An Experiment in Relativity

Posted on 10/31/2013

by Christopher Pankhurst



Memories fall around me like fragments of a casual defenestration.  Some cut and draw blood, others break into latent shards, the hidden detritus of a wasted life.  What remains to show for a life?  What has been gained except knowledge that can’t be unknown?  To what end?  We really are millions of yesterdays.

Memory is all I am now but even that is fallible.  I can’t remember exactly how I heard about it all to begin with but there used to be a whole slew of underground magazines that dealt with occult topics.  From one or other of those I probably first came across the term ‘chaos magick’.  There used to be a small hippy cum pagan shop close to the university when I was a student and I do remember buying a few of those magazines from there: Pagan News, Talking Stick, and others whose names I don’t remember.  One afternoon in my small, hated room in halls, flicking through this esoteric and weird material, lighting joss sticks and getting stoned.  Somehow, the ideas and praxes presented in those journals seemed to fall on fertile ground with me.  It was as if part of my psyche, or perhaps my genetic constitution, was waiting to find these notions; they were the key to parts of me that had always been present but which had always been locked away.


And then, soon after, talking with someone at the Pagan Society.  He mentioned to me the idea (or slogan, rather) of ‘fake it then make it’.  And the door to another room seemed to open inside me.  Somehow there seemed to be the prospect of a different level of reality coming into focus in my life.  It was not pure, it was tainted with the aspirations and hopes I projected on to it, and also with the pseudo-glamour its adherents sought to veil it with; but it was primary and immediately accessible.  This was the thing that animated it for me.

Within all this the name Austin Osman Spare seemed to be of singular importance.  It was not easy to track down material of this nature back then; several trips to London and a number of mail order purchases ensued.  The various books I obtained delineated an obscure philosophy and, still worse, it was expressed in complex, almost private terms.  After some study I came to understand the thrust of this strange magician, or at least I came to my own understanding of him.  The works themselves, short and explosive sub-Nietzschean tracts, expressed a sort of reversal of conventional ontology.  Instead of regarding man as a subject who perceives a prior external reality, Spare posits the notion that we create our reality as some kind of lucid dream.  Our belief about the world is not limited to opinions and superficial notions but rather the very act of perceiving is itself an act of belief.  The existence of the world, after the German idealists, is not taken to be a separate, autonomous reality but neither is its existence questioned.  Its objective existence derives from the fact that we believe in it.  The deeper the belief the more it appears as an independently existing entity.  The entire field of our awareness is a manifestation of our beliefs.

For Spare, whose artistic vision appears to have guided his entire approach to life and metaphysics, the existence of the world as manifested belief raises the intriguing notion that by changing the belief you can thereby change the world.  And this is no mere solipsistic conceit.  He really does mean that a change in belief about something causes reality to change.  But this is not as easy to achieve as it might sound.  The required change in belief cannot be merely the adoption of a different philosophy, or the promulgation of a changed opinion.  It must, for the magick to be successful, be an actual change of belief.  The difficulty of this method soon becomes apparent.  If I want a new job it seems impossible to actually believe that I have a new job if I don’t; at this level it would be mere delusion.  And this is where Spare’s sorcery takes a novel turn.  In order to change belief about the manifested world it is necessary to trick the consciousness.  Spare achieves this sleight of mind with the ontological conjuring trick of sigilisation.  A desire is written down and the letters are merged and simplified until only a symbol remains.  This symbol embodies the desire, and it becomes the focal point for a magickal rite which seeks to charge it with potency through a frenzied state of mind, and then bury it deep within the unconscious.  A few weeks later you will find that you are unexpectedly offered a new job.  As if by magick.

For most of the occult ‘scene’ this element of Spare’s work seems to be sufficient.  A concise and efficient magickal praxis that offers results, and offers them quickly.  And it certainly bestows a glamour upon the practitioner of these artes.  But I soon became bored with the practise of sigilisation and with what I came to perceive as its haphazard results.  I came to realise that the formulation of any particular desire could never be achieved with purity.  There was always the possibility that submerged elements of the psyche would be manipulating the magickian in unseen ways, and to achieve quite unexpected things.  This louche suspicion proved to be astute.

I once performed a spell to gain wealth.  I used the sigilisation technique to turn the desire into a symbolic form and meditated on it as I burned its painted image in a candle flame.  This destruction of the symbol of desire ensured that it should embed itself in my subconscious.  I tried not to think about the spell for the next few days but it proved impossible.  I kept hankering after results, and my impatience was not entirely due to my interest in magick.  In fact I needed money, unemployed as I was. After several weeks I genuinely did forget about the spell and my interest in chaos magick also waned somewhat.  Then I received a phone call from my mother who informed me that an aunt on my father’s side had died.  I could barely feign interest in the conversation; I had the TV on mute and suddenly became very interested in the daytime game show that I had previously been ignoring.  I had never liked my aunt who was an unbearable snob of a woman.  She had grown into a bitter and childless old age that fitted her like a gauntlet.  If anything I was mildly pleased that she was dead.

A few days later my mother phoned me again.  My aunt’s will had instructed that her estate be divided equally between her nieces and nephews, just five of us.  The house she had died in was her childhood home and was a large Victorian building in a quiet road that had somehow avoided the decline that had taken over some of the neighbouring areas.  In short, it was a desirable property for a greedy landlord.  I salivated at the prospect of a fifth of its market value all the way to the pub.  In the beer garden I bumped into some friends but I kept quiet about my good news.  I didn’t want to seem crass.  A crow landed in a tree opposite me waiting for spilled crisps.  As some people moved away from a nearby table he saw his chance and descended to finish off a half-eaten packet.  We all watched him as he pecked away.  Then he tried to look for more at the bottom of the packet.  He took the packet in his beak and lifted it to try to tip out any remaining crisps.  And I saw the manufacturer’s logo on the packet upside down.  It was identical to the sigil I had created many weeks earlier.  A sickly, drunk frisson lapped over me as I realised that the spell conjured to bring me wealth had worked by killing my aunt.

As the implications of this realisation fell upon me, or rather emerged from within me, I came to see that the desire to obtain wealth was just a pretext.  Whilst I thought that I wanted, in fact needed, money this was not the real reason for the performance of the spell.  ‘I’ was not really aware of what ‘I’ wanted at all.  The part of me that felt no compunction in killing my aunt for money had manipulated me into performing a spell that could result in just such a thing.  Whilst I would have never consciously wished for anyone to die for so base a motive as monetary gain, my indifference to the news of her death, and my delight at hearing of my inheritance convinced me that this was my secret desire all along.

This was a fearful and demeaning revelation.  How could I begin to accept the fact that ‘I’ was such a Machiavellian person beneath the conscious layers of personality?  And if those ‘layers of personality’ were so superficial, so much artifice, then what did that say for my individuality, the very thing that I had always previously assumed was the entirety of me?  The thought was somewhat sickening, like one of those science fiction films where the reality the characters (and the audience) had believed in all along is shown to be false and a sinister sub-stratum is revealed as the truth.  My truth had surfaced and I didn’t think I could bear to look at it.

And so, gradually, and without consciously noting the fact, I started to drift away from anything to do with the occult.  This was facilitated by the inheritance that came my way.  My lifestyle began to alter for the better and I found that I had better things to do with my time than try to alter reality.  Reality had begun to seem rather benevolent to me.  I certainly continued to buy occult books; in fact my ill-gained wealth insured that I could buy precious editions that I had previously only dreamed of.  But my deeper interest in the subject was waning.  In truth, I read barely a word of the pristine hardback volumes that decorated my growing library; I was content with gazing at the pictures.

This proved fortuitous.  On one of my shopping expeditions to the occult booksellers of London I visited a favourite and venerable store.  As soon as I set foot inside I saw her: a perfect execution of one of Spare’s more sublime series of portraits.  She was predominantly green in appearance, the background hue suffusing the facial structure with a reflected, refracted glow.  The short, disciplined hairstyle hid a protean labyrinth of pencil lines winding and meandering their way to nothing and everything.  And the face itself, which was unmistakeably that of a twenties or thirties film star, was mildly elongated as if viewed through one of those distorting mirrors popular in fairgrounds.

It was one of Spare’s sidereal paintings, an experiment in relativity.  The slight twist to normal visual representation was a sign that these paintings were intended to put the observer into an uncanny position.  As I gazed at the picture I understood this immediately and pre-verbally.  Over the course of the intervening years I have been, however inadequately, able to articulate this effect with some degree of precision.  At least, this is my hope.  The experiments in relativity alert us to the fact that we are observing the subject of the painting in a fundamentally weird way, and from a peculiar perspective.  They achieve visually what Spare’s ontology and sigilisation achieve magickally: they alert us to reality’s malleability to our beliefs.  These observations may not have much purchase with those custodians of art history whose careers depend upon the precise demarcation of oeuvres and periods, and whose bottom line is a figure in pounds.  But they are observations that I have experienced with my own eyes.  Or rather, they are observations that I have experienced with my own faculty of perception.

In any case, I knew immediately that this was a painting I wanted to buy.  Upon enquiry, I found that it was well within my means and so it was purchased there and then.  The lady who packaged it up for me (very carefully it has to be said) seemed most keen to ensure that I would be a good custodian of the painting.  She chatted away, seemingly idly, but expertly pumping me for information about my knowledge of occult subjects, trying to ascertain whether I would be worthy of the picture she was selling.  It was a strange feeling.  I had the money, in cash; yet I felt that I was being judged as to my suitability.

Evidently, she was satisfied as she handed over the newly wrapped parcel, safe in bubble wrap and brown paper.  My dalliance with the esoteric had obviously borne some fruit.  I was not quite the dilettante I had begun to perceive myself as.  Holding my new acquisition with some care I was about to leave the shop when the lady proprietor came to open the door for me.  She seemed reluctant to let the painting leave her shop, although she obviously knew that it was inevitable.  “I hope you will enjoy your painting,” she said to me, propping the door open.  “But I would avoid hanging it in your bedroom.  Or even sleeping in the same room as it; it can provoke very bad dreams.”  It seemed like a very poor after-sales pitch but I was unperturbed.

Of course, I was never going to hang the picture in my bedroom; I wanted it in the living room where everyone could see it.  There would have been something entirely perverse about buying such a beautiful painting only to hide it away for private contemplation.  And it became a sort of talking point, although no one else was as taken with it as I was.  Probably because Spare was such an obscure artist, it was rare for anyone to comment on the painting without being prompted to do so.  Whilst this was initially a source of frustration for me, I came to accept it and to reconcile myself to having a more highly developed aesthetic sensibility than my friends.

One evening as I was flicking through one of my esoteric volumes, I came across a very unusual word that jumped out at me: karezza.  As I read backwards and forwards around this word, I discovered that it denotes a particular form of sigil magick.  According to this author, one creates a sigil to fulfil a desire in the usual way and then concentrates on it before sleep.  The charging of the sigil is achieved through the nocturnal vice of onanism, although without emission; the aim being to inseminate the desire.  The sigil should take the form of a pendant hanging around the neck of an otherwise naked, beautiful woman.  When sleep grants its pleasing dreams to the practitioner, the unconscious mind will be freed to unravel the locked mysteries of desire and allow the granting of the wish to the subsequently awakened self.

Naturally, this was the sort of magick that appealed to me.  I could even do it in my sleep.  And if there was a creeping sense of apprehension prompted by memories of the collateral fall out from my previous sigil work I can honestly say that I was unaware of it.  I resolved to set to somnolent work immediately.

I sorted out an old sleeping bag that had been bought for ever-deferred camping trips and lay down in it on the floor of the living room beneath Experiment in Relativity No. 20.  I had earlier prepared a suitable sigil, simple enough in its pictographic form to be visualised easily.  Perhaps there was a subliminal remembrance of my previous worry about this type of magic because this time I had selflessly prepared a sigil to gain wisdom.  It seemed safe enough.

The preamble to sleep was completed efficiently enough but the dreams I had seemed to bear no relation to the sigil.  The following night I went through the motions again thinking that this was perhaps a rather vacuous and stupid ritual.  Again, the dreams of the evening were seemingly random.  I decided to give up on this enterprise but then I remembered that in my Magickal diary I had dated four empty pages ready to receive the notes I had expected to be filling it with.  The diary was woefully sparse as it was and it undermined my impression of myself as one of the occult cognoscenti.  I decided to persist for two further nights just to fill in the prepared space.

This proved fortunate.  On the third night I had dreams, very bad dreams, of death.  I shall quote from the magickal diary verbatim:

4th August 1998.  I had a very bad night last night but at the same time my dreams were vivid and full of meaning so maybe it will prove to be useful?  For the first time in my life I have experienced a recurring dream but in my case the recurrence has occurred all in one night.  I spent the night running through the same dream again and again.  Probably, I only spent ten minutes or so in this one dream but I feel exhausted this morning and it feels to me as though I have genuinely spent the whole night just repeating the same dream.  My hands are still shaking and only now is the utter terror beginning to recede.  It begins with sunlight.  I come to awareness with the blinding dawn sun directly before me.  As I become aware of my surroundings it becomes apparent that I am standing very far from the ground.  There is a great distance beneath me and it seems too much to take in. 

Gradually (or so it seems) I come to realise that I am standing on a vast, skeletal wooden structure.  Like some sort of primitive scaffolding, it consists of long, thin wooden posts lashed together with twine.  I have no way of seeing the ground clearly, and I wouldn’t want to look down in any case, so I can’t tell how securely it is embedded in the ground.  It feels perilous.  I am standing on a thin pole, perhaps two inches wide, and I have only a single vertical upright to cling to.  I can feel my legs trembling wildly at the horror of my predicament.  Further along I can see another man screaming with absolute hopeless terror at his predicament.  I also begin to sense that there are other men above and below me in similar states of fear.  I have no knowledge of how I got here or why.  All I can feel is the terror of the drop beckoning below me and the convulsive weakness in my legs.  In the manner of dreams a great deal of time appears to pass very quickly.  It feels as though I had spent many hours in such a horrible situation.  Then I begin to see the bodies falling past me.  Evidently, others higher up than me have become unable to continue holding on and are plummeting to the ground.  The horror is unbearable.  Not just the fear of death but the fear of the manner of death.  I stand, trembling, looking out at an indifferent sky waiting to die.  Then I feel my legs beginning to buckle and I lose my grip on the wooden post.  I am falling and I can feel the sickening feeling in my belly from the swift drop.  Then I start to become aware of my surroundings and realise that I am standing very far from the ground.  And so it begins again.  My impression is that this went on all night but, as I said, this is probably not so.  Even writing this account down has again rekindled the horrible, sickening feeling within me: the terror of an horrific death.

Perhaps it is unnecessary to add that I abandoned the fourth night’s ritual.

Rereading the notes from my magickal diary I can see that something is missing.  Despite my attempts to capture in words the essence of the terror that I experienced the actual feeling is absent.  The words simply point to a half understood state of mind, they evoke no angst in themselves; they are easily classified and filed away.  I do not have the means to convey the nature of the horror I felt that night, but it might give some indication if I mention that there was a sharper flavour to the dream.  Each time that I felt the experience of waking to consciousness, and seeing the dawning sun, there was a deep feeling that I was returning from death.  It doesn’t make any sense because death is the one thing we can’t return from, but I cannot express it any more clearly.  The whole dream was infused with the taste of death.  From waking into the light to falling towards the darkness I feel as though I experienced a great cycle of living and dying with full consciousness of the reality and inevitability of its imminent annihilation.

Despite the genuinely affecting nature of this experience life continued relentlessly on and, as is the way with dreams, the feeling faded back into a background texture, barely noticed during daylight hours.  But sometimes at night I would find that I awoke with that recognisable dread, staring into blackness with the touch of death on my fingertips.  Each time this happened I had a strong, though inchoate, sense that I had just returned from the edge of the event horizon; that I had been permitted a temporary escape, but that soon I would return to the black nullity that consumes everything, and that sooner or later I would never return.  I don’t think it added a sense of gravitas to my personality.  On the contrary, it simply contributed to a morose stoicism that saw little point in getting out of bed in the mornings.

Over time my inheritance was pissed away.  I ended up back where I was before I came into money, but older.  I began to sell my limited occult books, many of which had become ridiculously expensive.  This helped to stave off the inevitable for a short time.  When they had gone the only thing I had left worth selling was the painting.  I advertised it in the usual channels (taking great care to emphasize its authentic provenance) and eventually found a buyer in the person of the head of one of the more interesting occult organisations.  We arranged a meeting where money changed hands and the picture left my life.  The buyer was a pleasant and gregarious man, and an interesting conversationalist.  I didn’t consider mentioning the casual curse that seemed to hang over the painting; perhaps I told myself that with his greater occult skills he would be protected from such things.  I don’t know, but in any case I needed the money.

And now, when I wake into the blackest part of the night with the sickening feeling of falling twisting my stomach to a sharp nauseous fear, I sense that this recurring dream of life will sooner or later end, and that I will finally awake to an infinite nullity.  Such is the gift of wisdom.