Saturday, October 3, 2015

Thoughts About the Elusive Golden Age of Occultism

Beware of Fools as Prophets

Some have said that the 1960's was the start of the Occult Revival, and that the subsequent decades of the 70's, 80's and even the 90's represented some kind of golden age of magic and occultism. I might agree with that depending on how you define a golden age. Now some folks are saying that where the past decades were the golden age, the whole movement now is in obvious decline in the second decade of the 21st century. I am, of course, referring to yet another “counter intuitive” whining rant from Nick Farrell on his blog of personal propaganda and self aggrandizement.

Having lived through this period, particularly the 1960's and 70's, I think that I can weigh in to declare that the supposed golden age wasn’t much of a golden age, and that while things are changing, the immanent decline of public occultism and magic is not really occurring. In fact, all we can really say is that things are rapidly changing and where they will ultimately lead us is something that cannot be predicted right now. I know it’s fashionable to make declarations of doom, but if we can cut the drama out of our considerations and really look at how things have changed, we will see that there is both good and bad with the current state of the practice of magic and occultism in our post-modern world. It’s a grey world out there, and it has been a grey world for quite a long time, probably since the beginning when hominids climbed down from the trees.

Another problem I have with the trope of the “immanent decline of public occultism” is that the words “public occultism” represent a kind of oxymoron. Are we talking about what people are doing (or saying that they are doing) on public media? Can we make any kind of generalization about these various individuals who are supposedly occultists, or at least promoting themselves as such? Occultism is by definition a study and practice of things that are hidden and inexplicable, and the kind of operating environment that occultists have used since the advent of the modern age is one that is cloaked in secrecy and discretion. Or perhaps I could say it more appropriately, they are doing the work and don’t have time to build up a proper contextual linguistic architecture to talk about it to those who would otherwise neither know, care nor understand.

True and sane occultism, as well as the art and practice of magic, has always been the proclivity of a very small minority of seekers. When something is popular and in-fashion it gets talked about, sometimes excessively by the masses; but that talk is mostly just gossip mixed with misinformation and the constant rehashing of urban myth. I think that it’s true that there will always be a small fraction of the population who have the necessary critical thinking skills and the gravitas to adopt a regimen of study and discipline in order to function as occultists and magicians.

What I am trying to say is that things weren’t rosy or golden during the period from the 1960's through the 1990's as far as magic and occultism were concerned. I should know this simple fact because I started my occult path in the very late 1960's, although I didn’t actually start to do any real occult work until the early 1970's. I know what it was like back then because I lived it. Books were scarce and expensive, there were a lot of “pulpy” pocket books being cheaply printed that packaged misinformation along with a lot of plagiarized material from other sources. The only version of Agrippa’s Occult Philosophy that was available in English was the late 18th century re-printed to death plagiarism entitled “The Magus,” which, as it turned out, was a very poor copy of the original. 

There were a few grimoires that were available (Key of Solomon, Lemegaton and Abramelin), some early renditions of the Book of Shadows (Lady Sheba’s “Book of Shadows”), and some obscure publications of books written by Regardie, Butler, Knight and Gray along with some republished Crowley, Mathers and Levi. The double hard-cover edition of the Golden Dawn was quite expensive for many to purchase and own, and other materials, such as swords, daggers and church incense were hard to find.

Occult bookstores were rare and only existed in some large urban cities, and it wasn’t unusual to either travel to these distant places to buy supplies or take a chance on some cheap mail-order catalog. Teachers and knowledgeable individuals were also rare and usually lived in either the West or East Coast, or in the UK (which was far from where I lived). We would write long letters to those authors who were still alive and beg them to reveal some of their experience and unpublished knowledge. It was a time when there were very few local organizations, teachers, or even materials. Most of the available books had very little information about how to actually organize, develop and practice ritual or ceremonial magick. It was a time where many had to experiment, almost extemporaneously as it were, and most of the magicians I have known from that period failed more often than succeeded. Those who lived near a functioning occult lodge or coven and gained admission were the very lucky few. The rest of us had to persevere with very limited knowledge, experience and guidance. Many of us were self-made magicians and occultists because we had no other choice.

Most of the pulpy occult books from that time have thankfully passed into oblivion, but there were quite a few of them. (I know, because I certainly bought quite a number of them, and later tossed them aside.) I can also remember buying cheap paper bound reprints of various occult articles, the chapters from some book no longer available, or one of Crowley’s articles taken from the Equinox, a collection of books which was also prohibitively expensive when it was republished by Weiser in 1971. Those of us who were keen on occultism and magic made do with what we could find or afford, and from this sparse collection attempted to cobble together some kind of magical system that worked. There was a lot of experimentation going on at that time, but more people probably gave up and left the so-called movement than stayed on.

By the 1980's another group of people had appeared on the scene as the New Age became popular and fashionable. There was more information and material available than previously; but once again there was a lot of junk being published and a lot of people were only marginally interested in really doing the work and adopting a discipline. People got involved for a while, then they got frustrated or bored because the discipline of magic and the occult requires a persistent regimen, many years of practice and lots of experimentation, and they dropped out, too.

Over the decades I have seen the public get interested in magic and the occult, become superficially involved for a while and then drift off to do something else. The next “shiny” thing became all of the rage, but I, and a few others, were steadfast in our study, work and practice. We were a small minority then and we are still a small minority today. Nothing has really changed in regards to the number of people who seriously study and practice these disciplines. This is true in other areas of religious or mystical practices as well. Mass culture is diffident, fickle, constantly changing, superficial, and driven by urban myth and motivational reasoning. This hasn’t changed much in the decades since the 1960's, and it probably was also true in earlier periods of the modern epoch. Public occultism of any depth or seriousness has never really existed, and so to say that it is in decline is a ridiculous assessment. How can something decline that was never really a factor in the slow, steady development of these arcane subjects?

For me, ironically, the current times are a kind of golden age for occultism and magic. I make this bold statement simply from the standpoint of a ritual magician who has been studying and practicing for over 40 years. When I started out there was a paucity of material to study and examine, now there is a plethora, although as always, much of it is worthless to me. My studies have matured and branched out over the decades. I seldom read occult books these days, that is true, but my reason is that there is so much good academic material recently written about the history of magic and how it was practiced in the middle ages and the early renaissance. The historical study of magic is only a recent phenomenon, but it has made many obscure and unknown grimoires and other source material available that didn’t exist back in the 1970's and 1980's.

There is so much excellent written material out there that I don’t have time to read it all, and much of it is becoming freely available on the internet. I can’t tell how you important the internet has become to my studies and research. It saves me a lot of time from having to request books from interlibrary loan or to travel to university libraries in order to perform my research. This is what the advent of the information age is doing to all of the intellectual disciplines. Thinking about it makes me excited and takes my breath away. I only wish that I had another fifty or sixty years to see where this new wave takes our modern world.

Therefore, from my perspective, there is more quality information today about magic and occultism than at any previous time. It is also available on the internet, and this allows me to retrieve information without having to leave my house. If anything, I believe that things are getting progressively better for me and all of the other serious students and practitioners, and those who are too young to realize what an ordeal it was to get quality information in the past have no idea how lucky they are. What is still required are critical thinking skills, the ability to manage one’s time and resources, and the discipline to maintain some kind of on-going practice at all times.

Still, there are things in this information age that seems to perpetuate the ignorance, intolerance and bad manners that have also become a hall-mark of our age. Some of these points are made by Mr. Farrell in his article, so I don’t need to list them here. Perhaps one of the biggest changes that I have seen in the public arena is the erosion of any kind of formality, social rules or decorum. We live in a world of a callow disregard for authority, seniority, class, personal dignity and privacy. This was a phenomenon that started in the 1960's and has only grown stronger over the decades since. I learned the slogan “trust no one, question everything” back when I was a teenager, and it still resonates today, perhaps even more so. 

Therefore, anyone who has achieved any kind of position of respect or has seniority due to a long period of achievement can expect to receive little or no respect in this world. It is a time of the 24 hour news cycle where there are few heroes, and where everyone, high and low, is reduced to the common denominator. No matter what you have achieved or think is your due in terms of public regard, you can almost forget about getting any credit from anyone. People are often callow, self-absorbed, and they speak and behave without compassion or tolerance for other points of view. But none of this is something new or different than the way things have been since the last thirty years. Our heroes have been shown to be hollow and fake, and those who have espoused public piety and righteousness have been shown to be liars, hypocrites and shameless self-promoters. All of this has slowly infected western culture and it is now the rule of thumb. Americans seem to be the worst offenders, but then we tend to speak our minds without much thought or reflection.

What Mr. Farrell is complaining bitterly about in his blog article is nothing more than what has been occurring for decades in our public lives. Social media allows these excesses to be greatly amplified, giving cover to cowards and passive aggressive sociopaths who would be too frightened to express their misguided and obnoxious ideas, criticisms and declarations in a real public setting. The video screen along with a kind of comfortable anonymity and depersonalization gives such individuals the cover to behave in a truly despicable and outrageous manner. If someone were to behave this way in a public setting they would likely get the crap beat out of them, or at the very least, forcibly removed or evicted. Public media is a pretty rough place where all sorts of evils are perpetrated every moment of every day; but there are a lot of good things that happen, too. We just tend to hear about all of the bad things.

However, perhaps the most telling point in Mr. Farrell’s article is where he complains that experienced and knowledgeable teachers and occult leaders should be comfortably supported by their students and members of their organizations. This is the crux of his whining rant, that people don’t give him the respect that he feels is due isn’t so bad as the fact that he has to beg and borrow to function as a teacher. Oh my, the hardship of it all! It means that Nick has to have a career that pays his livelihood instead of being able to rely on the consistent generosity of his students. Here’s the quote, and in it you can hear the world’s smallest violin accompanying this pathetic, sobbing declaration.     

 “Teachers have a choice they either dumb down their message until they are just teaching New Age morons, or “satanise” [sic] the message so you are talking to gothic morons who want to scare their parents. Normally the teachers just never teach anyone. Orders find it difficult to get a enough money for candles and are meeting in people’s houses. Those who can meet a rent bill usually have large numbers who pay a tiny amount. Most of them rely on the cash and work of the leaders. ”   

It would seem to me that Mr. Farrell has created a new word, and it is “satanize.” He didn’t bother to start it with a capital “S” so I thought at first that the word was “sanitize,” but I digress. 

Still, of all of the ten points that Nick has made, and they all represent minor pitfalls for anyone who is seriously practicing their occultism or magic, this one caught my attention. What planet does Mr. Farrell live on? Has it not always been the responsibility of an occultist or magician to engage with the world in order to make his or her living? Doesn’t that represent, in a word, that such an individual has enough personal power to be able to fully function in the world, perhaps even contributing something remarkable in however a significant or humble manner? 

As for teaching others, that is a special calling that requires the would-be teacher to expect to serve at his or her own expense the public and inspiring that one or two students out of those whom they teach into becoming true seekers themselves. It is a thankless and unrewarding job, and those who pursue it with a passion and an unflagging selfless devotion deserve a great deal of credit and regard, even though they will usually seldom see the overall benefits of their work.

Conversely, those teachers who engage in it expecting to be financially rewarded or by receiving the accolades of their students and peers should consider doing something else. Because they won’t ever become rich or famous teaching occultism and magic unless they become supreme hucksters like Koetting, Zink or Griffin. Even then, it isn’t guaranteed that they will be successful, but to promote one’s tradition and persona like Donald Trump is probably the only way to make occultism and magic really pay. While it is commendable that Mr. Farrell doesn’t seem so inclined (yet) to sell himself in such a shameless, grandiose and ridiculous manner, it is disheartening when he appears to add to the overall disinformation that is already out there on the internet by saying something as meaningless as “Public Occultism is dead.”

Managing an occult and magical discipline is really difficult in the post-modern world. There are really wonderful things going on at the same time that there all kinds of distractions, sources of misinformation, urban myth treated as the gospel truth, and a large population of self-absorbed and callous so-called students who are relentlessly searching but never finding satisfaction. It is sometimes a cacophony of distracting noise, and I often find myself avoiding not only the public arena but also social media. If I want to do the real work I can’t be distracted or otherwise sidelined, so I don’t respond to every request via chat or email, and sometimes I can go days without looking at my Facebook account. That is the price we pay for living in the information age, but I prefer it to what I had to do decades ago when resources were scarce and libraries were the hallowed repositories of whatever information might be available for arcane and obscure subject areas.  

Frater Barrabbas

New Rules #3: Whatever Nick Farrell says online is probably not only wrong, but the opposite is true. There might be a small kernel of truth in what he says, but who has the time to find it? It is better to get your information from reliable sources, like tabloids such as the Enquirer, the Star, the Globe, or the Sun. At least then you know that you are getting entertaining disinformation instead of hypocrisy or a pretension of seriousness and fact.