Mirror Images

mirror broken

(This is a post that has previously appeared here, however now with four illustrations by Susanne Rempt).

All mirrors are inherently mysterious and magical. The moment when Narcissus looked into the lake and realised that what he saw reflected was at one and the same time the self and an image was the moment of a great divide, a second Fall, but as certain Gnostic sects argued about the temptation of Eve and the expulsion from the Garden of Eden this recognition was a necessary loss of Innocence.  It was the first experience of a mediated reality. All that was needed was the technical expertise to manufacture mirrors to disseminate this heightened self-awareness to every individual. And from mirrors it was only a matter of time before the camera and then film which led to the media landscape that envelops and dominates our perception today.

Mirrors are mentioned frequently in myth, folk-lore and religion; not to mention in art and literature. In Corinthians Paul says of our knowledge of the divine ‘For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known’. In Vodou, the syncretic religion practised widely in Haiti that combines elements of West African spirit religion, Catholicism and arguably Mesoamerican traditions, the altars of hounfours (temples)voodoo mirror

are decorated with mirrors as they are conduits that the houngan use to contact the spirit world. Many cultures at many times held the tradition of covering all mirrors in the house when in mourning, this custom persists today in Judaism. In connection with a heresy held by one of the numerous Gnostic sects Borges states ‘Mirrors and copulation are abominable, since they both multiply the numbers of men.’

In libertine fiction mirrors play a large part as they increase the pleasure of the moment and enables the libertine to view the erotic scene which they are actively participating in. In the sparkling sophisticated jewel of a tale Point de lendemain (No Tomorrow) by Vivant Denon the artful heroine describes to her paramour the delights of her chamber with its reflective glass covering every wall, when he enters he is enchanted to find a ‘a vast cage of mirrors’ and then states that, ‘Desires are reproduced through their image’.mirror hand

One of the most memorable mentions in fairy-tales of the deceptive nature of the looking-glass is the Magic Mirror of the Evil Queen in Snow White, which is a good illustration of William Blake’s quote ‘A truth told with evil intent beats any lie you could invent.’

However, for me the supreme moment for the mirror in literature is when Alice steps through to the other side of the looking glass. _20180102_164940 (1)Ever since the phrase has been used to describe many different and varying experiences; the transfigured absolute reality glimpsed in insanity; the shifting contours of the nightly dreamscape, the heavens and hells of drug use (the John Tenniel illustration was reproduced on LSD blotters in the sixties) the transcendence achieved in sexual ecstasy, and ultimately death, that unknowing inevitable frontier where we hope that the outward appearance will vanish to be replaced for all eternity by our fundamental essence. For although mirrors are just surface and can deceive, distort and warp, they also always reveal something other than just ourselves.

The Staircase to the Forest

Susanne Rempt-Staircase 2018
Susanne Rempt-Staircase 2018

The way out is through the door
verging on a vertiginous staircase
the only way is down though from
this skewered perspective that may
paradoxically lead you upward
so ever onward begin the descent,
quickly take the steps but careful
mind the gaps widening fissures
leading you into the dense forest
so easy to lose your bearings here
the sunlight barely penetrates
this vast twilight realm of hidden
dangers patiently waiting preying
in the branches, undergrowth
did you forget your thread, crumbs?
Compass or maps are no use here
in this contorted maze old as time
if by chance you ever do stumble into
the sacred point, the absolute centre
what you will find is a jumble of stone
slabs stained by millennia of sacrifice
the enactment of hushed mysteries
performed to the veiled huntress
forever unrevealed, unknowable
the sacred cannot be witnessed
any verification is defilement
of a majestic divine inhuman purity
transcendence is transgression
punishable by transformations
inexorable sarcasms of fate
so move on, there is something
to be seen here but not by our eyes
let’s just scatter to the wind
stand by the towering waterfall
that pounds, pulverises, wears down
the landscape changing eventually
courses streams you can’t
step in here twice so float flow
towards distant mother pre-adamic
hold hands jump into the swell
feel the caress of the dark masseur
the currents riptides the source
of life an unconscionable dream. .

Monas Hieroglyphica

Monas Hieroglyphica-John Dee 1564
Monas Hieroglyphica-John Dee 1564

In many respects the brilliant but baffling Dr John Dee is the archetypal Renaissance man and magus. Mathematician, astronomer, expert in navigation, advisor to Queen Elizabeth I and the man credited with coining the term ‘British Empire’, Dee was also a very serious magician and occult philosopher who devoted much of his life to the study of astrology, alchemy, divination and the summoning of angels.

In 1564 Dee published his enigmatic treatise on the Monas Hieroglyphica, a symbol of his own design meant to express the mystical unity of all creation. The text was probably devised as a brief introduction to symbolic language; after piquing the learned reader’s interest Dee would presumably then offer to provide personal tutelage on the subject.

The glyph makes an appearance in one of the founding documents of the Rosicrucians, the alchemical allegory The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz. Quite how it ended up there is explored in detail in Francis Yates’s fascinating The Rosicrucian Enlightenment.

Above is the frontispiece to an early edition published in Antwerp. Below are selected images of the glyph from the treatise, as well as John Coulthart’s stunning variation of the Monas Hieroglyphica.

I will leave you with concluding words of the treatise, which could really serve as the guiding maxim for all alchemical/esoteric literature.

Here the vulgar eye will see nothing but Obscurity and will despair considerably.

 

The Blood of a Single Bird

Hans Bellmer-The Brick Cell-Date Unknown
Hans Bellmer-The Brick Cell-Date Unknown

Writing over two centuries ago, the Marquis De Sade remarked with his characteristic poetic outrageousness and provocative flair, “It has been estimated that more fifty million individuals have lost their lives to wars and religious massacres. Is there even one among them worth the blood of a single bird?” As the Sadean scholar Annie Le Brun noted in her excellent The Reality Overload, Sade’s savage negation strikes us like lightning and is an invitation to view an inverted perspective that allows us to ask: what remains of the rationalist foundations we thoughtlessly ascribe to tolerance, humanism and ecology?

Or not, if you are a devotee of The New Optimists, who subscribe to the theory that we are living in the best of times and that the ultimate triumph of progress is inevitable, as long as we carry on the Enlightenment tradition of placing our faith in Reason and Science. Allied to the ‘End of History’ theory that Western style democracy and free market capitalism represents the death of ideology (we can all stop chasing those chimeras, neo-liberalism is the high water mark of political systems that provides the greatest good for the greatest number of people possible), the New Optimists, especially the High Priest of the movement, Steven Pinker, seek to show with quantitative data and any number of graphs that war, poverty and violence are at an all time low, and therefore we should dismiss any lingering unease about this fur-lined prison we inhabit and be happy. Anyone who doesn’t is an irrational, cynical ingrate who hasn’t learned the value of positive thinking.

Employing a Manichean worldview the New Optimists portray science, reason and humanism as unalloyed virtues that has produced all the good and none of the bad, all of which is entirely the product of anti-Enlightenment irrationality.  The criticism that the philosophes of the Enlightenment led to the technocratic genocide of the Holocaust (which is portrayed as a statistical blip), as advanced by the Frankfurt school is contemptuously dismissed out of hand; rather it was the Romanticism that arose as a rejection of reason that was the root cause of Nazism. Even the development of the nuclear bomb with its unprecedented capabilities of annihilation doesn’t overly concern the New Optimists, we could destroy all life on earth, but we haven’t yet, so uncork the champagne!

After surveying the five thousand years of human atrocities that we politely call history maybe the quantity of war and violence might be on a downward trajectory, but that doesn’t negate the suffering of the people in the numerous contemporary war zones one iota. The facile self congratulatory tone of the so-called rational optimists is appalling. Their belief in liberal progress and their denial of the powerful and necessary irrational forces within humanity speaks of a naivety that is neither touching or endearing, rather a dangerous and deluded wishful thinking.

To return to the opening quote by the Divine Marquis, one of the first thinkers who wasn’t blinded by the glare and dazzle of the Enlightenment, who realised the potential for tyranny committed in the name of progress, this furious contrarian understood the enshrinement of human reason would lead to the degradation and devastation of the natural realm. A realm humanity has constantly sought to be divorced from by a persistent denial of our very nature. 

A Heresy for the 21st Century

Jerusalem-William Blake
Jerusalem-William Blake

Increasingly in the Western democracies there has been a polarisation between the ‘progressive’ left and the emboldened hard right that has resulted in a decay of political discourse. As they hold diametrically opposing views regarding almost everything it seems that no compromise is possible, especially as the one aspect they have in common means each side views the other as deluded at best, if not actively in league with evil. The shared trait that can be gleaned through all the glaring differences is a general Gnostic worldview and a belief in gnosis. Reading writers with progressive views one regularly encounters the term woke and a discussion on a given persons degree of wokeness. A central tenet of Western Esotericism (one directly borrowed from Gnosticism) is to wake up to the true nature of the world, beyond the reality directly perceived by the senses. To be woke means you have been roused from sleep and become aware of the power structures that oppress the vast majority of humanity while controlling all aspects of existence on earth. Conversely the alt-right often speak of being ‘red-pilled’, a term taken from The Matrix, a film of pure gnosticism. Take the blue pill and you stay safe in an ersatz world that is little more that a hologram created by malevolent entities; take the red-pill and you see the world as the prison it really is.

To trace how the progressive left and the hard right came to the same conclusion (though with markedly conflicting proposals for solutions) we are going to have to trace the history of Gnostic thought from 2nd Century AD Alexandria via Northern Italy and Southern France in the 12th-14th Century, detouring to take in the Jewish mystics of the Iberian peninsula during Muslim rule and onto the outpourings of a solitary English genius till we reach the 20th Century when a Swiss psychologist, an American science fiction writer, a French Marxist theorist, the Godfathers of Rap and various occultists, confidence tricksters and cult leaders, amongst others, along with a spectacular discovery in the desert laid the ground for the revival of the most perennial of heresies; Gnosticism. All of which to follow shortly.