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.

A Slice of Cake with the Marquis

Portrait of the Marquis De Sade Aged 19-Van Loos 1760
Portrait of the Marquis De Sade Aged 19-Van Loo 1760

I wish it to be a chocolate cake, and of chocolate so dense that it is black, like the devil’s ass is blackened by smoke.’ Marquis De Sade in a letter to his wife Renée-Pélagie from Vincennes prison, May 9, 1779.

During his many years of imprisonment, the Marquis De Sade would bombard his wife, Renée-Pélagie, a woman who expands the definition of long-suffering, with letters containing requests for books, clothes (De Sade was quite the dandy), prestiges (a code word for dildos, to avoid the prison censors redactions) and food. Especially sweets, all kind of sweets.

A typical letter asks for the following in the fortnightly care package sent by Renée-Pélagie, ‘…four dozen meringues, two dozen sponge cakes (large); four dozen chocolate pastille candies-with vanilla-and not that infamous rubbish you sent me in the way of sweets last time.’  Locked in his prison cell and unable to satisfy his numerous passions, De Sade was very specific indeed when it came to the delicacies he could enjoy, as another letter from Vincennes shows, ‘Please send me: fifteen biscuits made at the Palais-Royal, the finest possible, six inches long by four inches wide and two inches high, very light and delicate.’ Frequently, however, the items sent by Renée-Pélagie failed to meet the exacting standards of the Marquis; yet more infamous rubbish, provoking a torrent of scorn and invective from the perpetually outraged prisoner.

In De Sade’s fiction, the pleasures of the table are inexorably linked to the pleasures of the flesh. His libertines are invariably gluttons that indulge in fantastical meals in preparation for their orgies. As Noirceuil explains to Juliette, ‘Our cocks are never as stiff as when we’ve just completed a sumptuous feast.’ Examples abound in his libertine novels of such repasts, which he obviously planned with some care, as the following extract from La Nouvelle Justine of a meal consisting of eighty-nine dishes shows:

They were served two soups: one Italian pasta with saffron, the other a bisque au coulis de jambon, and between them a sirloin of beef à l’anglaise. there were twelve hors d’oeurves, six cooked and six raw. then twelve entrées – four of meat, four of game and four of patisseries. A boar’s head was served in the middle of twelve dishes of roast meat, which were accompanied by two courses of side dishes, twelve of vegetables, six of different creams, and six of patisseries. There followed twenty fruit dishes or compotes, an assortment of six ice creams, eight different wines, six liqueurs, rum, punch, cinnamon liqueur, chocolate and coffee. Gernande got stuck into all of them. some of them he polished off on his own. He drank twelve bottles of wine, starting with four Volneys, before moving onto four Ais with the roast meat. He downed a Tokay,  a Paphos, a Madeira and a Falernian with the fruit and finished off with two bottles of liqueurs des Iles, a pint of rum, two bowls of punch and ten cups of coffee.’

In De Sade’s most notorious and darkest novel, 120 Days In Sodom, the only characters to escape the four libertines murderous frenzy are the cooks, because they are a protected guild who are indispensable in maintaining the libertine’s lusts.

Yet, as always with De Sade, one must be wary of his intentions: do they serve as the delirious wish-fulfilment of a jailed aristocrat or do they indeed possess a satirical edge? After all the ancien regime was the great age of the gourmand, where the tables of the rich groaned beneath the weight of  absurdly baroque and decadent meals while the price of staples such as bread would fluctuate wildly. However the menus De Sade’s sent the chef of the Bastille, where he was also locked up, show a surprising frugality:

TUESDAY

DINNER
-Soup
-A mouthwatering half chicken
-Two little vanilla custards
-Two cooked apples

SUPPER
-Soup
-A small hash of the morning’s leftover chicken

SATURDAY

DINNER
-Soup
-Two delectable mutton cutlets
-A coffee custard
-Two cooked Pears

SUPPER
-Soup
-a little sweetened omelette made of just two eggs and extremely fresh butter

De Sade was also only a moderate drinker. Yet it is safe to say that his inability to resist a slice of chocolate cake, as black as the devil’s ass, combined with the sedentary life lived behind bars contributed to him becoming enormously fat in later life.

The Law

What is the law?
-The whole of the law is that love is all.
What is love?
-The collision, then the collusion, of wills.
What is the will?
-The power to make desire the living reality.
What is desire?
-The manifestation of imagination.
What is imagination?
-The knowledge of the magical universe.
What is magic?
-The hidden force that enacts the law.

Tyger Tyger

The Tyger, written and illustrated by William Blake
The Tyger-Written and Illustrated by William Blake from Songs of Experience 1794

The Tyger which was first published in 1794 in  William Blake’s Songs of Experience  was later merged with Blake’s previous collection of 1789 Songs of Innocence as Songs of Innocence and of Experience, showing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul. As with all of Blake’s work it was illuminated and printed by himself.

The Tyger is probably the most famous of Blake’s poems and justifiably so. It is a magical distillation of Blake’s major themes and metaphysics in a short poem of six, four line stanzas with a miraculous melding of form and content. It is in my opinion, the one poem in English literature that comes closest to achieving absolute perfection.

At the time of writing tigers would still have possessed a near mythical status. It is possible that Blake may have seen a tiger cub that was exhibited in a travelling rarity show, hence the childlike and rather cuddly tiger depicted in the plate. The poem is a different matter altogether though. The beauty and the ferocity of the Tyger prompt Blake to question the idea of a benevolent God and leads to a vision of the sublime.

Blake’s Tyger is a Platonic Ideal Form which explains the idiosyncratic spelling. The poem opens with a reiteration, pointing towards the symmetry which plays such an important part in the poem. The rest of the line and the next highlights the duality of the Tyger, who shines with the intensity of the sun (blazing bright) and its nocturnal nature (in the forest of the night). The following couplet that completes the stanza asks what kind of creator could fashion such a violently amoral animal, a question that is reiterated with greater force in the fifth stanza when Blake wonders, Did he who made the Lamb make thee? . The Tyger companion piece in Songs of Innocence  is The Lamb, an animal that has obvious connotations to Christ. The sixth and final stanza repeats the opening stanza with one important difference, dare replaces could in frame thy fearful symmetry.

Blake developed his own personal mythology and his view of God the Creator was idiosyncratic and complicated to say the least. He equated the Old Testament Jehovah with the Gnostic demiurge whom he called variously Urizen and Nobodaddy in his writing. The Ancients of Days is his most famous artistic representation of the Divine Architect of the material universe.

the-ancient-of-days-1794[1]
William Blake-The Ancient of Days 1794

Mirror Images

mirror broken

(This is a post that has previously appeared here, however now with four brand new 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.

Nothing is True, Everything is Permitted

William S. Burroughs
William S. Burroughs

Attributed by legend to the Old Man of the Mountain, the leader of the Nizari Isma’ilites and the founder of the Order of Assassins (Hashshashin), Hassan-i-Sabbah, the line ‘Nothing is true, everything is permitted‘, is first found in print in Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals, and was later taken up in a book entitled Le Grand Maître des Assassins by Betty Bouthoul, where it was discovered by the hit-man for the Apocalypse, William S. Burroughs, who was very fond of quoting it. From there it has infiltrated into popular culture, via movies and video games, and now appears to be the guiding maxim of 21st Century political irreality.

With its perplexing and gnomic quality, the phrase could be read as merely a particularly nihilistic variant of the Liars Paradox. While I am willing to concede that this approach has claims to validity it also shows a lack of imagination, a certain tone-deafness. One can only echo Nietzsche remarks about the labyrinthine consequences of such a proposition as ‘nothing is true, everything is permitted’. So we can safely leave the logical positivists to their sterile linguistic games and pursue an investigation into its meaning and potential implications.

Karl Jaspars warned in 1936 that the statement found in Nietzsche, if removed from its context and taken by itself  ‘…expresses complete lack of obligation; it is an invitation to individual caprice, sophistry, and criminality.’ Hannah Arendt illuminatingly remarked in The Origins of Totalitarianism that, ‘In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true.’

However others saw in the statement not a dire warning but the possibility of freedom; after all, if nothing is true then everything is permitted. The idea that the world is illusionary is one of the certain tenets of Gnosticism (see my ongoing series, starting with A Heresy for the 21st Century), and the second part of the maxim could easily have been part of the philosophy of a particularly radical and  libertine Gnostic sect. But then the early Nizari, although not Gnostic, certainly seems to have been one of the more esoteric and heretical of Islamic movements, as the following story of the qiyāma (resurrection) illustrates.

In 1164 on the seventeenth day of Ramadan, Hasan II, a student of Sufism and the descendent of Hassan-i-Sabbah, gathered Assassins from the Nizari territories at the mountain stronghold of Alamut. The crowds are carefully positioned around the pulpit so that are facing away from Mecca. Behind the pulpit are tables covered in the finest silk clothes. When the sun reaches its zenith in the sky, Hasan II enters through the gates of the citadel, dressed all in white. Addressing the audience he states that he is God’s khalifa and declares the qiyāma (which is supposed to only happen at the end of time). As the esoteric aspect of religion has now been revealed and Paradise is actualised in the corporeal world, sharia law is abolished and those that continue to adhere will be punished. As a coup de grace Hasan II has the silk clothes removed to reveal tables laden with dishes of pork and flagons of wine. The crowd, fearing a test, do not make a move until Hasan II helps himself to a glass and a plate. Then they begin to realise that nothing is true and everything is permitted: there are no laws in Paradise.

Burroughs, who would return to the statement time and time again, interpreted it in a somewhat Gnostic and Blakean sense, with special relevance to artistic creation, stating, ‘Not to be interpreted as an invitation to all manner of unrestrained and destructive behaviour, that would be a minor episode, which would run its course. Everything is permitted because nothing is true. It is all make-believe . . . illusion . . . dream . . . art. When art leaves the frame and the written word leaves the page, not merely the physical frame and page, but the frames and pages that assign the categories.

A basic disruption of reality itself occurs. The literal realisation of art. Success will write apocalypse across the sky. The artist aims for a miracle. The painter wills his pictures to move off the canvass with a separate life. movement outside of the picture and one rip in the fabric is all it takes for pandemonium to break through.”

But taken literally in the 21st Century with its hyper-mediated and conflicting levels of reality, where truth has become something of an unknown quantity, depending upon your own personal, subjective point of view, the maxim has become a political tool in the hands of media-savvy opportunists. We expect politicians to lie, but we are far beyond that stage now. Our precarious sense of reality has eroded to such an extent that nothing is true, everything is permitted, is no longer just a verbal paradox but a damning assessment of the situation it which we find ourselves.

As for me, well, I have Gone to Persia.

Glory

peter-blake-and-to-show-you-im-not-proud-you-may-shake-hands-with-me[1]
Peter Blake-Alice through The Looking Glass 1972
“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,'” Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t – till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!'”
“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument,'” Alice objected.
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There-Lewis Carroll 1871

Alice’s encounter with the proud and doomed egghead philologist Humpty Dumpty, who is naturally sitting on a wall, is one of the most memorable scenes from her visit to the Looking Glass world. Humpty’s practise of assigning private meanings to words raises a whole series of puzzling and unsettling philosophical questions which have only gained in urgency over the last century with its ever greater linguistic and moral relativism.

Carroll, as a philosophical Nominalist (the belief that universal terms do not refer to objective existences, they are mere verbal utterances) and a writer of childrens nonsense books and comic poetry, affirms Humpty’s dictum that a word means just what you choose it to mean in his Symbolic Logic:

…I maintain that any writer of a book is fully authorised in attaching any meaning he likes to any word or phrase he intends to use. If I find an author saying, at the beginning of his book. “let it be understood that by the word ‘black’ I shall always mean ‘white’, and that by the word ‘white’ I shall always mean ‘black’, I meekly accept his ruling, however injudicious I may think it.

While private meaning is an acceptable, even a necessary principle in fiction and poetry, it is far more problematic in other areas. Surely politicians, journalists and judges, for example, are under a moral obligation to avoid weighting words with hidden meaning. Unfortunately many unscrupulous leaders has perverted language in this fashion and imposed the new meaning upon the people.  One of the hallmarks of totalitarian regimes is the power of propaganda to re-define reality; black will indeed become white, a fall from the heights is actually glory. Another technique is of bland technocratic euphemism, making even genocide seem merely a matter of bureaucratic and administrative procedure.

As we drift rudderless in this post-factual, post-truth age with its unprecedented information overload and polarities, we would do well to do the exact opposite of Humpty (after all, he lives on the other side of the mirror), and remember that words are our master, otherwise communication will eventually become impossible.