St Patrick's Purgatory
The Happiness Stone
The King's Fringes
Worlds in collision
Guardian angels, personal daimons
James Price, alchemist
An Elementary Introduction to William Blake
Times #141, 2000
Landscape of Panic
A friend of mine once pointed out to me the spot in the New Forest where 'the last person to die of panic' had been found, the corpse crouched against a tree, its teeth bared in a rictus of fear. This had happened in about the 1920s, he thought; but it sounds, despite its rural setting, very like what we now call an urban legend. I wonder how many other woods or wild places are credited with a death by panic -- the idea that someone out in Nature can be suddenly overwhelmed by a seemingly uncaused irrational terror. It is a state named after the Greek god Pan because it is he who personifies the wilderness, inhabiting caves, dells, grottoes and woods; he who, with a terrible shout, causes the wayfarer to flee uncontrollably.
The sudden onset of panic is not only found in myth and legend, however. On a sunny summer's afternoon in 1953, my father and uncle were sea fishing off some rocks near Waterville in Co. Kerry. Both were young veterans of the second World War; my dad had been decorated more than once for bravery. At one point, my uncle told me, his line had snagged on something underwater. As he tried to tug it free, he had the distinct feeling that something was holding it. A kind of horror began to creep over him, as if the something were intelligent and terrible. He glanced over at my father who, deathly pale, was already watching him. As one, they threw down their rods and ran 'for their lives', not stopping until they were back at their hotel.
Common sense tells us that, in Ireland, the cause of panic might lie closer to home than Pan. The Tuatha de Danaan, also known as the Sidhe, the fairies, or, more in hope than expectation, the Good People, are as likely to harm as help us, dealing us a blow or 'stroke', abducting our children, blighting crops if we offend them. And we can, famously, offend them simply by trespassing on one of their haunts, whether a fairy 'fort' or rath, or one of the 'threshold zones' they favour, such as fords, bridges, sea shores etc. They do not want too much to be known about them, according to the poet W.B. Yeats; according to the folklorist, Katharine Briggs, they are dangerous if they see you before you see them. Incidentally, while twilight is traditionally the liminal time preferred by the fairies for their appearance, Pan's hour is noon. If incidences of panic do not literally occur at this time, they do take place in the heat of the day.
My supervisor at Cambridge, the Yeats' scholar Tom Henn, had an experience similar to my father's. He describes the experience in his autobiography, Five Arches. As a teenager, in 1915, he was fishing a tributary of the Shannon near Paradise, his family's estate in Co. Galway, when, as he writes, 'an overpowering fear attacked me, utterly cold in quality, and terrible because of its irrationality in that sunlit lonely place. I remember that I dashed out of the water, up and out of the hollow and ran and ran, sweat-sodden, till after a mile or so I came within sight of a cottage. There was nothing following me.'
According to her autobiography Time out of Mind, the medium and author Joan Grant -- her two books about ancient Egypt, Winged Pharaoh and The Eye of Horus, were received psychically-- was staying with her husband Leslie at a shooting-lodge, near Grantown-on-Spey in Scotland, in August 1928. One day they went to Rothiemurchus, intending to climb towards the Cairngorms. However, it was a beautiful September day, too hot for serious hiking, and so they settled for a gentle walk. 'Nothing could have been farther from my mind than spooks,' wrote Joan, 'when suddenly I was seized with such terror that I turned and in panic fled back along the path. Leslie ran after me, imploring me to tell him what was wrong. I could only spare breath enough to tell him to run faster, faster. Something utterly malign, four-legged and yet obscenely human, invisible and yet solid enough for me to hear the pounding of its hooves, was trying to reach me. If it did I should die, for I was far too frightened to know how to defend myself. I had run about half a mile when I burst through an invisible barrier behind which I was safe.'
Some years later, the local doctor told Joan that two hikers had been found dead on the exact location of her terror. Both men were under thirty; the weather had been fine; they had spent a good night under the shelter stone on the highest ridge (they had written to that effect in the book that was kept up there). 'They were found within a hundred yards of each other, sprawled face downward as though they had fallen headlong when in flight.' The doctor performed a post-mortem on them both. 'Never in my life have I seen healthier corpses,' he said. 'Not a thing wrong with either of the poor chaps except that their hearts stopped. I put "heart failure" on the chit, but it is my considered opinion that they died of fright.'
To be seized by panic depends in part on who you are, it seems, since Joan's husband was oblivious of the centaur-like pursuer. Yet the encounter also attaches to a particular place if the case of the dead hikers is anything to go by. On the other hand, Tom Henn subsequently went fishing several times at the place of his panic and experienced nothing like it again. Like all anomalous events, panic is partly to do with us and partly not, partly from within us and partly without.
Plutarch reported that a mysterious cry rang through late antiquity: 'Great Pan is dead!' Pan's death signifies the death of Nature as an animate power, the withdrawal of the gods and daimons. But gods cannot die; thus Pan may well have moved north to head, in the form of Wotan, the Wild Hunt which from time to time swept like a destructive wind over the countryside, maiming or deranging anyone in its path. He took cover behind the horned and hoofed Devil of the Christians. He haunted the literary imagination -- in English poetry he outnumbers his nearest Greek rivals (Helen, Orpheus and Persephone) by nearly two to one. Above all, he lived on in our nightmares, as Ephialtes -- 'he who jumps up', and then presses down on us so that we can neither move nor speak. Indeed, since our modern mythologies of religion and science have outlawed Pan, the creative voice of Nature has fallen silent and he is forced to appear inwardly, in the caves and grottoes of the psyche, as an overwhelming instinctual force.
Yet was Pan perhaps present in the following tale from crop circle lore? In May 1990 Gary and Vivienne Tomlinson were out walking near the village of Hambledon. They paused to watch the wind blowing over a cornfield. Vivienne, a 36-year-old housewife from Guildford, had always been fascinated by the sight and sound of wind, and 'can lose [her]self watching it.' Suddenly the wind changed. It seemed to blow from two directions at once, gathering strength, its whistling growing louder 'almost like a high-pitched pan-pipe sound.' 'Then we felt a wind pushing us from the side and above,' Vivienne reported. 'It was forcing down on our heads so that we could hardly stay upright yet my husband's hair was standing on end. It was incredible.... The noise was tremendous. We looked for a helicopter above us but there was nothing. Gary still shivers at the memory and how his hair stood on end.' Is this an account of Pan's primeval, paralysing, hair-raising 'shout'?
The wind continued to swirl around them, and they saw the corn being pushed down, forming a corn circle. 'The corn swirled and then gently laid down. There was no feel of wind now or sound. It felt strange watching these ever-fast gathering whirlwinds. They just seemed to increase; they were enveloping around quickly. I panicked, grabbed my husband's hand and pulled him out of the circle.' Her instincts were sound: whoever steps into a fairy ring or joins a fairy revel is liable to be trapped.
As the personification of Nature, Pan is ambiguous. He is the protector of herdsmen and shepherds, fishermen and hunters. His benign face persuades those of us with a Romantic view that Nature is a smiling realm of peace and healing. But his dark frightening side connects us with our own deepest instincts of fear and flight. This may not be a bad thing. If we are out for a gentle stroll in the country and, suddenly, we find that the world we thought was passive and dead is alive, animate and watchful, of course our first reaction is panic. It is we who are then passive, paralysed, as the world begins to move. No wonder we run as soon as we can. But this may be only the way we are taken whenever we break away from civilisation, out of our safe habitat and into the wilderness. Pan helps us to stay in touch with instinct, to break out of the defensiveness that can lead to paranoia, to prevent the city wall from becoming a prison. Pan introduces a bit of necessary wildness into our lives; he gives body to our airy-fairy spirituality; he injects the nymphs of sweetness and light with a bit of hoof and hair and goat-stink. That Pan can be good for the soul is evidenced by Apuleius' tale of Eros and Psyche in which he saves Psyche -- the soul -- from suicide after Eros has abandoned her.
Nevertheless, the perils of an encounter with Pan should not be underestimated. In Memory Hold-the-Door, John Buchan, the former governor general of Canada and author of such adventure stories as The Thirty-Nine Steps, recounts how in 1910 he set out to climb a small peak called the Alpspitze in the Bavarian Wettersteingebirge above Partenkirchen. Accompanied by a young forester named Sebastian, he reached the top at about nine in the morning (having left at 2 a.m.). They breakfasted in a mountain inn before beginning the six-mile walk back down to the valley. 'It was a brilliant summer day with a promise of great heat, but our road lay through pleasant shady pine woods and flowery meadows,' wrote Buchan in his autobiography. 'I noticed that my companion had fallen silent, and, glancing at him, was amazed to see that his face was dead-white, that sweat stood in beads on his forehead, and that his eyes were staring ahead as if he was in an agony of fear, as if terror were all around him so that he dared not look one way rather than another. Suddenly he began to run, and I ran too, some power not myself constraining me. Terror had seized me also, but I did not know what I dreaded; it was like the epidemic of giggling which overcomes children who have no wish to laugh. We ran -- we ran like demented bacchanals, tearing down the glades, leaping rocks, bursting through thickets, colliding with trees, sometimes colliding with each other, and all the time we never uttered a sound. At last we fetched up beside the much-frequented valley highway, where we lay for a time utterly exhausted. For the rest of the road home we did not speak; we did not even dare to look at each other.'
What, wonders Buchan, was it all about? 'I suppose it was Panic,' he surmises. 'Sebastian had seen the goat-foot god, or something of the kind -- he was forest born, and Bavarian peasants are very near primeval things -- and he had made me feel his terror.' It is a terror, salutary or fatal, which we are always open to whenever we stray off the beaten track; a horror we are always liable to hook whenever we sink a line into the depths.
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Times #142, 2001
In his book Mysteries, Colin Wilson describes an odd experience which occurred at the Cornish stone circle called Boscawen-un in 1975. Visiting it with some friends, who only had half an hour before they had to be taken to catch a train, he decided to nip over to a little hilltop, about 450 yards away, to inspect a landmark called the Giant's footprint. However, what with the bracken holding him up, he found that he did not have time after all to make the landmark, and turned back. The stone circle was no longer visible, but the countryside there is open and he clearly saw the direction he had come from. He plodded downhill. Then, to his amazement, he found he was lost. He bore left, towards the path at the bottom of the hill, but reached a wall, which he climbed over and found himself in a strange field. It took him half an hour to get back to the stone circle; and he could not work out how he had got lost - to end up at the main road, as he had, he must have gone in the opposite direction to the one he intended.
Wilson is inclined to subscribe to the theory that such disorientation can be triggered by 'nodal points' where leys intersect. But there is a more traditional explanation: he was pisky- or pixie-led. 'Pixy-leading is perhaps the commonest of the fairy experiences in modern times,' remarks the folklorist Katharine Briggs. It takes two related forms: either one finds oneself utterly lost, often in a usually familiar place; or one finds oneself unable to find a way out of an ordinary place, such as a field.
In 1928, Gwen Herbert was riding on a part of Dartmoor she knew well on a fine bright day. “I was suddenly - to use a Dartmoor expression – ‘mazed’. I knew the places yet was utterly befogged. I felt I was pixy lead, and started to turn my pockets inside out. While I was doing so, I suddenly knew where I was exactly.” Turning your pockets or coat inside out is held to break fairy enchantments, but just as often, it seems, it does not. Mrs Herbert was lucky; so was John Rivers of Galway who, in Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland, is reported by Lady Gregory: “Once I was led astray in that field and went round and round and could find no way out - till at last I thought of the old Irish fashion of turning my waistcoat and that did the trick.”
‘Astray’ rather than pixy-lead is what the Irish call this enchantment. “My father was led astray one time,” related another Galway man, “when he was coming home from a neighbour’s house, and he was led here and there till he didn’t know what way he was going. And then the moon began to shine out and he saw his shadow, and another shadow along with it ten feet in length. So with that he ran, and when he got to the wood of Cloon he fell down in a faint.” This experience is also called ‘the stray sod’, following the belief that the fairies put a spell on a sod of grass so that whoever steps on it loses his way or cannot find an exit from the place he is in.
In The Middle Kingdom, Dermot MacManus tells us how the Reverend Harris, rector of a parish on the Leitrim/Roscommon border, set off on Midsummer’s Day, 1916, to visit a sick parishioner who lived about seven miles away by road - but only about three by the footpath over the hills. He knew the path well, and although it was 10pm, it was still light. Entering a field via a five-barred gate, he followed the path to the stile on the other side. But when he got there, there was no stile. Thinking he must have wandered off the path, he followed the hedge round. Still no stile. He retraced his steps, as he thought, to the gate - but that, too, had disappeared, along with the path that led to it. He walked the whole perimeter of the hedge, scrutinising it for any opening until he arrived back at the place he had started from. There was no way out. He searched for another two hours until, suddenly, the spell was lifted and he easily found the gate and stile where they should have been all along.
An even stranger tale of MacManus’s concerns a 19-year-old girl, companion to his aunt, who went on her day off to visit a neighbour. When she had not returned for supper at 7pm, search parties were dispatched. They looked everywhere for her until, at about midnight, the girl turned up at the house and collapsed in tears. She had made a detour, she explained, to climb Lis Ard, the famous ‘fairy fort’ on MacManus land. She had climbed the slope of the hill around which the bank and ditch of the ‘fort’ ran, and walked through the beech wood on the top. However, when she tried to leave, walking towards a gap in the bank, she felt ‘a queer kind of jerk, a muscular jerk inside her rather than from outside, and before she realized what had happened she found herself walking quickly in the opposite direction.’ When she turned and headed once again for the gap, the same thing happened. Whatever way she tried to get out she felt as if there was an invisible barrier preventing her. As darkness fell, she became increasingly desperate, afraid to stop following the encircling barrier around the hill. She even saw a search party, and could hear them calling out for her; but they neither saw her nor heard her cries. At last, all of a sudden, the barrier seemed to lift; and, terrified and exhausted, she made her way home.
Where are the stray sods of today, I’d like to know? Perhaps we encounter them more often than we know - but overlook them, preferring to believe we have misread a map. A Nick Hunt of Brighton wrote in to UFO Reality (Aug/Sept 1996) to say that he and two friends had seen a long tubular UFO on the way back from a UFO conference in Wales. Having spent the night at Avebury, they left for home at noon. “After being on the road for nearly an hour we pulled over to get our bearings, and there was a sign that read something like ‘A36 - 30 miles.’ We were unaware of going round in circles but after a further 3 hours we found ourselves back in the same position!....No extra fuel was consumed during the 3 hours we were driving.” Another tale of going astray on the road comes from the TV presenter Michael Aspel who told EVA magazine (I also heard him tell the story on television) how he had been driving his familiar route home from London to his Surrey home one night, when he suddenly realised he was lost ‘but not lost in the ordinary way. I was deeply and frighteningly lost. Soon I found myself in Heathrow Airport in some sort of compound with wire fencing around it. I managed to get back out, and feeling dizzy and scared, I drove for miles. I was terrified. It seemed I had no control of events...When I got home I felt terrible…as if I'd been taken over by something. If I'd seen a spaceship hovering over me, I wouldn't have been surprised.'
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One night in 1692, the Reverend Robert Kirk decided to take the air outside his manse in Aberfoyle, Scotland. He was forty-eight years old, and, as far as we know, in rude health. Dressed only in his nightshirt, he wandered over to one of his favourite spots nearby - a fairy hill, such as the Irish call a rath or 'fort', where the people of fairy are supposed to dwell. Suddenly, Kirk collapsed. His body was carried home and in due course buried in Aberfoyle kirkyard.
Some time later, tradition tells us, Kirk appeared to one of his relatives and gave him a message for his cousin, Graham of Duchray: Kirk declared that he was not dead, but a captive among the fairies. He announced that he would appear again at the christening of the child his wife had borne him after his alleged death. As soon as he was seen, Graham was to throw a knife over him, thus breaking the fairy enchantment and restoring him to this world. Sure enough, while everyone was seated at the table for the christening feast, Kirk appeared. Graham, however, was so astonished that he omitted to throw the knife. Kirk retired, never to be seen again.
Fairylore is very persistent. The belief that Kirk is in the land of the fairies endured. More than two hundred years later, while researching his landmark book The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries (Oxford, 1911), W.Y. Evans-Wentz was told by the woman who kept the key to the kirkyard, that Kirk's tomb contained a coffin full of stones. Kirk himself, she maintained, had been taken into the fairy fort - and she pointed out the low hill nearby. More recently still, in 1943, the folklorist Katharine Briggs met a young woman at Methven who had rented the manse at Aberfoyle. Expecting a baby, the woman was anxious to get back to the manse before her baby was born because it was said that, if a baby was born and christened there - and providing a dirk was thrust into the seat of his chair - Kirk could yet be freed from the enchantment of the fairies.[2 ]]
There is a strong intimation behind this story that Kirk had paid the price for looking too closely into the affairs of the fairies. He was the seventh son of a minister and was known to have the second sight. But more than this, he made a study of fairies and fairylore and, the year before his death, published a pioneering book of folklore, The Secret Commonwealth. When W. B. Yeats was conducting his own researches into the Irish fairies, he noted that the old women were the most learned in the subject, but would not easily be induced to talk: 'for the fairies are very secretive, and much resent being talked of; and are there not many stories of old women who were nearly pinched into their graves or numbed with fairy blasts?'  Elsewhere he writes that the message of the fairies is: 'Be careful, and do not seek to know too much about us.' 
Implicit, then, in the Kirk story is the idea that he might have been taken by a fairy 'blast', 'touch' or 'stroke'. An account from Co. Donegal, Ireland, emphasises the gravity of such an event: Neil Coulton was out picking bilberries with his female cousin when they heard music. 'We hurried around the rocks, and there we were within a few hundred feet of six or eight of the gentle folk [i.e. fairies], and they dancing. When they saw us, a little woman dressed all in red came running out from them towards us, and she struck my cousin across the face with what seemed to be a green rush. We ran for home as hard as we could, and when my cousin reached the house, she fell dead. Father saddled a horse and went for Father Regan [i.e. the priest]. When Father Regan arrived, he put a stole about his neck and began praying over my cousin and reading psalms and striking her with the stole; and in that way brought her back. He said if she had not caught hold of my brother, she would have been taken for ever.' 
The priest is well-versed in fairylore - we notice how he strikes the girl with the Christian stole to undo the fairy stroke - and so he does not mean 'taken to God' (killed) but 'taken by the fairies' (abducted). While there is no return from the Christian Otherworld, from pagan Otherworlds there is. Death is not absolute; rather, it is a sojourn, more or less prolonged, in the Otherworld. The Reverend Kirk's stay seems likely, now, to be indefinite; but most abductees do return eventually - as this last, more cheerful story illustrates: A miner named only as Tom from Bell Island, Conception Bay, Newfoundland, described how his buddy Jimmy had asked him to cover for him at work for ten minutes while he popped into the woods (presumably to relieve himself). It was 11 A.M. Jimmy did not come back. Search parties were sent out, the police were involved, everything, for two or three days. On the third day Jimmy reappeared, said Tom, 'a-beaming like an electric light bulb' and claiming to have been gone for only an hour. He had met 'the nicest little people' who 'had food and beer, and danced and played the accordion. Real friendly, he said... Yes, sir, he was the only one that was ever treated that good by the fairies. But people always thought him a little queer after that. And you know, he swore it was the truth right up until he died. And you know something else, I believe him.' 
1. Introduction to Kirk, Rev. Robert, The Secret Commonwealth, ed. Stewart Sanderson (Cambridge, 1976)
2. Bennett, Margaret, 'Balquidder Revisited...', in The Good People: New Fairylore Essays, ed. Peter Narvaez (New York and London, 1991), pp.98f
4. Yeats, W.B. (ed.), Fairy and Folk Tales of Ireland (Gerrards Cross, 1973), p. 4 5.
5. ibid. p. xvi 6.
6. Evans-Wentz, op. cit., p. 73 7.
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St Patrick’s Purgatory was one of the most famous places of pilgrimage in Europe during the mediaeval period. It was a kind of cave, it seems, on an island in Lough Derg, Co. Donegal, in the north-west of Ireland. Thousands of pilgrims still visit the island every year to do penance. The present basilica is said to have been built over the original cave, which was demolished by Bishop Spottiswoode of Clogher in 1632. He called it a ‘poor beggarly hole’. But the earliest accounts report the cave as ‘a kind of pit with steps leading down to a considerable depth.’ In 1411, Antonio Mannini described the cave as being three feet by nine feet, and high enough to kneel but not to stand. According to Knight Owen, who visited it in 1147, the cave appears small from the outside but is cavernous within. He follows a long dark passageway towards a distant glimmer of light, which finally brings him to a vast open cloister. Here he is greeted by twelve (or fifteen) men clothed in white, who warn Owen that terrible demons will try to force him to return, but, if he succumbs to their threats, he will die.
And so it turns out. He resists the demons and is given a tour of the punishments of hell: souls being tortured by extreme cold, 'devoured by dragons, set upon by serpents and toads, fixed to the ground with red-hot nails, baked in furnaces, immersed in boiling cauldrons.’ He has to walk the Bridge of Three Impossibilities - so high, so narrow, so slippery that it is almost impossible not to plunge into the stinking stream below, filled with tormented souls. On the other side, Owen finds himself in an earthly paradise, where souls destined for Heaven are waiting. He is told that, however much he wishes to stay, he must return and tell others of his experience. When he is released from the cave after twenty-four hours, he is more dead than alive. There are many records by pilgrims of visits to the Purgatory. While nothing happened to some of them, many others attest to visions like Owen’s. Mannini did not talk about his experience, saying only that he was 'marked forever’. Raymond de Perelhos depicted the Purgatory as a dangerous underground labyrinth, from which he was lucky to escape. He also met the dead, both King John of Arragon (sic) and a female relative who had been alive when he left home and whose death he had not yet heard of. A French penitent called Louis de France, who made the pilgrimage in 1358, described his encounter with women of incredible beauty who tried to tempt him. He found them sitting in the shade of a great tree in a great field, playing chess.
Throughout the Middle Ages, similar itineraries through purgatory and hell, with a glimpse of paradise, were described - but all by people who had undergone what we nowadays call a Near-Death Experience. The pilgrims to St Patrick’s Purgatory, however, underwent nothing of the kind. Mannini spoke, it is true, of having the office of the dead spoken over him by the Augustinian canons who took control of the site in 1135. This would have been a recognition of the death-and-rebirth nature of the experience; and it is possible that some kind of trance was induced, analogous to the visionary trances of shamanic initiation. But the legends would have us believe that the pilgrim walked fully conscious into the Otherworld. This was no more than a continuation of the whole pilgrimage to Ireland which, situated at the extreme western point of Christendom, was itself imagined as a kind of purgatory. St Patrick’s Purgatory is particularly interesting because it represents a unique nexus where contradictions meet - the physical and the non-physical, the literal and the metaphorical, and, lastly, the Christian and the pagan. It is, for instance, the Christian counterpart of those portals into the Otherworld - usually the prehistoric sites called fairy 'forts’ or raths - into which troops of the Sidhe, laughing gaily, their weird silver eyes flashing, are seen abruptly to enter. It is also a gateway to Hades, like the specific caves which are mentioned in Greek myths, and can still be seen today. Instead of meeting beautiful 'fairy women’ within, as Louis de France did, one meets the unhappy dead or even, like de Perelhos, deceased people one knows.
It is likely, then, that St Patrick’s Purgatory was a pre-Christian portal into the Otherworld. Once christianized, humans could enter where once only the Sidhe could pass. But there are of course men and women whose vocation and training enables them to enter at will into the Otherworld. Perhaps the cave was a place of initiation for Celtic shamans who, if they were at all like other shamans, would have undergone an intense ordeal. Typically, while travelling in trance through the Otherworld, their flesh is devoured by wild animals or boiled in cauldrons; they are given new bones, hammered out of iron by unearthly smiths. Such procedures are so like Knight Owen’s description of the purgatorial torments, that we see at once that initiation has been transformed by Christianity into punishment. The shaman comes back from the Otherworld re-made, ready to heal; the Christian penitent returns shaken at heart, ready to convert others.
1. Curtayne, Alice, Lough Derg: St Patrick’s Purgatory (London and Dublin, 1944), p. 79
2. ibid. p. 99
3. Zaleski, Carol, Otherworld Journeys (Oxford, 1988), p. 36
4. Hopkin, Alannah, The Living Legend of St Patrick (London, 1990), pp. 87-9
5. Zaleski, p. 77
6. Curtayne, p. 45
7. ibid. p. 44
8. Zaleski, passim
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Times #209, 2006
Things that disappear and re-appear, especially keys, have featured recently in 'It Happened to Me...' (FT 200, 206). Almost everyone knows what it's like to have vital objects suddenly de-materialise just when they're busy or in a hurry, and need them most. My mum called it 'pixilation'. She was often vexed by vital objects, especially keys, disappearing from the place where she had just put them down and re-appearing later - after an exhaustive search - in full view, in an obvious spot, as if to mock her. I remember an occasion when, about to leave home in a hurry to catch a ferry for Ireland, she checked her handbag for the umpteenth time to make sure the tickets were there. They weren't. At a loss, she unpacked her entire suitcase, even though she knew she'd never put them there (but where else could they be?). In despair, she asked 'Them' (Who? The pixies, presumably) to give the tickets back. The tickets were found a few minutes later, sitting slap bang on top of the packed suitcase.
Her most memorable pixilation concerned her engagement ring which went missing in Brittany. She'd taken it off to bathe (her two sisters being witnesses), no doubt in some corrigan-haunted cove, and it could not be found. It turned up ten days later - in her jewellery box at home in England. But then, rings are as often associated with magical movement - susceptible to being strangely lost and found - as keys and tickets which, of course, symbolise transitional states, those liminal 'in-between' times and places when the Otherworld is more likely to obtrude and paranormal events to happen.
Of course, when our keys disappear from where we thought they were and then turn up in some obvious place we thought we'd looked in, we persuade ourselves that either we had not in fact put them where we thought, or that for some reason we failed to see them, although they were under our noses. In our Cartesian world-view, which so adamantly divides reality into a subjective mind and an objective world, something is either there or not-there; so the missing keys must either have been not-there, or else there - but overlooked by some momentary daffiness, as epistemologists put it, on our part.
In the fairy lore of Ireland, however, it's possible to discern an epistemology - a theory of perception - which is more sophisticated than ours. The fairies, it is said, will cast a 'glamour' over the world to make something appear to us other than it is. Alternatively, they can put a 'pishogue' over us, to make us see something other than it is. In other words, a thing can be simultaneously there and not-there. The locus of reality lies neither with the Cartesian subject nor object, but - lying sometimes more with us, at other times more with the world - is shifted between them.
My mum sometimes took a Cartesian, scientific approach. On one occasion, the little pot of face cream she'd been using disappeared from her dressing-table, right from under her nose while she was chatting to her sister. Determined to get to the bottom of things once and for all, they both put their fingers on every item on the table, calling out the name of each. There was no pot of face cream. As they discussed the extraordinary nature of 'pixilation' together, my aunt suddenly let out a scream: the pot of cream had re-appeared within the curled fingers of my mother where they rested on the surface of the dressing-table.
Indeed, perhaps the purpose of pixilation is to introduce us to the in-between world. It opens a nagging crack in the fabric of our comfortable reality, a crack small enough to ignore or overlook if we wish - as we must, if we are not to plunge into unfathomable depths. Pixilation is analogous to the weak spot on those violent, busy, invulnerable heroes, such as Achilles and Ajax or Sigurd of Norse myth fame. It is a mixed blessing to be invulnerable because it also seals you up in your own world and cuts you off from commerce with the Otherworld. Thus, like the little spots of weakness on the hero - the heel or the patch on the shoulder - pixilation is a tiny fault-line symbolising the moment in the midst of our armoured surface, our invincible egotism, our heroic hurry and certainty, when we are suddenly opened up, like wounds, to the possibility of death. Death, that is, of the ego and its common-sense life, and the beginning of the deeper, imaginative life of the soul. We are momentarily stopped in our tracks and sent plummeting down into the world of the unconscious psyche - the cold and brilliant halls of Hades, who is not only death but also 'plouton', the rich one. These riches are not of this world, however, but the mythic riches of the imaginative Otherworld.
When Andrew Shilcock's key went missing in the Georgian House Hotel, Haslemere (FT 200) he turned over the whole room looking for it. Finally he decided, wisely, to 'ask for it back'. Almost at once it was discovered in the depression left by the foot of a heavy cupboard which had mysteriously shifted away from the wall. He strongly implies that he thinks a ghost was responsible. His eldest daughter, he adds wryly, has to be restrained from asking 'The Poltergeist' whenever anything goes astray.
Kat Cauthon's mum (FT 206) similarly laid her pixilation at the door of the dead. [Note: when I looked for FT 206 to check the spelling of 'Cauthon' I couldn't find it anywhere, although - dammit - I'd just been taking notes from it. I still can't find it, so: sorry, Kat and her mum if I've spelt you wrongly. However, in the course of my long, exasperated search I found, in plain view on my bedroom rug, a set of car keys that'd gone missing four weeks ago. I knew I shouldn't have started on this subject....] When her keys went missing, Kat's mum invoked 'Millie', her name for the invisible 'Presence' she sensed in the house, presumably the ghost of the old lady she'd seen in the window, who prodded her in the back occasionally, like a reminder of her mortality. David Gamon's missing key (FT 200) re-appeared on top of his dog's harness on an easy chair 'as if it had fallen from the ceiling'. This reminds us that pixilation is related not only to ghostly action but also to the activity of poltergeists: Phoenix Rhiannon's lost key (FT 206) dropped suddenly from above, brushing her hair on the way down, in the manner of poltergeist-style bombardments. Perhaps vanishing objects are simply the corollary, in a self-regulating universe, of apports - those random objects, sometimes flying through solid walls, which appear as abruptly as pixilated things disappear. (Apports are never particularly significant or valuable in themselves; it's their mode of appearance which is suggestive. The only useful one I ever heard of was the leg of lamb that appeared in the kitchen of a vicar's wife, who promptly roasted it.)
It looks very much as though so-called pixilations are as much the work of the dead as of the fairies. This should not surprise us: the Otherworld is an ambiguous realm, in which the daimonic beings and the dead often overlap. The dead are often seen among the fairies, for instance, in Irish fairy lore; and in Brittany, all the characteristics of the fairies are attributed to the dead. As Camille Flammarion remarked in [italic}Mysterious Psychic Forces [close italic] (Boston, 1907), the spirit manifestations in séances more often resemble 'the presences of mischievous boys than serious bona fide actions. It is impossible not to notice this.... Either it is we who produce these phenomena or it is spirits. But mark this well: these spirits are not necessarily the souls of the dead; for other kinds of spiritual beings may exist, and space may be full of them without our ever knowing anything about it..... Do we not find in the ancient literatures, demons, angels, gnomes, goblins, sprites, spectres, elementals, etc.? Perhaps these legends are not without some foundation in fact.' I've experienced such an overlap myself.
My mum used to go on at me to empty the ashtray in her car, which I used to borrow and smoke cigarettes in. Finally, I did. But I left the emptied ashtray on the sideboard in her kitchen, and she'd go on at me to replace it in the car, where I was now flicking ash on the floor. Finally I said I would - but the ashtray had disappeared from the sideboard on which we had seen it every day, a constant source of annoyance to her and of guilt to me! We both searched everywhere for it, several times over the ensuing weeks, but to no avail: the ashtray had disappeared into thin air. For once, no appeal to the pixies, or whomever, had any effect.
My mum died suddenly. (Incidentally, her bunch of keys disappeared by pixilation the day before, but returned on the morning of her death. My sister even remarked that some transition must be in the offing). The day after her funeral I took her car out. I lit a fag. The ashtray was back where it should be, installed in its slot under the dashboard. Did she replace it? Or did those pesky pixies - the ones she quarrelled with all her life but which now, perhaps, were abetting her? Either way, I had to laugh.
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Times #145, 2001
The Happiness Stone
Garreg Ddedwydd - the Happiness Stone - is what old Griff, who lived on the Welsh mountain Plynlimmon, called it. He himself was known as the dyn hysbis - cunning man or wise man - whose powers were famous throughout Cardiganshire. The stone rested by his hearth; it weighed about 16 Ibs (7kg); it was like a lump of glass or quartz, blue but with green depths, roughly hewn, with many facets. At least, this was how it was described by oliver Sandys or Baroness Barcynska, two pen names of the best-selling novelist Marguerite Caradoc Evans - the last two names were those of her husband, the Welsh writer, who took her to live in Aberystwyth in the 1930s and who died in 1945. They had gone to see old Griff because Caradoc was having property difficulties and Marguerite was suffering from writer's block. These problems were resolved almost as soon as they had finished speaking to him, and so they became friends.
Old Griff implied that the Stone was, if not the source, then an important ingredient of his magic. It had been in his family for hundreds of years, and he thought that one of his ancestors may have brought it from Palestine. He pointed to some chisel marks and said that it had been cleft in two - though where the other half was, he did not know. He only knew that it could help anyone in distress or sickness. To Marguerite's surprise, old Griff insisted that she take the Stone just before he died in 1939. But she did not realize its powers for another fifteen years - until the war was over, her husband dead, her long grieving nearly at an end; until, that is, she met, at the house of a mutual friend, Captain Gordon 'Kenya' Hewitt.
They immediately felt a deep, almost mystical affinity. Before long, Hewitt had acquired a promontory of land, Pant-eidal, near Aberdovery, which reminded him of Kenya and where, in a chalet-style house, he installed (strictly as a friend, I think) Marguerite and her Stone. It was he who had the idea that it could be wished on; and this is why: While out in Kenya developing his coffee plantation, his right-hand man, Songora, had taken him to where his tribe lived on Mount Elgon, a 14,000-foot extinct volcano on the Kenya/Uganda border which took a month to reach in the dry season. Songora's tribe lived about a quarter the way up the mountain, partly in caves. They were a tall, thin, coffee-coloured, Nilotic people (C.G. Jung, who visited them in 1925, related them to the Masai) who claimed descent from the ancient Egyptians. He attributed the great peace and happiness of his people to a stone, of which his father was the guardian. He called it Mahenge Mzuri, the Good Stone. It was not complete - at some point it had been split in two - and he did not know where the other half was. No white man had ever seen the Stone (Jung does not mention it); but Songora took his friend Hewitt to the deepest cave, where mammoth bones were set above its entrance and which 'ran far into the mountain. And there in a kind of natural grotto illuminated by tallow lamps,' he wrote to Marguerite, 'I looked upon the Stone, which seems to be the like of the Blue Stone which is yours.'
The poet Dylan Thomas was one of the first to wish on the stone. A friend of Caradoc's, he had called on them once when he was very despondent about his verse and despairing of ever becoming successful. He claimed that he had felt a distinct tingling in his fingers when he touched the Stone - something often reported by others - and that he had devoutly (and slightly greedily) made three wishes. But it was Marguerite's appearance with the Stone on a TV programme, 'The Secret Arts', presented by the archaeologist Glyn Daniel in the early fifties, which really put the Stone on the map. She was flooded with requests to be allowed to touch it. So many people came that Hewitt was forced to move it out of the house into a home-made grotto as close as he could make it to the one he had seen in Africa. No one was allowed to see it out of idle curiosity; there had to be some real need or wish. Sure enough, again and again, Marguerite heard how the supplicants had benefited - a job found, a depression lifted, an alcoholic cured, failing sight restored, asthma and arthritis relieved, a deformed hand healed. The place came to be known as the 'little Welsh Lourdes'. When, years later, a sick and drink-ravaged Dylan Thomas called again, he admitted that his wishes, all granted, had been for fame, success and money.
When Marguerite died in the early sixties, she bequeathed the Stone to St Fagan's Folk Museum in Cardiff, requesting that it should always be made available to anyone in trouble who wanted to touch it. When I wrote to the museum in about 1974 to ask after the Stone's health, the curator informed me that Marguerite's son - Nick, I think; Evans, I suppose - had taken the Stone to the USA, never to be heard from again. I'd like to know where it ended up. Perhaps this item could act as an APB - anyone out there seen it?
[See The Miracle Stone of Wales by Oliver Sandys (London: Rider, 1957)]
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Times #143, 2001
The King's Fringes
Coming home late after a lock-in at the Chalk and Cheese the other night, and inspired by strong drink to open - as you do - the Memoirs of Louis de Rouvroy, duc de Saint-Simon, who described so vividly life at the court of Versailles during the reign of Louis XIV, I chanced upon a curious event that should, I think, be entered at once into the Fortean archives. Saint-Simon records it in 1699, but it occurred just before he began his memoirs, at the age of sixteen, in 1691. It concerns a strange robbery.
The furniture in the state apartments of Versailles, stretching all the way from the gallery to the chapel, was upholstered in crimson velvet with heavy gold braid and fringes. One morning, it was discovered that all this trimming had been cut off and removed. No one could understand how this had happened in a place where people were passing to and fro all day long, and which was locked and guarded all night. The King’s valet, Bontemps, desperately searched everywhere, and had every possible enquiry made - but to no avail.
Five or six days later, the youthful Saint-Simon was on duty, attending at the King’s supper, which, like all Louis XIV’s activities, took place in public amid much ceremony and ritual. Only the Royal physician, d’Aquin, stood between him and the King, while no one at all stood between him and the table. Thus he had an excellent view of what happened next. Just as the entremets (between the roast and the dessert) were being served, ‘a monstrous big blackish object came sailing through the air over the table.’ It went so fast that Saint-Simon had no chance to react before it landed on the end of the table on the King’s left. ‘The noise it made was prodigious and the weight seemed likely to break the table. The plates jumped but luckily nothing was upset, for the object fell upon the cloth and not among the dishes.’ Perhaps the strangest reaction came from the King. He simply half-turned his head at the sudden crash and remarked, without the slightest trace of alarm, ‘I expect those are my fringes.’
The package was rather ‘larger than a priest’s hat with the edges flattened out, about two feet high, shaped like an ill-made pyramid.’ It had been thrown, or had flown, from some distance behind where Saint-Simon was standing, through the middle door of the two ante-chambers. A piece of fringe had become detached and fallen on the King’s wig. It was deftly removed by Livry, the high steward, who then went to the end of the table and verified that the object was indeed the fringes, done up in a bundle. Everyone present saw them, and there was a hum of wondering voices.
However, just as Livry was about to pick up the bundle, he noticed that there was a note attached. The King asked to see it, but Livry ‘very rightly’ refused - presumably to protect the monarch from ‘anything untoward’ - and passed the note behind the King’s back to d’Aquin, where Saint-Simon was clearly able to read it over his shoulder. ‘The note was written in a disguised hand, long like a woman’s, and it read: “Take back your fringes, Bontemps, they were not worth the trouble. Give my respects to the King.” It was folded, but not sealed.’ D’Aquin then read the note aloud to the King, who remarked ‘This is most insolent!’, but in a calm almost bored voice. Then he told them to remove the package. It was so heavy that Livry could barely lift it, and quickly handed it over to one of the footmen. After that, the King did not mention the incident again and supper passed as though nothing had happened.
‘Apart from the incredible insolence of the theft,’ comments Saint-Simon, ‘what an appalling risk to have taken! How could anyone, unless he were surrounded by accomplices, have hurled a package of that weight and size for such a distance, especially during the King’s supper, when the crowd is so dense that one can scarcely move in the outer rooms? Even had there been a group of accomplices, how could the wide gesture needed to throw with such force possibly have passed unnoticed?’ The area was eventually sealed off (it was unthinkable to do this while the King was still at table) and only one stranger was found and arrested. He was quickly vouched for, however, and released. ‘Nothing further has ever been discovered about this theft, and the strange manner of its return.’
It is difficult to know what to add. Was there a poltergeist at work? The pointlessness of the prank, together with the accuracy of the package’s flight, breaking nothing, suggests that there may have been; and yet poltergeists do not often leave notes. The certainty of the King that the bundle contained his fringes, and his lack of surprise over the way they were returned, has the tenor of paranormal events - which, oddly enough, are often received with exactly that kind of calm, bordering on ennui, just when we might expect them to be greeted with shock and alarm [see FT 94,p.45]. Any explanations gratefully received....
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Times #220, 2007
It was exciting to read in FT 215 about the return of red mercury. It gladdened my heart to see that this mysterious substance has continued to evolve and shape-change since last I heard about it, and is keeping alive one of the ancient and seminal myths underlying Western culture.
The story so far, in brief and as I've come across it, is this:
Red mercury probably first appeared on the European black market sometime in 1977. Some said it was 'red' because it was from Russia; others said it had a red colour. It was being smuggled out of the Soviet Union to Germany and Italy, and thence to highly volatile places such as Iraq, Lebanon, Israel and South Africa. It was rumoured to possess astounding power: for example, as a high-energy catalyst which accelerated the chain reaction in thermonuclear devices. In short, it was a terrorist's dream - it could make atomic bombs easy to build and small enough to fit in a suitcase. Later on, red mercury came to acquire more subtle qualities, as a stealth coating for aircraft, for example, or as a means of increasing the flow of oil wells.
Western governments were quick to deny its existence; but, as Paul Sieveking has described , red mercury refused to disappear. There were rumours of a KGB report which had concluded that this potent chemical, or whatever, did not exist. But then there was a letter, signed by Boris Yeltsin, that gave a certain company the right to export red mercury. The contradictions were compounded by Andrei Chernenko, the then Russian security minister spokesman, who said in August 1992 that it 'does not exist at all' - only to add, two months later, that 'no major leaks' of it had occurred. Occasionally, samples of red mercury have been intercepted or 'recovered'. They turn out to be pure mercury, or mercury tinged with brick dust, or else compounds of mercury. They seem, in other words, not to be the 'real thing'.
It's tempting to see the whole business as a hoax. Yet, if it is, it is one which the hoaxers themselves seem to believe in. Perhaps it is more like one of those urban legends - yet it is compelling enough for an English TV reporter to have procured expenses large enough to pursue red mercury for eighteen months. I watched his report . He found a Russian scientist willing to discuss red mercury. A new type of tiny neutron bomb, said the Russian, was within sight. But the scientist did not turn up for a second meeting where more technical question were to be asked - he claimed security had been tightened up. Another Russian scientist was found, but he wouldn't go into any detail about red mercury. A third promised to answer questions in two weeks' time, but two months passed before he made contact - and then he only indicated that red mercury made nuclear weapons more efficient. The scientists themselves seem to be as much in the grip of the red mercury folklore as the investigators. At the end of the programme, the reporter was still waiting for definite news. Perhaps he's still waiting, twelve years on.
Meanwhile, I forgot all about red mercury until FT supplied news of the trial, in July 2006, of three men accused - and acquitted - of offering Mazher Mahmood £300,000 to acquire a kilo of red mercury on behalf of a client in the Middle East. But, in a twist worthy of the whole scam-cum-legend, Mahmood was none other than the News of the World's 'fake sheikh' - who was in turn accused of being an agent provocateur bent on entrapment.
Two features of the case are especially appealing to Forteans (neither is pleasing to taxpayers, who footed a million-pound bill for the trial). Firstly, it highlighted the intriguing mythic confusion surrounding red mercury - no one in the court-room could, in the end, say for certain that red mercury actually existed. Thus, while proceeding on the basis that it does exist, the trial ended up by questioning its reality. We could say: questioning the nature of reality itself.
Secondly, the case brought to light a new property attributed to red mercury: its supposed medicinal power to prolong life. Although, even here, there was comic confusion as the judge admitted that he thought he'd heard one of the defendants say that red mercury was a remedy for impotence, while the other barristers heard that it was for long life. (One defendant had definitely said at one point that red mercury was a money-laundering liquid. Literally - he believed it could be used to wash discoloured money!)
At first sight, the leap from nuclear device accelerator to elixir of life seems absurd. But it exactly parallels the properties of the alchemists' lapis philosophorum or Stone of the Philosophers (hence, as we Philosophers say, Philosophers', and not Philosopher's, Stone). No one entangled in the red mercury legend seems aware that it is a recapitulation of that alchemical myth which, willy-nilly, continues to go about its business in the collective unconscious. The Philosopers' Stone was also known as the Red Tincture or Powder; and 'mercury' was its chief ingredient. It turned base metal to gold, of course - an idea which was perfectly reasonable to the mediaeval mind which believed that natural objects have an innate disposition to perfect themselves. For example, all the lesser, corruptible metals such as copper, tin or lead are growing naturally - 'evolving' - towards the incorruptible perfection of gold. Like red mercury, the Red Tincture was only a kind of catalyst, therefore, accelerating the natural growth of metals so that they turned to gold more quickly. By the same token, as the Elixir of Life or Universal Panacea, the Stone could accelerate our own innate growth towards perfection and endow us with immortality. Chinese alchemy was almost entirely devoted to the Elixir - to creating a 'diamond body' - rather than the gold-making Stone.
Modern science has assumed that alchemy was a primitive chemistry, a superstitious exercise doomed to failure. But the alchemists themselves always insisted that their goal was not 'common gold' but 'philosophical gold'. C.G. Jung, the great Swiss psychologist, noticed that the Great Work of alchemy was as much a psychological operation as a chemical process, as much concerned with self-transformation as with metallic transmutation. In fact, he reckoned that the alchemical tradition was the historical counterpart of his own psychology of the unconscious. The Work was an archetypal model for his central concept, the process of 'individuation', whose goal was a union of consciousness with the unconscious - a union in fact of all the psychic opposites in the self. And it was this transcendent self which was symbolised by the Stone and which converted our lives to the true, 'philosophical gold'.
Yet, inevitably, stories of literal gold-making persisted, its agent - the Red Tincture - less elusive by far than red mercury. We think of Nicholas Flamel's famous account of his first 'projection' (the application of his 'red stone' to base metal) on 20 April, 1382 when he transmuted half a pound of mercury to gold; or of Edward Dyer's description of John Dee's companion and scryer, Edward Kelley adding a drop of the 'medicine' to a crucible of base metal, which turned to gold (Kelley never claimed to have made the Philosophers' Stone, but merely to have found it hidden in a wall at Glasonbury whither he had been led by a revelation). Most famous of all is the account given by Helvetius of the stranger who visited him one night in December, 1666, and, claiming to want to rid the scientist of his scepticism about alchemy, left him with a tiny piece of the Stone; which, at his wife's behest, he put in a crucible with six drams of old lead. In fifteen minutes it had turned to what the local goldsmith called 'the finest gold in the world.'
Nevertheless, what Jung noticed is true: that the processes of alchemy - the 'circulations' of 'our matter' in the Hermetic egg, for instance - provide metaphors for the deep movements of the unconscious as it distils itself out of itself, undergoing separations, conjunctions, mortifications, sublimations, and so on. They also provide us with metaphors for the investigation of 'deep' matter. The search for the Unified Field Theory is, at root, nothing other than the alchemical quest for the Philosophers' Stone. Just as the Stone was often said to be a union of the four elements (just as Jung said the self was a four-fold unity symbolised by the mandala), so physicists seek to unify the four fundamental forces of Nature: electromagnetism, the 'strong' nuclear forces, the 'weak' nuclear forces, and gravity. The Hermetic vessel is the cumbersome particle accelerator which 'circulates' the 'elements' - the particles - and accelerates natural processes. The alchemical interchangeability of spirit and matter is mirrored in the interconvertibility of energy and mass. Separation and conjunction become nuclear fission and fusion (although the particle accelerator only 'separates'; 'conjunction', or fusion, is attempted in another kind of alchemical retort: the doughnut-shaped torus).
The unification of the field is going quite well on the face of it. The first three forces have very nearly been united. Only gravity remains recalcitrant. However, it's likely that, no matter how close scientists creep to the final Grand Unification, it will prove, like red mercury, forever elusive.
 See David Hambling, 'A Blast from the Past', FT 178, December 2003.
 See Joyanta Acherjee, 'Red for Danger', FT 127, October 1999.
 in 'Deadly Alchemy', FT69, July 1993.
 'The Pocket Neutron Bomb', Despatches, Channel 4, 13 April, 1994.
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Times #258, 2010
Worlds in collision
As I write, teams of subatomic physicists have at last managed to fire up the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). They won’t be smashing hadrons for a bit, but when they do they’re hoping to reveal the legendary Higgs boson. No one knows what this is exactly – it is not, strictly speaking, knowable – but, from what I can gather from the popular press, it is what is missing from the scientific model of the universe, viz. the thing that turns particles into matter; or, rather, that gives matter its mass – without mass there would only be radiation, only particles moving at light-speed. The Higgs boson (or ‘God particle’) is thought to be able to congeal these particles into the substantial bodies the universe seems to contain.
We have here the latest attempt to solve the problem of the relationship between the immaterial and the material – what was traditionally called spirit and matter. It is the same problem on the macrocosmic scale as, on the microcosmic, the problem of the relationship between soul and body. We may call the latter the mind/body or mind/brain problem, just as we might call the former the matter/energy problem, but it is the same old problem in modern dress.
The problem is, we don’t like discontinuity. We want to see the worlds of spirit and matter, or matter and energy as continuous. But, no matter how finely you attenuate matter, there comes a point when it is no longer matter but spirit – a point, that is, of discontinuity. Conversely, no matter how slowly you congeal spirit, it has at some point to make a jump into the material state. My favourite solution to this problem was the medieval one: the rational soul was thought to be fixed to the body gumphis subtilibus, ‘with subtle little nails’ called ‘spirits’. But this picturesque solution still falls foul of the perennial conundrum: if the ‘spirits’ are material at all then both ends of the bridge, as it were, rest on one side of the chasm; if they are not, then both rest on the other.
We can of course ‘solve’ the problem by abolishing one side or the other of the equation. Philosophical materialists for example simply do away with spirit: everything is only matter; we are only our bodies. On the other hand, those of a spiritualistic or theosophical disposition see the universe as a wholly spiritual phenomenon consisting of many ‘planes’ that ‘vibrate’ at different rates. The lower the rate of vibration, the denser the level until, at the lowest rate, the material world seamlessly appears. This is a metaphor essentially drawn from sound. A similar metaphor was favoured by the Orphic tradition and enthusiastically taken up by the Romantics: the material universe is a harmonious resonance of a prior spiritual Platonic world in the same way that certain strings on an instrument resonate in harmony with other strings which have been plucked. Plotinus, the most profound of Plato’s followers, used a similar analogy to explain how the changeless soul nevertheless effects changes in the body. Soul is like a perfect piece of music and the body is like a stringed instrument. When the music is played, it is not the music which moves but the strings – while the strings cannot move unless the music directs them.
For his description of the macrocosm, however, Plotinus usually employed a metaphor drawn from light. Light does not vibrate or resonate, but emanate. Thus the whole cosmos emanates from the mysterious singularity he called the One. Discontinuity between levels is brushed over by the continuity of emanation which somehow, at its farthest reaches, gives rise to the material world.
These ‘solutions’ are metaphors, not causes. They are imaginatively satisfying but not mechanically. The ancients knew that there was no literal solution to the ‘problem’. It is what used to be called a mystery. It is a modern error to take mysteries literally; that is, to turn them into problems which then have to be solved. We cannot solve mysteries – we can only enter into them; and then it is we who are solved or dissolved – transformed in such a way that we see the ‘problem’ quite differently, as a delightful paradox for instance, like tribal cultures who are unworried by the contradiction between soul and body. (Our own Big Bang theory is a literal re-working of Plotinus’ metaphor – the visible universe ‘emanates’ from the primordial singularity which big-banged twelve billion years ago, give or take).
Western philosophy does not on the whole subscribe to metaphors of vibration, resonance and emanation – it remains steadfastly materialistic. The quantum physicists are themselves trapped in a paradox: they will not admit of anything but matter; but then, when they investigate the farthest reaches of matter, it is not matter at all, but something else for which the word ‘energy’ is an approximation, not very different from the vague New Age use of the word.
At any rate, at quantum levels matter becomes discontinuous with mass, it seems – becomes, so to speak, discontinuous with itself. And science does not like discontinuity any more than the medieval Scholastics who asserted that ‘Nature makes no leaps’. There is to be no abrupt transition between different orders of reality, whether between the spiritual or the material, or between species and genera in our modern theory of evolution. There must always be a Higgs-boson-like intermediary. This principle is derived from another Neoplatonist, Iamblichus, whose Law of Mean Terms emphasised the role of the middle term between two extremes. The example he gives is that of daimons. They both link gods to men and also set them apart, at the proper distance from each other. In this way the transcendence of the divine was guaranteed while, at the same time, the gulf between us and the gods was prevented from becoming unbridgeable.
The chief characteristics of daimons are as follows: fleeting, elusive, borderline, ambiguous, shape-changing and intermediate. They are like their early European counterparts: the elves, fairies, hulder-folk, land-spirits, trolls, vilas etc. Once you banish them from Nature, and, indeed, from consciousness, they do not disappear but shape-shift into more contemporary forms. Where else do we find entities with their attributes except in the complexes of the unconscious mind or in the ‘inner space’ of the quantum world?
Daimons are always contradictory: both material and spiritual. They are both natural and supernatural, abstract and concrete, inside us and outside us, there and not-there. There is no boundary they don’t straddle, including the boundary between fact and fiction. They are not quantifiable but always paradoxical, and so ideally placed to ‘solve’ the problem of continuity and discontinuity – because they are both continuous with, and discontinuous from, our world at the same time. The Higgs boson is as small, elusive, quick, shape-shifting and marginal as any daimon. And it is easy to see that the outcome of the search for it will be the same as any search for fairies.
The physicists will in fact ‘detect’ the Higgs boson. At least, some will claim that it has been detected, while others will not be so sure; or else they will concede that something has been detected, but not be sure whether it is the Higgs boson or not. The photos, as it were – like all photos of the daimonic – will be blurry, susceptible only to the eye of faith and not definite proof. Either way, the nature of the Higgs boson will remain contradictory and paradoxical – in other words, a mystery. Something mediatory will be discerned, of course, but it will be so highly elusive, shape-changing and (like all tautologous ‘virtual particles’) ambiguous – not quite matter, not really energy – that it will be sort of there. But also not-there. Just as we seem about to pin it down, it will disappear, like all daimons, in the twinkling of an eye (or, if you prefer, at the speed of light) into the Unknown. It sort of won’t be anything really, or anything we can usefully talk about. Yet it will be credited with forming the whole universe. The Higgs boson is telling us that our universe is primarily an imaginative project, partly material, partly not – but never literal.
There has been nothing like the LHC since the spate of cathedral building in the 11th century or the space programme of fifty years ago. I don’t remember that any of us – meaning any of us European citizens – was consulted about its construction, even though it cost about five billion pounds. Like a Gothic cathedral, it was seen simply as a necessity, regardless of cost. In fact it resembles an inverted cathedral, a place of ritual and worship for our secular priesthood, but lying underground like the Underworld of Hades or like our collective unconscious. And, like the unconscious, it is as much a machine for generating myths as particle collisions. Will it solve the riddle of the Ages or will it create a black hole and destroy the earth? (Or will it create a black hole just massive enough, as we all secretly hope, to suck in Switzerland?) It’s like those relics of a lost civilization we see in science fiction planets. A sort of monument to folie de grandeur. It already seems to the imaginative eye impossibly cumbersome and clumsy, like the steam enginry of the Victorian age. And, like the triumphalist Victorians, we do not see that this latest attempt to find a literal solution to a mystery cannot succeed because the basic fabric of reality is daimonic, with all the incommensurability that that implies.
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Times #213, 2006
Guardian Angels, Personal Daimons
In her book When Angels Appear, Hope Macdonald describes an incident in which a young mother sees that her three-year-old daughter, Lisa, has escaped from the garden and is sitting on the railway line beyond. At that moment a train comes around the bend, its whistle blowing. 'As she raced from the house screaming her daughter's name, she suddenly saw a striking figure, clothed in pure white, lifting Lisa off the track with an arm around the child.... When the mother reached the daughter's side, Lisa was standing alone.
Not many tales of guardian angels are as dramatic as this one; but a surprising number of people attest to some experience or other that they ascribe to the action of a guardian angel, whether it's a single word of warning or, as is commonly reported, a simple touch on the shoulder or tug on the sleeve. According to a US poll in the 1990s, sixty-nine per cent of Americans believe in angels. Forty-six per cent have their own guardian angels and thirty-two per cent have felt an angelic presence. Nor does the pre-millenial craze for angels seem to have abated, if the number of internet references to them is any indication. While Lisa's angel conforms to our expectations of an angel - a white, possibly winged, powerful and protective being - they may not always be thus. A clergyman's widow told her friend, the folklorist Katharine Briggs, how she suffered from an injured foot and had been sitting one day on a seat in London's Regent's Park, wondering how on Earth she'd find the strength to limp home, when suddenly she saw a tiny man in green who looked at her very kindly and said: 'Go home. We promise that your foot shan't pain you tonight.' Then he disappeared. But the intense pain in her foot had gone. She walked home easily and slept painlessly all night.
The origin of angels is not easy to unravel. They do not feature greatly in the Old Testament but seem to have returned with the Jews from their Babylonian Captivity where the angelology of Zoroastrian Persia was probably influential. Although the Zoroastrians had a well-developed doctrine of guardian angels - a celestial being of light who is our prototype - the angels who became dominant figures in the Jewish apocalyptic writings from the third century BC onwards were impersonal rather than personal. As Harold Bloom reminds us in Omens of Millennium, far from being sweetness and light, angels were highly ambiguous, awesome, even terrifying, like the archangel Metatron. We might remember that when Muhammad the Prophet asked to look upon the angel Gabriel, who, as the agent of his revelation might well be called his guardian angel, he fainted dead away at the shock of seeing such a vast being, filling the horizon and stretching upwards out of view. In the Book of Enoch (Enoch was held by some to have been transformed into Metatron when 'he walked with God, and was not, because God took him') angels lust after earth women, like the Nephilim of Genesis, who 'mated with the daughters of men.' Thus did St Paul warn women 'to have a veil on their heads, because of the angels...' (Corinthians 11:10). In Colossians he warns against worship of angels, implying that there's no difference between angels and demons.
However, angels found their way into Western culture largely through Dionysius the Areopagite who was originally believed to have been an Athenian disciple of St Paul's, but is now reckoned to be a Syrian monk of the late fifth century. His book The Celestial Hierarchy is the most influential text in the history of angelology. It was he, for example, who decided that angels were pure spiritual beings, an idea taken up enthusiastically by St Thomas Aquinas, and hence by the Roman Catholic Church (although St Augustine was not so sure whether or not angels had material bodies). It was he who arranged the angels into their nine orders from Cherubim, Seraphim and Thrones, through Dominations, Virtues and Powers, down to Principalities, Archangels and Angels - each order a link in the Great Chain of Being which stretched from God down to mankind, the animals, plants and stones. The idea that angels mediated between God and mankind was actually a much older idea which the pseudo-Dionysius derived from the great Neoplatonists who flourished in the Hellenistic culture surrounding Alexandria in the first to fourth centuries AD. His whole system of theology in fact was cribbed wholesale from Plotinus, Iamblichus and Proclus and then Christianised. But in the original 'theology' the mediating beings were not called angels but daimones, daimons (or, after the Latin, if you prefer, daemons).
The idea of guardian angels comes from the Greek notion of the personal daimon. The most famous personal daimon in antiquity belonged to Plato's mentor, Socrates. According to Apuleius, in 'On the god of Socrates', the god was a daimon which mediated between God or the gods and Socrates. Daimons, claimed Apuleius, inhabit the air and have bodies of so transparent a kind that we can't see them, only hear them. This was the case with Socrates, whose daimon was famous for simply saying 'No' whenever he was about to encounter danger or do something displeasing to the gods. Nevertheless, the daimons are as much material as spiritual, despite what later Catholic apologists, such as Aquinas, might have us believe. To say they inhabit the air is a metaphor for the middle realm they inhabit between the material and spiritual realms - what the great scholar of Sufism, Henri Corbin, calls 'the imaginal world' in which a different, daimonic reality prevails. We all have a personal daimon, which the Romans translated as 'genius' - indeed, they sacrificed to their genius on their birthdays - but perhaps it is only in those with an exceptionally powerful summons by the daimon, a striking vocation, that daimons become unusually apparent. C.G. Jung, the great Swiss psychologist, for instance, dreamt of a winged being sailing across the sky. He saw that it was an old man with the horns of a bull. He held a bunch of four keys, one of which he clutched as if he were about to open a lock. The lock he was about to open, of course, was the locked unconscious psyche of Jung. This mysterious figure introduced himself as Philemon; and he visited Jung often after that, not only in dreams but while he was awake as well. 'At times he seemed to me quite real,' wrote Jung in Memories, Dreams, Reflections, 'as if he were a living personality. I went walking up and down the garden with him, and to me he was what the Indians call a guru.... Philemon brought home to me the crucial insight that there are things in the psyche which I do not produce, but which have their own life... I held conversations with him and he said things which I had not consciously thought... He said I treated thoughts as if I generate them myself but in his view thoughts were like animals in the forest, or people in a room... It was he who taught me psychic objectivity, the reality of the psyche.'
If this is an unconventional picture of a 'guardian angel', it is conservative compared to Napoleon's 'familiar spirit' which, as described by Aniela Jaffé in Apparitions, 'protected him, which guided him, as a daemon, and which at particular moments took on the shape of a shining sphere, which he called his star, or which visited him in the figure of a dwarf clothed in red that warned him.' On the other hand, it was not so eccentric when we consider that, according to the Neoplatonist Iamblichus, daimons favour luminous appearances or 'phasmata' second only to manifesting in personified form. The phasmata of daimons are 'various and dreadful'. They appear 'at different times... in a different form, and appear at one time great, but at another small, yet are still recognised to be the phasmata of daemons.' Thus it's not so surprising if a personal daimon shape-shifts, showing itself now as a Gabriel-sized angel, now as a red dwarf. And perhaps the little 'aliens' who appear to those who have shortly before seen an anomalous light in the sky, are not so much inhabitants of the UFO as an alternative manifestation of it.
Another paradox in the nature of the personal daimon is that it can also be impersonal. Our clergyman's widow encountered a being that was clearly and intimately to do with her - yet also almost part of the landscape, like a fairy. I suggest that, while the personal daimon is exactly that - personal - it is also always grounded in the impersonal and unknowable depths of the psyche. It is also, in other words, a manifestation of the Anima Mundi, or Soul of the World - as the case of Plotinus, the first and greatest of the Neoplatonic philosophers, makes clear. While he was living in Rome, he was approached by an Egyptian priest who, wishing to show off his theurgical powers, asked if he might be allowed to invoke a visible manifestation of Plotinus' daimon. The sage agreed. The rite took place in the Temple of Isis, the only pure place in Rome, according to the priest. But to everyone's surprise, the daimon turned out to be a god - the priest was so shocked that the god disappeared before it could be questioned. Plotinus himself was eloquent on the subject of the personal daimon. He held that every human psyche is a spectrum of possible levels, on any one of which we may choose to live (each of us is an 'intellectual cosmos'); and, whatever level one chooses, the next one above that serves as one's daimon. If one lives well, one may live at a higher level in the next life, and then the level of one's daimon will accordingly rise, until for the perfect sage the daimon is the One itself - the One being the transcendent source and goal of everything that is. In other words, the daimon was not, for Plotinus, an anthropomorphic being but an inner psychological principle - notably the spiritual level above that on which we conduct our lives. It is therefore both within us and, at the same time, transcendent; and this suggests that it is simultaneously as personal as a 'familiar' and as impersonal as a god. Iamblichus went further, to assert that personal daimons are not fixed but can develop or perhaps unfold in relation to our own spiritual development, rather as Jung might say that, in the course of individuation, we move beyond the personal unconscious to the impersonal, collective unconscious, through the daimonic to the divine. We are assigned a daimon at birth, said Iamblichus, to govern and direct our lives; but our task is to obtain a god in its place.
This doctrine comes from a story or myth told by Plato in The Republic (X, 620e) concerning a man called Er, who had what we now call a near-death experience. He brought back news not just of what happens after death, but what happens before birth. We choose the lives we are about to lead, he said, but we are allotted a daimon to act as guardian and to help us fulfil our choice. Then we pass under the throne of Necessity, the pattern of our lives having been fixed, to be born. Our daimons are the imaginative blueprints of our lives. They lay down the personal myth, as it were, which we are bound to enact in the course of our lives. It is the voice that calls us to our true purpose, our vocation. The reality of the personal daimon is affirmed by the fact that it is an idea that persists in the human mind, so that no matter how we wish to grow out of Plato's old tale, it crops up in different guises again and again - as the Roman genius, for example, or the Arabic genie or jinn; as the shaman's 'spirit helper' or the Christian guardian angel. Its latest, and debased, incarnation is in the Just So story of the 'selfish gene'. In the early pages of his book of that name, Richard Dawkins finds it impossible to avoid talking about our 'selfish genes' as if they were personal daimons. They 'create form', he says, and 'mould matter' and 'choose'. They are 'the immortals'. They 'possess us' (my italics). We are merely 'lumbering robots' whose genes 'created us body and mind'. This anthropomorphic language, I suggest, is hardly the language of science, but let it pass. For Dawkins is doing what scientism often does: he is unconsciously literalising a myth. Traditionally, our bodies have been seen as the vehicles of our personal daimon, our soul or 'higher self'. Now, by an amusing inversion, we are asked to believe that our most valuable attributes are simply pressed into the service of our genes As Professor R.C. Lewontin sums up wryly in The Story of DNA, 'it is really our genes that are propagating themselves through us. We are only their instruments, their temporary vehicles....' The 'selfish gene' is allotted to us by Chance and thereafter subjects us to its inexorable Necessity - the pattern we are forced by the genes to live out. Chance and Necessity: the twin goddesses of science who are supposed to rule our lives. But Plato's daimon tells another tale, one which science has not so much replaced as inverted and made literal. The daimon is allotted to us in accordance with the life we have already chosen. We are not merely the random result of the chance meeting of our parents for we have chosen them just as they have, willy-nilly, chosen each other. We really do come into the world 'trailing clouds of glory'. Thereafter we are subject, certainly, to Necessity; but it manifests as a fate or destiny we are also free to deny. Of course, it's not advisable: to cut oneself off from our daimon is to lose its protection and guidance, to court accidents and to lose our way. Besides, to deny the daimon turns out to be only the illusion of freedom. Real freedom, it turns out - paradoxically - is freely to choose to subordinate our egotistical desires and wishes to the imperatives of the personal daimon, whose service is perfect freedom.
In The Soul's Code, James Hillman - the best of the post-Jungian analytical psychologists - develops a whole child psychology based on the idea of the personal daimon. He calls it the acorn theory, according to which 'each life is formed by its unique image, an image that is the essence of that life and calls it to a destiny. As the force of fate, this image acts as a personal daimon, an accompanying guide who remembers your calling.... The daimon motivates. It protects. It invents and persists with stubborn fidelity. It resists compromising reasonableness and often forces deviance and oddity upon its keeper and especially when it is neglected or opposed.' Since it represents the fate of the individual - since our adult 'oak' life is latent in our acorn state - the personal daimon is prescient. It knows the future - not in detail, perhaps, because it can't manipulate events, but as regards the general pattern. It is that within us which is forever restless and unsatisfied, yearning and homesick, even when we are at home. (But we should note that it is not our conscience: the daimon is not a moralist, and so it is possible to ask our daimon to fulfil our own desires, even evil or selfish ones - we can appropriate the daimon's power for our own egotistical ends.) In short, our behaviour is not just formed by the past, as psychology tends to suppose; it can be formed retroactively by the future - by the intuition of where our calling will take us and what we are destined to become. Hillman cites the example of many famous people's biographies where the child either knows what he might become, like Yehudi Menuhin insisting as a tiny child on having a violin, yet smashing the toy violin he was given: his daimon was already grown up and disdained to play a child's toy; or fears to know what he must become - Manolete, bravest and best of bullfighters, clung to his mother's apron strings as if he already knew the dangers he would have to encounter as an adult. Winston Churchill was a poor scholar, consigned to what we'd now call a remedial reading class, as if putting off the moment when he would have to labour for his Nobel Prize for Literature. Thus, when we see bright children going off the rails, we should hesitate to blame their parents and their past. Their daimons are, after all, parentless and have plans for them other than the plans of parents or the conformist demands of school. (It's notable that our passion for attributing aberrant behaviour in children to dodgy parenting is highly eccentric: in traditional societies, whatever's wrong always comes from elsewhere, whether witchcraft, taboo-breaking, neglected rituals, contact with unfavourable places, a remote enemy, an angry god, a hungry ghost, an offended ancestor and so on - but never to what your mum and dad did to you, or didn't do, years ago.)
Those exceptional souls who become aware of their daimons, as Jung did, have the satisfaction of fulfilling its purpose and hence of fulfilling their true selves. But this does not make them immune to suffering; for who knows what Bad Lands the daimon would have us cross before we reach the Isles of the Blessed? Who knows what wrestling, what injury, we are - like Jacob - in for at the hands of our angel? What our daimon teaches us, therefore, is not to always be seeking a cure for our suffering but rather to seek a supernatural use for it. 'I have had much trouble in living with my ideas,' wrote Jung at the end of his long and fruitful life. 'There was a daimon in me.... It overpowered me, and if I was at times ruthless it was because I was in the grip of a daimon.... A creative person has little power over his own life. He is not free. He is captive and driven by his daimon.... The daimon of creativity has ruthlessly had its way with me.' For the poet, the daimon is his or her Muse, who is at the very least a mixed blessing. Keats painted portraits of his Muse in Lamia and The Belle Dame sans Merci: white-skinned, cold, irresistibly alluring figures who seduce the poet, drain him like a vampire for their own purposes, and leave him 'alone and palely loitering.' For, once she is awakened, the Muse will drive relentlessly to become the centre of the personality, casting aside whatever we think of as ourselves. The rewards in terms of achievement can be enormous, but they are also dangerous; and everyday life, with its little comforts and satisfactions, can be a casualty. As the late Poet Laureate, Ted Hughes, writes feelingly in Winter Pollen, the Muse 'from earliest times came to the poet as a god, took possession of him, delivered the poem, then left him.' It was axiomatic, he says, that she lived her own life separate from the poet's everyday personality; that she was entirely outside his control; and that she was, above all, supernatural.
The last word on personal daimons goes to the great Irish poet, W.B. Yeats, who wrote in his book, Mythologies: 'I think it was Heraclitus who said: the Daimon is our destiny. When I think of life as a struggle with the Daimon who would ever set us to the hardest work among those not impossible, I understand why there is a deep enmity between a man and his destiny, and why a man loves nothing but his destiny.... I am persuaded that the Daimon delivers and deceives us, and that he wove the netting from the stars and threw the net from his shoulder....' Here is a portrait of the personal daimon which is both daunting and beautiful and, like Jung's, tinged with a poignant melancholy. For the daimon is our taskmaster, driving us to perform the most difficult work possible for us, no matter what the human cost. No wonder our feelings for it are as ambiguous as it shows itself to be. Anyone who invokes their guardian angel, therefore, should beware. It may not be as fluffy and cuddly as you'd have it. It will protect you, yes - but only the 'you' who serves its plan for your self. It will guide you, certainly - but who knows what sojourn in the wilderness this might entail? And, because the personal daimon is, finally, grounded in the impersonal Ground of Being itself, you will inevitably be led way, way out of your depth.
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Times #148, 2001
James Price, alchemist
The suicide of James Price in 1783 seemed to confirm the verdict his fellow scientists had already passed on him, that he was either a fraud or a madman. In fact he was something which often looks, to the eyes of science, very like these: he was an alchemist. His sad tale is a cautionary one, bearing out the advice of the greatest of alchemists, Eirenaeus Philalethes, that a Philosopher should avoid fame and scientists. Not that Price thought of himself as anything other than a scientist. At the age of only twenty-nine, he had been elected to the Royal Society on the strength of his prowess in chemistry, even though he had not yet published anything. But he was drawn to the writings of the old alchemists, and began to come round to their doctrine that the heavier metals, such as gold, silver and mercury, were really different forms of the same substance. Thus it was conceivable that some ingredient might be found,which, when added to base metals, È could convert them to the nobler metals. That such an ingredient - the Philosophers' Stone - had existed, Price did not doubt - there were too many convincing tales of just such conversions, or transmutations.
An inheritance allowed him to buy a small estate at Stoke, near Guildford, where he retreated in order to explore his alchemical ideas. By the spring of 1782 Price had manufactured a 'white powder' which could transmute mercury into silver; and a 'red powder' which could transmute mercury or silver into gold. Their preparation, he wrote, was 'tedious and operose', not to mention injurious to the health. Like so many, if not all, alchemists, he did not - or could not - reveal the composition of the 16 grains of white powder and 5 grains of red. But he demonstrated their efficacy in a series of seven 'experiments' in front of witnesses - the last one was attended by several lords, knights, clergymen and four fellows of the Royal Society.
The experiments were of three kinds: changing mercury into silver or gold with the white or red powder respectively; changing silver, with the red powder, into an alloy of eight silver to one gold; and forming an amalgam of mercury with either powder to produce either silver or gold. None of the witnesses seemed to doubt that Price had performed the experiments satisfactorily (although they left no written depositions). They themselves had brought the ordinary ingredients of the experiments - charcoal, nitre, borax for the flux - in order to help rule out trickery; and Price had urged them to participate in every stage of the demonstration so that he could not be accused of sleight-of-hand. There were even surprising side-effects of the experiments, such as the observation that the mercury did not evaporate, or even boil, in the red-hot crucible. The amount of gold that miraculously appeared was small, but it was found by the assayers to be very pure.
As soon as Price's pamphlet appeared , giving an account of his experiments, it caused a sensation. His fellow scientists were quick to denounce poor James as an impostor; or, if they did not yet call him insane, at least as self-deluded. Some of them, with the degree of open-mindedness we still encounter today, mentioned that they would not believe him even though they saw it with their own eyes and touched it with their own hands. James stoutly defended himself. Why, he asked, would he commit such a fraud? He did not need money; and he certainly did not wish deliberately to jeopardise his established scientific reputation. He conceded that his experiments were not carried out in the strictest possible conditions, but he maintained that they were honest and true. He said that, unfortunately, he had used up all his powder and was loath to make more because of the extreme difficulty and danger to his health. He added that he was not prepared to divulge the composition of his powders; but that, in any case, he would not be believed no matter how often he repeated his experiments. In short, if he had planned to provoke just about everybody, he could not have done a better job. [2 ]
Pressure was put on Price to repeat his experiments or accept the consequences - expulsion from the Royal society, infamy and disgrace. He retired to Stoke. Nothing was heard of him for some months, except rumours that he had tried and failed to replicate his powders. Then suddenly he appeared in London for the purpose of formally inviting the Royal Society to witness a repetition of the experiments. Only three members bothered to make the journey to Guildford. Price received them cordially and led the way to his laboratory, inviting them to examine his apparatus. Then, he collapsed. He was found to have poisoned himself with prussic acid. The verdict on his death was what we should now call suicide while the balance of his mind was disturbed. And there is no doubt that he must have been in a state of despair. But at no time is there any evidence that he was mad, nor that he committed fraud. There is, in other words, no evidence that he did not possess, by whatever means, something very like the fabled Philosophers' Stone. 
1. An Account of some Experiments on Mercury, Silver and Gold, Made at Guildford in May,1782. In the laboratory of James Price, M.D. F.R.S. to which is prefixed An Abridgement of Boyle's Account of a degradation of Gold... Oxford: At the Clarendon Press MDCCLXXXII.
2. See 'The Last of the Alchemists' in Gould, Rupert T., Enigmas (1929; New York,1965).
3. On an irrelevant and pedantic note, it annoys me to see the Philosophers' Stone constantly spelt Philosopher's Stone, i.e. with the apostrophe in the wrong place. The Stone was always referred to as lapis philosophorum - the Stone of the Philosophers.
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A Few Words
Delivered on the Occasion of the Launch of John Michell’s book
How the World is Made, 11th November, 2009
John and I had an unspoken agreement always to review each other’s books in glowing terms; and we both always began our reviews in the same way. I would always describe how, on my first visit to Glastonbury, John offered to show me round. As we sat by the healing and holy waters that flow from Chalice Well, he suddenly sprang up and began to bathe his myopic eyes. Tentatively I asked him if he was doing this to improve his eyesight. 'Oh, Patrick…yes, in a manner of speaking,' he replied with kindly irony. 'Only, here in Glastonbury, you know, we tend to call it …vision.'
The question is, what exactly was John’s vision? Essentially it was like William Blake’s – that is, a vision of the ‘Earthly Paradise’. And John saw it as his main vocation – and everyone else’s duty – to re-instate the conditions of the Earthly Paradise in this world. It might seem odd for the man who practically invented the New Age, but John understood that, to do this, you have to see how it was done in the past – like a Renaissance magus, John believed that to bring about a re-birth of culture, you have to hark back to earlier times, notably those of the ancient Greeks.
John’s three favourite visions of past paradises were, firstly, the ‘Merrie England’ of the pre-industrial English village. Secondly, pre-historic European societies. And, thirdly, the mystical vision of number and proportion which he reveals in the book we’re launching tonight.
In his vision of Merrie England John saw a stable, rural village as unchanging as the seasons; vibrant with story-telling, music and dance; observing ancient customs and religious rituals. Above all he saw all the different types and classes of people, from peasantry to nobility, mixing freely in a single culture. This is pretty much how I remember life in his flat, where you were liable to meet a young Russian refugee, an old belted earl, a Swedish Loch Ness monster hunter, an Israeli geometer, an earnest American PH.D student – and some geezer John had just met down the pub – all magically bonded together by John’s ethos. An ethos which always included, weather permitting, plenty of excursions and picnics at sacred sites and standing stones; visits to sacred pubs. His flat was like a cross between Plato’s academy and a Mongolian horse-fair… ‘The three Fs, Patrick – Feasting, Fun and… Philosophy’. [John never said this – I channelled it on the night!].
The second skin of John’s Onion of Vision was his re-imagining of pre-history. John was the first person to disabuse me of the idea, drummed into me at school, that the remote past was a barbarous and benighted place. A Dark Age. John showed us that it was not – not a Dark Age but a Golden Age. I think that the success of ‘The View Over Atlantis’ was owing to the extraordinary way it wove together many strands of lost knowledge – Watkins’ leys and Stonehenge, dragon paths and pyramidology – to form a coherent tapestry, a picture of a sophisticated and harmonious society, just as the ancient Greeks had always insisted upon. And they were no mugs.
I particularly liked the Twelve-Tribe Nation-States, in which an elected monarch is enthroned at the centre of a land divided into twelve parts. He then processes through each part in turn, one month in each, to dispense justice and maintain good order, ‘and such’. Once a year everyone gathered for a grand fest at the centre of the kingdom; and, as a result, John was always looking for the centres of things – and often finding them, in places as far apart as Ireland and Iceland, Madagascar and the Isle of Man.
I once turned up at his flat, only to find him in familiar position – on the floor, knees up around his ears, surrounded by maps – trying to pin point the centre of Cornwall. ‘Oh Patrick… just in time… centre of Cornwall… take your ruler, you see, like this… put it on the most northerly point, run it down to the most southerly and there in the middle – oh, that’s not very promising. In that case, you see, you have to fiddle it a bit (as the ancients would have done) – and there, you see… marvellous… lovely hill fort, some standing stones… oh yes, that’s definitely the centre there…’
Fiddling it a bit is an important part of John’s vision. Like Plato, who wasn’t above fiddling his own logic a bit, John was suspicious of any world-view which was too rational, too orderly, too dogmatic. He knew that nothing should be laid down too rigidly, and loved anything that fiddled a bit with the orthodox order. In the books he wrote with Bob Rickard he followed his hero, Charles Fort, in documenting all the anomalies – from UFOs, fairy sightings, crop circles and black dogs to falls of frogs on Bristol and halibut on Hull – which throw spanners into the smooth-working machinery of scientism. He knew that a true picture of the cosmos can’t exclude anything, no matter how vexing it is to common sense; and he coined the word ‘explanationism’ to gainsay the so-called experts who are put up to explain away the inexplicable.
John also loved people who didn’t fit: the eccentric lives and peculiar notions of those who won’t kow-tow to authority, who fiddle a bit with orthodoxy – the Flat-Earthers and the Hollow-Earthers, the bibliomaniacs and the people who claimed to be Venusians, the searchers for Atlantis and, most inspiringly, the woman who thought that the plays of Shakespeare were written in a form of Old Dutch… invented by herself. John himself was no slouch at flouting received opinion and fashionable ideologies. Whenever they became complacent and unthinking, it was time for him to fire off a Radical Traditionalist pamphlet in order to restore balance. Many of you will remember when the little red book of Chairman Mao was all the rage. John lost no time in publishing – in the interests of balance and fairness – The Hip-Pocket Hitler. ‘As a philosopher, you have to be ruthlessly perverse…’
John had too many interests to list them all. But although they seem madly diverse, they are all facets of the same great glitterball of his central vision. And so we come to the third and last, deepest level of that vision. It’s a mystical vision, beyond his other visions, and underpinning them. It’s not just from the past – it’s from the Beginning: John’s creation myth, more beautiful and satisfying than any Big Bang theory. It’s a vision of number, which John rescues from mathematics and re-introduces to us as living personalities, daimons, as they were for Pythagoras and Plato. He especially re-introduces us to the sacred geometrical forms which these numbers generate – not just beautiful, but often witty, as you’d expect.
I remember he once gave me one of these patterns. In fact, the pattern – the pattern of the Heavenly City or New Jerusalem. He’d painstakingly drawn it himself, coloured and photocopied it. ‘I shan’t rest, Patrick, either by day or by night until every mantlepiece in the land has one of these…’ But there was a wistfulness in this as he said it, knowing that it would take more than a lifetime of hard labour to draw up all the fabulous diagrams he had in mind, all the permutations of Paradise.
But then! The computer was invented and, hard on its heels, Allan Brown. Thanks to Allan’s wizardry John’s dream has come true.
What we have here, then, in this superlative book, is a complete set of blueprints for the Earthly Paradise. And it was John’s hope that by contemplating these blueprints, as he did, we might be encouraged to build the real thing.
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to Los Libros Proféticos [The
Prophetic Books] by William Blake
(Ediciones Atalanta, Girona, 2014)
There is no one like William Blake in the whole of English art and literature. His genius lit the torch of English Romanticism towards the end of the 18th century. In his own lifetime he was ignored or, at least, neglected. He was even widely believed to be mad. But now his incendiary works have put all his contemporaries in the shade. Combining poetry, engraving, lettering, design and watercolour, there has been nothing like them since the illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages.
The outward events of Blake’s life are unremarkable. He was born on 28 November, 1757, the second of five children, to a moderately prosperous hosier who lived in Golden Square, now part of London’s Soho area. Blake spent all except three years of his life in different parts of London, always poor and under-valued, working day and night on his engravings. However, the events of his inner life – what he called his imaginative life – are a different matter. He was a visionary. In later life, he recalled how his visions began at the age of nine or ten: he was walking in the countryside at Peckham (now a built-up part of South London) when he saw a tree filled with angels, their bright wings sparkling like stars on every branch. On another occasion he was watching haymakers at work in the fields when he saw, moving among them, angelic figures invisible to all eyes except his own.
We know little about his parents; but they must have recognised something exceptional about their son because they granted his request not to be sent to school. Instead, they encouraged his talent for drawing by sending him, at the age of ten, to a drawing-school where he spent much of his time copying plaster-casts of ancient Greek and Roman statues. At the age of fourteen he was apprenticed to an engraver, James Basire, who often sent young William out to draw old monuments and churches, especially Westminster Abbey. Here, he learned to love the Gothic style which he championed all his life against the prevailing fashion for Neoclassicism. He admired, too, the medieval manuscripts he saw there. He would use them as models for his own ‘illuminated books’ which were not the usual poems illustrated by engravings, but poems and illustrations engraved together to produce unique works of art.
After seven years’ apprenticeship, Blake set up his own business as an engraver. Four years later, aged twenty-five, he married Catherine Boucher, the illiterate daughter of a market-gardener. His father disapproved of his marriage to a girl of a lower class, but the union, although childless, seems to have been a happy one. He taught his wife to read and write, and she became a companion to him as well as a wife, even learning how to print his engravings.
In 1784, his father died. His older brother James inherited the hosier business. Blake took his much-loved younger brother Robert as an apprentice. Robert was perhaps the person closest to Blake, an intellectual companion. When he died only two and a half years later – he was only twenty – it was the greatest loss of Blake’s life. He said that, at the moment of death, he saw Robert’s spirit rising through the ceiling, ‘clapping his hands for joy’. And from that moment on he saw, and talked to, his younger brother every day, sometimes even writing from Robert’s dictation, at other times taking his advice about techniques of engraving. Blake always had one foot in the Otherworld.
All this time Blake was engraving for other people, making a poor living. He did not begin his own work until comparatively late in life, around the age of thirty-two. But he was preparing. He had begun to experiment with some ‘poetical sketches’ and, above all, he had been reading voraciously. With his visionary talent it was not surprising that he was drawn to the works of Emmanuel Swedenborg, a Swedish mining engineer who, after having a vision of Christ in a café in London, began to see and converse with spirits. Blake even joined the Swedenborgian Society, which was as near to church-going as he ever got. At the same time he was studying Neoplatonism and Hermetic philosophy; alchemical writers such as Paracelsus and Robert Fludd; and, above all, the German mystic, Jacob Boehme who was a key figure in Blake’s development because his philosophy was centred around the imagination. This is something that all Blake’s major influences have in common: they all believed that the chief faculty of the soul was not Reason, as the so-called Age of Enlightenment claimed, but Imagination.
In order to understand Blake one must understand what he meant by imagination. He used the word in a way that is almost opposite to the way we use the word today. We usually think of imagination as the ability to make pictures of things which are absent to our senses, like a form of memory; or else, as the ability to invent stories out of our own minds. For Blake, this ability was merely ‘fantasy’. True imagination was like another realm, quite separate from our little minds and inhabited by gods and daimons, interacting in those archetypal stories we call myths. It is equivalent to C.G. Jung’s collective unconscious. True poetry comes to the man of genius who can see these images and these patterns, which underlie and determine the lives of every individual, every society and even every movement of history. Imagination precedes Nature. It even precedes space and time. Thus, although we think that we inhabit an objective world, in reality the world we inhabit is the creation of our collective and unconscious imagining of the world. And there have been different ways of imagining the world in the past. Different – and more true. For Blake believed that the eighteenth-century world had sunk into darkness. He blamed the philosophy of Francis Bacon who had initiated the scientific method two hundred years before; he blamed Isaac Newton whose picture of a clockwork universe, obeying mechanical laws and presided over by a remote God (Blake hated the Deism of his time), was a false picture of the world. If you saw it truly, through imagination, the world was not mechanical but animate – that is, ensouled - alive, full of spirits. Mostly, Blake blamed the philosopher John Locke who claimed that we are born into this world with minds like blank sheets of paper on which our sensory experience writes – a view which is still commonly held today. But Blake raged against such ideas: when we are born we come into this world ‘trailing clouds of glory’ (as William Wordsworth put it), fresh from the Otherworld of Eternal Forms, just as Plato described. An Otherworld which we forget at birth but which it is our task on Earth to remember. Earthly existence is like falling asleep or going blind. We have to awake to imagination and use it to ‘cleanse the doors of perception’ and to recover our vision of the world as it really is: eternal.
Blake distinguished four levels of imagination – four states of mind which he depicted as places where we dwell. The lowest state was called Ulro, a kind of anti-imagination or Hell, where people like Locke live. Here, the isolated individual does not even perceive the world around him but rather reflects on the meaning of his perceptions, draws general conclusions and manufactures abstract ideas. It is a shadowy world which Blake usually symbolises by sterile rocks and sand. Above this world is the one we all normally inhabit: the dualistic world of Descartes where we are subjects divided from an environment of objects. Blake called this world Generation. Above this world is the imaginative world proper in which subject and object are re-joined. It has an upper and lower region – the latter is called Beulah and the former, Eden. This is slightly confusing because Blake identified the Garden of Eden in the Bible with Beulah. Here, we as subjects are united with the objective world in an innocent, child-like way, like Adam and Eve. It is a passive world in which subject and object find blissful repose in each other’s arms, like lover and beloved. Eden is the highest, most active and intense state of imagination in which the relationship of subject and object, of us and the world, becomes one of creator and created. Love and Art, therefore, are the primary expressions of imagination. Blake’s symbol for Beulah was a harmonious garden, notably the garden of Eden; his symbol for Eden was a fiery city, notably the New Jerusalem.
In a famous passage at the end of Blake’s Vision of the Last Judgement, he tells us that when the sun rises he does not see a round disc of fire like a gold coin – he sees a vast heavenly host of angels, singing ‘Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty’! He adds that he does not question normal sight any more than he would question a window through which he looks at something – the point is that he looks through it. Analogously, when he is exercising his imagination, he is looking through his eye and not simply with his eye. He is seeing things metaphorically as well as literally. He wants us to cultivate this ‘double vision’, to see the dryad in the tree and the angels in the sun. But we must not take dryad and angel any more literally than tree or sun. Swedenborg took his spirits literally and founded a new religion; Blake seized upon his spirits metaphorically – imaginatively – as images out of which to create art.
In 1790, after the death of his mother, Blake and his wife moved south of the river Thames to Lambeth, which, in those days, was on the fringe of London, bordered by countryside. In his garden a vine grew, untamed, to form an arbour. A visitor described how he came across William and Catherine sitting in this shady bower, reading John Milton’s Paradise Lost to each other and eccentrically ‘dressed in the garb of Eden’. That’s to say: naked.
In this earthly paradise Blake began to produce his own work, starting with The Songs of Innocence and Experience and going on to the Prophetic books. We should understand at once that ‘prophetic’ does not necessarily mean ‘seeing or predicting future events’. Blake does not have ‘second sight’. He has insight – seeing through this world to the eternal, unfallen world. It is the clarity and accuracy of the prophet’s vision which makes him an artist and which makes the great artist prophetic. And, indeed, Blake foresaw how 18th-century rationalism and materialism would spread and congeal into that atheistic scientism which now holds sway over Western culture. He saw, too, how religion would become enervated; and art, trivialised.
His books were of a new kind. He made careful sketches of his poems and images together before engraving them. Next, he printed them, often using different-coloured inks – blue, green, golden brown, black. But what made each copy of his books unique was the ‘illumination’: he applied watercolour to each of them so that they were like illuminated manuscripts. Like so much of his work, some of this method was owing to supernatural inspiration. His use of carpenter’s glue to bind his pigments, for example, was recommended to him in a vision by Joseph, father of the most famous Carpenter of them all!
‘The golden rule of art, as well as of life,’ Blake wrote, ‘is this: the more distinct, sharp and wiry the bounding line, the more perfect the work of art.’ It was this all-important line which Blake found in Raphael and Michelangelo and which he found lacking in contemporary oil painting – he hated colours that smudged into each other. He disliked, too, the way oil paintings were full of extraneous things, such as clothing, furniture, decoration – he wanted only to show the ‘human form divine’, either naked or barely clothed in drapery which retained the form of the human.
Blake’s emphasis on the line is characteristic of all religious art, from Buddhist Chinese art to El Greco, from Stone Age cave paintings to Celtic craftsmanship, echoed in the curves of his beloved Gothic spires and arches. His line gives his work its dynamic motion. It enabled him to contain and define the maximum amount of imaginative energy, so that content and form, emotion and intellect, are held in exquisite tension – both poem and imagery fused together and pulsing on the page. He does not try to represent Nature. For Blake, this would be imitation, not creation. Rather, he depicts the eternal Forms present to his mind’s eye – his figures tend either to be unfettered, free from the restrictions of time, space and gravity; or else imprisoned in the mechanistic world, stuck in the cave of rationalism or drowning in the waters of materialism.
In a letter to his friend Dr Trusler, written in August, 1799, Blake says: ‘I feel that a man may be happy in This World. And I know that This World Is a World of Imagination and Vision. I see Everything I paint In This World, but Everybody does not see alike. To the Eyes of a Miser a Guinea is far more beautiful than the Sun… But to the Eyes of the Man of Imagination, Nature is Imagination itself. As a man is, So he sees.’
During the ten years he spent in his modest terraced house in ‘lovely Lambeth’ (as he always called it), Blake produced all his Prophetic Books, apart from Milton and Jerusalem. His manifesto is most clearly laid out in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Soul and body are not separate, he tells us – the body is simply the outward appearance of the soul. Thus, just as the soul is embodied on Earth, so in Heaven the body will continue to exist in a spiritual form. In the afterlife, which is a realm of pure imagination, we will have all the powers of our physical bodies, including our sexual nature, but transformed and infinitely expanded. But while we are on Earth our souls, the source of true vision, are shut up in the five senses of the body as if in a cave. And it is not only our senses which obscure our imaginations; it is also that egotism – he calls it ‘Selfhood’ – which breeds fear and cruelty. Blake wages ceaseless war on anything which binds or blinds our imaginative life.
For example, he attacks the rational philosophy of the Enlightenment. He attacks conventional religion which crushes us under the authority of a senile God of ‘Reason’. He even attacks Swedenborg for conversing with spirits who are all pious – much better to talk to devils who hate conventional religion! He is scornful of a system of education which curbs the natural energy of young minds: ‘The tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.’ He abhors social morality because it prevents our most common initiation into the imaginative world: sexual love. Long before Sigmund Freud, Blake was railing against sexual repression, believing that nothing is sadder than a missed or thwarted opportunity to love. ‘He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence.’ In other words, he attacks all forms of social control. ‘Exuberance is Beauty.’ His praise of revolution in America and The French Revolution seemed dangerously radical and subversive to his contemporaries. But Blake was not really political. He saw revolutions as the outburst of a new imaginative spirit after long suppression. ‘The cistern contains; the fountain overflows.’ No wonder he becomes popular in times of turmoil, such as the 1960s. ‘The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.’ But, because he hated violence, he turned away from politics after the bloodbath of the French Revolution. Europe is an indictment of war at a time when the shadow of conflict with France was hanging over England.
So, all his life Blake fought against pedagogues and priestcraft, tyranny and hypocrisy, rationalism and materialism. The soul, he said, is only rebellious and violent when it is obstructed; when it is free, it is mild and loving.
Blake experimented with several representations of the soul. His first is the virgin Thel, who, in The Book of Thel, demonstrates the vice of timidity when she is unable to make the leap from innocence to experience, womb-like Beulah to our world of Generation. In Visions of the Daughters of Albion, she becomes Oothoon who successfully makes the leap into this dark world of suffering, where she demands the right of free love and is opposed by the tyranny of sexual morality (she is also the bound and struggling soul of America). Later, she becomes Vala, who re-enacts the myth of Psyche and Eros. Finally, she becomes Jerusalem, the Bride of the Lamb of God. In other words, Blake’s female ‘soul’ figure develops and deepens throughout the Prophetic Books, but remains essentially the same: all her incarnations are variations on the Neoplatonic doctrine of the soul which descends from the light of the eternal world into the dark cave, or grave, of this temporal world where her task is to regain, through learning and suffering, the eternal world raised to the second power - no longer Beulah, but Eden.
Blake’s symbol of repression also developed. It begins with the tyrant in the poem Tiriel, a savage attack on education – on the curbing of a child’s innate imagination by a mechanistic rationalism. But his most complete picture of the tyrant is Urizen, who first appears on the title-page of Visions of the Daughters of Albion. He is the epitome of 18th-century Deism: a blind, self-deluded, sterile travesty of God. He cruelly suppresses that youthful love, hope and desire symbolised by Orc, who is the dawning sun, Spring, sexual power, revolutionary zeal – everything that is reborn after the dark reign of Urizen. However, there’s a twist: Urizen and Orc are forever bound together throughout the cycles of history because one grows out of the other. Orc grows old and turns into Urizen just as Urizen dies and is reborn as Orc. In the last cycle of history, as depicted in Europe, Orc appears as Jesus whose revolutionary power gradually declines over the ensuing 1800 years until it turns into the political tyranny and empty Deistic religion of Blake’s day.
As Blake’s interest in social revolution was gradually replaced by his vision of cosmic revolution – the seven great cycles of history, of which the Christian era is the last – Orc recedes into the background and is replaced by his father Los, who is the hero of all Blake’s later prophetic books. Just as Orc has a female counterpart, or ‘emanation’, called Vala, so Los has Enitharmon. Together they comprise Time and Space respectively. But Los is not only Time. Like all archetypes his meaning shifts according to context. He is also, for example, the spirit of prophecy and, most importantly, Blake’s demiurge, or creator-god – great Imagination itself. He appears after the very first Fall (long before the Biblical Fall when Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden) when the universe itself appears. It is Los who slowly revives dead matter, organises primitive life, divides organisms into male and female and evolves consciousness so that humans can come into being – all this he performs before history itself begins, as it were, with the birth of Orc, his first-born son. Subsequent historical ages are presided over by other sons: the wrathful Rintrah, for instance, rules over the age of the Old Testament prophets, while the gentler Palamabron is the guiding spirit behind the milder culture of the ancient Greeks.
Blake is creating a mythology. He explicitly says that he has to create a new mythology or else be enslaved by another man’s. If his mythic figures are difficult and even contradictory, this is because they are not concepts or allegorical inventions but spontaneous outpourings of the collective unconscious. Like all archetypes – like the gods of Greece – they are ambivalent. They are like real people with whom Blake had a dynamic and tempestuous relationship, drawing them in different moods just as he saw them in his mind’s eye, as clearly as if they were models posing for him. This is not to say that Blake was not influenced by other mythologies. He drew on the ancient myths of Britain (‘Albion’), such as the legends of King Arthur; he was interested in the Icelandic Eddas and even in the recently-translated Bhagavad Gita; but his main mythic point of reference was always the Bible. Blake recognised many gods but worshipped One. He was that paradoxical thing: a Christian polytheist. His chief inspiration remained the person he called ‘Jesus, the Imagination’.
Blake’s books were expensive to produce because he insisted on using costly copper plates for his engravings long after cheaper means of reproduction had become fashionable. Moreover, he hardly sold any copies. In September, 1800, he was obliged by poverty to accept the invitation of a wealthy patron, William Hayley, to go and live on the south coast of England in the village of Felpham. Here, he was promised continuous work, engraving illustrations for editions of books that Hayley fancied, beginning with Hayley’s own poems. If it was painful to engrave poems so much inferior to his own, Blake does not say. He cheerfully packed up his few belongings and, together with his beloved wife ‘Kate’, moved to a cottage by the sea, close to Hayley’s grand house.
But while he was working for Hayley, Blake began to receive ‘dictation’ from the spirits he called the ‘Authors in Eternity’. Writing at great speed – twenty or thirty lines at a time – he quickly produced his Milton. The title refers, of course, to the 17th-century English poet, John Milton, author of the epic Paradise Lost, whom we have already met in the arbour at Lambeth. We now see that all Blake’s earlier Prophetic Books, written up to 1796, can be read as fragments of one overarching myth – the central myth of his life – which he was now ready to present in a single poem. He had already made one attempt at this project with the poem called Vala and, later, The Four Zoas. However, he never finished this poem and never engraved it; but he did mine it for the treasure of Milton and, later still, for Jerusalem - his final attempt at depicting his central myth.
What is this myth? Based on the Bible, it comprises the archetypal pattern of Creation, Fall, Redemption and Apocalypse. There have been seven of these great cycles of history. Their purpose, said Blake, is ‘to Restore what the ancients call’d the Golden Age.’ So, as we have already glimpsed, the Fall was not a single event. For Blake there are three great Falls before the one that is familiar to us from the Bible. In the course of these earlier Falls, we humans diminish in size from the giants of Druidic times to the size of Adam. This is a metaphor for the progressive weakening of our imaginative power. Adam represents the lowest point in the scale of imagination. The last four cycles or ages take place during the 6000 years (by Blake’s reckoning) which have elapsed since the exile from Eden. The last age began with the Incarnation of Christ and will end – soon – in the Apocalypse, when the Golden Age before all the Falls will be restored in the form of the heavenly city of the New Jerusalem.
Although Milton was conceived on this vast cosmic scale, it is also rooted in small particulars, such as the natural beauty of Felpham; its flowers, trees, birds and insects; and his own little garden where the angelic figure of Ololon appeared to him. The spirit of John Milton also appeared. Indeed, Blake thought that he might be, in some sense, a reincarnation of Milton. After all, they were both engaged on similar tasks: the reconciliation of the Bible’s mythic places and events with English geography and history embodied by the giant Albion. But Blake also disagreed with Milton’s Puritan theology and criticised him for turning the Messiah into that Reason which curbed the energy of desire. He wanted to liberate the true Milton from his rationalistic prison.
He also wove into the poem an unfortunate biographical event: in August, 1803, Blake’s gardener had invited a drunken soldier named Scofield to come into the garden. Blake took against this man at once, partly because of his overbearing and boorish manner, and partly because he represented loathsome war. Blake asked him to leave. Scofield refused. So Blake man-handled him out into the road. Scofield took his revenge: he reported Blake to the authorities, claiming that Blake had uttered the words ‘Damn the King’ – words for which he could be charged with high treason and executed. Fortunately, witnesses came forward to attest that Blake had said no such thing. He was acquitted – but not before months of terrible anxiety had passed, waiting for the trial to take place; months during which Blake had been unable to work.
The appearance of people such as Hayley and Scofield within the cosmic scheme of Milton might seem like bathos. But Blake wanted to show how all the events of our lives, no matter how trivial, are underwritten by myth. It is our task to realise – to make real - the myths beneath our surface lives by bringing imagination to bear on actual biographical events and forging them into universal experiences. ‘The Ruins of Time builds Mansions in Eternity’. And so Milton swoops from the sublime to the local, like a great cathedral which is full of soaring vaulted ceilings, glowing stained glass and flying buttresses; but also gargoyles and stray dogs and pews carved with the names of forgotten schoolboys. The favourite hymn of the English is ‘Jerusalem’, the opening verse of Milton, which ends:
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green & pleasant Land.
After three years in Felpham, Blake could stand it no longer. Tension between him and Hayley had been increasing for some time. For, although Hayley meant well, he did not understand Blake’s genius and kept trying to make him a more commercial, more ‘sensible’ artist. He urged Blake to give up his impractical prophecies. But Blake could no more do this than give up life itself. He returned to London in 1804 and, for the next seventeen years lived at 17, South Molton Street, just off Oxford Street. By 1808 he had finished his last great work, probably begun in Felpham, called Jerusalem. Even so, he did not engrave and print the poem for another ten years. Only one copy was ever fully illuminated.
Jerusalem follows the familiar, four-fold pattern. Each of its four parts is addressed, in order, to the public, to the Jews, to the Deists and to the Christians. Each describes a phase of imaginative vision together with the particular error which that phase clarifies. So, for example, the first part contrasts the error of the Fall with the ideal state of Golgonooza, from which true imagination sees Nature in its prelapsarian state as a sleeping giant. The second part depicts the struggle of mankind in a fallen world, contrasting the error of life lived under strict Old Testament law with life lived freely under the true interpretation of the New Testament. Thirdly, we see the error of Deism which resists the true vision of Christ and his teachings. And, lastly, Blake describes the Apocalypse, followed by the appearance of Jesus as the true form of Los to forgive all sins and to resurrect Heaven on Earth in the city of the New Jerusalem.
Jerusalem is an extraordinary poem, its language obscure, declamatory and sublime; its imagery strange and wonderful, a crystallization of Blake’s whole maddening, ecstatic mythology - vision after vision unfolding like the petals of a flower.
Little is known of Blake’s life after 1809. We do know that he eventually moved to a new address – 2, Fountain Court – which lies between the Strand and the north bank of the Thames. We know, too, that he tried to raise money by holding a public exhibition of his work. It was an attempt to express his sense of national crisis. Would England follow the Orc cycle to its end or would she break the cycle by making the imaginative leap into a new state, both psychological and social – the New Jerusalem which symbolises both the fully realised man of imagination and the return of Paradise on Earth? Would the flaming torch of imagination be taken up or extinguished? It was taken up – by a few poets such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth and John Keats; and it was rekindled in the last century by W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot and, most surprisingly, by depth psychologists such as C.G. Jung. But its flame is now guttering once again….
The exhibition was not a success. It received only one review: ‘an unfortunate lunatic… a few wretched pictures… a farrago of nonsense….’
We know a little more about Blake’s last years which were mercifully enlivened by a group of young painters who had begun to realise his true stature. One of these admirers, the visionary artist Samuel Palmer, described him in his old age:
‘He was energy itself, and shed around him an enkindling influence; an atmosphere of life, full of the ideal. To walk with him in the country was to perceive the soul of beauty through the forms of matter; and the high, gloomy buildings between which, from his study window, a glimpse was caught of the Thames… assumed a kind of grandeur from the man dwelling near them…. He was a man without a mask; his aim single, his path straight-forwards, and his wants few; so he was free, noble, and happy.’
Blake fell ill and was, finally, confined to bed – where he continued to work on his engravings of Dante’s Divine Comedy. His very last work, however, was a pencil sketch, now lost, of his faithful Kate. He died on 12 August, 1827, in his seventieth year, while sitting up in bed and singing his own songs of joy and praise.
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Magic: An interview with Richard Heygate for The
Book of English Magic (John Murray, 2009)
“My grandmother was a very good medium and passed on her interest in Spiritualism to my mother. My father was Irish and psychic too, but came from a long line of Church of Ireland vicars; so, for much of my life I have been trying to find a view which reconciled the heretical and the pagan with the Christian picture. Thanks to my parents, I was given the best education money could buy; but after University, I ended up feeling that I had not been taught what I wanted to know. I eventually became attracted to alchemy and, having thought I could crack it in a month or so, ended up spending four years reading weird texts - some of them in the original Latin! – for my alchemical book Mercurius; or, the Marriage of Heaven and Earth (published by Macmillan and now re-issued by Squeeze Press). As I immersed myself in this new knowledge, I realised that alchemy describes the workings of the imagination itself. It describes how our psyches work: endless circulation, making the volatile fixed and the fixed volatile, separating and conjoining. Alchemy is the chemical counterpart of artistic creativity, because it is, at root, a real soul activity, i.e. both material and non-material. Separate all your elements and bring them all together. Anyone who has written a play knows that you do all that, which is why I suspect that when alchemy began to decline in Europe at the turn of the 17th century, it released its myth-laden gases into the English air and was inhaled by Shakespeare and the great Jacobean dramatists whose plays are full of alchemical imagery. How else can we account for such a sudden burst of brilliant plays out of nowhere? When you come to the 20th Century, you see the same flash of understanding in C. G. Jung, the great Swiss psychologist. When he stumbled across his first alchemical text, he realised that it was the historical counterpart to his psychology of the unconscious. Alchemy is going on in all of us, all the time, whether we like it or not. It is a description of how the deep imagination and the collective psyche work. That’s why Jung’s last great books are about alchemy.
I bummed around in my twenties, until I discovered Jung. He was a great key for me and I got a first glimpse of what I was after. I took part time jobs to feed my habit, which was reading books and writing. I just earned as much money as I needed to take a few months off and study. I had an idea I wanted to be a poet and a mystic. I failed on both counts… I took every kind of job from gardening to market research. Then I’d knock off and live incredibly cheaply somewhere. My most successful book was a thriller, The Serpent’s Circle, then a novel called The Rapture about an autistic child and his search for a self. It was then that I fell enthralled to Lady Alchemy! And she lead me to Hermetic philosophy, and especially to those followers of Plato, the so-called Neoplatonists who first flourished in Alexandria between about AD 100 and 300. This period and place was a huge melting pot of mystics, early Christians, Gnostics, Hermeticists and so on. There was a great flowering of thinking at this time - all philosophical and religious ideas were considered equally and included, a bit like Hinduism. It ended when the Emperor Constantine adopted Christianity and declared everything else heresy. The different threads then separated and went their own way. As I read about the period I found a great insight, which has stayed with me ever since. As part of the scientific revolution, we are trapped in a vision that there either has to be a material or a spiritual world. You must have one or the other. The Platonists believed rather that there is a metaxy, an in-between world, which combines both forms. They were experts in this in-between world and the daemons who inhabited it and mediated between us and the gods. They believed that we are all given a personal daemon at birth to guide you through life (which is where Philip Pullman got the idea). You will find this view in the ‘myth of Er’ told by Socrates towards the end of Plato’s Republic. The daemon is selected at random and assigned to each of us at birth to act as a kind of blueprint for our lives, guiding and protecting us – which is where we get the idea of a guardian angel. The first and greatest of the Neoplatonists, Plotinus, was reluctantly persuaded by a visiting magician to have his daemon summoned up. The magician just wanted to show off his powers to the philosopher, but the ceremony backfired on him when Plotinus’ daemon turned out to be a god. Being a Jungian, I find this an attractive story, as I believe – along with Plutarch! – that ‘he who denies the daemons breaks the chain that unites us to the gods.’ And the gods are none other than archetypes which determine our actions whether we know it our not. We can see how magic takes Plutarch’s remark literally, invoking daemons in order to access the deep imaginative wellsprings where the gods dwell. It is possible of course to manipulate our daemons and, to some extent, make them do our bidding; but it is not advisable because we are not aware of the larger purpose of our lives, which is in the daemon’s keeping and which we can only learn by attentive listening rather than asking or commanding. To the purist Neoplatonist, the later magical experiments of Iamblichus, say - he was especially interested in ‘statue magic’ whereby a god would be invoked and drawn down into its stone likeness – were a falling away from true philosophy. Yet magic is always implied by that philosophy, which held that there is a correspondence between man as microcosm and world as macrocosm – we are the same in kind and differ only in degree so that the one has a vital influence and bearing on the other. We are mirrors of the universe and, as such, can reflect its powers within us…
The great Hermetic writings, so similar in many ways to Neoplatonism, were attributed to the first magician, Hermes Trismegistus (‘thrice-great’) who was alleged to be ancient Egyptian; and although these writings turned out to be contemporary with Neoplatonism rather than ancient Egyptian, they reflect a tradition of wisdom which is much older than their written form. One of the most alluring ideas of the Neoplatonists was their notion, derived from Plato’s dialogue The Timaeus, that there is a Soul of the World. This is the ‘in-between’ world I mentioned earlier – what Jung called ‘psychic reality’. It underlies what we call reality and it contains all the images of everything that is, including ourselves. For we are not, it turns out, the solid literal beings we project ourselves as – our souls are but individual images in the collective Soul of the World. It is a humbling idea to consider that, as the poet W.B. Yeats said, we think we are the deep when in reality we are a little foam upon the deep! We think we have created new ideas and new inventions, yet we see that they all pre-existed in the mythic patterns within the world-soul. That all our modern science is in fact a replication – but in literal form – of older myths is something I spend a long time describing in my book The Philosophers’ Secret Fire. We begin to see, too, that the ‘magic’ of modern technology is only a literalisation of traditional magic. The shaman’s ability to fly, to do harm at a distance, to exercise telepathy, for example, are all made literal by aircraft, by guns (whose bullets look like harm at a distance) and telephones. Television is nothing other than a literal attempt to recreate the otherworld of imagination itself, where daemonic ‘little people’ grip us with their ‘glamour’….
For each individual, the task is simple - though not, perhaps, easy. We have to clear away our negative preoccupations and link ourselves to this world-soul. It is where we come from and where we go to when we die. If we achieve this connection – it involves, of course, a ‘dying to oneself’ – we begin to participate in a world that hitherto we only observed from the outside. We become a wise woman, a philosopher, a shaman. We must make the otherworld journey, meet the daemons, make allies of some, defeat others. From this comes power through wisdom, healing and magic, because you now have access not just to your own psyche but also to the great collective psyche. But you cannot, by definition, abuse this power without abusing yourself.
The world of imagination as reality is very hard for us to grasp. It took the Renaissance, 1300 years after the Alexandrian revolution, to re-kindle the idea and it lead to a huge out-pouring of art and science. Marsilio Ficino was the great intellect of this age. He was the first man to re-read and translate into Latin the Neoplatonists, and the original Hermetic texts, which poured into Florence in the 15th Century. He set up his own villa, just like Plato’s “Academy”, specifically to practice natural magic – magia naturalis as he called it. He was most interested in how invoking the Gods themselves would allow their powers to be drawn down for beneficial use. For instance, if you wanted to invoke the sun, you put yourself in a room, with gold objects, perfumes and music which all corresponded to the sun. In this state your invocations would create a sort of vessel, which would automatically attract the solar powers, which could then be used either to transform yourself or be infused into sigils to benefit others. He held rituals with groups of people to experience the effect of these invocations directly on their imaginations – as such it was a bit like an early form of group psychotherapy. Ficino envisioned natural magic as a whole philosophy of life, rather different from the later ‘demonic magic’ of Cornelius Agrippa whose three books on the subject have had more influence on magicians right up to the present day than any others. He focussed on understanding which techniques of magic worked best and were most powerful. You will find this debate between magic as a source of power and as a source of philosophy central to any discussion of the subject.
The next great development of this intertwined view of magic came through an English magician – or, as I prefer, magus, wise man, from which we get the word ‘magic’. I mean, John Dee. Dee can be thought of as the shaman for the tribe of the English. He could see that the English psyche was deeply torn between the Catholic impulse to worship the old Goddess in the form of the new Queen Elizabeth, and the emerging Puritanism. He saw, as I did in my youth, that there was a need for a new blend of spiritual beliefs and became the mentor of a movement, called by Shakespeare ‘The School of Night’, which included such luminaries as Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Philip Sydney. It was to be almost a new religion, made up of a synthesis of Neoplatonism, Hermeticism, alchemy and Kabbalah - the same four strands which had fired Ficino and his followers . They all believed that they had hit upon a prisca theologia, a ‘pristine theology’ all the more attractive for being, as they thought, older than Moses and certainly older than Christianity and the divisions it had produced.
Unfortunately, the movement dispersed and broke up into its component parts. Alchemy, for instance, as I’ve argued elsewhere, passed into Jacobean drama, into modern chemistry and, finally, via Jung into depth psychology. Dee thought that Agrippan magical practice should be pursued as the strong right arm of his new religion to conjure angels, invoke heavenly powers, and bring abundance and health to the land. Unfortunately, he was not a natural psychic, so he worked with a dodgy associate, Edward Kelley, who was. Through the mediumship of Kelley, Dee conversed with angels in an ‘Enochian’ language which magicians are still trying to translate. The alchemists saw themselves as forming a ‘golden chain’ down which the secret of alchemy was passed from master to pupil. But the secret of alchemy is also the hidden ‘occult’ imaginative view of the world found in the poetry of William Blake and W.B. Yeats as well as in the psychology of Jung. In my more optimistic moments I see myself as a small link in the chain, trying to re-introduce traditional Neoplatonic, even ‘magical’, thinking to my generation. But thought is the wrong word. Imagination is better. And through imagination you see the world anew as the alchemists and Romantic poets saw it – enchanted, animate, ensouled. This is why the alchemists always insisted that the secret of their art is right there for everyone to see. It’s right under our noses. But we don’t see it. We don’t see it because we cannot learn how to see it. The secret is not on any curriculum. We have to be initiated into it – and that of course always involves the inconvenience of dying to one’s self and being reborn…
My own initiation came, I suppose, through my labouring at alchemy when, suddenly, I felt the centre of my personality shift, something else writing through me, my daemon perhaps – who was no one other than Mercurius, the alchemical personification of the world-soul. And I saw how humans are constituted in the same way as the cosmos, each aspects of the great source of all imaginative life, the Soul of the World. It’s one of the joys of the Golden Chain that, when you discover one link in it, as I discovered Jung, then you soon discover all the other links, back through the Romantics to the Renaissance magi to the Neoplatonists and Kabbalists and Hermetic philosophers…
Unfortunately, not many people these days have the time or the interest to pursue these ancient truths. We are obsessed with more immediate matters like money or being loved, and want self-help techniques for getting enough of these, but we also want to be mysterious. This is not new. Even the ancient magicians had to fight the temptation to make a quick buck now and then through their power. But if you get it right, then magic becomes a ‘philosophy of the soul’. However, this can never be a doctrine or a system because it depends on a particular vision of the world and on subtle imaginative insight. Like the soul itself, magical thinking shape shifts and, as we’ve seen, appears down the ages in different guises – now as thinking, now as chemistry, now as poetry, now as psychology, and so on. This is why I have written three books and am writing a fourth. Even with this I will not have expressed ‘the truth’ and all that I want to say because, as Heraclitus remarked, ‘no one can fathom the soul, so deep its extent’. As some wit has said, the truth is that which cannot be Googled…
I’m driven by my personal daemon, but I hate the act of writing. It’s an absolute pain and I have to live in penury and get by, by not eating, sleeping or breathing! But I shouldn’t complain. I have a lovely life in Dorset, where it feels like a permanent holiday; and though writing is difficult and does your head in, it brings the reward of a life that has meaning. Besides, my ‘daemonic reality’ is not all stick and no carrot. My own daemonic allies have come to me one by one over the years. The key to becoming better acquainted is to understand, as Robert Graves describes in The White Goddess, that you must first acquire your daemon’s name and then keep it totally secret. I invoke my daemonic allies to do simple things, like finding a parking space or someone to give me their old computer. Daemons are good at specifics, like coming up with a new washing machine, but don’t ask to win the lottery or take advice on when the world is going to end. In my book Daimonic Reality: A Field Guide to the Otherworld, I recount the story of the veteran UFO researcher, John Keel (of ‘Mothman Prophecies’ fame) who received through his network of psychics and channellers amazing messages about the imminent destruction of New York. He stocked up his car with food and masses of water and headed for the hills. When he arrived at his destination, he asked for a room at the only hotel in town, but discovered, mysteriously, that he had already been checked in. All these omens convinced him that the original prophecy was right and that the city would be destroyed in the morning, but of course it wasn’t. He had been had. The daemons are tricksters as well as helpers, and it’s not unusual for them to give amazingly accurate prophecies so that, when they tell you the world’s ending, you believe them – only to find they’ve hoaxed you! It is possible to get help from your personal Daemon to increase your powers, but meddling in this way can be fatal. Think of all the dangerous people like Stalin, Hitler etc., who must have had immensely powerful personal daemons, but they twisted this power for their own ends and corrupted their own lives.
My basic belief is that magic is not possible without the sort of philosophy that existed before the scientific revolution of the 17th century: that there is a correspondence between the universe and us – the macrocosm and the microcosm. “As above, so below”, as the alchemists believed. It made perfect sense to them that what you did affected the cosmos and vice versa. The link was through the world-soul from which everything flowed, and of which we are all just individual manifestations.
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