Thursday, July 21, 2016

How Not to Learn Magic: An Introductory Note

Lately I’ve been sorting through my collection of books on occultism and deciding which of them still need a place on my bookshelves. That’s a useful chore at intervals, if only because new books are always coming out and bookshelf space is regrettably finite; still, it has a little more importance this time around, as this sorting comes at something of a turning point in my occult career.

A bit of autobiography may be useful here. From my first tentative dabblings in magic in the mid-1970s until 1994, when I was initiated into the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids (OBOD), I worked pretty much exclusively with the Golden Dawn tradition of practical occultism, as interpreted by Israel Regardie on the one hand, and Dion Fortune and her students W.E. Butler, William Gray, and Gareth Knight on the other. That was partly a choice of necessity, since the Golden Dawn system was very nearly the only thoroughly developed curriculum of occult study and practice you could get in those days—if, that is, you happened to be a geeky young man with very little money, no connections in the occult scene, and no access to occult literature except via a few not very impressive bookstores and the kind of mail order catalogues that carried Anna Riva’s Magic Oils, photocopied talismans out of the Key of Solomon, and what passed, in those rather more innocent times, for manuals of racy sex.

Even after I found my spiritual home in Druidry, I continued my Golden Dawn studies and practices. My completion of the OBOD study course in 2001, though, marked a turning point. By that time it was a good deal easier to get access to a wide range of magical instruction, and I’d also picked up a reading knowledge of Latin and French, which opened doors to a range of traditions most people in the American occult scene have still never heard of. By that time, too, I’d worked my way through the Golden Dawn system in its entirety, and while there was still plenty of work there for me to do—you can easily spend an entire lifetime working through the possibilities of any reasonably complex system of magic, and never run out of things to do—I was ready to explore something else for a while.

Exploring something else, in turn, occupied the next fifteen years. I sought initiation in two other Druid orders, and duly became a Druid Adept in the Ancient Order of Druids in America (AODA) and a Third Order priest in the Reformed Druids of North America (RDNA), but my vagaries weren’t limited to Druidry by any means. Among other things, I completed extensive study programs in Renaissance astrological magic and old-fashioned Southern conjure, practiced radionics using a homebuilt Hieronymus machine, devoted some serious time to laboratory alchemy, dove headfirst into sacred geometry, geomancy, and both traditional and modern astrology, got competent at two systems of alternative healing with important ties to occultism, and put ten years into earning instructor’s credentials in one of the old temple styles of t’ai chi ch’uan.

Then there were the books. My idea of a good time tolerably often amounts to a quiet room and a good book, so I worked my way through most of the occult literature of the western world, from ancient Greek Neoplatonist theurgic writings (thank Zeus for good translations!) straight through to the latest oozing-edge products of post-post-postmodern (insert one: C, K, X)aos magi(insert one: c, ck, k, que).  There were plenty of things I never got around to doing—I’ve never felt the least attraction to Wicca, for example, so I remain cheerfully ignorant about its inner teachings, and a certain discomfort with the role of clueless white guy has kept me from seeking initiation into any of the Third World magical religions available in America these days—but all in all, I think my wanderings managed to give me a tolerably good glimpse at the landscape of possibilities open to the modern occultist.

That led me to the turning point mentioned above. In the wake of my resignation as Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America last December, I gradually woke to the realization that I’d done as much roaming across the magical landscape as seemed appropriate, and it was time to settle down and get back to work on something approximating the traditions I’d originally learned. Druidry, as noted above, is my spiritual home, but fusing Golden Dawn practices with Druid Revival philosophy and symbolism was done successfully in the early twentieth century.  Even though the teachings of the orders that accomplished that fusion are apparently lost, I had no trouble reverse engineering them back into existence—the first results of that act of reinvention have already been published as The Celtic Golden Dawn, and other volumes are in preparation. Some of the things I studied during my fifteen years of wandering have also contributed to the resulting synthesis, but plenty of others haven’t, and one consequence is that a lot of books I collected in my journeys have outlived their usefulness and are being released, by way of a convenient used book store, into the hands of others.

All of which brings me to the hefty and slightly battered paperback sitting on my desk as I write these words. Its title is Introduction to Magic, and it was written by members of the UR Group, a circle of Italian occultists betweeen the wars who worked more or less under the headship of the celebrated and notorious Julius Evola. Though the book on my desk, a capable English translation by Guido Stucco of the first of the three Italian volumes, saw print at the peak of the modern occult boom in 2001, it made only the tiniest splash in the English-speaking occult scene on its publication, and pretty much sank without a trace thereafter.

Part of that was due to its chief author. Few people these days can read a book by Julius Evola without feeling, at least once, the urge to fling it across the room. If Evola is watching his posthumous career from some cold Hyperborean summit, he must be laughing mordantly, because this is exactly the reception he wanted. He loathed the modern world and everything it stood for, and his icy contempt for modernity led him to construct an ethos and a spirituality that flies in the face of everything the modern western world considers good, valid, and true. It doesn’t help, of course, that he condemned Mussolini’s government for not being fascist enough, spent the last part of the Second World War as an officer in the Waffen-SS, and became a major source of inspiration for neofascist political, cultural, and spiritual movements once the war was over.

It’s common these days for biographical data like these to lead people to insist that books by any such author should never be read, discussed, or even mentioned. As I noted in a recent post over in the other blog, though, I consider that attitude to be somewhere on the notional spectrum between self-defeating and just plain silly. For the serious student of occult philosophy, in particular, an encounter with Evola’s ideas and personality—the two are very much of a piece—is essential. This isn’t because I agree with the man; I don’t. Neither, though, do I agree with a good many of the attitudes and ideas he chose to attack. Evola is among many other things a near-perfect case study in one of the rules of magical philosophy I’ve discussed here and elsewhere: the principle that, far more often than not, the opposite of one bad idea is another bad idea.

At some point in the not too distant future, in fact, I plan on devoting several posts here to a discussion of Evola’s magnum opus, Revolt Against the Modern World. This month’s post, though, has a different theme. In recent months, several readers of this blog have raised questions about what constitutes an effective and balanced course of magical training, one that guides the student step by step toward the awakening of the higher potentials of the individual without causing the sort of emotional and psychological imbalances so often seen among failed occultists. As I paged through Introduction to Magic, trying to decide whether to give it shelf space or sell it to the used book store mentioned earlier, it occurred to me that one very good way to start that conversation is to take a close look at a system of magical training that is neither effective nor balanced.

The fact of the matter is that Evola’s UR Group was a wretched flop, and the inadequacy of its system of training is a very large part of the reason why. The Group was founded in early 1927 and blew itself apart in late 1929, having achieved none of the goals Evola so confidently set out for it; the cause of death was a series of internal crises that will be wearily familiar to those who know their way around the more dysfunctional ends of today’s Neopagan scene.  Furthermore, according to the useful preface contributed to the book by Renato del Ponte, two later groups of occultists who attempted to revive the UR Group’s teachings crashed and burned in exactly the same way. Part of that is a phenomenon occultists call the “tainted sphere,” which we’ll discuss in a later post, but there’s another factor at work: the practical instructions for training given in Introduction to Magic are mediocre at their best moments and seriously problematic at their worst.

It probably needs to be repeated here that I’m talking about the practical instructions for training, not the philosophical and symbolic essays included in the UR Group papers, which are generally of a very high quality. Evola himself was profoundly erudite, with an extraordinary if one-sided grasp of mystical philosophy, and some of the other UR Group members—Arturo Reghini arguably first among them—were his equals if not his superiors. (Reghini deserves to be much better known in the English-speaking world than he is. Good translations of his writings on the Pythagorean tradition, in particular, would be extremely valuable.) The difficulty here is that a profound grasp of esoteric philosophy is not the same as a practical working knowledge of the requirements of magical training.

Consider the parallel predicament of a theoretical physicist who decides that his physics Ph.D. from Stanford qualifies him to rebuild his home’s sewers. In theory, this is quite true:  an education in theoretical physics covers all the forces that affect a sewer system, from gravity and pressure through adhesion, thermal expansion, and so on. The fact remains that there are a great many practical tricks to rebuilding a sewer system that are not obvious from the perspective of a purely theoretical education. Thus a theoretical physicist who sets out to rebuild his sewer system on the basis of abstract principles is almost certainly going to end up, at some point, covered from head to foot in raw sewage. That’s basically what happened to Evola and the other members of the UR Group.

Turn the pages of Introduction to Magic and it’s not hard to see why. Setting aside the philosophical and symbolic essays—which again are generally of high quality—and the turgid rhetoric that seems to have been de rigueur for occult authors in that era, what you get, in terms of practical work, consists of: (a) standard advice on developing consciousness and will in everyday life, mostly cribbed from Eliphas Lévi; (b) an assortment of exercises in meditation and visualization, not well integrated with one another; (c) a few exercises with a magical mirror, for one or two persons; and (d) a simple ritual centering on Pietro d’Abano’s invocation of the archangel of the Sun, without any of the preliminary training needed to make rituals work.  As a set of basic practices, that has serious problems: it leaves out a number of things essential to the novice in operative magic, and it’s imbalanced in ways that will produce (and in fact did produce) predictable problems.

The gaps in the training the UR Group provided its members are best described by contrast with a more complete and systematic course of training, and so that discussion will take place in a later post. The imbalances are quite another matter. It was fashionable in Evola’s time for avant-garde intellectuals to adopt a pose of ruthlessness, hardness, and icy indifference to humanity, and Evola went in for that with the same thoroughness he applied to every other subject that interested him. He seems to have found the pose congenial—and of course he was hardly the only one.

A comparable figure in many ways, though intellectually Evola’s inferior, was an older contemporary of his, the English occultist Aleister Crowley.  Unlike Evola, Crowley studied magic in an established tradition, that of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, but blew out of that Order and reworked its teachings to fit his own sense of what magic (or as he insisted on spelling it, “magick”) ought to be about. Like Evola, Crowley set out to revolt against the modern world; like Evola, what he actuallly revolted against was the world of his parents’ generation, in favor of the latest fashionable ideas of the modern world—it shows some of the core differences between English and Italian culture that Crowley rebelled especially against England’s sexual repressiveness, while Evola rebelled especially against the grand Italian ideal of umanità, humanity or humaneness.

Both men cultivated the same trendy pose of icy ruthlessness et al.; both, interestingly enough, were mountain climbers; both thought they could transform the world through magic, and failed completely. Crowley just kept at it, with a prodigious lack of success—the posthumous emergence of his teachings as a major theme in modern occultism is almost entirely the work of Grady McMurtry, who picked up the disorderly heap of material Crowley left behind, reworked it into a coherent system, and reinvented the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), an order Crowley hijacked from its original founders and ran into the ground, as a vehicle for that system.

Evola, for his part, responded to the parallel failure of the UR Group by turning from magic to politics. His entire involvement with magic began and ended in the three years the UR Group functioned, and these were very early in his life—when the UR Group was founded, he was only twenty-six years old. His decision to turn to political action, and from there to cultural politics, was a sensible one. Since he was not the sort of person who could submit to another’s guidance and instruction, he was never going to get the kind of systematic education in magic he needed to accomplish his goals—and the lack of a systematic education in magic lay at the heart of his failure as a teacher of that art.

It’s a failure that stalks everyone who tries to come up with an original system of magical training without first mastering some existing system from top to bottom, and finding out what systems of magical training are supposed to accomplish. One of the goals of magical training, to turn to technical language for a moment, is the equilibration of the lower self:  in less opaque terms, the balancing out of the habitual imbalances of the personality, so that the aspiring mage can use his or her habits of thought and feeling rather than being used by them. Magical systems cooked up by people who haven’t had such a training inevitably miss this; having projected the habitual imbalances of their personalities onto the cosmos—and we all do this, until appropriate disciplines teach us how to stop—they end up reinforcing their imbalances rather than equilibrating them.

Evola’s choice of a basic magical ritual is a good example of this, though it’s hardly the only one, and it also demonstrates one of the common problems with trying to work out a system of magical training on first principles. From a metaphysical and symbolic perspective, it’s entirely appropriate to treat the Sun as a symbol of the Absolute, and so Evola pulled a solar invocation out of its original context in a carefully designed set of Renaissance-era invocations of the planetary archangels, on the assumption that his students could use a ritual based on that invocation to attain the Absolute.

The difficulty here is that novice mages don’t operate on the plane of the Absolute. They operate on the planes of form, and if you invoke the Sun on the planes of form, you won’t get the Absolute; you’ll get the kind of solar influence that astrologers, for example, know well; and if you invoke the Sun only, without equilibrating it with the other planetary forces, you can pretty much count on pushing your personality in the direction of too much solar influence, which will make you behave like an arrogant blowhard—the astrologically literate may imagine a really out-of-control Leo here.  If your personality already tends toward arrogance and self-glorifying egocentricity, furthermore, this fate is going to be all but impossible to avoid, because the energies of the ritual and the dysfunctions of the self form a feedback loop that drowns out the signals that something’s gone wrong.

It’s probably not an accident, in other words, that the thing that wrecked the UR Group was a rising spiral of clashing egos among the leading figures.  That’s what you’d expect to see happen with a group of people who are busy performing solar invocations without any other planetary influence to balance them.  Crowley, it bears noting, managed the same thing in a somewhat more diffuse and roundabout way, though here again an excess of solar symbolism seems to have played a role—one of the booby traps hidden in the standard Golden Dawn system is an excessive focus on the solar symbolism of Tiphareth, the sixth sphere of the Tree of Life, which again can lead to overinflated egos.

There are ways around that pitfall, in or out of the Golden Dawn system, but you have to know that the pitfall is there in order to avoid it. You also have to be willing to recognize a pitfall as a pitfall, and avoid the temptation to convince yourself that the dysfunctional emotional state you’ve gotten yourself into isn’t a sign of your own profound spiritual specialness. That’s not always easy—but then nobody who knew what they were talking about ever said that magic was easy.