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Art, creativity, and what Google doesn’t know

From an essay by Ed Finn, founding director of the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University:

We are all centaurs now, our aesthetics continuously enhanced by computation. Every photograph I take on my smartphone is silently improved by algorithms the second after I take it. Every document autocorrected, every digital file optimised. Musicians complain about the death of competence in the wake of Auto-Tune, just as they did in the wake of the synthesiser in the 1970s. It is difficult to think of a medium where creative practice has not been thoroughly transformed by computation and an attendant series of optimisations. . . .

Today, we experience art in collaboration with these algorithms. How can we disentangle the book critic, say, from the highly personalised algorithms managing her notes, communications, browsing history and filtered feeds on Facebook and Instagram? . . . .

The immediate creative consequence of this sea change is that we are building more technical competence into our tools. It is getting harder to take a really terrible digital photograph, and in correlation the average quality of photographs is rising. From automated essay critiques to algorithms that advise people on fashion errors and coordinating outfits, computation is changing aesthetics. When every art has its Auto-Tune, how will we distinguish great beauty from an increasingly perfect average? . . .

We are starting to perceive the world through computational filters, perhaps even organising our lives around the perfect selfie or defining our aesthetic worth around the endorsements of computationally mediated ‘friends’. . . .

Human creativity has always been a response to the immense strangeness of reality, and now its subject has evolved, as reality becomes increasingly codeterminate, and intermingled, with computation. If that statement seems extreme, consider the extent to which our fundamental perceptions of reality — from research in the physical sciences to finance to the little screens we constantly interject between ourselves in the world — have changed what it means to live, to feel, to know. As creators and appreciators of the arts, we would do well to remember all the things that Google does not know.

FULL TEXT: “Art by Algorithm

 

Magical Thinking, Part 1

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The following is excerpted and adapted from the introduction to A Darke Phantastique: Encounters with the Uncanny and Other Magical Things, edited by Jason V Brock for Cycatrix Press. Jason’s full introduction is titled “An Abiding Darkness, A Phantastique Light.” The book also features a foreword by Ray Bradbury in the form of a previously unpublished 1951 essay titled “The Beginnings of Imagination.”

Why do we, as a species, create things? What is it to “create”? What is the purpose of such activity?

These are fascinating questions, and likely no one has a complete answer to them. However, from my vantage point, in its most essential form, creativity is making the divine out of the mundane. It is taking the fundamental life force of the human spirit and resolving that unfocused energy into something akin to the spiritual. (Sexuality is another example of this process, and is tied to creativity.)

Shamans were often catalysts of this in pre-religious contexts. In more organized societies, religion has attempted to channel energy of this nature with decidedly mixed results, often heaping upon the creative impulse the added burdens of castigation and humiliation, lest the individual attempt to take their (rightful) place amongst the gods. Just as one need not believe in a godhead to live a moral and righteous life, one can be a creative without the insufferable tyranny of an organized gathering of impotents taking umbrage at every word written, every stroke painted, every dish prepared, every frame captured. We are the authors of our lives and the masters of the final outcome, not the politicians or religious leaders of the moment.

Who are these individuals to dictate to us? How are they more able to advise us than any other person in the world, including ourselves? Certainly none of us needs a pope, a president, a lama, or a god to assist us in navigating any moral conviction; it is an innate function of socialization and reasoning. We have imbued such people with this ability; they are not actually illuming our existence. To understand this takes courage, passion, skill, talent, and inspiration. Otherwise we are all doomed, in the words of Thoreau, to lead “lives of quiet desperation.” And then the grave, followed by the unknown. Why not take one’s life and steer it, rather than listen to the protestations of less valiant persons hiding from the possible?

Other questions of interest to humanity — and to creators, especially in our science-driven, technologically dependent age — present themselves upon analysis: What is the fundamental nature of reality? Why are we alive? Are we alone in the universe? When does consciousness become non-artificial? If a humanoid (or non-human animal for that matter) has enough experience and wisdom to have insight, that means the threshold of insight has been crossed, which means the “artificial” aspects of Artificial Intelligence (simply programming data points or relying on input/output mechanisms) will have been breached. It isn’t artificial at that point. It just “is.”

“What is the fundamental nature of reality? Why are we alive? Are we alone in the universe? When does consciousness become non-artificial?”

Using that as an illustration, we realize that we are at an intriguing juncture as a world-changing species. When the first non-living organism begins to manifest actual sentience (as opposed to simple self-awareness), true emotions (not just programmed reactions), and is able, for example, to produce a profound work of art — a masterpiece of literature, painting, music, cinema, or the equivalent — then there will be no fundamental difference between “AI” and just plain garden-variety “I.” Once that happens, we will really have to examine the ethics of how we treat things that are neither born nor cultivated, but built for a purpose — something humanity struggles with now as it is related to non-human creatures and even to other humans based on sexuality, gender, and race, all of which are natural manifestations of DNA expression on Earth.

And indeed, what purpose is there to creating such a being? If we limit their life course to what “we decide” versus their own free will, isn’t that slavery? What if they are psychopathic and intentionally shut off the electrical grid to a hospital, for example, or commit an act of terrorism? Would that be a crime? I think it means we would need to reconsider many aspects of jurisprudence and mental health, for a start. Additionally, it is said that one learns more from failure than success, so does that mean that for higher levels of consciousness to be attained, AI must first have input from extremely negative learning experiences in order to garner enough data for such things as insight or empathy to manifest? Where does that lead? Uploading all the misery of the Holocaust? The horror of a cancer diagnosis? Deprivation due to the inability to see, hear, or speak, like Helen Keller?

And who are we to decide that these beings are mortals? (They could, technically, be immortals with the current technologies.) Are these prerequisites for such phenomena as the creation of emotionally moving artworks or philosophy, including knowledge of one’s own eventual death? Is immortality a good thing for humanity, either organic or manufactured?

I will address these concerns in Part 2, to be published soon.

Looking for a still point amid our digital cacophony? Consider writing in longhand.

From the late 1980s to the early 2000s, I kept a longhand journal. It was where I learned the sound of my own inner voice and the rhythm of my own thoughts, and where I gained a more conscious awareness and understanding of the ideas, subjects, emotions, and themes that are, through sheer force of gravitational passion, my given subject matter as a writer and human being.

This writing discipline, which was powered by a combination of conscious will and involuntary compulsion (so deeply intermixed that I could never fully figure out where the one left off and the other began), began to alter itself spontaneously with my plunge into Internet culture circa 1995. To condense a very long story to a single sentence, almost from the very minute I entered the Internet fray, my desire to write by hand began to dwindle until it almost disappeared — but it remains something that I deliberately return to from time to time for inner recalibration and recentering, and I invariably find it so full of beneficial, soul-healing effects that I wonder every time why I ever abandoned it to begin with.

Now comes digital culture commentator Tom Chatfield, writing in City Journal about information age anxiety and the danger that we will be utterly swallowed by the vortex of digital noise and distraction that we have created. And he talks cogently about this very issue: the relationship between, and in fact the conflict between, the clear-souled act of writing by hand and the swirl of digital noise and distraction that otherwise cocoons us:

I have noticed, for example, that I think and feel differently depending on whether my cell phone is switched on or off. The knowledge that I am potentially contactable subtly alters the texture of my time. According to a Pew Research Center survey, 67 percent of American adults have experienced “phantom” rings, thinking that their phones are vibrating or ringing when they aren’t. I now try to build some uncontactable time into each of my days — not because I fear technology but because feeling able to say no as well as yes helps me take ownership of my decisions. Without boundaries, without friction, value slips away.

I sometimes write in longhand simply to re-create some of this friction. When I write with a pen on paper, words flow with the sense that they exist just half a sentence ahead of the nib. The mechanical slowness of writing helps me feel words as objects as well as ideas, with a synesthetic pleasure in their arrival. Composing into a physical notebook helps writing and reverie mix, often unexpectedly: sentences and phrases arrive out of the blue. Pens and paper are themselves simply the technologies of another era. There’s no magic in them, no fetish to worship. It is the experiences they enable — not what they are in themselves — that I value, alongside the gifts of more recent innovations.

Yet I struggle to live up to my own plan. I check my e-mail too often. I ache for the tiny endorsement of a retweet. I panic at an hour’s loss of cell-phone reception. I entrust ever more of my life and library to third parties, from Amazon to Apple, whose “ecosystems” seem to absorb me.

Where is the still point of the turning world where I might stand, understand, and take back control?

— Tom Chatfield, “Anxious in the Information Age,” City Journal 23.3 (Summer 2013)

I can tell you that my own experience parallels that of Mr. Chatfield with uncanny precision. Perhaps yours does as well.

Relatedly, I encourage you to go and read Mitch Horowitz’s recent article about taking a “massive leap forward in your writing through one simple exercise.” And what is that exercise? It’s very simple, and also simply revolutionary, says Mitch:

First, identify a piece of critical writing that you admire — perhaps an essay, article or review — but above all, something that captures the vitality and discretion that you would like to bring to the page. Then, recopy it by hand.

In the action of copying the piece by hand — not typing on a computer or tablet — you will discover the innards and guts of what the writer is doing. Writing by hand, with pen and paper, compels you to become mentally and even physically involved in picking apart the work. You will gain a new perspective on how the writer says things, how he deploys evidence and examples, and how his sentences are designed to introduce details or withhold them for later.

— Mitch Horowitz, “How to Take a Massive Leap Forward in Your Writing through One Simple Exercise,” The Huffington Post, September 19, 2013

Mitch goes on to describe how his hand-copying of an article by Jack Curry in The New York Times “reinvigorated my own passion for writing — and led me to focus on metaphysical history, which resulted in my two recent books: Occult America (Bantam, 2009) and One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life (Crown, Jan 2014).”

Again, my own experience parallels what’s described here, because I myself have gotten enormous authorial mileage from copying down by hand the work of other writers.

And now you’ll have to excuse me, because I’ve got to log off, pick up a pen, and spend some time blackening a few pages in the notebook (as in, a bound stack of real paper pages, not a petite laptop computer) that awaits my real-world attention. But before I do, if any of this speaks to you, then I suppose the upshot is obvious: go thou and do likewise.

Nightmares: Dark Crossroads of Creativity and Vulnerability

From the perspective of cognitive psychology and clinical neuroscience, when it comes to treatment, a good nightmare is a dead nightmare. Since the days of Freud, we have been hell-bent on eliminating all varieties of bad dreams equally without discrimination and as a result, we know surprisingly little about ordinary nightmares. That’s a problem that isn’t going to go away by itself.

Wolf nightmares

My own life has been sculpted by the gritty winds of horrible dreams, leaving me confused about how to work with the dark energies that are stirred up for days afterwards. For example, for years, I was tormented by dreams of being chased by wolves and packs of angry dogs. Usually I would wake up from fright, but sometimes not before one of them sank their teeth into me or scratched at my hands and face. In waking life, I’m a dog lover who raised and trained several dogs. In particular, I helped raise a beautiful German Shepard mix named Bandit who was also a quarter wolf. So my nightmares do not come from a fear of unknowing, but rather a legacy of love, which always confused me further. What am I so scared of?

A few years ago, I told a psychotherapist friend about my wolf dreams and my inability to proceed when the animals attack, despite often becoming lucidly aware in the dream. As with many lucid dreams, my self-awareness seemed to bungle the dream rather than provide clarity. There are no guides in the lucid dreaming literature besides a somewhat pedantic attitude that eliminating fear will shift the dream. I didn’t want to eliminate the wolves, though. I wanted to work with them somehow. Should I fight them off? Allow myself to be devoured as some sort of initiation rite?

She suggested a different approach: “Reach into your pocket and pull out a gift for them.” I was struck by the simplicity of this action. I asked how would I know what to give them and she answered, “That is up to the dream, not you.” Read the rest of this entry

Shirley Jackson: Witchcraft, madness, and the uncanny dangers of writing

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Image via Wikipedia

From a long and  uncommonly engrossing essay by Victoria Best at Open Letters Monthly about the relationship between life, art, madness, and the occult in the work and person of Shirley Jackson:

She believed [writing] had a protective function, too, a kind of mental hygiene that allowed her to be herself: “The very nicest thing about being a writer is that you can afford to indulge yourself endlessly with oddness, and nobody can really do anything about it, so long as you keep writing and kind of using it up, as it were. […] So long as you write it away regularly, nothing can really hurt you.”

. . . Witchcraft and magic had oddly analogous functions to writing, in the way they were transformational and protective. And their appeal was just as compelling. By sixteen Jackson had set herself the task of reading everything she could find on the subject, and the research was combined with her own uncanny sixth sense and her eagerness to stick pins in wax dolls. “That’s not a good way for a girl to grow up,” she wrote in her last, unfinished novel, Come Along With Me, which was the closest she came to reproducing her childhood under the guise of fiction. “How can anyone handle things if her head is full of voices and her world is full of things no one else can see?”

. . . Jackson encouraged an occult atmosphere around her; she surrounded herself with a collection of amulets and charms, she liked to freak people out. But she was often tight-lipped or diversionary when asked direct questions. “She wanted very much to find provable magic,” her daughter, Sally, said. “And I think by the time I met her she’d gotten to the kind of point where she pretended she already had, and she wouldn’t talk about it because her mystique would be blown.”

However ‘real’ her experiences of the supernatural may have been, the practice of witchcraft, which was where Shirley began, was, if nothing else, an appeal to a different kind of potency. As the strong-willed daughter of a controlling mother, Shirley was always interested in power, and particularly in subversive forms of it. She was clear-sighted enough to know that power was always elusive, sinuously resistant, sometimes autonomous; in her good, strong adult years she wielded it unflinchingly, never afraid to dominate her own family. But in troubled times, she felt fragile and undefended, acted upon by forces that seemed to come from outside of herself, out of control in fundamental and terrifying ways.

We_Have_Always_Lived_in_the_Castle_by_Shirley_Jackson. . . It is no wonder that Shirley Jackson was unable to leave her house while she was writing herself into a vindication of her own neuroses [with her final novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, the writing of which brought her to a state of nervous collapse and creative block]. No wonder, when her mother crossed the invisible boundary and attacked Shirley in her most vulnerable place that the trap sprang shut with Shirley inside it. Her mantra that “so long as you write it away regularly, nothing can hurt you,” had been proved false, and writing itself had followed the uncanny pattern that she had written about all those years: it had turned out to have danger lurking at its core.

COMPLETE ESSAY: “Nothing Like Being Scared

(UPDATE May 2014: The complete essay is no longer freely available; it can only be read by subscribers to Open Letters Monthly.)

Meditation, the daimon muse, and the I Ching

Dreaming

Several thousand people have now downloaded my free e-book A Course in Demonic Creativity: A Writer’s Guide to the Inner Genius (formerly available at Demon Muse, which I have now shut down because of repeated hacks and security breaches). There’s obviously a widespread interest in the idea, experience, and practice of what feels like inner creative communion and collaboration with a guiding muse, daimon, genius, Holy Guardian Angel, pick your metaphor. My personal intuition tells me the whole subject is bound up with the zeitgeist itself, as anybody who has followed this blog for very long will already know.

Something I didn’t talk about in the e-book, but that I’ll probably mention in its possible future reincarnation as a thoroughly expanded and revised version of itself, is the rich and deeply significant connection between this subject and the I Ching. If you’re unfamiliar or only distantly familiar with this classic, civilization-shaping Chinese book of divination and cosmic wisdom, then please hear me when I say that you’re well-advised to become better acquainted with it, because the discipline of learning to consult, interpret, and apply the I Ching to your life, psyche, and circumstances can complement and intensify the Western view of the daimon muse with a powerful alternate inflection. Read the rest of this entry

Doris Lessing on storytellers as myth-makers: “Our heritage of stories began in fire, magic, the spirit world”

By Elke Wetzig (elya) (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

From Doris Lessing’s lecture in acceptance of the 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature:

We are a jaded lot, we in our threatened world. We are good for irony and even cynicism. Some words and ideas we hardly use, so worn out have they become. But we may want to restore some words that have lost their potency.

We have a treasure-house of literature, going back to the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans. It is all there, this wealth of literature, to be discovered again and again by whoever is lucky enough to come upon it. A treasure. Suppose it did not exist. How impoverished, how empty we would be.

We own a legacy of languages, poems, histories, and it is not one that will ever be exhausted. It is there, always.

We have a bequest of stories, tales from the old storytellers, some of whose names we know, but some not. The storytellers go back and back, to a clearing in the forest where a great fire burns, and the old shamans dance and sing, for our heritage of stories began in fire, magic, the spirit world. And that is where it is held, today.

Ask any modern storyteller and they will say there is always a moment when they are touched with fire, with what we like to call inspiration, and this goes back and back to the beginning of our race, to the great winds that shaped us and our world.

The storyteller is deep inside every one of us. The story-maker is always with us. Let us suppose our world is ravaged by war, by the horrors that we all of us easily imagine. Let us suppose floods wash through our cities, the seas rise. But the storyteller will be there, for it is our imaginations which shape us, keep us, create us -for good and for ill. It is our stories that will recreate us, when we are torn, hurt, even destroyed. It is the storyteller, the dream-maker, the myth-maker, that is our phoenix, that represents us at our best, and at our most creative.

Complete lecture: “On Not Winning the Nobel Prize

Image by Elke Wetzig (elya) (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Publication imminent: ‘Daimonic Imagination, Uncanny Intelligence’

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I’m pleased to report that the publication of the book Daimonic Imagination: Uncanny Intelligence, which will feature my essay/paper “In Search of Higher Intelligence: The Daemonic Muse(s) of Aleister Crowley, Timothy Leary, and Robert Anton Wilson,” is imminent. The book is edited by Angela Voss and William Rowlandson, former co-directors of the Centre for the Study of Myth at the University of Kent. It consists mostly of papers presented at the 2011 conference they convened at the university under the same name as the book title. With my enduring interest in daimonic matters, I was quite disappointed when I heard and read about the conference a couple of years ago and knew that I wouldn’t be able to make the trip across the Atlantic to attend and participate. So it was a pleasure when Angela contacted me afterward with a request to include my paper, which was then going through the peer review process for publication in Paranthropology: Journal of Anthropological Approaches to the Paranormal, in the forthcoming book.

Today she sent a note to contributors letting us know that the book’s publication is right around the corner, perhaps as early as this month. Here are its description and contents. It looks like a rich feast indeed, and I’m proud to be aboard (and am raring to read the whole thing).

DESCRIPTION:

From the artistic genius to the tarot reader, a sense of communication with another order of reality is commonly attested; this “other” may be termed god, angel, spirit, muse, daimon or alien, or it may be seen as an aspect of the human imagination or the “unconscious” in a psychological sense. This volume of essays celebrates the daimonic presence in a diversity of manifestations, presenting new insights into inspired creativity and human beings’ relationship with mysterious and numinous dimensions of reality. In art and literature, many visual and poetic forms have been given to the daimonic intelligence, and in the realm of new age practices, encounters with spirit beings are facilitated through an increasing variety of methods including shamanism, hypnotherapy, mediumship and psychedelics. The contributors to this book are not concerned with “proving” or “disproving” the existence of such beings. Rather, they paint a broad canvas with many colours, evoking the daimon through the perspectives of history, literature, encounter and performance, and showing how it informs, and has always informed, human experience.

CONTENTS:

Preface (Geoffrey Cornelius)

Introduction (Angela Voss and William Rowlandson)

Part I: Daimonic History

1. When Spirit Possession is Sexual Encounter: The Case for a Cult of Divine Birth in Ancient Greece (Marguerite Rigoglioso)

2. Encounters at the Tomb: Visualizing the Invisible in Attic Vase Painting (Diana Rodríguez Pérez)

3. Parodying the Divine: Exploring the Iconography of the Cult of the Kabeiroi in the Ancient Greek World (Kirsten M. Bedigan)

4. Of Cosmocrators and Cosmic Gods: The Place of the Archons in De mysteriis (Christopher A. Plaisance)

5. “Showeth Herself all Naked”: Madimi in John Dee’s Conversations with Spirits (Stephanie Spoto)

6.  Burke’s Aesthetics of the Spirit (Simon Wilson)

7.  Uncanny Intelligence in Psychoanalysis and Divination (Maggie Hyde)

8.  The Scientific Approach of F. W. H. Myers to the Study of Mystical Experiences, Divination and Psi, and its Value to Psychology (Terence J. Palmer )

Part II: Daimonic Literature

9. Definitive Demons: Frankenstein and Dracula as Ultimate Representations of the “Monstrous Other” (Vered Weiss)

10. Sceptical Scepticism: Reason and Uncanny Experience in Scottish Fiction (Kenneth Keir )

11. The Daimonic in W. B. Yeats (Chiara Reghellin)

12. But Who is That on the Other Side of You? The Daimonic Sources of Consciousness in Literature and Dreams (Wojciech Owczarski )

13. “Necessary Monsters”: Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings and the Ontology of the Daimonic (William Rowlandson)

14. Privileging the “Other”: Illicit Forms of Knowledge in the Detective Fiction of Reginald Hill (Hilary A. Goldsmith)

Part III: Daimonic Encounter

15. Fireflies and Shooting Stars: Visual Narratives of Daimonic Intelligence (Angela Voss )

16. In Search of Higher Intelligence: The Daimonic Muse(s) of Aleister Crowley, Timothy Leary, and Robert Anton Wilson (Matt Cardin)

17. So long as you’ve got your Elf: Death, DMT and Discarnate Entities (David Luke)

18. C. G. Jung, Tibetan Tantra and the Great Goddess: An Exploration of Sacred Entities and Archetypes (Judson Davis)

19. Cultural Variation of the Feminine in Psychedelic Personification (Cameron Adams)

20. Daimonic Ecologies: An Inquiry into the Relationships between the Human and Nonphysical Species (Alex Rachel )

Part IV: Daimonic Performance

21. Seeing Voices: Elucidating the Unconscious via Tarot Hermeneutic with Jung and Deleuze (Inna Semetsky )

22. Imaginal Inquiry: Meetings with the Imaginative Intelligence (Marie Angelo)

23. Imaginal Doorway: Seeking a Daimonic Theatre using Dramatherapy (Toby Chown)

24. Numinous Conversations: Performance and Manifestation of Spirits in Spirit Possession Practices (Jack Hunter)

25. The Call of the Spirit: The Training and Practice of Sangomas in Relation to an Astrologer’s Vocation (Darby Costello)

26. Spirit and Shaman: Altered Consciousness and the Development of Creativity (Zoë Brân)

 

Art, Mystery, and Magic: A Fireside Chat with Don Webb

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“True mysteries give more energy, more questions every time you find an answer. I truly think that searching after mysteries is the source of the immortalization of the human soul. If I ever write anything that makes someone consider that maybe they don’t know everything about everything, then I have succeeded.”

— Don Webb

Don Webb is many things: magician, philosopher, teacher, literary critic, writer in a dozen different genres, proud Texan. He is the author of the Shirley Jackson Award-nominated tale “The Great White Bed” (2007), the mind-bending mystery novels The Double: An Investigation and Essential Saltes: An Experiment, and the double title The War with the Belatrin: Science Fiction Stories / A Velvet of Vampyres: Tales of Horror. His non-fiction books include Uncle Setnakt’s Guide to the Left Hand Path and The Seven Faces of Darkness.

Don has also been a friend and collaborator for many years. For Echoes from Hades, he graciously agreed to settle in with me for a fireside chat in which he waxed eloquent on art, magic, love, and all things in-between. Read the rest of this entry

The Plot Running Like a Silver Cord: Channeling and Mediumship on the Margins of Literature

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(Given all of the conversations that have arisen here recently on the connections between theological speculation and fantastic fiction, it seems an appropriate time to revisit, and revise, and expand, a piece that I originally wrote for The Eyeless Owl.)

Let no man read here who lives only in the world about him. To these leaves, let no man stoop to whom Yesterday is as a closed book with iron hasps, to whom Tomorrow is the unborn twin of Today. Here let no man seek the trend of reality, nor any plan or plot running like a silver cord through the fire-limned portraits here envisioned. But I have dreamed as men have dreamed and as my dreams have leaped into my brain full-grown, without beginning and without end, so have I, with gold and sapphire tools, etched them in topaz and opal against a curtain of ivory.

— From the introduction to Etchings in Ivory by Robert E. Howard

While reading Joscelyn Godwin’s  Atlantis and the Cycles of Time — regarding which, see this excerpt — I was struck by how familiar I already was with the invoked imagery of Hyperborean civilizations.  I’ve never had much of an interest in that realm of speculation, so it was odd that its concepts would be so recognizable, almost palpable, to my mind’s eye. It took me a few days to realize that this was because much of the narrative and imagery had already been put into my consciousness by a youth spent reading the works of Robert E. Howard. As one of the founding writers of the “swords and sorcery” genre, Howard portrayed his Hyperborean heroes Conan, Kull, and Bran Mac Morn all traveling through worlds enlivened by Theosophical and speculative archaeological theories of prehistoric civilizations.

The author of a more muscular strain of weird tale than what was written by some of his fellow pulp titans, Howard seems an unlikely host to some of the fae notions of Theosophical cosmology. However, after doing a bit of research I found that his interest in history, which gave his historical fiction an air of reality, was paralleled by an equal interest in the occult. His initial letters to H.P. Lovecraft contain inquiries into the esoteric truths behind the Cthulhu Mythos and imply a seeking curiosity similar to what might be found in a letter sent to the outer representative of a secret occult order.

This really should not come as a shock, since we find Howard writing marginalized fantasy fiction at one of the high points of America’s occult revival. The pulp magazines were one of the prime markets for organizations like the AMORC and the mail order mysticism popularized by publishers such as de Laurence, Scott and Company.  And naturally, writing in the genres that he did, Howard found the imagery of Theosophy and the occult provided the raw framework from which to work.  Although Conan, Kull and Co. are among the most earthy examples of the swords and sorcery genre, Howard’s cosmic vision sneaks through in stories like “The Tower of the Elephant,” which features a transcendent vision of the cosmos where lines between the celestial, the earthly, and the extra-dimensional blur into a frictious mix.

Jeff Shanks’ article “Theosophy and the Thurian Age: Robert E. Howard and the Works of William Scott-Elliot” (in The Dark Man: The Journal of Robert E. Howard Studies, Vol. 6, Nos. 1 and 2)  provides a historical analysis of some specific Theosophical influences that went into framing the landscape of Howard’s work. But it seems to me that one of the more important aspects of this subject, and one that is a bit more ephemeral and subtle to trace than the mere origins of his influences, is the question of how Howard’s writing interacts with the esoteric tradition itself. These interactions are so prevalent in his work that in many instances he seems to utilize some of the same processes used by Theosophists such as C.W. Leadbetter in hopes of gaining an authentic vision of antediluvian worlds. Howard gives us a surprising opportunity to examine the strange chemistry that occurs when a certain psychology, no matter how seemingly mundane, acts as a catalyst to a potent stream of occult influence. His example also leads out to the realm of other authors who experienced something similar, and eventually to a general insight about the relationship of channeling, mediumship, anomalies, and visionary trance states to the creative imagination. Read the rest of this entry