Occultism – addendum
In the chapter The Wild Mind, Part XIV, I conclude talking about occultism. The following is an addition to those articles, but it is not exactly on point, so it’s added here only as being of possible interest.
I thought I’d mention spiritualism because it gets conflated with occultism. I guess this is because spirits are invisible, usually. It’s more of a separate thing, really.
The sort of spiritualism we know of today (its actual roots, like those of art and religion, are so ancient as to be yet another thing that’s untraceable) began in the middle of the 19th century, in New York State, of all places.1
In 1848, two children worked out a sort of language in order to communicate with invisible beings, beings who could manifest to some degree by means of strange tappings and knockings. The idea that one could still communicate with the dead included, of course, the possibility of regaining contact with loved ones who were no longer among the living. This idea was powerful and gained popularity, especially in the years during and after the War of 1861–1865/66.
To get a better understanding of the intensity of this, one only needs to wrap their wits around the fantastic degree to which death was all around in those days; people, including children, were exposed to it constantly: disease, accidents, and war, not to mention the regular public executions and lynchings. Today, there is a lot less of it happening all the time. People tend to stay alive longer, which is good, but death also gets carefully shuffled away, swept under the rug, as if disgusting, which is not good.
Spiritualism would change how people in the modern world see themselves because it involves radical religious exploration and the social changes that come from it. Whether such experimentation is ecumenical, say, or occult, hermetic, magical, etc., it all has one thing in common: the transformation of the self into something more aware, more conscious, and more alive. Not necessarily as a disembodied self but sometimes as a fundamentally grounded self in the world but able to tap into the unseen, the invisible. The result is a better society, for when the individual becomes more attuned to the spiritual, so does the group.
Anyhow, in the 19th century, as the suffix “-ism” gained usage, the term “spiritualism” came into use (ca. 1830s). Spiritualism’s first definition usually is: the belief or doctrine that the spirits of the dead, surviving after mortal life, can and do communicate with the living, especially through a person, called a medium, who is particularly sensitive to their existence or susceptible to their influence.
The usual second definition of spiritualism is the opposite of materialism. It ought to be the first.
The antonym for “spirituality” is essence as distinct from matter; “immateriality.” By having “the opposite of materialism” as the second definition for “spiritualism”, we lose somewhat a proper antonym for spiritualism, and by having the first definition be “communing with the dead,” we now can lose sight of the word “spirit,” because it implies “ghosts,” something completely different. Ah, more confusion (sigh). Oh well, moving on.
Things really ramp up for spiritualism and spiritualists with the breakout of the War of Southern Succession, as mentioned, otherwise known, incorrectly, as the American Civil War. It’s the first proper industrial war, and people are getting killed at a terrific rate, almost as if they were on an assembly line, which has left vast numbers of families bereft and in mourning. Spiritualism is now a “thing.”
At the fin de siècle, though, various con artists became famous for misusing certain techniques, such as stagecraft and psychology, both part of the occult toolkit, to gain power over others quite beyond their right to do so as well as to line their pockets. They are mostly forgotten now, but because spiritualism was so overrun by this surge of out-and-out frauds (seances used to get blown up regularly by Mr. Houdini, who despised charlatans), it eventually became the joke it is today, which is a shame. It is especially a shame when the word spiritualism is, in fact, really the antonym for materialism rather than what it implies today, which is woo-woo. There are so many ways we mangle the language so that important concepts get little or no traction.
There are still a few genuine spiritualists, though. A very few. And you won’t meet them because they’re usually not attention-seeking, opportunistic narcissists.
As for other types of mediums who talk to other-worldly beings, in my not-so-humble opinion, it’s fine if the information they give seems helpful or useful. My advice is: don’t get distracted by the process; it’s entirely besides the point; if the mediums help is helpful, then it might as well be coming from them. If you need there to be a supernatural element that you insist be in the hands of some expert, then ask yourself this: why them and not you? Are you too dense or something? There’s no reason you can’t channel other intelligences. It’s worth looking into.
Like spiritualism, satanism gets confused with occultism, I guess because satanists are almost always naughty rebellious rogues, or, sometimes, something not so nice, something worse, a lot worse. But like spiritualism, it’s more of a separate thing.
Satanism, which was much on people’s minds throughout the middle ages, also got a boost towards the end of the 19th century with the works of such gentlemen as Charles Pierre Baudelaire (1821–1867). He wrote a book of lyric poetry titled Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil). In the book’s introduction, he compares Satan to Hermes Trismegistus and says that being bored is the worst of all miseries. I think this is because he was a paragon of the French Decadent movement. All the Decadents just loved being bored; it made them appear superior to other people. (Actually, the Decadents, at least most of them, weren’t so much actually bored as passive-aggressive schmucks: “Oh, dahling, are you giving me roses? Really? Soo last year.”)
In another addendum, I discussed a little about the Romantic movement. After 1850, Romanticism did not exactly end so much as it morphed into something else, something cynical. In late 19th-century Europe, modern life was now thought to be dull and too predictable, so the Decadents celebrated extravagance and sexual deviance, among other things. This was a way of dismantling the culture at the time, and Satanism is nothing if it is not about deconstruction. Satanism, actually, means being more or less on the destroy side of the create/destroy spectrum.
Also in this satanic category were Arthur Rimbaud (1854–1891), who authored a book of prose poetry, Une Saison en Enfer (A Season in Hell), which would be an inspiration for later artists and poets, including the Surrealists, and Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848–1907), who wrote Là-Bas (The Damned), a novel which dealt with the subject of Satanism in France.
Not actually in the satanic category but a member of the Decadents was Oscar Wilde (1854–900), who wrote A Picture of Dorian Gray, an allegorical novel expressing the price paid for materialist morals, which place the fleeting superficial beauty of the body as valuable and the eternal beauty of the soul as illusory, so much so that it is in fact a kind of “deal with the Devil.” Oscar knew the score.
In recent times, Anton Szandor LaVey (born Howard Stanton Levey; 1930–1997) was the founder of the Church of Satan. A good read is The Satanic Bible.
Deconstruction as tear-down
Just like our old pal Lucifer, who got the heave-ho from Heaven for the sin of pride, in Gnosticism, the Devil is a glorified angel who fell from heaven and established his own kingdom, thus becoming the Demiurge who created the material world and trapped all souls inside matter (quite the “victim narrative,” really, for all us souls so “trapped”2). Basically, the whole concept of satanism is rebellion, which lines it up perfectly with the arts, whose purpose is renewal. But it can also be grossly cynical and destructive.
The scoffing pessimism that can accompany the fallout from rapid change was decidedly on the march in the fin de siècle, and the 20th century was dizzy with it. I’d not be surprised if the past 150 years were labelled by future historians as the Satanic Era.” I think people are waking up to it now, which is good.
As a final note, certainly there’s a connexion between these things: occultism, mysticism, magic, satanism, and spiritualism. Spiritualism aside, travelling into the unknown regions of consciousness is something for the living to do. (I don’t know what the dead do; I don’t think anybody does—no disrespect to those who’ve had experience of what happens after this life, but I’m speaking objectively rather than subjectively, a vitally important distinction.) As for satanism, the rebellious soul, when not merely destructive but also challenging and creative, is an absolutely vital force, however it may be celebrated or ritualised.
I guess it’s what it sounds like. Before going on to discuss a little about it, it’s helpful to bear in mind that the years from the early to mid-19th century up to the outbreak of WWI in 1914, despite the Decadents et al., were fantastically stuffy when it came to sex, as it would be again in the 1950s (mainly in the U.S.).
An old joke went that people used to drape piano legs to cover their “indecency,” in imitation of the dress code that forbade the exposure of a lady’s ankles. Even though this wasn’t true, because some people were so prudish, it became a sort of Victorian urban legend. But there were strict prohibitions, like the fact that women couldn’t show any part of their legs while bathing at the beach (they had to wear mid-length skirts, stockings, and slippers). All of these constraints must have made the very air sizzle with erotic energy, because there’s nothing like the forbidden to get the mind excited. Puritan-style proscriptions against human nature—you mustn’t get high, have sex, dance, and so on—are some powerful magic when it comes to controlling people or even entire societies, but they must necessarily produce a counterforce because of that hermetic polarity thing. Hellooo satanism and such things as the so-called “sexual revolution.”
Back to sex magic. Physical energies have spiritual correlates. Information from the spirit affects the body and vice versa, such as pain, fasting, sleep deprivation, ice baths, and so on, which, combined with ritual ceremony, music, dance, etc., can and does create effects upon the soul, as is obvious. Chemicals wash through the brain, inducing certain feelings and ideas that, in turn, cause chemicals to flood the central nervous system. Like the proverbial “egg and chicken” conundrum, there’s this puzzling loop-like feedback phenomena.3 Anyway, done well and with exactitude, profound effects may be achieved, resulting in any sort of possible increase in awareness. Sometimes mild, as in “that was nice.” Sometimes profound, as in “eureka!” The history of the relationship between sex and invention is long and storied. (Although the history of the relationship between sex and just plain old depravity is much more typical.)
Overlooked, sometimes, is the practice of exactness. It makes no difference: think of anything, any series of actions, and execute them as precisely as possible.
Take the Japanese tea ceremony, for instance. To be exact in carrying out an act that seems to have only slight utility and no profound purpose (although green tea is good stuff), especially with an eye to its aesthetics, is absolutely bewildering for many Western minds, who tend towards just “getting things done.”4
Perform an action ritualistically; any action will do. The tea ceremony, for instance, which is meant to focus the attention of the participants on a certain thing or action in order to reach a certain goal, such as peace of mind or serenity of being. Or for purposes of calling up targeted entities or energies that represent certain forms of consciousness. Add sex (the eroticism, the forbidden, and the orgasm), and that’s pretty much what sex magic is.
Pain works equally well, if not a lot better, for some practitioners. Other rituals, combined with pain, depending on what sort (pain is often mentally dispersive rather than concentrative, unless you’re inflicting it on someone else, typically), can have a similar concentrating power but wholly different effects, as you might imagine; those who have engaged in “piercing” and tattooing have some idea of this. The ultimate concentrative power is, of course, ritual murder, as famously practiced, as an example, by various Latin American cultures but certainly not limited to them. But sex usually represents creation or reanimation, while pain attracts the opposite, so there’s that.
A rock concert is a similar thing, except that the energy generated isn’t usually directed at anything other than the back and forth between the performers and the audience. Regardless, there is a lot of power there, mostly just orgiastic; it’s not harnessed and then focused on anything except the experience itself (kids, tsk).
Getting rid of any and all neuroses, especially those about sex, is an important part of evolving as a person. If one can experience any sexual act, of any kind, without any mental disturbance and also without the need to experience anything just to “prove” that it can be experienced, then that person is far more autonomous than otherwise and far less likely to be subject to compulsions and other external (environmental) or internal (psychic) pressures. When it comes to sex and family, you can count on this kind of person to be reliable and steady (called being “constant”). We are a looong way from this; however, most people have so many weird ideas about sex that they get into all sorts of perversions, most commonly promiscuity, thinking they are “liberated.” There is a big difference, though, between being liberated and being merely a run-of-the-mill libertine. A truly free individual is very sexually constant and trustworthy.
Back in the 19th century and well into the 20th, however, sex magic was all bound up in and confused with the myriad prohibitions of the time, which is why it became so notorious. It still is, even though the pendulum has swung the other way and other kinds of bad behavior are on the rise, like the “transgender movement,” which is attempting to “trans” children using drugs and surgery, and the “minor attraction movement,” which is Newspeak for pedophilia, a political cause attempting to normalise sex with children. Frankly, this is when sex magic becomes Satanism, and it’s currently being practiced all over.
An example of sex magic that is not notorious are certain relatively rare but highly specific forms of Tantra, practiced in cultures that tend not to feel the need to prove anything nor drape piano legs, or “let it all hang out.”
1 Actually, it’s not that surprising. The Puritans were the first to populate the eastern coast, and they were extreme religious radicals. Spiritualism in the mid-19th century was a practice in the same tradition. Of radicalism, I mean.
2 This feeling of being “trapped” is a major aspect of the phenomena of personal degradation, whether acted out as anxiety or resentfulness, or, even, anger and rage.
3 It was, in part, the arbitrary decision that the chemical actions and electrical phenomena in the body must always precede human behaviours that became a foundational tenet of psychiatry. This does not refute the fact that the body’s chemistry and electric-magnetic field are a specific expression of two very different types of being: male and female, as well as a multitude of shared characteristics.
4 I suppose the need we have to get on to the next thing as quickly as possible is just too great. “That’ll do,” we say. “Next!” This is quite sad, although it certainly keeps people busy—so busy that it helps drown out all the shrieking and screaming demons rattling around in our heads.