to fulfill his responsibilities and embody his true nature.

Dream: Rules and responsibilities: these are the ties that bind us. We do what we do, because of who we are. If we did otherwise, we would not be ourselves. I will do what I have to do. And I will do what I must.

We are bound by our natures, by our responsibilities, and by our thoughts and actions. We are intrinsically tied to existence, and all we can do is do what we have to do. So once again, I will repeat the words of Shakespeare:

To thine own self be true.

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Thoughts on “The Sandman, Volume 8: World’s End” by Neil Gaiman

In his introduction to this book, Stephen King praises the complexity of Gaiman’s work and ranks him among some noteworthy writers.

This is challenging stuff. I’m not saying it’s so challenging that my old be-bop buddies wouldn’t have dug it, reading our comics up in a sweltering storage space above Chrissie Essigian’s garage on a rainy summer afternoon, but it’s challenging – sophisticated storytelling on a level practiced by Raymond Carver, Joyce Carol Oates, or (and perhaps this is closer to the mark) John Fowles.

I concur. This is very deep reading, with layers and layers of symbolism woven in, but it is also wonderful storytelling, which makes it enjoyable without having to understand the levels of complexity.

This book is structured like Chaucer’s The Canturbury Tales, where an unusual cast of characters find themselves riding out a reality storm at the World’s End inn. They pass the time telling stories, which often have nested stories within the stories.

In one of the tales, the storyteller shares an account of a meeting he had in an alternate reality. The old man who he met and talked with shared some interesting ideas regarding the possibility of places having consciousness.

“Perhaps a city is a living thing. Each city has its own personality, after all. Los Angeles is not Vienna. London is not Moscow. Chicago is not Paris. Each city is a collection of lives and buildings and it has its own personality.”

“So?”

“So, if a city has a personality, maybe it also has a soul. Maybe it dreams. That is where I believe we have come. We are in the dreams of the city. That’s why certain places hover on the brink of recognition; why we almost know where we are.”

This is a concept I have often pondered, whether consciousness exists in all matter, not just higher forms of animated species. I look at trees and wonder if they have consciousness. I have thought about whether stones or mountains or water have a form of consciousness that we are not able to perceive. If the answer to any of these possibilities is “maybe,” then maybe cities also have consciousness.

In another of the tales, a story is shared about a person’s apprenticeship in a necropolis. The speaker recounts a lesson regarding the purpose of the ceremonies for the deceased.

She was a wise woman. She told us that what we do is not for the dead. Death is not about the disposal of the client.

“What do the dead care about what happens to them? Eh? They’re dead. All the trappings of death are for the living. It is the final reconciliation. The last farewell.”

As I get older and seem to be attending more funerals and memorials, I recognize the truth in this. I remember my mom’s service. I was still fairly young and it was extremely painful. But it was important. I had to see her one last time, touch her once more, before I could start the long healing process. Ceremony is important. It reminds us of what it is to be human.

The last passage I want to share is the innkeeper’s explanation of what a reality storm is.

“Well, sometimes big things happen, and they echo. These echoes crash across the worlds. They are ripples in the fabrics of things. Often they manifest as storms. Reality is a very fragile thing, after all.”

We all want to believe in the stability of the reality we inhabit. But the fragility of the construct which we call reality is something we should consider. How certain are we that what we perceive as reality is really that? Just because our senses make us think it is that way? Our senses can deceive us. In fact, some of these very questions are being explored in the realm of physics right now.

I will close by saying that I found the end of this book to be somewhat, unsettling. It stirred a lot of internal questions for me, which I cannot divulge without spoiling the ending (something I hate to do). I encourage you to read this book, to grapple with the ideas, and contemplate. It would be a worthwhile exercise.

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Doctor Strange: Issue 04

DoctorStrange_04

This issue is very deep, and for a short installment in a comic arc, it addresses some profound concepts related to mysticism and the occult. There are two sections I want to discuss. The first relates to the physical toll of practicing the magical arts.

You threw the punch successfully, but you hurt your own hand. So what have you learned here today? …

The harder you punch, the more it hurts you. This is the most important lesson of being a sorcerer…

If a normal punch takes a physical toll on the one who throws it, what do you imagine the price of casting a spell to be?

The mental, spiritual, and physical are all connected. Whatever happens to one aspect of your being impacts the others. When we become physically sick or injured, it affects our mental and spiritual wellbeing also. When we engage in rejuvenating meditation, our mental and physical health benefits as a result. If we become mentally stressed through work, then we will experience a spiritual and physical exhaustion directly associated with the mental stress. Essentially, every thought or action affects every part of our being, sometimes in ways we can discern, and other times in ways that we do not immediately sense. It can be summed up in the laws of karma.

The second passage addresses the conflict between magic and technology.

This place has been drained of magic. What kind of sorcery could possibly… No. Not sorcery at all. Machinery. A machine that disrupts magic? That’s… That’s impossible.

I would like to think that science and technology can work with mystical practices to help move humans toward the next stage of evolution, but I am so naïve that I fail to recognize that technological advancement caused the rift between science and the magical arts. The Industrial Revolution did much to drain the spiritual from society, disrupting the flow of magic in the world. I think this will change soon. The latest ideas in theoretical physics are certainly supportive of the mystical arts.

I have to say that the more I read this latest incarnation of Doctor Strange, the more I enjoy it. The creative team is doing an amazing job of putting forth thought-provoking topics, but doing so in a whimsical way that is fun and engaging.

Cheers!

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“The Sandman: Overture – 5” by Neil Gaiman

SandmanOverture_05

It’s been six months since the last installment in this graphic novel arc. But, as is always the case with Sandman, it was well worth the wait. In this issue, Dream is trapped in a black hole and reunited with his mother, Night. Dream declines his mother’s offer to take a place in her realm and is returned to the black hole. He is then summoned by Destiny, his brother, to explain the existence of a mysterious ship that is not a part of the Book of Destiny. It is revealed that the ship is a haven for saved souls.

This is a graphic novel par excellence. Gaiman is a master wordsmith and his words, accompanied by the stunning artwork of JH Williams III, weave a tale that is inspiring, thought-provoking, surreal, and mystical. After finishing this issue, I feel like I was transported into another universe and have just returned with knowledge that is beyond my ability to express to another soul.

The only justice I can do as a review of this masterpiece is to just provide a snippet of text as an example of Gaiman’s incredible skill as a writer.

Destiny sees things as they are, not as we would wish them to be.

He knows there are no stories, only the illusion of stories: threads and patterns that seem to appear in the pages of existence, given meaning and significance by the observer.

Destiny observes worlds and molecules like motes of dust hanging in a sunbeam: every movement, every moment inevitable.

Destiny walks the paths of his garden, a place of forks and of paths which combine and part, seeing only what is.

He is surprised by nothing. There is nothing that can surprise him, nothing that was not already written in his book.

I am in awe of the concept of stories as a series of threads and patterns given form only through interpretation of the reader or listener. The telling a story has no meaning, unless there is someone there to hear the story. It’s almost like the Zen parable of the tree falling in the forest. It is also connected to quantum physics, in my opinion. We know that certain quantum particles only come into existence if there is a conscious being there to perceive them. Likewise, stories are only brought to life if someone is there to hear them.

I think I need to stop writing. I feel myself slipping down the proverbial rabbit hole. I will conclude by saying, if the past is any indicator of the future, we can expect the conclusion of this series in December. I suspect that when the final issue in the arc is released, I will reread all the previous issues and then the final installment. Look for my next Sandman post in about six months.

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