Guttershaman – The Ultimate Secret of Magic

If ever a modern writer could be described as a legend in his own lifetime, it is Alan Moore. Already considered a genius for his reinvigoration of the comic book scene, he upped the ante considerably when he announced, at the age of 40, that he was now a magician. He’s been publicly out about this ever since – one notable aspect of his praxis is his claim to worship the Roman snake-puppet god Glycon – a deity who was probably a con-job. (There’s an excellent piece about the history and veracity of the Glycon story in this month’s Fortean Times – issue 276.)

Another notable aspect of how Moore’s magical working blurs alleged fact and supposed fiction is his story of how he met one of his creations – the working-class mage John Constantine – in the real world. Twice.

In 1993, he told Wizard Magazine of his first encounter with Constantine (whose appearance was initially based on the pop-singer Sting):

“One day, I was in Westminster in London – this was after we had introduced the character – and I was sitting in a sandwich bar. All of a sudden, up the stairs came John Constantine. He was wearing the trenchcoat, a short cut, he looked… no, he didn’t even look exactly like Sting. He looked exactly like John Constantine. He looked at me, stared me straight in the eyes, smiled, nodded almost conspiratorially, and then just walked off around the corner to the other part of the snack bar.

“I sat there and thought, should I go around that corner and see if he is really there, or should I just eat my sandwich and leave? I opted for the latter; I thought it was the safest. I’m not making any claims to anything. I’m just saying that it happened. Strange little story.”

His second meeting with John Constantine is described in his performance piece, Snakes and Ladders (adapted in comic form by Eddie Campbell and available as A Disease Of Language), and it’s of considerably more importance…

Moore said:

“Years later, in another place, he steps out of the dark and speaks to me. He whispers: ‘I’ll tell you the ultimate secret of magic. Any cunt could do it.’ “

In a later retelling of the latter story, featured in the documentary The Mindscape of Alan Moore (which can be seen on YouTube here), Moore adds that the second encounter took place in a ritual context. Nonetheless: whatever you believe about how ‘real’ the encounter was, those words are worth considering very carefully.

Any cunt could do it.

Let’s assume that this instance of ‘John Constantine’ was telling the truth – admittedly a bit of a stretch for a fictional character, especially one noted for being something of a con-man… but let’s go with it. Let’s also assume he wasn’t being literal about the ‘any cunt’ bit – in this context, from a working-class Englishman, it should be taken to mean ‘anyone’. Besides, it’s certainly true that the successful practice of magic is not limited to those with vulvas.

So – the ultimate secret of magic is that anyone could do it. No limits of race, gender, religion, caste or class. Especially, no limits on how rich you are – magic is so very often what the poor have instead of material wealth and power (or, sometimes, a route to same).  Sure, it’s nice to have bespoke kit, your own house, a selection of good quality incense, candles, knives and drugs… but it’s not necessary. You can do very effective magic stark bollock naked in a bare room with nothing but your Will and your bodily fluids. Trust me on that.

There are those, of course, who would insist that the expensive kit is not optional – or, at least, that it brings a puissance to the whole affair that a lash-up job lacks. This mode of thought was nicely skewered in Lionel Snell’s article Paroxysms of Magick and the immortal line about the OTTO – Over The Top Occultist;

When the 70’s occultist says “there’s no point in using a silver censer when a coffee tin serves just as well”, the OTTO initiate replies “there’s no point in using a coffee tin when a 800 year old human skull looted from the ruins of a Mexican temple serves just as well.”

(The point being that few could acquire that skull besides the rich… or a thief. Hermes being the god of both mages and thieves, as I’ve noted elsewhere. Personally, I restrict my thievery to ideas…)

Magic is principally an act of applied symbolism – try hard enough and any concave surface is a chalice, any stick a wand. The shinier they are, the easier it may be to convince yourself of that – but it’s not actually necessary. That act of applied imagination can be done by anyone who wants to try it. It’s that universality, that ‘democratic’, equalizing aspect to magic that’s so important – and it often gets swept away in the Newage merchandise, the expensive tomes and especially the insistence that in order to do magic you have to be special.

I would say instead – you have to become special. The means to accomplish this are varied – and the how-to manuals are out there, prices ranging from ‘how much?’ to free-to-download. Any cunt could find it…

There’s another quote I love – and it’s perhaps apt that the source is a bit blurry:

“Magic is the defense of the self against the malevolence of society.”

-John O’Keefe

To be a magician is, at heart, a rejection of the societal definition of normality. It is a standing-apart from the accepted rules of the game. A consecration of self… regardless of externally accepted status. A rebuke to the ideas of privilege – be it privilege by reason of birth, by wealth or by habit. Deciding that your imagination and willpower have import and can affect the world and making it stick, whatever you’ve been told about Knowing Your Place.

The trouble is, of course, that the world of the Normal can still utterly and easily crush you, magic or no. No matter how well they chanted, the Native American practitioners of the Ghost Shirt ritual did not become bulletproof. But maybe a spell on a Level III ballistic vest might make it a tiny bit more effective… just enough to count.

I’ve said it before – although what goes on inside a magician’s head (and, occasionally, outside it in ritual space) is enormous and epic, the actual physical-world effects are usually minimal – tiny shifts in probability, a little tickle in a person’s mind at just the right moment… small changes with large knock-on events. A little bit of power, in (hopefully) just the right place.

The poor and weak and disenfranchised don’t have a lot of clout, but they can make the best use of what they’ve got. The Way of the Guttershaman, if you like. Having the posh kit will not make you a better magician, ever. Making the best, most creative use of the ideas, the symbols and mythologies – of your own breath and ch’i and sheer stubbornness – will. Those tiny changes can be made to grow, become stronger and/or better timed. All it takes is practice, working at it and keeping your connections to the Real and the Imaginal intact – too much of the former results in failure, too much of the latter leads to the egomania of mageitis.

Any cunt could do it. That doesn’t mean anyone can (or even that they should) – just that they – you – could.

And to anyone who tells you otherwise, for whatever reason… well, I’ll leave that to John Constantine.

 

Building Character 3 – Character Flaws

 

“I know what it’s like to feel unequal to the task required of you… to feel incapable. I’ll never be the man I was, but I’ve come to embrace those parts of my mind that are… peculiar and broken. I understand now that’s what makes my mind special. I wish you could see yourself the way I see you. You have no idea how extraordinary you are. If you can embrace that, there’s no end to what you can do.”

— Walter Bishop, in Fringe


Last time I was considering how pop-culture can inform (and occasionally misinform) one’s personality, especially for those of us whose interests in the spiritual lead us to draw on fictional sources. I asked;

“…when you’re actively trying to build or rebuild your personality around such a basis… what do you do?” How, exactly, does it work when you’re using riffs from multi-media as a way to explore and expand your personality?

Luckily, as I was writing, a perfect example came up. (Synchronicity is, as ever, the magician’s main ally.)

The above quote is from the penultimate episode of the third season of Fringe. For those who haven’t seen the series, (and I really recommend you do) it’s an odd little show which has grown from a monster-of-the-week X-Files vibe into a complex and emotionally satisfying piece of science fiction TV with a lot to recommend it. The quote comes from a scene where two of the protagonists are working on a dangerous problem which can only be solved by the harnessing of the suppressed psychic abilities of one of them, FBI Agent Olivia Dunham – powers which were induced during her childhood by the other, a full-blown Mad Scientist named Walter Bishop.

Walter is, to put it mildly, a broken man. A genius in several fields and a pioneer in the realm of fringe science, he’s no stranger to mind-altering drugs, spend seventeen years in a mental home and has had several pieces of his brain removed – apparently as his own behest. He has caused immense harm to Olivia in the past, but despite this they have become allies and uneasy friends.

I wept when I first saw that scene. Pure absolute recognition. It was like those words had been written to pierce straight through to my soul.

Of course, they weren’t. Despite the fact that I occasionally entertain as a useful exercise the thought-experiment of The Invisibles’ Mason Lang, that certain bits of pop-culture were created as messages and instructions for the rebellious and inquisitive, I don’t actually think that there’s a hidden Hollywood cadre of illuminated beings beaming Pure Truth to the Worthy. But sometimes it really feels like there is.

The parts of my mind that are, as Walter says, peculiar and broken, have a shape to them. And  sometimes, a film or movie or book or piece of music seems to fit into one of the gaps, drop into place almost seamlessly – and part of me that was incomplete and gaping open and raw feels, even if just for a moment, whole. I think that part of our development as people, what Jung called Individuation, is a process of finding such pieces, trying them out, seeing if they fit. Tessellation of the soul.

That’s why I don’t feel that incorporating a whole personality or a single mythos into your head works terribly well. We’re all of us broken and incomplete and flawed in different ways. I suspect that in most cases, dropping an entire fiction-suit over the top of all that doesn’t actually help to repair the holes, it just covers them up for a while. Band-Aids on arterial spray. It would, I think, be a terrible idea to just become Walter Bishop, even though he’s  one of the most delightful characters in modern television – he pisses himself occasionally, has crazed rants at supermarket packaging, makes terrible decisions that have catastrophic consequences… and, like all such people from all such worlds, he’s incomplete in a significant way, because he’s a fiction. Even more than the rest of us ‘real’ people. Drawing on these archetypal figures for wisdom and guidance, maybe even for the odd quirk or habit, is a good and useful start, but it’s just a start… because their creation is so very different from ours. Their strengths and deeds, flaws and weaknesses are not the same. Similar enough to be useful, but only in part.

I also think that it’s the very act of adapting to our flaws and weaknesses that constitutes spiritual and mental growth. But for that to happen, there has to be a wound to heal.

I don’t know a single person who’s a practitioner of magic or other spiritual exercises who has not, at some point, suffered greatly. Health problems, abuse, being outcast – these are so common among the Tribe of the Strange as to practically be signs of membership. It’s more than possible, I think,  that it’s these traumas – and, more importantly, how the survivor of them adapts and grows to compensate for them – that are where the magic enters. All shamanic systems rely on shock as a means of initiation – an attempt, I suspect, to induce these fractures into people to let the light in.

(This doesn’t always work, either when deliberately induced or accidentally endured. There are plenty of folk out there who are broken and this just doesn’t happen for them. The other factors involved are variable in the extreme. Plus, it makes an awfully convenient excuse for power elites to harm others in the name of Illumination and initiation. Nothing’s perfect.)

For those of us who are broken in this particular way, there’s usually some combination – between the yearning for greater completeness, connection with others and the world, and the initial breach – which makes for a mage, a shaman, a seeker. My own journey on that Path quickly led me to realise that wisdom, guidance – tools – can come from anywhere the soul can recognise as true. That fits those broken places.

This scene from Fringe not only speaks directly to that, but perfectly encapsulates it for me. It won’t for others. That may be the entire point. But if you’re one of the broken ones, one of the Tribe of the Strange… seek your stories, your metaphors, your Truths (the good ones are usually plural) and share them, compare them with others, regardless of their background and beliefs. We can only grow by combining our stories, our toolkits… using them to change our minds, literally.

And, like Walter Bishop said – if you can embrace that, you can be extraordinary.

 

Olivia: I know that you want to believe in me, and I want to believe in me. But believing doesn’t make it true.

Walter: Just try.

Fringe


 

Building Character 2 – Staying In Character

(Part 1 is here.)

 

Why don’t you be like me?

Why don’t you stop and see?

Why don’t you hate who I hate, kill who I kill to be free?

-The Monkees, Randy Scouse Git

 

Last time, I was talking about how pop-culture aspects are a viable source of inspiration, or even workable as a basis, for one’s personality. I also mentioned that sometimes this can go very wrong indeed.

Here’s an example.

 

Around British SF fandom in the 80s, there was a person who was known (behind her back – fandom, like any group, has its’ cliques and bitching) as Ratwoman. She was called this because of her hobby of keeping rats as pets. Now I’m not going to gainsay that as a hobby – I’ve kept fancy rats myself and found them amiable companions – but she kept (so the story went) over fifty of the buggers and let them run all over her house, with the attendant hygiene issues that implies.

 

Ratwoman was also, like many in the scene, an enthusiastic participant of the occult/pagan fringe of fandom. Her preferred mythos was Pern – the realm of telepathically-bonded dragon-riding heroes in the books of Anne McCaffrey. As you can imagine, Ratwoman getting to meet the author herself was quite an important moment… which she spent explaining exactly to McCaffrey what the books had got wrong about Pern, on the basis that Ratwoman had been there and knew better.

 

I’ve written about Otherkin before, and it’s a position I’ve a lot of sympathy with. I certainly understand from my own experiences the feeling of being so very different from everyone else around you that you really don’t feel, or want to be, human. Around the same time as the Ratwoman story, I was involved with a group of people in fandom who, before the term Otherkin was even coined, identified as being the reincarnation of Tolkienesque elves. (I wasn’t an elf. I had a whole blurry mythos of my own going on at the time, part-Lovecraft, part-Illuminatus. But we got on.) It’s a compelling feeling, that combination of outsider and tribe-member. So I completely get the idea of inhabiting a myth-structure that completely. But at the same time, I can’t help but see just how fucking presumptuous it is to tell the creator of said mythos, “You’re Doing It Wrong”.

 

(Now, if we want to get picky, the possibility that Ratwoman was right has to be mentioned… anyone who’s familiar with Alan Moore’s theory of Ideaspace could raise the possibility that there is a Ur-Pern out there in the imaginal realm, and that some folk could conceivably make contact with it. Or even that Pern, faults and all, truly does physically exist somewhere in deep space and she actually did pick up some telepathic vibe coming from it, or even translated her soul there in some manner. Nonetheless; if nothing else, going up to the person who is pretty sure they actually invented that world with overriding declarations of your version of their reality is, at the very least, impolite and tacky.)

 

I mentioned before that fannish excesses of this type, roleplay in every sense, can provide a useful place to experiment with the tenets of our personalities – and even in the face of such extreme examples as above, I believe that’s a useful and rewarding thing. But a necessary stage of that process is that sometimes, you have to leave the scenario. You have to step away. Or your personality becomes subsumed by the role.

 

It’s a particular problem for occultists. At some level, practicing magic is the assumption that your imagination can directly shape the universe. The problem there is that, if you don’t constantly cross-check what goes on inside your head with what goes on outside it, you’ll fall into the trap of what I call mageitis – spinning exquisite worlds in your mind of which you are the absolute ruler, while  living in your mum’s basement covered in fast-food stains, B.O. and ennui. This is difficult enough for anyone – neurologically, we’re hard-wired to treat metaphor as very close to reality – so unless you work hard at this, the possibility of being swallowed by the fiction is constant.

 

(Somebody once tried to gently question Ratwoman’s view of reality. She responded angrily that the person was so negative that they had “a grey psychic cloud the size of Moscow” over their head. Another danger of mageitis is hyperbole.)

 

Actors have known this for a long time. Examples of the performer being absorbed by the role abound – Jeremy Brett’s tragic battle with the Sherlock Holmes archetype is an especially sad one. The smart performers develop a balance, either a Method-based give-and-take of being completely in character and then fading back to themselves, or (mostly) never forgetting that it’s just acting, luvvy. But when you’re actively trying to build or rebuild your personality around such a basis… what do you do?

 

All personality has a performative aspect to it. Sometimes, all of us feel like the mere act of being ourselves is just too much bloody work. But I can’t help thinking that to just copy an entire personality-type, or character, or mythos from another – be it fact or fiction – is just plain lazy. I suspect a lot of that is an attempt to paper over perceived or actual flaws in one’s personality, bridging a gap between what you are and what you’re told you should be. It’s really easy to just pull on a costume, a fiction-suit, and call it good-enough.

 

Maybe it would have been easier if I’d just done that. But the cracks and flaws, the bits that didn’t fit, were either too big or the wrong shape.

 

And, I was increasingly suspecting, maybe those cracks and flaws actually had a purpose.

 

 

To be concluded…

 

 

INK – a short review

When you love something passionately, you want to share it with everyone you can. I’ve loved this film since I asked for it as a Xmas present in 2009 and it’s finally available in the UK from tomorrow… so I want to share it with everyone who reads me.

I hadn’t actually seen INK when I asked for it as a present (thanks wife-the-artist!), by the way. My interest was based entirely on this trailer:

(There is a second trailer, but I honestly think it’s a wee bit too spoilery. Your call.)

The first time I watched INK, I wept several times from the sheer joy of it, and cried buckets at the end. Now, anyone who’s sat & watched films with me will tell you this is not exactly unusual. What is unusual is that my deeply cynical, then-seventeen-year-old, son who watched it with me, wept too.

It is unquestionably my favourite pure fantasy film of all time, and it has a permanent place in my top 10 films of any kind. And it cost a mere $250,000 dollars to make.

I’m not going to say a whole lot more about the plot than the above trailer gives you – this is a film that rewards knowing only a little when you come to it. When I’ve tried to persuade people to watch it, a phrase I like to use is “imagine if Neil Gaiman made The Matrix on a shoestring budget”, which is not far off – because this actually is a film that lives up to that oft-used cliché of “a modern fairy-tale”.

It’s not a perfect film. Many of my absolute favourites (like, say, Altered States, Dark City or The Fountain) aren’t. Some of the performances are, shall we say, a little florid. A central twist is pretty easy to guess. It’s also probably not to everyone’s taste. But if you’re open to anything I’ve already said, I think it’s a film you could truly love.

It’s certainly a film that makes a virtue of its tiny budget. Writer/director Jamin Winans shot it in and around his hometown of Denver, Colorado, scored it himself (the music is a major contributor to the power of the film), built many of the costumes and props with his wife/co-producer/art designer Kiowa Winans, edited and composed the SFX in their basement on a Mac, distributed the film online… you get the picture.

When INK was released in the US, it seemed to hit a chord. On its’ DVD release in November 2009, it became the most popular torrent on The Pirate Bay that week. The Winans’ reaction to this was inspired – rather than complain or try to shut down or sue anyone… they put a tip jar on the website for those who enjoyed the torrented version.

Why does this film grab me so strongly? It’s a tale of brave but fallible warriors battling terrible evil and overwhelming odds. It’s about sacrifice and loyalty, myth and magic. It’s at times tragic, brutal, hilarious and bold. It’s unquestionably a Blank Badge film. It has characters I genuinely care about, doing things I totally understand. There are at least three scenes in there which I rate as perfect, classic movie moments.

And, ultimately, it’s a film about love conquering fear.

I really hope some of you out there will give INK a try. Let me know what you think.