18 October 2017

About Messing With Magic...

In my study of magic, I have found that the biggest question to be answered is "What is magic?". Of course, I have studied magic only really as a storyteller but I think that the problems for someone making an explicitly fictional narrative that includes magic are exactly the same problems that beset someone seeking to define the term in any internal narrative of the world.

The journey starts off easily enough. Magic is a means of achieving the impossible. So, five hundred years ago a man flying was magic, since the invention of the aeroplane the matter of which part of flying is magic has become context dependent. Magical flying is now more like "levitation", whereas flying at all has been ossified into science and engineering.

Science is a big problem for magic because science allows us to achieve the magical "within the rules" thus rendering the accomplishment non-magical. We can scientifically turn lead into gold in a particle accelerator but achieving this effort "within the rules" means that the cost is prohibitive.

For this reason, magic becomes any means of circumventing the rules. It is an action that has no equal or opposite reaction. It is a reaction that happens without a preceding action. Magic is any violation of the rules of natural philosophy.

Herein lies a big problem. The rules of natural philosophy are pretty handy at our size and scale. They stop us melting into walls, boiling away into space, they create some really handy reality-shaped boundaries. Sure, get small enough and all those rules go away, the quantum universe, in an immediate sense, is where the magic literally happens. The next problem becomes that in this framework "magic" and "roiling inferno of ultimate chaos" are one and the same.

By this time I wouldn't blame you if you were all at sea as to what magic actually is. A lot of people are similarly confused. It's an easy thing to say "I want to wish really hard and have a bunch of money materialise in my bank account" but how would that ever work? If you have the answer you either have magic, the fruits of hard work and good fortune, the wages of sin or you have an insubstantial and unfulfilled wish.

Magic, in short, is the ability to manifest will without having to fill out the paperwork and avoiding all the problems of playing a system that affords you your very existence.

As with any essentially worthwhile endeavour magic is a very risky proposition. Stories about magic must present the danger of magic because otherwise a reader's story sense will tingle and fantasy will quickly be rendered idle. People who wish to perform magical acts in the real world tend to be desperate or to understand desperation.

I've been writing about Discordianism, and also about Vodun in recent times. Magic is a meeting place for the two disciplines. The sister school of enchantment for Discordians tends to be that thing called Chaos Magic. To an outside observer, Vodun would appear to include within it the practice of magical acts, hence the offshoot into the Westernised sensational shell artifact, voodoo.

Repeatedly those with an interest in Vodun, or Vodou but no route in or reason for are told by those who practice that their pursuit is without form and therefore their goal an impossibility. From what I can tell you do not use vodun to achieve something, you practice vodun because that is part of who you are. For this reason, I am a Discordian. I do not do Discordian things to use Discordianism to achieve an end. I am a Discordian because that tells me something about who I am.

Chaos Magic is, quite explicitly a method of practicing "magic" where the individual has the aim of "utilizing supernatural forces". The key word here is "utilizing", not "acknowledging", "interacting with" or "contemplating" but "utilizing".

This is where I have a problem. Science is the practice of utilizing nature to achieve ends within the rules set down. When science gives us an atom bomb we realize we have really "used" nature. The destructive force of an atom bomb is a direct view on what happens when you uncork the quantum universe and up-end many of the rules of reality. The results are not pretty, not controllable and useful only for purposes that satisfy the darkest shadows of our unconscious minds.

The atom bomb is what happens when we "utilize" nature in a cynical manner. The idea that we are anywhere near ready, as a race of organisms, to "utilize" anything that might count as "supernature" is completely laughable.

The more I study Vodun and Vodou the more I perceive there is an inherent layer of spiritual respect baked into it. People are people and some of them will always try to cut a corner or achieve something "off book", but in Vodun you say "please" and answer "thank you", not things one has to do in science. The idea of treating nature with respect sounds like hippy crap, but look where not doing so leads, boom.

From a personal point of view I would like to say "hello" and "how are things with you?" and "what can I do to leave things in both the visible and the invisible world better than when I found them?", I am beyond "what's in it for me?" because when I used to ask that the answer has traditionally been "not much" and, besides, even with all that not much I have to acknowledge that I currently have more than I need in most aspects of life anyway.

What I want is to connect, and, where relevant, to improve. Other than that I don't want anything. So, I fulfil my karma and, if that karma will include an interaction with the unknown, then I will deal with that too. And if I were to hand out advice about attempting to fill a hole with magic this, or supernatural that I would ask myself, what's the nature of the hole? Nine times out of ten, in my experience, the matter of filling it will not depend upon the supernatural.

9 October 2017

Early Encounters With The Horned God

I grew up in Wales and I read all the 2000AD I could lay my hands on, so Cernunnos was going to be an obvious gateway into the world of Celtic myth. The Horned God is a tricky one, for sure. He is the easiest way to understand that there's more to life than a binary categorization of things into good and evil.

It's a long way to get from one place to another, for sure, and through a tangled wood of myth-making, shadows and appropriated truths. I am just over forty years old so I was of an age to be reading children's literature in the early 80s. This was a long, long time before Wikipedia so, although I can send you straight to reasonable definitions of all the things I mention here, you have to understand this is a modern luxury.

I think my first encounter with the Horned God in any sensible shape is with the inclusion of the character Herne the Hunter in the 1984 adaptation of John Masefield's The Box of Delights.

Which, obviously I can now just show you via YouTube. As you can tell it's a bit of a head-bender, even now, adapting the transformation battle from the myth of Taliesin and adding a strange interlude into the flow of the plot of the story. Naturally this would lead to an inquiry about who the hell that Herne the Hunter guy was from any nine-year-old boy. The problem is that in 1984 the available adults around me had lost touch with the notion of the Horned God, and tended to view the world as a series of dualities.

The matter was further confused when I encountered Alan Garner's Bresingamen books, at the time there were two The Weirdstone of Bresingamen and The Moon of Gomrath. The 20th Century was a wild time for children's literature. I think a lot of stuff got past editors who might have questioned the completely insane trips through philosophy and mythology that occurred in these volumes because it was "for kids" and hence didn't need to be coherent and were allowed to be disturbing in a deep place where lives the soul of man because it had been trivialised. (Trivialised in the heads of the marketing bods at the publishing houses, the writers showed every signs of taking this stuff very seriously.)

The Moon of Gomrath introduced me to the Wild Hunt, which in some places was thought to be lead by Herne the Hunter. Somewhere along the line I got introduced to Pan from Greek Mythology as well. I remember asking my grandmother for some explanation of the Wild Hunt and she couldn't do much better than explain that it was a "third force" in the book beyond the forces of good and evil.

I think that's doing pretty well without going into the exact idea of expanding out from a Tolkien-esque allegory into a new space in which myth connects the human soul to the very well-spring of magic and creativity. Much apart from anything else I think those concepts are troublesome to me even now, let alone when I was nine and I think my grandmother, despite her love of weird fantasy fiction, would have thought that notion beyond the pale.

Right at this moment it seems obvious to me that as a budding writer of fantasy and horror, living in Wales from the age of 7 until I left at 20, that I would develop a fascination with the lore of the British Isles and, more specifically, the mushy corpus of "Celtic Mythology"*. One of the most fascinating things about the Celtic mythology specifically was that it served as an inspiration for authors like Garner but rarely was it adapted in the way that, for example, Roger Lancelyn Green wrote The Tales of Robin Hood. Robin Hood is a fascinating folk hero for different reasons, in that his story is believed to be tied down and defined; this is impossible. Green also wrote of King Arthur, a figure who edges into the Celtic realm and preserves this idea that his myth cannot be definitively captured or set down; this is true but it shouldn't stop us from trying, in fact in the struggle to attain an impossible definitive telling of a tale is the well from which all storytellers should draw.

At the time of experiencing this fascination, however, there were frequent times when I felt like I should just give up. It was immensely frustrating to read stories by people inspired by stories that they appeared to know when I couldn't find an "authoritative" version to separate out what was "real mythology" from the poetic licence of the author.  Now I know that they only had a little more knowledge than I did and a better idea of how to do research, they were riffing off the same anthropological sources as I was, so, in short they had more idea of how to look for stuff and so had a slightly broader experience of the topic. I didn't appreciate in my late childhood/early teens how slight the older author's advantage was.

As I grew older still I continued not to have the internet, I continued to experience a surrounding apathy for my own interest in these topics, but I did continue my interest due almost entirely to my love for the stories of Slaine in 2000AD

Next Time: My Adventures With Slaine and Celtic Mythology

*Celtic Mythologians tend to attach the lore to Ireland and then add Scotland as a footnote to that, get quite excited about also mentioning the Cornish and leave the Welsh out of it because they have the Mabinogion.

5 October 2017

Discordian Vodun Online

Excuse my concerns all leaking together, but my post about the difficulty of making a connection to vodun for someone born and raised in the UK took a little more time than I had anticipated. Even so, this would seem like as fine a time as any to mention that I am writing a good deal about vodun at present as it forms the centre of my upcoming novel.

As it happens putting the book out there now, instead of racing to get it published when it was mostly done a few years ago seems to have been a wise choice. The experience is opening up my experience in ways both Discordian and in a broader spirituality.

If anyone was in doubt that Eris created the internet then the concept that it is a technology that it puts a white mostly-Welsh guy who rarely leaves the UK in direct contact with an authentic Louisiana houngan and you have to admit that the chaos is strong with this tech.

Okay, but as we have to disbelieve everything we read how do I KNOW he's an authentic houngan? Well, how does he know I'm an authentic pope? Here's the thing, I know that vodun is deep and serious because it is dangerous. Not just dangerous in an Angel Heart, bite off a chicken head way but in a sanity bending, perception altering way.

This is the problem the multiple-Pope doctrine of Discordianism is all about. Spirituality should be like knife-juggling or sword swallowing. Before you go to a party and offer to share with everyone your really sweet party trick where you escape from an airtight safe in under two minutes with your hands cuffed you better be pretty sure you're an escapologist. It is evident Houdini was taking more risks than any given vicar.

In Discordianism the whole Pope thing is an illustration that many religions attach very little weight to the assumption of a place high on the spiritual food chain. This is probably an extended hangover from the times when church and state ran in parallel power structures and any corrupt rich asshole could be a power player in the church wielding dogma as a blunt instrument.

In reality you don't want to represent as something you aren't when it comes to spiritual matters. As vodun represents an apparent spiritual tradition that treats the world of spirit with the respect it deserves. From what I know you wouldn't want to represent as a houngan if you actually weren't.

Hell, I don't go to dinner parties and shoot my mouth off about being a pope, for a start everyone is. Deeper, though, my serious consideration of all things Discordian has only begun very recently. I'm not ready to wear the hot dog belt bucket and golden apple lapel badge just yet*.

There are too many people claiming to be the spiritual hotline at the present time. I do think that the original wave of Discordianism fell at the start of this wave. Marshall McLuhan identified the potential in the mass-media and electronic expansion of communications. But any time before about 1998 was too soon to call the potential power of the internet, which is like the power of the mass media on steroids.

I think that poets and artists have taken a massive beating in terms of their relevance and purpose these days, a time when people can attain some sort of notoriety by doing something vaguely interesting on YouTube. When you consider that Andy Warhol couldn't possibly have known the scope of his assertion about everyone being famous for 15 minutes you begin to appreciate what that purpose is.

Warhol's art attracted attention, that attention gave him a platform. If he'd been doing what he was doing now his soup cans would have been on DeviantArt and his aphorisms would have been mashed up with satirical photo juxtapositions and shared on instagram. The tools to be a prophet have been democratised to the point that they have experienced a severe devaluation.

As anyone can claim to be anything they want when you can only talk to them on social media so the currency of making those claims has taken a hit given all the counterfeit claims. All that's really happened though is a raising of the bar. If you want a platform now building it isn't the problem, the problem is using it amongst the forest of competing platforms that exist.

The current environment of people screaming in echo chambers doesn't nullify the one whispered thread of actual wisdom. A mass of people listening to white noise does not mean that the message has been compromised. All that's happened is that the terrain has changed. Now the whispered message can be delivered to active recipients, listening itself was passive when the availability of platforms was scarce. Rapidly the business of listening has become active and personal, Discordianism has been right there waiting because Discordianism admits we're all popes and that you have to disbelieve everything you read. These are not just idle statements, they are the pronouncements of a prophet who didn't even know what he was seeing and attained his insight through his own spiritual process of chewing on paradoxes and shifting his own perspective.

If we are all popes we all have to do that. Active listening is contemplation of the bigger picture. Learning to separate out the wisdom from the white noise is everybody's job. And then Discordianism reminds us "The white noise is wisdom, and the wisdom is white noise, now what you gonna do?"

From this perspective vodun is another way to approach perception, and as it's pretty unique it's a valuable one at that. I have found my own vodun experiences so far to remind me how little I know and how daunting the change in thought can prove to be. I am grateful. For these are things we should never forget.

* There is no official formal attire that marks one out as a Discordian**, but if I were to set a precedent it would definitely be the belt buckle and lapel badge.
** And if anyone claimed there was it would be the job of all Discordians to refute it.

3 October 2017

Vodun In The UK

I've had Starfall in my "to-do" pile for so long that I forget how much has changed since 2006. When I began the book my concept of Vodun was informed by what I could find on the topic available on the internet. It was very much the only choice. The UK is one of the places on the face of the earth that could not be much more cut off from primary sources for research into the topic.

To illustrate lets consider that in 2006 Facebook had only just opened its doors to public access. So there would certainly be no chance of joining an appropriate public group on the platform to ask questions and learn more. Although the internet was supposed to be the great connecting medium through which we could learn about each other more deeply we have a way to go.

Even to this day I can understand why those who practice vodun are wary about talking on the public internet. As much as the internet is supposed to be acultural the facts of global politics mean that vodun is likely to be viewed with suspicion through the lens of the haughty anthropologist, the unrelenting skeptic or the mercenary marketing man.

Not that I saw this article from a low-quality British advertising paper at the time, but it sums up some of the things I wanted to stay away from. I want to think about things but I don't want to appropriate them. Vodun is not mine, I don't own it, no one does, but the thought habit of thinking about things studied as things owned is one that I am consciously trying to fight against.

I studied vodun, and one of the important reasons why I did was that it was going to be something very hard for me to become confident in. I wanted to appreciate without stepping over any lines. I wanted to celebrate the fact of vodun, as much as I could, on its own terms and for its own sake.

I think it would be fair to say that I was afraid of vodou when I started to look into it. Not in the manner you might expect. I had for it the same fear I had of what people refer to as Chaos Magick, I am dismissive of neither because whatever an individual may believe is within the realm of the possible the harm of disrespecting the practice is obvious to anyone.

Even if you have adopted an atheist and skeptical framework then you can still detect that those who have stared too long into any abyss emerge from the experience broken. No one can feel comfortable contemplating what someone who has been burned by that spirit fire may have seen and experienced in order to end up in pieces. All that differs is an observer's rationalisation of what exactly they saw and how they came to experience it.

In the decade since I wrote the core of Starfall white Western society has found the space for some useful consideration of vodou. I like this article from The Guardian in 2015, it manages to cover such a broad amount of topics and aspects from a few different perspectives that it makes for something to consider and digest, rather than attempting to be a satisfactory precis.

This is how most people in the UK and America
first experience any kind of vodou...

Having said that I am far less keen on the tone of this piece from just over a month ago on the BBC. This article definitely hits straight into the anthropological tone that attempts to historicise and contain the thing it studies. The Guardian piece has a far more chaotic mood, talking about people, places and even becoming poetic in its turn. Even when it seeks out the word of an anthropological source it selects carefully. The anthropologist Ira Lowenthal is interviewed, it would appear Lowenthal has a hard won grasp of what vodou is all about and can translate for those who do not find it in their blood:
Vodou says ‘no, I’m not a cow. Cows cannot dance, cows do not sing. Cows cannot become God. Not only am I a human being – I’m considerably more human than you. Watch me create divinity in this world you have given me that is so ugly and so hard. Watch me become God in front of your eyes.’
I think this quote captures, in its construction, an important thing that we have to take in about understanding vodou. If you are not part of a historical tradition that is grounded in enslavement, exploitation and degradation then you will take a lot longer to understand the nature of this spirituality. You can have been a beggar, an enemy, or an outcast, you can have been of low rank and status but unless you have been a slave (even via ancestry) you do not have an instant connection to the vodou loa.

Another interesting connection to Starfall comes out of the Lowenthal interview:
White people lost their spirits centuries ago. We lost it all. The Haitians believe we used to have spirits, but we were too stupid to keep them.
In a way this is a central theme of Starfall, the female protagonist, Carrie, is without a spiritual dimension as the novel begins. The antagonist, Thomas Rempstone, trades with spirits but tells himself he is practicing a kind of spirit science. The other protagonist, Dillon, possesses an innate spirituality, but he struggles with it. The novel's central problems are all about the fact that the Haitian loa are unable to understand the spirits of the British earth, in Starfall Britain is home of weak, confused spirits on the surface, below that surface an ecosystem of dark and powerful mystery that the vodou loa see as a real threat.

All of this spiritual uncertainty and turmoil is, to me, a real thing. Spirituality and the notion of spirits are not easy, you cannot run along a spiritual path. I guess that's why the fate of the UK vodou practitioner detailed in the Metro article above causes me a little intellectual irritation. His spiritual practice now identifies as shamanism. I combed a little through his site but he doesn't mention vodou obviously, if at all. I imagine, if pressed, he would answer that he has blended some of the practices of vodou into his shamanism. Maybe that's fine, but it seems off to me.

I cannot help but feel that maybe he has re-thought representing himself as one who knows the secrets of vodou because he feels that he probably doesn't and, besides, vodou is not as effective a brand for those looking to "find themselves" as the idea of a shamanic retreat. Vodou is for Hallowe'en, donuts, club nights and psychedelic UK rock bands.

This casual appropriation is one of the major obstacles for those outsiders trying to build up a real understanding of vodou. The assumed ownership of the term in order to peddle goods and services is the most crass display of what those who don't understand (and probably fear) the spirituality represent. Trivialisation, mockery, ingrained disrespect are all internal barriers that keep people away from the power they are defying. It is those barriers that are inside everyone who does not have the cultural history to just "get it". For me Starfall was a step in the process of learning respect and building that bridge.