I’ve written before in this blog about the importance of humour and of course laughter plays a key role in the style of occultism known as chaos magick. Embracing ideas cribbed from Discordianism, Terry Prachett and fringe cosmology the chaos current, current 23, should be somewhere were there are few, if any, sacred cows (or ‘caos’). This multi-perspective view hopefully leads to a generosity of spirit rather than a haughty hubris. For even when we think we are ‘liberated’ in some sense from personal, social and spiritual conditioning, we remain part of culture and our narrative continues. One of the insights of chaos magick is that even when we think we have it all sorted out, that this too shall pass: And, if we allow them to, new insights into the ourselves and others can arise; potentially radically re-shaping our views. In the words of the awesome Steve Dee:
Dark Matter flows through gnostic machinery
Now patent absurdities.
Strip it back
Strip it right back,
Chaos magick strives to hold a meta position about the world, summerised by the epithet, ‘Nothing is True, Everything is Permitted’ or, in the latest reformulation, ‘nothing has absolute truth, anything may prove possible’. However in much human culture there are a large number of ‘absolute’ structures which claim to be able to define truth. These range from scientisms through to the subtle ‘givens’ of culture, and the claims at religious truth made by various faiths. Such ‘truths’ become fixed points in the psychic structure of an individual or a group and can easily be used (unconsciously or with pre-meditated malice) to manipulate the world.
The recent attack at the offices of a French satirical magazine is an example of this process in action. This incident put me in mind of an idea I had some years ago about voting. My suggestion is that before being given the right to participate in the democratic process individuals should have to undergo a test to see if they are fit and proper people to engage in collective decision making. My idea is that potential voters enter a booth where some cunningly crafted technology scans their brains and establishes what their most cherished ‘truths’ are. Brilliant computer software then creates an episode of South Park which lampoons that ‘truth’, sending it up, questioning this ‘truth’ through the power of cutting satire. Those people who exit the booth laughing, or at least with a wry grin, are permitted to vote. Those who get angry don’t get the vote until such time as they can pass the test. (Obviously there are a number of paradoxes embedded in this suggestion, but that is to be expected).
“Super Best Friends”
Going back to the recent attacks in Paris; it’s certainly possible to use humour to mask what one friend called ‘…vested interests in provocation to make racist statements under the guise of satire.’ As someone who has only a minimal grasp of French it’s hard for me to make any judgement about about the content of the magazine Charlie Hebdo, however the first cartoon they printed featuring an image of the Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) weeping, saying “C’est dur d’être aimé par des cons” (“it’s hard being loved by jerks”). While it’s essential to be mindful of the cultural context (ie European and American relations with the Middle East, and increasingly in reaction to a ‘radicalised’ Islam) I’m not sure that the words of this blasphemous image imply that all Muslims are necessarily bad people, or even that Islam is inherently dangerous, stupid or whatever. Frankly, one could run the same cartoon with Buddha in the lead role (weeping about the civil wars in Myanmar), Moses (weeping over the bodies of Palestinians killed by soldiers wearing shirts like these) or Jesus (crying over, well quite a lot of stuff).
Events such as the recent attack can easily lead to ignorant racism and what the writer Jan Cole has called ‘sharpening contradictions‘ where ‘…an insular and hateful minority will take advantage of this deliberately polarizing atrocity to push their own agenda. Europe’s future depends on whether the Marine LePens are allowed to become mainstream. Extremism thrives on other people’s extremism, and is inexorably defeated by tolerance.’
Looked at from an esoteric perspective it’s also interesting to note that the French have a long history of (mis)representing, albeit indirectly, the Prophet Muhammad, sometimes in visual form. In the early 14th century it was two Frenchmen, Pope Clement V and King Phillip ‘The Fair’ IV of France who busted The Knights Templar. They accused the Knights of worshipping an idol and they called this image ‘Baphomet’. It may have been the case that the Templars did use ‘simulated’ idol worship in their Order rituals. Wikipedia teaches that the “…Chinon Parchment suggests that the Templars did indeed spit on the cross,”…that these acts were intended to simulate the kind of humiliation and torture that a Crusader might be subjected to if captured by the Saracens,…they were taught how to commit apostasy “with the mind only and not with the heart”.
The word ‘Baphomet’ has diverse etymologies (remember, ‘nothing is true’ kids!), but perhaps one of the most likely is that it arises from a derivation that goes Muhammad > Mahomet > Baphomet’. Cut to 500 years later and Eliphas Levi is drawing his interpretation of this Chinese whispers game as his famous Goat of Mendes.
However the French are not the only folks in the business of publishing taboo breaking images derived from Islamic culture. South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker also blaspheme on a regular basis, and have explored the limits of the ban on representing Muhammad in their work. However even as far as the image of Muhammad is concerned it isn’t a simple binary story (of forbidden vs transgressive). In Muslim culture itself this ban does not exist equally in all places and times. As is often the case taking a longer (in time) and wider (in cultural terms) view can help us make sense of things.
Muhammad delivering The Farewell Sermon, 17th-century Ottoman copy of an early 14th-century Persian image.
But the recent situation in France is indeed about manipulation of images. The (variable) prohibition on images of the Muslim Prophet and the desire to break that prohibition (it is claimed in the name of free speech) are being used by people who wish to set up a ‘them and us’ narrative; Islam verses the West. The reasons that some of us desire this division are long and complex, much like the narrative of the Charlie Hebdo case itself. However as magicians perhaps we may have something to offer.
A large part of magick is about learning to use the imagination, to organise it in certain ways. With this in mind an interesting practice could be to imagine yourself into the mindset of one of the attackers. Imagine what it was like, laying in bed the night before the attack, waiting to drift into sleep. What would have been going through your mind? What would have led you to this place and helped you to determine your course of action on the ‘morrow? With such a practice one can begin to see that the actors who killed those cartoonists also have a narrative as individual people and as players within a much larger set of socio-political processes. Moreover while the act of killing cartoonists may seem crazy to you, given the right circumstances the majority of people can be manipulated into any number of ‘monstrous’ acts. And while we all like to think, ‘yes but I wouldn’t be one of those nasty people’ statistically we’re unlikely to be correct about this.
As well as discovering the underlying, and often flawed humanity of the actors in the Charlie Hebdo story through out imaginations perhaps we can be skillful enough to find ways to destabilize the emergence of the Us vs Them discourses? One step in this process may be to step back from the simplistic polarised narratives of about free speech, racism, Islamic radicalization and the rest, and to wonder instead what acts of transformation may be possible? Maintaining a mind which is confident to be in world without falling into simplist (and generally wrong) dualist narratives seems to me to be a crucial starting point.