Magical Art of Surreal Romanticism

Magical Art: 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.

Magical Art: The Magus of Power, Ithell Colquhoun

The Magus of Power, from Ithell Colquhun TARO

Magical Art: 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.

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.

Magical Art: Sabbath (1954), Austin Osman Spare (sketchbook)

Sabbath (1954), Austin Osman Spare (sketchbook)

Artist Austin Osman Spare (1886–1956), who was associated with both 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.

Magical Art: Phallus of Cosmic Recollection

Thomas 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 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, 2018
Extracts from the book, The Magical Art of Surreal Romanticism.
Hardback edition: The Magical Art of Surreal Romanticism
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Art and Magick of Pisces

The Crowley-Harris Thoth Tarot trump for Pisces and the 29th path of the Tree of Life is The Moon XVIII. Here we have a path that is half in shadows and that must pass between two sentinels wearing the foreboding headdress of the Egyptian Anubis, a guardian of the underworld. According to Crowley:

Such light as there may be is deadlier than darkness, and the silence is wounded by howling beasts.

At the top of the picture is the Sun, pushed through the darkness and cold of night towards the dawn by the Egyptian scarab beetle, Khephra. Khephra is, like Amoun, a self-created god. Like the butterfly, the beetle undergoes a series of remarkable transformations where at one point he seems to be completely inanimate, nothing more than a shell or stone. Miraculously, from this inertia comes forth the fully fledged scarab with wings on which to ride the breezes of dawn.

Magick of Pisces: Thoth Tarot trump The Moon XVIII

As we near the end of the cold months, the Sun’s entry into Pisces is a reminder of the darkest hour before the dawn. The springtime is not far away. On the other side of the globe, in the southern hemisphere, it is a reminder that the cooler air of autumn will soon drive out the burning heat of a long summer.

Pisces is traditionally ruled by the planet Jupiter, known to the Greeks as Zeus and to the ancient Egyptians as Amoun. So if you ever wondered where the word “Amen” comes from, that is uttered at the end of Christian prayers—there is your answer. Jupiter, Zeus and Amoun were originally gods of the mountain and of the seas and the rains that come to replenish the earth with new life and growth. The Egyptian Amoun is a very mysterious god. He is self-created and his location, unlike the sky-gods Horus, Hathoor and Nuit, is below the horizon. One of his titles is “The Hidden God”.

The Hermetic Qabalah might throw some further light on the associations between Pisces, the sign of the fishes, and the mysterious operations of a Hidden God. On the Hermetic Tree of Life, Pisces is the 29th path that connects the material universe (Malkuth) with the animating power of Venus (Netzach), the morning and evening star. The magical power of the path of Pisces is The Twilight of the Place. At this time of year, as the days begin to lengthen in the northern hemisphere, the twilight is very noticeable especially with the lengthening of shadows near sunset, when Venus—the first and brightest star of the evening sky—appears in the western sky. The magical twilight is also the special light of a room prepared for ritual, with candles and the smoke of incense providing ideal conditions for the arising of phantasmal or spectral images. The Magical Mirror is the magical weapon or instrument attributed to Pisces.

As the 12th sign and 12th house in astrology, Pisces represents the deeper realms of the subconscious mind. Psychology traditionally gives three types of consciousness:

  1. Waking consciousness or self-awarenes
  2. Subconscious or dreaming consciousness
  3. The unconscious

It has been argued that there is no such thing as an unconscious, since if it is not conscious then it cannot be thought of as any kind of consciousness. We will turn to the Hermetic Qabalah for assistance. The letter for Pisces is qoph or “Q”, which represents the back of the head and the medulla oblongata—the lowest part of the brainstem, connecting the brain with the spinal cord. This is the most primal part of the brain, and in terms of consciousness it is where the earliest evolutionary memories are stored. If one could send consciousness backwards, from the frontal lobes of rational intelligence to the narrow passage of the medulla oblongata, one might be able to see all the way down to the base of the spine. There is evidence that once upon a time, homosapiens had a tail, as do most non-human creatures on our planet. Returning to the letter Q of Pisces, a queue is also a kind of tail. The long, sombre epic of mankind’s existence on the planet, is yet another kind of tale. A tale that has been told in countless ways by many cultures along the evolutionary way.

Pisces and The Flaming Sword

According to The Flaming Sword Sepher Sephiroth:

Path 29, Qoph

The 29th path of Qoph connects Netzach, the sphere of Venus, with Malkuth, the sphere of the visible universe, and is imaged forth by the Tarot key, The Moon XVIII. The title of the 29th path is the Corporeal Intelligence, so-called because it is concerned with the incarnation of all bodies according to the revolution of the Zodiac. The root of the word that is translated “Corporeal” (gosham) implies a violent rainstorm or shower—the “shower of the life of earth” that comes through the seed of the Unborn Spirit, or Holy Guardian Angel, in the ritual called The Bornless. The ‘seed’ is really alchemical and refers to the fluidic or formless fire from which all forms receive their essence.

To understand the “revolution of the Zodiac” and the part that it plays one needs to know that the Zodiac is the image of Spirit working through the Sun upon the four elements of Fire, Air, Water and Earth. All bodies are composed of these elements; each creature has a unique astrosome, the symbol of which is the natal horoscope, varying according to the time and place of birth. The twelve signs of the Zodiac are cosmic archetypes, and that is why a person’s nature is not revealed simply by knowing their ‘sign’—for the sign alone symbolises a type, not an individual.

The descent of this path is the incarnation or embodiment of each creature, while the ascent of it implies knowledge of the Occult Intelligences—the knowledge that is hidden from the profane. The magical powers of the 29th path are of Bewitchments and Casting Illusions.

616 ShIMIRVN (Shimiron) Qliphoth of Pisces

“Malignant Women”; the 29th path connects Venus, the lowest sephira on the Force side of the Tree, with Malkuth, the dead-end of matter; the women of malicious intent are the phantasms of decaying (or thwarted) desire, rife with poisoning and corruption; as such, these ‘women’ are no more than blind forces, but they have a tremendous capacity to inflict harm on the unwary human; “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” is an aphorism that can apply not only to the human but to the elementar that has been deprived of ‘blood’ or energy; the Intelligence of the path orders the neural and biological patterns that in turn influence the behaviour of species, whether they are supposed to be ‘sentient’ or otherwise; when the human ego identifies personally with the biological urge to procreate or self-replicate—that great force which is, in fact, an entirely impersonal machine or engine—all manner of psychological aberrations occur; the person seeking self-fulfilment in the production of offspring, and finding the result is nothing of the sort, may subvert or redirect the flow of life-force into other objects of desire; typical afflictions are ‘eating disorders’, so-called—for devouring and begetting are dual principles of the Great Mother at the cosmic level; the predatory behaviour of both men and women, especially when it forms part of a group mentality, is another, less specific; alcoholism is yet another trait, since it arises from a desire to be reabsorbed back into the stream of life from whence the organism was formed; yet it is the self-assertion of the ego—maintaining the delusion that it has a separate life and existence of its own—that is the root of all ailments of the soul.

© Oliver St. John 2013, 2018
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Revival of Magick

Magick includes astrology and religious mythology. The term is inclusive of metaphysics, philosophy, theology, theurgy, divination and prophecy.

There is no such thing as self-initiation. We can try to lift ourselves by our own bootstraps but the outcome is a foregone conclusion. Theurgy is the “practice of the divine”—solipsism is therefore a considerable bar to meaningful progress. A unity necessarily encompasses All and None.

Magick

It is impossible to convey any sense of what magick is all about to the mind of the person that lacks the ability or the will to perceive it for their self. To explain and rationalise magick in the hope that ‘men of science’ and other worthies might achieve illumination is a mission doomed to failure from the outset. Every idea the mind of man is able to conceive breaks down completely when subjected to analysis. The fact completely escapes those requiring proof of reality. Most persons today comfortably imagine magick to be no more than superstition and fantasy.

Magick: ROTA or Rose Cross Mandala with Crux Ansata from the book, Magical Theurgy

Magick includes astrology and religious mythology. The term is inclusive of metaphysics, philosophy, theology, theurgy, divination and prophecy. Magick embraces the life of the human soul, for the soul cannot be weighed, measured or otherwise accounted for. One can hardly overstate the fact that a considerable body of traditional knowledge collected over many thousands of years has been lost, forgotten or discarded as useless.

The revival of magick since the repeal of the Witchcraft Act in Britain (1951) owes a great deal to Aleister Crowley (1875–1947) and Violet Firth (better known as Dion Fortune, 1890–1946). Neither of these would have described themselves as witches, even if it had been lawful then to do so. If anything, they thought of themselves as practitioners of a Sacred Science. There is a dry, academic side to the occult, but to those that dare practice it, the romance and glamour surrounding the subject is indispensible to its effective operation. Both Crowley and Firth were aware of this, incorporating it in their writings. The part that romance plays is frequently misunderstood by historians and academics. ‘Factual’ accounts of the Western Magical Tradition are therefore suffused with allegations and counter-allegations of fraud and charlatanism. Crowley provided a rational explanation for magick that has been widely adopted:

Magick is the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will.[1]

Crowley nonetheless insisted that magick should, even at the very outset, be directed towards a mystic goal, defined as the Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel.

It is necessary to deal with, and to dispose of, some myths. Firstly, we must deal with the notion of belief. There is much talk of beliefs and of ‘systems of belief’ whenever the subject of magick is discussed. The way of the magician or occultist is the Way of Knowledge, called Jnanayoga by Hindu philosophers. Belief is the enemy of knowledge, since the noun implies a static state of affairs, an end of the matter. In nature, there is nothing static; there is nothing that can truly be said to have an ending or a beginning. Why then should we have any need for belief? Belief is the weakness of clinging to an illusion in the vain hope that by doing so, an illusion can be turned into reality. To seek the real, we must eschew the folly of belief. Crowley had no intentions of making a religion out of magick or the Law of Thelema—this was done posthumously, in his name. The Egyptians, and other ancient races and cultures predating the introduction of compulsory state monotheism around 500 BCE, had no word in their language for “religion”.

Close on the tail of belief is hypnosis and hypnotism. Making oneself the passive subject of any hypnotic experiment was regarded with such horror by the adepts of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn that a mighty oath was sworn by its aspirants, who solemnly pledged never to allow this. It is not uncommon now to hear that hypnotism is not only useful in magick but is also an indispensible requirement. Altered states of consciousness are sometimes referred to as trances, but the need to discern the difference is not a matter of semantics. The idea that magick works by implanting suggestions in your mind—or worse, the minds of others—to enable something to become true that you previously thought to be false or unlikely is patently absurd. It may obtain ‘results’ for persons obsessed with the objects of their desire but such results are entirely in the realm of illusion. It is the art of the stage conjuror.

We are therefore happy to follow Aleister Crowley in adopting the spelling of magick with a “k” so as to distinguish what we do from that which is done purely to transfer cash from gullible and easily distracted persons to the pockets of the professional con artist.


Notes

[1] From the Introduction to Magick in Theory and Practice, Aleister Crowley.
This article is from the book, Magical Theurgy—Rituals of the Tarot.
The ROTA crux ansata Tarot illustration is from the cover art to the above book.

© Oliver St. John 2015, 2018
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