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.

kahlo

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.”

dawn-horse

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.

ernst

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

Surreal Christology (Part 2): The Mirror

It’s hardly surprising that mirrors get used a lot in magic; frankly they’re a bit weird. When we look at them they extend space, they reverse and they potentially distort. Whatever we think we look like in our heads, when we look into a mirror we are pushed into a dialogue between that internalised self-perception and the version of self represented in front of us. We may be delighted by what we see or we may become flooded by dysmorphia. Our dis-ease may be skin-deep or it may reveal deeper truths about who we want to be and how we wish to interact with the world around us. Whatever we think is driving us, if we see ourselves more fully we may be confronted by aspects of our daemon that are as likely to shock as they are to empower.

The magical use of mirrors can be manifold, ranging from aids for spirit evocation to scrying tools that allow the diviner greater access to their own unconscious processes. To explore a mirror nocturnally, via candle-light, is to journey to occult edges, and the practice of covering mirrors following a recent death alludes to a need to stabilise our environment in the midst of grief. Given the way they seem to play with the nature of time and space, it’s of little surprise that the Surrealists found them so fascinating.

hand_with_reflecting_sphere

Self-portrait in Spherical Mirror, 1935. MC Escher.

The Surrealists on occasion had mirrors explicitly within their art (often as puddles of quicksilver or mirrored melting clock faces) but more often their presence seems far more implicit. Via their use of depth of field and inversion, when we engage with surrealist art we can often feel that we are gazing at a reflection, with all the subtle strangeness innate to that process. Like the melting clock we are required to relinquish our hold on our sense of time and solidity; i.e. things get a bit wobbly and dream-like.

horse.jpg

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

In many ways myth and mythic heroes can act as powerful mirrors for viewing ourselves. When we consider those stories or figures that we are drawn to, they can often reveal some significant aspects of who we are at both a conscious and unconscious level. While our initial attraction to a myth may reflect a need or a connection that seems quite obvious e.g. a promise of liberation or an exemplar of individuation, when we renew and revisit this process over time, arguably something subtler takes place. When we truly engage with and internalise these spirits, their strangeness starts to haunt and shape our dreams and outlook.

In terms of my own experience, while my initial flight into Christianity was largely related to my adolescent confusion about the fluidity of my sexuality and gender identity, the Queerness of mystery still managed to break through via my interactions with the myth of Christ. While recognising my personal projections onto the gospel narrative, I eventually uncovered in my reading of Jesus a blurry ambiguity that remains inspiring. Yes this was still the radical who threw over tables in the temple, but he was also the mother hen who wanted to gather the lost underneath his wings.

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.

This Gnostic Christ seems to be asking me to both take more responsibility for my path, while at the same time doing less violence to the core of who I am.  This reflective process is most definitely a work-in-progress and has been far from tidy or pain-free. To walk a magical path requires that we “dare”, even when it means the willed deconstruction of those stories and heroes we hold as precious. This is a narrow road, but it holds the potential of liberty from the claustrophobia of childlike sentimentality.

Whichever mythic mirror feels most attractive to you, I would recommend revisiting it with a Zen-like state of beginner’s mind. Find some great art concerning these myths, or better yet create some art of your own. In my own recent explorations of the Queerer dimensions of Christ I have been inspired by some of the art on sites such as Kittredge Cherry’s  “Jesus in Love” blog. Often these creative explorations into the surreal and less-lateral aspects of ourselves provide us with gateways to discovery and the possibility of further evolution.

Find art that feeds your soul and allows greater insight into who you are and who you can become. Seek the Mysteries!

SD

Surreal Christology (Part 1): The Haunting

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. These phantoms of our history often point towards past explorations and adventures that were left unresolved; untidy longings that may seem embarrassing when viewed from a more urbane present.

In all my recent writing about the Gnostics and other Christian heretics, the figure haunting me from the shadows is that old trickster Yeshua Ben Joseph (Jesus to his Greek speaking friends). It may well be a projection on my part, but in my mind Jesus and I are trying to negotiate a different kind of relationship. Those dusty half-truths from fan-boys of old simply don’t fit any more. Rather than taking shape within a dogma that does violence to either kindness or thinking, I keep getting glimpses of this Jesus in the dreamtime and the strangest of places. This is a decidedly Surreal Christology.

It is hardly surprising that Surrealism’s emphasis on the unconscious and the realm of dreams coincided historically with the birth of psychotherapy and fin de siècle occultism. For me, the sense of mystery and strange juxtaposition that are synonymous with Surrealism have helped me to explore aspects of my spiritual history that I had previously felt unable to reconcile.

In the “Art and Science” definition of magic according to Crowley, I will definitely acknowledge my own personal bias towards the art end of this equation. Surrealism as an artistic movement manages to capture the creativity and willed engagement with the unconscious that was later embodied so potently in the work of occult artists as diverse as Austin Osman Spare and Thee Temple of Psychick Youth. Such art revels in the conscious distortion of the familiar as we push up against the fuzzy edges of the known and the knowable (think melting clocks and fish on bicycles). Such an approach is radically subjective and relational, but uses images in a way that connects to shared meaning so as to provoke new ways of perceiving and understanding:

“Artist, you are a priest: Art is the great mystery and, when your effort leads to a masterpiece, a ray of the divine shines down as on an altar… Artist, you are a magus. Art is the great miracle and proves our own immortality.”

– Joséphin Péladan

Surrealist artists such as the fabulous Leonora Carrington (1917-2011) took this emphasis on the magical and alchemical a step further than most of her male forebears, and her work remains a potent example of the surreal genius engaging with the spiritual realm.

Ab Eo Quod 1956

Leonora Carrington Ab Eo Quod 1956

Whichever occult tools we think we may have mastered as we enter the faery realm of sleep, we soon realise that we are riding on waves of unconscious that are ultimately beyond our control. The esoteric skills of automatic writing and dream interpretation (both of which the Surrealists employed) may be effective vehicles for entering these waters, but we must still realise the limited control that we finally have over what creatures emerge from its depths!

I would highly recommend the use of Surrealist art (especially Carrington’s and Max Ernst’s) as an aid to meditation and reflection. The Surreal landscapes encountered via dreams and our art can be challenging and uncomfortable, but their jarring and vivid images can trigger awakenings more potent than if we were relying on words or reason alone.  

Max Ernst The Robing of the Bride 1940

Max Ernst The Robing of the Bride 1940

For me, my own departure from Christianity came following a profound psychological crisis in which I was no longer able to tolerate the exclusivity of that religion’s claims. My book A Gnostic’s Progress looks at this experience in greater detail, but it would be fair to summarise the direction of this journey as being inwards in search of greater, more authentic depth, a move away from faith based belief, and towards an acceptance of responsibility for insights gained.

This journey inwards was greatly aided by the works of Jung, and it was via his work that I encountered the richness of the Gnostics for the first time. Jung was also a person who was haunted. His desire for personal authenticity and integration drove him to break with Freud and he emerged from this crisis with insights that are truly profound. At points Jung’s haunting was quite literal, and his reception of the Seven Sermons to the Dead was accompanied by etheric and poltergeist activity: “The dead came back from Jerusalem, where they found not what they sought. They prayed me let them in and besought my word, and thus I began my teaching.” Sermon 1, 1913. For more insight on this critical chapter of modern Gnostic history, you may want to check out Stephan Hoeller’s excellent The Gnostic Jung.

In many ways my fairly persistent preoccupation with the Gnostics and heretical Christians is also evidence of my own ongoing struggle with the ghost of Jesus past. For me this is a relationship that feels markedly different to previous attempts at belief and certainty, for now my haunting is about the discovery of what the sacred flame of my own Christhood might mean for my liberation.

 The Madonna of Port Lligat

Salvador Dali The Madonna of Port Lligat 1949

SD

Magic in the BodyMind

Recent blog posts regarding the spheres of Chaos have been prompting some reflections for me on the way that progress on the magical path might be experienced within our bodies. We might acquire new titles or embark on yet another curriculum promising new Gnostic vistas (Aeonic timeshare anyone?) but do these chunks of learning or imagined shifts in status actually translate into tangible shifts in how we experience our bodymind?

Much ink has been spilt on this blog with regards the centrality of body within our experience of this initiatory pathway that we call magic. To dance, shake and vibrate the names of god in our bodies is central to the type of ecstasy and awakening that we are in pursuit of. Ours is not a means of escaping the physical, rather the insights gained come through the messy, fragile realities of our flesh.

Body magick

Body magick

My own baby steps as a spiritual explorer began when I discovered a book on hatha yoga that my Mum had used whilst being pregnant with me. Much to the amusement/dismay of my working-class builder Dad, the 10 year old me spent hours trying to master “Salutation to the Sun” and crashing into furniture as I attempted daring headstands. On reflection, a big part of my love for this approach was the extent to which it demanded something of me at a very physical level. For the proto-adolescent me trying to come to terms with a rapidly changing body, the discipline and degree of bodily awareness that these exercises awakened felt deeply congruent with stirrings of the libido and the unfolding of sexual awareness.

As my body underwent the alchemical awakening of puberty, I sought to use the channels of asana, pranayama and the Maha mantra of the Vaishnavas as a means of trying to negotiate the primary challenge of “identity vs. role confusion” (cf. Erik Erickson). Eventually I chose to run into the arms of the church in hope of escaping my growing sexual uncertainty, but even here Pentecostal ecstasies found their messy way into my body via glossolalia and Holy Ghost tremblings. My own journey through Christianity and ultimately out the other side, felt as though it were a response to this deep need to experience religious sensuality as a whole body experience. Although the lives of St. Francis, St. John of the Cross and Theresa of Avila point towards such embodied ecstasies, personally I needed technologies that mapped this territory more fully.

Whilst in the early stages of training for the Anglican priesthood, the ideas of Jung turned on the lights with regards depth psychology and the potency of occult knowledge. These concepts were not abstractions, Jung’s ideas concerning anima and animus flicked another switch with regards my own gender fluidity. The breadth of his engagement with alchemical traditions allowed him to develop a psychological model that contrasted starkly with orthodox Christianity. The primary dualities of light/dark, Christ/Satan that are generally viewed as oppositional, are now viewed as being polarities within which a natural oscillation can take place over time. Whether using the yogic psycho-physiology of the Ida, pingala and shushumna or the severity/mercy polarity of the kabbalistic tree it becomes possible to dance with apparent opposites rather than struggle against them. These dualities are not mere topics for intellectual ascent, but realties that can be mapped and felt within the body.

The decision to step out onto the path of occult knowledge and magical practice is rarely an easy one to take. For me the core conditioning received via the church dictated that such a journey was psychologically and spiritually dangerous. In many senses I’d agree – the desire to eat from the tree of knowledge brings with it a process of individuation that necessitates pain and growth. Such processes ask us to examine and challenge the beliefs that we have inherited so as to break new ground in the hope of becoming who we need to be.

As I began trying to find a path or magical tradition that made greater sense of my spiritual yearning, I became aware of how much of the body-focused material from the yogic traditions I had absorbed was resurfacing within neo-paganism. From Theosophy, the Golden Dawn and the work of Crowley I came back into contact with a heady fusion of ideas that while potentially helpful, were also confusing in the lack of intellectual transparency with regards their origins. What would it look like to engage more thoroughly with the source material from which these ideas originated whilst retaining the spirit of creativity and rebellion that stirred their genesis?

Personally I have found that my own attempts to cultivate a dynamic, magically informed sadhana have provided an invaluable lens through which I can appreciate the efforts of my tantric forebears.

A Tantric forebear

A Tantric forebear

My own attempts to make head-way along this path eventually led me to seek initiation within an Order that remains unapologetic about its east/west hybridism. My own initiating guru within the AMOOKOS tradition was clear in stressing many of the commonalities that exist between hermetic and tantric approaches. Given my history this has helped me greatly in seeking to integrate different aspects of spiritual explorations. Some may be uneasy about this type of approach, but for me this considered syncretism continues to contain a potentially magical dynamism.

As I walk my own path, what I find myself returning to (albeit in a number of differing traditions and sets of practices) are those methods that ask me to deepen the degree of holism in the insights that I might gain. This leaking, failing body is both the arena for potential ecstasies and the ultimate reminder of my own mortality. For me the process of alchemical refinement that I am pursuing is not one of moving up and away from the body, rather it aims to be one of return and refinement as new levels of consciousness are brought to bear.

SD