One of the gifts of my liberal arts education was the revelation in my freshman year of college that you can’t make sense of English literature using modern qaballah. The summer after I finished high school (summer of ’77) a copy of Crowley’s 777 fell into my hands; a hardback copy with a blue buckram cover. And in the fanatical way that only a naive, enthusiastic young man can, I began pigeon-holing the world into the nice neat 32 categories the Golden Dawn showed everything fit into. And it all made sense! It all fit the pattern! I gained the vision of the universe as one big Dewey-decimal card catalog on acid. Groovy.
And then, after my psychedelic year off from academics, during which I read tons of books on the Western esoteric tradition, college presented me with the whole wonderful, beautiful, ungainly mess of unfiltered Western civilization. And I proceeded to try pigeonholing it à la Crowley-with-a-tree-of-life-filing-cabinet. It was that English class, Dr French’s “The Short Story Genre”, that finally broke the mold. Blew the son of bitch to smithereens, as a matter of fact. I think it was Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” that made me finally admit to myself that I was trying to stuff square pegs into round holes (or is it round pegs into… oh fuck it can be a bitch being dyslexic!).
I began to realize that one of the dangers of the pigeonholes is that they can be a way of avoiding thinking. Or even worse, they can be a way to overthink things and avoid a genuine encounter with cultural artifacts such as those my education was confronting me with.
“Let’s see. Bearded gentleman with a stuffed eagle in his study. Obviously a Jupiter thing. Man who smokes lots of tobacco. Martian if I’ve ever seen it. Man driving a two-horse wagon. Chariot card.” But the more I stuffed things into little conceptual boxes, the more I realized I was missing the point, the more I realized this was creating distance between me an the things I interacted with. Besides that, if I didn’t catch on to the critical theories the professor was talking about I was going to fail the coarse (I got a B+ in the end). And so it went with my academic career. I let Western mysticism slowly fade into the background as I studied Latin classics and ancient history as an undergraduate. And I got thoroughly soaked in modern scholarly perspectives studying German literature in graduate school.
Now, even during my early love affair with Western mysticism in my youth, I had a hard time digging tarot. Oh, sure, I read The Book of Thoth and Case’s Book of Tokens and God-knows-what-else available in the late 70s and early 80s. And I did some really effective work meditating on the major keys. These books all sold the slick lie that tarot was ancient, and that the 22 major arcana were based on murals painted on the walls of the Egyptian mystery schools, and yada yada. And like a naive young fool I bought it wide-eyed and mouth breathing. This view of the subject became a problem when it came to trying to read the cards for divination. I just couldn’t stop thinking of the cards as pages from some great akashic book of wisdom.
I remember, on one of the rare occasions I consented to read the cards for a friend, finding myself spouting gushes of esoteribabble that I associated with the cards. My friend furrowed her brow and asked, “Do you wanna say that in English?”
And don’t even get me started on qaballah. I took several semesters of Hebrew as an undergraduate so I could master qaballah. And what happened? When I could finally read Hebrew well enough to attack a bi-lingual edition of the Sepher Yetzirah, I discovered that the traditional attributions of the letters to elements, planets and zodiac signs had nothing to do with the system that Knorr von Rosenroth, or MacGregor Mather et al flogged to the Western world. I began suspecting that pond was contaminated, and I didn’t want to drink from it anymore.
And once you’ve trained yourself to automatically think “Venus” the moment you see the Hebrew letter Daleth, and immediately get a picture of the Empress in your head, along with a whole string of other correspondences, it’s too late to reshuffle them in your mind and learn a new system of correspondences.
So after a lapse of two decades, when I picked up magic again at the beginning of the 21st century,in my middle age, I half-heartedly began working with Golden Dawn-ish materials (e.g. Regardie) and magic books based on Western QBL (e.g Benjamin Rowe and Joseph Lisiewski). But slowly I became aware of the things that had been going on in the magical world while I was getting a liberal arts education and a few hard knocks (chaos magic, grimoire revival, the later developments of Nordic magic and witchcraft, etc.).
And here’s where I start getting to the point of my essay (and to the bottom of my third –or is it the fourth — glass of Villányi Bársony cuvée). The longer I work with the so-called Western tradition; the longer I try to harness powers with whatever this stuff is that we call magic, the longer I try to make sense of this maelstrom of symbolic experiences that make up incarnate life, the less I trust any teaching that espouses neat and tidy systems for pigeonholing everything into precise and consistent categories.
Life is wonderfully messy, and you have to keep your eyes open, your hands busy, and your heart engaged in order to glean the subtle meaning of each precious moment. The world is a jealous lover, and she needs to know you are paying attention to her every second. And if you think you have the meanings of things memorized like a list of characteristics for identifying species of lichen in the field, WATCH OUT! You are likely to be bitch-slapped by an experience that doesn’t neatly fit your categories. And you won’t know what hit you.
This was all a roundabout way of saying that I have more or less thrown in the towel on tarot. I love it on a certain level (at least the major arcana), but I can’t use it for shit when it comes to divination. And I’ve come to the point in my practice where I need some reliable divination. Things have gotten serious in the last few years, if you haven’t noticed yet. We could all use some reliable divination.
Let’s face it. Tarot was invented by modern occultists from a set of playing cards (If I wanted to be hip and contemporary I’d say they “hacked” the tarocchi.). Over time individuals and esoteric schools grafted symbols and schemes onto the deck that weren’t there from the start, and they turned it into a “system”. This doesn’t detract from its effectiveness as a tool for teaching, initiation and divination. And by now the symbols have taken on an astral life of their own. Or they’ve hitched a ride on some pre-existing astral forces, or… well, it’s beyond me. They’ve just become more than a deck of cards, is the point. If you accept this more sober historical perspective, it frees you from bowing to it as something sacred and ancient. (I know a Rosicrucian — a dear friend — who teaches tarot classes in which he gives people the whole tarot-is-an-ancient-Egyptian-mystery song and dance. I don’t have the heart to disabuse him or his students of this notion. It serves their purposes. What can I say? Due to the language barrier, much of Hungarian esotericism is still stuck in the early 20th century.) So, since I’ve come to the realization that for my purposes one symbol set is more or less as good as another (let’s just take that as a given and understand that it can be taken to absurd extremes, but I’m not into the extreme end of that assumption), I started shopping around for one that doesn’t have the baggage you get with tarot. Geomancy attracted me, but then I realized it was just another set of pigeon holes. And it requires getting into astrology far deeper than I care to go (a different kind of baggage). Pendulums are cool, but just too 70s for me.
And then, around two years ago, Balthazar wrote about Lenormand cards on his blog. I was really intrigued. He said they were more down-to-earth than tarot; better suited to predicting day-to-day earthly events.
I bought a pack of Blaue Eule cards over a year ago, which I promptly stuck in a drawer of my magic chest and left unused. But then I had a conversation last week with a lady who runs an esoteric store in Berlin that finally got me motivated to start learning how to use them. I spent far more money on a hardback book about reading Lenormand cards than I usually spend on books, which showed me my determination to bring this skill on board.
I like the fact that the symbols have nothing to do with either tarot or qaballah. And I appreciate that a number of authors on the subject of Lenormand make no bones about the fact that the deck is a modern creation. They admit that not only is the deck a nineteenth century phenomenon, but that it very likely was not created by the famous Madame Lenormand, reputed to be the greatest card reader of all time, and a confidant of Napoleon.
All of this is part of a greater shift in my thinking about relating to the “invisible world”.
I am gravitating more and more toward working with the contents of consciousness in a direct and personal manner. I’m not looking to relate my experience to some greater set of correspondences. I am looking for how it resonates with me directly. I’ve become impatient with any layers of intermediation. Much of this comes from the fact that my primary mode of mystical experience is dreamwork. In dreamwork the dreamer is encouraged to regard the dream as an experience, and not as a set of symbols to be interpreted by some third-party key.
The longer I engage in dreamwork, the more I see that our subconscious gladly shapes itself to our preconceptions. It’s like that Abraham Lincoln quote. The story goes that a cabinet member asked him how he liked the play he’d seen in the theatre the night before. Lincoln thought for a moment and said, “Those who like that sort of thing will find it to be the sort of thing they like.” In much the same way, I think that if you find your are having a particular sort of dream, it is because that is the sort of dream you think you should be having. It’s an instance of the “observer effect“.
This principle is wonderfully illustrated by the experiences of the psychic researcher and OBE experimenter Werner Zurfluh.* Mr Zurfluh, during one period in his life, studied psychology at the C.G. Jung Institute in Zurich. He observed that during this period of his life, his dreams were very accommodating, presenting him with symbols and sequences that perfectly conformed to Jungian theory. He was having Jungian dreams. But once he became suspicious of this, and he drifted away from Jungian studies, his dreams began speaking in other sets of symbols and he began having completely different kinds of experiences.
I am reminded of some magicians who occasionally discuss their dreams in their blogs, or other magicians with whom I’ve discussed dreams personally. Oddly enough, if the magician is very qaballistically inclined, he receives very qabalistically encoded dreams. If dreamers are Wiccan or Asatru, then they get dreams that include lots of Nordic symbolism. But when you speak to these people, you can tell they are under the impression that they are getting such dreams because these symbols are “universal”. This is the “real” deeper truth of the universe, etc. They don’t realize that those who expect this sort of dream will find that this is the sort of dream they will get.
So, in general, I’m less and less interested in “universals”, because I am becoming more and more convinced that they aren’t nearly as universal as many believe. That’s the “lurch to the left” referred to in the title of this posting. I have less use for sunny, agreed-upon, we’re-all-on-the-same-page kinds of methods, and am gravitating toward doing what seems right for me and my world view. And due to this shift, I’m taking greater interest in texts produced by people who are identified as “left-hand-path” or at least chaosy-ish, such as A. O. Spare, Andrew Chumbley, Gordon White.
This, naturally affects my approach to mythology and ritual, as well. There’s far more power (in my eyes) to taking myths as primal narratives, and relating to them as tales, rather than dissecting them to extract the planetary, elemental and alchemical building blocks (real or perceived) that make them up. I don’t think the ancients “devised” or thought up rituals as much as they received them from the inner planes or were inspired to create them as works of art. It’s a modern thing to make an artificial distinction between myth, ritual and art. I really seem to be developing a virulent pigeon-hole allergy here. (Must be some sort of feather mites.)
The admonitions against going one’s own way are legion. And, to a certain extent, I understand why initiates issue these warnings. The last thing a beginner should be encouraged to do is freestyle. You have to learn rules before you can break them. There’s got to be a standard things are compared to. It is true that many people claim they want freedom when all they really want is the freedom to be lazy and undisciplined. But I’m 54, and I’ve been in and out of this occultism game since I was seventeen. I feel justified in saying that certain things just aren’t working for me and therefore I’m doing some serious spring cleaning to rid myself of the clutter.
For the time being tarot and QBL (and all other clunky, rigid, highly compartmentalized schemes) are on the shelf, perhaps never to be taken down again (Nah! I’ll never be able to resist playing with tarot cards every now and then!). Dreamwork, martial arts, Lenormand experiments, body-based visualization and energy work, and more free-form rituals are going to be my mainstays for a while. I just don’t have time anymore for things that speak only to my head but leave my heart unmoved.