MAGIC IS AFOOT: A Conversation with ALAN MOORE about the Arts and the Occult
(Originally published in Arthur. No. 4/May 2003)
Magic Is Afoot
Celebrated comics author ALAN MOORE gives Jay Babcock a historical-theoretical-autobiographical earful about the connection between the Arts and the Occult
Gen’rals gathered in their masses/Just like witches at black masses/Evil minds that plot destruction/Sorcerer of death’s construction/In the fields the bodies burning/As the war machine keeps turning/Death and hatred to mankind/Poisoning their brainwashed minds”
– Black Sabbath, “War Pigs” (1970)
As author Daniel Pinchbeck pointed out in Arthur’s debut issue last fall, magic is afoot in the world. It doesn’t matter whether you think of magic a potent metaphor, as a notion of reality to be taken literally, or a willed self-delusion by goggly losers and New Age housewives. It doesn’t matter. Magic is here, right now, as a cultural force (Harry Potter, Buffy, Sabrina, Lord of the Rings, the Jedi, and of course, Black Sabbath) , as a part of our daily rhetoric, and perhaps, if you’re so inclined, as something truly perceivable, in the same way that love and suffering are real yet unquantifiable–experienced by all yet unaccounted for by the dogma of strict materialism that most of us First Worlders say we “believe“ in. Magic is here.
It’s the season of the witch. And arguably the highest-profile, openly practicing witch–or magus, or magician, or shaman–in the Western world is English comics author Alan Moore. You may know Moore for the mid-’80s comic book Watchmen, a supremely dark, exquisitely structured mystery story he crafted with artist Dave Gibbons that examined, amongst other things, superheroes, Nixon-Reagan America, the “ends justify the means” argument and the nature of time and space. Watchmen was a commercial and critical success, won numerous awards, and made the tall, Rasputin-like Moore a semi-pop star for a couple of years. Watchmen re-introduced the smiley face into the visual lexicon, the clock arrow-shaped blood spatter on its face studiously washed off by the late-’80s/early ‘90s rave scene. Rolling Stone lovingly profiled Moore; he guested on British TV talkshows; he was mobbed at comics conventions; and he got an infamous mention in a Pop Will Eat Itself song.
Recoiling in horror from the celebrity status being foisted on him, Moore withdrew from public appearances. He also withdrew from the mainstream comics industry, bent on pursuing creative projects that had little to do with fantasy-horror and science fiction and adult men with capes. Some of these projects, like the ambitious Big Numbers, fell apart; others were long-aborning sleeper successes that took years to produce, like From Hell (Moore and artist Eddie Campbell’s epic Ripperology), Voice of the Fire (Moore’s stunning first novel) and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (a clever Victorian pulp hero romp in comics form, drawn by Kevin O’Neill); and still others were good-faith genre comics efforts to pay the rent and restore certain storytelling standards to a genre (superhero comics) in decline.
In recent years, Moore’s public profile has been rising again, partly due to the embrace of Hollywood. This summer will see the release of the second high-profile film based on an Alan Moore comic series in three years: a $100-million film version of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, starring Sean Connery. But like the Hughes Brothers’ 2001 radically simplified, arthouse/Hammer adaptation of From Hell starring Johnny Depp and Heather Graham, League will only have some surface similarity to the comics work that inspired it. That’s down as much to typical Hollywood machinations as much as the sheer unadaptability of Moore’s comics–these are works meant to function as comics. Even Terry Gilliam couldn’t see a way to make a film out of Watchmen. Moore’s comics are as tied to the peculiar, wonderful attributes of the comics form as possible.
Comics is itself where the magic comes in. The comics medium is one of the few mainstream entertainment industries open to folks who are openly into what is considered to be very weird, spooky and possibly dangerous stuff. Alejandro Jodorowsky, best known for the heavily occultist films El Topo and Holy Mountain, has been happily doing comics in France for decades. The English-speaking comics industry, meanwhile, has always been open to these sorts of people; indeed, Steve Moore (no relation) and Grant Morrison had been doing magic long before Alan Moore’s late-1993 foray into magical practice. Comics, it seems, attracts–or breeds–magicians, and magical thinking. Perhaps it’s that the form–representational lines on a surface–is directly tied to the first (permanent) visual art: the paintings on cave walls in what were probably shamanistic, or ritualistic settings. In other words: magical settings. Understood this way, comics writers and artists’ interest in magic/shamanism seems almost logical.
For Alan Moore, as the conversation printed below makes clear, this stuff isn’t just the stuff of theory or history or detached anthropological interest. It’s his reality. It informs his daily life. And it informs his artistic output, which in recent years, has been a prodigious outpouring of comics (his ongoing Promethea series, ingeniously drawn by J.H. Williams III, is by far the best), prose essays, “beat seance” spoken-word recordings and collaborative magical performances–one of which, a stunning multimedia tribute to William Blake, I was lucky enough to witness in London at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in February 2000. I did not get to meet Alan Moore at that performance, but I was able to interview him later that year by telephone. We talked for two and a half hours. Rather, Alan talked and I made occasional interjections or proddings. What I found is that Alan doesn’t speak in whole sentences. He doesn’t speak in whole paragraphs. He speaks in whole, fully-formed essays: compelling essays with logical structure, internal payoffs, joking asides, short digressions and strong conclusions. Reducing and condensing these enormously entertaining and enlightening lectures proved not only structurally impossible, but ultimately undesirable. So here are thousands upon thousands of words from Mr. Moore, with few interruptions, assembled from that first marathon in June 2000 and a second in November 2001. Don’t worry–these conversations are not out-of-date. They were ahead of their time. Their time is now.
Because Black Sabbath told us only half the story. There are other, largely forgotten purposes for magic…
Arthur: How did your interest in becoming a magician develop? How has being a magician affected how you approach your work?
Alan Moore: Brian Eno has remarked that a lot of artists, writers, musicians have a kind of almost superstitious fear of understanding how what they do for a living works. It’s like if you were a motorist and you were terrified to look under the bonnet for fear it will go away. I think a lot of people want to have a talent for songwriting or whatever and they think Well I better not examine this too closely or it might be like riding a bicycle–if you stop and think about what you’re doing, you fall off.
Now, I don’t really hold with that at all. I think that yes, the creative process is wonderful and mysterious, but the fact that it’s mysterious doesn’t make it unknowable. All of our existences are fairly precarious, but mine has been made considerably less precarious by actually understanding in some form how the processes that I depend on actually work. Now, alright, my understanding, or the understanding that I’ve gleaned from magic, might be correctly wrongheaded for all I know. But as long as the results are good, as long as the work that I’m turning out either maintains my previous levels of quality or, as I think is the case with a couple of those magical performances, actually exceeds those limits, then I’m not really complaining.
Arthur: You work mostly in comics, which is interesting, as so many magicians–maguses? magi?–have been involved in the visual arts in the last century. Austin Osman Spare, Harry Kenneth Anger, Maya Deren. Aleister Crowley did paintings and drawings.
Crowley lamented that he wasn’t a better visual artist. I went to an exhibition of his and well, some of the pictures work just because they’ve got such a strange color sense, but…it has to be said that the main item of interest was that they were by Crowley. But yes, there’s that whole kind of crowd really: Kenneth Anger, Maya Deren, Stan Brakhage, Harry Smith. And if you start looking beyond the confines of self-declared magicians, then it becomes increasingly difficult to find an artist who wasn’t in some way inspired either by an occult organization or an occult school of thought or by some personal vision.
Most of the Surrealists were very much into the occult. Marcel Duchamp was deeply involved in alchemy. “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors”: that relates to alchemical formulae. He was self-confessedly, he referred to it as an alchemical work. Dali was a great many things, including a quasi-fascist and an obvious scatological nutcase, but he also was involved deeply in the occult. He did a Tarot deck. A lot of the Surrealists were taking inspiration from alchemical imagery, or from Tarot imagery, because occult imagery is perhaps a natural precursor of a lot of the things that the Surrealists were involving themselves with.
But you don’t have to look as far as the Surrealists, really. With all of those neat rectangular boxes, you’d think Mondrian would be rational and mathematical and as far away from the Occult as you could get. But Mondrian was a Theosophist. He [borrowed] the teachings of Madame Blavatsky–all of those boxes and those colors were meant to represent theosophical relationships. Annie Besant, the Theosophist around the turn of the last century, published a book where she had come up with the idea, novel at the time, that you could represent some of these abstract energies that Theosophy referred to by means of abstract shapes and colors. There were a lot of people in the art community who were keeping up upon ideas from the occult and theosophy, they immediately read this and thought, Gosh you could, couldn’t you? And thus modern abstract art was born.
One of the prime occult ideas from the beginning of the last century, which is also interesting because it was a scientific idea, and this was the sudden notion of the fourth dimension. This became very big in science around the end of the 19th century, beginning of the 20th, because of people like these eccentric Victorian mathematicians like Edwin Abbot Abbot–so good they named him twice–who did the book Flatland, and there was also C. Howard Hinton, who was the son of the close friend of William Gull, he gets a kind of walk-on in From Hell, who published his book, What is the Fourth Dimension?
And so ‘the fourth dimension’ was quite a buzzword around the turn of the last century and you got this strange meeting of scientists and spiritualists because the scientists and the spiritualists both realized that a lot of the key phenomena in spiritualism could be completely explained if you were to simply invoke the fourth dimension. Two woods of different materials, two rings of wood, different sorts of wood, but at seances could become interlocked. Presumably. This was some sort of so-called stage magic. The idea of the fourth dimension could explain that — how could you see inside a locked box? Or a sealed envelope? Well in terms of fourth dimension, you could. Just as sort of three-dimensional creatures can see the inside of a two-dimension square. They’re looking down on it through the top, from a dimension that two-dimensional individuals would not have.
So you got this surreal meeting of science and spiritualism back then, and also an incredible effect upon art. Picasso spent his youth pretty well immersed in hashish and occultism. Picasso’s imagery where you’ve got people with both eyes on one side of their face is actually an attempt to, it’s almost like trying to create, to approximate, a fourth dimensional view of a person. If you were looking at somebody from a fourth dimensional perspective, you’d be able to see the side and the front view at once. The same goes with Duchamp’s “Nude Descending A Staircase” where you’ve got this sort of multiple image as if the form was being projected through time, as it descends the staircase.
The further back you go, the more steeped in the occult the artists become. I’ll admit to you, this is looked at from an increasingly mad perspective on my part, but sometimes it looks to me like there’s not a lot that didn’t come from magic. Look at all of the musicians. Gustav Holst, who did The Planets? He was working according to kabbalistic principles, and was quite obsessed with Kabbalah. Alexander Scriabin: another one obsessed with Kabbalah. Edward Elgar: He had his own personal vision guiding him, much like Blake had got. Beethoven, Mozart, these were both alleged, particularly Mozart, were alleged to belong to Masonic occult organizations. Opera was entirely an invention of alchemy. The alchemists decided that they wanted to design a new art form that would be the ultimate artform. It would include all the other artforms: it would include song, music, costume, art, acting, dance. It would be the ultimate artform, and it would be used to express alchemical ideas. Monteverdi was an alchemist. You’ve only got to look at the early operas, and see just how many of them are about alchemical themes. The Ring. The Magic Flute. All of this stuff, there’s often overt or covert alchemical things running through it all.
And there’s Dr. Dee, himself. One of the first things he did, he used to do special effects for performances. He got a reputation for being a diabolist just through doing…I suppose it was a kind of 14th-century Industrial Light and Magic, really. He came up with some classical play, which required a giant flying beetle. He actually came up with a giant flying beetle! [laughs] I think that did more to get him branded as a diabolist than any of his later experiments in angels. No one could understand all this stuff that he was doing with the Enochian tables–they weren’t really bothered by that. But he’d made a man shoot up into the air! [laughter] So he must be the devil or something…
Given the sheer number of people from all fields that would seem to have a magical agenda, it’s even more strange that magic is generally held in such contempt by any serious thinkers. I think that most people that would think of themselves as serious thinkers would tend to assume that anybody in Magic must be some kind of wooly headed New Age mystical type that believes every horoscope that they read in the newspaper. That would be completely dismissive of giving the idea of Magic any intellectual credibility. It’s strange–it seems like you’ve got a world where most of our culture is very heavily informed by Magic but where we almost have to keep up the pretext that there isn’t any such thing as magic, and that you’d have to be mad to be involved in it. It’s something for children or Californians or other New Age lunatics. That seems to be the perception and yet once you only scratch the surface in a few areas, you find that magic is everywhere.
Arthur: You’ve got quite an argument going there for a secret history of the arts…
I’ll probably get round to writing it one of these days: Uncle Al’s Big Book of Magic.
Arthur: Well, there’s quite a bit of kabbalah/self-help books out there these days…
I should imagine if there’s a swamp of books out, it would probably because somebody thought, Hmm, Kabbalah: Madonna’s mentioned it. It must be hip. I’ve got this recipe book kicking around, I wonder if I was to re-jig it and call it the Kabbalistic Recipe Book.’Or, ‘I’ve got this self-help idea, if I were to re-group it to the various Sephirot, then maybe I could sell it.’ It’s probably like that. I should see what’s left when the dust settles. This is probably just a Western world flash in the pan. Give it another six months and everybody will be into primal scream therapy. Or dowsing.
Arthur: I can’t think of many Western contemporary artists, or musicians, or filmmakers, or poets or whatever –who are much affiliated, at a deep level, with esoteric ideas and practices. Why are artists now divorced from something that seems to have played such an important part in the past?
I guess that people in modern times, in general, feel just about divorced from everything. I think that for a lot of people of my generation, going through the ‘50s and ‘60s and ‘70s was enough to make most people confirmed atheists. I know that I certainly was an atheist for a great period of that time, mainly as a reaction against organized religion. The excesses of organized religion have kind of alienated an awful lot of people over this past 20-30 years. I think that for a lot of people, their attitude to spirituality or to magic is actually a kind of displaced attitude to whatever religion they have forced down their throat when they were a child. ‘Oh yeah I remember spirituality, that’s what the nuns tried to beat us with in Catholic school’ or whatever. [chuckles]
So, yeah, people have an aversion to allowing a spiritual element into their lives. At the same time, if you don’t, there is a kind of space that will get filled by something. There is a kind of vacuum there, that can be perceived perhaps as an aching uncertainty. My parents, or, my grandparents, who went through a couple of world wars and some pretty dark days, I think that nevertheless there was more certainty in their lives. Up until 1960, people kind of understood where everything fitted. It was an entirely kind of wrongheaded kind of understanding, that was based on things like the English class system, but I think people had this idea that there was the Royal Family and the Government, and they were running the country. God was running the universe. Everything was in its place, and everything was alright. But, by the ‘60s, perhaps, after the second world war, after Auschwitz, after Hiroshima, it must have been difficult. God had taken a bit of a beating. It must have been a bit harder to believe in a supreme benign merciful creator after some of the things that happened in the ‘40s. Of course Church and state, we’ve had so many corrupt priests, corrupt leaders, so nobody really has any faith in the people that lead us anymore. And there’s no God there.
Now, William Blake had no faith in the people that led him, but he’d got his personal vision of God: that’s what kept him going through those long cold 70 years. I think there are an awful lot of people these days that don’t have that. They’ve been alienated from it, probably because of the religious education imposed upon them when they were younger. So they have to carry around this kind of hole, and fill it with whatever they can. Whether that be something relatively harmless like watching a lot of football games on television, or collecting comics, or something harmful like a smack habit or drinking or all the other things that people fill the holes in their lives with.
I’d say that in a sense, artists–all artists: writers, musicians, visual arts artists–have become divorced from their origins. I think that over the last couple of centuries, Art has been seen increasingly as merely entertainment, having no purpose other than to kill a couple of hours in the endless dreary continuum of our lives. [chuckles] And that’s not what Art’s about, as far as I’m concerned. Art is something which has got a much more vital function. Once again, I remember Eno saying that you only have to look at how high a priority art was in terms of human life to understand that it has to be there for a reason. I mean, when we descend from the trees, we find something to eat, we find somewhere to sleep, we find a warm place to shit, and then we go out and we draw a picture on a wall explaining how we found the stuff to eat, the place to sleep, the warm place to shit. Art is about our fourth survival priority. And one can only assume that it therefore must have importance.
This importance was certainly understood in early cultures. I mean, one of the oldest traditions of magic is the bardic tradition of magic–or at least over here, anyway, in Britain. A bard, simply by using words, could do much worse things to you than a magician could. Yeah, a magician might put a curse upon you if you offended them. And what’s that gonna do? It makes some of your hens lay funny, sends the milk sour, you have a baby with a club foot: these things are survivable. But if a bard were to put a satire on you, and if it was a good enough satire, then he could destroy you in your own eyes, if it was accurate enough satire, if it was BARBED enough, it could destroy you in the eyes of your friends, your family, your contemporaries. In fact if it was a good enough satire, it might well be remembered hundreds of years after you were dead. People might still be laughing at you, and your relatives, hundreds of years after you were dead. You might have become a shame to your entire bloodline. [chuckles]
Now that was a terrible power indeed, you know? And the powers of artists and musicians was respected. But like I say, over the last couple of centuries, more and more it is seen as entertainment. When you get to the current wave of Brit artists, you see that almost the only notion of success that they have seems to be a financial one. Has this work of art succeeded? Well, “Charles Saatchi has paid half a million for it so I guess it has.” This is so far removed from the intensity of William Blake, the conviction of people like Blake or some of his near-contemporaries like Turner, people like that, they were painting because they had to. They had a vision. And the fact that Blake never had any kind of fiscal success during his life obviously didn’t deter him in the slightest, didn’t stop him from becoming one of the brightest visionary figures that England has ever produced.
I think that artists have been sold down the river. You only have to be treated as if you are disposable entertainment for so long and you’ll start to believe it. You’ll start to feel that you’re lucky to have a job. That, alright, you’re an artist, you kind of have to go into advertising because that’s the only thing that will make any money these days, but hey, you’re lucky to have a job. And to a degree I think that the original flame that’s supposed to be burning inside a genuine piece of art or piece of writing or piece of music is extinguished somewhere down the line by that kind of deal that you’ve made. It’s a kind of Faustian pact, really. You make a deal with the world of commerce: you keep a roof over my head, give me money, pay my mortgage, put my kids through college, and I will just keep my mouth shut and carry on drawing pictures for the front of cereal boxes or whatever. It‘s all “entertainment,” and I don‘t think Art is about “entertainment.”
Arthur: What is the advantage to acknowledging that what one does an artist, or just as a human being, is magical in some way?
Magic has given me an understanding of my own creative processes that I did not have before. It has given me new ways of accessing my creative processes. All of the performances, including the Blake one, were germinated with magical rituals. There would be an initial magical ritual where we would await divine inspiration or whatever to tell us what to do. And then having received what we took to be our instructions, we would carry them out to the letter. And I’m very pleased with the results that that has yielded. They are things that I would not have created had I not been approaching the work in this particular way. It’s as I was saying to my musical partner a while ago, that actually if we continue to get material like this, it doesn’t really matter whether the gods are there or not.
I can’t actually state that this is gonna work for anybody else. I have got no idea whether anybody else would benefit from it. Obviously if you’re gonna be exposed to the world of magic, you’re gonna have to have taken a step past the normal perimeters of the rational world. The very nature of magic is connected to the irrational. You’re gonna have to step out of the realm of conventional sanity at the very least. For a lot of people, that means stepping out of conventional sanity into conventional insanity. [chuckles] For me, I’d say that I’m turning out more work now than I’ve ever done before, even when I was a sleek young gazelle bounding over the precipices of my imagination in my twenties. I think that these days I’m turning out an awful lot more work, and I’m also very pleased with the quality of it. I’ve done some things in the last few years that I would never have been able to imagine doing before.
Arthur: Really? But you did Watchmen before you were a magician. And From Hell…
Having done Watchmen…and From Hell, particularly…I felt that I was perhaps coming to a limit as to what I could further understand about writing rationally, that if I was going to go any further into writing, I felt I had to take a step beyond the rational, and magic was the only area that offered floorboards after that step. And it also seemed to offer a new way of looking at things, a new set of tools to continue. I know I could not carry on doing Watchmen over and over again, anymore than I could carry on doing From Hell over and over again. I also know that back then I could never have done anything like, say, Promethea 12. Promethea 12 is a mind-boggling piece of construction. And I wouldn’t’ve been up to it. It’s not that I never did anything good until I discovered magic, but discovering magic, or at least my notion of it, has given me a bit more of an idea of how I did those good things. What the mechanisms were. And it’s also given me a kind of worldview that is complex and elegant enough to actually file the incredible amount of information that I and everybody else living in the 21st century take in as a matter of course during our everyday lives.
Today the amount of information that we’re bombarded with is kind of like typhoon proportions: we’re in a storm of information. I think most people kind of tend to batten down the hatches and close their minds to a degree. You’ve either got to shut off, which I think is the option that a lot of people choose, or you’ve got to come up with some system that is sophisticated and elegant enough to actually give you a fighting chance of assimilating all of this information, of fitting it into a big picture. Now, in one sense, Kabbalah could be seen as a giant filing cabinet with ten drawers and everything conceivable in the universe arranged in one of those ten drawers–very much to the memory theatres that people like Giordano Bruno would come up with during the Renaissance as means of remembering anything and structuring the information.
Anyways, those are some of the immediate benefits of magic. Also, I really like the interior decor. [chuckles] My house looks lovely. There is a stained glass window in the middle of the room which has the Kabbalah picked out upon it. There’s a set of John Dee’s Enochian tables, beautifully painted up on the walls. There’s an Austin Osman Spare on a wall, there’s a set of Golden Dawn magic wands. Every moment of my life is now surrounded by these images.
Arthur: Let me get a little perspective here. Before ‘93, or ‘94, you would have considered yourself an atheist. But you knew quite a bit about the occult already, judging from some of you stories and characters…
Well yes, but there again, as a writer I’ve got to be interested in everything. So yes, I was at least as knowledgable about the occult as any fantasy comic writer has to be, but it was just one of the things I was interested in. And it was something that was theoretical. My interest in the occult was: I’m interested in what people believe. Because that was the terms in which I saw it. There was no way that I could say whether what these people believe has got any basis or validity. What was interesting to me was that people believed these things.
Starting with January 1994, all of a sudden, it suddenly got a little less of a remote academic topic for me. [laughs] I found myself in the middle of what seemed to be a full-blown magical experience that I could not really account for.
Arthur: What do you mean?
When you’ve found that you’ve spent at least part of an evening talking to an entity that tells you that it is a specific Goetic demon that was first mentioned in the Book of Tobid in the Apocrypha… [chuckles]. Now there’s only so many ways that you can take that. The most obvious way is that you had some sort of hallucination, or that you had some sort of mental breakdown. Something like that. Which is fine, unless there have been other people there with you who had similar experiences at the time, or something similar. Then, when you say, Alright this was some sort of real experience, you then have to think Well, was it therefore something that was purely internal? Was this some part of myself that I’ve given a name and face to, or projected in some way? That’s possible. Or, was this what it said it was? Was this some entirely external entity that actually was what it claimed to be and was talking to me? That’s possible.
I tend to try and not rule out any of those. The thing that actually feels most satisfying is the idea that actually it might be both of them. It might be both inside you and outside you. That doesn’t make any logical sense but that satisfies me most emotionally. It feels truest.
These are gnostic experiences: You’ve either had them or you haven’t. For example: the first experience I had, and this is very difficult to describe, but it felt to me as if me and a very close friend of mine, were both taken on this ride by a specific entity. The entity seemed to me, and to my friend, to be…[sighs]… to be this second-century Roman snake god called Glycon. Or that the second-century Roman snake god called Glycon is one of the forms by which this kind of energy is sometimes known. Because the snake as a symbol runs through almost every magical system, every religion. In the yoga systems, you’ve got the Kundalini serpent. In the Amazon Indian creation myths, you have innumerable serpents that take part in the creation. The same with the Bible: the serpent in the garden of Eden. The Worm of [inaud]. The Midgard serpent coiled three times around the world. It’s difficult to find a religion that doesn’t have a serpent in it somewhere.
So we had this experience. At least part of this experience seemed to be completely outside of Time. There was a perception that all of Time was happening at once. Linear time was a purely a construction of the conscious mind, and in fact Time is much more the way that people like Stephen Hawking seem to describe it, where Space-Time is almost like some big football, and you’ve got the Big Bang at one end of it and the Big Crunch at the other, but all of the moments are all existing at once, in this huge hole at the moment. It’s only our consciousness that’s moving through it, from A to B to C to D. In fact, the whole alphabet’s there right from the start. So there was this perception of being outside of Time. From that perspective, it was possible to see that all of Time was in fact happening at once.
There were other revelations. There was a lot that seemed to be connected with this Roman snake god, whose name was Glycon. Now, the only references there are to him, which are very disparaging, are in the works of the philosopher Lucien… Lucien explains that the whole Glycon cult was an enormous fraud, and that Glycon was a glove puppet. And I’ve got no reason to disbelieve that whatsoever. It sounds absolutely true, that yeah, the false prophet Alexander, who was the person putting on the Glycon show, had a large tame boa constrictor and he had the head of it tucked under his arm and draped over his shoulder he had a speaking tube that had been designed to look like this inhuman longhaired snake’s head with articulated jaws so that it would seem to speak. Yeah, that sounds about right. [chuckles] Of course, to me, I think that’s perfect. If I’m gonna have a god I prefer it to be a complete hoax and a glove puppet because I’m not likely to start believing that glove puppet created the universe or anything dangerous like that.
To me, the IDEA of the god IS the god. It doesn’t matter what form it takes. This is one of the problems that for me Christianity has. Christianity’s got some lovely concepts! Beautiful concepts. However, Christianity also insists upon a historical Jesus. If it was ever proven that Jesus didn’t exist, the whole of Christianity would fall to pieces. There’s no reason for it to, but it would, because they insist that this was DEFINITELY real, he was DEFINITELY born of a virgin, he DEFINITELY died on the cross and then DEFINITELY physically ascended to Heaven. All of which sounds like bollocks to me. That sounds frankly impossible. That can’t happen. However, you’ve got this wonderful story. This story’s got complete integrity. As a story, it’s fine. It’s rich in symbolism, it’s rich in moral awareness. It’s insisting on this historical background that is the problem.
Now for me, I don’t believe that there was ever a living snake that had a semi-human head and long hair and spoke. That would be mad, to believe that. I believe that, yeah, Alexander the false prophet has got some really clever scam going involving a puppet and a boa constrictor. But nevertheless, that was a representation of the god. That was not the god. The god is the IDEA of the god. THAT was what I believe that visited me and my friend upon this first occasion, and which I’ve had contact on subsequent occasions.
Now, this god Glycon was supposed to be at the time of his inception was supposed to be the second coming of the god Asclepius–this is the god of medicine, who is traditionally shown as an old man with a snake round around his staff. This is the origin of the caduceus symbol that you see in ambulances and hospitals. That’s why the snake is associated with healing, because of Asclepius. Now, imagine my surprise, then, when some years later after I’d had this preliminary experience, I was reading The Collected Letters of Philip K. Dick. [chuckles] This was what he wrote during the early ’70s, just before he had the VALIS experience, and went completely mad. He’s talking in very plain terms about things as they happen. He’s talking about how he’s getting all of this information that seems to be being flashed into his brain. The pink light. And he’s talking about how part of it seems to have to do with the Holy Roman Empire. Part of it seems to be an Ancient 2nd or 3rd century Rome. Part of it also seems to be to do with the perception that all of time is happening at once. And that, in his words, the Empire never fell. That all of time is actually a solid-state thing that’s happening all at once. And there’s this particularly little shivery bit that I read in one of his letters where he says, “I’ve found out the name of the entity that’s contacting me. It’s called Asclepius.” I thought this was a little bit, you know, a little bit worrying! [laughter] It sounded like he’d had a very similar experience and it seemed to be related to the same entity.
Now, I don’t know what to make of that. It seems to me that you might say… I mean, magicians would say there was a “serpent current,” if you like, an energy, that people could connect up to. And they might understand this energy in a number of different forms–as Asclepius,or Glycon or Kundalini or whatever–but it’s essentially a kind of sinuous kind of energy that we associate with the snake and a certain sort of consciousness.
I also had an experience with a demonic creature that told me that its name was Asmoday. Which is Asmodeus. And when I actually was allowed to see what the creature looked like, or what it was prepared to show me, it was this latticework…if you imagine a spider, and then imagine multiple images of that spider, that are kind of linked together–multiple images at different scales, that are all linked together–it’s as if this thing is moving through a different sort of time. You know Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase”? Where you can see all the different stages of the movement at once. So if you imagine that you’ve got this spider, that it was moving around, but it was coming from background to foreground, what you’d get is sort of several spiders, if you like, showing the different stages of its movement.
Now if you imagine all of those arranged into a kind of shimmering lattice that was turning itself inside out as I spoke to it, and I was talking to my partner at the time and sort of saying, This thing’s showing us it’s got an extra dimension I haven’t got, and it’s trying to tell me that it’s good at mathematics. [laughter] It’s vain. There’s something fourth-dimensional about this. This is all stuff I was actually saying at the time, while I was having the experience, which was pretty extreme.
Anyway. Over the next couple of weeks I started researching Asmodeus and found out that actually, yeah, he’s the demon of mathematics. [chuckles] Also there is a thing which apparently, traditionally he is able to offer one, and this is called the Asmodeus flight. This is where the demon will pick you up, carry you into the air, into the sky, and you can look down and you can see all of the houses as if their roofs had been removed, so you can see what’s going on inside them. Now that is not a description of being carried through the air. That’s not being moved into a higher physical space. That’s what things would look like if you’d been moved into a higher mathematical space. If you were actually in the fourth dimension, or if your perceptions were in the fourth dimension, looking down at the third dimension, you wouldn’t see places as if the roofs of the houses had been removed, you’d see around the roofs of the houses. [chuckles] In the same way that if you imagine a race of completely two-dimensional creatures living on a sheet of paper, if you draw a square and then put one of those two-dimensional creatures inside it, they are COMPLETELY enclosed, because every direction in their two dimensions is shut off to them. If you then as a three dimension creature were to reach down and pick up this two-dimensional speck because you can see through the roof, which is a dimension that he hasn’t got. So, if you’re a fourth dimensional creature looking at the third dimension, you would be able to see around the walls of a sealed room. This was interesting, because it kind of confirms the fourth dimensional aspect of Asmodeus.
I did a picture, as best I could, of what I’d seen. I did that about a month after I’d had this experience. Dave Gibbons, who’s a very down-to-earth, practical man, had come up to visit me. He’d seen the Asmodeus picture that I’ve got up on an altar kind of shrine type thing, and he phoned me up a couple of weeks later, saying that he’d just got this book called Four-Space which is a book about the fourth dimension in mathematics. This is not a mystical or occult book, this is hard maths. Very hard maths a lot of it, certainly beyond me. But at the end of the book, the guy who’s put it together gets a little bit playful and just decides to have a little bit of fun with speculation, because whereas all of the book has been hard mathematical facts, in the last chapter he lets himself be a little bit speculative and he sorta says, “Alright, if there was such a thing as fourth-dimensional life, how would this appear to us? Well my best guess is that it would appear as a kind of multiple images of itself at different scales arranged in a shimmering latticework.” And Dave said that he felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end, because he’d seen the Asmodeus picture, which is pretty much exactly that!
Arthur: Another shivery moment.
Yes. One of the first things that struck me when I started to think about the possible spatial aspects of some of these experiences was, Isn’t it strange how many mythological creatures and gods have got so many heads and arms? What if they haven’t. What if the dog god of the underworld, Cerberus, what if he’s only got one head, but he’s shaking it back and forth through a different sort of space? Kali. What if they’ve only got two arms, and they’re just dancing in a kind of Marcel Duchamp “Nude Descending A Staircase” kind of space, where all moments exist at once? Don’t know. My personal feeling is that you’re gonna get a lot more of this as this century starts to evolve. I think that we’re gonna start to look at ancient knowledge, in its own context, rather than imposing our kind of fairly arrogant late-Western, 19th-20th century viewpoint upon it. Jeremy Narby has put forward the strange possibility that DNA might be alive, and aware, and we might be able to communicate with it, [chuckles] in certain extreme states–and it with us. So the snake god might be a projection of the awareness of the DNA. This is sort of interesting.
Arthur: You’ve spoken before about using psilocybin mushrooms in your magical rituals. How important are drugs in magic?
You need something to get you there. It doesn’t have to be drugs. Drugs are one of the time-honored and original ways of getting you into that space, but there are lots of others as well: meditation, fasting, I suppose in extreme cases scourging, dancing or rhythmic drumming. Anything that will derange the senses, which all of those things will do if taken far enough. Now, for me, having grown up in the ‘60s and psychedelic drug culture having been something that I’ve always been very used to and comfortable W ith, it seemed like psilocybin mushrooms, which do have a very honorable magical pedigree going back to the first shamans in the cave, they seemed to be the mode of choice. How to actually propel myself into the magical space.
And back when I was starting out in magic, I probably did an awful lot more mushrooms. I don’t think I’ve done any actual mushroom-based rituals, um…ooo, end of last year? I haven’t done any this year. I find me magic has shifted a bit. It’s not to say that I won’t be doing any in the future, but it’s just that magic seems to have moved to a place somewhere more central in my life now. It’s not something where it’s a peculiar space that I visit through the means of drugs: it’s where I am all the time. It’s a lot more stable. I find that whereas once I would have used drugs to explore all of the various spheres that I explore in Promethea‘s Kabbalah series–I mean, indeed I did use drugs to explore the lower five sephirot, but above that, I’m using my own mind, I’m using I suppose it’s what you’d call meditation, although it’s exactly what any writer does when they’re trying to get into a story, it’s just that the story in these instances is deeply concerned with these kabbalistic states, so getting into the story is almost the same as getting into the state. I find that that, in terms of the experience and the information, works just as well these days.
Everybody’s different. Everybody has things that they feel comfortable with and things that they don’t feel comfortable with. If you do feel comfortable with psychedelic drugs, then by all means use them. If you don’t, then there’s plenty of other ways that you can get your mind into that space. It might take a bit more work. I think everybody finds their own pathway, really. Drugs were an invaluable tool at the beginning of my pathway and still continue to be useful tools, but they’re no longer as central as they once were. The magic has become something which is much more integrated and internalized into my everyday life now. It no longer seems anywhere near as extreme as it once did.
And consequently, even in the books I write that aren’t overtly about the occult, magic, or anything like that, you will still find… Oh, sorry that’s the doorbell. Shan’t be a second! [returns to the phone] Sorry about that. It was just somebody trying to sell me housing insurance or double glazed something… [laughter] Really, when I first became connected to magic, at that point, magic was still something that was foreign to me. It was foreign to my life. There was my life, my ordinary everyday life–and then there was magic. What’s happened since then is that magic has moved completely to the center of my life. Just walking down the street–if you’re doing it in the right frame of mind, if you keep your eyes open, [chuckles], then just walking down the street to get the morning newspaper can be a magical act. It’s difficult to walk past a set of traffic lights and watch the changing of the colors without thinking of the Kabbalistic equivalent of those colors. What the progress from red to amber to green means philosophically, or numerically, or all the other different sort of range of things that our associated in terms of Kabbalah. It’s basically that most of my thinking is magical. Or at least my magical world view has become bigger, more coherent, I’ve learned more, and almost every event of my everyday life is in some way related to magic. In fact, every event in everybody’s everyday life is related to magic [chuckles]…if that’s how you choose to see it.
I tend to see magic, in a way, as a kind of language. I think, unsurprisingly, the gods of magic ARE the gods of language. And magic is, in a sense, a kind of language with which to read the universe. It’s a language of symbols with which you can extract meaning from the most mundane things. And in fact it’s that aspect of magic that I find myself attracted to. The idea of magic as some weird alien Dr. Strange dimension that one can escape to from this one doesn’t really appeal to me. I think that if magic his anything, it’s about realizing the [stage whispering] unbelievable supernatural magic is that in just the fact that we are thinking and having this conversation. Realizing just how magical every instance is, every drawn breath, every thought. Just how astronomical the odds are against it. How wonderful. And following through these kinds of beautiful chains of symbols that can lead to some interesting revelations. But again these are revelations that to me relate to a new way of seeing life in this ordinary mundane world rather than an escape to some fantastic new plane of existence. It’s about uncovering the revelation that is in everything.
I find myself very attracted to the Apocalypse school of poets, who are completely forgotten these days, and in fact nobody can understand why they were called Apocalypse poets when all they talked about was Nature: little birds sitting in trees, and flowers. They were all, the big totem of Apocalypse poets was Dylan Thomas. It would have included people like Henry Triess and a lot of other forgotten names. But what they were, what they meant by ‘apocalypse,’ was simply Revelation. And that other thing in the world is kind of pregnant with revelation if you’re somebody who comes equipped with the right kind of eyes and the right kind of phrasebook, if you like, for decoding.
Arthur: And that’s the key, though, right? Which codebook to go with…
Ah! Well the thing about magic that appeals to me is its difference to religion. The two words are very different. “Religion” is from the Greek or Latin root religari, which is the same root as “ligament” and “ligature,” and so it means “bound together in one space.” Now that always feels a bit unnatural to me. It seems very unlikely that any two human beings on the face of the planet would believe, be bound together, in exactly the same thing. So…alright, magic is a language but perhaps a better analogy is to say: Each religion is a language, and magic is linguistics. In the sense that, if you are a linguist, there’s no such thing as a “false language.” It’s not like, “Oh yeah French is real, but Russian is not a real language.” So if you’re a magician, you have to accept ALL of those religions as being…they’re all true languages! So, you get a different array of concepts, a different worldview in each of the religions. To some degree I take the quantum position that ALL of them are right, in a sense. In order to see truth, you have to consider a lot of different possible positions and hold them all to be true in some mysterious way. Magic, in this sense, is moving between those different positions, studying them, seeing what information there is to be gleaned from each of them, seeing how they connect up. How, for example, a story in the New Testament of the Bible seems to connect up with an ancient Egyptian legend from the Parari Anu. And how this in turn relates to one of the Tarot cards. Which gives it a certain position on the Tree of Life in the Kabbalah. And you follow through these chains of ideas. You do that long enough, you start to get a different set of synaptic connections in your brain, different pathways. And you start to see things in a different way. You start to put things together differently.
Arthur: Of course the other aspect of magic that separates it from most religions is that it’s not based on faith, is it?
Oh, no. No. Faith is for sissies who daren’t go and look for themselves. That’s my basic position. Magic is based upon gnosis. Direct knowledge. It’s a kind of “I’m from Missouri. Show me” approach, if you like. [laughter] I think that gnosis it’s probably the original form of spirituality in mankind. If you look back at the old Gnostic religions that proceeded Christianity, what they depended on was direct knowledge of the Mysteries, or the ideas being talked about. If you look at the early Christians, the people that were allegedly around Jesus, then you can’t get much gnostic than St. Thomas. [chuckles] He has to stick his hand in the wound before he was convinced! Or you’ve got the Essenes, with John the Baptist–they were certainly gnostics. Back then, everybody formed their own relationship to the godhead, which was seen as being inside them, as much as anything.
This is true of the old shamanic religions, that were the forebears of all kind of spiritual and religious thinking. The shaman didn’t so much act as a middleman between people and the gods; he showed them how to get there. He told them how to make their own journeys into the Underworld. I get the impression that the shaman in an ancient tribe would have had the same sort of position as a plumber or an electrician. [chuckles] A plumber is a guy who just knows about plumbing and doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty when he’s unblocking your S-bend or whatever. A shaman is a guy who knows about traveling to the spirit world and doesn’t mind vomiting because he’s taking poisonous drugs, or getting the horrors of going to hell. It’s a community thing.
The later idea of magic, which probably sprung up when people started burning witches and magicians, when it became dangerous to be a magician. Which would probably have been around the ooo, what, the 3rd century, 4th century? When Christian mobs started putting Gnostics in hermetic scholars to death, Around that time there were Christian mobs that were putting to death hermetic scholars like Hypatea. We mention her in the first issue of Promethea. She was real. She was, I think, skinned alive by Christians. And so at that point, this is where you start to get the thing of secrecy and magic, which carries on from that point up to the present day. “If you’re a magician, don’t tell anybody. Don’t tell them and don’t tell them any of the visions you’ve had or give them any of the information that you struggled so long to accrue. Keep it to yourself.’ And that seems very elitist to me. I’d rather disseminate any information I’m getting by one of the means that are open to me. And I’m lucky in that I have several quite excellent means [chuckles] to disseminate information that are open to me. Comic books, CDs, things like that.
Arthur: Now, speaking again of the period prior to your, um, I keep calling it ‘magical awakening,’ I don’t know if that’s the right term–
That’ll do. ‘Mental breakdown’ will do if you want. It’s all the same to me. [laughs]
Arthur: Right, well, broadly speaking, the stuff that you’d been writing prior to that was darker than the stuff you’re writing now–
That’s true… I think that’s partly because at the time, during the ‘80s, when I was doing a lot of darker stuff, well, I perceived those times as very dark times. At the same time I could see that there were a lot of people around me who were working quite hard at pretending that they weren’t very dark times. In the ‘80s, if you will remember, everything was kind of gung-ho, get-ahead, let’s all live the good life, let’s all become stock market speculators, live for the moment.
Arthur: We also had that in the mid-to-late’90s over here, with the Internet boom and all that–
That’s true. Thinking now, those two decades were very much like that. So in the ‘80s I kind of was seeing environmentally and politically all these long looming shadows and I felt that it was necessary to sound a wake-up call. When Margaret Thatcher had been in for a couple of years and we were starting to get riot police sent into previously peaceful urban centers, I felt that V for Vendetta seemed necessary. There were a lot of fascist rumblings from the far right groups over here. The future WAS uncertain. And the Conservative Party were catering to the far Right groups by bringing in pieces of practically Nazi legislation, things like the anti-homosexual bill Clause 28. So it seemed necessary then to stroke a few dark chords and try and wake people up to where they were headed.
Now, from my perspective, where I thought we were headed then, we’re there now. We’re in quite a dark space, particularly given the current international situation. And I don’t think that it’s of any more use to ram the darkness down people’s throats. I think they’ve had enough of that. I think that it would be… I mean, I could carry on doing that forever, because it’s very easy to horrify people. It’s much more easy to describe Hell than it is to describe Heaven. I mean, who remembers Dante’s vision of Heaven? He wrote one! But it’s all the Hell stuff that everyone’s interested in. So yeah, I could have carried on doing things that were very dark, pointing to all the things that are happening in the world now and pointing to the darkness in them, but I think that… That’s not to say there aren’t political observations in me books, but they’re kind of applied with a lighter touch now. And I’m more concerned with trying to give people access to the mental tools to get them beyond this situation, not to warn them about how bad things are getting. Because, I mean a lot of people can just surrender to despair. If they had all the information, they’d go and hang themselves. [chuckles] And that’s no good for anybody.
At the moment, I feel that hopefully in some of the pieces that I’m doing, I might be providing attitudes, mental tools, ways of looking at things, that could actually be of use in these otherwise turbulent times. That’s the plan. With Promethea, it is entirely overt. I sometimes fear that Promethea, so far we’ve avoided it, I hope it doesn’t degenerate into a dull lecture upon the occult. What I’m trying to do is have as much information as I can get in there and still tell an entertaining fantasy story. Obviously I’m the last person to ask whether it’s succeeding, you know.
Arthur: I was also wondering if, on a more personal level, do you think after getting well into From Hell, which is a very dark work, and Voice of the Fire, which is also tremendously dark, that you could have continued on doing that sort of thing. Those were more than works of dark fantasy.
Well. Every work that you do, it takes it out of you. Because you’re not lifting weights or moving some heavy blocks for a living, you tend to think that you’re not actually exerting yourself. How much can you be exerting yourself if you’re laying on the sofa, surrounded by bits of paper and comic books and bits of biscuits and cups of tea and exotic cigarettes? It’s not a very exertive lifestyle. But at the same time, when you’ve finished a book like Watchmen, you do feel quite battered and that’s more true of something like From Hell, which took 10-11 years, or Voice of the Fire, which took five. Where you’re in a space for a very long period of time, it does something to your head. It has to. If it wasn’t doing something to your head, why should you expect it to do anything to your audience’s head? The person who writes it, that’s gonna be the person that’s gonna get the brunt of it. The readers presumably get it in slightly diluted form. So if you’re gonna affect your readers it more or less your responsibility to put yourself through some difficult hoops.
Even doing Brought to Light, the CIA documentary piece, that was quite a desperate experience. It was quite grueling. I had got a pretty pessimistic view of the world political situation, so I wouldn’t say there was stuff in Brought to Light that was a big surprise to me, but it didn’t really help having it there in black and white, things that had just previously been paranoid fantasies. It’s sometimes not so much fun to be proven right.
With From Hell, yeah, that was a long journey through some very dark territory. Some of the voices that I conjured in Voice of the Fire, you know, it’s hard to live with those people.
Arthur: How much longer could you have kept jumping through those hoops?
Well…I don’t know. I’m glad that I stopped when I did! [laughs] That’s is not to say that I’m not gonna be going anywhere dark in the future. But yeah, after you’ve been down in the sewers of sort of the human experience for a while, it doesn’t hurt to freshen up a bit.
Arthur: One other thing about your studies in magic. You seem to have done it on your own. Autodidactically.
That’s true. Normally when people are acclimatizing themselves to magic the thing that they’re advised to do is join a magical order or accept a magical teacher or guru. I’ve never really been much of one for that. It’s probably due to some terrible ego problem of mine or some sort of arrogance… But when I got into writing comics, I did it from just looking at the field from the outside, and then getting me hands dirty. Just playing. Experimenting. Rolling up my sleeves and fiddling around with things, and not worrying if I failed. Sort of play. This is how I learned how to write comics. I played with ideas, did these things that I shouldn’t’ve done. I didn’t really have a guru or a teacher. Nobody ever taught me to write. It was all done by observation and then by applying my intelligence to my observation. So, because that’s the only way I know of learning anything, when I was getting into magic, that seemed to be the best course of action to take.
Now, there’s the matter of initiation. There are some people who tells you, ‘Well you can never become an initiate magician unless you are working in the shadow of more advanced magicians.’ I don’t believe that. I mean, I was initiated on January the seventh, 1994 and I believe that I was initiated by something much higher than magicians. [laughter] Something much rarer. I’m not really interested in anybody else’s opinion of the validity of my magical system. It’s stuff that I’ve worked out myself and with the other people that I’ve worked with and I am prepared, at the drop of a hat, to give demonstrations. I’m prepared to lay it on the line: if I do something and people… I’m quite prepared for people to say Well that isn’t magic. Or, That isn’t any good. [chuckles] I’m prepared to do it in the open, on a stage, in front of hundreds of strangers and they can decide whether it’s magic or not. That seems to me to be the fairest way. Not to put yourself above criticism by only performing in darkened rooms with a couple of initiated magical pals. Do it in the open, where people can see what you have up your sleeve. Where they can see the smoke and the mirrors. And where they can see the stuff that appears authentic. That’s my basic principle.
Arthur: And like we were saying, magicians have often done art, or performances…
Aliester Crowley performed the Rites of Eleusius in London, using music, perfume, incantation, ritual, dance, he had Victor Neuberg dancing at that one. S.L. MacGregor Mather did a Rites of Isis. He put together the Golden Dawn Society. Kenneth Anger, somebody I’ve got a great deal of admiration for, he and people who are slightly affiliated with him–Maya Deren–these are sort of people who have taken the old ideas of magic and then thought, “Well why not apply them to the technology that we have now? That’s all that did the previous magicians ever did.” The fact that it all looks archaic to us now, that’s because things WERE archaic [chuckles] in real life. If they’d had had access to printing presses, video cameras and sound recording equipment, they would have used it! I’m sure that John Dee would have released several CDs of his Enochian chorals. We have to not be locked into the past. Kenneth Anger was shrewd enough to see that film was, in its way, as any art form is, a magical technology. It can be used for creating startling effects. Perhaps…magical effects.
I think that all of this goes back to the fact that originally there can’t have been any difference between magic and art. Any form of art must have started out as magic. The earliest visual arts we have are the cave paintings at Lascaux. Now, these are shamanic. The very way that the cave paintings at Lascaux were arranged, where you have to go through very narrow, sort of crouching series of corridors almost, before you get to this center cave where there are these wonderful animal pictures. It must have been done as some sort of initiation. You’re led through this darkness…and when you get to the center chamber, probably lit up by fire, you would not have seen drawings of animals on the walls: You would have had animals flying around the room. That is because if you’d never seen a drawing before. Just imagine what the very idea of representation before people had the idea of visual representation. What a magical act it was to draw some marks on a cave wall and have everybody understand that this sort of humped line was actually the spine of that ox that we killed two days ago! And to understand that a line on a wall WAS in some way the animal, you know, that’s something that we can’t really grasp now because we are used to looking at a picture and thinking, “Of course, well it’s a picture. It’s a picture of a cow, it’s a picture of a horse.” But back THEN, what an incredible leap of consciousness to actually come up with representational art, which of course leads to written language. The first people to do it would have been magicians.
Look back at what Winsor McKay did with Gertie the Dinosaur , his first animated film. He had very simple tricks in that. There was one bit where he would walk offstage and this was timed to coincide with an animated figure of McKay walking in and interacting with his cartoon dinosaur. Now the audience at this time, and this is only at the turn of the century, the audiences at that time, most of them believed that they’d actually seen a dinosaur onstage. They had no concept of animated cartoon. Even though the cartoon landscape that the dinosaur inhabits has a background that seems to stretch away for a couple of miles, with lots of small inland lakes in the distance…[chuckles] And even though the people in the theater knew that theatre only went back another sort of twenty yards before you’d got the real wall and the car park. Somehow, their perceptions, they did not have a concept for flat animated film. It seemed to them that there must be a dinosaur onstage. These people are nearly contemporaries of our own, so…perhaps that gives you a way of understanding what those cave drawings at Lascaux must have looked like to the first people who saw them, who had no concept of drawing.
And writing, of course, would’ve been an incredible magical tool for the first people who invented it. It would’ve been like telepathy! You would have been able to pass your thoughts to somebody else, miles away. [chuckles] You would’ve been able to record your thoughts to fixed times. To actually fix events in an order. This is the beginning of human consciousness. And it is through a magical act, and it is through an artistic act. There’s dance. All performance would have originally been shamanic. The first people to dance in the fire would people probably wearing antlers! In a way, everything comes from magic. Magic is a kind of an original, inclusive science of existence, which we then break down, because we are very into reductionism. If you can’t understand the whole thing, break it down into tiny pieces that you can understand. So magic is the first step for everything, I believe. Almost all human endeavor must have started out in an almost sacred context.
And I also kind of believe that that’s where we’re heading as well. I think that what we’re heading for is a kind of reintegration. Kabbalistically speaking, the gods of magic and language are the gods of science. Mercury is the science god; he’s also the magic god. I sometimes wonder if perhaps there’s never been as much of a dichotomy between these things as we imagine that there is. I mean, of course more than two or three hundred years ago, any scientist was a magician. Newton was an alchemist. Because alchemy was a respectable science back then.
It starts to look as if, yeah, science is the offspring of magic, but science has kind of grown up, and being a rather snotty, ungrateful child, it’s now embarrassed by its parent, because Magic just sits there in the corner drawing shapes in the air, muttering incantations and dribbling into his beard. I think that Science, if it could, would like to have Magic placed in a mental home somewhere, or a retirement home, where it wouldn’t be so much of an embarrassment. Now, as is often the case with children who rebel against their parents, the older you get the more you find yourself turning into your parent…
I believe that, to some degree, magic and consciousness are intimately connected. Having had these experiences with magic– or things that I believe to have been experiences –the best model that I can come up with for consciousness is consciousness as a form of space. There was a quote from the British Journal of Consciousness Studies, which seemed to be taking up a similar idea: they were talking about something called qualla space, but it seemed that they were talking about something broadly. They were saying that this qualla space was a space in which mental events could be said to happen–which is pretty much what I mean by “idea space.”
Now, to me, yeah, consciousness is a space that most of us occupy a very narrow… Most of us never come out of our living room. We’ve got our individual little private space in our head–just like we’ve got a house as a private physical space. But most of us never go outdoors. We stay within our own identity. However: people who are creative, or people who are questing spirits of some sort or other, have to go deeper. I mean, most people don’t really need new ideas as part of their daily round, depending upon what their job is or what kind of people they are. The same ideas that they had yesterday will probably do just as well today. If you’re a creator, or scientist, or any sort of creator, then you have to look deeper. You have to travel further, to find ideas that no one’s come across before. Rarer ideas. And it strikes me that since the dawn of time, mankind has almost kinda been aware of this. When we talk about consciousness, it’s always with spatial metaphors. We talk quite naturally about things being “on” our mind, or “at the back” of our mind, or the “front” of our mind. I mean, [chuckling], there’s nothing there that has a top, front or a back!
Arthur: Off the top of your head.
Right. We talk in spatial metaphors. To be “in one’s right mind.” Or “out of one’s mind.” You know? These are spatial. There’s no in or out, front or back. But naturally we talk in spatial metaphors like that. I also believe that since our very earliest days, we’ve developed a repertoire of techniques that will enable us to move more deeply, to interact more deeply, with this abstract space. Dance. Meditations. Fasting. Whipping. Drugs. Anything which will take the human mind to some point of extremity beyond its normal parameters. Techniques that I’ve come up with on my own, techniques that I’ve taken from other people. You’re talking about creativity, and all creativity is in that kinda underworld realm.
Another way of looking at this is to say that every human being has their window onto the world, the window of their senses. You’ve got your mind and your senses. Your perceptions. That is your window onto the world. Now just as we look out the windows of our rooms and houses and Yeah we can’t see the whole of reality outside. We can see the houses across the street, a bit of sky above them, whatever. We understand that there is a much wider world out there, but we can only see this little bit of it. Now, using this metaphorical window, a magician is trying to, perhaps, change the angle of elevation of the window. Or widen it. But change what that window can look at. At will. He’s trying to tilt the window so it’ll see higher realms, or lower ones. That’s a magician. What’s happened to a lunatic is that their window has been kicked in. So: they’ve both got the same flood of perceptions rushing in, but the magician has got a framework into which to fit those perceptions. The magician has got a little filing system called “Magic,” in which he can put these various things into the drawers of it, and not be overwhelmed by them. The schizophrenic has just got cats with human faces talking to him, and strange shapes floating around the room, and voices in their heads and no idea where they’re coming from. That’s the difference between madness and magic.
Now to some degree, by its very definition, magic has to be kind of transrational. You have to go beyond the rational to take your first step in magic. So, they’re both talking about the same territory. You have to be mad to be a magician, but you have to be mad in a controlled way. You have to be…deliberately mad. It’s no good going crazy by accident! By then it’ll be too late. Go crazy on purpose, in a controlled way, and you might find that you’re getting somewhere. [laughter]
Arthur: Beyond the living room, as you said.
I’m on a pretty good roll here, and [chuckling] I think that I know why. Ego is a thing that tends to lead a lot of magicians into folly. It’ll probably be my own undoing. Actually look at the track record of those who’ve preceded you. There’s obviously certain occupational hazards that you should look out for as a magician: they tend to die mad, impoverished, in flames–or all three. Occasionally you’ll get someone like Jack Parsons who will at least manage two out of three of those. [laughter]
Right. So, Alan, now to the really important question: What on earth are those knuckle rings?
My girlfriend Melinda Gebbie, she got me a wonderful piece of jointed finger armor. It looked wonderful but completely stupid on its own. It looked like I’d damaged my finger and I’d got some sort of prosthesis. So I kind of had to fill up the other fingers. It became an obsession. It’s probably the Gothic flourish of a man in later life. You get to a certain age in life and I find that it pays to draw attention away from your face. [laughs] They look pretty good, and also, nobody messes with you. (Not that they did anyway.) My hands are registered weapons. They weigh quite a bit. All that metal–I think it’s slowly making my arms longer…. [chuckles] So, picture if you will… in the cobbled back alleys Northampton, as twilight settles, imagine me loping along the alleyway with my knuckles scraping against the cobbles and sending up bright, shearing swathes of sparks. A chilling image…
(Originally published in Arthur. No. 4/May 2003)