Category Archives: Art

‘Magic, Running In The Gutters Like Lightning’ by Alan Moore

I am a huge fan of Alan Moore, and I am one of the few readers who eagerly purchased his magazine, Dodgem Logic, as the issues came out in 2010. One article in particular in Issue 3 had a profound effect on my thoughts at the time, and contains a couple of concepts that are so useful I want to be able to reference them in my own writing.

Two years ago, Dodgem Logic content was not available anywhere on the internet, and so I transcribed this piece for reference. I now see that some Dodgem Logic content is available on Scribd. I hope that Alan and the other authors are the ones controlling that account and are getting paid for it. If so, I hope this transcription inspires people to seek out the rest of the Dodgem Logic content on Scribd and drive revenue to the authors, but if the existence of this article is a copyright-infringement-too-far Alan is welcome to contact me on [myhandle] at [gmail] and I’ll take it down.

Until then, enjoy:

‘Magic, Running In The Gutters Like Lightning’ by Alan Moore in Dodgem Logic, Vol1 Issue 3, pp 2-9, April-May 2010

Here amongst the body-bags and melting icecaps of the modern world, magic is surely no more than a comfort-blanket for the dopey and the deluded, or perhaps a lucrative and proven movie-franchise means of separating miracle-starved children and nostalgic, disillusioned adults from their pocket-money. Alan Moore thinks otherwise.

Magic is something that should not be mentioned in mixed company or, come to think of it, in any company whatsoever. It will kill the conversation deader than Houdini and evoke a silence at once horror-stricken, pitying, and uncomfortable, like suddenly announcing you’re partial to incest or Morris-dancing, practices that might have all been perfectly acceptable when we were medieval, but which modern science and common sense assure us we are better off without.

This is particularly true at present, when the science and rationality that dragged our species up from a quagmire of ignorance and pestilence is fighting for its life against a horde of pulpit-pounding, reality-phobic fuckheads who think the planet was, in only seven days, assembled like IKEA furniture a mere six thousand years ago by some kind of talked-up local volcano deity who could apparently have used a course in anger-management and who then planted lots of several-million-year-old fossils just to test the faith of 19th century palaeontologists. It isn’t simply Darwin that’s endangered here: Reason itself is under threat, along with every last advance in human thinking back to Galileo and beyond. Given the stakes, it seems counter-productive to make any sort of case for magic, seems like muddying already bloody waters to dredge up an idea that is equally despised by those on both sides of this increasingly brutal and bare-knuckled argument.

And yet, what if inside the bottomless top hat of magical ideas were some means of conceptually resolving the dispute, some arcane and discarded worldview broad enough to readily accommodate two seemingly irreconcilable realities, the scientific and the spiritual? After all, magic is older than both science and religion and in many ways is parent to the pair of them, with religion being only tribal magical traditions and creation myths that have been organised on a more formal basis, while science is itself built on foundations of hermetic scholarship and alchemy. Who better to sort out a brawl between the kids than Mum and Dad?

So, you might reasonably ask, if magic’s so important historically and potentially, what is it? Although a straightforward enough question, this has a variety of answers which depend on who is being asked. A five year old will tell you with conviction that magic is something that a witch or wizard does to conjure up enchantments or to fly the moonlit skies of Halloween. A Christian fundamentalist will tell you much the same thing but with greater emphasis on satanic orgies and eternal hellfire, while a scientific rationalist would describe magic as a system of belief that has exploited human ignorance of how the world works to prop up or justify an endless system of scams, tyrannies and slaughters, almost since that world began. There may well be more than an element of truth in all of these opinions, and yet if we wish to understand the subject on its own terms before we dismiss it then we might be better off, rather than consulting outsiders on the issue, in asking how magic has defined itself.

This question will admittedly elicit just as many different responses if considered across a few thousand years of diverse magical philosophies, but a halfway-modern definition after the important 20th century magician and alleged Great Beast Aleister Crowley would see magic as the act of bringing about changes in reality according to one’s Will. Will is capitalised deliberately, to stand for the intentions and the actions of one’s highest self, the wisest and most noble part of us, the part that watches out for us and tells us that pissing in an electric outlet isn’t such a great idea. This carefully makes a distinction between our true Will and all our wants, desires and impulses. Running amok at our place of employment or school with a samurai sword or AK47 would certainly bring about change in reality, for both ourselves and for our victims, but these would be changes that only a self-obsessed emotional and psycho-social cripple could find interesting or satisfying. This would be contrary to the whole central concern of magic, which is to connect the individual to his or her highest self and thus transform them into someone much more balanced and empowered, more capable of managing the powerful currents of their life and circumstances that swirl all around them; someone for whom plans succeed and difficulties melt away as if by magic.

Wonderful as this might be, if all there is to magic is some sort of woolly, new-age self improvement program, then what’s all the fuss about? Where are all the demons conjured hissing into pentacles and all the supernatural powers, the flying through the night on broomsticks? Do these ‘changes in reality’ we’re talking about include changes to the laws of physics, such as those which pertain to gravity, for instance? Pretty obviously, the answer to that question would be ‘no’. Does that mean, then, that all the claims made on behalf of magic are no more than a collage of madness, fantasy, fraud and misunderstanding? Given that to say as much is to dismiss the basis for the biggest part of modern science and culture then, again, the answer must be in the negative. This leaves us with an apparent contradiction. Are we saying magic is real, or unreal? Or are we saying that it is somehow both these things at once? The resolution of this puzzle gives us the key to understanding magic, but before we can unpick it we must first sort out our terms of reference. Before we can decide of magic’s real, unreal or somewhere in between we must first make it clear what we mean by reality.

The first thing we can say about reality from a human perspective is that we cannot experience reality directly. We have photons bombarding retinas. We have vibrations in our inner ear, in our tympanums. The cilia in our nostrils and the buds upon our tongues transmit impressions of the chemicals comprising everything we smell or taste, while the minute electrical impulses racing through our nervous systems tell us whether we are touching silk or sandpaper. Moment by moment, we somehow compose these signals into a grand, shifting tapestry we call reality. It isn’t: It’s our sensory impressions of reality, with a direct experience of the thing itself being impossible. Effectively, to practical intents and purposes, reality is in our minds.

The second thing we can say about human reality is that we seem to be perpetually experiencing two very different kinds of this elusive quality or substance. Firstly, there is the material world with all its complex and unyielding laws of chemistry, biology or physics that our mortal bodies exist in and interact with. In trying to comprehend material reality, our human consciousness developed an exquisitely precise tool, science, whereby we could measure, study and perhaps eventually understand most of the cosmos that surrounds us. And then, secondly, we have the immaterial realm that our minds seem to be suspended in, the shifting and ungraspable reality of human consciousness itself… which, as observed above, is the only reality that we can ever truly know directly. This ‘inner’ reality is utterly impenetrable to the scrutiny of the scientific method, which requires empirical proof and phenomena that are repeatable under laboratory conditions, thus excluding thoughts, emotions and the rest of our internal landscape. It’s ironic, but the only blind-spot in our scientific understanding of the world is consciousness itself, the very thing that science emerged from.

Science’s inability to handle consciousness (or even prove that it exists) presents a problem in that if we want to know how our minds work in order, say, to stop them getting ill or maybe to improve them, in the same way that we know things about our bodies, then we have no one to turn to. Consciousness, of course, also presents a major stumbling block for science itself. Science can quite justifiably claim credit for the countless insights into our existence that is has delivered down across the centuries, but one suspects that with consciousness being very probably the most extraordinary, rare and precious item in the universe, the failure of science to provide an explanation for it must surely be irritating.

From science’s point of view, consciousness is what has been called ‘the ghost in the machine’, a vaporous and elusive spectre that is inexplicable and which thus messes up our otherwise detailed and comprehensive clockwork scheme of things. So vexing is this gap in scientific understanding that some areas of science have tried to paper over it by claiming that consciousness doesn’t really exist, that it’s some manner of hallucination caused by glands, by chemicals, by something science is capable of measuring, despite the fact that this flies in the face of all human experience. It also offers us a model of our inner workings that seems limited, impoverished, and functionally all but useless, most especially if we’re in any line of work that calls on us to be creative. How are we meant to aspire to the literary heights of Shakespeare or musical composition skills of J.S. Bach with all mental activity reduced to a mere fart of the pineal gland? A richer and more helpful model of awareness would seem to be called for, perhaps based upon more flexible ideas as to what constitutes reality.

For instance what if rather than denying the reality of consciousness simply because it happens to be outside the parameters of what science can discuss, we instead take the stance that both mental and physical phenomena are real, albeit real in different ways? If we accepted that all thinking creatures were amphibious, in the sense that they have a life in two worlds at once; if we accepted that the phantom world of consciousness was just as real in its own ways as the hard world we bruise our shin on, wouldn’t we at least potentially have a new way of looking at our own awareness, and perhaps a different means of interacting with our own minds that might turn out to be more productive, fruitful and, frankly, exciting?

The idea that we exist astride two worlds, both the material and immaterial, requires examination, though it should be said that this examination cannot be scientific because, as explained previously, consciousness and science go together like milk and uranium. Is there, then, any evidence for the reality of the two planes we are discussing?

Well it could be argued that the definite existence of two such realities is, as the saying goes, as obvious as Lady Gaga’s cock: There is the world in which physical things like, say, a chair exist, and there there is the different, immaterial world in which the idea of a chair exists. Upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that the idea of a chair must come before a physical chair can exist. The same is true of the whole man-made world around us, with our clothes, our homes, our advertising jingles and the language that we sing them in all starting out as ideas in someone’s mind, in someone’s consciousness. Looked at in this way, the world of awareness, far from being unreal, is the solid bedrock upon which a major part of our material world is standing. Also, it bears pointing out that immaterial ideas are much more sturdy and enduring than their physical manifestations. If, for example, every solid material chair were suddenly to vanish from the world (and no, I don’t know how that would have come about, except perhaps in Dr. Who where there’d be some variety of mucous-dripping aliens for whom “our Earth chairs are a kind of drug”), then as long as we still had the idea of chairs, it really wouldn’t be that big a setback. Ideas are immortal, or at least as long-lived as the culture that comes up with them, whereas the objects, monuments and even empires those ideas inspire are transient by comparison. Considered from this angle, which of our two worlds seems the least flimsy and the most important, even the most real?

In this light, we perhaps begin to see how many of the more extraordinary claims made on behalf of magic may have a firm basis in reality, although not the hard, physical reality that we most usually mean when you use that term. We possibly begin to understand that saying magic only happens in the mind or the imagination is potentially a very different thing from saying that it isn’t real. Importantly, if we can accept that the insubstantial medium in which our consciousness exists is just as much a world as the more solid medium in which our bodies, furniture and scratch-cards are all situated, then we can at least try to explore that immaterial world and determine its properties, just our species has so rigorously and rewardingly explored the other realm that our amphibious human breed inhabits, that of matter. Even by simply considering awareness, metaphorically, as being somehow like a world or landscape, we are opening up a family-sized worm-can of fresh possibilities for interacting usefully and interestingly with our consciousness.

What might such a purely cerebral territory be like, compared with our familiar physical terrain, and governed by what different laws? The laws of space and distance, for example, would be different in a world made not from dirt and rocks but from ideas: Land’s End and John O’Groats, famously far apart in the material world, are often mentioned in the same breath and therefore are right next to each other in conceptual terms, are side by side in the peculiar geography of consciousness. The laws of time might well also be different, given that we seem able to travel effortlessly into the remembered past or the projected future in our memory or our imagination, in a way that we cannot accomplish in material reality.

Perhaps the most intriguing question with regard to this world of the mind that we’re hypothesising is whether we each have our own sealed and private mental world, or whether it might be more like the way things are in the physical reality, where each of us has our own private space… our house or room… while having the ability to venture out into the world beyond our door that’s mutually accessible by all, and where we can meet up and interact with other people. If the landscape of ideas were common ground to all of us, this might provide a way of understanding those occasionally reported instances of knowledge-at-a-distance or telepathy. It could also provide an answer to the question asked most often of creative people, which is ‘where do ideas come from?’

If consciousness was actually a mutual environment and if ideas were like physical features in that landscape… like pebbles or landmarks, say, depending on their size and their importance… then we’d have to suppose that since everyone has ideas good or bad, then everyone must be connected with this immaterial world of concepts all the time, whether they be aware of it or not. Some ideas, such as the idea to stick the kettle on and make a cup of tea, are commonplace and could be seen as the equivalent of sand-grains on a beach, in that they’re everywhere, are of such little value and so easily in reach that anyone could have ideas like that without the slightest mental effort. Genuinely original ideas are much, much rarer and will take more of a mental journey and a lot more work to track them down, being less like common sand-grains than like a newly discovered species or lost Aztec city. This is perhaps why new ideas are found most often by artists, philosophers or scientists; creative people who are struggling to establish a much deeper and more exploratory relationship with their own consciousness. It may seem strange to think about awareness as a landscape and ideas as landmarks in that space, distinctive rocky outcrops that we sometimes stumble over in our mental wanderings, but if this were indeed the case it would explain such otherwise improbable coincidences as James Watt’s invention of the steam engine at the exact same time that several other people were inventing the same thing, having had just the same idea.

Of course, so far we are considering our mental realm only in terms of its geography. However when we first set sail on explorations of our physical reality we learned that other areas of the material world were already inhabited by different kinds of people, unimagined animals and unfamiliar vegetation. It might be to our advantage, then to consider the potential biology of our proposed landscape of consciousness, its fauna and flora. Journeying into these further reaches of the mind, what other life-forms might we possibly encounter?

Well, if it’s a landscape that is mutually accessible, we could perhaps expect to make contact with other human minds that happen to be travelling in the same zone of consciousness, as we suggested earlier with regard to a potential basis for claims of telepathy. Furthermore, if it’s a landscape that is indeed timeless, then it might conceivably be possible to meet with human minds that are from our own point of view located in the past or future, which might offer us an explanation for phenomena as various as ghosts from bygone eras or prophetic glimpses of events yet to occur.

Then there’s the at first startling possibility of life forms that aren’t human, that are instead native to the immaterial meta-territory that we’re describing here, creatures made from the insubstantial stuff of thought in the same way that our physical forms are made from flesh and blood, ideas that have evolved to such a level of complexity that they can at least seem to be alive, to be intelligent and independent entities. Living ideas: surely there’s room in such a notion that’s sufficient to accommodate all of the demons, angels, gods, grey aliens, Smurfs or leprechauns, all the imaginary creatures that we humans have made claims for the existence of since the beginnings of our species, back before we had a rational, material worldview which informed us that the things which we experienced in our minds had no legitimate reality.

In our prehistory, before we even had the concept of a mind, we would presumably have taken our experience of the world to be a single, undivided whole, unable to make any separation between mind and body: between external and internal reality. It would seem natural then, in our stone-age attempts to understand a baffling and sometimes hostile universe, for us to vigorously investigate the farthest limits of our territory, both the world that was available outside us and the world that was available within. In these primitive attempts to engage with what we would come to call our consciousness, we have the origins of magic, and also, coincidentally, of science, art, philosophy and indeed almost all contemporary culture. The first Palaeolithic witch-doctors or shamans or magicians patiently developed a whole range of different techniques by which they hoped to interact more deeply and productively with the mysterious underworld that was somehow inside them. By studying these primordial practices, we can get a much clearer picture of the altered state of consciousness that they believed was necessary in order to practice magic, and perhaps also a deeper and more useful understanding of what magic really is.

In our comparisons of commonplace ideas with sand-grains and of rarer ideas with more distant items that would take more mental effort to locate, we seem to be suggesting that some people are prepared to engage much more energetically and deeply with the world of consciousness than others. It was this deeper engagement that our stone-age sorcerers were seeking, or at least this would appear to be the case given that most of their recorded magical techniques seem to be methods of inducing trance-like states in both themselves and their observers. Their otherworldly costumes, in which are the origins of all film and theatre, were designed to shock those watching into a new zone of consciousness. The chanting and the ritual drumming, from which all music commenced, are still still well-known as means of bringing on a state of self-hypnosis, with the same being true of dance, as any hold-outs from the Rave scene would most probably affirm.

And then, also in common with the Rave scene, there are all the psychedelic drugs that shamans are associated with, whether that be the preparations of Ayahuasca or Yage used by South American rainforest sorcerers, the spotted Fly Agaric mushroom favoured by both Lapland shamans and Viking berserkers, or the common “Liberty Cap’ so-called ‘magic” psilocybin mushroom which we may suppose was the most readily available source of a visionary stimulant for the witchdoctors of both ancient Europe and the British Isles. The point is that whether we speak of drumming, meditation. dance or drugs, we’re talking about methods that are only useful as a means of penetrating the internal landscape, which would seem to be a world that the magicians of antiquity thought just as real and important as the physical domain around them, if not more so.

The musings above hopefully present a way of understanding rationally how magic might be seen to work, at least by the practitioner: By using ritual or drugs or drumming or some other technique for inducing altered states, the shaman or magician travels further into our suggested realm of consciousness than would be possible in other circumstances. Moving through this realm they may encounter what seem to be immaterial entities with which they may communicate and from which they believe they can glean useful information. In a sense, it doesn’t matter if the entities concerned are actually ethereal, independent life-forms or just facets of the human mind and personality that we cannot usually access by other methods. Whether we’re communicating with an actual god or with some previously inaccessible part of our own awareness, it would seem to be a thing as marvellous and of as much potential use in either instance.

As we trace the course of magic’s evolution from its Ice-Age origins, we are constantly reminded that what people think to be the literal truths of magic are in fact misunderstandings of what are in fact purely internal mental processes. The standard image of a witch astride her broomstick flying through the night air to the Witches’ Sabbat (or, for that matter, off HarryPotter playing Quidditch) provides us with a splendid example of this over-literal approach at work. From what we’ve come to understand of medieval witchcraft, two of the accoutrements often possessed by genuine practitioners were ‘flying ointment’ and a ‘flying harness’.

In the preparation of the former, a variety of common drugs were combined with fat to make an ointment. These included Henbane, Deadly Nightshade, Angel’s trumpet (all of which are psychedelic at some doses and horribly poisonous at others) along with soporific drugs like Mandrake root (from which comparatively modern sedatives like Mandrax are derived) to make the user sleep. Taken in combination, it might be supposed that this would not be any ordinary state of sleep.

This brings us to the so-called ‘flying harness’, a contraption made of ;eather straps in which the wearer could be comfortably suspended as though weightless from the ceiling of a hut or outbuilding warmed to a constant body-temperature and kept in total darkness, muffled to eliminate all outside noises. This would appear to be an early version of today’s sensory deprivation or flotation tank, with the would-be witch hanging weightless in the dark and silence, neither too warm nor too cool, feeling both disembodied and adrift in their own consciousness. It was at this point that the flying ointment was administered, smeared one of the body’s mucous membranes that would rapidly absorb its heady mix of psychedelic drugs and sleeping potions.

Though I’m loath to be indelicate and spell this out, the body’s most accessible and most absorbent mucous membranes would be those found in the anus or vagina. That’s how suppositories work, after all. In the case of the flying ointment, it would be applied to the suspended witch by means of a convenient applicator, such as, say, a broomstick. When the ointment took effect, the witch would be propelled upon a disembodied psychedelic flight through the landscape of the imagination, a flight only taking place within the mind of the practitioner (although as we have pointed out, that isn’t necessarily the same as saying that the flight’s unreal). It isn’t hard to see how the above could easily be misinterpreted and end up as our cliched ‘image of a hag swooping through darkness with a broom between her legs. Best not to think of Harry Potter in the changing rooms at Hogwarts, getting ready for a match.

As magic became more sophisticated in its practices and theory down across the centuries, we still see the same trance-inducing techniques being used and still see magic taking place almost entirely in the inner landscape of the mind. During the 16th century, Elizabeth the First’s official alchemist, adviser, scientist and astrologer was the astounding Dr. John Dee, a man whose abilities with mathematics, navigation and encryption were the basis of the British Empire (a concept that Dee himself invented) and yet who devoted himself to communications through the medium of a black mirror or a crystal ball with startling entities that he described as angels.

His angelic invocations, chanted in a channelled or invented language called Enochian, function in the way that chanting did for prehistoric sorcerers, allowing the practitioner to slip into a trance state where they’re liable to be receptive to imagined visions in the blurred depths of a crystal ball, used here as a blank screen upon which the observer’s inner visions are projected much like pictures seen within the dying embers of a fire. Despite the fact that all of these drug-induced broomstick flights or crystal ball angelic conversations can only be seen by science as worthless delusions, can we easily dismiss the ideas of a great mind such as the one possessed by Dr. Dee, a man without whose scientific work the later work of fellow alchemist Sir Isaac Newton would not have been possible?

Admittedly, great minds occasionally say or do things that are stupid or misguided, and even an open-minded sceptic who was willing to accept that there might possibly be some truth in our theories about mental space could reasonably ask if there was any practical or useful point to these imaginary exercises. After all, putting potential therapeutic value to one side, what is the point of talking to hallucinations? By their very definition they are mental things and thus cannot provide us with real information. This is a good point and, on the surface, a persuasive argument. However, it avoids the fact that science itself has no idea where a great deal of human knowledge comes from. The debate’s still open, for example, on how we arrived at the most fundamental concept in the whole of human thinking, which is language. As for mathematics, which turns out to be a perfect system that allows us to examine our mathematically-ordered universe, we as yet don’t have a convincing explanation for how we came up with it. This obviously doesn’t prove that immaterial spirits must have gifted us with language or mathematics, but it also doesn’t prove they didn’t.

Let’s consider the specific case of one small part of our vast arsenal of medical knowledge that of the vegetable drug curare, used routinely in the west because its paralysing properties are useful in those surgical procedures where it is important that the patient doesn’t move. Curare is one of the many drugs that we have borrowed from the herbal remedies and medicines used by the natives of the South American rainforests, and in his excellent book The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge, ethnobotanist Jeremy Narby investigates its origins. Curare, used by the rainforest natives as a poisonous tip for their blowpipe darts, will paralyse a treetop monkey so that it cannot cling to its branch but will instead fall to the forest floor where it can be recovered. Better still the meat will not be tainted by the poison. Now, curare is a compound drug, and the rainforest natives have no concept of scientific method.

Even so, they somehow manage to select the right plants from amongst the estimated millions of separate species to be found within the rainforest, and they somehow know enough to boil the plants together and reduce them to a pulp without inhaling the sweet-smelling but instantly lethal vapours. Then, some-how, they know that the resultant mush will be inert unless it is injected in the subcutaneous tissue just beneath the surface of the skin, as is accomplished by a blowpipe dart, for instance.

Narby felt dissatisfied to all these somehows, and decided to ask the rainforest people natives where the’d got their complex information from. Their reply was that the knowledge was imparted by their snake-god through the medium of their local witchdoctors or wise men, the Ayahuasceros, or ‘the men who drink ayahuasca’.

Contacting these sorcerers and taking part in their hallucinatory rituals, Narby experienced a meeting with two large fluorescent talking serpents whom he understood to be the gods that he’d been told of by the natives. He went on to speculate that these ‘gods’ might be some sort of icon or avatar projected by the snaking double helix of our DNA, if DNA were actually a conscious entity. Whether this is the case or not the point is that a substance we are happy to use in our rational and scientific western world would seem to have its origins in processes that are beyond the limits of what science can usefully discuss. Without a magic worldview, even if that worldview is anathema to any scientific rationalist, both science and medicine would lack a number of incredibly important tools.

The notion that things of tremendous use or value can be gathered front the insubstantial entities that are encountered in the crystal ball, the psychedelic episode or simply in our wandering imagination hasn’t ever been in doubt for the innumerable practitioners of magic throughout history. During the nineteenth century, elaborate magic brotherhoods such as the Order of the Golden Dawn did much to organise some several thousand years of wildly diverse magic theory into a coherent system. Meanwhile, brilliant mavericks like infamous Aleister Crowley or the transcendentally unnerving Brixton artist and magician Austin Osman Spare were introducing the idea that the best magic systems were perhaps the ones that you’d discovered or invented for yourself.

In light of all of the above. where does that leave us? Here in 2010, beleaguered as we are by our increasingly invasive and controlling governments, with our material environment and our economies collapsing, should we even be discussing such a thing as magic? Won’t that just make God more angry?

On the other hand, if as a species we are circling the plughole of existence then it could be argued that we really don’t have anything to lose by just considering a different worldview, and indeed might have a lot to gain. One of the major benefits of the internal magic landscape is that it cannot be penetrated by police or government. In its environment of ideas, much more durable than our own physical environment, it maybe that solutions to our current eco-problems can be found… it’s fairly obvious that we need to get new ideas from somewhere, after all… and as for all our economic difficulties, as a resource magic is entirely free and doesn’t seem to have a carbon footprint.

But, even if we accept that magic might be beneficial, how are we to go about it? Well, we could do worse than looking to the ancient universal principles of magic, as described above, to find our answer. It would seem, for instance, that in order to engage more deeply with the magic landscape of our consciousness, some means of entering a trance-state is required. This could be repetitive and rhythmic drumming, chanting, meditation or a psychedelic drug, depending on the individual’s tastes. Before immersing ourselves in our preferred trance, however, we should have in place some method of controlling and directing our hoped-for experience. This is where magic ritual comes in.

A magic ritual, which might involve a lot of different elements, can be seen as a way of programming our minds towards the area of consciousness that we are hoping to achieve or contact. For example, if we wished to contact a symbolic entity like Mercury, the Roman god of magic and communication, we would decorate the space where we’ve decided to perform the ritual with things that are associated with that god. A good book of magical correspondences like Aleister Crowley’s 777 will provide complete and useful tables of associations for whatever entity you hope to get in touch with, but in the specific case of Mercury you’ll find that among those associations are the number eight, the colour orange, the perfume storax, the vegetable drug hashish, the precious stone fire-opal and a host of other things. So, when it comes to tarting up your ritual space for your Mercury ritual, you might want to have an orange cloth draping the tabletop or altar, with eight candles lighting the appointed space and some storax gum smouldering in an incense burner. You might want to have an image of the god in question in some central place, either a statue or an image clipped out of a magazine or, best of all, an image that you yourself have created. The combined effect of all these things is to create a mindset that’s conducive to the type of magical experience you wish to have.

Some unobtrusive music that adds to the atmosphere and seem appropriate might complement the ritual, and some sort of spoken invocation would provide a focus. You could probably find some already-written invocation to the Roman Mercury or similar Greek Hermes somewhere, but again it would be a lot better to write something of your own. Magic and the creative arts have much more than you’d think in common with each other, and with Mercury as god of writing and communication you might think that he’d appreciate all the creative effort that you’ve gone to. Write something that’s as lyrical and strong and as poetical as you can make it, something good enough to please a god, or at least your idea of a god (which is, after all, all we’re talking about here). When you have all this preparatory work in place, that would be a good time to induce your preferred trance-state by your chosen means, and then sit back and wait to see what happens.

This basic and simple methodology can obviously be adapted to whatever sort of magical experience one happens to be seeking, with a little use of the imagination. The above example deals with conjuring some being in to your awareness, but could just as well be used if you desired to travel mentally into the world associated with that entity, just as the witches travelled in their minds to their imaginary Sabbat. This technique for mental travel…basically a strenuous forum of imagining…could also be used to explore the zones mapped by some magic systems such as the Hebrew Kabbalah or John Dee’s Enochian realm, or with a bit of thought and ingenuity could be applied to whatever experimental magical procedure the practitioner might like to try importantly, at the commencement and conclusion of the ritual or experiment, it is a good idea to cam out what’s known as a banishing ritual, to symbolically seal off the experience and keep whatever forces may have been called up from having an unwanted effect upon your ordinary life. Banishing rituals are readily available in numerous books on magic, or once again you can invent your own.

The reason banishing rituals are necessary is that magic is a subject not without its dangers. Foremost amongst these is the very real possibility of going mad or losing yourself in this new and unfamiliar territory. If one’s reasons for approaching magic are for entertainment or for a secret advantage over others or just idle curiosity, then one is probably better off avoiding it, the risks being considerable. Practiced magicians speak of the importance of keeping your four ‘magical weapons’ with you constantly, at least symbolically. These four symbols… the wand, the cup, the sword or dagger and the coin… are the four suits seen in the Tarot deck.

The represent the four classical elements, fire, water, air and earth, and also represent the human qualities that those elements stand for. Coins or discs that stand for earth remind us that in our approach to magic we must make sure we are grounded and that our material circumstances are sufficient to our needs. Swords, standing for the element of air, are symbols of our intellectual faculties, the cutting edge of our intelligence that helps us to discriminate between a good idea and a bad one and which helps prevent us sliding into mere delusion or perhaps full blown insanity. Cups, representing water, stand in human terns for our emotions and above all our compassion, without which all of the magic power in the world won’t stop us turning into arseholes, brutes or monsters. Finally, wands stand for fire and represent our spirit or our soul, our highest self that should be in command of our emotional, our intellectual and our earthly circumstances if we wish to be balanced and fully realised individuals in control of our own lives.

It’s this harmonious and empowered state that is perhaps the most important goal in magic, turning yourself into someone capable of leading an enjoyable and useful life while having a benevolent effect upon the world, bringing about changes in accordance with your Will. This is the gold the alchemists were seeking, being much less interested in transforming metal than in their own personal transformation. There’s a lot of work entailed, admittedly, but the rewards are unimaginable and more likely to improve your life than winning several million on the Lottery. Of course, there are some people who were hoping that magic would be a way of getting what they wanted without working for it. There are still a lot of would-be magical practitioners who think of magic as a way of, for example, making someone fall in love with them, or conjuring up cash, or punishing somebody who’s offended them with a demonic curse. This, in the current author’s own opinion, is just lazy, cowardly, manipulative bullshit. If someone’s offended you then sort it out yourself, assuming that you can’t just, y’know, move on and get over it the way a grown-up would. If you want money, then why don’t you magically-get off your magic arse and do some magic work and see if money doesn’t magically arrive? And if you want someone to love you, do the necessary work upon yourself that makes you somebody-worth loving. Trying to coerce someone’s affections through the use of sorcery compares unfavourably with simple rape, where at least you’re not trying to involve eternal spirits in your wretched, verminous activities. Generally, the rule is that if there is something that can be accomplished by quite ordinary material means, don’t bother magic with it. On the other hand if there’s some immaterial demon messing up your life, like anger or depression or addiction, then magic maybe the very thing you need to give your problems both a name and face, to banish them or at least to negotiate with them and perhaps see them in a different and more useful light.

Magic isn’t there to turn us into gods, although that’s certainly what it has been mistaken for. Instead, magic is what can turn us into complete human beings, fulfilled in their lives and in control of their own destinies. Even if all the above is no more than misguided speculation and if there’s no more to magic than an over-active use of the imagination, think about the benefits that a better relationship with your imagination might allow you, maybe that job as a writer or an artist that you’ve always dreamed about, if only you could work out where such people get their ideas from. It may not be the bolts of fire from the fingertips that Gandalf led you to believe it was, but I’m reliably informed that it can still be a productive and incredibly enjoyable existence.

Science is a perfect tool to measure our material universe, but it is only consciousness, beyond the reach of science, that lends that universe its meaning. Without meaning, this is just a random, accidental world and all life is an ultimately unimportant fluke of chemistry and physics. If, however, you chose to see your existence as ablaze with meaning and significance, then magic is a worldview and a faculty that’s free to everyone, part of their birthright as a conscious human being. All that’s needed is a shift in how you see reality and you can change reality itself, at least as far as you’re concerned. With our environmental, financial and personal resources at an all time low, it might be that the most abundant human energy resource of all is right between our eyes, just waiting to be tapped and to transform the battered matter of our world with its endless new possibilities.

We could have magic, running in the gutters like lightning.

How I Left The Cult

I was raised in the religion of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. I stopped attending meetings and ceremonies when I was 16.

TL;DR I didn’t actively leave, my mum broke some rules and the family sort of drifted out. But I spent a long time, from ages 16-27 “de-programming” myself. If you’re wondering whether to leave something, you probably should.

Who are Jehovah’s Witnesses?

Jehovah’s Witnesses are a late 19th Century Christian sect, originally from the US.

Jehovah’s Witnesses are Millenarianist in that they think an end time is coming, and  Millenialist which is an interpretation of Christ being installed in a 1,000 year reign over Earth, before the final “end time” occurs.

They hold a fundamentalist view on the Bible, meaning they take the words of the bible literally, rather than as metaphor. Their interpretation differs from other sects, partly because of their founding leader Charles Russell, and partly because they use their own translation of the bible.

Famously they believe in the Old Testament doctrine prohibiting the imbibing of blood, so they refuse blood transfusions, however they do not practice kosher eating. They also do not participate in birthdays, Easter, Christmas or Hallowe’en celebrations, considering these to be pagan festivals with no basis in scripture.

They refuse military service, do not vote, and are famous for going door to door preaching their religion. They reject the notions of an eternal soul, the existence of hell and the “holy trinity” doctrine.

They have strict social and interpersonal rules, mostly inspired by the moral values in the late 19th century US.

See the wiki link for more information: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jehovah%27s_Witnesses

My History With The J-Dubs

There is a family photo of me as a 5 week old baby, taken “at Twickenham”, a stadium which is famous for rugby but which Jehovah’s Witnesses sometimes use for their annual “district assembly”, massive weekend-long gatherings for JWs that occur in sports stadiums. They are primarily outside, with folks sitting on the concrete in the summer sun (and rain!) for three days straight. While comfort provision is made for members at the event, it is nonetheless quite an undertaking to take a newborn along.

This canonical family photo illustrates to me that I really was raised for my entire childhood in the JW religion.

Some time before, the J-dubs had knocked on my parent’s door, as so many people around the world have an experience of, and my Dad was the kind of guy to say to them, without irony, “hmmm, sounds interesting, please come in”. He found the religion appealing, and for some reason my Mum agreed to join as well.

I assume this is because her own mother and older sister had converted some years previous, and for a short time as a teenager she went along to JW events with them. She had grown up and moved out before she married my Dad at age 20, so presumably she’d left it all behind for those years. However when her new husband became interested in what the JWs had to say, I guess she found it familiar. The JWs place great emphasis on a wife obeying a husband, so the two of them became Jehovah’s Witnesses together.

A few years later my parents’ marriage broke down (I was 3 and my sister 2). My mother divorced my father. My mother continued to raise me and my sister as Witnesses after the divorce. I think she partly used his faith, and conviction that we should be “saved” at Armageddon to ensure she got custody of us during the divorce (my father was expelled from the religion, so could not make sure we were saved himself). But to her credit she made good on her promise to make sure we were indeed raised as JWs until we were adults.

We ended up living with my gran, who had been a devout JW for decades. My gran was my caregiver because my Mum worked full time. It went without question that all four of us would be JWs and attend all the meetings without fail.

My father quickly remarried and subsequently raised his children from his second marriage as Jehovah’s Witnesses too. (He had been expelled for the first divorce but when the JWs came knocking again in his new town they let him back in.) So myself and my sister, plus my half siblings (a brother and sister) were all raised in this weird Christian fundamentalist religion.

Being raised a JW

It’s very hard to describe what it’s like to be raised a JW. I will give at best a patchy version of my experiences here.

One of the major things I remember is that, because of their “socially separate” policy and their beliefs in general, I was marked out as different to everyone else literally every single day at school.

I was not allowed to attend the 5 minutes of morning assembly that was “religious” (all they did was sing a hymn or something), but I was supposed to listen to the school announcements etc. So halfway through assembly I had to slip in through the door at the back of the school hall. Every day, their would be this weird pause between the hymn and the notices and the whole school would turn around to look as me and the Jewish kid filed in at the back. Every. Single. Day.

Then there was the No Christmas, No Birthdays, No Hallowe’en, No Easter thing. This comes up a lot at school when you’re younger. Almost every week is one of these holidays and the teacher is taking a break by just having everyone make cards or decorations, but I had to be given some non-religious ‘alternative’ task to do. Either that or sit in silence when people sang happy birthday, or leave the room altogether if Christmas carols were being sung.

Couple that with being a teacher’s pet (grades were the way to get love in my household) and you have a child who is so unutterably different that I was bullied by absence. I was tainted, and to even speak to me was to risk contamination. The social isolation was profound.

The witnesses have a perfect circular reasoning trick for this. Somewhere in the bible Jesus warns his followers that they will be hated for spreading his word. So the more JWs receive grief, the more it confirms that they are on the right track, and following Jesus correctly.

Jehovah’s Witnesses have a lot to say about sex. No sex before marriage, obviously, but some kinds of sex are restricted during marriage (anal), no masturbation for anyone but especially teenagers and of course, it’s not ok to be gay.

These points were raised explicitly and regularly to make sure everyone “stays strong”. These teachings contributed to me feeling guilt, anxiety and repression about sex both in childhood and in adult life.

The witnesses take a similarly draconian view on drugs, smoking, tattoos, sex or violence in the media and bad language. They also ban members from watching movies with too much magic in it (Harry Potter), or something that may be influenced by ‘demons’ (Lord of the Rings). They believe ‘demons’ to be invisible, and mostly don’t believe in possession, but nonetheless think they are very real.

We weren’t allowed posters on our walls (idolatry), or pictures of magical animals (demons), to have friends outside of the witnesses (bad associations), or to listen to certain music (bad language/demonic) or to celebrate birthdays or Christmas (pagan). The Kingdom Hall itself (the church building), had no decorations at all, but it was kept spotlessly clean. Many ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses talk about how bland and lifeless the religion is.

The organisation itself acknowledges how hard it is to hold strictly to 19th century protestant moral values late in the 20th century and there’s a lot of talk of sacrifice and trials and the hard road and keeping on the straight and narrow, in order to stay true to God. I believe this created a strong anhedonia in me, whereby I restricted all of my thoughts and feelings by default, even for things that were “allowed”, because holding back, buttoning down and waiting were so valourised.

How I got out

Passive leaving

I didn’t, really. In the heady days of internet relay chat my mum met a man on the internet, then met him in real life and one day in the summer after I turned sixteen my mum told me the news that she was pregnant.

Having sex outside of wedlock is a pretty serious offence to the J-dubs and so my mum was temporarily suspended while they considered what to do.

Mum usually drove us to the meetings, but without her taking us, myself and my sister just by default didn’t go along either. Our gran’s faith was always a powerful force in terms of keeping us in the religion and attending meetings every week, but I’m not sure if she kept going during this period or not. 

Without any external drive to keep going along to the meetings, I remember clearly that it felt like a spell being broken. All my week nights and weekends were free. It felt like bliss coming from an absence, like the silence after an annoying noise finally stops. My life was empty and silent. Calm.

Later I would reflect that going to the meetings all the time, and it occupying so much of your life, is one way they keep members in thrall to the religion.

There was also an oppressive silence between all the family members,  like a held breath. It was very tense, but I tried to stay out of the house as much as possible and be with my boyfriend instead.

After about a month, I got back from a weekend at my boyfriend’s house to learn that mum had been in hospital because she’d had a miscarriage. Even though the weekend was dramatic and scary, it was obvious that this baby not existing was a huge relief to everyone. Not long later I learned that the elders had decided my mum could return to the Witnesses if she showed repentance, but we never went back. It was an entirely unspoken thing, as was always the case with my mum in those years.

At the time I barely mention these goings on in my diary, instead I’m mooning over the latest boy, but a bit later I repeat several times “I’m never going back to the meetings”.

So for my entire life I had been in a cult, which shaped my entire mental and emotional landscape from birth, attending three meetings a week, every week plus occasionally door knocking on Saturdays, and then suddenly I just… wasn’t. I got out of the cult passively, the spell was broken, and what remained was a void.

Active leaving

In my diaries a bit later I say “I’m never going back to the meetings” and I sound as though I’ve made an active decision. In my self-narrative nowadays, I normally tell people that I had my suspicions about the religion by the time my family left, but was sort of ignoring them, and waiting to be older to find out what it all really meant.

An ex-JW friend I met much later would describe it as the “after armageddon box” – a place where you put your doubtful thoughts about the religion and god ready to be asked later, when we might have access to god or Jesus after the end times have happened. Eventually his “after armageddon box” was so full that he began to doubt the religion a lot.

I normally say that if my family hadn’t drifted out when I was 16, it wouldn’t have been much longer before I left myself. My general goal with life at that time was just to hang on until age 18 and finish school, finally be an adult, and get out from living with my parents as soon as I could. Even though they practice famously severe shunning of any ex-member, I’m sure I would have left the religion behind too.

However, that’s not what happened. We left when I was 16; when I was 17 I moved in with my Dad (mum had been threatening to throw me out for months) and he and his family were all still very much in the faith. Since I had never been baptised as an adult, I was considered a “prodigal son” and should be gently cajoled to return to the religion rather than fully shunned, so they were allowed to talk to me.

Despite being encouraged to go to the meetings for the whole time I lived with them, I stood firm that I wasn’t going to go back. That much was very active on my part. I “ran away” from living with them when I was 18 (my stepmother read my diary and point blank refused to talk to me again), just after I’d finished my school exams. I lived with my Mum again for a short time, and as soon as I saved up a few paychecks, I moved out forever.

Deprogramming

Some problems

When we first drifted out of the religion, I decided to sleep with my boyfriend. The moment my mum told my 16-year-old self that she was pregnant I had the crystal-clear thought: “you don’t get to tell me what to do any more”. I lost all respect for her, because of everything that her pregnancy implied, both secular and religious. So yes I had sex with my boyfriend (but I was sure to get on contraception first!)

That year I also had my first experience of celebrating Christmas with him and his family. In the few scholarly texts that mention Jehovah’s Witnesses, they say that ex members are often socially awkward around the giving and receiving of gifts, which I empathise with.

However apart from those two things I didn’t immediately deprogramme from the thoughts that the religion had inculcated. My life was a tire fire from ages 16-19 and I had little time or stability to do any reflective thought.

But as soon as I moved out and had a stable boyfriend at around age 19, I began deprogramming in earnest. I realised I needed to systematically check all of my beliefs, not just the ones about God. My boyfriend of that time helped by walking me through the more obvious things like creation vs evolution. He also helped me try weed and later, other drugs.

Then the problem was sex. I had huge guilt around it, and weird thoughts like I must intend to marry my sexual partner, if not actually be married, in order for it to be ok to have sex. I had a very low sex drive, partly due to repressing pleasurable feelings.

I also had very low affect, my emotions were numbed out, though I think that had as much to do with my family life as the religion. Relatedly, I still have issues with finding enjoyment in things, which makes decision making surprisingly hard.

I now think I was also developmentally stunted. I was extremely smart, but condescending, arrogant and dismissive with other people. I had no empathy, even with friends. My boyfriend had to keep reminding me “you can’t treat people like that”. In the terms of the psychological theory that I mention on my philosophy blog, I was still in Kegan stage 2 – a non-empathetic stage normally traversed in early teens – at the age of 19-20.

I believe the move away to my dad’s house is a pertinent example. My dad’s home was around 200 miles away from my mum, and so there was no possibility of seeing my old friends when I moved there. I left without telling anyone I was going, it all happened during half term.

I eventually heard through my mum that my best friend was very upset. I was confused by this, because we always talked about how we would like to move out from our mums to live with our dads (she was from a single parent household too). I thought she would realise that I had made it out and gone to a better place and be happy for me. I just could not understand why she would be sad or angry. I remember being confused and then not really thinking about it afterwards. I was 17 at the time.

It was only years later, in my early 20s, at the earliest, that I realised that of course she would be upset. She might miss me, or be upset that everything was so sudden, that I didn’t care enough to give her a quick message of some kind, or that she might be jealous that I’d moved away or indeed have any number of strong emotions about what happened.

Some solutions

Living with dad helped a few things. He and his kids were naturally more touchy-feely than my family, which I appreciated. He forced me out of my tendency to go silent when I was upset or crying. It was a revelation to me that he actually wanted to hear what was wrong, and actually try to help. I had to deal with being a snotty mess in someone else’s presence. An almost unbearable form of being ‘seen’ at the time. Being in a totally different family held a mirror up to some of my assumptions, especially around the “fair” distribution of chocolate biscuits. He also answered all my questions about why he and my mum got divorced. A classic case of there being at least two sides to every story.

Once I’d moved out away from parents, I read some self help books to figure the emotional and sex stuff out, and Oliver James’ ‘They Fuck You Up’ book was particularly useful for this. I wrote pages of self reflection on an A3 notepad. I also kept writing in my diary. I was a prolific poetry writer too.

I ferreted out cached beliefs one by one. Sometimes I did things just because JWs ban them so I went and voted (JWs are instructed to be politically neutral).  I carried a lighter in case anyone who smoked asked me for one. I placed a bet on a boxing match (gambling also forbidden). I took a certain joy in doing things that would shock JWs, or my parents in general. I still have that joy. I also tried to detect much more subtle discriminations. I occasionally caught myself being judgey about people, and asked myself: why? One example I strongly remember is disliking people who had tattoos, only because the Jdubs sneer at them. I decided to throw those thoughts in the bin.

I read a lot of books, absorbing how other people feel about life, which helped me to figure out the range of things that people can feel. I read Sylvia Plath’s diaries, Anaïs Nin stories, Henry Miller novels, a psychology of self harm book, Kathy Acker’s punk feminism, Alan Moore’s ‘Lost Girls’ graphic novel. I would read anything, especially fiction and science fiction, but I was drawn to books about sex and books about or by depressed women.

I read pages and pages of books. I also watched hundreds of films, got stoned every day and got into music. I have an enduring love for art that is bleak or nihilistic.

My life at the time was a continuous struggle with poverty. I never had any spare money, although I felt great because I lived in my own place. I worked at a library and got all my books and films from there. Being poor takes a lot of time and energy, so the progress was quite slow. Eventually, at age 21, I went to university.

At university I discovered equal rights and feminism. I also got into philosophy by the sideways route of doing an art degree with no prior experience with art. The art library had lots of philosophy books, because art and life inform each other. I wasn’t that great at making art, so I would read instead. I became a Sunday manager at the nearby public library while I studied, so I still had access to public library books too.

I had a tiny bit of NHS therapy during uni, because at age 23, after feeling I’d done so much work to deprogramme myself, I developed an acute anxiety condition. It was triggered by thoughts of death, a concept I had until then not really thought about, because the JWs believe in immortal life on earth. I also had wind: trapped air in the digestive system. It’s easily cured but it makes you feel short of breath and in pain when you eat. It is funny now, but it contributed to me having several panic attacks. I spent my entire last year of uni in a haze, feeling like I was watching myself on a screen, and worried I would have more attacks. I started to feel better after about a year. Over a decade on, my fear of death and the anxiety I get from that thought still haunt my evening times, because it’s not easy to rationalise.

My work as a librarian helped me to develop empathy. I’ve always been hard on myself to be true to my principles, and I really believed in doing a good job and in intellectual honesty. I had to work with people who were homeless, very old, very young (and unsupervised) and / or relatively mentally ill. I wanted to truly help them ‘fairly’ which meant I had to really pay attention to what they said and how they thought. Trying to teach a paranoid schizophrenic 50 year old how to use a computer is a humbling experience.

I was with the same boyfriend all through this time, he helped me a lot. He constantly scolded me for not considering how other people felt. It must have been because of him that I finally figured out my friend’s feelings about me moving away.

But my relationship with him is also a story of lack of empathy. I believed we had a great relationship and were mostly happy through our 7 years together. But I found out after we broke up that he felt a lot of pain throughout those years because of things I did to him. I’m not sure of the details because I heard it through mutual friends.

He never seemed to tell me about problems at the time, but maybe I didn’t hear it. Probably I dismissed things that weren’t expressed clearly and forcefully. I still tend to do that. But even if we allow for the fact that someone who keeps too quiet in relationships often ends up with someone who pushes forward and is decisive, it was a shock to me that he was so unhappy but I didn’t know. So even though I was developing empathy I clearly wasn’t applying it well in my home life and now when I look back I still think it was a shallow empathy, with not much mastery.

Completing Deprogramming

In my mid to later twenties I had a number of life milestones. I came out as bi (after reading a book, of course). I joined an active feminist group and did many activities with them. I founded my own bi group. I became polyamorous, at first with my partner of all those years and then I continued after we broke up. We had moved to a new city by then and I was trying to make new friends. Friends who were lesbians, feminists and weed smokers. ‘Bad associations’ indeed! After the breakup I moved out into a sharehouse of strangers; I was finally living on my own.

Around the age of 27, after living in that sharehouse a while, I realised I felt like I had reached a point of being more “normal”, by which I mean normal levels of fucked-upness, rather an extraordinary and weird levels of fucked-upness.

I had made a point of being more independent. I had had lots of life experiences, from uni to management jobs to rolling my own joints to storming police lines.

I’d examined and binned so many ideas. First from the JWs, but then I’d also completely overshot and was examining and binning conventional ideas from “normal” society too.

Binning the ideas from the J-dubs was helping me heal, but binning “normal” society was also helping profoundly. For example, a strange side effect of trying polyamory was that it unlocked my ability to do social touch with friends. I’ve no idea why.

So by around this time, I felt normal.

And slightly to my annoyance, I was starting to see that my experiences, knowledge and confidence were having an effect on others. The unusual ways I lived my life were intriguing to people. When I spoke, everyone would fall silent and listen, which never used to happen.

Without me really wanting it, people were looking to me for advice on how to be, wheras previously I had always been the student of that. It was ever clearer that my project of ridding myself of indoctrination was over. The work of choosing how to live had begun.

Lasting effects

It’s been 7 or 8 years since I reached “normal” and then completely overshot. I now live a life that is in many ways extraordinary and probably to most people, very weird.

But, I still feel the effects of things from childhood.

I still feel that relationships with others is my biggest weakness.  I have an extremely spiky personality, a defence against always being the outsider, never being accepted. Although acceptance is something I obviously deeply crave.

I still have intermittent anxiety, I still worry about dying.

Despite appearances I still have very conventional sex and not lots of it, but I’m proud I can have sex at all, considering.

I have an abiding deep suspicion of “knowledge” or “truth”, of people in “authority”. The study of how we know what we know will always fascinate me.

It’s very hard to disentangle the effects of the religion from the effects of my general family life. It’s tempting to think that actually perhaps most of my problems, if that’s what they are, would have come from family dynamics no matter what religion we followed, if any. A child with essentially absent and emotionally distant parents was always going to have trouble with empathetic relationships. In a way this post is merely about “how I left my family”, rather than how I left a cult.

However it’s kind of a chicken and an egg. The religious flavour is important. My parents were exactly the kind of people to be drawn to this particular religion thanks to their own traumas. They are the kind of people who want to be wrapped up tight by strict rules and be soothed by being told exactly what to think, from people who know exactly what is happening and know exactly what to do to make everything ok. If they were not scooped up by this cult, it would have been another one, or some other paternalistic system. The details may have been slightly different but probably the neuroses in me would have ended up exactly the same.

I was raised by people who can’t handle the world as it is, and that makes me very sad for them. Strangely enough for me, after being raised believing that humans are evil and our civilisation has reached a nadir so bad that god is going to smite it all away, I’ve come to find a great joy in the fact that humans are actually just apathetic or greedy or damaged.  And also creative, generous and joyful. I trust myself and my decision making. I feel I do understand the way the world works, and find that comforting, even though the drive to understand came from pathological roots.

Advice for others

If you’re wondering whether to do something that will really shake your life up, especially if you have to leave something, I would encourage you to do it. You can’t un-see whatever it is you’ve seen. The worry you’re feeling now is probably not actually about whether leaving is a good or bad decision, because you already have one foot out of the door. It’s more about feelings of grief, grief that you used to feel tightly embedded in something, and now you don’t.

No-one likes changing, but change happens to us, whether we like it or not. It’s a bit of a slog, but learning how to change, and not being scared of it, is a massive life skill that eventually brings a ton of its own comfort, and success.

If you feel you’ve been kicked out of a plane and are falling backwards, arms flailing, watching the plane get smaller and smaller in your vision and feeling scared, picture this: you might as well roll over and face the ground. You can direct the fall, watch the view, even go sailing around like a bird in the wind. Feel the rush, try to enjoy it. The entire world is literally in front of you, you might as well direct where you land.

Once you’ve left, you’re going to need information. Religious cults in particular restrict information, so read books (or listen to podcasts), read the internet and figure out how you think things really are. Lots of people just substitute one belief system for another, try not to do that. Instead try to figure out why you don’t trust your own intuition about what to think.

Three things:

Fiction is just as important as non-fiction, especially for emotional work. Art of all kinds is very important, and comedy.

While approaching at your own pace and using caution, you should definitely, definitely take drugs. See which ones call to you, any will do. Then don’t overdo it.

Finally, enlist other people. Cults are deliberately isolationist, to remove any chance of “wrong” information reaching you. Other people are a mirror and a support. Try to meet and get to know a broad range of people. Their example can help you figure out how you want to be.

Finally:

Everything is going to be ok. I promise.

The Accountant – how to deal with clients

I instantly fell in love with Ben Affleck’s character Christian Wolff from the film The Accountant. Something about being awkward, fit and hot, plus having the exact same delay between shots he fires with his anti-aircraft rifle. But best of all, his client meetings. He is my new hero when it comes to dealing with new clients.

Here, have some memes:

imontheclock

 

clientbusiness

Gary Hume at White Cube

Old Art Review

Gary Hume at White Cube, Bermondsey 6th March – 21st April 2013

The limbs so arranged suggest both legs and fingers. From one angle the sculpture appears to be a giant hand, with middle finger raised in the common western cultural gesture meaning “fuck you”. Despite the phallic origins of this gesture and the upraised middle limb, the sculpture is undoubtedly female, or at least in some way related to femaleness.

what it is and what it is not. The segments of the piece are both obviously limbs (of a human being) and not limbs, since the central section rises into the air like the trunk of a tree abruptly cut off and shorn of its limbs. It is both female and not female, not just because of the separation of the hand and the body, since the limb is amputated at the wrist and the shoulder, but also expressed through the pink painted flat surface of the visible wrist. It is the puke pink of faux femininity, the colour of girl’s plastic toys so recently extended to any product, from handbags to laptops, that will apparently turn on everyone’s desire as long as they have a vagina. Our unease is explained when we read from the gallery notes that the limb has been cast from the arm of a mannequin, that quintessential object of the not-human, famously disproportionate to make clothes look better and often lacking in heads or limbs. Further, the fusion of two of the arms at the shoulder at the base of the scultpure gives the strong impression of buttocks and legs, but stuck together in a neat uniformity that cannot speak of a human female, but rather of that most famous doll, Barbie herself.

In this installation, the interplay of real and not real or female and not female is further extended.  The base supporting the sculpture is made of rough-surfaced railway sleepers, which assert their presence in the room through their subtle but potent smell. This seems to be a reminder of the natural world, juxtaposed with the artificial surface of the painted bronze. Similarly, the works of art around the walls are entitled “Three Yellow Horizons and a Green Wood”, depicting natural scenes using unnatural materials – gloss paint on aluminium. Historically, women have been equated with ‘nature’ while men, or masculinity with ‘culture’. Imbued in the idea of culture is intellect, progress and industry. Here Hume has taken a mass produced post-modern object vaguely related to feminine forms and arranged these damaged limbs to resemble other mass produced post-modern feminine forms in a material and at a scale that suggest both old and ancient symbols of masculine triumph.

I hesitate to speculate on the artist’s position on these institutions, from ancient Rome to the modern fashion industry, since the piece seems to fold time and history over itself to the point of collapse, and the sculpture clearly invites levity. However, looking at similar works by Hume, for example ‘The Tumble’ where a clearly female figure appears with arms and head facing down, midway through a cartwheel, it seems Hume has a narrow view of the female forms he depicts. In ‘The Tumble’ the form is once again segmented and coloured in pale pink with long curly hair, doll-like in every way save for the impression of movement. As I walked around this piece, dwarfed by its size and in closer contact to the wooden pedestal than the work, I caught a glimpse of my small and indistinct shadow on the brushed surface of the bronze. Everything about this work ties femininity with artificiality and violence, leaving individual humanity a mere shadow on its surface. I am obviously conscious that the author is not synonymous with the narrator, however my personal reaction to ‘Liberty Grip’ is “fuck you, Gary”.

Modelling For Photographers

This is a statement for anyone interested in working with me as a nude model for their photography.

I’ve noticed nude/art photographers tend to want a very particular “feminine” look in their work and I do not necessarily represent that. I have an excellent, very “feminine” figure but I am also a person.

I have an unusual hair cut, it is shaved at the sides with a long section in the middle and it is often dyed pink or blue. My sense of style is varied but often tends towards the tomboy. I am a very active person. Myself and most of my friends live our lives with alternative ideas about gender, sex, sexuality, relationships and social norms.

I previously had little idea that these things could affect nude photography but they very much do. I am unlikely to be a passive subject in your work.  I will desire to be expressive, and in ways that may seem unusual. I will stare into the camera. I will want to talk to you. I like being happy, and find it a strain to act demur.  I do not sit, stand or walk in a “feminine” way, although I am able to. My mannerisms and the way I occupy space with my body are not feminine in a traditional sense. I do however love being female. I am in touch with my body and celebrate its femaleness, it is simply that my female expression is far from the more popular cultural norms.

I would be interested to work with photographers who would like to explore this set of elements in their practice and I know it can lead to extremely interesting photographs.

Please also let me know if you have read this and are no longer interested, I much prefer to be told “no, thank you” promptly than to be waiting on a reply that never arrives.

photo

Review of ‘International Art English’ by Alix Rule & David Levine

‘International Art English’, finally a name coined for something that seems to exist but is hard to define (Rule and Levine use the striking analogy of pornography: ‘we know it when we see it’), a curious version of English that is ’emphatically not English’ used by that collection of art individuals and organisations known as the ‘art world’ to describe and promote the latest fine art.

This essay, simply titled ‘International Art English’, attempts to describe the special language used within the art world by analysing the text of thousands of press releases from prominent online art feed e-flux. The essay points out the curious vocabulary and sentence construction prevalent in IAE and goes on to suggest the likely origins of its peculiar syntax. After a comment on authority, the authors speculate on the ‘implosion’ of the language, since its functions of authority and exclusion are becoming lost amidst a growing, indeed global readership who are becoming conversant in it.

Although much of the press reception of this essay has mentioned the labels that describe the art works in museums (a version of this kind of ‘English’), this essay focuses exclusively on the ‘purist articulation’ of International Art English – the art world press release. I think this fact is pertinent, because museum labels (as distinct from contemporary exhibition hand-outs) can commit sins that IAE is in part trying to avoid, namely telling the audience what they are supposed to believe about a piece of work. As a speaker of IAE (I have an undergrad in Fine Art and spent more time writing than making) I appreciate the difficulties inherent in art labeling. I was recently in the Museo Del Prado in Madrid and found myself consciously offended by the descriptions accompanying Bosh and Goya, prescriptively describing the themes and intentions of the work to what the writers seemed to be assuming was a stupid and disinterested audience. Most infuriating was the tone of the text, which left no room for my personal desire to read the works in psychedelic terms (I had just returned from a 14 day trance festival, how else was I going to read El jardín de las delicias?)

This leads us to the question: how should a work of art be described without unduly influencing the audience’s reactions? Provoking some kind of sensation in one’s audience is one of the key preoccupations of the artist. It is also a key truth among art makers that no two people will react to a work in the same way, or if they do, the range of reactions across many observers will in no way be predictable. How then, to interest a potential audience without closing down their possible reactions? As novelists say, how is one to “show, not tell”? IAE may be one way of answering this question. The authors of the paper describe the tendency for certain words to be over used, for some words to change their meanings, meaning more than one thing at once, or even losing their meaning entirely; for the ‘antieconomy’ of more words, not fewer, causing a propensity towards lists, grouping unrelated words and pairing of like terms.  For those initiated into the world of IAE, there is a sense of pleasing vagueness that describes yet clearly does not describe the work before them. Of course, for the uninitiated, IAE illicits an opposite yet also successful reaction of ignoring the gallery text altogether.

Perhaps we are being too hard on IAE: how is one to use words to describe works of art that are exclusively visual or sound-based? How often are excellent novels translated successfully into film? It is no wonder that words like reality and space are over-used and recodified with new and ambiguous meanings. The activity of describing visual art in written language has always been a ruse,a sleight-of-hand and the quirks of IAE have been ignored all this time because it is only polite.

Now, by naming the language which has been growing and metasticising (‘Germanly’) in its own innocent art bubble for the past forty years, while its idiosyncracies were politely ignored, Rule and Levine risk bringing about the implosion they fear in their essay.

One part of the essay, however, was highly reassuring to me as a former art student, namely, the acknowledgement of the desire to admire IAE for its linguistic frippery rather than its content. While my fellow students racked their brains over how to understand and replicate this codified language I secretly gloried in the aesthetics of the sentence construction, enjoying the particularly poetic tone of some of the less dry pieces and rising to the challenge in my own work. As a not so very good artist I spent many hours in the wordier worlds of art, from my dissertation to writing about my work to agonising for hours over a clever title, or creating whole works of art out of them. I even spent much time steeped in the work of Deleuze and Guttari, the very philosophers who, in translation in American art journal October are the supposed culprits for the entire IAE phenomenon (as one friend of mine on Facebook exclaimed “damn! I knew it would be the French!”). To have acknowledged in public the peculiar literary delight one might take in IAE is to scratch an itch I did not know I had. Rule and Levine allude to interns writing press releases as one of the few creative tasks in their jobs. My own tutor once described his desire to somehow apprehend art, to make it less intimidating, so he decided to write about it. It seems obvious to me that a large part of the ridiculousness of IAE is surely to do with its position as a creative outlet for artsy people who, for whatever reason, do not actually practise art.

Of course, all of this is poppycock to anyone outside the art world, since who outside reads these press releases anyway? Rule and Levine slip into IAE in their own essay and this review has done the same, written as it is by an acolyte of the mystical church of Fine Art. Any form of art writing has always been to make one sound as if one knows what one is talking about and in more recent years to make buyers of art sufficiently baffled as to part with ever increasing wadges of cash, an aim to which it has clearly been highly successful. Rule and Levine do mention the idea that if IAE is abandoned, it is likely to be replaced by a form of elitist English for the ‘reliable distinctions it imposes’. They encourage us to enjoy IAE in what is possibly its golden years before it all becomes even more insular, and decidedly less funny, than it was before.

The dark half

I’m so glad N showed me to love the dark.

My common companions lately avoid horror films, steer clear of dub step, disapprove of organised fighting… all these things are fleeting, of little evidence. Yet I take them as so. My companions claim: why would I invite negative things into my life? Yet to me this attitude makes me think of a shying away, a closing of the eyes, a turning aside of the gaze. Allowing one’s gaze to slide over “negative things” without seeing them could be argued to be a gesture of not allowing them to take up your time, to remove one’s interest in a thing is to destroy it.  However I disagree with this analysis of “negative things”.  These things that are dark, that have a bad attitude, that are hateful or involve viiolence are not inherently “negative things”. To divide the world with a clear line between “good” and “bad” is not the behaviour of a long-thinking adult. Instead we might describe things by their utility. Is such-and-such a thing worth my attention?

By this definition, “negative things” seem to have incredible utility. I will leave you to ponder for a moment what useful attributes they might have.

But it is true, these things are frightening to look at. N helped me to stare unblinking at our common childhood experiences, many of them “bad”, to understand them, look through them and where useful, incorporate and wield them. He taught me to look unflinching into the way we express the dark, the buried, the hidden, the shameful, and the powerful in our culture. How we try to make sense of the Yin in conscious life. What that says about us.

It is staring into the fear that makes the fear retreat.

And incorporation. I do not mean to imply that an individual must be some kind of “complete whole”, particularly not of dark and light, because such a thing is overly simplistic, perhaps absurd, probably unnecessary. I simply mean that all emotions can be an ally. All things can be an avenue for play. An opportunity to connect.

Experiencing the dark without fear, rather as part of your power and the richness of your experience, is an integral part of life. To deny it, to avoid it, to slide over it, is to suffer a poverty, to lose a limb and to close down. How do you justify the loss? Because something is “negative”? Does it really have no worth? Because you are afraid? Is that an excuse you still use?

2012 is coming to an end

I felt a slight shock when I realised that 2012 is almost over. Here is my traditional post musing on the things I’ve done this year.

I gave away (almost) all my worldly possessions. I went to my third BiCon. I had group sex! I had group sex more than once! I had group sex with people I’d only known for a day! I went to Doncaster, Middlesbrough, Manchester, Bradford, Cambridge, Portugal and Madrid for the first time. I walked outside of Birmingham New Street Station. I cried infront of a painting. I went to a psytrance festival. In a foreign country. I swam in a lake sparkling with fool’s gold. I saw a lizard. I volunteered for litter picking at a festival. I saw how the world works. I learned how to get food out of bins. I was travelling/homeless for two thirds of the year. I read/watched the entire run of Promethea, My So-Called Life and Firefly. I fell in love. I added some notches to my bedpost (including three girls and a royal marine!) I blagged three nights in a caravan after a festival. I went backstage. I was a runner for stilt walking performers. I met some famous drum ‘n’ bass DJs. I did bi activism. I stayed over in a squat. I stopped being scared of London. I saw Tube mice. I hitch-hiked. I ate melon and liked it. I kissed a guy with a forked tongue. I made many new friends. I stayed on a boat in the Lake District. I met many people who will change the world. I tried mushrooms. I stopped taking sugar in my tea. I got so ill my period came a week and a half early, and I mistook it for kidney disease! I broke up and got back together with the same person! I walked on a slackline! I learned to juggle! I protested outside the deputy PM’s house! I lead a protest charge with “She’ll be coming round the mountain”! I marched with the trade unions against austerity (twice)! I saw a world title boxing match! I went to a gig with someone I didn’t know. I saw my father. I met my step grandmother, and other estranged family. I entertained revolutionary thoughts. I  took my clothes off for cash. I joined libraries in four different cities. I got a tax rebate. I “looked poly” in public. I confused people. I loved it when my boyfriend kissed a guy. I stayed awake all night and worshiped the full moon. I wrote dirty stories for money. I went to OpenCon. I was captain of a starship. I lost my childhood. I quit my job. I had dinner at Harvey Nicholls. I was looked after. I busked on the street. I got pet rats and had to give them away. I felt human. I stayed alive.

This year I’ve had a So-Amazing Life.

And what have I learned? When it comes to food, you get what you’re given, be grateful for it, don’t waste any and always share. When it comes to sleep, just do it when you want to or when you can, there’s no need to worry. You can learn to change your sleep over time, including where you can tolerate doing it. A futon on slats is the best way to sleep ever. Food is only out of date when it smells bad. Food is all around you, the more humans in any given space, the more free food you will find. The humaniverse will take care of you, if you let it. Be patient. Walk everywhere. Be the change. Doing new things makes life feel full. Being somewhere comfortable with nothing to do slows time down. Follow your highest excitement. Whatever your heart sings for. Who dares, wins.

Still to come:

get dp’d, apply to a PhD, start my own business, get a tattoo, get my driving license, go to Burning Man, eat at high table.