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Fictive Arcanum

by Sir Don Webb, Master of the Trapezoid

published in Uncle Setnakt’s Nightbook, available from Lodestar. Reproduced with permission.

Many modern occultists either base their mission on, or a least have a great deal of supernatural fiction in, their reading lists. It is not uncommon to see modern occultists perusing the works of Lovecraft, Chambers, Machen, or Blackwood. This practice leads us to two interested and related questions. Why would a magician (Machen, Blackwood, Fortune) write fiction (beyond the obvious reasons of amusement and remuneration)? Why would other magicians find their inspiration in fictive works?

A third question hidden in the first two is how is magic similar to the acts of reading and writing? I would like to take a look at the nature of magic as a communication system, answer the first two questions, give a few references for where important magical writing may be found today, and sound a warning call for its protection. This is a tiny rivulet, which I hope that others will take up as a new type of criticism. Like the dark streams that have never seen the light of the sun in the hills west of Arkham, I hope that this little rivulet may play an important role in the evolution of Life.

Mauss and other modernists attempted to reduce the power of magic to a sociological context—the power of magic is equivalent to how society feels about the magician. This dreary attitude is still largely present in popular culture; however, postmodern theorists such as van Baal, Grambo, Flowers, and Tambiah have provided us with a semiotic theory of magic, which serves to illustrate both the practice of magic and its symbolic expression. Basically the semiotic theory of magic is that man is able to effect communication with his universe, and to think ascriptively (i.e. hidden meaning is ascribed to the phenomenon of the universe and it becomes a partner in communication).

The semiotic theory postulates three elements: the magician seeking either a psychological change within him/herself or an environmental change, the message which is cast in the form of culturally-coded symbols, and the hidden “other side” of the universe. This goes beyond Frazer’s notions of “sympathy” by actually elaborating not only a three-fold process of sender-message-receiver but actually proposes a willed volition to receive communication (in either the form of a revelation or an environmental change) back from the universe. Summing up this model of magic (after Flowers’ Runes and Magic: Magical Formulaic Elements in the Older Runic Tradition. Lang 1986, pg. 17):

     Subject—>   Direct Object—>    Indirect Object 
      (Man)    (Symbol-symbolized)  (Other reality)
     Indirect Object <—(Phenomenon)  <—subject

This model suggests that for the magician the great secret is finding the correct mode of address—that method of communication which will produce the response from the hidden realm. This has always been intuited in the Mediterranean school of magic, as exemplified by choosing Hermes, god of communication, as its patron. For the magician operating in a traditional society the method of communication is generally heavily determined—people know how to talk to the gods. But in modern and postmodern societies the quest for the method of communication is ongoing.

The book ranks high as a sufficiently mysterious form of communication (video, movies, and the computer network are waiting in the wings). Who among us has not has that mysterious phenomenon of having gleaned something from one’s own writings long after it was written? And who among us has not had that mysterious process of “finding just the book we need” at a crucial time in our thought? So keeping in mind your own experiences of the Mystery of the written word consider van Baal’s description of the nature of a magical spell:

The formula takes its origin from the discourse between Man and his universe, in the case of a particular formula a discourse concerning a certain object and the fulfillment of a desire. In this discourse Man feels addressed or singled out by his universe and he endeavors to address it in turn trying to discover the kind of address to which his universe will be willing to answer; that is, willing to show itself communicable.

The formulas he finally discovers in answer to his quest are not really Man’s discovery but a gift—a revelation bestowed upon him by the universe. The formula is the outcome of an act of communication in which Man’s universe reveals to him the secret of how it should be addressed in this or that circumstance, a secret which is at the same time a revelation of its hidden essence in that particular field…

Jan van Baal, “Symbols for Communication: An Introduction to the Anthropological Study of Religion” in Studies of developing Countries #11, Asen: Van Gorrcum 1971, pg. 263

Given the above why do magicians write fiction? Not as open communication of magic—it would be easier simply to write how-to books. The need to communicate with the hidden aspects of the universe of discourse is the magician’s motive. Just as an Egyptian would stuff his letters to the dead in the crumbling tomb walls, the modern magician sends his or her message into the semiosphere. Dion Fortune didn’t create her novels just as entertainment, but to actively Work the magic. By performing illustrative magic concerning the nature of initiation, of secret schools, etc., she actually received (from the Hidden parts of her own psyche) such information.

The simple act of visualization (i.e. daydreaming) is known to produce effects both psychological and environmental; how much greater an effect can be obtained through the writing and publishing of magical work? The precision of writing, editing, rewriting coupled with the aching wait for publication (with its inherent travails of lost MSS, marketing mistakes, fraudulent publishers) creates an unbeatable combination of passion and precision.

These are the elements that effect any magical working. It is easy to get up passion for a particular end. We have all that experience of having to get that job, make that meeting, etc. wherein our magical practice did pay off with the required miracle. But it is frankly hard to work up the passion required to get at certain desired spiritual states. However the test of publication will place the magician in the desire-filled mode necessary to achieve his or her spiritual goals.

Of particular interest in this model is a man who would have been repelled at the mere notion of placing him among magicians, H.P. Lovecraft. But he illustrates the case perfectly. Lovecraft, with his passions for astronomy and history longed to be part of the vast forces of time. He longed to see the hidden essence of history/cosmology that he felt would dissolve the details of the present like an acid.

With an entirely materialistic outlook, the practice of magic would’ve been absurd—but writing was another matter. His themes and topics were certainly not commercial (although there has been a good deal of money minted in his name). The desire to continue producing amateur fiction, or sticking with such fiction as could be only sold to the low-paying Weird Tales, show that his need was a purely magical one. And it produces results. The plots of his stories often came to him in dreams.

Particularly noteworthy was the dream that lead to the production of the prose-poem “Nyarlathotep,” in which he found the Hermes of his pantheon. This particular communicator from the other side, with his swarthy Egyptian skin, resembles both the figure of Hermes-Toth and the preternatural entity that Crowley contacted in 1904. Lovecraft knew his need for the cosmic feeling his stories brought him, and throughout his letters and critical writings we see that need to evoke a mood repeated time and time again. In fact, Lovecraft was sensitive enough to this process (despite the fact his materialist attitude kept him from ever consciously expressing it) that many of his stories are about the desired result of receiving communication from the other side. Cthulhu sends dreams. The Fungi from Yuggoth take the seeker away on a cosmic quest, or at the very least whisper all the secrets of the cosmos via certain human appendages. The primordial ones communicate through their vast murals found in hidden Antarctica. In the most revelatory of all his work, “The Shadow out of Time” the hero not only sends a message to the other side (by actually writing in the library of the Great Race), but actually receives a revelation of finding the message deep below ground (i.e., in the unconscious) written in his own hand.

Now having seen why magicians have a need to use certain hidden or encoded communications such as fiction writing, we turn to the question of why magicians need to read fiction. The simple reason of “inspiration” suffices, but it is to be noted that it is not the same sort of inspiration that one may glean from, say, a straightforward biography. Very little occult fiction provides a step-by-step account of ritual procedure, and those that do are amongst the most boring. One doesn’t read “The White People” to find out the step-by-step ways of doing anything. Indeed the operant material is generally described under only the broadest (and therefore most evocative) of terms. One may be tempted to invent the Aklo language or script out the Mao game, but the actual use of occult literature is to allow the magician to receive communication from the “Other side.”

By the use of imagination and mood, the nature of that hidden realm is disclosed to us; although most often in a mysterious way. It would be difficult to provide a description of the shudder that hearing the cauldron spell from Macbeth first gave us. Crowley chose Macbeth, The Tempest, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the reading list of the A.·. A.·. “as being interesting for the traditions treated.” The objective realities of these traditions were very small, but Crowley (nobody’s fool) knew that the effect they had on the soul allowed something of that mysterious realm to be communicated. In short, reading works which actually illustrate magic close the diagram above, and enable the discerning magician to benefit from the others’ illustrative work.

This is not simply receiving a message from the author, that simple act of decoding which we all do as readers—this is receiving a place of access to the Unknown from the Unknown. The magician who manages both this feat and the act of fictional creation therefore achieves in this postmodern society a set of signs and symbols for communication with that unknown realm.

The question facing the modern occultist is where the unknown is most active, or to put it in literary terms where are the new occult writers coming from, and in what arenas may they be found. As this quest has to be an intensely personal one, I can only give a few hints and recommendations. The works of Thomas Liggoti are universally praiseworthy and should be sought out. J. G. Ballard, who never once mentions anything overtly magical, is a great place to learn about stasis and rebirth. Cities of the Red Night by William S. Burroughs—with its masterful portrayal of the cthonic forces—should be in every magician’s library, and the magical realism of Jorge Luis Borges and Garcia Marquez is not to be overlooked.

The late Fritz Leiber is likewise a place where a thing or two can be learned. As for magazines Elegia provided a fairly high understanding of the magical process cast in the Gothic idiom of the mid-late 1990s.

If you desire to be part of this process, you must create, and you must preserve by fighting off every attempt to suppress supernatural literature. The forces that produce writer’s block within the self have their counterparts in the semiosphere—these mindless gray ones who take books off of school shelves. If you are a knight that seeks the Grail of inspiration, or the magician who creates its brew—beware those gray dragons with dull eyes. There is no compromise with those who would limit our imagination, to sit back and allow them control of our libraries is a spiritual negligence that will take its toll on our hearts. Read! Write! Preserve!