I have been told many a time that when a seeker draws near to Alice Bailey, strange things happen and life seems to have a charge to it that it didn’t have before. Here is my story…
In 1990 I moved to Perth, Western Australia, and within a few weeks of my arrival I stumbled on astrology. I was staying in a cockroach-infested flat and one morning I decided to rid the place of the infestation by setting off an insecticide bomb. Only it meant I had to leave the flat for eight hours. It was summer, I had no money, so where would I go? I walked to the nearest library, and as I entered the air-conditioned cool, my eyes were drawn to some shelves containing the reference section – dictionaries and the like. In amongst the other ordinary books was an astrological ephemeris, a book detailing the daily positions of the planets in our solar system in relation to the zodiac for a period of a hundred years. I took the book and sat down to peruse the pages.
I found I had no trouble understanding the information. I knew all the glyphs and what each meant. It didn’t even occur to me that this in itself was a bit weird. How did I know all this? In the front of that particular edition were instructions on how to cast your own horoscope. I went to the front desk and acquired some scrap paper. A couple of hours later I had my chart, bar the rising sign. It turned out I needed another book to calculate that, so I headed to the state library in the city centre, found said book, and did the calculation. Then, I went home. I thought nothing of it.
Three days later, I was invited by a friend – who had the lease on the cockroach-infested flat – for coffee in town. He introduced me to another friend, a lecturer at a nearby university. This lecturer offered to drive me home and on the way he asked me about my interests. I told him, tentatively, that I had just discovered astrology and told him the story. He swung by his office and directed me to a bottom shelf behind the door. There, hidden away was a row of astrology books! He told me to take what I wanted. I selected twelve books. That night, I didn’t sleep. I was up, with the cockroaches. I didn’t know it then, but those cockroaches were the catalyst for a protracted phase of self-discovery and New Age exploring.
An Alice Bailey Book
Three years passed and I was studying for a diploma in transpersonal counselling. On the course I made a friend, enigmatic Claudio. Our friendship was intense and laced with romance although we both knew it wouldn’t last. He invited me back to his house one evening and while I stood in the hall he disappeared, returning a few moments later with a book proffered on upturned palms. It was dark blue and carried the title “Esoteric Astrology”. I gazed in wonder. ‘A gift,’ he said. He went on to explain how he had packed up his possessions in Adelaide some months before, as he prepared to drive across the desert to Perth, and he could only take with him what he could fit in his car. He saw the book, which he had bought in a second-hand book store, and hesitated. What on earth did he want to keep that book for? It weighed a fair bit, he had no interest in astrology and had never heard of Alice Bailey. But it seemed important and he felt compelled to keep it. When he met me, he realised why. ‘This book is meant for you,’ he said.
I had not heard of Alice Bailey either, but I took the book home and devoured it. There was something so intriguing and compelling about the writing, even as I scarcely understood a word of what was written. I wanted to know. And that desire, that need to know propelled me forwards.
Alice Bailey marked the end of that part of my journey. My life became very, very hard after that. I endured a decade of struggle and testing. A period of darkness in which I was forced to prove my worth as a human being. At the end of the decade, Alice Bailey unexpectedly re-entered my life. That story is even stranger than this.
Over the years I have bought the whole collection of Alice Bailey’s writings. I have read most. Something changed when I first encountered the Blue Books. I changed. The way I understood reality shifted. I will try to explain that shift another time.
I have always held the Alice Bailey teachings lightly and have never considered myself an adherent, but there is no need to be. All esoteric knowledge is charged with a certain energy. Only, the knowledge exists behind a veil and to pass through that veil and enter into the realm, you need to have an esoteric disposition. What is that? Well, unbeknownst to me until I met the cockroaches, I had no idea I had one.
Deep Dive for Continuum: Melbourne’s Speculative Fiction Convention
Delivered Sunday 10th June 2018
From vampires to sorcery and beyond: Representing the occult in fiction
Most of us, if we have any idea of the occult at all, associate it with select clubs, mysterious rituals, secret knowledge, special powers, and evil. If that is what you think, you are not wrong, but it is a partial understanding, not the whole picture.
I’ve had a long association with the occult. I have a vivid imagination, which is a prerequisite, I’m super sensitive and I seem to be able to see into people and situations. All of which makes me a bit of a basket case when it comes to the rough and tumble of everyday living. I always feel the need for protection. My entry into the occult was through a healing pathway. I stumbled on astrology when I was 26 and I soon found I had an instant aptitude when it came to understanding the ancient system. I seemed to already know it, in the same way that a gifted musician will pick up the guitar and with hardly any guidance, know where to place the fingers on the fretboard. Although that’s where the comparison ends. I didn’t want my particular gift. I saw no future in it, and I didn’t want the label attached to my name. I wanted to be normal and lead an ordinary existence. Well, sort of. I spent a year in a coven in a Perth suburb, under the guidance of a Priestess who went by the name Raven. I’ve studied and practiced some of the medicine ways of the Native American shaman, I’ve studied and applied to my life the teachings of one variant of Theosophy – an ancient wisdom tradition – and I’ve read the Tarot, dabbled in Palmistry, Numerology and read the I Ching and the Runes. I follow no creed and the only system that still holds an interest is astrology, because it always seems to yield something new.
Through various strange turns of events by 2006 I ended up holding a PhD in the occult. After that, I turned to creative writing. Here, today, I’m putting the two together, and exploring representations of the occult in fiction.
First, I’ll define the terms, hopefully lifting the veil on what the occult is. I’ll dwell briefly on how the occult is represented in popular culture in general before moving on to representations of the occult in fiction, dwelling on a few case studies, old and new.
What is the occult?
The ‘occult’ is something of a catch-all term that refers to mystical, supernatural or magical powers, practices and phenomena, all of them beyond the ordinary and every day. That is more or less a dictionary definition. Straight away this definition highlights a major difficulty in discussing this topic – explaining the obscure with the even more obscure. I could stand here all day defining terms. I won’t.
The occult intersects with spirit worlds, with ghosts and ghostly happenings, but for the purposes of this talk, I’m setting the topic of ghosts to one side, except to say that people who see ghosts, or feel or hear them, are tuning into a metaphysical reality, and such experiences provide anecdotal evidence that such a reality exists.
Associated with the occult are paranormal abilities including: clairvoyance—the ability to see the future; clairaudience—the ability to hear the spirit world, (the realm of mediums); and telekinesis—the ability to move objects using the power of the mind.
Magical powers include: astral travel—the ability to leave the body and move through the inner emotional plane; scrying—using a crystal ball to see into the future; summoning elemental forces; casting spells or enchantments; and hexing, or the ability to place a curse on someone. Above all, magical powers involve exerting power over another’s mind, body and will. Such powers are generally accessed through rituals, which focus the mind and direct the will.
Occult practices include divination systems such as numerology, palmistry, tarot and of course astrology.
It isn’t possible to talk about the occult without referring to esotericism. ‘Esoteric’ refers to hidden or secret knowledge. This knowledge has its roots in an ancient wisdom tradition spanning all cultures around the world, involving a holistic, interconnected, hylozoic (all matter is living) worldview. Such wisdom was usurped by the dominant religions, especially Christianity, and part of the reason esotericism is secret is due to the persecution of its believers.
Esoteric knowledge is transmitted from master to disciple, who must undergo a series of initiations (elaborate rituals) which reveal more and more of the hidden mysteries of the ancient wisdom. Esoteric knowledge involves complex symbolic systems depicting how a hidden inner reality functions. The occultist, or esotericist, (for at the level of identity the terms appear synonymous), operates in symbolic meaning, and all occult rituals make use of symbols, such as the four directions (north, south, east and west), the four elements (earth, air, water, fire). Objects such as the sword and the chalice, for example, are laden with meaning and association.
Esoteric knowledge is founded on a belief in the law of correspondence. Put simply, ‘as above so below’. It is a way of knowing that makes or sees associations between this and that. An eclipse augurs the death of a king. But nothing is simple in esotericism, and correspondence is a highly elaborate and metaphoric way of knowing or viewing the interconnectedness of all reality.
Esotericism is generally associated with esoteric orders such as Alchemy, The Kabbalah, Freemasonry, Rosicrucianism, Theosophy, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the Illuminati. These esoteric orders use various occult practices. They live and breathe the esoteric as an alternate reality. The key idea behind esotericism is the ability to concentrate power through thought for the purposes of transformation. It has a light side, oriented to healing and spirituality, and a dark side, focussed on personal gain and doing harm to others. As every magician knows, esotericism as knowledge also provides the traps, the blinds, the veils and the illusions—the tests along the initiatory path. Esotericism is a way of thinking, understanding, seeing and interpreting. It is a lived reality.
A potted history of the occult
Esotericism has always existed in the shadows, as sciences and religion’s hidden brother, the third pillar of power and wisdom. Religion, esotericism and science share the same beginnings as ancient philosophers struggled to understand the world. Early evidence of humans seeking meaning from the movement of the heavenly spheres dates back at least 25,000 years. About 4,000 years ago, in Mesopotamia, philosophers began to record the movement of the planets they could see against the constellations.
As other philosophers sought to explain the universe, particularly for the western world in ancient Greece, a trinity of approaches emerged. Science headed in the direction of empirical fact and proof, religion in devotion of deities, and esotericism occupied a curious in between world that places the creative power of thought to effect transformation at its heart.
Existing in and operating from the shadows, the occult has always invoked both awe and fear in outsiders. We are afraid of that which we do not, or cannot understand. We are afraid and wisely so, of hidden forms of power. The shaman is the most powerful of tribal figures. The witch is both outcast and wise woman healer.
A shift of attitude occurred in the mid-1800s with the emergence and growth of Spiritualism, a Christian denomination that believes that spirts of the departed can be contacted through intermediaries, or mediums. Spiritualism became popular partly as a result of war as a form of solace for the grieving.
Theosophy was founded by Russian aristocrat and Spiritualist Helena Blavatsky, which sought to embrace eastern mysticism and splice it together with western forms of esotericism. Along with New Thought and a plethora of other currents, Theosophy catered for a groundswell of spiritual seekers in North America and Europe.
In the 1950s, the New Age movement began to take root and before long the occult, along with many forms of spirituality was firmly out of the closet. By the 1990s, the New Age was commodified, spiritual seeking became a pick and mix shopping basket style. Occult orders, paranormal abilities and magical practices are all prone to trivialisation, and while many seek some kind of truth or healing, most receive shallow and even false knowledge.
Today, because of trends in popular culture, in postmodernism and the New Age, the occult is more widely accepted and toyed with than perhaps ever before, although often in highly diluted forms. It’s still shrouded in dark mystery, and now also in glamour, the glamour of Hollywood, and all aspects of the occult are there for exploration at a mouse click. Deep knowing still requires a long and arduous inner journey, there’s no avoiding it, but we can at least value and not shy away from this third source of knowing and understanding the world with live in.
The occult in literature: past and present
Poetry has a long association with the occult since both deal in symbols. For novelists, incorporating the occult is usually less subtle, and less a synthesis of an aesthetic with the esoteric. The occult appears in structural ways, in character, setting, theme and plot.
The moment fiction took a turn towards Gothic, the occult made its debut. Horace Walpole is thought to be the first Gothic novelist, making use of the supernatural in The Castle of Otranto in 1764, followed by Ann Radcliffe who used the supernatural in her novels in the 1790s, including The Mysteries of Udulpho. The Gothic novel has romance at its heart and it is this combination of romance and the supernatural that inspired Bram Stoker, whose famous work, Dracula was published in 1897.
As motif, the occult in fiction serves to evoke fear in the mind of the reader and create mood, atmosphere, suspense. The occult gives the author the chance to give their characters extraordinary powers, present apparitions and all manner of fantastic entities, and inform plots. A whole cast of possible characters present themselves, everything from witches and warlocks and magicians, to vampires, werewolves and Zombies. Secret orders, the paranormal, there is so much there for the picking to inform setting, character, plot and motif. Little wonder the occult is a fiction staple, informing visionary fiction, gothic fiction, magical realism and fantasy and horror.
Speculative fiction by its very nature extends the boundaries of the ordinary and every day. The occult is the fantasy author’s playground and provides an enticing jumping off point for the horror author seeking to lead readers down dark alleys all the way to the very end. Whereas a fantasy novelist might explore illusion or craft worlds that include various forms of magic, horror delves into the shadow world where evil lurks.
The occultist author
The first two authors discussed here are both known esotericists.
Bram Stoker was a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, an esoteric order founded in the late nineteenth century and loosely based on Rosicrucianism and drawing on Tarot, astrology, alchemy and the Hermetic Kabbalah. I had no idea of Stoker’s affiliation when I read his classic novel, Dracula. I had no idea of the story save what everyone knows, and I never bothered to see the movie because horror in film scares me too much. So when I was about two thirds into reading Dracula I experienced something of a revelation, and I thought I saw Stoker’s intention and why his book is important.
Stoker took an ancient, eastern European legend that grew around Vlad the Impaler, Vlad IV of Wallachia (1430-1476), and invented his antagonist in Dracula. Stoker uses the occult to inform character, theme and plot. He uses various gothic motifs including the lonely castle, the vulnerable female victim, the romance narrative arc, the hero protagonist forced to pit his wits against evil, and on the level of entertainment, with all of the action, plot twists and suspense, the work is a masterpiece. However, what I saw was something else. I decided Stoker’s presentation of Dracula carried a deep message about the use and abuse of power and that was the real intention of his book.
Dracula’s Undead, I decided, are soulless egos, little more than predatory automatons willing to do the Master’s bidding. Dracula’s invasion of civilised London, his enactment of supernatural destruction, the creation of a mysterious entity that can only be slayed by the use of ritualistic, esoteric methods and not by science (ie normal weaponry), through all these elements Stoker is commenting both on the power of esoteric masters to enact evil and, as metaphor, on the way that all society comes under the spell of its political masters, and that we can all behave in an undead fashion. Stoker was an esotericist and my insight is an esoteric one. Others argue he was simply making a statement about the limitations of science, which was busy at the time of writing, vilifying all things mystical and occult.
Vampire as a symbol resonates powerfully in the collective psyche, speaking of our vulnerability as much as the seductive nature of evil. Since Stoker, the vampire trope has been used in every imaginable form, to entertain and make social commentary. Most notably is Anne Rice. Another interesting example that takes the vampire motif out of the horror genre is Elizabeth Kosova’s The Historian, an elaborate gothic tale with its emphasis on ancient evil and its power.
One author who made no bones about being an occultist was Violet May Firth, or Dion Fortune, a former Theosophist and member of the Golden Dawn, and a free thinker, which means she went her own way. She set out to depict her own version of esotericism in fiction and inform her readers of the occult through her novels. In The Sea Priestess, published in 1938, Fortune uses the occult to inform character, theme and plot. Fortune’s protagonist is Vivien Le Fay Morgan, a scarcely disguised version of the powerful enchantress of Arthurian legend, Morgan Le Fay – a version of the Celtic goddess and healer central to Wicca.
In Fortune’s novel, Vivien Le Fay Morgan is a reincarnation of The Sea Priestess, a mysterious Initiate from Atlantis, who came to ancient Britain to save the land from rising sea-levels, in a ceremony involving much human sacrifice. Protagonist Vivian Morgan is a powerful adept, an Archetypal woman with magical abilities, not least her power to enchant men as the narrator, middle-aged real estate agent Wilfred, discovers. As with her other titles, Fortune’s novel carries a strong message, that it is through invoking the Goddess and her extraordinary power that women can heal themselves and, in the process, their men.
The next two authors may or may not have been esoteric practitioners at one point or other, but they both have a deep knowledge of the occult. Both John Fowles, The Magus and Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum explore the psychological basis of the occult and its dark side.
In John Fowles’ The Magus, the hidden magician in the story seeks to exert power over the protagonist just as Fowles exerts his own power over his readers who may, like me, spend the entire novel mystified. Fowles uses the occult as a theme and to inform plot and setting. Ultimately, The Magus carries a similar message to Stoker regarding the use and abuse of power, this time the focus is on the nature of illusion and the nature of initiation, aspects of esoteric practice. The story itself is not only one of intrigue, it is an induction or initiation into the mysteries, one of the central features of esoteric orders. Yet when protagonist Nicolas finally receives this initiation, his own status doesn’t change. He is not welcomed into an inner circle of adepts. Instead the revelation is one where he realises there exists on earth a privileged elite who for generations have held onto enormous wealth and power. The world in which we live and move and have our being is simply their stage. The controllers are that most renowned occult group The Illuminati. This is what the protagonist discovers but is it what Fowles would have us believe?
Umberto Eco places an emphasis on hidden forms of power in Foucault’s Pendulum, a novel brimming with esoteric references to the Jewish Kabbalah. Here’s the book blurb: “Bored with their work, three Milanese editors cook up “the Plan,” a hoax that connects the medieval Knights Templar with other occult groups from ancient to modern times. This produces a map indicating the geographical point from which all the powers of the earth can be controlled―a point located in Paris, France, at Foucault’s Pendulum. But in a fateful turn the joke becomes all too real, and when occult groups, including Satanists, get wind of the Plan, they go so far as to kill one of the editors in their quest to gain control of the earth.” Sounds enormously entertaining, but the work is dense and serious and despite the off-the-wall plot, it is intensely intellectual, and not at all a gripping page turner. Eco sets out to inform and the message in Foucault’s Pendulum seems to be a warning. Don’t mess around with things you know nothing about. The occult is not a joke and not something to be ridiculed, not least because occult orders take themselves very seriously indeed. Eco also highlights the susceptibility of believers in the occult, who since they are prepared to believe in various forms of otherworldly knowledge, knowledge lacking empirical proof, are vulnerable to believing lies and being tricked. Eco also highlights the cornerstone of the occult, the quest for a hidden objective truth. Whoever finds that truth will have absolute power.
Another novelist who engages with the occult, although perhaps in a veiled way, is Hermann Hesse. The Glass Bead Game features an intellectual elite walled off from society in the isolated community of Castalia. The story incorporates aspects of eastern and western philosophy and the plot revolves around a game (the Glass Bead Game) that requires expertise in all fields of science, art, music, literature, history to win. There is an entire subset of Castalia that is solely devoted to perfecting their skill at the game. The rules are vague and complex and as readers we are not really meant to know the specifics other than that the game is complicated, beautiful and incredibly challenging. To win the game is akin to achieving a state of perfection or bliss – seeing the interconnectivity of everything in life. The main character, Knecht dedicates himself to the game, goes through many trials of faith and ultimately wins and then goes on to become Magister Ludi. Again, it is the secrecy and the exclusivity of the occult that concerns Hesse, the idea of intellectual elitism and privileged knowledge, there for a select few.
The occult in fiction is used in many other ways. In her Harry Potter series, J. K. Rowling uses the occult as a box of tricks, bestowing special powers on a raft of characters. Rowling does not set out to invite her readers to become occult practitioners, as Dion Fortune did, or inform her readers of the occult, criticise or otherwise warn us off getting involved as Stoker, Fowles, Eco and Hesse seem to want to do. Yet in Harry Potter, the dark side of the occult is ever present, as is its power to ward off evil and save the day. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is an excellent example of how authors play on popular perceptions of the occult. First and foremost, Rowling uses the occult to create mystique. She invites readers into her world as though she is opening a curtain on privileged knowledge, and as we read we feel special, part of a secret club, privy to secrets known only by a chosen few. It’s a delicious feeling and it cannot fail to inflate us. At the level of entertainment, it’s triumphant.
Most authors use the occult to invoke either wonder or fear, and to create intrigue and mystique. Such authors may have little knowledge of the occult and merely view it as a useful device, one that serves another purpose. Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries falls into this category, as it appears evident, to me at least and judging by her own statements, that the author is not an astrologer. Eleanor Catton’s huge neo-Victorian novel The Luminaries is structured according to some astrological principles. Each of the main characters is aligned with a star sign or a planetary body. Each of the novel’s 12 parts – there are 12 signs of the zodiac – opens with an astrological chart, depicting various heavenly influences. Individual chapters have titles such as “Mercury in Capricorn” or “Saturn in Libra” – indications of the influences and relationships that will be featured. The astrological scheme also controls the novel’s chronology. Catton’s elaborate astrological scaffolding holds the narrative together and provides both plot and motif, and for that ingenuity Catton must be applauded. However, the author has used an occult system to serve her literary purposes. In doing so, she adds nothing to occult discourse by way of understanding or deepening the reader’s awareness of what the occult is, how it works and why it should not be dismissed out of hand as trivial hocus pocus, the very mandate Stoker gave himself when he wrote Dracula.
Turning to some contemporary Australian authors, I chatted with Australian horror author Alan Baxter when I was composing this talk. Baxter uses the occult as a motif to provide darkness to his writing.
He told me that a lot of his work looks at magic, and usually the negative consequences of messing with it! “I use occult practice a fair bit,’ he told me. ‘One novelette, for example, centres on a guy who gets mixed up with Lilith via a bad ouija board experience. I have other stories where I co-opt various occult practices to put temptation or danger in the path of characters and explore what happens. I use these things because I think dark fiction is unrivalled in exploring the human condition and in horror, we can follow the rabbit hole all the way down. These practices, while often not dark in origin, have become dark in the popular consciousness. The idea of “occult” is inherently bad these days, which is strange, but it’s fun for horror writing.” The novelette he refers to, “The Darkest Shade of Grey” can be found in his collection, Crow Shine.
The next author used to be a committed occultist and he draws on the occult in some fascinating ways. Award-winning horror author Andrew J McKiernan told me he spent the decade before he became a writer as a member of the Ordo Templi Orientis — a quasi-Masonic group based on the Thelemic teachings of Aleister Crowley. During his time with the Order he studied extensively in the fields of Comparative Religion; Tarot; Astrology; Yoga; Qabalah; and other other forms of Western Ceremonial Magic. He left it all behind 2005, and considers himself an atheist with no belief in religion, magick or the supernatural.
A number of McKiernan’s stories make use of the occult as a weapon, especially as it relates to the modern age. His novelette, “Daivadana”, is set in Tajikistan during the war in Afghanistan. The story relates to Zoroastrianism and a rebirth of the war between Ahura Mazda and the Daevas (demons or old gods) that he deposed, a history juxtaposed with the incursion of the Western World into the region to depose the influence of Muslim extremism. Everything about this tale — character, plot, theme, setting — revolves around the occult history behind Zoroastrianism. His story “They Don’t Know That We Know What They Know” is a thematic counterpoint to ‘Daivadana’. It is set in Guantanamo Bay and involves an occult based interrogation of a suspected terrorist. It pits the modern Western Esoteric Tradition of the interrogator against a more ancient magic involving stories from the Qur’an and various Hadith. As with Daivadana, the story displays ways in which the occult could be used as a modernised weapon. His stories can be found in Last Year, When We Were Young.
An example from the fantasy/visionary fiction genre, highlights how authors approach the occult for the purposes of spiritual enlightenment and healing. Harlequin’s Riddle by Rachel Nightingale, Book One of her Tales of Tarya series, is a book I was privileged to review and I would compare to an Ursula le Guin.
Nightingale uses the occult to inform character, plot, theme and setting. The story involves a seventeen-year-old Mina searching for her beloved older brother who disappeared with a troupe of travelling players, and was never heard from again. Mina has a special gift for storytelling. She joins a troupe and learns that the players draw their powers from a mysterious place called Tarya, where dreams are transformed into reality.
Harlequin’s Riddle is a story of illusion and a study of the nature of imagination and creativity. Coupled with these themes are ideas of spirituality and healing, the very quality we access when we transcend ordinary reality in creative imaginative acts, is also a powerful source of beneficial transformation and healing. This, for Nightingale is Tarya. It is what esotericists call the ‘inner planes’, and it is here that the deeper essence of Harlequin’s Riddle is apparent. Entering Tarya involves altering your state of awareness, undergoing an out of body experience, and engaging in astral travel. Tarya is the realm of the shaman, the magus, the trickster, the psychopomp. Here is a small taste of Tarya.
“A subtle buzzing of hidden energy surrounded her. She looked down on distant mountains, and nearby trees, and people, many people, and each shape glimmered with light, layer upon layer of light, blurring outlines of real objects. There were intricate spiderwebs laid across the whole scene, gold threads wrapped around and over everything.”
It is this effort to depict in language an unseen metaphysical reality that is the necessary gift of the fantasy author. Nightingale’s visionary presentation of Tarya is an attempt to grasp an occult reality, to understand it, not to make use of it as a literary device.
I’m an occultist author too and the occult features in almost all of my novels. The plot in Asylum is driven by a palm reader’s prophecy, The Drago Tree is peppered with New Age dabblings, The Cabin Sessions opens with a Blood Moon harbinger, and The Legacy of Old Gran Parks pivots on a supernatural curse.
I put the occult stage centre in A Perfect Square. This novel is based on my daughter, Elizabeth Blackthorn’s honours thesis in music. She was searching for an idea. I suggested she base a musical composition on the movements of the planets. I helped her track the movements of Jupiter through Pluto over a four-year period. We created a series of scrolls and she used them to inspire a narrative based on the various planetary interactions. Jupiter is expansion. Neptune is illusion or spiritual heights. Put the two together…and so on. She then used her narrative to inspire 45 minutes of Progressive Rock which she taught to her band and they recorded it. Meanwhile, I was busy having my own ideas.
We were both concerned with literal and metaphor ways of approaching the occult, something picked up on by leading scholar of Western Esotericism, Wouter Hanegraaff. I took this idea and created a mother, the eccentric synaesthete and artist Harriet Brassington-Smythe and daughter, pianist Ginny Smith, who are collaborating on an exhibition of music and art, nine paintings, nine songs. Harriet comes up with the idea of basing the exhibition on the cycles of the Moon. Here’s a taste:
“That ‘twelve’ signified completion was not in dispute. They both knew the symbology. Setting aside the Imams, Apostles and Tribes, of concern to each of them, mother and daughter in turn, were the twelve signs of the zodiac and the twelve notes in the chromatic scale. Yet all things ended at twelve and Harriet felt ill-disposed towards the containment the number implied. As if through it the cosmos had reached its limit of emanation and, duly sated, foreclosed on thirteen, a number doomed to exist forevermore as a mere twelve–plus–one.”
In A Perfect Square the occult dominates the plot—It’s a dark mystery, providing motive, cause, consequence and resolution. The occult is the main theme and also informs character and structure. The chapters follow Kandinsky’s famous essay, On Spirituality. My intention was to inform and invite the reader to ponder. No prior knowledge is needed, but for those who know a little, the story will be all the more entertaining. Because occultism intersects with conspiracy thinking, I include a sub-theme in a secondary narrative, one that involves another mother and her daughter.
Fiction and the occult meet in a variety of ways depending on the author’s intention. Sometimes the occult is used as a device to entertain. Sometimes it forms the subject matter. The occult can drive plot, and inform character and setting. The topic of the occult in fiction is vast. I hope I’ve demystified the terrain a little and provided some food for thought.
I have a little announcement, and I’m feeling awfully nervous.
For the past few weeks I’ve been throwing obstacles in the path of this. I’m beginning the demanding task of turning my doctoral thesis into a novel. Well, sort of.
My thesis concerns a corpus, a body of obscure texts. My novel will attempt to embody the life of the author. Her name is Alice Bailey. She’s a highly controversial figure nobody outside New Age and conspiracy theory circles has heard of. Yet her writing has been enormously influential on the world stage and it is easy to show how. Her life is colourful and interesting too, with themes many will relate to, including domestic violence, elitism and exclusion, jealousy and malice.
What is challenging is that I am treading the controversial path of ‘faction’ – inspired by Heather Rose’ The Museum of Modern Love, and Melissa Ashley’s The Birdman’s Wife, both prize winning books. I am indebted to the authors for tamping down the grass on this narrow rocky path, impressing us all with the results of their hard labours. I’ve reviewed both works and I have become so enthusiastic in my praises, the authors might be wondering ‘who is this nut who keeps liking my short-list announcements with “told you so” comments?’
In reviewing these works, it appears I’ve been set a high bar.
My story will be structured differently. There will be echoes of The Chemistry of Tears by Peter Carey, for mine is a frame story. I have chosen this approach as I want to tell a little of Alice Bailey’s legacy. Creating a narrative frame set in the present seems to me the only way to achieve this.
I have the title.
I’ve conjured a protagonist to put in the frame. I already love her to bits.
I’ve completed my research on the life of Alice Bailey. I have it all written up in a submittable draft, what I thought was a submittable draft.
I’ve storyboarded the chapters.
I am about to invoke the voice of Alice Bailey.
Nothing in my literary journey to date has been more daunting and more compelling than this project.
Will I pull it off? If I do, will anyone, other than me, be interested in this mysterious woman whose story has gone untold for many decades?
So here I go, bathers donned despite the cold, facing the choppy waters of historical fiction. Already, there’s a storm on the horizon.
I’ve been dipping into the introduction to a slim book entitled Propaganda by Edward Bernays. It’s the story of a long slow con, the main text written by one of its key proponents, who cites the enormous benefits of propaganda to the politician and the corporation.
The book has me wondering about the rise of shifting shape of propaganda over the last century. I’m no expert but here are a few thoughts.
Many would agree that Thomas Kuhn, in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) was spot on in identifying paradigm shifts in science. His insight is so powerful it has been used as a metaphor with much explanatory power in history and the social sciences ever since.
I’m hardly alone in recognising a fairly recent paradigm shift that is affecting the entire world, one rooted in the economics of neoliberalism.
When I was immersed in Umberto Eco’s The Prague Cemetery I kept thinking that the protagonist, Simone Simonini was a typical unscrupulous self-serving totally amoral toad who was happy to do the bidding of various secret services who, in order to accumulate power, were keen to besmirch the Jews and the Freemasons, both groups used as scapegoats.
The events in The Prague Cemetery took place in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Much has changed. Not least a scientific revolution, or paradigm shift in which the new science of Quantum Theory has challenged the old Newtonian physics and a new age of science and technology born. Everyone recognises that.
In contrast the neoliberal paradigm shift is subtle, covert and involves the manipulation of collective thought and emotion. Propaganda is no longer simply about convincing citizens to go to war, or to buy a particular model of washing machine, and it no longer solely serves to promote the various hegemonic ideologies of the day, for example beefing up nationalistic pride.
From Abbott’s “team Australia,” and “death cult” slogans, the overt use of propaganda is screamingly obvious to anyone who paid attention in Year 10 English. These are simply the techniques used by all politicians since 1915, when governments, “systematically deployed the entire range of modern media to rouse their populations to fanatical assent,” (Propaganda p 11) in the build up to World War I. The author of the introduction to Propaganda, Mark Crispin Miller, states that propaganda was used before and with success, particularly by Napoleon, but not systematically and it was this systematic use of propaganda that enabled governments to so successfully manipulate their people.
The hidden use of propaganda functions differently. More covert still, it operates far behind the scenes and is obvious only to those who really look. This is the sort of propaganda deployed by the likes of Eco’s Simonini.
When people dismiss conspiracy theory holus bolus as quackery for the paranoid and teenage boys with runaway imaginations, they overlook, as many conspiracy theorists themselves also overlook, that conspiracy is a methodology not a theory. All conspiracy theories are a product of this methodology. Conspiracy, in other words, is a modus operandi, a conspiracy theory generator on the one hand, and much much more besides.
Existing within the thick complex fabric of the world, at work in this country and that, responding to matters arising while seeking to influence those matters, choosing how best to proceed to achieve short and long term goals, employing any shady Simonini to do their bidding, are what might be called the Conspirators. I suppose we can imagine their existence in the inner sanctums of ASIO and embedded in various think tanks and elite groups such as the Leo Strausseans.
It could be argued, and with some force, that the vast social, cultural, political and economic web unfolds chaotically, unpredictably, guided by numerous agents who respond to conditions and make decisions, that this vast complex is impossible to control since there are unexpected consequences at every turn.
Yet this very chaotic complexity has opened up new opportunities for a certain kind of navigation, in part involving the manipulation of dissent. It’s as if Simonini’s ilk have stumbled on a smoke screen generator, one so persuasive and deceptive it can be used at will to both burn up the energies of dissenters and deflect the attention of the populace from unpalatable, if or when scrutinised, policies. Toxic policies that are neatly packaged in spin so as to appear entirely virtuous.
Diversion tactics are hardly new. Nothing these Simonini people do is new. What is new is that in Simonini’s day such types operated on behalf of one nation’s secret service or another, to serve various geopolitical ends and to enhance the power of one country over another, or one group, such as the Catholic Church.
Today, in a globalised world where it can be easily argued that 147 corporations run (or rule) the world, geopolitics itself is a smoke screen. All social unrest, including war and terrorism, and the consequences of war – refugees and asylum seekers, are smoke screens. Anything that occurs and is reported on in the media and seems terribly important at the time, is part of the haze.
This haze is cognitively toxic. For those who do not recognise the toxicity, the damage is invisible. For those who enter the haze with values and beliefs that are counter to it, who contest the injustices, the haze might be deadly.
Today, for humanity, there can be only one fundamental reality and everything is in service to it. Profit. The social or common good is long gone. We have passed the tipping point and entered a new age of the corporation and all that remains is the tying up of a few structural loose ends.
The new paradigm is one in which the Conspirators have taken centre stage in a dark theatre thick with haze, haze so dense spotlights create mirrors. We have entered an age in which, as many of us are saying, 1984 and The Castle are being used as instruction guides, and heinous acts are choreographed, everyone is watched and our leader’s read from double speak scripts.
An age in which in Australia a joker card (Abbott) is played with a straight face that makes the progressives among us rise up alarmed that we are sliding backwards into gross societal unfairness.
Welcome to the age of the Conspirator, the conman and the adept. A new age of narcissism and happy pills. An age of spells and labyrinths and trickery.
An age where mental health equals fantasy. An age ruled by giants who look down, foot poised, on a colony of sugar ants. An age in which defecation is used as syrup to further corrupt our souls.
Happy 2015! What a jolly time of it the powers that be are having – Obama and Cameron posturing like ancient philosophers on the problem of radicalisation and how to combat (combat?) hardline ideologies. LMAO – Mirror mirror on the wall…
Islamic fundamentalism grows in catch up with Christian fundamentalism and neoconservative/neoliberal fundamentalism.
There, I’ve answered it for you in a nutshell. But let me explain, in case you don’t get it yet Mr O and Mr C, (although I’m certain you get it very very well):
In a reality of linear and concrete thinking, where in Scripture this and that is taken to be literally true, fundamentalism will always beget fundamentalism.
Meanwhile hardline neoliberal policies of post GFC austerity beget a downtrodden populace, a populace with a dim yet tangible sense that they’ve been conned. (You will have heard the term bankster Mr O and Mr C?)
As ever, the two extremes, Christian and Islamic, foment each other, and as the pot is stirred by Western Supremacism (your way or the highway, eh), the utterly disaffected become so pissed off they’ll take up a bomb or a gun. It’s an obvious response. Happy days, say the Crusaders.
Radicalisation exists because we have a word for it, our gluttonous media slavering over every ounce of it. Hat’s off to the think tanks for this latest bit of spin in this new wave of propaganda. My, how adept you must think you are! Adept at creating thought wars, the battleground a dense fog, a miasma. Must be a fun job that.
Woo hoo say the corporations, circling vultures, waiting to swoop and eat their fill as cities fall and people flee. There’s the arms trade, there are the government contracts, there’s the private militia/security business, there’s the reconstruction, and there are the billions of dollars of profit to be made out of asylum seeker detention centres. It’s a bonanza.
Yet two women kiss and canoodle and are thrown out of a cafe in Vienna, and the owner is forced to apologise after over a thousand people take to the street outside in protest. If humanity is capable of mass action in the face of a cafe kiss, then little wonder you are afraid of us, so afraid you stamp us down with anti-protest laws and beefed up surveillance and security.
Let the woman in the hijab be. Let Islam, a religion of peace and grace, be. Let fundamentalism slip away on the wings of an open heart free of fear and hatred. And let neoliberalism fall, as all empires fall, and we can say farewell Mr O and Mr C, and welcome in a new and better age of fairness and goodwill.
I was troubled this morning to read of the 10,000 people who lost their lives in the UK in 2013 as a result of fuel poverty. Fuel Poverty Action is taking action. ”They’re targeting Energy UK, the lobbyists for the tax dodging, huge profit making, Big Six energy companies.” http://www.ukuncut.org.uk/blog/guest-blog-no-more-deaths-from-fuel-poverty/ And I was troubled for a second time in the face of the injustice that has caused citizens to take to the streets of Ferguson; in a nation where the police are in service of corporations and not the citizenry. https://www.facebook.com/video.php?v=482387718569407 And at risk of bathos, here in Australia, our government has just axed the budget of our much loved and non-commercial ABC and it’s sister television station SBS, both known for their cutting edge news and documentaries, their efforts to present balanced and alternative views, and their coverage of serious issues.
All this news caused me to pause. I knew instinctively that all three dreadful bits of news were connected. I needed to do a reality check. I had to remind myself of why these things are happening and happening in Western democracies. I thought again of that fabulous book Democracy Inc by Sheldon S Wolin. I share with Chris Hedges a passion for Democracy Inc. for it explains what is happening to democracy and why. It isn’t a light read. But sometimes things are too damn important to treat lightly. The more of us who take the trouble to give the book a go the better, for it does more than offer an explanation. The book occupies the ground otherwise too easily labelled conspiracy theory and what is going on behind the scenes is in fact a conspiracy and not theoretical at all!!
Here’s the way I see the con.
1/ The Sting. The GFC was caused by the banks who were then bailed out by governments with tax payers’ money. Government is now in debt to the banks. Citizens pay the banks (again) via austerity measures. Bankers are laughing all the way to their own front doors. Read Matt Taibbi’s Griftopia for a punchy and entertaining portrayal of what went on.
2/ The Second Sting. Behind the veil of budget deficit every small fragment of social democracy that can be privatised is being privatised. Once privatised the operating systems will be corporatised (asset stripped and so on) and services rendered both expensive and inadequate. The minimum will be provided, for the maximum profit. For an insight into how corporations operate as vulture capitalists read Antony Loewenstein’s Profits of Doom.
In the corporatised scenario citizens often pay for services that used to be provided for by government. Citizens also pay for the same services through their taxes, which go into the government outsourcing coffers to pay the new corporate service providers. So we pay for the same service twice. And the corporations are dizzy with delight.
3/ The Third Sting is the corporatisation of government itself. Imagine that our elected representatives are not representing us at all. They have been swallowed by the corporate sector. They have been bought, groomed, placed or otherwise corrupted to serve the interests of Capital and not the people. They wear false cloaks and false smiles. They hold our babies and steal our wallets. The best encapsulation of this sting is the revolving door, where individuals move back and forth from plum jobs in government to plum jobs in the corporate sector.
Studies have shown that the Corporation is psychopathic The hallmark of a psychopath is a distinct lack of empathy. As an entity a corporation is also a breeding ground for psychopaths. For people who lie, who deceive, who con, who cheat; heartless bastards whose capacity for cruelty is vast, whose capacity for blithe indifference equally vast.
It’s been six years since the GFC turned the screws on social democracy and created this latest horror show. Dystopia is upon us and many are accusing their governments of blatant fascism. We can and we must fight this beast. Not by following the ruthless cruelty of organisations like Islamic State, which are both corporate democracy’s nemesis and mirror, ( in effect a Fourth Sting fomented by corporate democracy to engender widespread fear and tighten security and surveillance laws). Instead, we must protest and campaign and educate and keep on shining a spotlight on reality. To that end I will from time to time hold up my own thin candle and shout.
In Ancient Greek mythology it was the Titan Cronus who overthrew Uranus by castrating him with a sickle. A sickle given him by his mother Gaia to rescue his youngest brothers who had been kept in darkness. Cronus then ruled the world instead, his reign the so-called Golden Age. Nevertheless it was an age of dictatorship, of total rule, one reflected today in the emergence of an insidious totalitarianism at root in corporate globalisation, in which democracies are managed by power elites with corporate interests at heart. Where far-right religions, corporations and governments merge to form a single power elite. Where all social and welfare services are run by private enterprise, from debt collecting, prisons, probation services, detention centres, care homes, counselling services, schools, utilities, transport services – just about everything you can think of run for profit not for us. The taxpayer no longer pays for government to provide all the elements of social democracy. Instead the tax payer lines the corporate purse. To prevent dissent this elite makes every effort to opiatise the people by any means, from anti-depressants, through the use of media to spin propaganda, to the atomising of lives through ideological manipulations so that all that matters to us is the small world we live in, our family, our work, our neighbourhood. Then through education to the inculcation of false beliefs as absolute truths, such as the notion of the selfish gene. And through the glamour of celebrity and promotion of narcissism at every turn. As well we are enslaved by high mortgage debt and lowering wages as we watch our rights to complain erode. Trapped and powerless, we acquiesce. Failing that, and for those free thinkers among us, the security and surveillance measures are there to the ready. It seems the power elite have things all figured out.
To save those compassionate souls among us from complete meltdown, this dystopia is assuaged by a veneer of humanitarianism. The charitable impulse most of us feel is hijacked by quasi-corporate ngos, providing us with a sense of doing small things to make a difference, giving us feelings of well-being and goodness, and an illusory sense of power and influence. We can donate, sponsor a child, watch the awesome efforts of Save the Children or the Red Cross with our credit card in hand. We can accentuate the positive, focus on the rhetoric of the United Nations and feel ennobled to be part of a world that truly cares, never seeing the complicity, inevitable and sad, of the corporations and the humanitarian organisations, some (but not all) natural disasters aside, often responding to situations created either through structure or agency by the machinations of the military-industrial complex. Sometimes a corporation itself will make an overt humanitarian move, such as Gucci with its Chime For Change campaign to empower women around the world. Not to mention the philanthropy and generous donations and funding of worthy causes, such as displayed by the Bill Gates Foundation.
Adopting a simple theosophical view, for all the technological advances of our times, the present globalised world seems to me the consequence and the cause of a devolution of consciousness, a wrong orientation, as if humanity is in retrograde motion, the bulk of us concerned primarily with material achievements and narrow selfish satisfactions.
Whether or not the word totalitarianism is used, there exist many across the world responding to its reach, resisting its impositions, struggling to wrest free. There are two distinct means by which people seek autonomy, one cold-hearted and destructive and on the devolution fast track, the other aware, warm-hearted and constructive and both constrained by the resistant pull of devolution and doomed therefore to struggle and suffer. Both approaches make use of the sickle, that communist symbol of the peasantry.
The destructive response to globalisation is a sickle-abusing power grab. Here disenfranchised factional or nationalist groups arm themselves with ideological and military weaponry and go on the rampage. Their resistance is instinctive, their sense of injustice whipping up rage and desires for revenge that are both delusional and psychotic, laying waste to city upon city, community upon community, destroying that which if they stopped and thought rationally for long enough they would realise they are seeking to protect. Destructive groups play into the hands of the corporate totalitarians. While groups such as IS may believe they are taking back power rightfully theirs, they are unwittingly serving the agenda of the power elite, a power elite that sets about fostering these very factional nationalistic groups for its own purposes. It is ironic that extreme outraged calls for some sort of justice are simply doing the work of the totalitarians, providing failed state upon failed state whilst justifying increases in security and surveillance measures in the so-called free democratic west. These wanton destroyers are unwittingly complicit in the agenda of the War on Terror, a mob of blood-lusting brutes sent forth on a killing frenzy, creating more carnage than all the Hollywood blockbusters combined.
While apparently lacking in the drama, almost the heroism of the destructive response, I believe there is only one constructive solution available to us and one we must pursue with vigour. It is the path of the people’s collective. It involves cooperation, goodwill, egalitarianism and a will to transcend personality differences for the good of the whole. Yet also a need for courage, resilience and perseverance. Constructive acts that seek to demonstrate to the super rich and powerful, that we are not taking their shit any more. That we will fight, we will campaign, we will protest Occupy style, and we too, will carry a sickle in our hands.
The sickle is a tool for harvest, for the constructive response to our times must be one aligned with the land and must be focused on local economies. Whether it be the Permaculture inspired Transition Towns, the creation in Bristol of the Bristol Pound, or the people’s collective of Marinaleda, we need to celebrate each move in the direction of constructive responses to global power that seek change outside the corporate-city walls. Snip the ties that bind us at every turn to the global corporate machine. Reclaim what is rightfully ours – our autonomy. The sickle will save us, if we use it as a tool to empower and not destroy. And perhaps in pushing against the wheel as it turns in retrograde, at least apply a brake.