I had gone shopping. It was a simple process that I’d done countless times before. I had gone online and searched for antique books and manuscripts. Being a sort of bibliophile, my collection consists of a half dozen rare or out of print books about the occult. Clearly a modest beginning but one that has the potential to grow into a commanding library. After all, I have years to acquire the titles I want. For now, I’m content to place the little assemblage in a curio cabinet to be showcased adoringly. It was this simple action. This act of collecting and classifying that started me on a path of circulating reference study.
I had just received my latest treasure: L’Histoire Des Imaginations Extravagantes de Monsieur Oufle. Purchased from a seller in the United States, I marveled at the life of this little book. Printed in Paris circa 1700s, the ‘Histoire’ is a stunning piece of occult literature and a beautiful work of art. “What did it say?” I wondered. I knew it was about the occult. Perhaps a grimoire or first-person account of supernatural happenings. I knew it had traveled far. This little book has traveled the world since its publishing. And I imagined the many readers who had caressed this book. “Was it a favorite?” “Who loved this book a hundred years ago? A hundred and fifty?” I wondered at the many bookshelves it has rested upon. And I imagined it criss-crossing the globe. I watched it form its own net in evidence of a life lived. I opened the leather-bound cover and heard the faint sound of a binding once again doing its job. I could smell the pages. I glanced to the cover page and beheld the most incredible engraving I had ever seen. How glorious! This little book was a treasure-trove! I wondered at what it meant. How did this beautiful artwork fit into the occult themes of the book? “What did it mean?”
It was then that I decided to study the etching. I became engrossed in identifying what the image meant and what information is relayed. What was its message? I wanted to know what it had to say to me. And it was at this moment that our journey together began. A surface inspection of the engraving yields a cacophony of the bizarre and wondrous. As I sit at my desk and run a magnifying glass over the image, a cursory examination shows a plethora of folkloric motifs all vying to be the focal point of the image. (See Figure 1)
In the top-left portion of the engraving, dragons or sprites can be seen zipping through the air and gazing down at the unfolding scene below. Just adjacent to the dragons, a horrifying abduction is taking place! Three demons or devils have taken hold of a man and are carrying him away as he exudes some form of ectoplasm or smoke. As the substance billows out of his mouth, he throws his head back in dismay. Infant demons or devils seem to be created within the smoke. Were they using his body in parasitic fashion? Are the three abductors now taking him home to hell? Directly below the abduction, another devil appears to be brushing a horse while a woman stands bewildered near the center of the image. Was the abductee her lover? And were they riding a horse when they were accosted? Her look of shock and outstretched arms imply horror at the scene. Another horse watches the abduction as it takes place while a robust man in the background seems to point at something further down the road. His smile seems to indicate being privy to something neither the abductee nor his terrified love are aware of. The woman also appears oblivious to the gargoyle-esque apparition that sits nearby. In the foreground, a stately gentleman seems to be witnessing the scene as it occurs. His outstretched left hand and docile facial expression makes us wonder whether he is in trance or enchanted in some way. Ominously, a jester holding a scepter is poised to touch the gentleman with two fingers on the back of the neck. Interestingly, only the jester directly breaks the fourth wall and stares directly at the viewer. What new horror is about to befall the gentleman? Or is the jester an instrument of awareness who will wake the man from his slumber? To the right of the pair and in the immediate foreground, a jinn trapped in his bottle sits next to some kind of conjuring demon. Perhaps the orchestrator of the entire episode, this winged creature has a horrifying face and some kind of mysterious power. Another woman stands behind the conjurer and is nearly obscured by the binding of the book. She is robed and wears a look of complete shock. Is she a nun? Is she the only representative of light in the entire image? The engraving is ripe with occult themes and characters. These entities saturate the image in symbol and allegory and serve as a perfect platform with which to study the network and associations of occult thought.
One way to track the movements of occult is to study it in terms of circulating reference and worldmaking. I don’t intend to rehash past conjectures of occult thought or practice. As an anthropologist and folklorist, I’m not required to address the ontological status of theoretical entities portrayed on the engraving. Officially, it’s not my job to substantiate the images as relevant non-entities or question whether they are no more than symbolic presentations of occult themes. However, I do have a profound respect for metaphysics and actor-network theory. Please indulge my philosophical meanderings while we examine occult agency and the many mediations that appear on account of its action.
In the past, any philosophical mention of the occult relied on the dichotomy of dualism and materialism. Were occult happenings a product of the affects mind has on the external world or was the entire phenomenon in the mind. And when I say in the mind, I don’t mean the practitioner is delusional but that the imagination is utilized as a tool and vehicle of perception. These base metaphysical questions are essential to understanding the many agencies at work in occult study but not the only avenue of research. I have chosen the craft of etching and engraving as a platform with which to study occult and hope to show just some of the many actors in the phenomenon.
I’m not an artist. I’ve never had any profound artistic skill nor studied Art History in any critical way. My interest in engraving stems from my love for the printing process. However, for purposes of this study, I was to put plate etching in a laboratorial setting. An actor in a network, I coupled the creation of plate etching with the engraved image to show the many substitutions possible in occult thought. By substituting an interplay of ink, designs, and paper into articulations of meaning, I have identified a shift from etching to creation. This shift shows the tendency for actors to be re-situated in their associations. Therefore, we can’t merely superimpose the various movements onto one another, they must move and be moved- substitutions must occur.
One possible avenue of associative research can be found in transporting the viewer into the etching and into the etching’s creator. What was the train of thought in the engraver when he produced furrows on the surface of the plate? Did he imagine a process of becoming that the viewer will also experience albeit in a purely spiritual way? As Dyson has remarked, Engravers saw themselves as translators rather than imitators; and in an important sense they were. [i] But what was being translated? With the novice image barely discernable on the plate, did our creator then dust it with resin and plate it on a Bunsen Burner? Like an alchemist, the heat on the plate melts the resin into tiny globules that act as a protective shield. And this is an important part I want my readers to understand. It is the space between the globules that is effected in ‘the bite’ of the acid. A liminal place where transformation takes place. This is the same Ordeal that the viewer/initiate experiences when moved into the piece. In being betwixt and between, the engraving and its viewer are both bitten into by an agent of change. Through a succession of immersions, the acid is a baptism by fire. A purifying catalyst for re-presentation, the plate has changed forever. When our engraver then brushes the ink within the crevices and sends it through the press, it is the inked image that stands to re-present the new plate. No longer what it was, the plate has taken on a new ontological status. An entity has come to life. Multiple immersions only serve to give detail to this new form and it has taken on a state of viewer and initiate. In this regards, the creator affects the image just as the image affects the viewer. The new entity is epistemologically re-situated when the viewer is changed or made anew by associative circumstance.
It is worth being said that charting an engraving’s production is not necessarily structuralist. Although reducing the process into its constituent units can be an attribute of action displacement, the entire point of evaluating the etching is to identify where action is re-distributed or, at the very least, to indicate where movement has occurred. Nor is the plate a strict metaphor for the occult initiate. That would be too easy. Indeed, the image re-presents but not in the archaic formulated way of symbolizing something else. The engraving makes use of an ecology of action. By reallocating its various attributes, a network is formed that distributes action. In this circumstance, the whole is not the sum of its parts. Whether we are talking of the chemical processes within hydrochloric acid that ‘bites into’ the plate, or the molecular makeup of ink that allows it to adhere to paper, these parts give substance to the entire network. So much action circulating in a myriad of ways! And all of this must be taken into account when we study occult thought. The connections that interlink the network make use of all the actors whether it be the contents of the image or the sciences involved in producing the plate.
I hear the inevitable question. “Why? Why Preston-must we give a hoot about the mechanical and chemical processes that give rise to etching? Is it not the image and interpretation of the image that counts?” I don’t deny the image is important. It is one of the attributes that give meaning to a non-entity. But by affirming the entire network that surrounds an occult engraving, the piece becomes self-contained and autonomous. It exists independent of the occult (in the form of art), the viewer (it doesn’t wholly depend on symbolic systems for existence), and even its role as fetish object. We make a distinction between the image and the engraving. One is purely epistemic whereas the other is ontological. The former we ascribe meaning to, the latter requires no external meaning or explanation. It is a product of combining certain methods to create a specific object. However, manufactured objects always have a life and fate of their own. Often times, the trajectory or destiny of the object serves multiple purposes and functions. Such is the case with our engraving. As well as being a beautiful work of art, the etching is also a mediator for the occult. An inanimate object endowed with mystical qualities, the fetish is a supernatural happening. Similar to sacred stones or ancient Grecian curse tablets, the engraving itself is talismanic. In principle, it wouldn’t matter what the image on the engraving was, the object as amulet is what is important in negotiating mystical agency. Charles de Brosses brought this into sharp focus in his Culte des dieux fetiches (1760) in which he reexamines the etymology of the word “fetish”, linking it to the Portuguese fetiso, “fairy thing”, in other words, “magic spell”, “spell object.”[ii] A contemporary of our engraving, it’s not difficult to discern the occult attitude towards fetish objects in 18th century France.
We can take this line of thinking into occult ontology as well. If each actor is examined in terms of its associations in the network, we are given much more information about the movement that flows from the sum to its parts and visa versa. Now I know the common reaction to this theory is one of horror and shame. “You’re asking us to grant being to non-entities! You want us to ‘really believe’ in ghosts, daimons, and aliens!” And I say, “Why not?” If it works for electrons, protons, and quarks, why can’t it work for spiritual entities as well. After all, do we not accept the idea of gravity or evolution? Of course we do! And as Harpur states in regards to non-entities, the daimons or subatomic “innerspace” are called particles, although strictly speaking they aren’t- electrons, for example, are both particles and waves at the same time. They are paradoxical, both there and not-there, like fairies.[iii]
The only thing that makes me any different from a run-of-the-mill folklorist or anthropologist is in the fact that I grant non-entities actual existence. To me, the creation of reality and everything in it is analogous to the creation of our etching and the occult image it contains. A contextual theory of meaning, these theoretical terms are given substance based upon implicit definitions of terms. Saying nothing empirical about the observable world, our theory of the entities is neither true nor false. If again you’ll bear with me to draw analogy to subatomic entities, the movement of an electron can be used as a bridge gap or correspondence rule with occult entities. As electrons move out of an atom, a wavelength of light is emitted. There is no way to test it and it holds no reference to the observable world. Because there is no empirical content, scientists tie it to correspondence rules in the observable world. In this case, color lines in a spectrum. We identify a range of wavelengths in light that are emitted by an atom. We can perform the same procedure with occult entities. If we posit a wavelength of light, separate dimension, or timbre of sound where these entities can be experienced, we ascribe a bridge gap in the theory that will provide meaning. We once again invoke Heisenberg’s ‘Uncertainty Principle’ and say that these entities are both there and not-there.
What sets occult agencies apart and ensures a constant flow of mediations is in the fact that it is always on the run. Not just moving, the occult has been forced to flee not only more accepted religions but lawmakers and legislators who perceive some nefarious agenda or conspiracy within the occult. Occult agency moves because it must. Have you not noticed that wherever the occult crops up in the media it always appears under the strangest of circumstances? It’s always a surprise! Some bizarre event such as crop-circles or ceremonial magic and “voila!” the occult is running for its life. But what if instead to trying to find a niche to cohabitate, the occult ran forward and deliberately into the array of entities that sought to discredit its thoughts and practices? Would the movements burst open and explode into a multitude of new movements and colorful discourse? If the occultist were allowed and even encouraged to undergo transformation, would we, for example, witness apparitions of the Holy Virgin Mary undergo a shift from paranormal entity, to religious icon, to anthropological informant? What would be the chain of interactions and what kind of inertia would she generate by being transformed through agency? Its time we as occultists began to explore these questions as a means to better understand the networking capability of our chosen thought forms.
To be continued…