Two weeks ago we explored an intriguing essay by Naomi Wolf, which pointed out that it’s no longer possible to discuss our current collective situation without saying something about metaphysical issues. That’s a gutsy thing to say these days; it’s also true. These two points are closely related. In an era where the most important issues are precisely the things the defenders of the status quo least want to talk about, starting a conversation about unmentionable realities is a profoundly revolutionary act.
Yet it’s possible to speak about such realities, and even say important things about them, while getting some of the details wrong. This is especially true, of course, of the beginnings of any such conversation. I’ll give an example here from my own experience. In the very late 1990s, people began to talk about the exhaustion of petroleum reserves for the first time since that topic was shoved out of the collective conversation at the beginning of the Reagan years. The peak oil debates that followed included many crucially important conversations, as the dramatic changes in energy markets since that time have shown clearly enough.
That said, a lot of what was said in the opening rounds of those conversations was very far off the mark. Plenty of people got sucked into apocalyptic fantasies and spent their time shuddering in horror (or drooling in anticipation) over an assortment of absurd scenarios of overnight collapse, none of which panned out. Plenty of people got sucked into a different set of fantasies and invested a comparable amount of time into claims that this or that or the other technology would surely come through and give us the Star Trek future of their dreams; of course those didn’t pan out either. Even among those who dodged both these traps, there were plenty of opportunities to be wrong. The way that debt-based gimmickry got used in a fantastically profligate fashion to prop up the otherwise uneconomic fracking industry, for example, blindsided quite a few peak oil authors, myself included.
The conversation that Naomi Wolf is trying to launch is as important as the one that my fellow peak oil bloggers and I tried to set in motion a quarter century ago. I want to put some stress on that, and also on the fact that some of her comments are cogent and useful, because in this post I’m going to critique certain other things she said. In a very real sense, it’s not her fault that she got things wrong in certain ways. She’s new to the metaphysical field, and to judge by her comments, she’s still a little in shock as a result of her discovery that the material world really is the tiny fraction of the universe of human experience that mystics, visionaries, and mages have been calling it all along. That state of shock is common enough, but it leads to certain mistakes that would benefit from correction as we proceed.
It’s not inaccurate, in fact, to suggest that Wolf is in much the same situation as a child being exposed to night in the forest for the first time. Perhaps you recall, dear reader, your first overnight campout in the woods. If you grew up in urban or suburban settings, the sheer impenetrable blackness of a night unbroken by streetlamps and porch lights shocked you by its raw intensity. It sank in, as the campfire burned low, that if something went wrong you really, truly were many miles away from help. A flashlight, maybe, gave you enough light to get undressed and climb into your sleeping bag, but once you switched it off, the darkness closed in…and then you heard the noises.
The noises are usually what makes that first night in the woods an experience to remember. Some of them are loud and some of them are soft, but you don’t recognize any of them. Lying there in the dark, with nothing but your sleeping bag and the thin fabric of the tent between you and whatever is making the noises, it’s all too easy to imagine that one of them, or more than one of them, or just possibly all of them are being made by something large and hairy and very hungry…something with horrible fangs and claws…something that’s pondering your tent at this very moment, contemplating the nutritional qualities of small children…
Now of course the number of children on campouts who are devoured by wild beasts is actually quite small. That knowledge wasn’t any comfort to the notional singer in Allan Sherman’s most famous song, and his mock-desperate words—“Don’t leave me out in the forest where I might get eaten by a bear!”—mirror the sentiments of many children exposed for the first time to their own equivalent of Camp Granada. Nonetheless it’s a fairly safe assumption that you woke up the next morning to find your tent unshredded and your flesh unmunched.
What followed that first experience is just as important. A few more repetitions of the experience, and the noises stopped bothering you; if camping became a regular pastime of yours, you quite possibly found that the sounds of the forest at night became a source of comfort; and if you knew someone who could teach you the ways of the forest, you might get to the point at which each sound meant something: this one’s a tree frog, that one’s a nightjar, those soft sounds over there tell you that a deer is picking her way through your campsite, and so on.
All things considered, the metaphysical side of existence is not that different from a forest at night. Our familiar senses don’t give us much information to go on, and our ordinary habits of thought and action are hopelessly inadequate to the demands of the situation. That makes it very easy to slip into the state of dread that Allan Sherman parodied in the song just cited, in which primal terrors come boiling up from the deep places of the mind and every stray sound seems to herald the imminent approach of doom. Most people who encounter the metaphysical realm have that experience, at least briefly, and some never outgrow it.
A different factor complicates that process of learning from experience, to be sure. I don’t claim to know what Naomi Wolf’s current religious beliefs are, but she was raised Jewish, she’s written in a public essay about a vision of Jesus she’s had, and her recent essay about the metaphysical realm affirms the standard Jewish and Christian belief that the god that Jews and Christians worship in common is the only true god, while the gods worshipped by other faiths are evil entities. That’s the standard teaching about gods in most branches of the Abrahamic religions, and it runs together with another standard teaching of those faiths, which is that unauthorized dealings with the metaphysical realm—that is to say, magic—are a close metaphysical equivalent of rubbing yourself all over with raw meat and then walking straight toward a dozen hungry bears while shouting, “What’s for dinner? I am!”
Obviously I don’t believe that. Most religions don’t, and mine is one of the majority here. That’s not to say that there aren’t dangers in the metaphysical realm; it’s just as mistaken to insist that everything belonging to that realm is well-behaved sweetness and light as it is to insist that everything belonging to that realm is drooling with enthusiasm at the thought of gobbling you up. For that matter, there are alternative traditions in the Abrahamic faiths that recognize that the world is not as simplistic a rigid binary as some theologians want it to be. But it’s worth remembering that the largest traditions within the Abrahamic movement share the sense of metaphysical dread I’ve sketched out, the sense that every spiritual presence not closely associated with their own faith is not merely dangerous but malevolent and predatory.
There are historical reasons for that belief, which I’ll discuss in the third part of this series of posts. For now, I want to stress that it’s no part of my agenda in this post to convince Christians, Jews, or Muslims that they ought to run out right now and start practicing magic. Nor do I expect them to change their minds about the moral status of magic or the nature and intentions of spiritual beings other than the ones they worship. From the perspective of my polytheist faith, it’s axiomatic that if you enter into a covenant with a deity, your part of the bargain includes following the deity’s commandments, whatever those happen to be. Their god and their covenant aren’t mine, but they have every right to worship the one and follow the other if that’s the path that seems good to them.
No, the points I want to make in this post are directed to those who don’t belong to one of the religions we’ve just been discussing, who have little or no knowledge of occultism, and who may quite reasonably be wondering just how seriously to take Wolf’s comments about the realms beyond dense matter. The short version, as I’ve already suggested, is that she’s right to think that the metaphysical realms are of critical importance in human life, and even more important at this phase of the historical process than usual. She’s also right that those realms have significant dangers, and paying attention to what those dangers are and how you can protect yourself from them are, again, crucial points at this phase of the historical process.
Her mistakes are twofold. The first is that she’s got an overly anthropocentric view of the beings who inhabit the metaphysical realms. The second, ironically, is that she doesn’t have an anthropocentric enough view of the dangers that beset those who, like the campers in my metaphor, venture into the night forest. We’ll unpack those seemingly contradictory statements one at a time.
The Golden Dawn papers, the collected legacy of the most influential magical order of the late nineteenth century English-speaking world, include a helpful passage: “As thou well knowest there be many and numberless other inhabitants of the macrocosmos” [that is, the universe] “besides man, angels, and devils.” This is from a paper assigned to the Adeptus Minor grade, a fairly high level of initiation in the order, so “as thou well knowest” is not empty bluster. By the time the student of the Golden Dawn system has qualified for the Adeptus Minor initiation, he or she is expected to practice a great many practices meant to open up the inner senses and make the metaphysical realms a matter of direct personal experience rather than mere belief.
Again, the night forest metaphor is appropriate. A healthy forest ecosystem is abuzz with life, full of countless living things belonging to many different species and filling many different niches in the local ecology. The vast majority of them are utterly indifferent to the campers huddled in their tents. To the tree frog, the nightjar, the deer, and most of their fellow animals of the forest, human beings are an irrelevance at best and a deadly danger at worst, and their main interest in campers lies in staying out of their way.
Are there animals that treat humans as prey? Of course there are. Most of them are quite small, and are satisfied with a tiny serving of your blood, though they can pass on diseases and need to be taken seriously for that reason. A very few are a serious danger to life and limb, and knowing what they are, how they behave, and what to do if you encounter one is essential if you’re going to go into the woods. There are also living things in the forest that are helpful to human beings, and it’s wise to know what they are and how to deal with them, too.
In exactly the same way, most of the inhabitants of the metaphysical realms are either serenely uninterested in human beings or actively dislike and avoid us. Some few treat us as prey; most of those are minor annoyances and can be driven off easily enough, but a few are serious trouble. (J.R.R. Tolkien, who knew vastly more about occultism than most of his Christian fans like to admit, was clear on the distinction. Of Smith of Wooton Major, who had a magical silver star on his brow, Tolkien notes: “The Lesser Evils avoided the star, and from the Greater Evils he was guarded.” That star is well known to initiates.)
There are also beings in the metaphysical realms that are friendly to humans, or are at least willing to be friendly to humans who approach them in a respectful manner. Some of these, too, are small—at least when compared to us. Others are much wiser and more powerful than we are. Yes, it’s possible for hostile or predatory beings to pretend to be something friendly; Paul of Tarsus wasn’t wrong when he said that evil beings can disguise themselves as angels of light. There are ways to tell one from the other, however, and these also are well known to initiates.
Yet the basic rule holds: most of the beings of the metaphysical worlds couldn’t care less about us. They have their own concerns, into which we don’t enter at all, and our very existence is not of interest to them. That’s why I noted above that Wolf, and the Abrahamic tradition that shapes her views, have an overly anthropocentric view of such beings: she and the tradition in general seem to think that doing good or evil to us is the main concern of such beings, and that’s simply not the case. It’s when we pass to the broader picture that the insufficiently anthropocentric side of her views comes into focus, because it’s not the inhabitants of the metaphysical realms that are the main source of danger we face when we venture into the worlds beyond dense matter.
Our campers in the forest are in exactly the same situation. By and large, they’re in no danger from the other living things that inhabit the forest. Their greatest source of danger is their own ignorance and inexperience. It’s quite possible for a child camping in the woods to do something very stupid, and end up dead. It’s not that the woods are out to get them, it’s that they don’t know how to keep themselves safe in an unfamiliar environment. With the best intentions in the world, they can blunder into a lethal situation—and the number of campers who die each year from causes of this sort is far, far higher than the number who are killed by wild animals.
Similarly, the great dangers in dealing with the metaphysical realms are human greed, selfishness, and stupidity. You can land yourself in a world of hurt, for example, by approaching those realms as a vending machine that’s supposed to hand over the goodies on request. You can land yourself in even worse trouble by approaching it as a means to control, dominate, and hurt other people—or beings who aren’t human, for that matter. That’s why I stressed in the first post in this series that magic is a way of participation, not domination. Put another way, ethics are as important in magic as sanitation is in surgery; neglect either one and the operation will turn septic.
There are good reasons why this should be the case. To practice magic is to attune yourself to the influences of the Unseen. Any influence you invoke must pass through your consciousness before it gets to its target, and it always leaves a trace of itself behind. I like to call this the raspberry jam principle: you can’t spread raspberry jam on anything else without getting it on your own fingers, and the same is true of magic. Invoke influences of blessing and healing, and you will be blessed and healed; invoke influences of domination and destruction—well, you can do the math yourself. No, it doesn’t matter if you think you’re justified. It doesn’t matter if you convince yourself that you’re acting out of good intentions, either. Nor does it matter if you don’t believe anything of the kind will happen. The law of magical repercussion, to give the raspberry jam principle its technical name, is as relentless and impersonal as the law of gravity.
Are there people who ignore this principle? Of course. There are also physicians and nurses who ignore sterile procedure. (Take a look sometime at the rates of nosocomial infections—i.e., infections passed on via health care—in US hospitals these days; they’re pretty horrific.) For that matter, there are plenty of campers who ignore essential safety precautions when they head into the wilderness, and a certain number of them each year are never heard from again. Mit der dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens, Schiller wrote: against stupidity, the gods themselves contend in vain. Yet we don’t condemn camping because some campers die in the wilderness, and we don’t denounce surgery because some doctors and nurses, now just as much as in Ignatz Semmelweis’s time, can’t be bothered to wash their hands between patients.
Two additional comments need to be made here, however. The first is that just as a forest at night is more dangerous to campers in some seasons than in others, the metaphysical realms are more dangerous to humans in some stages of the historical process than in others. The second is that the sum total of human stupidity, while it may be fixed in some universal sense, varies up and down considerably in relation to the Unseen, and this, too, rises and falls at certain stages in the historical process. These issues are not unrelated to each other. In the final part of this sequence of posts, two weeks from now, I’ll discuss the way that these two factors intersect at the end of certain phases of history—and what we can expect as we proceed into the future.