Words from the Spirits: a few fabulous texts reviewed

Fulgur publishing were, some might argue, the first producers of ‘talismanic’ books (in the modern high-end esoteric literature sense of the term). Now, as publishers of the Black Mirror journal, Fulgur have pushed the ‘talismanic’ project to a whole new level.

Black Mirror itself is an academic research network which is devoted to the study of arts and occultism. This second edition (numbered 1) of their journal is out now and contains a wonderful range of essays. These include an esoteric practitioner perspective on the art of tattooing, a great essay on Le Bal, one of the final ballets of Sergei Diaghilev. The author of the paper, Katerina Pantelides, defines magic as ‘…the performance of desire’s total possibility to dissolve and transform one’s notion of selfhood.’ This is my new favourite definition.

There’s a brilliant essay about the work of Leonora Carrington, one of my favourite witch-artists. Then the perhaps better known (to occultists) Austin Spare, gets a very thoughtful treatment in relation to his neither/neither principle and the process of magical/artistic obliteration.

This is a properly academic journal and so the quality of the writing is excellent. A great range of contributors that manages to be intelligent and approachable (and occasionally funny).

As one might expect with Fulgur the edition is beautifully produced. Typography and images sit elegantly together, the illustrations and photographs are beautiful and, as is traditional, it’s bound to become a collector’s item. But what marks this is a cut-above the rest of those fancy occult tomes is the fact that this stylish volume contains peer-reviewed, academic, accessible, cutting edge, stimulating esoteric writing. It’s about as far from Ye Derivative Bok of Ye Spooky Sigil as it’s possible to get!

If you want to discover something that’s going to stimulate your left and right hemispheres equally, and take you to the cutting edge of the academic/occult interface, then a Black Mirror is what you need.

Not Robbie Williams

Not Robbie Williams

Psychedelic Press have also released a new journal. This is volume XVIII and maintains the same high-caliber writing as previous editions. There’s a cool academic style essay by mushroom wizard and cultural historian Andy Letcher. Then the tables are turned and Andy Roberts (author of Acid Drops and Albion Dreaming amongst other books, who usually does the interviewing) is himself interviewed. Some fascinating observations are made, and wild tales told!

There’s an excellent essay about the use of sensory deprivation and darkness as a means to attain the psychedelic state, including a personal account of the technique. Snuggled into middle of the volume there’s some quality modern psychedelic poetry, crowding into graphic novel panels and expanding into swirly, liberty cap illuminated text.

I therefore recommend Psypress Journal to all heads, counter-cultural historians and explorers of the wyrd.

Psilly picture

Psilly picture

Talking with the Spirits, edited by Jack Hunter and David Luke is a world-wide tour of spiritists, shaman, online clairvoyants and many other folk who spend their time trafficking with denizens of the Otherworld.

Each academic paper provides an introduction to, and often field world from within, traditions ranging from locations as diverse as Brazil, Cuba, Britain, Taiwan and many more.  Here the black mirror of ethnography is held up to the doings of occulture in a way that is intelligent and respectful. If you want to know about the spirits, and especially want to explore (in a chaos magic stylee) the underpinning ideas for different traditions, this is the book for you.

(I was particularly interested to note how in many approaches to the spirits these entities are not seen as occupying a ‘separate reality’ but rather as beings that exist in, and emerge from, the world.)

What Talking with the Spirits also provides are snap-shots of practice; such as in David Luke’s essay on the development of spirit possession in ayahuasca using groups, and the emerging social networking culture of internet psychics described by Tamlyn Ryan.

A recommended read for spirit botherers everywhere.

Spirit writing

Spirit writing

Meanwhile…I’ll review Part 2 of the Nemu’s End series, Neuro-Apocalypse in the next set of reviews. I have, after just a couple of pages, been sucked in by the Rev’s brilliant prose. I may be some time… 🙂

JV

A Fondness for Snakes – the Art of Marchesa Casati

Imagine that you are invited to an astonishing, opulent house. In the property’s winter garden, near the west wing, dwell fabulous beasts; scaled and feathered marvels. On entering the building you are greeted by a mechanical stuffed panther, moving and growling, its eyes flashing feline fire. You are escorted by exquisitely liveried footmen into the bedchamber of the lady of the house. A woman with kohl ringed eyes dilated with belladonna extract, and wild flame-red hair. She is one of the richest woman in Europe (you have been transported back to France in the 1920s ).

Admitted to the bedchamber you discover your hostess; “…enveloped in white tulle and crowned by an upside-down silver flower pot, adorned by a single white ostrich plume…sat on a vast green carpet made to resemble a grassy lawn.” However the lady is not pleased by the inclusion of felt daisies in the weave of her indoor sward and asks you to join her in snipping off these disagreeable blooms. There are gilded scissors to do the job along with, “…foie gras and champagne served from a picnic basket presented by a black youth in fancy dress”.

027

Images of the Marchesa Casati courtesy of Ryersson & Yaccarino and The Casati Archives

This isn’t some baroque hallucinatory event but one of the many real, utterly fabulous, moments in the life of the Marchesa Luisa Casati who, in the early 20th century, was one of the most outlandish, shocking and remarkable figures of the age.

I’d only briefly encountered the Casati story so it wasn’t until reading two wonderful books that I came to appreciate both the significance and astonishing flamboyance of this woman. Infinite Variety: The Life and Legend of The Marchesa Casati by Scot.D.Ryersson & Michael Orlando Yaccarino is a wonderful biography, meticulously researched and a real page-turner of a read (the quotes above are from that volume), and The Marchesa Casati: Portraits of a Muse, a lavishly produced, image rich, large format book by the same authors.

There is a tale of a brief meeting between Casati and Aleister Crowley and it appears they didn’t get along too well. Were history to have unfolded differently in that respect we might already have Thelema as mass global religion (which may or may not be a good thing…) since the Marchesa was easily as much an incarnation of Babalon as Crowley was of the Beast. Like Crowley, Casati shocked the high society of la Belle Époque and the fin de siècle decadence, as nations cranked themselves up for the first century of industrialised warfare. Naked beneath furs, great strings of pearls dragging on the floor, leading her cheetahs on diamond studded leashes, Casati adorned and scandalised the age. She had the money to do so, a vast fortune which, like all interesting people, she blew on sex, drugs, art, parties, and magic.

Though details are obscure Casati was an occultist, with magnificent rooms dedicated to magical pursuits in her various houses. These were spaces of rare esoteric tomes, divinatory equipment, heavy incense and yet more exotic pets; ritual spaces that would undoubtedly have made Crowley as green as the Marchesa’s large eyes, with envy.

The stated (magical) intention of the Marchesa Casati was “I want to be a living work of art”, and this she did. Reading the list of artists that chose her as their subject is like reading a Who’s Who of 20th century European Art: Picasso, Man Ray, Epstein, Augustus John, Alberto Martini, Romaine Brooks… the list goes on. Costume (often outlandish, frequently revealing or otherwise transgressive, sometimes genuinely dangerous), sculpture, photography, painting and  more were enriched by the Marchesa as muse and by her financial support of numerous avant-garde artists.

The Marchesa with her crystal ball

The Marchesa with her crystal ball

Of course like any magical figure Casati managed, in a sense, to disappear. That is, while her money and eventually her body gave out (she died in 1957 and was buried in London, ironically beneath a monument that records her name incorrectly), she was reborn (much as Crowley has been) as an cultural icon. She is ground zero for many of the experiments with identity and style of the late 20th and early 21st century. Madonna, Lady Gaga, even Robert Smith of The Cure and Tim Minchin are (knowingly or not) the aesthetic children of the Marchesa. To quote one online article that explores her legacy; “the Marchesa is possibly the most artistically represented woman in history after the Virgin Mary and Cleopatra– her influence is all around us.”

Perhaps it is fitting, as we head towards Halloween, that I’ll soon have the opportunity to visit Luisa’s final resting place. Beneath the London earth, wearing her black and leopard skin finery and a pair of false eyelashes, Casati is interred with one of her beloved stuffed pekinese dogs. Halloween is of course the season where we celebrate the sign of the Scorpion (emblem of magic, money, sex and death) and seek to commune with our ancestors. Money was undoubtedly a vital ingredient in the story of the Marchesa Luisa Casati and my visit to her grave will coincide with  a spot of collaborative ‘Money Magic’. In the words of one of our conspirators “…a group of independent artists, magicians, pagans, druids, and media workers…plan to hold a series of ritual events in the City of London…Our aim is to bring the subject of money creation to public attention using ritual as our symbolic tool. We say that money is a sigil, a magical symbol which enters our lives on the most fundamental level, as desire. Money represents the fulfillment (or lack) of all desire in the current world and we carry it about on our persons, in our wallets and our purses, in our pockets and handbags, allowing it to control us on the most intimate and secret of levels.”

The Machesa Luisa Casati, like Crowley, displayed a fascinating relationship with money; she went from being one of the richest women of her age to having debts of over $25 million, and ended her days in a one room apartment. Yet according to many commentators she retained an irrepressible joie de vivre even in her most impecunious periods. Casati managed to dispose of her fortune in pursuit of her desire to become ‘a living work of art’ much as Crowley broke the bank with his Will to become ‘the Prophet of the New Aeon’. In both cases their money was used in the service of their ‘highest ideal’, their self-absorbed and yet self-transcending intention. This is an approach to life, to money and wealth, that goes beyond ideas of individual ownership, that spurns the hoarding up of capital for its own sake, and even now, still manages to shock the bourgeoisie.

JV