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Porpoisses!

So Zatanna is a magician (both a stage magician and a can-do-supernatural-magic magician) in DC comics.  She casts her spells by speaking her intention backwards.  A fellow named Christopher Knowles wrote a whole book (Our Gods Wear Spandex. Its so-so. I might do it as a Book You’ve Never Heard Of some time), on the thesis that the pulps were heavily influenced by 19th century occultism, and comics were influenced by the pulps, so there remains some occult influence in comics.  Somehow he missed the chance to talk about Zatanna’s backwards speech.

Crowley (whom I can’t help but think you’re getting the wrong impression on my curiosity about, and I’ve been trying to avoid bringing up, but what the hell, it’s his birthday) wrote:

“Let the … Adept first train himself to think backwards by external means, as set forth here following.

(“a”) Let him learn to write backwards, with either hand.
(“b”) Let him learn to walk backwards.
(“c”) Let him constantly watch, if convenient, cinematograph films, and listen to phonograph records, reversed, and let him so accustom himself to these that they appear natural, and appreciable as a whole.
(“d”) Let him practise speaking backwards; thus for “I am He” let him say, “Eh ma I”.
(“e”) Let him learn to read backwards. In this it is difficult to avoid cheating one’s self, as an expert reader sees a sentence at a glance. Let his disciple read aloud to him backwards, slowly at first, then more quickly.
(“f”) Of his own ingenium, let him devise other methods.” [emphasis mine]

So, I suppose the question is, is it that Zatanna is very skilled in item d, or that the secret masters at DC want us to practice item e?

As a side note, point c was used to try to claim that noted Crowley fanatic Jimmy Page intentionally put backwards messages in “Stairway to Heaven.”  Zep Manager Peter Grant told the press “Our turntables spin only one way.”

Published in: on October 12, 2011 at 12:00 pm  Leave a Comment  

Reviews of Books You’ve Never Heard of: 33 1/3 Led Zeppelin IV

What’s this then:  I almost feel like I should apologize for that mess of a title.  I’m not quite sure what to call this book.  It comes from the 33 1/3 series of books, in which a single author writes a couple hundred pages on a classic album.  The cover of this particular volume refers to Zeppelin’s fourth album (that’s the one with Stairway on it, if you didn’t know) only by the four symbols that appeared on the album cover, , and in fact they go to the pain of only referring to the album by those symbols throughout.  Everyone else, including any bookseller’s website just calls it Led Zeppelin IV.  So this particular volume sees Erik Davis, journalist of the weird, waxing philosophical and mystical about the brilliant and slightly spooky hard rock album.

Well, s’it any good?:  It has a sort of mad brilliance.  Davis is well versed in both legitimate academic criticism and high weirdness and here he’s not afraid to mix the two.  Theodor Adorno’s concept of the commodity fetish can appear right along side a discussion of Austin Osman Spare’s sigil magic without sensing any contradiction.  There is a gleeful abandon about the whole book.  Davis’s analysis is so patently goofy that you have to take it as tongue in cheek (he puns throughout the book, including a play on magnum opus and Crowley’s “Great Work”), but the sheer verve he does it with convinces you he’s right.  In fact, you get the sense he’s even starting to convince himself. If you’re willing to go with Davis’s serious goofiness (not to mention his goofy seriousness), and you happen to like Zeppelin, then this book is a load of fun.

What’s the best bit: There’s a theme through the book that Led Zeppelin IV  is an album concerned with physicality and space.  The lyrics are full of places real and imagined (California, the Misty Mountains, the levees of the Mississippi delta, a stairway to heaven, someplace called Evermore, so on).  And Zeppelin was one of the rock bands that popularized placing mics far from the instruments, so, as Davis points out, you hear the instruments reacting to the room, but more importantly, you hear the room reacting to the instruments.  Like, wow, dude.  It is kind of a stonery thing to note, but I’m really won over by it.  Zeppelin’s music was considered hard, heavy, rock — all metaphors of physicality, not to mention the noted … let’s say physicality of the band members and their on the road activities.

Anything else:  If Zeppelin isn’t your thing, then maybe you could try one of the other  33 1/3 books.  I can’t speak to their quality, since each one has a different author, but if they typically do this good of a job of matching author with subject, then I imagine you’ll be happy with the results.

If you like reading about weird stuff (magic, the paranormal, drug-stuff, cyberculture, etc) from someone who’s willing to just go with the crazies and have a little fun, I recommend checking out Erik Davis.  I’m a big fan of his work.

If its been a long time since you rock-and-rolled, I’d like to remind you that there’s only about a week left in Zeptember, and you should try and get a little in.  It’s good for you.

Published in: on September 26, 2011 at 11:57 am  Leave a Comment  

Grant Morrison, Magic and Creativity

Grant Morrison recently performed a song that he says he received while channeling the spirit of John Lennon.  Now, if you read Grant’s thoughts on magic, its hard to know quite how to take that.  Morrison certainly seems to think this stuff works, but seems to be a bit coy about how he thinks it works, so whether or not he thinks he actually talked with the ghost of John Lennon is kind of up for debate.  But I’ll be damned if this doesn’t sound like early solo Lennon.

“Keep walking the dog,” is exactly the kind of mundane thing a John Lennon song would make a big deal out of, and following up on it with “keep taking the drug” plays into a couple of John’s preoccupations: silly wordplay, demystifying his Beatle past (also in “one and one and one make two”), and, oh yeah, drug use.

So whatever Grant did, it worked.  And I think there’s something to be learned from that even if you don’t do magic.  Communicating with spirits is called “channeling.”  And we use that phrase all the time.  A singer might be “channeling Freddy Mercury” if they’ve got great stage presence, say.  Most of the time, this kind of channeling is unconscious, I think.  I once wrote an essay on Beowulf and found that my prose was starting to fall into a fair imitation of Anglo-Saxon meter.  The book that made me fall in love with books and made me want to write was Good Omens and it’s still very hard for me to write prose fiction without aping Neil Gaiman or Terry Pratchett just a little bit.  Those are some unintentional works of channeling, but I think what Morrison wants to tell us is that we can open our minds up to these things, and get a little bit of the great ones in us.  If we can’t avoid influence we may as well try to be conscious about it and make the most of it.

Should we be worried, though, about sounding too much like our predecessors?  Well, Kurt Cobain listened to the Beatles nonstop for a day and wrote this:
which is still definitely a Kurt Cobain song.  (although there are some definite Beatles-esque touches).

So, I think that’s what the creative process is all about is getting a handle on your influences.  We summon up these spirits whether we like it or not, and then its our job to try and make them do our will.  How do you get better at that?  Crowley’s advice to new magician’s was “invoke often.”  If you read last Friday’s post, the analogy should be clear.

Published in: on August 16, 2011 at 2:52 pm  Leave a Comment  

“A change in direction, but an old gambit”

I suppose now is as good a time as any to opine on the connection between a certain Neil Gaiman comic book and certain book and movie about a boy wizard.  I, of course, refer to Gaiman’s Sandman and the T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone.

In Sandman, Dream engages in a sort of wizard’s duel with the demon Choronzon.  It is one of the great moments in comics, so let’s take a look at it for a moment.

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To me, there are three really “wow” moments in there: “I shall be an anthrax,”  Dream’s relinquishing the offensive, and of course the final line.  I was reminded of two of these when nerd-stuff news-aggregator io9 posted their list of favorite wizard duels from movies.  In Disney’s Sword in the Stone movie Merlin uses Choronzon’s germ gambit.  He also more or less sticks to a defensive strategy.

And in the awesomely hammy final battle from Roger Corman’s The Raven (how do you make a movie of Poe’s most famous poem? simple, make it about dueling wizards) Vincent Price more or less only acts to render harmless Boris Karloff’s evil magic.

Actually, this all reminds me of Crowley’s theory of white magic from Moonchild, which of course takes some inspiration from Taoism.  An old gambit indeed.  Am I driving at a point here?  Well, I think its only natural to adopt ideas from one’s predecessors, its the little tweaks that are important.  “I am hope” seems to be all Gaiman, and it really is the lynchpin of the whole sequence.

If you were looking for a post about Harry Potter and Tim Hunter, there are plenty on other sites that a quick search will turn up, but Gaiman himself thinks the similarities come mostly from their mutual inspiration by T.H. White.

Also:  Look!  I figured out how to embed things!  Oooooh.

Published in: on July 15, 2011 at 1:29 pm  Leave a Comment  

Reviews of Books You’ve Never Heard of: Moonchild

What’s this, then?:
Moonchild is a novel by famed British occultist Aleister Crowley in 1917.  I suppose the question that leaves is “what kind of a novel does an occultist write?”  The answer is a strange little novel.  If I had to call it one thing or another, I’d say it’s a novel of ideas, the kind of book where the characters sit around and debate philosophy with each other.  Except the philosophy here all has to do with Crowley’s views of magic (and a very Flatland-ish examination of the concept of a fourth spatial dimension — which then gets pointed towards spiritual-magical ends).  Sound kind of boring?  Well it is for the first 5 or 6 chapters.  Then shit starts to go down, when amidst a discussion (about The Way of the Tao, if I recall correctly), a monster appears in the garden and is soundly defeated by Simon Iff, an idealized Crowley stand-in.  Iff and his magical retinue are performing the Great Work to try to bring a child into the world with the spirit of the moon so that –well so good stuff happens, I suppose, I was never quite clear on that.  There is a rival group of magicians, the Black Lodge, who want to control the moonchild for their own ends (again unclear).  The book reads something like a spy novel with glimpses being shown of both camps machinating against one another.

Well, is it any good?:
I’ll say that I enjoyed reading it.  There was a point, after the first few very talky chapters when I was ready to put the book down and not pick it back up.  But once the two camps begin manuevering, there’s more sense of a directed plot.  The actions of the Black Lodge are drastic enough to inject enough action to make the book worth continuing (for example they cause an engine driver to go mad and derail a train).  The talky bits have two saving graces.  First, if you have any interest in occultism, then you get some of Crowley’s ideas laid out in plain English in the mouths of his characters.  Interestingly, for a figure who spent so long railing against Christianity, Crowley espouses the sublimation of the ego to a higher spiritual power (three dimensional persons are the surfaces of a four dimensional group-soul).  The mistake of black magicians is to try to sublimate higher power to the ego.  Even if you’re not interested in Crowley’s philosophy or already know all about it for some reason, then the book is at least funny.  The white magicians make constant defenses of the spiritualism and seances prevalent in the era, while acknowledging the tricks that allowed spiritualists to dupe the public.  I can’t help but imagine that they are “taking the piss.”  The humor is so deadpan that I was never thoroughly convinced it was there, but I think it seems like Crowley to want to snark at the foppish psuedo-magic (as he likely saw it) of his Victorian and Edwardian contemporaries.  The novel has certain Roman a Clef elements, with characters representing other notable occultists.  A magician of the Black Lodge, Arthwaite, is a thinly veiled stand in for Arthur Edward Waite.  Waite, as creator of the most famous Tarot deck in the English-speaking world, might have been something of a rival for Crowley.  Which makes it somewhat amusing (though darkly) when Arthwaite is accused of robbing graves in order to practice divination by conjuring demons into the bodies of the dead.  This is the most broad humor in the book, though, and is admittedly only funny if you know a little occult history.  I wouldn’t go out of the way to read this book if you don’t have at least a passing interest in the occult, but if you do, this is a fine way to get to know Crowley a little better through an entertaining-enough adventure story.

What’s the best bit?:
Roughly two thirds of the way through the novel Lisa la Giuffria has a dream vision where a number of huge deific figures are paraded before her.  These included a figure protected by an angel with a flaming book, a figure birthing a vast number of humans out of his head, and one leading a parade of ever-changing skeletal animals, among about 10 others.  Although I tried to connect them to mythological deities or zodiacal signs or something appropriately mystical, a series of footnotes informed me that they were Joseph Smith, Leo Tolstoy, and Thomas Huxley, respectively.  The other “gods” included Blake, Swinburne, Chopin, Byron, Keats — something of a Romantic canon.  This section was easily the most vivid in a book so preoccupied with monologue, was trippy as hell, and was an interesting although oblique look into Crowley’s view of creativity as a magical act.  In fact, I think its obliqueness was a large part of its charm, with its contrast to the rest of the book.

Any closing remarks?:
I’ve yet to mention the strangest part of the book [Spoilers ahead].  By the end of the novel, the white magicians have failed and World War I has begun.  There is a suggestion that these two items are related.  One of the white magicians and the other, younger Crowley stand-in, Cyrill Grey is reenlisted in the British Intelligence service.  As mentioned before the book has some Roman a Clef elements, and it has been suggested that Crowley might have been an Intelligence officer.  I don’t mean to suggest that a magical conflict started World War I, but I am curious how much Crowley expects us to believe that and what secrets, historical or metaphysical, he’s trying to communicate.  As I said, this is a strange little novel.

Published in: on June 21, 2011 at 5:23 pm  Comments (1)