On Pain Of Sickness
This brief hiatus wasn’t intentional. I had planned to keep up regular posts all the way through the end of the new year and into the next as a sign of strength, as a way to keep the momentum going. Saturn and Capricorn, or as Gordon White and Austin Coppock labelled this 2018 dynamic duo, Black Phillip, had other plans, wouldn’t they always have plans that are not your own?
My entire household came down with what was at first persistent coughs. This drove us into the industrial medical complex, where a really very nice doctor diagnosed two ear infections, a sinus infection, and bronchitis for myself. While we were there they also gave us an invisible party gift, a violent twenty-four hour stomach flu.
The kids and wife had it in succession, slept for a day or so, and were back at it. The pharmiko-potions prescribed by the really very nice doctor began working, and then the flu turned its eyeless head and looked at me. I got the bug on New Year’s Eve Day. I had all these fantastic plans to blankly stare at social media and drink rum with the saints on my shelf, maybe watch some Dave Chappelle… Alas, this bug took its turn in my body and instead I was quite literally transported out of 2017 into a plane of pain and suffering. This flu had me so violently ill that literally in the middle of a, um, ‘wave’ lets call it lest I lose all my readers for too graphic a portrayal, my thoughts turned towards the shamanic initiatory experience. I felt like this must be what it is like to be magically initiated, truly initiated. I went to bed after the first wave with these thoughts in my head.
My, ‘training,’ from 2017 actually came in kind of handy at this point. As I lay in this twilight realm, this living Hellraiser mattress scene, my thoughts inexplicably turned to every gross food item I had eaten in my life and every gut-churning quick rollercoaster motion and looking over the parapet wall of a high building I had ever experienced. It was ludicrous, it was if the virus had not only control of my body but was attacking my mind as well, using it to quickly initiate the next attack. I was so cognizant of all of this imagery I think because of the mind-body work I’ve done in 2017, my year of magical reawakening. Not wanting to experience a repeat (at least not so soon) of the violation that had just occurred, I focused my thoughts on the only thing I could think of that calmed both my mind and body, an ice cold glass of water. My thoughts would move (were forced [I’m still very suspicious of the psychic power this virus had]) away from my psychic glass of water and I would bring it back in focus. I managed to lie comfortably for quite awhile. The next wave, and the one after that, were inevitable, but the timeless space in between was more comfortable and probably lasted longer because of my increased ability to control my mind. It was just around midnight, as a dozen or so neighbors lit off entirely too large fireworks to mark the changing of the calendar, that the wave’s stopped. My out breathes were accompanied with sigh/groans of great relief and again my thoughts turned towards the shamanic initiation experience and, moreover, how I’ve never had one, not really.
In my late twenties I was given the opportunity to ingest peyote and spend an evening on Papago ruins next to the Salt River near Tempe, Arizona. That wasn’t my first psychedelic experience by any means, my troubled twenties were full of them, but it promised to be a more profound one due to setting and the sacredness of the vehicle. From what I understand, most people have a reaction somewhat similar to what I’ve just described as the gate they walk through leading to the realm of Mescalito. For whatever reason, that wasn’t the case for me. The others that partook of the sacrament had this reaction and I sat on the sidelines, watching their initiation, while I passed into the diamond-shaped atom twilight unaffected. The experience did stick with me, for years really, and it was the first one of these experiences where I felt the presence of the ally inside the molecule, where a conversation took place between something other than just myself. I always thought, however, in the back of my head, that somehow I hadn’t gotten it quite right.
It’s funny to think of a flu bug as an initiator into a different realm of consciousness, I guess. This is how I feel though. Maybe it was my year of magic, maybe its the fact that I am a generally very stout individual that rarely gets sick at all, let alone the next level 28 Days Later death flu. It took me longer to recover than the other members of my family. I remained weak, my head fogged, my body ruined. This period, maybe more than the event itself, felt like what a psycho-magical initiation was supposed to be. A slow building back to a healthy state, similar to the one that you lived in before but certainly different. I can’t shake how I was able to use the journeying / active imagination portion of my magical training to cling to health and reality during the event. I can’t shake the feeling I had, while in the grips of these violent ‘waves’, that I was being permanently altered both physically and psychically.
That’s the trick that I missed, I think, the duality of the initiatory experience. I can’t count how many times in the grips of other molecules that I’ve been broken down to an emotional speck hearing voices in Flatland, have been altered psychically. These were never really accompanied by a physical ‘altering’, though. I’m convinced now that this is what is required to be truly initiated. The physical altering, for many cultures, is all that required and is the catalyst for the psychic component of initiation. American Indians have known this for thousands upon thousands of years . Fasting, exposing oneself at a young age to the extremes of nature, the becoming of a creature that the Great Spirit, the Creator, as my late Ojibwe mentor would say, Gichi-Manidoo, becoming a creature that Gichi-Manidoo can take pity on, to become a pitiable creature worthy of help, these are individuals experiencing initiation.
This is not what thousands of youths today eating ‘E’ (or whatever the hell the new ‘thing’ is [bath salts?]) at Coachella or Burning Man are achieving. This is not a modern experience. I know now, that’s the point.
Which brings me to our imbrications for this week and another change, well, not an overt one, but a subtle change to the things I share here. I’ve mentioned in passing that I was privileged to study under a Bad River Ojibwe elder during my undergraduate education. Primarily, my studies were linguistic but with language you cannot avoid culture (something a lot of linguistics don’t grasp). My teacher, I’ll call him Buck here, primarily because there are traditional taboos for speaking an individuals name after they walk on, or rather, there is a need to change how their name is said, but also it is a bit too painful to say his name out loud for me still. All last year, as I was learning about Western magic, I saw so many parallels to what I learned under Buck, or what he forced me to learn rather. You see, when I came into his class I was still in possession of a fairly hardcore materialist mindset. Part of that setting of the mind was a mission to maintain a type of anthropological detachment to the culture portion of the language I was learning and the people I was learning about. That didn’t quite work out for me and I can look back now on more than a few opportunities that I missed while operating under these illusions, opportunities for growth and connection.
But as I was saying, all through the year I was making these connections but I didn’t want to speak on them, or rather, I really struggled with if I should speak on them or not. In doing so, was I contributing to the appropriation of Ojibwe culture? Was I being appropriative just by making these mental connections to the western magical tradition? Would I be harming the community that embraced me?
I’ve come to the decision that I will speak about my experiences and share what I was taught. More specifically, when it is relevant, I will use the knowledge and exposure I was gifted to the Ojibwe and other American Indian cultures to ensure that the right information is out there and the connections that are made, if any, to western magic, are appropriate and the right boundaries are set.
That said, this week’s imbrications will begin with a video from the Ojibwe elder, a teacher of my teacher, Jim Jackson. I took three formal semesters of Ojibwe (prior to being asked to join the local language community round table), Buck’s normal two semesters and a hard-won third semester of independent study. Each semester, at some point, Buck would roll out this ancient video tape of Jim Jackson speaking on the Ojibwe Vision Quest and other spirito-cultural subjects.
The next two videos I found while hunting for some trace of Jim Jackson on the internet. It’s from a fellow by the name of Larry Gibag. This guy’s teachings are authentic and very much in line with the type of things that I learned from Buck and the community at the Congregation of the Great Spirit. There is a lot of resonance here with some of the things taught in the Hygromantiea around magical timing and when to pick specific herbs.
and finally, we’ll close this section out with Jim Jackson again, talking about the spirits of the Four Directions. This made sense in context the first times I watched it during Buck’s courses. My context is wider now (by about one billion light years) and the way Jim Jackson talks about spirits in the Ojibwe context resonates like giant bell. Let me be clear, I’m not in any way advocating a ‘Unified Spirit Field Theory’ or anything like that, and I’m still working through the whole ‘certain spirits only talk to people of certain genetic encoding’ while at the same time, as I’ve mentioned, being quite guarded against cultural appropriation. Just a very brief glance at the dozens of white bearded hipster idiots with YouTube videos on ‘How to Vision Quest’ is enough to convince any relatively educated magician that being open about our responsibility to actively fight against appropriation is still very much necessary. I still want to share Jim Jackson’s video on the subject because I am confident of its authenticity and importance.
CHANGELINGS AND MAGICIANS
Shifting gears, let’s examine this week’s Lovecraft tale, Pickman’s Model. From what I understand, or have come to understand, Pickman’s Model is a fairly infamous short story and one beloved by many a Lovecraft scholar. This was my first read-through of it (or the first that I remember, anyway) and its differences from Lovecraft’s other work is palpable.
The first thing that struck me was Lovecraft’s commentary on visual art. I had previously seen him only as a man of letters. It’s clear that his cultural DNA extended to the visual as well. As I’ve done before with the author’s (both real and unreal) that Lovecraft mentions, I’ll record those artists that he invokes in Pickman. Here he makes mention of Fuseli, Dore, Sime, and Angarola as being analogous to the infamous Pickman.
Sidney Sime is of particular interest, and an artist I hadn’t been aware of. He was Lord Dunsany’s primary illustrator. This make’s sense that Lovecraft would be a fan, since he took so much literary influence from Dunsany. I found this amazing (and quite resonant with the modern rise of Santa Muerte) illustration entitled ‘The Ultimate God’ over at a quite ancient blog post (2011) from a delightfully current blog of the name ‘Monster Brains’
Anthony Angorola, an Italian immigrant who studied in Chicago and was a contemporary of Lovecraft is also new to me. I can’t find much of his work online and most of it, like the below illustration, is related to the book ‘The Kingdom of Evil’ by Ben Hecht. Again, it doesn’t seem like Lovecraft’s visual presence falls too far outside of his strong preference for the cult of the word.
If you’re interested in learning more about Lovecraft’s favorite visual artists, this article over at TOR does a much better job of it than I have time for.
Pickman’s model has the familiar anonymous narrator speaking of the antagonist to a compatriot whilst getting quite drunk through the course of the narrative. The first bit that I picked up on in the story follows:
“You know” [Pickman] said, “there are things that won’t do for Newbury Street — things that are out of place here, and that can’t be conceived here, anyhow. It’s my business to catch the overtones of the soul, and you won’t find those in a parvenu set of artificial streets on made land. Back Bay isn’t Boston — it isn’t anything yet, because its had no time to pick up memories and attract local spirits. If there are any ghosts here, they’re the tame ghosts of a salt marsh and a shallow cove; and I want human ghosts — the ghosts of beings highly organized enough to have looked on hell and known the meaning of what they saw.”
I found this to be a really curious exploration of ‘spirits of place’ in an urban context that I had not yet seen Lovecraft explore. The idea of urban environment’s ‘attracting local spirits’ makes a kind of intuitive sense to me. Probably because I tend towards an ecological model of the spirit world, that is, I see spirits as part of the overall natural world and not distinct from it (and therefore somehow above the way the rest of the natural world works). A modern city, or a suburb, or any recently built series of wooden and concrete ape caves take awhile to attract wildlife back into it. They take time to adapt to the new surroundings, to carve out ecological niches, to learn how to take advantage of it. What Lovecraft is getting at above, I believe, is more of the same. Spirits of place, local spirits, exist in the world, but stay away from our newly constructed environments. It takes time for them to expand their spirit ecology niches back into the spaces that we’ve claimed.
The narrator’s description of Pickman and his conscious choice to live in older and ostensibly ‘harder’ parts of Boston reminds me quite a bit of Austin Spare. While there isn’t a way to connect a direct vector between Spare and Pickman at the time the story was written, it is difficult to not see it when we view the tale in a more modern context.
Lovecraft names the infamous Cotton Mather again, referencing his work, Magnolia and Wonders of the Invisible World. This quote I found interesting:
“[Cotton] Mather, damn him, was afraid somebody might succeed in kicking free of this accursed cage of monotony...”
as it leads my thoughts to how witchcraft can be used to free one from the mundane and how the mundane is viewed as a type of prison.
The narrator shifts from recounting his adventures with Pickman to quoting directly the man’s own thoughts:
“There were witches and what their spells summoned; pirates and what they brought in from the sea; smugglers; privateers — and I tell you, people knew how to live, and how to enlarge the bounds of life, in the old times! This wasn’t the only world a bold and wise man could know — faugh!”
Which I view as more criticism of the materialist mindscape and championing of the ‘Other’, those that see past society. I think Lovecraft, even though he was so proper and allegedly part of proper society in Providence was really deeply a member of the counter-culture and identified much closer with the marginalized then those critics that take his prose in a modern, decontexualized sense would have you believe.
and then, the most interesting part of Pickman’s model, shifting back to our narrator and his description of Pickman’s paintings:
“There was none of the exotic technique you see in Sidney Sime, none of the trans-Saturnian landscapes and lunar fungi that Clark Ashton Smith used to free the blood. The backgrounds were mostly old churchyards, deep woods, cliffs by the sea, brick tunnels, ancient panel led rooms, or simple vaults of masonry. Copp’s Hill Burying Ground, which could not be many blocks away from this very house, was a favorite scene.”
and against these backgrounds we are described what Lovecraft labels as ‘Changelings’, Dog-man hybrid beings evolved from mortal children stolen as infants, their evolution coming from feeding on bodies and from the liminal places, as described in the quote above, that they live.
I recently acquired a copy of ‘The Necronomicon Files’ by Daniel Harms and John Wisdom Gonce III and in that book there is an essay entitled ‘Lovecraftian Magic - Sources and Heirs’ by Gonce that speaks to Lovecraft’s Changelings when referencing how A Thousand and One Arabian Nights was a great influence on the author:
“What would Lovecraft have learned from such studies? He would have learned about a fascinating menagerie of Islamic genies and monsters: a sub-species of djinn known as the ghoul that dwells in cemeteries and festered places and eats human flesh, an Arab werewolf (or perhaps were-hyena) Calle the qutrub that is a man or woman who transforms into a beast at night and eats corpses.”
Gonce goes on to call out Pickman’s Model specifically and the qutrub as the likely source for the Changelings, but in the same breath he quotes Lovecraft as being relieved that his personal studies moved from the world of the Arabian Nights and into a more Graeco-Egyptian context. This makes me wonder if Lovecraft wasn’t also exposed to beings such as Hermanubis and the other cynocephalic creatures and Gods in the Graeco-Egyptian world. I find that Lovecraft’s Changelings are the strongest thread we can pull on when baking Pickman’s Model into our new model of Lovecraftian magic, of Lovecraft’s oeuvre as grimoire.
Pickman himself is too strong an archetype to ignore and I find that he resonates the most with one of the most powerful and primal trumps, The Magician.
Ettellia’s ‘Le Magician Ou Le Battler’ combines the qualities of the Magician and the Fool. The keyword for both the upright and the reversed on this card is the same, Maladie, bringing us full circle with the themes in this week’s exploration. Maladie, from late 13c. Old French means ‘sickness, illness, and disease’. It is also related to the PIE root, *ghabh-, which means to give or receive and by extension from PIE is related to the words inhabit, exhibition, exhibit, and binnacle, or ‘little dwelling place’. Pickman, the artist, is banned from exhibiting his work and is described as inhabiting a squalid and dark dwelling deep in in Boston’s North End.
Pulling from Holistic Tarot, we find that this card represents creative power and the ‘limitless capabilities of the mind when it is concentrated’. Another apt description of Pickman. He is a bridge between the conscious and the unconscious, or in Pickman’s case, the mundane and the fantastic. Benebell mentions that the Magician is an individual that ‘can grasp the knowledge of the universe’. Pickman and his knowledge of the world of the Changelings, the greater chaos spirits that visit him in his subterranean studio, and how one needs to find both the physical and psychic limits of experience to gain such knowledge and apply it, is such an individual.