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.
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.
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.
In 1938 the Swiss clairvoyant and telepathic healer Emma Kunz began to channel large scale drawings on graph paper using coloured pencils, crayons and a pendulum. During the creation of a piece, which could take up to 48 hours, Kunz neither slept or ate, subsisting entirely on liquids. Neighbours commented that the light was always on at her home. The drawings were then used as a therapeutic tool for her patients, whom she would encourage to meditate upon the mandala-like patterns.
I was first led to this astonishing artist by a comment about my post on the Swedish artist Hilma af Klint, (thank you herongrace). There are indeed similarities, both were female abstract artists with an all consuming interest in mysticism and spiritualism, whose mediumistic art goes far beyond aesthetic formal concerns. Both Klint and Kunz were only discovered after their deaths, and indeed were two-thirds of an exhibition on leading female abstract artists, the other being Agnes Martin. However Klint was a professional artist who kept her groundbreaking innovations a secret, while Kunz had no formal artistic training but thought highly enough of her work (and rightly so) to publish two books.
Since the first exhibition in 1973, ten years after her death, Kunz’s work has been show around the world, including a joint show with Joseph Beuys and Rudolf Steiner. The Emma Kunz Museum in Wurenlos, Switzerland houses 70 of her most important artworks.
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.
(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)
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) byVivant Denonthe 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’.
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. 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.
One of the most glaring omissions from Breton’s Anthologie de l’ humour noir is of the symbolist writer Leon Bloy. Bloy’s scathing, vitriolic assaults on the bourgeoisie are certainly fine examples of black humour. His highly idiosyncratic, reactionary Catholicism is diametrically opposed to the Surrealist militant left-wing atheism, however the similarly politically inclined decadent writers J.K Huysmans and Villers de L’isle-Adam are both included. Maybe the absence of Bloy has more to do with his personality, he had an enormous talent for making enemies. By the end of his impoverished life he had managed to fall out with everyone in the Parisian literary world, former friends especially, and had earned the nickname The Ungrateful Beggar for his constant written requests for money.
The following story by Leon Bloy was much admired by Borges who positions it as one of the few precedents of Kafka. Translation is my own.
If you weren’t already aware, my collection Motion No. 69 is now available (just click on the Author Page link). If you haven’t already decided to buy (for shame), maybe the little taste below will persuade you. I have also included audio, read by yours truly.
My Evil is Stronger
That look on your face?
Take it off, wipe it away.
I know you.
You and your kind,
always taking advantage
of every situation.
With a disarming smile,
a cheeky grin, a dubious charm.
But when nobody’s watching,
the smile instantly fades
from your too-full, sensual lips,
in anticipation of a kill tonight.
Fresh meat indeed…
Your eyes glazing over:
causing electro-magnetic fluctuations
in the immediate field
of vision and effect;
In the unnerving darkness,
your stoned, Satanic laughter echoes.
Yes, your evil is strong.
You know a thing or two.
Read between the lines of Faust.
Hold Prometheus as the burning example.
A dollar-store De Sade,
with a stable of Justines and Juliettes.
But my evil is stronger.
You could never begin to comprehend
the ways of me and my kind:
Contractors for the Apocalypse,
we are elemental and pan-universal.
Your evil is strong.
No love lost
within your small, black heart,
but I am darkness incarnate—
the isolate of terror.
My evil is stronger,
as you will find out right quick.
Unless you take
that damnable look
off your face.
If you aren’t already aware, my collection of 69 inter-related poems and short fictions Motion No. 69is available for purchase in both e-book and paperback. Below is a sample, (or a tease, if you prefer) read by yours truly.
Just close your eyes,
and open your legs.
of your soft, inner thigh,
leading to the downy, raw hollow
seems to me like a promise—
that the door to paradise will open up
wide enough to swallow whole
my entire being.
Do I dare to enter the void
into which I spent my life staring longingly?
Maybe if I bury myself deep enough inside you,
then a curvature will result
in the seemingly,
inexorable, forward flow of time.
And I can return again
to that place
I never wanted to leave anyway.
Floating in the protective bubble,
in the gloved darkness,
nurtured by your essence.
The curvature of my posture
recapitulates the evolution of every species
as they lose the innocence
of a blessed total symmetry—
the result of a fall of some fashion—
and all the time,
as I forget and remember,
remember and forget,
the curvature of your belly
mirrors the earth
and further still of worlds, galaxies and universes,
until you burst open with the creation
that can no longer be contained.
And I scream my discontent
at my expulsion from Eden,
until I find succour
at the curvature of your breast.