Soundclash artwork is here. It looks amazing. The photography was specially comissioned and is of a little corner of London that us of great personal and psychogeographical importance to me. Very happy about this!
Devotional Dubz Mix Volume One
The first Devotional Dubz mix is now up on the FACT Magazine site. Do please check it out. It’s probably the best thing I’ve ever done. Here’s some backstory.
In the summer, I put out Lady Dub, the first of the Devotional Dubz series of dubstep / dark garage refixes of r’n’b tunes, which was the counterpart to the harder ragga techno styles on the double album, Belief is the Enemy, that was released at solstice. Lady Dub is a refix of D’Angelo’s nu-soul classic Lady, or rather of DJ Premier’s remix of it; it turned out to be fairly popular, helping to propel the garage revival that we’ve seen this year. It also offered a different vision of dubstep, one that reaffirmed the form’s original tolerance for sweetness and vocals while offering the biggest booming 808 sine waves I could manage.
Each Devotional Dubz release will have a DJ mix that acts as a kind of sonic manifesto; therefore the first one focuses on the other side of dubstep, the landslide, horsepower, mala side that traces a lineage back to soul and dancehall and broken beat, just as jungle traced a lineage back to r’n’b as much as to bashment. It includes exclusive refixes and blends of r’n’b tunes, alongside unreleased Grievous Angel garage tracks that have previously only been heard on Blackdown’s Rinse show, and some special edits of dark garage classics. It’s lush, it’s spacey, it’s skippy, and at the end it’s unremittingly heavy, but all the way it’s pure garage flavour.
Turn it up and feel the sunshine. Volume two will be out in a few months when I’ve got some funky stuff out of the way.
00:00: Jill Scott: Slowly Surely (Grievous Angel’s Erzulie Edit)
02.20: Craig Mack: Brand New Flava (Grievous Angel’s Iron River Edit)
05:19: Grievous Angel: Lady Dub
08:07: Jill Scott: Watching Me
09:30: Vaccine: Wishful Thinking (VIP Mix)
12:03: DJ Abstract: Touch
15:18: Jill Scott: Crown Royal (Grievous Angel’s Fucking In Sunshine Edit)
17:07: Jill Scott: My Love (Grievous Angel’s Deeper, Tighter Edit)
19:29: HorsePower Productions: Gorgon Sound
21:56: Grievous Angel: Lady Dub (2Step Remix)
25:10: Groove Chronicles: Be Happy
28:09: Grievous Angel: What We Had
31:47: El B: Bison
31:58: Groove Chronicles: Faith In You
34:13: Dru Hill: Freak Like Me (El B Remix)
39:11: El B: Two Thousand
40:34: Our Lady of Rage: Afro Puffs
42:00: Grievous Angel: I Love Dem
Gutter on Night Dubbing
Did you know Imagination made a dub album? I didn’t until I found this. I can quite happily listen to a reggae dub album without having heard the original versions, though it does sometimes concern me that I’m not really appreciating the engineer’s art because I don’t know the original song. In pop terms, it would be like listening to The Human League’s “Love & Dancing” remix album without having ever heard “Dare”, which would be an insane thing to do, surely?
Yeah, I was always a huge fan of Love and Dancing (I put the Hard Times remix on my Fake It Til You Make It: 80s Dance Music In Dub mix that I did a few years back), much more so than Dare. I was always a version man!
But the Imagination dub record – which was before Love and Dancing – was a very big record for me, first time round. Back then everyone in Essex were big imagination fans (though admittedly few were also Cabaret Voltaire fans). But Night Dubbing, which I had on a shonky little tape, was something else and confused most people, though for me it was a direct link between this and the Scientist stuff I was beginning to access at that time. We used to pass round the box at lunch times at school, reading the tracks and marvelling at the idea that they could be so drastically remodelled. I remember when the trendies were going mad over the Peech Boys’ Don’t Make Me Wait a few years later and I kept on thinking “Have you actually heard Imagination?” Of course the big debate at the time was “Are they gay?” It was obvious that Leee John was but the hard man soul boys couldn’t leave it alone. The NF types were a different matter. I really liked the way that it was obviously derived from gay dance music while avoiding hi-nrg cliche, and the way that it looped around (without actually confronting) the heteronormativity of reggae. It made perfect sense in the context of electro and (just) pre-AIDS dance music. I don’t think it’s wrong to think of this record as a mountain rather than a mole hill – it was an explicit link in the chain of UK derivations of black American dance music that led onto the rave scene, in Essex at least, and the sheer intoxicating drugginess of Night Dubbing created the right climate. Dub is black psychedelia after all and this fits right in with Hendrix, though it was never quite extreme enough; too much reverb’ed piano, not enough low end or noise. Then again it was a HUGE fuck record for a couple of years. A bit of a landmark for me, this one, though not as much as African Dub Chapter 3 or 2×45.
Fans of the Under-the-counter-culture posts here might want to peruse the Strange Attractor nexus. Strange Attractor has been around for ages as has Mark Pilkington. Their slogan is “celebrating unpopular culture”; their business is delivering attractively fascinating weirdness. Good work… You should investigate the FLickr stream too, there are some great images in there…
“You touch one more towerblock balcony lightbulb and I’ll rearrange your fucking face, savvy?”
Interviews with Pagans: Phil Hine, part 2
Here’s the second installment of the Phil Hine interview. In this one he’s talking about stuff like:
magical groups an socialisation
confidence and relaxtion as a basic technique (there’s no such thing as an advanced technique, just basic stuff you get better at) the advantages of a magical point of view vs scientific one (“Arisotleian dualism: bag o’shite”)
client and community-based magic
what about the people who are excluded from magic?
You can get this from here.
29.5Mb: 21 minutes 28 seconds; 192Kmp3.
Interviews with Pagans: Phil Hine, part 1
Phil Hine is for my money the most interesting pagan writer around, and is certainly one of the most popular and influential people on the pagan sene. He’s erudite but down to earth and above all is a thoroughly nice person. His books are a fund of useful information and good sense and are as intellectually alive and practically focused as “pagan” books should be. I was therefore keen to include an interview with him in the “Pagan Interviews” series.
I’ve interviewed Phil a couple of times over the years, going back to the early nineties, but there was one particularly nice one from 1998 that had never been published. It was a hazy, warm June evening a couple of weeks short of the solstice when I walked over from my place in Brixton to his, to meet Phil and my friend John to do the interview. We had a merry time, which I hope comes across. You will notice that John is the cool one, I’m the eejit, while Phil is of course the wise old northern sorceror, as ever.
The interview has been sitting on my computer as an audio file for years, and bit by bit I’ve whittled the three hours or so of the original into a fairly neatly organised hour or so. And rather than type it up into a formal interview, I thought I would provide it as a recording, so you can get some of the man’s personality, and savour his broad Blackpool accent.
I am going to put these up once a week for the next three weeks, so you have a chance to digest them. 20 minutes is just about manageable in my opinion. In this first segment Phil talks about two related topics: Firstly, magical belief systems and the positive and negative treatment of them in chaos magic and in paganism generally. Secondly, he talks about cultural appropriation in magic and the need for respect for the magical traditions of other cultures when attempting to involve them in one’ own practice, which is still a hot issue.
Bear in mind that at the time, we intended to put this out as a print interview, and Phil wasn’t talking as if he was making a recording, just thinking out loud to create the basis for a magazine article. So it’s quite a direct, “guard-down” insight into Phil’s mind you’re getting here: chatting with friends and feeling comfortable in the summer warmth, rather than doing a formal presentation or performance for the microphone. So cut him some slack!
I think that once all three segments are published this interview will provide a pretty good primer on Phil’s thought, certainly as it stood in 1998, but you’ll need to take a tour of his site to get the full flavour. Phil recommends articles on Post-Structuralism & Modern Magic, Invokation of Babalon – a sex-magic diary snippet, Dream gates: the Yuggoth working, and The Ganas: Hooligans of Heaven. I’d recommend An Introduction to Banishing Rituals, Devotions & Demonesses – Introductory essay on Tantric Magic, and Problems in Group Ritual.
As this file is unlikely to excite the interest of the leach sites I have left this one uncompressed. Please don’t play the file from the browser or it will probably bring my site down; instead right click (or control-click on the Mac) and save as.
Interview with Phil Hine, 11th June 1998. Part one.
25Mb. 18 minutes. 192K mp3.
Interviews with Pagans: Synesis
This is a biggie, but it’s worth it. Synesis is an exceptionally erudite and interesting pagan with an academic background in philosophy and theology. There is gnosticism here, as you would expect, but also Spinoza (a first for this blog, I’m sure K-Punk will approve!), Aristotleianism versus Platonism, Kant, and — well — magic. Synesis may have an intense spiritual interest but he has a deep intellectual engagement as well.
I apologise for the length, but there’s so much good stuff here I couldn’t resist putting it all in.
Synesis’ live journal is here
1. Name / username
James Butler / ‘Synesis’
1.1 What does “Synesis” mean?
Well, it’s one of the thirty aeons of Valentinian Gnosticism – one of the thirty heaven-like divisions of time and space surrounding the earth. It means ‘intelligence’ or ‘flashes of insight’, which might explain why I chose it as a name. It’s part of the lower dodekad, the Valentinian Aeons being divided into three sections of eight, ten and 12 parts. Its opposite and partner is ‘Ainos’, which means something like ‘praise’ or ‘glory’ implying that intelligence doesn’t really mean much if it isn’t accompanied by that sort of ecstasy (which, despite appearances, is a doctrine I hold to).
It’s also – even more obscurely – a name for a grammatical construct in which a form (usually a pronoun) differs in number but agrees with the sense of the word governing it. The popular use of ‘they’ as a gender-neutral singular third-person pronoun is the most noticeable example of this construct in modern English. It’s also used in the famous quotation from the Bible, “The wages of sin is death”. Needless to say, the Gnostic rather than the grammatical was on my mind when I chose the name, but I think they both say something about me!
1.2 So the name comes from Valentinian Gnosticism – a quick google
search indicated that this is a form of Christian Gnosticism, yes? The best summary I could find was this: “Humans live in an absurd world that can be rendered meaningful only by Gnosis, or self-knowledge. When referring to the myth of the creation of the world by a god, Valentinus shifts the blame for the condition of cosmic defect from humanity to creative divinity. That God the creator could be at fault in anything is of course tantamount to blasphemy in the eyes of the orthodox. What we need to recognize, however, is that Valentinus does not view the creator with the worshipful eyes of the Judeo-Christian believer, but rather sees the creator – along with other divinities – as a mythologem.” (http://www.gnosis.org/valentinus.htm ).
That’s not a bad summary of the theology, but for Valentinus the utimate god (a sort of utterly incomprehensible, entirely transcendent first cause) can’t be attributed blame – since that first cause is beyond qualities of any kind. It’s somewhere down the chain that things go wrong, usually attributed to the demiurge led to create this world Ialdabaoth. Sometheologies involve Sophia-Achamoth as well. Valentinian cosmogony is quite diverse.
Hoeller advocates a Jungian interpretation of Valentinian theology, which is in some ways justifiable, but in others is a bit reductive. It’s not really an approach I agree with.
My main interest in Valentinian theology, incidentally, is with the concept of Aeons and Sophia, rather than any particularspirit-matter dualism.
2. What age are you and where do you live?
23 (a lot of people are surprised at this), and I live just on the edges of London, in Wimbledon.
3. How would you describe your spiritual path?
Oh god, that’s a question and a half. It’s very difficult, particularly because if you look at the Western Esoteric Movement from the widest of perspectives, talking about separate and distinct ‘traditions’ gets a bit silly – everything has its roots in something else, or has stolen bits and pieces from here and there. The question of spiritual identity (what I *am*) is a relatively new one in western magic and esotericism, and has really only come about because of the pagan witchcraft revival. I feel much more comfortable keeping some part of my identity away from investment in odd shibboleths – I see a lot of people asserting ‘I am a witch’, or ‘I am a magician’ and being more concerned with that identity than what it means to experience the gods or actually do magic.
So, with that caveat… I guess I find a lot of my identity in the sort of paganism that existed around Alexandria in the first to third centuries CE. It’s a paganism that’s highly influenced by Neoplatonism and the wide-ranging syncretic thought that existed at the time – it certainly existed in tandem with Gnostic Christianity and there was certainly an exchange of ideas there too. So probably the key texts of that era for me are the Corpus Hermeticum and the Chaldaean Oracles, as well as the writings in that general tradition from Iamblichus, Apuleius, Proclus. It’s a spirituality that’s rooted in ancient thought, but not so closely to the state religions of the time.
Then, of course, there are the renaissance influences, particularly Marsilio Ficino and all the Careggi circle, as well as influences as diverse as the Fedeli d’Amore, Ibn Arabi, Bernard de Clairvaux . And of course, a lot of these draw from Hebrew sources, so the Qabalah – both in its original and its more Europeanised form – is a huge source for me.
Then there’s Dee, of course, and the English Angel magicians who occur every so often throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, up to the Golden Dawn, Crowley – who I tend to see as continuing Hermetic tradition rather than being an overwhelmingly, fabulously new man of genius – and through Wicca as well. For me the advantages of Wicca are really to do with the breaking down of the traditional spirit-body dualism that runs right through western thought and a reaction against the 19th century habit of thinking about the Gods as ciphers for astrological symbols (so, for instance, Ishtar is really just a cipher for our symbol Venus).
That seems like a lot of things to draw from, but as I’ve said, they’re not as disparate as they may seem – and that’s only a few of them anyway! And, anyway, I’m with Goethe on this one – ‘he who cannot draw from 3,000 years is living hand to mouth.’
3.1 You say that the key texts from classical paganism are “the Corpus
Hermeticum and the Chaldaean Oracles, as well as the writings in that general tradition from Iamblichus, Apuleius, Proclus” – is there an easily digestible book that summarises this stuff? I presume the best source for Marsilio Ficino and the Careggi circle is Frances Yates.
Well, they’re probably not the key texts of classical paganism – certainly not of the state religions, whether the Olympian or Egyptian kind. But actually, the state religions are pretty far removed from what I’m personally interested in, since they’re exclusively religious. The groundings of theurgy are in late classical antiquity, and that’s where these texts are important. There’s not one single text that deals with all of it directly, but OUP’s ‘Pagan Monotheism in Late Antiquity’ (ed Athanassiadi and Frede) and Georg Luck’s ‘Arcana Mundi’ cover most of the subject between them.
Yates is reasonable on Ficino in ‘Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition’ – probably the best introduction to the Platonic Academy at Carreggi is ‘The Origins of the Platonic Academy of Florence’ by Arthur Field, but I think it’s currently out of print.
3.2 What came first: OTO, Wicca, or something else? (We await your immersion in Chaos and Voudoun with interest!)
It’s a wide misperception that I’m involved in the OTO (any OTO) – while I know a lot of wonderful, lovely and intelligent people involved in it, it just isn’t my thing. My chief area of philosophical disagreement is with one of its central aims, which is to promulgate a society run along ‘Thelemic’ lines. I have absolutely no interest in promoting that whatsoever, though more power to them if they think that’s the best way to do things. Let’s hope they don’t have a Robespierre lurking among their ranks, though.
But, yes, my interest and involvement in ceremonial magic came first – and through the pretty standard route, which is both Golden Dawn and Crowley. But actually, the system which sat so well with me – partly because its influences are very similar to my own – was that of the Aurum Solis, as partly outlined in Denning and Phillips’ ‘The Magical Philosophy’, which is well worth hunting down. The AS is a lot quieter than most of its counterparts, though.
Like most ritual magicians, I have to admit I was terribly snobby about Wicca – I once swore that I would never become a Wiccan. My interest in Wicca, though, came about through meeting someone through ritual magic channels, and I had that moment of realisation that not all Wiccans are either flaky or dull. (Who knew?) So, for me, it evolved in tandem with my other interests and I still don’t view them as distinct and separate.
As for Vodou, well, I have friends who do that sort of thing, in particular a Haitian friend who’s very interested in western magic as well. I don’t get to talk to her often, but when I do, it tends to be a terribly enlightening conversation. As for chaos magic, well, I think a lot of it is pretentious, philosophically rickety junk. There’s something terribly vital about it, that evolved in contrast – thank god – to the predominantly psychological and awfully fusty occultism of the 50s and 60s, but it’s just as badly flawed. But I do have a few things to say about chaos magic, it’s just that the only times I really say them are in conversation, or in private essays, rather than online. Hm, perhaps I should really get around to building that website?
3.3 Is your critique of chaos magic –”pretentious, philosophically
rickety junk” – primarily based on a reading of Carrol, as your principal post on the subject on PN was? If so, while it is fashionable – almost mandatory – among those with a background in chaos to criticize it, I think that many of your criticisms emerged within chaos itself some years ago, the scientism aspect in particular. Have you read any Phil Hine?
Well, certainly my initial reading of Chaos magick largely rests on Carroll, my auxiliary reading has also stretched around Sherwin, Spare, Dukes and Hine. And certainly, the scientism is downplayed in them, but there are still a couple of things that I find philosophically untenable, chiefly the notion that belief is a commodity that can be controlled, directed and invested according to the desires of the individual, and that the efficacy of a given mode of practice depends simply and exclusively on the belief you choose to invest in it. That central belief of chaos magick can, IMO, prove a barrier to actual experience. There are other ways that this can be developed: to what extent does a symbol retain meaning when it’s removed from its context, for instance?
Outside of that, the real innovations of Chaos aren’t innovations at all. The gods and spirits can be treated as functional fictions? Not really terribly innovative, it’s already present in Crowley (Liber O vel Manus et Sagittae). The ability to engage in different magical ‘systems’ as necessary doesn’t strike me as terribly new either – the notion of one system being the only system you can practice is really only extant post-Regardie through the 60s and 70s. A lot of chaos magick paints itself as reacting against a fusty sort of occultism which is in reality limited to a very few (rather boring) magical Orders that aren’t terribly interested in magic at all.
In all honesty, most chaos magicians seem (despite their various professions to the contrary) have a very limited idea of what magic should really be about – a sort of eternal masturbation. The people I find really interesting from the chaos scene – Ramsey Dukes, for instance, under that and all other pseudonyms – seem pretty indistinct from magicians from any other school of thought.
Of course, it probably doesn’t help that I find Austin Osman Spare, HP Lovecraft and self-consciously spooky ‘magical workings’ drastically boring.
4. How did you get involved with this path? What’s your “history”? How did your personal background influence this?
Well, the real source of all this comes from an experience I had as a child – I must have been about ten, and I had this wonderful Spinoza-like experience of God as being the substance of all things. So, that sent me spinning right out of Catholic orthodoxy and right on to the strange edges of thought. I think by the age of 13 I had picked up some Regardie and some Crowley – all terribly secret of course – and that’s where a lot of it began.
I was very fortunate, in that the internet wasn’t really around when I was a teenager – that meant I had to persevere with books, and had the terrifying, if somewhat initiatory experience, of daring to cross the threshold of Atlantis bookshop back when it was still terribly scary, and you couldn’t see in from the street.
I’ll leave my education until the next question, but I will say that I’m still undecided about whether it’s good for a teenager to be interested in this sort of thing seriously. I can’t imagine it having been any other way, but I see a lot of people using it as a coping mechanism, or to avoid confronting real issues. Those issues always resurface in the end, of course.
4.1 In particular, you appear to have a serious academic background in what looks like Theology, and a set of knowledge one would normally associate with a keen interest in Christianity. Was there a conflict there? Did paganism come afterwards? Or what?
Yes, I did joint honours in Philosophy and Theology, so it is more or less my background – further still, most of my education was carried out by Jesuits, who trained me extremely well in logical thought and argument, and, naturally, that meant that I was schooled in Catholic theology as well. As is the nature of these things, I tended to disagree with the theology quite strongly – but if you’re going to argue with a Jesuit, you’re going to have to know *their* arguments inside out as well.
I was brought up strongly Catholic – as an altar-boy in a Church where you had to know the Latin of the Mass off by heart. So my early experience of religion was very much in terms of colours that accorded with the time of year, incenses that were changed according to the intention of the Mass, precise ritual, carefully intoned words, and a very, very strong sense of devotion. Naturally, my aesthetic preferences were pretty much formed by these experiences. Is it an accident that the ceremonial traditions in England become very popular at the end of the Oxford movement, which moved for a return from stark Protestantism to the full-blown ritual of the Roman Church? I certainly don’t think so.
The thing is, I’m interested in the whole history of western thought – and that means being familiar with Christianity, as well as various other creeds and systems of thought that have penetrated Europe – a knowledge of the classical languages is immensely advantageous here. One of the hugely disappointing things for me is when people describe a religious experience and then behave as if no one’s ever had the same thing before. The world didn’t come into existence fifty years ago – again, these are people who are living hand to mouth. Some traditions talk about the Golden Chain – and it’s there, there’s a line of people who’ve been here, who’ve had that experience, and by not looking at what they’ve said, you’re stumbling around blind.
5. Have you always felt the same way about your spirituality, or have there been changes? If so, when, and how?
I try to continually re-evaluate the way I look at my spirituality, and part of that is asking serious questions, often questions that a lot of people don’t like to face – for instance, a lot of spell-casting seems to be delusion. Why is that so? Could I be deluding myself? What are the legitimate conclusions that can be drawn from my own experiences in this area? And what does that imply about the way I view the universe?
That said, there have been a few large shifts, the most important of which would be my turning away from Catholicism, which was a long period in my mid-teens where I had some serious theological issues to weigh up. Then the decision to get involved in Wicca, which I found to be no easy thing – taking initiation into a ‘tradition’ for me implies a great deal of commitment, particularly when that’s a *religious* tradition. And more so when you find yourself in disagreement with a lot of people in that tradition – and not just those who claim to be of it, but those who are genuine members, and yet have so very little in common with me in spiritual, cosmological or philosophical viewpoints.
I have to say, prior to becoming involved in Wicca, I was deeply tempted by the Dzogchen and Vajrayana traditions in Buddhism for a number of reasons. Ultimately, I don’t believe that existence is suffering, but I think the philosophical tenets of Buddhism take rather a backseat, particularly in Vajrayana. Certainly, though, one of the things I found deeply appealing about Buddhist practice is the importance placed on compassion – something deeply lacking in a lot of esoteric traditions these days, which often seem to be characterised by an adolescent sneering at the suffering of other people. I think there’s a huge misconception about the so-called ‘Great Work’ in the community, particularly the idea that it’s utterly personal and has no implications outside the self. In fact, I tend to believe the precise opposite – that spiritual experience necessarily awakens in us an awareness of the great web and continuum of life, and what that implies for us not only as individuals but as a community and even globally.
6. Have you ever been physically attacked or discriminated against because of being a pagan?
No, not at all, but then I don’t really go around wearing huge pentagrams and the like. I will say, though, that most of the stress I’ve experienced in the past few years has actually been due to the pagan community itself. There’s a deeply conformist philosophy in pagan witchcraft, which has an almost eerie awe of ‘authorities’ who tell them exactly what they want to hear. The problem with being the one who notices the Emperor’s New Clothes (and that’s not just me, it’s happened to a lot of people) is that the gossip mill runs into overdrive. I don’t particularly like it, but I like to think I’m pretty hardy about it – the difficulty is for people who are new, particularly in London, because navigating the web of relationships and discerning what’s gossip and what’s true is difficult.
But I like to think it’s getting better.
6.1 Have you ever been attacked or discriminated against for being homosexual within Wiccan or pagan circles?
Not overtly, and I think that’s key. I pretty much came in at the tail-end of a lot of overt homophobia. However, I’ve certainly been present when I’ve heard some pretty vicious remarks made about homosexuality and magic – but to my extreme pleasure, they were shot down very quickly indeed. That said, there is a lot of covert, perhaps unintentional, homophobia that still exists – I’ve talked about this elsewhere, so I won’t go on at length here, but it rests on homosexuality being acceptable ‘because of’ polarity theory. I find it sad that many gay men, including the popular authors on the subject, collude in this.
7. Has anyone ever made assumptions about you (good or bad) because of being a pagan? What were they?
The only assumption I’ve ever had made about me have largely been on the part of the pagan community – including some very strange notions about what ritual magic is all about. I think most public assumptions nowadays centre around patchouli, beards and a tendency to talk to rocks – more in terms of eccentricity than anything else. None of which are applicable of course, but then most of the people I meet don’t know that I’m pagan, because I wear Dior and don’t wear a hubcap sized pentacle and don’t brandish it about. I’ve always been pretty reticent about that sort of thing anyway.
HOW PAGANISM FITS INTO YOUR LIFE
8. What do you do for a living? Is there any conflict between your work life and your spirituality?
I divide my time – I work as a teacher for three days of the week, and around that I work in research for a number of private clients. I actually used to work in party planning and event management, largely in the public relations and fashion world – and that *did* conflict with my spirituality to a great degree. I found most of the people I met were shallow, gluttonous moral pygmies, unable to look outside their limited world. I think it was a necessary career move, though, since I needed a break from being involved in research of any sort for a while.
9. What are your hobbies and interests?
Well, a number of things outside my spiritual life – including playing the piano whenever I get a chance, and I’ve recently resumed doing some collaborative vocal work for a friend. As might be suspected, I’m a writer, and while I’ve had some published success with poetry, I really need to finish the novel that’s currently sitting in a half-formed state on my hard drive. I also used to fence competitively, so I maintain that as much as possible, though it’s rather fallen by the wayside recently.
And, of course, there’s going out to parties and events – I do still get a lot of invitations from friends, so I do go out quite often.
9.1 By the way, what is your favourite cocktail and can you make it at home?
Ha! As anyone who has ever been to lunch with me in London will know, my favourite cocktails have to be the Kir Royale, closely followed by a tall Mojito on a summer’s day. Kir Royale is relatively easy to make at home, but I don’t think I’ve ever actually made a Mojito.
10. What about your family and friends? Are they of similar spiritual paths to you, or are there differences?
Well, I have a wide variety of friends – those who have known me longest are all pretty unconcerned about dogmatic spirituality, and tend to opt for a vague, tolerant Deism, though a number of them are pretty committed Buddhists. Then there are obviously my co-religionists who are also friends, who I often have disagreements with in terms of philosophies, and I also have a number of friends who are Christian theologians and a couple of Jesuits I count as friends. I tend not to opt for friendship based on compatible spiritualities – I just like to find people who are interesting.
10.1 are you an “out” pagan to your parents?
Yes, I always have been. It’s a matter of less concern now than it has been in the past, though I think most of my relatives will always view me as some sort of spectrum of Catholic – the concept of any other religiosity just doesn’t enter their mental picture. Which can be rather amusing.
11. How would you rate the importance of the following aspects of your life? (Use percentages, total equally 100%)
• Time with family 5%
• Time with partner(s) 5%
• Time with friends 20%
• Spiritual time alone 20%
• Spiritual time with others 15%
• Your work, career, or time in education (if a student) 20%
• Hobbies and pastimes 15%
• Other (please describe)
Naturally, these priorities will change at given points in my life.
12. Do you believe in the existence of a ‘deity’? If so, have you ever had any divine experiences?
I don’t think the question is as simple as that. Naturally, I know all the classical rational arguments for the existence of God or the Gods, and all the objections to them as well. But I tend to go with Kant in terms of the role that reason plays in assessing the existence of God – there are certain things for which evidence can be gathered, assessed and discussed within a rational framework, but the nature of deity – if it exists – is such that modalities like time and extension, which frame the basis of our way of thinking, can’t really apply. When considered in rational terms, it really can’t have an answer.
Nonetheless, I have had experiences which fit under the category of religious experience, so what does this tell me? Well, it only tells me that I had those experiences, not anything about the originator of those experiences. It’s like John Locke said – there’s necessarily a Veil of Perception drawn over any sensation. I can only truly know that I perceived and experienced a thing in such a way and that those experiences are true in that they happened. That can’t be an argument for the proof of an external originator, even if the experience affected me to such a profound degree that I am converted.
The testimony of my experience leads me to affirm that I think it probable that there is a Great God encompassing all of nature and the universe, but who is utterly inaccessible except through a variety of images and forms, which have as real and substantial a reality in their own way as I do. However, I try not to maintain an investment in those beliefs because they can never be part of the same category of knowledge as anything else.
In essence, I try to take a phenomenalist approach to the divine – yes, these things are real as mental events that happen to me, whether that implies anything about their causative agent is always up for question. I should mention that I am emotionally and somatically convinced of an external causative agent, but that really is a faith-claim.
Instinctively, though, I go with Thales: “Everything is full of Gods.”
12.1 How regularly do they occur?
Well, it depends how you define them – there seems to be this thing in occult circles that one raises one’s kundalini everyday, that absolute, ecstatic, mystical consciousness is a daily fact for those who are ‘real’ magicans. That’s a whole load of nonsense. Those sort of moments are incredibly rare. The tread of the divine is frequently very soft.
On the other hand, those experiences leave an indelible impression on the way one interacts with the world – a sort of new-born wonder at the sheer tremendous light of God breathing out of every aspect of existence, in the tracery of veins on a leaf, or on another person’s face. It’s a matter of attentiveness: the qualities of any given thing can always resolve to reveal what lies within everything. It’s hard to talk about, because it sounds so strange, since we are all so used to distracting ourselves form this sort of thing – we become bored, or inattentive – a lot of what we call ‘Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel’ is really a matter of making oneself utterly attentive and able to see.
12.2 Shortly before she died, Doreen Valiente made an excellent presentation at a Pagan Federation conference where she said – from memory – the gods may have an overwhelming impact on you as an individual, may be utterly manifest to you, and may play a key role in your life – but they are not real. Comment?
I realise that the following may well get me excommunicated in certain circles, but I think a lot of what Valiente had to say was silly nonsense. Not all of it, certainly, but outside of Witchcraft for Tomorrow and An ABC of Witchcraft, a lot of her ideas are pretty poorly thought out, and I find much of it pretty underwhelming.
My experiences make me inclined to disagree with her, but I’m more interested in why she thought it was so certain that they aren’t real. As I’ve said, I find making claims about the existence of the Gods pretty silly, besides the philosophical impossibility of proving a negative. I’m not sure, of course, what she means by ‘real’ – it seems that any reality that the gods might have would be so profoundly different to our own that the boundaries of the term would need to be very clearly defined. I can say that the effect the gods seem to have on my life is real, and that effect presents itself as having an external causative agent. Outside of that, the whole business needs lengthy definition of terms before I have any idea about what she’s actually saying. But I certainly understand the desire to get away from the god-complex of the pagan community, and I totally understand pulling that rug out from under people’s feet.
I have a certain amount of sympathy with the statement if it’s a reaction to the ‘divine mandate’ that a lot of pagans seem to believe they have, or a response to privilege of access to the Gods. There’s also a danger of cutting yourself off from other people in favour of ‘Gods’ who say what you want them to say, when you want to say it, and I’m in full agreement here. And some of the gods that have the most vital presence in the internal lives of many people – the gods of the Perfect Body, the gods of Vast Fortune, the demon gods of the Other – are indeed unreal and need to be kicked to pieces.
12.3 Do Wiccan ideas of the divine have encoded within them a fundamentally heterosexual, traditionally gendered orientation which cannot be overcome?
I’m not sure. There’s a great deal within Wicca that’s terribly socially conservative, and I think a lot of people find it hard to acknowledge that – as if by acknowledging it, it’s going to do some terrible harm. We’ve definitely inherited that sort of structure, and it doesn’t just disappear with a click of the fingers. You can certainly easily eliminate the more obvious prejudices, and say ‘we now accept gay people’, but the question is really whether there are inbuilt assumptions in the way the system is constructed – and whether those can be changed.
I’m not sure it’s something to overcome, per se – those traditional gender roles, and the historical dominance of heterosexuality shouldn’t be ignored. You know, that’s where we come from, and they’re so fundamentally ingrained in our attitudes and culture, they’re always going to be present – the importance isn’t in overcoming them, it’s about establishing a plurality of ecstasies.
There’s a great deal I could go on about here, but the chief irritant for me is that heterosexuality – even when veiled in talk about ‘polarity’ – is made the normative ground for our discussion of sexuality, and we really need to move away from that. And, my god, it’s so disheartening to me when gay men parrot that sort of thinking too, but it seems that 99% of ‘gay witchcraft’ is about comparing oneself to the straights, justifying why we’re as good as, and ‘spiritually just like’ the straights – and I empathise with the motive, but it’s just not true.
The real issue behind all of this is the essentialism that pervades magical thinking. Talking about ‘essences’ and patterned abstractions – ideas around which experience should fit – seems to me antithetical to the experience of magic. For instance, to say that a gay man has a more dominant ‘feminine energy’ – well, what does that actually *mean*? When did the experience of femininity become divorced from the physical interiority of being female? Magic really needs to bump into postmodernism in a big way, and while there are certain people doing this, the majority of discourse seems stuck in the 19th century. I’m not really sure why that is.
12.4 Is the Great Rite really about “conception”? I always thought it was about fucking, pure and simple.
Hrmmm. Difficult question that. I think, looking at the mythos Gardner established – that of a revived fertility religion – then, yes, a conception of some sort is at the centre of the Great Rite. You want the land to be fertile, therefore, in an act of sympathetic magic, you f**k for the fertility of the land. Now if the land were to be f**king and not producing anything at the end of it – well that’s all well and good, but you’re not eating for the next few months.
Now, whether the Great Rite that Gardner created actually does address fertility over anything else is an entirely different matter – as is the question of whether it really has anything to do with conception in the way that anyone uses it these days. Certainly, if you look at it within the context of the Western Mystery Tradition – which Wicca is rooted in and should not be cut off from – then you have the standard three hall initiation system, with the third hall involving the mystery of the Hexagram, the mysterium conjunctionis, the alchemical mystery of the King and Queen, Red Lion and White Eagle. We’re in quite familiar territory.
13. Do you believe in the existence of ‘spirits’ – human or non-human? Have you ever had any experiences of ‘spirit’?
“Everything is full of Gods.”
A lot of my philosophical approach to the existence of causative agents is set out above, so there’s no need to repeat it here. But yes, a lot of the traditional work of western ritual magic concerns spirits – from the Holy Guardian Angel, to the various ranked angels, to the marvellous and somewhat sulphurous crew that is the Goetia.
As to human spirit – well, that’s a tricky one. I’m not sure there is anything like a fixed and personal soul, something that won’t unravel into the infinite at death, but I’m fairly certain there’s something there. I find the idea that everything is down to a few amino acids bumping about drastically uninteresting.
Of course, there’s alchemical ‘spirit’ as well, which I see as a sort of Spinozan ‘substance’.
Existence is such a troubled word though, isn’t it? I’m never quite sure what people mean when they say it. I mean, take Spinoza – in common belief he was a terrible recluse, concentrating solely on his philosophy, whereas evidence shows him to be quite vitally involved and connected to the culture of his time. Which Spinoza exists for us these days? Which is the more vital? How many people does the myth of Spinoza the solitary seeker after truth inspire?
13.1 Is there really anything wrong with using the working model that “it’s all in your head?
Yes, there are huge problems with it, actually. I think if you go in with that assumption then you negate and exclude yourself from any useful experience. If ‘it’s all in your head’ means it has no external function and reality, then on some level you’re always going to be cut off from the full breadth of spiritual experience. I think it’s a way of sublimating the fear of the Other which means that you’re operating in a closed system with no possible outside, random, uncontrollable influences.
It’s an inhibitor to experience for one thing: if you look at magic or spiritual experience simply as a function of a certain system of belief which can be adopted and dismissed at will, then I really question the extent to which you fully get the consequences of that action. Belief isn’t a commodity that can invested at will; it’s instinctive and unchosen.
This is, of course, somewhat different to believing that all aspects of personal experience are to some extent ‘in your head’ as perceived external phenomena.
14. Do you believe in the existence of magic? As a believer, how would you explain it?
Yes. I wouldn’t know how to explain it. I’ve tried a number of times, of course. It’s possible to describe the principles along which it operates – a philosophy of occult causation, through the principle of sympathy, or similar. It’s possible to use Uncle Al’s definition – ‘The Science and Art of causing change to occur in conformity with Will’ – but there are problems with this definition. Firstly, it doesn’t address the methodology used – how change is brought about. Secondly, I’m rather dubious about the ‘Science’ bit. Magic isn’t scientific. Bits of its methodology can be, but it *can’t* be a science in the conventional sense. It’s much closer to an Art.
I think the idea that magic is just science that we haven’t understood yet has too strong a hold on our discourse at the moment, and usually ends up with people tapping their noses and talking about ‘quantum’ – whereas I’m of the opinion that magicians should be somewhat reticent to leap on current scientific opinion as ‘explaining’ magic, since a number of people did that in Victorian times, and now look a bit foolish talking about animal magnetism and luminiferous ether. Which isn’t to say, of course, that current scientific models can’t be inspiring in the way we look at the world.
Magic is art, and that’s why there’s always going to be huge limitations to cookbook-type magical literature (though even that’s done shoddily nowadays), because once you’ve got the rubrics it all goes non-discursive. That’s why I like Kenneth Grant – sure, like Alan Moore said, he’s ‘as incongruous as a sasquatch at a vicarage tea party’, but his books are vastly fertile swathes of creative occultism. Not to my taste, certainly, but certainly better than Liber MMMCCCXVII: Collected Shopping Lists of the Beast.
Magic’s ultimately about the relationship between That Which Is and That Which Isn’t, and that vital little ditch between them, where we take things that we dream and breathe them slowly into life. At its most unimaginative and mundane, you can get a promotion, or smoothen the little wrinkles that make life fun, at its most profound, it’s about going up, up, up and out, out and beyond. I’ve said that magic is art, and we use the same vocabulary to talk about them in some places: the magician practises the ‘Invocation of the Genius’, and I would refer to Ginsberg’s poetry or Picasso’s paintings as works of Genius. I think this tells us a lot.
Magic is the mystery in motion. Don’t settle for unimaginative, lazy, pedantic occultism when you can have magic. I suspect my motto might be Magic: why settle for anything less?
(Which doesn’t answer your question, which is mostly unanswerable anyway.)
14.1 What does it mean to be “an Aristotelian longing to be a Platonist”?
It’s a description of the way my mind works, really. I’m naturally inclined to the sort of investigation that characterises Aristotle – empirical, rational, evidence-based thinking. Aristotle said that the forms (the horse-quality of a horse, or the chair-quality of a chair) were categories created by and in the human mind by observation of the external world, in contrast to Plato, who maintained that there existed an abstract idea of a chair or horse on a higher plane, where our souls come from, and that our acts of recognition are really acts of memory. I recognise the vast, baroque spectacle that is the Platonic cosmology, but I’m more naturally inclined to the Aristotelian mode of thinking. I should point out that this is a British tradition anyway – the great exponents of this empirical style of thinking were British – Hume, Locke and Berkeley.
It’s not entirely accurate, of course, since it’s really only part of me that thinks in this logically sequential way – there’s an equally strong part of my makeup that is inclined to leap between ideas and make great spectacles, it’s just that they get employed in differing circumstances. That strong scepticism is actually a bit of a safeguard in magic anyway, so I’m rather glad of it.
15. Do you practice your spirituality alone, in a group, or both? Was this a deliberate decision or a necessity?
Both. Participation in a group doesn’t and can’t vitiate the necessity for individual spiritual practice, and they serve different needs anyway. I originally sought out company because I wanted magical training, but that group (which no longer exists, lest anyone be under the impression that I’m talking about a group that still recruits) mostly taught me that the sort of training I had thought I’d get isn’t the sort of training that’s really necessary. Other magical groups came along after that. Spiritually, I sort of sauntered into Wicca, and it was a combination of decision and fortuitous circumstance. But really, I’ve never felt that much of an urge to have a religious community, because either that community is the entire population of the world, or it’s me alone. Which leads to some natural dissatisfaction with any sacerdotal role, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since I think those comfortable to be priests tend to make very bad ones.
16. If you’ve done both, which do you prefer?
It’s not really a matter of preference, to be honest. Magic and spirituality in groups is suitable for some things, solitary for others. The vast majority of my more intense experiences have been solitary, due in part to the intensely personal nature of those experiences.
16.1 “Ceremonial magic: at best, a vice which is a matter of taste; at worst, a refuge of pomposity and delusion that obfuscates the face of god.” Discuss. (No equations, please.)
Oh my. Uh… Well, I can’t say I disagree, particularly if we’re talking about what a lot of magicians mean when they say ceremonial magic, which is essentially a bunch of parlous, ponderous and occasionally preposterous speeches delivered at length to no discernible purpose. I can’t think of anything more tedious than sitting through a number of hours of greybearded Rosicrucians muttering lengthy, clunky Victorian prose at each other, and then retiring to argue about the proper interpretation of the curriculum for the work of a Zelator Adeptus Minor. I’ve been there, and that’s six hours of my life I’m never getting back.
It’s important to realise that at the heart of ceremonial magic are some very deep spiritual experiences – frankly, experiences that probably less than half of the people who speak about ceremonial magic are interested in, and probably only 10% of them really want to actually get there. The rest are in it for the shiny things, and while that isn’t necessarily a terrible, awful motivation, it really does get a bit frustrating. The arguing over what colour goes where is really secondary, but it’s the easiest thing to talk about, so it has a disproportionate amount of time dedicated to it in our conversation. But the latter half of your point – that people miss the experience because they’re so caught up in the cartography – can be applied to a lot of people interested in ceremonial magic. But the same is true of witchcraft and the obsession with ‘being witchy’. We have our ‘fluffies’ too, they just use longer words.
When ceremonial magic is done well, then it’s a thing of beauty – much like opera in fact, which is a synthesis of a number of diverse forms (declamation, drama, orchestra, singing, storytelling) to reach one artistic goal. And just like opera, it’s a matter of taste, but if it’s dismissed out of hand, I’d argue that you lose a thing of beauty.
I would say, though, that the nature of ceremonial magic is changing – moving away from the Masonic structure that characterised a lot of its form in the late 19th/early-mid 20th century, and is taking in a number of more freeform elements and techniques. This doesn’t always come across in print, but ceremonial magic has always been synthetic, and will (or should) always look to what it can gain by looking at other people’s methods.
16.2 Can you explain to a family audience what you described on October 25th?
Oh, you’re really asking the easy questions today.
As I mentioned previously, a lot of magical experience (as opposed to the basics of magical technique) can’t really be related in a discursive manner, and the passage you’re asking about was a response to some of the questions that have been asked about the experience of the Holy Guardian Angel, which is at the centre of a lot of modern-day ritual magic – I’d go as far as to say it’s the most essential act of magic. In my wildest moments of abandon, I’d probably say it was the *only* act of magic. These are the only true, real secrets of magic: they are not secret because we guard them with our lips, but because they are in a realm of experience that is so entirely other that they can’t be shown. The closest we can give are intimations, and those intimations are always in the form of art – and I think this is important, that the magician who has those experiences is impelled to create.
What I was describing was some of the things about the HGA experience which I don’t really see discussed anywhere – particularly in response to this notion that there’s this one point where this great mystical experience happens, after which everything is fine and dandy. Sure, there are great moments of profound and sudden rapture, but it mostly isn’t that. Also this notion that everything is decorous, polite and well-behaved – it’s not.
So, there are some aspects of that in there. This, more than anything, is what is most vital about my spirituality to me. The ceremonial magic, planetary talismans, evocation of spirits, and then also the scholarship – they’re sidelines, mere trinkets to amuse and satisfy the spirit and mind in comparison to this. Crowley says that everything other than the invocation of the Angel is black magic – and I know exactly what he means. It’s not that they’re evil, it’s that they’re insignificant.
I hate to invoke his name again, and it’s terribly gauche, but I think what Alan Moore is doing is what’s really important – his spoken word stuff, the Highbury Working, the Grand Egyptian Theatre of Marvels – it’s so far ahead of what most magicians are producing, it’s staggering. What I’d really love is to be able to do some of that sort of stuff at pagan conferences, but I really don’t have the cult following, and nor do I think most pagans or magicians really get that sort of thing anyway.
17. Do you believe in the reality of curses? Would you ever do one? What types of spell would you include in your concept of a ‘curse’?
As much as I believe in the reality of anything else, of course. For the most part, I don’t find them necessary, but if I do, they are likely to be of the full on, blood, fire, pointy things kind rather than ‘binding’ which is a politically correct version of cursing for those who can’t stomach the idea. I don’t go along with the idea that they only work if you tell your intended target about it – if I were told someone had cursed me (alas, only raging incompetents have ever said they have), frankly I’d do something about it.
Of course, blessing people is much more efficient, since with a little imagination it can satisfy all of one’s problems.
18. Do you think the law of three-fold returns exists?
Only for second-degree initiates of Wicca.
18.1 Which five books should a person new to paganism and / or Wicca read? (You can if you wish have two lists – one just for Wicca, one for occultism / esotericism generally.)
Well, I have my reservations about most books on Wicca (who’s surprised?), but as 101 books, the following address a wide range of perspectives as well as being clearly and simply written (though Hutton’s work might be a little intimidating for some).
1. Wicca – Vivienne Crowley
2. Witches’ Bible – Farrars
3. Triumph of the Moon – Hutton
4. Magick Without Peers – David Rankine & Ariadne Rainbird
5. Circle of Fire: The Symbolism and Practice of Wiccan Ritual – Sorita d’Este and David Rankine
One for magic in general? Well, that’s even tougher. But…
1. Circles of Power – John Michael Greer
2. The Tree of Life – Israel Regardie
3. SSOTBME – Ramsey Dukes
4. The Foundations of High Magick – Melita Denning and Osborne Phillips.
5. Magick Without Tears – Aleister Crowley
18.2 Should the neophyte read Magick In Theory and Practice or the commentaries of Lon Milo DuQuette?
I’m never sure whether DuQuette deserves the opprobrium I occasionally shovel in his direction, but I can’t help being a bit incredulous that this is the great author of the modern Thelemic scene. I don’t envy the task he took upon himself – making the standard Thelemic rituals ‘accessible’ – and in order to see whether the criticism was entirely justified, I took it upon myself to see if I could produce a similar book – I ended up writing something about 5 to 6 times the size of DuQuette, and that was inadequate (and no, I have no plans to burden the world with yet another explanatory book on magic). But his book on Thelemic ritual essentially expands the obvious, graspable bits, and avoids the difficult parts, or just dismisses them.
And I wonder if the idea of making Thelemic rituals ‘accessible’ is even a good one – yes, I’m sure it takes a bit of effort to make sense of what Crowley’s saying, but is it really too much of an effort? The Thelemic rituals are part of a deep philosophical framework, and if you’re going to engage with Thelema, you are inevitably going to have to read Crowley, and a lot of Crowley, to really understand it. The great advantage of Magick in Theory and Practice is that even if it’s not immediately clear, it challenges you to think about the text. It’s a spur to individual thinking, rather than a simple primer for a symbol set.
Perhaps both have value, in concert. It’s just that I did perfectly well without DuQuette, and I don’t think it’s too much of an effort – as if there could ever be too much effort. I don’t know, maybe I’m a cynic – I think DuQuette is a very nice, charming and witty person, but I just haven’t been blown away by his work.
18.3 Have you ever read any Robert Anton Wilson? If you have, did you need to read Spinoza to calm down afterwards? If you haven’t, why not?
Yes, I read the Illuminatus! Trilogy a few years ago, as well as Cosmic Trigger and a few other things. I enjoyed them a great deal – in a way his ‘reality tunnels’ concept is very similar to Kantian perceptual categories – there are certain deep-seated structures that affect the way we perceive the objective world. Now, they’re dissimilar in that Kant believes these to be things like perception of time and extension, but I think it’s more or less the same thought. And of course, Wilson demonstrates that essential quality which is somewhat lacking among modern magicians – humour! I actually don’t think our philosophies about the way human beings approach the world are that dissimilar, it’s just that we take them in different directions. I do also have a perverse inclination towards Discordianism, though I think most modern Discordians occasionally fail to get the joke.
But as it happens, I did read Spinoza afterwards, if only for some logically-sequential, geometrically-demonstrated philosophical prose!
19. What practices are regularly incorporated in your spiritual life? (E.g. meditation, prayer, ritual, magic, visualisations, trance work…)
What practices aren’t? Meditation, prayer, ritual, trance, visualisation, invocation, evocation, consecration, breathing, walking, writing, dancing, singing, living… where does my spiritual life begin and my mundane life end? The whole idea of compartmentalising them looks a bit silly to me, since every aspect of my life is part of the prima materia for transformation.
20. What festivals, holy days, special occasions etc. do you mark as part of your spirituality?
“A feast every day in your hearts in the joy of my rapture! And a feast every night unto Nu, and the pleasure of uttermost delight!”
I do mark – communally – the eight festivals of the wheel and the 13 lunar festivals, as would be expected. Privately, I also mark the anniversary of my oath of dedication to the Western mysteries, and the traditional feast days of my private Gods.
21. Have you ever done magic to get something and did it work?
Well, of course! Though I actually don’t find it necessary that often. Most of my magic is theurgy.
22. Do you spend much time in nature, in the wild? Do you spend enough time out there?
Perhaps surprisingly, I do spend quite a lot of time outside – I’m fortunate to live close enough to nature that I can pretty much go out whenever I want, and most of the spaces around here are pretty empty of people most of the time. It’s always deeply, deeply rejuvenating for me. I’m a pretty early waker – between about 5 or 6, instinctively – so I like to occasionally wander out near dawn, and sometimes do surya namaskar, though it’s usually far too cold and wet to do that about this time of year.
Whether I spend enough time out there – I’m not sure, but it’s probably more than most people do.
22.1 Do you feel your approach to magic and spirituality is too intellectual and is engaging with nature an antidote? (Feel free to adorn yourself with a crown of oakleaves before answering.)
Excuse me while I just shift this Apollonian laurel… One of the problems that I face is that I have a perverse inclination to play devil’s advocate. So among the pagans, because there’s a lot of silliness and sloppy scholarship and anti-intellectualism, I will naturally emphasise that side of my personality more. Among the more intellectually desiccated of my ceremonial brethren, I’ll naturally be more Dionysian, and focus on ecstasy. It’s just the way I am.
Nevertheless, it is true that I am probably more intellectually-inclined than the average person, and that naturally carries over into my spirituality. I certainly don’t think that it’s antithetical to paganism in any way, as some people seem to believe, since our philosophical tradition comes from classical Mediterranean civilisation. But then, I really don’t understand this notion of being particularly intellectual – I can’t really conceive of being any other way, and it’s just a natural consequence of being interested in things. Again, I’m with Goethe – if you cannot draw on 3000 years, you’re living hand to mouth. And what famine there is among pagans! My god, I can barely begin to express the dismay I feel when the latest barely coherent book is wheeled out as the greatest achievement of modern paganism – what a refuge we are for the mediocre! This culture of anti-intellectualism is so very adolescent. The outgrowth of equal entitlement in religion (which is a good thing) is the idea that all opinions are equal when they’re manifestly not, and as a religious culture we tend to opt for the soporific and superficially pleasing ideas instead of the ones which really challenge our beliefs.
I don’t conceive of spirituality as divorced from my capability for intelligent thought, but certainly there are aspects of spiritual experience which demand a stilling of the mind, and for one’s own sanity that constant questioning needs to be still at times too. And yes, engaging with nature certainly brings me to that pre-verbal state of radical communication with (and wonder at) the world around me that is a necessary part of pagan religion.
23. Do you think paganism works better in the country than in the city? Why?
I think the idea that being in the country somehow makes one a better pagan is an immensely foolish idea propagated by those with a delusional belief that being up to one’s ankles in stinking slurry is somehow enlightening. The idea of ‘communing’ with nature is a very modern one – after all, two thousand years ago, nature was a capricious force that could, at whim, starve or kill you and your family. I don’t think it’s all bad, particularly in this time of ecological crisis, but this D.H. Lawrence-style fetishising of the earth and its earthy people needs to be tempered with the realisation that we invented houses and central heating for a reason.
And of course, we need to talk about paganisms, rather than a homogenous paganism. The paganism of the country and the paganism of the city are naturally going to be different things, but they’re not entirely distinct, nor is one any better than the other.
23.1 Is condescension a legitimate response to truculent ignorance or just a spectator sport?
Well, provided it’s done stylishly, of course. There’s nothing as boring as clunky condescension. Seriously though, it does have to be in balance. If the majority of a post is condescension with no useful information in, then it’s just as bad as whatever engendered it. Sometimes it serves no more purpose than a way of emphasising how frustrating and ludicrous it its that such a discussion should take place at all.
Of course, whenever I’m subject to a (usually half-witted) attempt at an insult, I remember a marvellous story told by Thomas deQuincey: someone flung a glass of wine in someone’s face during the course of a theological debate. The victim, showing no emotion, replied “This, sir, is a digression: now, if you please, the argument.”
CONTENTIOUS PAGAN QUESTIONS
24. How do you define the term “Wiccan”? How do you feel about the idea that “Wiccans” are people who have been initiated into a lineaged Wiccan coven?
Oh, this question. Well, I tend to define ‘Wiccan’ as meaning someone who has taken initiation in a lineaged Gardnerian or Alexandrian coven, but I don’t think arguing about it is always fruitful. What we have to face is that various initiates (for reasons justifiable to themselves, I’m sure) have taken most of the BoS and published it, expanded on it, and put a lot of stuff in the public domain. Some of that’s similar to what goes on in covens, some of it isn’t. Naturally, this is going to lead to people identifying themselves as ‘Wiccan’, because they feel a strong spiritual pull to what’s expressed in those books. Then you get the natural reaction to the shoddy books and lack of thinking, which is the loud reclaiming of the word and the nonfluffy movement – most of which is rooted in genuine concern, but parts of which are snobbery. (Then there’s the latest movement, which is “I’m a non-Wiccan witch and we’re all so much better than you anyway.”)
The initiated community has to face up to the fact that whether we like it or not, some of us have gone and put it out there, and there are people who are picking it up and having genuine spiritual responses to the material. It’s a bit insane to give with one hand and take away with the other. I’m certainly not soft on spiritual flabbiness, but the way to combat the vacuous twittering that is modern paganism isn’t by playing the “I’m taking the ball and going home” game, it’s by putting real information and training out there.
As I’ve said, there are aspects of Wicca – the Wheel of the Year, for instance – which have become very much public things at this time. I’m not saying there aren’t mysteries which are still transmitted in coven setting, just that they’re different, and not necessarily religious in nature. This fuss over initiation seems to miss a vital point, in my opinion – an initiation is a beginning, not an end. Instead of arguing about beginnings, shouldn’t we really be focusing on our ends, and on actual attainment.
24.1 Just how irritated do you get when the term is abused? Really?
It’s hard to muster much wrath about it, it has to be said, especially if it’s a genuine mistake – the only time it really gets my goat is when people try to imply that its modern-day origins with Gardner et al have no bearing on the current usage. Quite clearly they do.
I don’t really get the fuss about identifying labels. Are they really important? I don’t think identity can really be founded on externals, and frankly, there are a lot of Wiccans I wouldn’t really want to share an identity with anyway.
25. Is Wicca and paganism generally too “fluffy”?
Certain quarters could probably do with a little more rigour in the way they approach things, but that’s true everywhere. We live in a consumer age, and perhaps it shouldn’t really be a surprise that religion gets commodified in the way it does. Fast food religion isn’t just limited to paganism, it’s all over the place. We should certainly take a stand against it, but I think it’s almost inevitable in some senses.
25.1. Is it fluffy enough?
Sometimes there are people who are over-eager to crush newbies with the might of their (often inaccurate) knowledge. That really ought to stop.
26. How involved are you with the Pagan ‘scene’? What are your views on the Pagan community – its strengths, weaknesses and any issues facing it?
Well, that’s an interesting question. I’m certainly not as involved as I have been – I really don’t attend that many moots these days. I just don’t have the time, and a lot of are the same event, hellishly recurring to infinity. On the other hand, I do go to some, and know quite a lot of the people at them, and I do speak at some events. So I’m involved enough to know what’s going on and keep an eye out for sea changes and interesting people.
The pagan community has, I suppose, a few strengths that I tend not to notice – people ready with their opinion, full of initiative, enthusiastic. All of which are good. But there are a lot of negatives. The level of discourse is sophomoric at best. A lot of what goes on focuses on people and gossip rather than ideas and experiences. Really, I couldn’t care less about who’s sleeping with whom. And there’s a reluctance to call bullshit in some quarters, as if one shouldn’t criticise other pagans or take issue with ideas that are manifestly ludicrous – and this goes as far as people condoning evident frauds, liars and manipulators for some perceived greater good. Ethics is probably something we all need to have a long look at.
The real issue facing us is how we grow up now, and that’s in two directions – firstly, the move out of people’s living rooms. There’s a meme that’s quite prevalent, that poverty makes one more spiritual. Now naturally, amassing a vast fortune in the face of global inequality is going to raise some ethical issues, but I do think that aiming for a pagan religious space is perhaps one of the long-term aims we should be talking about. What that should be, how that should come about, what shape it should take are all issues that would need long and careful thought. The Goddess Temple in Glastonbury is probably the first step along this road.
The second is actually talking about the spiritual issues that face us in a real way. This includes serious examination of our ancient roots, what they mean today, and creating a pagan theology that isn’t entirely empty-headed – look at the issues that face us: war, poverty, famine, the destruction of the environment. How does a pagan theology respond to them? And then there are issues of personal ethics: what does it mean to be a good person? What is it to be spiritual? How should I behave towards others? How do I fail as a person? And we have ancient exemplars of thought here – it’s not as if we’re alone.
27. Does British Traditional Witchcraft represent a real surviving ancient form of witchcraft pre-existing Gardnerian Wicca? (Please confine yourself to ten pages or less.)
(Which is to say that there are examples of folk magic pre-Gardner, what they lack is a fully-realised, pagan cosmogony, especially considering most of them involve angels and saints.)
It appears I am capable of brevity after all 🙂
28. St Augustine or Nietzche – who’s better?
Augustine, blatantly. Nietzsche’s stroppy self-enthusiasm gets incredibly tiresome after a while. Ja, ja, Friedrich, we get it. You’re great. Now sit down and eat your dinner.
29. Just how much time have you spent in the British Library?
Way, way, way too much. Though, in justification, most of it wasn’t researching magic!
Misteltoe and wine, part two
And — what a surprise! Ian Penman with a snippet or two. Didn’t expect that. Terrific piece on Coil and Kate Bush as well.
Misteltoe and wine
Grant has a pretty good description of some of the underlying elements of Christmas.