Monday, February 25, 2013

Am I a Dinosaur?

And now for one of those terrible introspective articles that every reader dreads (and every writer periodically indulges in), where I ask that inexplicable question “am I relevant?”

Yes - this is one of those self-pitying write-ups that poses such existential questions as: Do I matter? Does what I am doing as a writer, teacher and practitioner of occultism, paganism and ritual magick really matter at all? Would anyone in the world have noticed if by some chance I had never existed? If I suddenly vanished from the face of the earth, would anyone even care? Are my ideas so redundant and unoriginal that someone else could have easily stepped into my spiritual foot print and done pretty much the same thing, except maybe quite a lot better? Or perhaps, someone has already done so innumerable times in the past, but it’s just that I hadn’t noticed? I know what you’re thinking, it’s just me feeling the futility of my efforts, and it will pass in a few minutes. (Taking a deep breath, I will endeavor to continue..)

I admit that there is a bit of hubris and self-loathing associated with such musings, and they usually represent the kind of maudlin sentiment and self-absorption that I find quite boring and pathetic in others. So why would I engage in this kind of disgusting feeling-so-sorry-for-myself public lament if I also found it so silly and distasteful? That’s a damned good question, and before I answer it with a “yeah, this too shall pass and be an embarrassment to me later” kind of statement, I think that I could at least explain why I occasionally feel this way. Besides, there are some interesting reasons associated with why I am sensing this angst at this particular time.

Perhaps the times have changed to a degree where I am altogether out of step, or maybe what is changing in the pagan and magical world is not for the best. Allow me to explain what I am thinking here and leave behind the emotional feelings that must accompany such an insight. At the end of this article I may attempt to answer the questions posed in the first paragraph, and perhaps have a better understanding of what is really going on in my world.

We all sometimes feel that are best effort isn’t good enough, or that what we feel is important and strategic in our lives seems to have little value to others. The sting of cognitive dissonance can be quite irritating and even distressing, but it is also (sometimes) considered the price that one must pay for any kind of social or technical precociousness. It’s all too easy for anyone to say to themselves that trite little by-line: “I am a genius and nobody understands me.” Often the opposite is more true: “I am a dinosaur and everybody has passed me by.”

Ideas do become extinct over time, and their purveyors usually die an obscure and ignominious death by a thousand yawns. The irony is that sometimes extinct or forgotten ideas are much later resurrected, and their long-gone spokespersons gain a kind of posthumous cult status. I have no desire to go through that kind of cyclic return, which would occur long after the worms and vultures have eliminated my mortal remains (including the various books and other materials that I have created), but I might also have no choice in the matter. Popularity is fickle and constantly changing, and often the mediocre and trendy are lionized at the expense of the true path-cutter or innovator.

So the question right now is in the world of paganism, witchcraft, ritual magick and western occultism, what is really vogue and exciting right now - in my opinion? Let me list them here and now for us to consider.

Pagan and witchcraft reconstructionism. Antique, classical paganism and the supposed “Old Craft” (anti-Gardinarian craft proponents) are the “in-thing” these days. If one doesn’t have a truly historically derived pagan or witchcraft tradition (or one produced by the properly vetted and agreed upon historical data), a tradition can be created through the use of trance, channeling or the imagination. Pagan reconstructionism is probably more aligned to the historical data, however, Old Craft is probably a lot less so, since the last documented cunning folk were nominally Christians. I would also include “Hedgecraft” and forms of “Bushcraft” in this list, which should be considered, in my opinion, synthesized or new approaches to an old perspective, instead of promoting them as some kind of antique version of pagan witchcraft.

Paganism and Wicca are becoming more like church establishments. Another phenomenon that is occurring and is quite popular is that the modern practices of Paganism and Wicca are becoming more like organized religions and less like systems of magic or the occult. What this entails is the systematic removal or elimination of actual practical magic from the liturgical and religious foundation of a given tradition. I have seen this happen to Gardnerian versions of Witchcraft (including my own), and also to other traditions as well. Also, the emphasis has changed from experimentation to the conservative preservation of the core practices and beliefs. That change in emphasis also seems to be behind an emerging fundamentalism that is slowly and insidiously invading traditions that are really only several decades old or less. When lineages, pedigrees, lineage vouches and staunch, mindless preservation of the lore become far more important than modification, revision and experimentation, then I think that religious conservatism has become the preeminent force in that tradition. This is a situation where legitimacy trumps authenticity, indicating that transformation and direct experiences of Deity and Spirit are no longer either wanted or needed.

Reconstructionism in Renaissance and Mediaeval Magick and Occultism. What is really popular in the practice of ritual and ceremonial magick these days relies on a kind of reconstructionism and strict adherence to source materials. While I have no problem with digging into the past for valuable and aesthetically pleasing magical lore, I do have an issue with the strict adherence part, because in my opinion, magick is something that is derived and recreated within each individual, thus actually making it a new and fresh construct. Since it is impossible to recreate a cultural context that is long passed, attempting to reconstruct the culture behind a collection of grimoires seems to be a fruitless task. Even so, with the publishing of ever more antique grimoires and other related tomes, the passion for reconstruction and strict adherence has become quite popular.

Shamanism, Ethnic and Native Spirituality. I have always believed that ethnic religious traditions belong to the ethnic groups who practice them. Outsiders are just that - they are outside the tradition and really don’t possess the keys to it. If someone wants to engage with teachers and spiritual sponsors of ethnic religious traditions then that is their business; but at least they are going through the same steps that everyone else who was born into that ethnic group must travel. However, it seems to be a popular thing these days to just read and research books on a given ethnic religious tradition, and then adopt some of those practices and beliefs that appeal to one’s tastes. This kind of selective approach produces modern or urban Shamanism, Neo-Tantraism, New Age Native American practitioners, uninitiated Voundoun or Palo practitioners, and quite a number of book-read experts and self-initiated masters. 

These days it seems that the self-taught and self-initiated are part of the greater outlier of ethnic religious traditions, and it remains a very popular approach for many people; although it is likely a source of confusion and consternation to those who have been properly vetted into one of these traditions. Book knowledge, derived practices, and independent development seems to be more important than actually finding a qualified teacher and becoming fully immersed in that ethnic tradition for many years. It would seem that the driving force for such a path has more to do with immediate gratification and personal edification than actually mastering a living and breathing tradition in an authentic manner.

This revelation brings me to my last point, which is the general trend of eschewing all traditional occult teachings, practices, and other elements of what I consider to be hard-core occultism. This would include mastering such obscure subjects as Tarot, Qabalah, Astrology, Alchemy, meditation, concentration and contemplation, Golden Dawn magic, classical ceremonial magic, classical mythology, world religions, basic philosophy, theosophy and theology, logic, systems of divination such as Geomancy, Runes, crystal scrying, pendulum work, and much, much more. I may not be a master of all of these occult beliefs, practices and techniques, but sometimes I feel like a cranky giant amongst a lot of narrowly focused Lilliputians.

It seems like I am meeting more and more witches and pagans who don’t know the basic magical operations of invoking or evoking spirits, using sigils or derived characters to imprint magical energy, generating Elemental energies, summoning Planetary intelligences or even fashioning talismans. These are basic magical practices that any witch or pagan should know, but they seem to be omitted or just plain considered irrelevant to the now established religious creed. At the same time Hoodoo is quite vogue and in many cases it is replacing hard-core basic magical practices (and associated transformative experiences) with a kind of derivative cookbook approach to acquiring magical phenomenon. (You don’t need to understand how it works or the cultural context behind it, just gather these items, do these procedures and mix them together in this manner.)

So, these are the hot topics and pursuits in paganism and witchcraft that are the cutting edge, in my opinion, and unfortunately I am on the counter point with almost all of them. I have been pursuing my own path for nearly four decades, and the basic foundation of my knowledge comes from being involved in a tradition, and then heavily revising and adding to it over the years. I prefer revisionism, creating new systems of magical practices that fit with my overall occult perspective than pursuing some new-fangled fad. I am deeply engaged in classical occultism, and have been so since the very beginning days of my spiritual and magical path.

I believe in and I am engaged in a practice of magic as theurgy, consisting of progressive and incremental transformative ordeals. Ecstasy is the key to what I do, but a deeply held occult discipline and practice is the locking mechanism that I use to open myself to wholly new and wondrous experiences. Because I represent such a strong counter movement to the above list of modern trends in paganism and witchcraft, one could say that I am an adherent of an antique perspective - that I am, in a word, a dinosaur awaiting an immanent extinction. I hope that my outlier practices and beliefs just represent a temporary contrary trend, and that in time, what I am doing and what I know will be valuable some day in the future. 

However, I have watched this change happen over a long time, and if and when it changes yet again, I will likely be gone from this world. Maybe my writings will be valuable to someone someday, but whoever they are, they will be missing that most important of teaching mechanisms, direct and hands-on training and peer review. What I am saying is that because it will take many decades for this trend to reverse itself, by that time I will be in my dotage or more likely dead and buried.

Only time will tell how all of this works out, and particularly, what the new generations make of my writings and my work. Will they see me as a quaint practitioner of something that should have been discarded back in the 90's, or will they see me as some kind of novel founder of a new perspective? I can’t effectively answer this question at the present time; but I can at least be true to my own beliefs and practices, knowing that what I am doing is important to me and the few associates, spirits and deities that are daily part of my life. Everything else is just “sauce for the goose.”

Frater Barrabbas

1 comment:

  1. Also, the emphasis has changed from experimentation to the conservative preservation of the core practices and beliefs.

    A number of BTW people I know, who date back to the 70s, as you do, I believe, would disagree that this is a change ... their point is that they have always been focused on orthopraxy, and retention of core practices, and ALSO noting where additions have been made to their praxis, and where it diverges from core.

    When lineages, pedigrees, lineage vouches and staunch, mindless preservation of the lore become far more important than modification, revision and experimentation, then I think that religious conservatism has become the preeminent force in that tradition.

    Again, they would tell you that preservation of the lore, though not mindless preservation, knowing who taught you, and who you taught, are not changes - that they were always there, and that, yes, they are conservative - in that they are conserving, like conservationists, their craft so that it might continue on.

    Innovation for the sake of innovation is no more commendable than mindless preservation and rote mimicry.