A Something That is NothingCory Panshin on February 15, 2011
Years ago, before I had a blog or even a website, I used to collect my stray thoughts and possible story ideas in an old-fashioned school notebook. One day it struck me that if sexism means discrimination based on sex, and ageism means discrimination based on age, then real-ism ought to mean discrimination based on degree of reality.
So I jotted down a few sentences about a world in which mythological creatures are the targets of prejudice and segregation — although some that are less fantastic in appearance might manage to “pass” as real. The politically correct, of course, would insist that all such beings were merely “differently realized.” And the excluded themselves would finally stand up for their rights and insist, “I’m exactly as real as I need to be!”
It never seemed to be more than a whimsy, though, so I left it at that and moved on. But recently, I’ve been getting a sense that other people have had the same thought — and perhaps took it more seriously than I did.
A few weeks ago, one of my favorite websites, The Daily Grail, commemorated the recent death of venerable British occultist Kenneth Grant by linking to a review of one of his books written in 2002 by graphic novelist and chaos magician Alan Moore.
Moore begins the review cautiously enough, with a general discussion of Grant’s life and the “onslaught of compulsive weirdness” in his work, before tackling the vexing question of whether Against the Light should be taken as a novel masquerading as autobiography or a particularly deranged piece of non-fiction:
“Alongside all the genuine occult celebrities woven into Grant’s tale,” Moore writes, “we also find clearly fictitious personages such as Helen Vaughn, half-human heroine of Arthur Machen’s work The Great God Pan, or Richard Pickman, the doomed artist spirited away by ghouls in H P Lovecraft’s Pickman’s Model. … Complicating matters is the nature of the narrative itself, with certain passages apparently intended to take place somewhere at least within the vague proximity of ordinary reality, while other parts plunge us into scryed scenes from history or else fullfledged shamanic visions. Furthermore, Grant seldom bothers to make the transition between one state and another absolutely clear and, indeed, seems to see the different planes of narrative as pretty interchangeable.”
Refusing to concede that either Grant or his book has simply gone off the deep end, however, Moore suggests that the true explanation lies in Grant’s love for the Romance of Sorcery.
“There’s a good case to be made for the position that fiction, romance and fantasy have always been the cornerstone of Magic theory,” Moore writes. “From the first cave-wall surrealism of Palaeolithic shamans, through the visionary poetry of Blake and the vastly important, almost-free-associational synthesis of occult ideas constructed by Eliphas Levi, on to Crowley and Blavatsky, to the Lovecraft/Moorcock tropes of the Chaos magicians, what we see acknowledged is the staggering supernatural power of creative imagination.”
Moore’s use of the term “creative imagination” immediately caught my attention, since that is the name I’ve been applying to the emerging inner experience-based vision — the one which follows holism and multiculturalism in the sequence. Alexei and I first encountered the term back in the 70’s, in Henry Corbin’s Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabi, and immediately identified it as the common element in science fiction, traditional myth, and shamanistic reality. I would guess that Moore found it in the same place and experienced much the same flash of recognition.
As it happens, I quoted a recent statement by Moore that “art … is literally magic” in an entry I did last summer about the creative imagination vision, using his words to make the point that creativity is coming to be perceived as a powerful transformative force. But it is clear that for Moore the significance of the equation goes far deeper.
“Might not the entire of Magic be described as traffic between That Which Is and That Which Is Not; between fact and fiction?” he asks in the review. “If we are to speak of Magic as ‘The Art’, should we not also speak of Art as Magic? … The magician conjures angels or else demons, out of nothingness into manifestation, while the novelist does likewise with her ideas and her characters. Again we have a commerce between the existent and the non-existent, something out of nothingness, the rabbit from an empty hat that is perhaps the very crux of magical endeavour.”
Here we see not only the crux of Moore’s argument but perhaps his ultimate motivation in writing the review — a desire to highlight the crucial question of the relationship between the existent and the non-existent, the real and the imaginary.
That particular question is far from new, but it appears to be especially pivotal for the creative imagination vision.
We live today in a world where virtual particles flash into existence out of nothingness, where virtual realities conjured up by the imagination may be as meaningful as the bricks-and-mortar kind, and where what used to be taken as solid matter is regarded as nothing more than information, probability waves, or a holographic projection. If it is the job of the visions to make sense of our knowledge and experience, the creative imagination vision is surely going to have a lot of explaining to do.
A number of metaphors come to mind as offering a possible framework for such an explanation, each with its own usefulness and its own limitations. Perhaps the stuff of non-existence is being extruded into our reality from elsewhere, adding to its substance as the upwelling of deep magma from the Earth’s core adds to the continents. Or maybe this stuff should not be seen as the raw material for creating more reality but rather as a kind of transcendent pixie dust that is transforming materiality into something finer and stranger. Maybe the process is even an evolutionary one, so that as existence is refined it becomes increasingly transparent to the further transformative inroads of non-existence.
Moore’s personal metaphor, however, appears to be more bi-directional in nature, since he concludes by suggesting that Grant’s work is located in neither “the sharp-edged sunlit world of Fact” nor “the shifting moonlit realm of Fiction” but rather in “a twilight, intermediary domain … a blurred spot between the actual and the imaginary.”
“Sometimes things come through,” he muses. “Sometimes, things trade position with their own reflection. Real works of Magic are exposed as fictions. Works of fiction are revealed as Magic. Yelda Paterson winks knowingly at Helen Vaughn and Anna Sprengel. If a witch or sorcerer be of sufficient magnitude and power, the fact that he or she be also fictional should not prove any great impediment.”
And there, within the special conditions of this liminal realm, Moore finds his own reasons for proposing that if a supernatural being is of sufficient power, the question of whether they are real or not becomes essentially irrelevant.
That conclusion is highly significant on a number of levels, but it also leads far more deeply into the mirror-world of the imagination than I’m prepared to follow in this particular entry. For the moment, I’d rather stick with something simpler — namely Moore’s suggestion that the magician and the writer both conjure “something out of nothingness.”
Around the same time as I was worrying about the disenfranchisement of the differently realized, Alexei was writing a series of tales about the Old Space Ranger, in one of which the Old Space Ranger insists that anyone who wishes to be accepted as his student must first “show me a something that is nothing, and a nothing that is everything.”
Our son Toby was young enough to take this as an ordinary riddle, and he demanded in frustration that we tell him the answer. But of course there is no single answer. It is merely a description that could apply to any number of phenomena that share a certain set of characteristics.
It might, for example, be taken as describing the Anonymous hivemind, which last week issued a press release explaining to the hapless internet security researcher who had attempted to expose them, “We are not a group, we are not an organization. We are just an idea.”
This was followed a few days later by an open letter which stated even more explicitly, “First and foremost, it is important to realize that ANONYMOUS – in fact – does not exist. It is just an idea – an internet meme – that can be appropriated by anyone, anytime to rally for a common cause that’s in the benefit of humankind. This means anyone can launch a new ideological message or campaign under the banner of ANONYMOUS. Anyone can take up a leading role in the spreading of the ANON-consciousness.”
It seems only fair to conclude that in additional to being an expression of holism and horizontalism, the non-existent Anonymous is also a manifestation of creative imagination. And that being so, it is particularly appropriate that it has adopted as one of its symbols the Guy Fawkes mask which appears in Moore’s 1980’s graphic novel, V for Vendetta and the 2006 movie of the same title.
“I was also quite heartened the other day when watching the news,” Moore told Entertainment Weekly in a 2008 interview, “to see that there were demonstrations outside the Scientology headquarters over here, and that they suddenly flashed to a clip showing all these demonstrators wearing V for Vendetta masks. That pleased me. That gave me a warm little glow.”
And if something like that gives Alan Moore the warm fuzzies, who are we to argue?
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