I go to sleep
Dreaming of a place
That isn’t quite the same
High noon sun at midnight
The usual rules don’t always apply
Two plus two equals something odd
There are even still areas of terra incognito
Beyond the four cardinal points there be monsters
Territories only mapped by opium addicted cartographers
Cities constructed by the divine ordinance of extravagant fantasists
Cities of the Black Sun, Cities of the Crimson Night
Where I can indulge my imperial delusions
Of the conquest of a golden beloved
Though I have to sail upon the sea
Seething wine dark becalmed
Ultramarine equatorial zones
For looping return cycles
Until I can finally enter
The so long dreamed of
Safe harbour of your
I can finally
Go to sleep
My thoughts and as a consequence my dreams have been occupied by Prague lately, (a place I have never visited, incidentally), the city of Emperor Rudolf II with his court of alchemists, magicians, scientists and artists; where Dr John Dee and his medium Edward Kelley conjured up a vast array of angels in a Aztec obsidian mirror and Guiseppe Arcimboldo painted his bizarre composite portraits of visages made of fruit, branches, flowers and books. The city (fast forwarding three centuries) of Meyrink and his Golem haunting the ghetto; of Kafka and his monstrous metamorphoses, bewildering reversals and byzantine bureaucracies. The city of the incomparable Toyen.
As I noted in my previous post on the artist and occultist Austin Osman Spare he achieved acclaim and relative success at a very early age, exhibiting at the Royal Academy of Arts at 17, before becoming unfashionable and fading into a near total obscurity . Yet he was to remain a highly prolific artist up until his death at 69, experimenting with an array of styles, mediums and techniques.
Spare’s mastery of line was never in dispute, however the paintings in the Experiments in Relativity series, for which he coined the term ‘siderealism’, as well as the more occult influenced work show that Spare was an excellent colourist. The paintings of characters from the grimy streets of Southwark, London and exhibited in local pubs reveal his brilliance as a portraitist.
I have included below a cross section of Spare’s art throughout his career. He has been called a Symbolist, Proto-Surrealist and a precursor of Pop Art, but Spare was first and foremost his own creation.
I will have you
You will be speaking in tongues
Crying out harsh barbaric invocations
Shouting entreaties to forgotten deities
Babbling away in rapturous ecstasy
Before this night is over but you better
Believe that this is only the beginning
For I will have you
Over and over and yet once again
Every element of these arcane rituals
Have to be satisfied in every aspect
The right word said in the right place
At the right time this is the right action
That will cause the doors to open wide
I will have you
I will take you there to a place you
Can only vaguely remember in dreams
A world of mesmerising fascinations
Inevitably leading to intoxicating danger
Nothing is true nothing is real everything
Shapeshifts you only have your self to lose.
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.
John Dee- Monas hieroglyphica
John Dee- Monas hieroglyphica
John Dee-Monad Hieroglyphica
John Coulthart-Variation on the Monas hieroglyphica
At the school where I did anything but study They tried to beat out the boldness Only to encourage my wild and wicked side, So they changed tack and instead talked and talked Attempted to bore me from being bad But it was of no use, they couldn’t avail Because I was born sinister, one of the devil’s own; My sympathy is always for the rogues and rebels, The wanton and the wayward, waifs and strays, Those sweet tarts with sickly gold hearts. Even then my intentions were never honourable But always and forever criminal, amen.
Let me take you down the left hand path, Come on angel and crash with me On the west side with its sinister streets, Lift up your skirt and part those legs Let’s ride through the rippling night I will take you up to where I’m at, Before showing you what’s down below, Under the hill and beneath the deep blue. Then solve et coagula, our reflections Will refract in an avant garde rehearsal Then splinter before a final re-con Figuration on the distant sinister shore.
One of the best examples of the Surrealist ‘cult of the object’ which transformed everyday found objects in strange, suggestive ways by placing them into unlikely convergences and chance juxtapositions, My Nurse by the Swiss artist Meret Oppenheim, famous for her fur-lined tea-cup is a disturbing, subversive work with marked fetishistic overtones.
An up-turned pair of white leather high-heeled shoes are placed on a platter, bound and trussed up like a turkey. Oppenheim commented on this work that ‘…it evokes for me the association of thighs squeezed together in pleasure. In fact, almost a “proposition”. When I was a little girl, four of five, we had a young nursemaid. She was dressed in white (Sunday Best?). Maybe she was in love, maybe that’s why she exuded a sensual atmosphere of which I was unconsciously aware.’
Oppenheim’s comments and the fact that it is shoes bound in such a manner shows that she was fully aware of Freudian psychology. Another, quite clear implication, is that women are not supposed to move.
Georges Bataille in the article Big Toe in Documents magazine outlined his view on shoe and foot fetishes. Because the foot is what treads on the ground and connects us to base reality it is despised, whereas the head, which is nearest to the sky and clouds is venerated. Of course some people will take the contrary view and worship what is generally held in contempt. Luis Bunuel took a rather more straight-forward delight in his shoe fetish as can be witnessed in the extraordinary tracking shot of Catherine Deneuve’s elegant black pumps as she climbs the stairways to Madame Anais brothel for the first time in Belle Du Jour.
Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,
Had a bad cold, nevertheless
Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe,
With a wicked pack of cards. Here, said she,
Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor,
(Those are pearls that were his eyes.Look!)
Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks.
The lady of situations.
Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel,
And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card,
Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,
Which I am forbidden to see. I do not find
The Hanged Man. Fear death by water.
I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring,
Thank you. If you see dear Mrs Equitone,
Tell her I bring the horoscope myself:
One must be so careful these days.
T.S Eliot The Waste Land 1922
It is no surprise really that the Tarot are mentioned at length in the masterpiece of Modernism, T.S Eliot’s The Waste Land from 1922. The notes alone are a treasure trove of esoteric references, making mention of the Cumaean Sibyl, The Golden Bough of James Frazer, the study of Arthurian legend From Ritual to Romance by Jessie L. Weston, Buddha’s Fire Sermon, Gérard de Nerval’s densely hermetic sonnet El Desdichadoand the Upanishads.
Interest in all matters esoteric and occult had become a feature of the avant-garde ever since the later Romantics, especially Charles Baudelaire and the above-mentioned Gérard de Nerval. Later in the 19th Century there would be Arthur Rimbaud with his theory of ‘the alchemy of the word’, the Swedish playwright August Strindberg’s stint in Paris as a practising alchemist, known as the Inferno Period, and various writers and painters connected to the Symbolist and Decadent movements, most notably J.K Huysmans and my personal favourite Comte de Villiers de l’Isle-Adam (see To the Dreamers, To the Deriders).
As the century progressed the Tarot became increasingly esoteric itself. This was quite a recent development, previously the Tarot had been a card game popular in Italy, France and Switzerland, though it also undisputedly used in cartomancy as well. However it was a theologian and Freemason, the Count Gébelin who first advanced the theory in 1781 that the Tarot was a repository of lost ancient knowledge, a theme developed at length by that strange figure known as Etteilla, who added that it was initially conceived by Hermes Tristemegistus himself and was actually ‘The Book of Thoth’. When the man responsible for the French Occult Revival, Eliphas Levi incorporated the Tarot into his magical system and tied the 22 cards of the Major Arcana with the 22 characters of the Hebrew alphabet, the occultation of the Tarot was complete and it became an essential tool for any would-be magician. A quick comparison between any of the older versions of the Tarot with the most famous deck, the Rider-Waite-Smith of 1910 makes this clear, the Rider-Waite-Smith is self-consciously more “mystical”, with an over-abundance of symbolism.
In certain respects the Tarot was tailored-made for Modernism and Post-Modernism, with its emphasis on chance, interpenetration and the shifting, elusive nature of meaning. I have written previously on the Surrealist take on the standard deck of playing cards, Le Jeu Du Marseille-A Surrealist Pack of Cards, and both Salvador Dali and Ithell Colquhuon produced Tarot decks. The Italian post-modernist fabulist Italo Calvino wrote The Castle of Crossed Destinies where the entire plot is told through the Tarot. The Chilean-French film-maker Alejandro Jodorowsky has written eloquently on the Tarot de Marseille and weaves the arcana throughout the acid western El Topo (The Mole) and The Holy Mountain.
In Douglas Cammell’s and Nicholas Roeg’s midnight classic movie Performance, the on-the-run gangster Chas Devlin (James Fox) turns up at the Notting Hill home of the reclusive rock star Turner (Mick Jagger) claiming, somewhat inexplicably, to be a juggler. The first numbered card of the Major Arcana is sometimes called The Juggler, though it nowadays most commonly referred to as The Magician. This hermetic figure points both downward (to the underworld) and upwards (to the stars), a perfect illustration of as above, so below, and prefigures the merging identities towards the end of the movie. Turner seems to realise the import of Devlin’s claim to be a juggler as he immediately comments, ‘You’re a performer of natural magic’.
A quick word on the selection of images; there are thousands of variants on the Tarot available so I have limited myself mainly to the classics. My own preference is for the Tarot De Marseille and the Swiss 1JJ, however the most recognisable is the Rider-Waite-Smith. I have included selections from Dali and Colquhuon as well as the deck designed by Lady Freida Harris for Aleister Crowley. For a contemporary rendition Ulla Von Brandenburg’s excellent deck shows that Tarot continue to fascinate and inspire.
From 1870 to the turn of the century the French Symbolist artist Odilon Redon worked almost exclusively in the medium of charcoal drawing and lithographs. Redon called this extraordinary body of work his noirs. Throughout his career Redon’s expressed intent was to place ‘the logic of the visible at the service of the invisible’, an aesthetic doctrine that strongly resonated with the Surrealists. Straddling that perilous hinterland between dream, hallucination and otherworldly visions, the noirs present a haunting, nocturnal world that is forever sliding into nightmare.
It was the publication of the bible of Decadence A Rebours by JK Huysmans in 1884 that Redon found fame. The archetypal world-weary Decadent Des Esseintes collects and describes in great detail Redon’s lithographs. After 1900 Redon turned to pastels and oils in paintings that reflected his interest in Buddhism and Japanese art and that became increasingly abstract in his latter years.
The possessor of the violently violet aura glided past the mirror towards the dim booths in the dark, escorted by a well dressed man and a couple of standard issue heavies. Agent Lee was assaulted by the smell of brown paper envelopes bulging with notes of a large denomination. The kind of money paid to those that had access to power and who sat in secret council meetings to decide the fate of billions who didn’t even suspect that such forces existed. Agent Lee realised that all his caution and unique talents would have to utilised if he wanted to emerge out of this subterranean realm still breathing.
It was going to be difficult in the extreme to approach violet aura, who he had a perception was named Vivienne, surrounded by such company. It would surely alert one of the warring factions or The Angle, maybe even the controlling authorities who would in turn report higher up to command. He could guess what view they would take if he blew deep cover.
Agent Lee turned over the case in his mind as he downed his drink and signalled to the dead-eyed blonde for another. Every aspect was ambiguous verging on mindfuckery. Nothing was certain and hinted darkly that somewhere someone was being played.
Well at any given moment someone somewhere was getting played, just as long as it wasn’t him. If it was then he would make sure of a sizeable body count before he was put into the bag himself.
What did he know, Agent Lee thought, nothing really, in fact less than nothing.
Al the Angle, real name unknown, as was his date of birth, age, nationality and profession. He was either from Birmingham UK or perhaps Birmingham AL, though some sources suggested his origins could in fact be Black Irish or even Argentinean. It seemed relatively certain that he probably worked for a time as a croupier in The Very Heaven Heavenly Hotel by Hilton-Tetragrammaton ™, Paradise, NV, before becoming a small time grifter and pimp in various European countries. But how much credence could be granted to claims that he had also been a mesmerist, a psychologist, as well as a stage illusionist?
Even more perplexing was how he made the jump from petty conman to being involved in the manufacture and distribution of both Black Acid and Nu-Phoria, which led to expansion of his activities into Centralia and other territories? Even murkier was his apparent involvement with the Selenites and other factions sympathetic to the aims of the Rapturous Ascendancy. Did he really pioneer the hype-gnosis technique and found the Church of Love & Wrath?
Of course the massive elephant in the rather bijou room was how on earth had he circumvented the controlling authorities and set up operations in Agartha itself?
Unsurprisingly given the mass of contradictory evidence rogue elements had suggested that no such person as The Angle ever existed, he was a conflation of ne’er do wells, bugbears and hobgoblins. One agent had remarked to Lee that The Angle was nothing more than a character dreamed up by Special Agent Red who was currently residing in a private clinic outside of Trondheim, Norway. He had written a report which was taken as factual and then through bureaucratic accumulations the nebulous figure had acquired an actuality to the authorities.
He had to get to Vivienne to get to The Angle. But he couldn’t get to her here; he had to get her alone. And for that he would have to rely on patience and chance, only then he could use his magic to get the necessary information and perhaps, just perhaps, even more. The best approach, Lee decided, was to track her leaving the bar from the hotel across the street. Nobody noticed his departure and five minutes after he had checked into a shabby room with a view of the entrance of the Cafe Rouge et Noir the strung out receptionist had forgotten his existence. Looking out of the grubby window Agent Lee watched and waited.