Review – Scansion in Psychoanalysis and Art: the Cut in Creation by Vanessa Sinclair

For regular readers of this blog, it will hardly be surprising that I approached Dr Vanessa Sinclair’s new book with both excitement and high expectations. In my own writing (especially The Heretic’s Journey), I have been keen to explore how the methods of artistic creativity can be used by the magician as a means for mining the depths of the self.

Over the past decade or so, it has felt that many occultists have rejected psychological models of magic in favour of more traditionalist cosmologies that promise both historic roots and thorough methodology. In response to the postmodern, disposable approach of Chaos Magic such seekers are forthright in their critique of the “pop”, lightweight nature of the insights offered and question their ability to leverage lasting change.

In marked contrast to the surface level reflections that the psychological model can be prone to, Vanessa Sinclair’s work provides a necessary and significant counterweight. This work gives us a vital and re-energised perspective on how the insights of psychoanalytic thinking, language and artistic expression can have true transformative power and be:

 “…a generative way of working with and through unconscious material and processes; cutting through ingrained systems of belief and oppression in order to attain new insights, ways of being and modes of becoming in the world.”

As I approached this book my expectations were already high, I was aware of Vanessa’s role as a visual artist, a practicing Psychoanalyst and co-convener of many excellent conferences focused on art, the occult and psychoanalysis. The breadth of her work and vision is nicely encapsulated here

In this book, Sinclair makes skilled use of Jacques Lacan’s expanded re-visioning of scansion as not merely a marker of poetic meter and emphasis, but rather scansion is a study in the disruptive and punctuating power of creativity. Sinclair invites us to a panoramic overview of modern art and culture; the vastness of her view can at times feel dizzying in its breadth but it is masterful in the vision that it captures. Scansion is a bold invitation to “new ways of seeing ourselves, one another and society…in a state of perpetual destruction and creation.” (p27)

We are treated to a pacey but theoretically engaging whistle stop tour through the history of modern art that sees a potent synchronicity between the advent of the Kodak’s hand-held camera the “Brownie” and the birth of Psychoanalysis at the dawn of the 20th century. Our ability as individuals to perceive, capture and display images reflects a new autonomy that mirrors the powerful tools espoused by Freud for accessing the mysteries of the self.

The captured image offers us a “slice” of reality that often holds dimensions of the unconscious that shed new light on our realities. Vanessa’s analysis of this rich timeline demonstrates the disruptive power that sparks of inspiration can having in cutting through centralized control and orthodoxy. The stabbing brush strokes of Van Gough, the stark cut-out images of Matisse and the surreal “readymade” objects of Marcel Duchamp all challenge any attempt to create a boundary between the art that we create and the intuitive way of viewing the whole of our lives. 

The symbiotic relationship between art and the birth of psychoanalysis comes to full fruit in the work of the surrealists. The creative genius of artists such as Max Ernst and Leonora Carrington made overt use of their dream lives, the unconscious and techniques of automatic writing and free association to bypass the psychic censor and plumb the depths of being. Things then come full circle as Lacan seeks to incorporate the methods of the surrealists within his clinical practice much to the distress of his more staid contemporaries. Sinclair provides helpful insight in noting the way in which the potency of the unconscious disrupts any attempts to control or create new orthodoxies. When conformity and normalization begin, the energy of the cut will not be far behind!

Marcel Duchamp with a Readymade

The surrealist use of mirrors and dream-states in their work often reflected a deep fascination with the Double. This doppelganger-double as a reflection of the self often disrupts the encrusted certainties of our ego so that new realms can be explored. Sinclair introduces us to the gender fluid work of Pierre Molinier whose photomontage evoked the complex, overlapping and multiple nature of the self. Such work significantly inspired Breyer P-Orridge and we can see the way in which such “existential playfulness” not only informed their pandrogeny work but also the jarring sonic cut-ups found in the early Industrial noisescapes of Throbbing Gristle and Psychick TV.

Vanessa provides us with an insightful perspective on the heady mash-up between culture and occulture. The spirit of the cut-up and surrealism was manifested potently within the creative hot-house of the Beat Generation (especially Gysin and Burroughs) who in turn famously helped shape David Bowie’s approach to song writing. This is not a “how to” book of occult techniques, rather it is a deeply magical work in reflecting on how seismic change works within the internal world so as to send shock waves through an often stagnant culture.

Throbbing Gristle, not ones for stagnation

The magic of the cut is a magic that is profoundly embodied. Sinclair highlights Freud’s view that it is the ego-body through which we first experience the world. The magic of art and analysis invites us to deconstruct and cut-through the constraints of normalization and conditioning in order to recover the whole body sensual liberty of an earlier polymorphous perversity. This decidedly queer territory. The gender focused works of Val Denham, the post-human performance art of Stelarc and wider trends in modern primitivism all point to a more fluid and engaged relationship with our flesh and the impact that our transformative experiments can have on the psyche. 

Sinclair’s book skillfully demonstrates the importance of the cut, in its various forms, as a potent approach to transformation for the magician to explore:

“The cut is another royal road to the unconscious. It allows us to dislocate and derail the narrative, so that we may understand ourselves and our past in a different light and rewrite our future in a new way; a way in which we desire to be, rather than the way we are predestined to be based on our histories, families and societies.”  

Highly recommended.

Steve Dee

Buy Scansion in Psychoanalysis and Art: the Cut in Creation by Vanessa Sinclair (Routledge 2020)


Coming up next

Julian is teaching online magic with Treadwell’s Books and has also released a new course on the Deep Magic teaching site: First Steps in Magic.

In this course you’ll encounter the magic of the elemental powers of Air, Fire, Water and Earth through practice, ritual, journal work and guided meditations. You’ll learn how to cultivate the corresponding Four Powers of the Magician; To Know, To Will, To Dare and To Keep Silent. In addition to providing you with a comprehensive training program First Steps in Magic invites you to do things your own way and to develop your unique magical creativity. This course is available at a discounted price for a limited time. Click here for details.

On Sunday 25th April Nikki will be co-presenting an online workshop with Dave Lee on The Structure of Psychedelic Ceremony, click here for details.

The Magician as Creative Theologian

Before I was aware of being a magician, I was a theologian, digging deep into the nature of Mystery and how we locate religious authority in an academic setting. These efforts began a process of deconstruction that lead to a radical expansion of my previous faith.  In contrast to the claustrophobia I had experienced when trying to hold-on to the tenets of belief, the esoteric path felt like an expansive opportunity to explore the fullness of my humanity.

As a fledgling magician I was launched into a landscape in which my own occult exploration and direct experience had a profound impact on my process of interpretation and understanding ( or hermeneutics, for the theologically fancy). While research into the best primary source material was still vital, I was far more aware of the role that my personal religious experience was having in shaping my worldview. I recently had a go at mapping out this process, and while not definitive, it looked a bit like this:

I thought I would share with you an example of such magical hermeneutics at work. What follows is an extract from my piece ‘The Queer Gods of Alchemy’ that was part of the excellent anthology Queer Magic: Power Beyond Boundaries (2018) edited by Lee Harrington and Tai Fenix Kulystin.  I highly recommend the whole anthology for those interested in Queered and creative approaches to spiritual practice.

The Sabbat of the Queered Christ

I’m sure I’m no different from most of people in trying to make sense of the paths I have walked and what they reveal about the core aspects of who I am. When I consider the differing traditions that I have worked within I’m often struck by the commonalities in how I have approached them.  While I might admire the dignity of a scripted ritual rubrik, I personally love music, dance and drumming.  For me this type of embodied, ecstatic leaping about, was once part of my teenage Pentecostalism and now strongly connects me to the shamanic archetype of the Witch and the nightside mysteries of their craft.

Within the collective psyche of Europe, the Witch has often acted as an icon of disturbance and freedom. The projected fantasies of clerics and folkloric imaginings often allude to something dark, disturbing and subversive.

The Witch often acts as an attractor for the shadow aspects of those cultures within which they are suspected of dwelling. They are the hags and the shape-shifters whose messy bodies both arouse and unsettle us. They seem to be scapegoats onto whose heads the repressed longings of society are spoken.

In bearing the weight of such dangerous passions they often hold a position on the outer edge of social and ethical evolution.

If our magic is to mean anything, we must be willing for it to Queer and haunt us. The certainties that we cling to must be placed on the altar of our work as our Gods and ancestors draw us to the crossroads at which the sacrificial cost of true change must be weighed. 

My own work with the Witches’ path induced a profound sense of unease. Have you ever felt haunted? Haunted by an idea or a person who, despite all your best efforts, seems to be lurking at the edges of your vision and prodding your unconscious to give them a bit more space? For me, this was a phantom of my own history, pointing towards past explorations and adventures that were still unresolved. 

In my seeking to more fully appreciate the potential connections between the Witch trials and medieval Christian heretics, I became aware that the figure haunting me from the shadows was that old trickster Yeshua Ben Joseph (Jesus to his Greek speaking friends). 

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. While I now feel that it was necessary to take leave of Christ due to the type of self-suppression that seemed innate to my faith at that time, I am still able to appreciate some of the Queer liberation that I experienced via the androgyny of Christ.  

While owning my own needs and bias, I eventually encountered in my reading of Jesus a blurry ambiguity that provided for me an alternative mode of being. Yes, this was the Jesus who cleared Temples and overturned tables, but also the Jesus who blessed the gentle and sought out the one lost sheep. 

In a personal world where the versions of maleness, certainty and force made little sense to me, my own gnostic encounter allowed access to a gentler, more mysterious experience. This Christ became a mirror through which I could view myself more closely. Such looking can be far from comfortable, but over time it allowed me to engage with deeper truths about who I needed to become. For me this magical process of engaging with the Christ myth allowed me (somewhat ironically) to become accepting enough of myself that I no longer wished to call myself a Christian.

To follow the path of the Witch or the Gnostic explorer is to pay heed to those incoming messages bubbling up from the unconscious. In the same way that I couldn’t adhere to the exclusivity of a Christianity at odds with my Queerness, neither can I turn away from the insights still offered by the Christ-spark within. 

In the Gospel of John (Chapter 11) Jesus describes himself as ‘the door’ and for me the Christic myth still provides a doorway via which I can explore greater self-understanding. Walking through this doorway asks that I leave behind the child-like sentimentality of my past beliefs, but I choose to risk this path as if offers freedom from claustrophobic certainties and the possibility of breathing in fresh insights. 

For all of us I would pray that we might access true gnosis as we listen to the Wisdom of our Queer ancestors and Gods, and as we take heed of their counsel may we be brave enough to pursue the uniqueness of our path towards greater wholeness and freedom. So Mote It Be!

“Be a light unto yourself” Shakyamuni Buddha

Steve Dee


Coming Up This Spring

Julian is teaching two workshops with The Last Tuesday society on Sigil Magic and Chaos Magic in February, and continues his regular workshop series with Treadwell’s Books; next up, Advanced Elemental Magic for Beginners, Magical Energy and The Magical Qabalah for beginners and advanced practitioners. In addition, Treadwell’s is hosting The Banned Lecture of Getting Higher in March, which like much of their other online content will be available to watch after the live event as a video recording.

Julian’s work is now gathered together on his newly launched portfolio website julianvayne.com

Nikki Wyrd and Julian Vayne will be hosting an Imbolc Ceremony with The Psychedelic Society on Monday 1st Feb 2021, 7pm – 9pm UK time.

Hoping to see you in the magic circle soon! 😀