slapping a wad of Semtex between the Happy Meals and the plastic tray, work your way up through the ranks, take over the board of Directors and turn the company into an international laughing stock. You will learn a great deal about magic on the way. Then move on to take out Disney, Nintendo, anyone you fancy. What if “The System” isn’t our enemy after all? What if instead it’s our playground? The natural environments into which we pop magicians are born? Our jungle, ocean and ice floe…to bargain with and dance around and transform, as best we can, into poetry?
What if, indeed?
Being Imbolc, the Illumination of all things Hidden and Occult, the holiday of Bride, who brings the Light of Knowledge to all those who humbly ask Her Grace to dispel Darkness, it is Meet and Proper to discuss Such Things as may lead to a Broader Understanding of the Relation between Word and Will. Once Requested, Thrice Granted. So mote it be!
I pitied thee,
Took pains to make thee speak, taught thee each hour One thing or other: when thou didst not, savage, Know thine own meaning, but wouldst gabble like
A thing most brutish, I endow’d thy purposes With words that made them known.
-The Tempest, Act I, Scene 2
A recent issue of New Scientist celebrated William S. Burroughs’ most famous maxim: “Language is a virus.” It seems that language, our ability to apprehend and manipulate symbols and signs, has evolved to fill a unique ecological niche—the space between our ears. Human beings, together with most higher animals, share an ability to sequence perceptual phenomena temporally, detecting the difference between before, during, and after. This capability is particularly pronounced in the primates, and, in the case of homo sapiens, left us uniquely susceptible to an infection of sorts, an appropriation of our innate cognitive abilities for ends beyond those determined by nature alone. Our linguistic abilities aren’t innate. They are not encoded in our DNA. Language is more like E. coli, the bacteria in our gut, symbiotically helping us to digest our food. Language helps us to digest phenomena, allowing us to ruminate on the nature of the world.
Why language at all? We are fairly certain that it confers evolutionary
advantage, that a species which speaks (and occasionally, listens) is more likely to pass its genes on than a species which cannot speak. But we can’t make too much of that: nearly all other animals are dumb, to varying degrees, and they manage to be fruitful and multiply without having to talk about it. Despite the fact that gorillas can sign and dolphins squeak, we haven’t found any indication of the symbol-rich internal consciousness which we attribute to language. This means that other animals have a direct experience of the world around them, while everything we do is utterly infused with the fog of language.
We need to be clear about this: from the time, some tens or hundreds of thousands of years ago, that language invaded and colonized our cerebrums, we have increasingly lost touch with the reality of things. Reality has been replaced with relation, a mapping of things-as-they-are to things-as-we- believe-them-to-be. Language allows us to construct complex systems of symbols, the linear narratives which frame our experience. Yet a frame invariably occults more of the world than it encompasses, and this exclusion leaves us separated from the world-as-it-is.
It is impossible for a human being, in a “normal” level of consciousness— that is, without explicit training or “gratuitous grace”—to experience anything of the reality of the world. Language steps in to mediate, explain, and define. The moments of ineffability are outside the bounds of human culture (if not entirely outside human experience) because at these points where language fails nothing can be known or said. This alone should tell us that while we think ourselves the masters of language, precisely the opposite is true. Language is the master of us, a tyranny from which no escape can be imagined.
This is not a new idea. The second line of the Tao Te Ching states the matter precisely: “The name which can be named is not the true name.” In the origins of human philosophy and metaphysics, language stands out as the great Interloper, separating man from the apprehension of things-as-they-are. Zen practice aims to extinguish the internal monologue, seeking a unification, a boundary dissolution between the internal state of mankind, encompassed at every point by the boundaries inherent in language, and the Absolute. This is the universal, yet entirely individual battle of mankind, the great liberation earnestly sought for. Yet, at the end, nothing is gained. And this seems reward enough, because the “mind forg’d manacles” which bind us to the
world of words so hinder the progress of the soul that any release, even into Nothing, is a movement upward.
It is not as though all of us are imminently bound for Nirvana; white some will stop the Wheel of Karma, the rest will remain thoroughly entangled in the attachments of desire, hypnotically attracted to the veil of Maya. That veil is made of language; it is the seductive voice, the Siren’s Call, which keeps us from our final destiny. This is bad, in that attachments produce suffering, but it is also good, a point rarely promoted by the devotees of utmost annihilation. Being in the world means being at play within the world. Without play there is no learning, without learning, no progress to the inevitable release. And in the play of the world, as in any game, there are winners and losers: there are those who skin their knees or break their bones, but at the end, everything returns to potentialities, and only the memory of having played the game remains. All of our interactions within the world leave their mark upon us, and we wage war within ourselves: we would be both naked, unadorned, and as completely transformed as the Illustrated Man, whose entire body, covered in tattoos, tells the story of his life.
In the battle between Word and Will, there are two paths, which diverge from a common entry point, and converge upon a final exit. We wish to release everything and become one with all; we wish to encompass everything and become one with all. If you desire to remove yourself from the world, there are numerous sources, starting with Lao Tze and Buddha, who can steer you in the direction of emptiness. But if you decide this is too much (or rather, too little) to ask, there is another path. I find the emptiness of the Absolute a bit too chilling, the light from Ain Soph too revealing; not because they represent the highest, but rather, because they simplify the manifold beauty. “The Tao produces one, one produces two, the two produce the three and the three produce all things.” To choose the Tao over the many things which flow from it is to assert a hierarchy of values, a violation of the very essence of the Tao. We are that river; we flow from that source. Why do we feel the need to return?
“Language is a virus.” While we think ourselves the masters of language, precisely the opposite is true. Language is the master of us, a tyranny from which no escape can be imagined.
As an answer to the demands of eternal return, the French philosophers have introduced us to the idea of forward acceleration. When you find yourself trapped in a seemingly hopeless situation, jam your foot down on the accelerator petal, take it to the limit, and drive straight on through to the culmination. Imminentize the Eschaton. What if we were to say, fine, bring it on, and accept language for all of its enslaving faults—but, at the same time, keep a consciousness of these faults constantly before us? Where would we find ourselves? Could this lead to freedom, a freedom which is less an escape from imprisonment than an encompassing awareness that the world, with all of its traps and cages, cannot be separated from the Absolute? In any case, a recognition of the “horror of the situation”—as Gurdjieff stated it—could only put us in a better place to plot our escape. When you find yourself in the belly of the Beast, why not curl up, make yourself comfortable, and conspire? That most concisely describes where we are today, in an instantaneously connected, universally mediated linguistic environment of human creation. But before we conspire in any sense of safety, we must consider how language shapes the relations between human beings. Otherwise we risk exchanging the illness of linguistic infection for the cunning traps of human power.
Good friends, sweet friends, let me not stir you up To such a sudden flood of mutiny.
They that have done this deed are honorable:
What private griefs they have, alas, I know not, That made them do it: they are wise and honorable, And will, no doubt, with reasons answer you.
-Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene 2
A few weeks before I wrote this essay, I had a private conversation with a neurophysiologist at UCSD (University of California San Diego), who passed along some stunning insights he’d gathered from his research on the human brain. It seems that although we like to perceive ourselves as rational, reasonable creatures, carefully weighing our decisions before we commit, the fact of the matter is precisely the inverse. We arrive at our decisions through
emotional sensations, acting “from the gut” at all times. Our reason enters the process only after the decision has been made, and acts as the mind’s propagandist, convincing us of the utter rightness which underlies all of our actions. Beyond this, reason has a social function: to convince others that our actions are correct. Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears! Not so that you can think for yourselves, but that I might instruct you in what to believe.
Thus are all the great philosophies of Socrates and Plato overturned; these men, considering themselves the paragons of reason, used their rhetorical skills to create a new tradition in thought which had nothing more behind it than the force of the words which composed it. Seen in this light, the entirety of human history becomes more farcical (and more tragic) than could possibly be imagined. Right and wrong, good and evil, these carefully argued positions are foundations built upon the shifting sands of words. The linguistic infection has left us weakened, vulnerable to a secondary, and perhaps more serious illness—conviction.
Humans are faced with a dual-headed problem; it is bad enough that the world as-we-know-it is made of words, mediated by language, and still worse that this means that other human beings can employ this condition (more precisely, conditioning) for their own ends. It likely could not be otherwise, for we are social beings; that much is encoded into our DNA and our physiology. We need for people to believe in us, to support us, to conspire with us. A human being unwillingly deprived of the society of his peers descends into madness as the fine structures of perceived reality, maintained and reinforced by the rhetorical bombardments of others’ truths (and his own, reflected back), rapidly unwind without constant reinforcement. What I tell you three times is true. What I tell you three million times is civilization.
Plato knew this: that’s why he banned poets from his Republic. What he could not (or, more sinisterly, would not) recognize is that all words are poetry, rhetoric regimenting the reason. To speak and be heard means that you are sending your will out onto the world around you, changing the definition of reality for all those who hear you. We do this from the time we learn to speak (imagine the two year-old asserting his will in a shrill cry for attention, and noting a corresponding change in the behavior of those around him) till the moment we breathe our last. For most people, most of the time, this is an unconscious process, automatic and mechanical. For a few others,
who, by accident or training, have become conscious of the power of reason to change men’s minds, a choice is presented: how do you use this power?
We arrive at our decisions through emotional sensations, acting “from the gut” at all times. Our reason enters the process only after the decision has been made, and acts as the mind’s propagandist, convincing us of the utter rightness which underlies all of our actions.
“We are all pan-dimensional wizards, casting arcane spells with every word we speak. And every spell we speak always comes true.” Owen Rowley, my mentor in both the magical mysteries and in the mysteries of virtual reality, taught me this maxim some years ago, though it took some years before I began to understand the full magnitude of his seemingly grandiose pronouncement. More than anything else, it places enormous responsibility on anyone who uses language—that is, all of us. Because we are creatures infected by language, and because language shapes how we come to interpret reality, we bear the burden of our words. We know that words can hurt, we even believe that words can kill, but the truth is far more comprehensive: all of our words are the equivalent of a hypnotist’s suggestions, and all of us are to some degree susceptible. With this responsibility comes an awareness of the burden we bear. It is how we encounter this burden—as individuals and as a civilization—which shapes reality.
If power corrupts, and each of us are endowed with inestimable power, we could cast human civilization as a long war of words, a battle to determine what is real. Robert Anton Wilson once quipped, “Reality is the line where rival gangs of shamans fought to a standstill.” This statement hides the fact that we’re all shamans, and every time we say, “This is this,” we reset the parameters of the real. Most of these shamanic battles are relatively innocent, just primate teeth-baring and jockeying for dominance in a given situation. However, in the wrong mouths, words can lead to disaster. Consider Jim Jones or Adolph Hitler, who, by force of their oratory, led hundreds and millions to their deaths.
If, instead, an individual conscious of the power of words to shape the world chooses to use this power with wisdom, seeking not hegemony but liberation
—a different path opens up. In this world, nothing needs to be true, and everything becomes permissible. This is the realm of conscious magick,
where the realized power of the word opens possibilities for the self without constricting the potentialities of anyone else. This is the safest path, both karmically and practically; if you stay out of the way of others, there’s less likelihood you’ll be interfered with yourself. The magician does not proselytize; and although he may present an irresolvable paradox for those who confront his magick with their own linguistically reinforced perceptions of the world, he bares no responsibility for their reactions, nor is he susceptible to their attacks. He exists in a world apart, because there is no agreement on a common language through which a linguistic infection could spread. The magician insulates himself, inoculates himself and protects himself from the beliefs of others, while holding his own beliefs in great suspicion. Rhetoric and anti-rhetoric, combined, produces a burst of energy which propels the magician forward, with great acceleration, into a new universe of meaning.