Keeping the Doors of Perception Open

For many years, me and Greg Humphries—artist, magician and woodsman—have been rambling over the Devon and Cornwall landscape, exploring the hidden psychogeographical, mythical and mystical aspects of the place in which we live. On the 16th of April 2018, the 75th anniversary of the day that Albert Hofmann first accidentally ingested LSD-25, we took one of our walks along the Cornish coast; our mission, to hide a psychedelic treasure.

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Bring me my bow of burning gold…

Greg recently exhibited some of his art at the Penwith Gallery in St.Ives, Cornwall. On show was the The Bow of Albion: For The Herald Of The New Aeon, an exquisite longbow, complete with arrows, quiver and magnificent leather case—all made by hand. Also on show were three of The Doorstops of Perception (well, once the doors of perception are opened, one might well require something to stop them banging shut!). One of these beautifully hand-carved doorstops is the principle object contained in the ‘time capsule’ we have buried.

Along with the Doorstop is a badge showing the iconic Albert Hofmann blotter art (the rest of the badges were given away at a ceremony three days later).

Also in the magical box was a picture of the artist, actress and magician Pamela Coleman Smith. The monogram signature ‘PCS’ can be found on each of tarot cards she designed. Just as there is a great (and not before time) reappraisal of female occultist artists such as Ithell Colquhoun, I hope it will not be long before ‘Pixie’, as Coleman Smith was known, gets a proper retrospective.

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Consulting Pixie’s tarot by her graveside, and giving thanks for her work

Why do this kind of stuff? In some ways it’s a continuity of the kind of psychogeographical projects that Greg and I have found ourselves doing throughout our longstanding friendship. (One of these is documented in our book, Walking Backwards, Or The Magical Art of Psychedelic Psychogeography, available here, for a limited period with full-colour pictures—until summer solstice 2018—after which it will only be on sale as a monochrome version). In other respects this is a new process: to directly (re)enchant the magical landscape of our place through our art.  Like our ancestors, we are making offerings to the spirits of the land, and in our own small way enchanting for the rediscovery of magic in all our lives.

Unlike the days of yore, when Greg and I recorded our walks with occasional photography, the ubiquitous magical tool of the mobile phone allows us to capture and share the digital traces of our adventures.

So, as per the reading above, our wand-waving knights set off toward the Tower…

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On the skyline The Tower of the Winds

There to sing with the wind…

Greg charges, prepares and blesses The Doorstop of Perception…

Artworks are created…

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Greg reflects on the nature and practice of psychogeography within the animist paradigm…

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Carefully setting the turf back,

Leaving no visible trace

On this power spot,

The spell is cast.

 

Ahoy!

Julian Vayne

 

Walking Backwards, Or The Magical Art of Psychedelic Psychogeography is reviewed here and here.

 

 

Sharing this Magical Life

The community of practice—the sangha, coven, temple or wider network of esoteric practitioners (such as the IOT)—is really important to me. I know myself well enough to know that, while I can do solitary work (including my ‘baseline’ practices of yoga and mindfulness mediation) it’s in community with others that I thrive.

One example of this is how, while I’ve written 12 books, most of these works have been co-authored with other writers. Bouncing ideas off each other and working collaboratively is what I love and I’ve been fortunate to have been doing this with my dear friend Greg Humphries since we met in 1998 (beginning with a sequence of rituals that culminated at the total eclipse of the sun in Cornwall in 1999). Greg and I have now produced our second book. Well, really Greg has done most of the work—the lion’s share of the text is his, as are all the wonderful artworks, drawings and photographs that accompany the words.

This new book is about one of our favourite practices, psychogeography. For us this a series of tactics in walking that allow us to come into a special type of relationship with landscape. These methods allow us to reveal the occult ‘hidden’ aspects of reality; the sacred in the everyday, the possibility of multiple narratives in spaces accessed by disrupting the dominant discourse (like what you are ‘supposed’ to find interesting when you wander round a historic house as we were doing earlier this week).

(There will be a limited number of full colour copies of Walking Backwards or, The Magical Art of Psychedelic Psychogeography available now. After Midsummer the edition will be available only as a monochrome text.)

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Texts of drifting, walking and wondering…

Psychogeography was the theme of a workshop I ran recently at Treadwell’s bookshop, from which I received some great feedback (like the review here). An interesting thing about psychogeographical explorations is that they attract a wide variety of people who sense that there are many possible relationships with the world we inhabit besides the narrow-bandwidth that is often served up as ‘being normal’ (or ‘acceptable’ or ‘permitted’ or similar). Excellent examples of both practical techniques for engendering these new states of awareness, as well as a deep theoretical exegesis of psychogeography, are to be found in the new work Rethinking Mythogeography… by Phil Smith. Phil is a seasoned traveller in non-ordinary spaces, creating plays and site-specific installations amongst other things. In his new book (which like the one by me and Greg, is replete with evocative photographic images) he explores the town of Northfield in Minnesota, counterpointing it with observations of the hidden histories of locations such as A la Ronde in Devon.

Phil writes beautifully, capturing in his prose the mythic intent and surreal outputs of ‘disrupted walking’.

The magic of the ordinary may at first strike you in flashes or by the sudden falling of a shadow across a scene; but if you can hold onto those moments for a while, stay calm and not grab for the first wonder, then—like the passing freight train—the magic will begin to steam around you in unfolding loops, in strings like movies or stories or chains of DNA.

The book by Greg and me comes out just as Greg (finally!) gets a major exhibition of his work. This will be happening at the Penwith Gallery in Cornwall (23rd March to 6th April) as part of the 80th celebration for St Ives School of Painting. Visitors will have the chance to see some of the amazing objects that Greg creates. These include a handmade, exquisitely carved longbow, with hand-stitched leather bow case and hand-forged and fletched arrows. This magical object, from an imagined Albion (‘Bring me my bow of burnished gold…’; part of the weapon is indeed gilded), is part of a series of pieces that bring together Greg’s skills in bushcraft and green woodworking with his magical world-view. Get along to the show if you can.

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Greg Humphries, the artful woodland wizard

In other news, the Black Mirror Research network (exploring how ‘…artists have used esoteric, magical and occult philosophies as sources of inspiration’) and the Plymouth College of Art have a conference next month Seeking the Marvellous: Ithell Colquhoun, British Women & SurrealismOver two days in sunny Plymouth some of the leading academics in the field will be speaking about important female surrealists and occultists including both Ithell Colquhoun and blogofbaphomet favourite Leonora Carrington.

Foregrounding (to use a contemporary expression) women’s voices is something I’m pleased to say is happening more and more, especially in the psychedelic scene. I’ve just been listening to the first Psychedelic Salon podcast hosted by Kat and Alexa Lakey; The Family that Trips Together, Sticks Together. As well as a fascinating interview with Scott Olsen they also present two conversations between the sisters and their Mum and Dad, reflecting on their psychedelic experiences, both individually and as a family. This fascinating and beautifully comfortable conversation breaks new ground in the field of psychedelic podcasting; we are after all 50 years on the from the first, and 30 years since the second, Summer of Love. We now have two, even three, generations of psychonauts in some families who can compare notes and share an understanding of these most profound and potentially liberating of experiences. (And now we’re on to the Third Summer of Love.)

I’m pleased to say that Alexa and Kat have invited me to work with them on some forthcoming podcasts. Stay tuned to The Psychedelic Salon and this blog for details!

Meanwhile I’ve been writing about psychoactives for a forthcoming collection of essays on psychedelics (I was pleased to be asked to contribute by the erudite and playful Erik Davis who interviewed me recently for his podcast). Writing longer stuff means that I’ve had less time for blogging here so I’m planning to start some vlogging (as I believe the young people call it…). There is an initial video here and more to follow. Please like, share and subscribe and all that.

Away from the virtual world, Nikki and I are looking forward to running a series of retreats at St.Nectan’s Glen. I’ve written about this space many times before on this blog so to have a newly built retreat centre there that we are helping to develop, and to hold space at this sacred location, is a great honour. Details of our May retreat can be found here.

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Prayer ribbons and fairy towers at St.Nectan’s Glen

Nikki is also going to take part in a panel discussion alongside Dave King and Danny Nemu at the inaugural meeting of the Durham Psychedelics Society (for those who don’t know, Durham University is famous for its learning and researching in the fields of Biblical studies, Christian theology and the sociological and the anthropological study of religion). We’re both super excited to be speaking at the wonderful Beyond Psychedelics conference in Prague, (the call for papers is open now but closes soon!) and later this year at the Ozora festival in Hungary (7 days, 25,000 people and 24 hour psytrance, what’s not to like?).

On a more one-to-one level I’m also really pleased to find myself in a situation where I’m being asked to mentor and support people as they explore their own spiritual development. Part of the delight of this has been to be able to share my knowledge and experience but without adopting any kind of guru role. I offer my services in this respect as a Kalyanamitra (Sanskrit) or kalyanamitta (Pali), that is as a ‘spiritual friend’—someone who is walking a similar path and can provide support and encouragement to others, along with suggestions for practices and technique—but without any pretence to ‘knowing the answer’.

I get a huge amount out of this sharing of ideas. It’s great when this happens in a formal academic context (I’ll be teaching this year on the Spirituality & Ecology Masters Degree at Schumacher College) as well as in less formal learning settings (check out our Deep Magic pages for updates) and in peer-support environments too. Like many of us I understand things best when I’m exploring ideas with others.

As social creatures making these interpersonal connections, we have the possibility of developing both a collective intelligence (a group mind) and also of allowing the community to enable our own individual understanding. There’s a simple example of this; you may have had the experience of calling IT support and explaining the problem with your computer. As you do the explaining, even if the helpdesk person says very little, you are creating a new neural connection and often realize how to fix the problem as you are speaking. Making words to describe the problem to another person creates a new pathway for information to move through, often leading to insight and discovery. (You can try a similar process when looking for your keys by simply repeating ‘keys, keys, keys…’ which measurably increases how quickly you find your keys). Holding space with and for people, so that they can speak their truth, and come (like finding our lost keys) to moments of self-realization, is a real privilege. I think having a background in chaos magic helps, since while I have my story to tell and experiences to share that may inspire others, I’m not a ‘better’ or a ‘more powerful magician’ than anyone else. I’m also not interested in cheerleading for any particular paradigm, so while there are pagans and magicians who attend the sessions I curate, there are plenty of participants present who would not identify with those terms.

For me, as a group person and as an individual who thrives on collaboration, this diversity is wonderful. While I enjoy those more ‘inward facing’ conferences and meetings (where everyone is dressed in black, sporting various spooky bits of jewellery and making niche gematria jokes), making occulture accessible, intelligible and relevant to new audiences is, at least for me at the moment, where it’s at.

Julian Vayne

 

 

Spiritual Freethinking

Being a human often involves the construction of stories. In trying to make sense of our own lives, those of other beings on the planet and the Universe more generally, we create narratives to help us order what might be going on. We respond to the information we receive and fuse it with our existing perspectives in order to make decisions about how we wish to live and the potential risk things pose to our current experience of being alive. Most of this time we do this amazing work without even knowing that it is going on, but sometimes we have moments when we realise that we are doing it, and that we might want to make conscious changes to our method and style.

Most religious movements and schools of philosophy lay claim to providing tools for waking us up from the automatic reliance on assumptions. The process of becoming aware of the lenses we rely on for viewing the world can be both shocking and disorientating as we try to incorporate any new insights gained. The problems for most religions come when the incoming of new, enlightening knowledge (Gnosis) begins to disrupt the presuppositions that they themselves rely on e.g. that God either doesn’t exist or is radically different from how they were initially understood to be.

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Sapere aude!

Many of the posts on this blog are penned with a view to promoting a process where we begin thinking about how we think and consider the risks involved in stepping outside the lines of received orthodoxy. If we start to question “received truths” and embrace the heretic’s path of choosing our own way, then we must realise that we will increase discomfort for both ourselves and those around us. For the freethinker, to refuse to question is often an even less desirable, stultifying path, but we would be naïve if we underestimate the disruptive force of heretical thoughts and behaviour.

Part of the creative, disruptive power of the heretic, is that they take existing received truths and they bend them. It would be bad enough if we adopted an antithetical position, but the fact that we take an image or language and inject it with a new, nuanced or odd meaning, truly infuriates those seeking to maintain their monopoly on perceived truth. The gnosis of the heretic triggers a creative process in which their artistry reveals strange variants of reality. While on one level we reject the easier answers of Faith, we often retain a symbiotic relationship with those beliefs and images. In our heresy we internalise these ordered creeds and transform them in to something both far stranger and more interesting.

For me, the adoption of such bold new readings allows the possibility of inhabiting a place of greater spaciousness that often feels more congruent with the lives we wish to live. Such territory is often at the outer edges of familiar maps and requires a level of wit and will that many of us experience as demanding and exhilarating in equal measure.

While each of us need to discover our own optimum means for accessing spaces of cognitive liberty, I have noticed that my own is often facilitated by allowing apparently disparate sources to sit alongside each other. I have been aware of my own journey in allowing the different aspects of my personal religious history to dialogue with each other. The Witch and the Cleric have been sitting down together for a beverage and conversation in the hope that new meaning might be discovered. All too often I have tried to rush them in the hope of a tidy resolution, but thankfully they have resisted my efforts!

In seeking to allow the unique parts of my own story to have a voice, I have often found more help in dreams and art than I have in theological concepts and reformulations. Of course I find great value in thinking and writing, but they often face the danger of overly concretising those states that are more subtle, subjective and sensed. In seeking to resist the urge to prematurely reconcile, synthesise or harmonise this multiplicity of voices and ideas, I have often found that artistic experimentation within a ritual context is a powerful tool.

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Occult art experiment

While others may gain greater stimulus via extended textual analysis and linear debate, on their own these have not been enough to allow me to access the type of psychological integration that I long for. The Queer and transformative states that I need in order to challenge the bulwarks of orthodoxy in my own life, have been found more readily in the images of Abraxas, Baphomet and N’Aton than in attempts at systematic theology. For me these part-made gods embody the ongoing dialogue between idealised androgyny and the complexity of Queer experience. The Queer aspirations of “Postdrogyny” and “Pandrogyne” are the first fruits of an artistic exploration of the possibility of identity. This is an Aquarian age in which our neat categories are troubled and disrupted by the bold lives of those seeking a more authentic way.

The use of sigils, collage, and altar sculpts can all be means of allowing us to inhabit a type of magical space that allows for a personal alchemy that I hope will catalyse change on a wider, societal level. This zone is the place of the crossroads, and as I have observed elsewhere:

If we journey to the crossroads in our attempt to rediscover our magic, we are inevitably entering a realm of liminal possibility. The crossroads is a meeting place of apparent opposites and seeming contradictions. The dynamic tension generated by the friction between these polarities makes it the place of initiation.
A Gnostic’s Progress p. 155

The crossroads is a place of incarnation and inspiration, and the word must become flesh (John, 1:14) in order for us to experience its fullness. May our art, inspiration and willingness to explore, allow access to such fullness! This is rarely an easy peace, but as we allow ourselves to tune into the complexity and mystery of our lives, may all of us experience greater authenticity and freedom.

So Mote it Be!

SD

Surreal Witchcraft

While scholars and practitioners may continue to debate the degree to which the transcripts of the Witch trials can be viewed as axiomatic in relation to what Witches actually did, they do seem to highlight the centrality of dreaming to the Witches’ path.

To travel to the Sabbat was to enter the realm of dreams. We might to choose to frame this as a form of astral travel or a salve-induced hypnopompic experience, but it seems that to be a Witch meant that the nighttime became a liminal zone in which the fuzzy edges of consciousness were utilized for the work of magic.

The nocturnal dream journeys of the Witch embody a cognitive liberty that refuses to be imprisoned, despite the efforts of the authoritarian oppressor. However they might seek to enforce their orthodoxies or to harm and torture the body, the spirit of the Witch struggled hard in refusing the limitation of their chains. For me these heretical heroes were seen as threatening due to the way in which they embodied a more authentic and visceral humanity more connected to the sexual and the wild.

The sabbatic revelries of the Witch were almost certainly located as much in the projections of their oppressors as they were in actual practice, and yet even here we can sense the potency and strangeness of the unconscious realm. The fevered imaginings of Malleus Maleficarum with its violent suppression, reflect a sadism born of suppression. I cannot help but see the reports of the inquisitors as a distorted mirror image of the type of freedom that they secretly longed for.

The depictions of the Witches’ Sabbat are often simultaneously sensual and grotesque. They are at once conclaves of perversity and yet in their depiction they often unconsciously capture a male gaze that holds both disgust and longing. Such images seem to reflect the sense of internal conflict at work in the inquisitorial eye, and the potentially queering, alchemical impact that such perceptions of perversity can induce. In her work Queer Phenomenology, Sarah Ahmed observes:

Perversion is also a spatial term, which can refer to the wilful determination to counter or go against orthodoxy, but also to what is wayward and thus “turned away from what is right, good and proper.” For some queer theorists, this is what makes “the perverse” a useful starting point for thinking about the “disorientations” of queer, and how it can contest not only heternormative assumptions, but also social conventions and orthodoxies in general. Page 78.

For me the archetype of the Witch is innately bonded to the queer, the twisted and the perverse. In its raw nocturnal sensuality, it challenges attempts at control, and it organises itself into cells of practice for those bold enough to seek their own power and self-definition outside of the bounds of convention. The possible/partial etymology of Wicce being “to twist or bend”, for me points toward the willful pursuit of a non-straight and less linear approach.

The Witch is the dream dweller par excellence and as such they provide us (whether Witch identified or not) with a form of surreal inspiration that when embraced allows the possibility of greater queerness and greater self-transformation. To gain access to this realm, we must dare the lucid sleep where we utilize the less-filtered reality of our dreams.

The character of the Witch within the Surrealist canon is probably embodied most vividly in the work of Leonora Carrington. We have already considered the centrality of her work in manifesting that strange space between dreams and waking, male and female, real and surreal. For me her work pushes hard against the attempts of orthodoxy to contain and control the power of the female imagination.

For Carrington, the Witch embodies the figure willing to bend and distort the known and the orthodox. The richness of her many years in Mexico provided her with a vibrant example of how to meld the Catholicism of her upbringing with her own, deeper magical impulses. Her time spent with Curandera and in exploring the mythology of pre-conquest beliefs of the Maya, inspired her own journey in synthesising both Catholic and Celtic/Native British currents; as Susan Aberth observes:

This combination of the heretical with the orthodox exemplifies the multiplicity of belief systems the artist is dedicated to preserving as part of the suppressed history of female spirituality. Page 126, Leonora Carrington: Surrealism, Alchemy and Art.

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Grandmother Moorhead’s Aromatic Kitchen, 1975

In exploring the power of the Witch, Carrington depicts the magical circle and the Kitchen as being able to sit within the same space. For Carrington it feels that her work as a magician dissolves any dualism between artistic creation, nurture and sorcerous realms. When pursuing such integration the visible and invisible, the known and the occult inter-penetrate each other as a manifestation of a truly earthed divinity:

By transforming the domestic table into a sacramental altar Carrington creates a feminine sacred space that links worlds, providing access to multiple states of consciousness while collapsing the hierarchies that have prevented a more inclusive vision of spiritual possibilities. Ibid.

The nocturnal realm of the Witch is one in which the quiet of night’s darkness allows us more space to tune in. With day’s labour done, the hearth invites us to rest, engage and feel the edges of the coming dream-sleep. This is the place that the Witch beckons to; a place where the busy cognitions of bright sunlight are left to simmer.

Carrington’s work depicts a form of alchemy truly plugged in to chthonic power. Her Witchcraft rejects a false dichotomy between folk-magical practice and the depths of spiritual transformation. For her the Celtic Sidhe that inhabit much of her work are both the spirits of the earth and the holders of alchemy’s secrets. With the incoming of a Roman Christianity hell-bent on homogenization, the old gods choose to go underground and inhabit those mounds or “Sid” that still hold such allure for those drawn to the serpentine energy of the land. If we risk reconnection to such power, transformation becomes possible in a way that rejects false dualities, and allows creation from a place of deep rootedness.

SD

 

 

 

Divine Androgyne (Part 3): Monstrous Alchemy

The impact of Queer experience on the ideal of androgyny is a truly disruptive one. Gone are our neat Kabbalistic flow charts and clear cut Neoplatonic stages of descent. In contrast to these linear sequences, this Queered Androgyny is an ever oscillating, multi-directional chaos-star whose many rays can be simultaneously moving both outward in expression and engagement, and inward in reflection and self-nurture.

This principle of Androgyny is fed as much by the lived experience of unique, individual Androgynous people as it is by the realm of aspirational metaphysics. It as much as about the creativity of the Radical Faery and Butch Lesbian as it about Adam Kadmon or Ardhanarisvara. For me, to work with this form of Androgyny means to acknowledge both a dialectical process that seeks to capture the world of ideal forms, while at the same time experiencing a dialogical reality in which a multitude of positions need to be held together without a necessary resolution.

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‘Can’t tell if you’re a boy or a girl’

To seek deep benefit in engaging with these ideas and images seems to require that we tolerate a certain degree of uncertainty. So often this form of doubt, confusion and psychological tension is seen as a negative or a hindrance to spiritual development and yet I believe this does not need to be case. For those of us seeking to walk an occult path, we are often called upon to make use of emotions and methods which our exoteric cousins view as dangerous or retrograde. If however we are able to engage consciously with the sense of resistance experienced in grappling with the complexity of such dialogues, then this very tension can bring about alchemical change.

If the stated aim of magical work is to create change, it would seem somewhat odd to then resist the transformation when it comes; and yet in my own life this has so often been the case. Change can happen at many levels and impact both how we experience ourselves and how we engage in relationships with others. Often the routes to change are manifested in dilemmas, loss and conflict, and the keys we need are to be found in attending to the strangeness of our dreams and the currents of the unconscious made manifest in our Art.

This is the unconscious territory that the Surrealists were so adept in exploring in their work, with the strange often jarring images revealing aspects of self that were bizarre, blurred and often monstrous. In alchemical terms this connection to the unconscious and the shadow represent the stage of nigredo or “blackening”. For the surrealists such territory was vital to their artistic inspiration and similarly for our magical work to have any really depth or sustained power, we must tap into this libidinal black flame of inspiration.

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Leonora Carrington Inn of the Dawn Horse

We have already explored something of the fertile intersect that exists between Surrealism and the artistic deployment of occult ideas and images. Themes as diverse the etheric double, the daemonic and the Witches’ sabbat were explored to varying degrees and there seems to be a significant connection between this use of magical themes and the often weird animalistic characters with which they populated their artistic landscapes.

The link between the magical, the animal and the potentially Queer is present in much Surrealist work and for me the most engaging aspects of such exploration, lies in the way in which it seems to capture that zone of liminal strangeness and mystery. The Surrealist imagination was alive to potency to be found in understanding the animal (whether actual or in more mythic forms) as a way of recontacting the sensual and instinctual realms that weave through the body. For me this wilder magic seems to connect to an almost pre-verbal stage of development that resonates with Spare’s idea of “atavistic resurgence”.

The folklore of the Lycan and Vampyre point us towards a magical worldview in which we can explore the vitality gained through a deeper connection to the visceral. Similarly the Witches’ animal familiar the “Fetch”, or the animal-dimension of Norse soul-lore breach our polite attempts to conceive of a humanity devoid of wildness.

In contrast to the clean, vertical fusing of Ardhanrisvara, the truly Queer genius of Levi’s depiction of Baphomet is partly located in the way in which the animal sits alongside the male and female. In trying to work with our own processes of dissolving and coming back together, Baphomet’s animal dimensions remind us of the power, joy and danger that can be accessed when we risk tuning into the whole of ourselves.

My own attempts to access these states has come via bodywork, dance/shaking states and prolonged trance drumming. I have also had a great deal of pleasure revisiting Gordon MacLellan’s excellent book Sacred Animals which provides some excellent practical guidance for exploring these themes. The ability to inhabit these places feels vital for those of us seeking to embody both freethinking and the magic of the Queer. These places beyond binaries and old certainties rarely allow prolonged rest, but they are undoubtedly transformational!

SD

 

 

 

 

 

Surreal Christology (part 4): The Androgyny

Part of what appeals to me about Surrealism both as an artistic school and also as a way of engaging with human experience, is the way in which it seeks to embrace experiences of fluidity and uncertainty. Surrealist art often dives deep into rich realms of the unconscious where attempts at neat categorisation quickly start coming apart at the seams. This is a twilight realm in which polarities such as animal versus human, safety versus threat and male versus female are both challenged and played with.

I have previously written about the way in which Queer theory and experience has provided for me a language for understanding the blurry liminality that I experienced in relation to my sexuality and in my spiritual explorations. Queer theory often provides an irreverent take on the complex interplay between biological sex and the way in which we perform our genders. This playfulness is as likely to be found in visual art as it is in text and for me depictions of Androgyny (both religious and secular) can help us gain insight into this strange territory.

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Frida Kahlo Self-Portrait with Cropped hair

 In the work of both Frida Kahlo and Leonora Carrington we see the way in which both of these female artists engage with depictions of the gendered body in ways which seek to disrupt many of the cultural expectations of their time. Kahlo powerfully utilised the juxtaposition of Mexican traditional dress with glorious facial hair to present a more authentic version of themselves. In both her art and life Kahlo bravely explored the fluidity of both her gender presentation and bisexuality, despite her physical disabilities and the personal turmoil she experienced. She even refused to be pigeon-holed as a Surrealist stating; “I never painted dreams. I painted my reality”. In my view artists such as Carrington and Kahlo worked with androgyny in a manner that embraced the dynamic and shifting nature of what this concept might mean. As Erin Hinz has observed in assessing themes of androgyny within Carrington’s work:

“Carrington experienced the social limits of her female body and choose to create bodies that fused these restrictive codes with animals, ancient ideologies in an alchemical way that transmuted these base constructions into precious, mystical and complex expressions of identity.”

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Self-portrait: The Inn of the Dawn Horse, 1937-38 Leonora Carrington

While the interplay of both male and female aspects of the self was lauded in the works of Jung and first wave feminists (cf. Virginia Woolf’s iconic Orlando) others have been less than keen. While the call of these early writers was taken up by later luminaries such as June Singer and Carolyn Heilbrun, some second wave Feminist theologians such as Mary Daly saw it as an escapist trap that “sucks spellbound victims into itself”. From the perspective of her radical separatism, Daly viewed it as an attack on both the essential potency of womanhood (“Why do I need to be half-male?”) and an attempt to falsely reify certain qualities of humanity as being polarised “male” or “female”. From such a perspective, the aspiration towards androgyny amounts to a form of sexual sublimation and fantasy that distances women from the visceral experience of female embodiment and passion.

While such voices need to be part of dialogue concerning androgyny, it could be argued that while they are seeking to challenge ideas of stereotyping and gendered fixity, via their biological essentialism they may be in danger of another existential cul de sac.  While concepts of androgyny may well be in danger of minimising difference and a true valuing of women’s experience, the desire for such an essential separateness also risks missing experiences of playfulness and exploration that seem vital to shared human experience.

For me the challenging deconstruction offered by third wave feminisms and Queer theory, is less about the removal of category and difference and more about a willingness to dance and blur at the edges of where we think such borders lie. There seems to be a psychological complexity to such approaches that allows for the power of dreams and the unconscious in allowing the primacy of the experimental and experiential. Perhaps we are back with the Trickster in prophetically destabilising neat categorisation and asking for the space to be uncertain and to explore.

This queered vision of androgyny provides a sigil for challenging and shifting our sense of what we think we think we know. This androgynous mystery acts a mirror via which deeper aspects of self might be gleaned. Whether when gazing at our own reflection or in viewing the other, the presence of such oscillating fluidity can provide the possibility of change, and with change, hope.

In relation to my own journey I have already sought to describe how my initial flight into Christianity was largely related to my adolescent confusion about the fluidity of my own sexuality and gender identity. Despite the damaging efforts of my self-suppression, I experienced at least a part of my liberation via my encounter with the Queer androgyny of Christ.

While owning my own needs and bias, I eventually encountered in my reading of Jesus a blurry ambiguity that that provided for me an alternative mode of being. This was the Jesus who cleared Temples and overturned tables, but also who blessed the gentle and sought out the one lost sheep. At a more cosmic level he was also the mythic Christ of the Gnostics, who as the “first Adam” existed in some spacey realm in which they at once contained many genders while being also beyond them. This metaphysical fluidity – while looking decidedly freaky to my fellow seminarians – provided me with a doorway via which I could begin a new chapter of greater self-understanding. Such explorations are definitely ongoing, and continue to this day.

SD

 

Reading List:

Ellen Goldberg: The Lord Who is Half Woman: Adhanarishvara in Indian and Feminist Perspective 2012

Carolyn Heilbrun: Towards a Recognition of Androgyny 1993

Erin Hinz: The Work of Leonora Carrington: An Alchemical Transmutation of Gender through Magic, Animals, and Narrative

http://genderstudies.nd.edu/assets/64258/e_hinz_the_work_of_leonora_carrington.pdf

June Singer: Androgyny: Toward a New Theory of Sexuality 1976

 

Surreal Christology (Part 3): The Trickster

Now I’ll be honest, part of problem with Tricksters is that the process of trying to define them can, in and of itself, be a bit tricky! The very nature of these liminal figures that push irreverently against what is polite, acceptable and knowable means that they tend to slip out of attempts at neat archetypal categorisation. As with my previous explorations of Queer theory and the way in which its blurry fluidity can be both liberating and infuriating, so attempts to corral figures as diverse as Hermes, Loki, Coyote and Eshu will meet with frustration.

Tricksters tend to be those figures who dwell on the outer-edges of ordered society and speak often difficult truths regarding that culture’s need to change and evolve. By inhabiting this prophetic, questioning role they are often seen as subversive agents of chaos seeking to destabilise the rule of law. While this may well be part of their role, like the heretic’s relationship with more orthodox beliefs, the relationship between the Trickster and those in authority is often far more symbiotic.

In many senses the depiction of Christ in both the canonical and Gnostic gospels can be seen as having a trickster-like role. Jesus spends time with sex workers and the drug dependent; he questions religious authority and seeks to challenge the servant/master paradigm of how we engage with the divine:

“The kingdom of God is within you” Gospel of Thomas saying 3

“I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends” John 15:15

Here we have Jesus as a prophet and reformer within the context of 1st century CE Palestine, challenging and questioning received orthodoxies. He asks his listeners to dig deeper, not as a rejection of historic teachings, but as a means of encountering a richer experience of truth:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them” Matt. 5:17

The disruptive anarchy of the Trickster can become a powerful catalysing agent that shifts perception and allows social evolution. This is rarely as smooth or as bloodless as it sounds, especially when acting prophetically challenges the excesses of hierarchy and control. Arguably the tipping point for Jesus in the gospel narratives was less about declaring the incoming of God’s Kingdom and more about his denunciation of the misuse of religious power (Matt. 23). For the Trickster to speak truth to power is far from risk free and while Jesus’ death was at least partially triggered by his own messianic self-perception, we may want to  reduce such risks by being “as cunning as serpents” in determining how we deploy our insights.

supper1

The Sacrament of the Last Supper, 1955, Salvador Dali

Part of the Trickster’s role within myth and culture more generally, seems to be about challenging our certainty about perception and what we think we know as real. For me this willingness to slip sideways into a blurrier, half-glimpsed reality is central to the work of both the magician and artist. To take the mantle of either of these roles is to imbibe the spirit of the Trickster and to work with the challenge that this can provide to both your sense of self and your relationships with those around you. To walk these paths skilfully usually entails profound degrees of work on the self at both a conscious and unconscious level.

For the Surrealists, the Trickster was often present in portraiture, with the artist’s depiction of self or others often reflecting the incoming of new insight. The weird process of alchemy at work in surreal art makes vivid the way in which we try to make sense of mystery both at a macrocosmic level and in relation to the differing aspects of ourselves. Our encounters with aspects of reality that are strange, bizarre or “dark” often shake us from automaton sleep-states. For the Gnostic explorer this is the still small voice of the Trickster that at once draws us in and disturbs us, causing us to question what we think we know so as to trigger new states of awakening. Unsurprisingly, Trickster gods like Eshu are the guardians of the crossroads and it is often at these junctures of choice and liminality that we benefit most from their less-lateral approach.

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Portrait of Max Ernst, 1939, Leonora Carrington

Whether via art, ritual theatre or an active engagement with our dreamscapes, those less-tidy, potentially disruptive aspects will demand that we give them space. To endlessly supress or ignore them is to invite an eventual tsunami of shadow material that inevitably leads to widespread persecution of others onto whom our fears get projected. For me, an acknowledgement of the Trickster and the creative power of misrule can be vital in fuelling and inspiring the changes we wish to see. While we must remain wary of the excesses of self-indulgence, embracing the Trickster can help us avoid the type of grim activism that loses sight of the happiness and peace that should hopefully accompany the freedom which we are pursuing.

SD