23rd November of this year was the anniversary of a lot of things: among others, it was the birthdays of both Harpo Marx and Doctor Who. It was also the first anniversary of the end of the Cosmic Trigger: Find The Others festival, which included my performing an impromptu wedding for writer/director Daisy Campbell and her long time partner Greg.
And, because Daisy literally can’t avoid biting off more than any rational person could chew, then swallowing the lot, it marked the start of the process of staging the Cosmic Trigger play… including, Eris Willing, a US performance in Robert Anton Wilson’s final home of Santa Cruz, California.
To set the process going, Daisy and the Trigger Pullers held an event in London – the first of 22, each connecting to a Tarot Major Arcana. This was the Night of the Fool(s) – and I was asked to give a (23 minute, natch) talk. I decided to look at how The Fool, synchronicity and magic connect… and opened a whole can of worms for myself in the process.
By request, here’s that talk in full, with links to quoted folk added.
A reading from Principia Discordia…
Is Eris true?
Everything is true.
Even false things?
Even false things are true.
How can that be?
I don’t know man, I didn’t do it.
So, when Daisy asked me to do a bit here about The Fool, I thought saying something about synchronicity and magic and The Path would be a good idea.
There’s The Fool: happy and innocent, bindle on their shoulder, walking along the Path, a dog at their heels and a cliff right in front of them. As fine a metaphor for the Seeker as we have – the Path shows itself to them as they go on, the dog yapping to warn them about falling off the cliff right at the bloody start. More than a few philosophers have suggested that one guide to the Fool on their Path is synchronicity; some even suggesting that it’s the signals which synchronicity gives us that are the Dog’s voice… and we all know what Dog backwards is.
The key term in synchronicity is, of course, that it’s meaningful coincidence. And that makes me think about pattern recognition, how we ascribe meaning to things.
In the realm of psychology, there’s a technical term: apophenia. It basically means ‘false pattern recognition’, and it’s often used to describe the phenomena of perceiving the shapes of things in apparent randomness – clouds looking like horses, the face of Jesus on a taco – although the specific term for seeing or hearing patterns in random noise is the delightfully unwieldy pareidolia.
Some have suggested that it’s just our brains’ hard-wired instinct to find patterns in things as an ancient survival trait – when you’re worried about getting eaten, false positives of a wolf in the bushes are a better thing than false negatives, so our brains do this a lot. But some people have a problem with this simplistic position. One of them is a chap called Pete Carroll.
Pete was one of the founders of what’s become known as Chaos Magic: he and a group of uni students in the 70s based in London and Leeds, partly influenced by reading Bob Wilson among many others, decided that old-school Western Occultism was too hidebound and dependent on iffy theology… so they developed a magical system which treated belief as a tool, not an obligation. The chaos magicians and their original organisation, delightfully named the Illuminates of Thanateros…
…a combination of Thanatos and Eros – were happy to explore the idea that any belief system can produce a magical result, even if it’s based on something that’s known to be false, or even complete fiction. This innovation led to a swathe of exploratory mages playing with everything from self-invented gods and daemons to Star Trek rituals. Pete’s been practicing and writing about this for thirty-odd years, and contributed to Bob Wilson’s Maybe Logic Academy.
As you can imagine, someone like Pete Carroll is not the sort of person to cheerfully accept a concept like apophenia. Pete pointed out the underlying assumption of the term – that the patterns are necessarily false – and decided to explore the idea that Apophenia wasn’t a flaw in our neurology at all. And, to do this, he reacted in a very chaos magician way – he elevated Apophenia to the status of a Goddess. In his book The Apophenion…
…he sets out how to summon and worship Apophenia, along with her two sisters Pareidolia… and Eris.
The Apophenion is not an easy read, combining as it does Pete’s magical speculations with his mathematician’s take on little things like the basis of all physics and the structure of the universe – but it can be summed up quite simply:
Who the fuck gets to decide what is false pattern recognition, anyway?
He and others have suggested that magic itself is essentially a method of creating and using patterns to manipulate consciousness, and thus consensus reality: the old ideas of The Laws Of Simultaneity and Contagion in magic – that things which have touched or resemble each other maintain a connection – are commonly accepted in magical theory. And The Fool is not just a symbol of the beginner on the mystical Path but also an account of the ongoing journey.
This one concept – that the Fool’s Path could be seen in part as a form of very personal and subjective pattern discovery, and that synchronicity plays a vital part in this – kicked in for me quite nicely. And then…
Well, I’m sure none of you will be surprised that my paying close attention to synchronicity as magical pattern recognition had some… knock-on effects in the month and a half since I started working on this talk.
A typical event in this little narrative: the cover art of The Apophenion, which I hadn’t looked at in a while before writing this, is a picture called Gods and Monsters, the title of which I’d never noticed before. A couple of months ago, I sold my first book: it’s called New Gods and Monsters.
My online reading started to pull in some very specific pings from The Others. One of these, whose work I’ve followed for years, is a guy called Chris Knowles: he wrote one of the earliest considerations of superheroes as modern deities in the wonderfully named Our Gods Wear Spandex. Chris is an exponent of a recently developed, mostly online mystical school called Synchromysticism: this explores the idea that synchronicities from popular culture often show notable patterns which either hint at an actual mystical subtext or, on occasion, shout it out. He’s written a lot about how comics, science fiction and such can offer a valid perspective on modern mystical approaches. And this month, he started writing about the problems with the idea of synchronicity itself.
On his blog The Secret Sun…
…Chris posted a series of articles called Beyond Synchronicity. After noting a couple of recent powerful examples of synchronicity in his own life – such as he and another favourite of mine, the chaos mage & writer Gordon White, both having a significant connection on the same day to that image of Ishtar, (who of course has a special place in Cosmic Trigger), which has recently been put back on display in room 56 of the British Museum – Chris said:
These of course are classic synchronicities, inner conceptualizations manifesting as outer realities, ripe with symbol and hidden meaning (there are 56 cards in the minor arcana of the Tarot, for instance).
And they can drive you crazy after a while.
I often wonder what Jung himself actually believed about synchronicity. He was in a tricky position. He was trained as a scientist and existed in that milieu. But psychology and psychiatry themselves were barely recognized as sciences during much of his career (many still don’t take them seriously as sciences, even today) and he was always careful to put the proper clothing on his ideas in order to make them presentable to a skeptical and often hostile world.
Hence you get the whole idea of acausality, a split-the-difference notion which tends to alienate both believers and skeptics. I don’t think meaningful coincidence is acausal, do you?
…The entire mechanism behind Synchronicity is meaning, not mere coincidence. Coincidences happen all the time. They are the latticework that underlies the whole of Creation.
Chris goes on to directly discuss the possibility that the entire concept of synchronicity is a diluted and reductionist way of looking at parapsychological or even magical events. That it’s not just about us seeing and connecting to a pattern or series of them… that there is something actually pulling us to see those patterns, something beyond models of acausal events or some kind of quantum connectivity. That most people’s consciousness is set to basically ignore these events or just brush them off as mere coincidence… but once their consciousness has been disrupted, these connections pull the observer in deeper.
Of course, this can have its problems too… for one thing, it really looks like if there is a causative agency behind such things, it – or She – has an especial delight in fucking with us.
Chris’s posts led to a small flurry of other posts; the aforementioned Gordon White, whose Rune Soup blog is one of the best magic blogs I know of…
…took Chris’s Beyond Synchronicity idea and used it to consider that the radical decentralisation caused by the internet can in itself shake up the notions of who gets to decide what counts as Truth and Worthy… and what is rejected as false pattern recognition. Gordon notes;
It is the chaos magician’s prerogative to crawl over the literal and metaphoric garbage heaps of western civilisation to salvage parts for her own spaceship, her own gnostic escape pod.
Chris and Gordon both note that our subjective personal connections to what we experience in our lives, along our Paths, are something no other should be ever able to gainsay. As Gordon says of us magicians and weirdos in times of ever-increasing hierarchical dominance:
We do not want – and will never have – monocultural legitimacy, no matter how many conferences you attend or official groups you create. No one ever beats tyranny in a pitched battle. Tyranny is defeated by becoming unkillable shadows.
This was soon followed by a piece by one of my dearest online friends, the futurist philosopher known as Mikey Pryvt.
Riffing on both Chris and Gordon, Mikey noted that in our increasingly dualistic, war-and-terror-bound times, being able to both find and walk your Path and then Find The Others who walk similar Paths of their own becomes not just necessary, but something increasingly difficult in the face of oppression, communications censorship and surveillance. He then notes ways to prevail in the face of all this:
Applying magical reasoning wherever possible. Constantly trying on new fiction suits ((alternative personas)). Generally being not so covert chaos magicians.
Go forth. Find the others… Leave chalk marks with secret sigils, breadcrumb data trails and actual messages in bottles wherever you can. However you’re able.
The tricky part is to not only Find The Others, but to actually be able to compare notes in some coherent way. And when you’re talking about the intensely personal nudges that synchronicity and its bedfellows provide us, the only tools we really have are story and metaphor: which is why so much mystical information is best passed on in the form of stories rather than facts. Often, these stories and metaphors will have a resonance effect on others if they’re open to it – the idea of Synchromysticism is basically a way of examining this. And, inevitably at this point, another pair of online posts unconnected to the previous or each other took me further down the Path.
In Katelan Foisy’s article “Real-Life Paranormal Experiences Are Nothing Like the Movies”
…she points out that actual manifestations of the occult are, for the most part, far subtler than fiction tells us they are. Of course, such exaggeration helps to make the tale memorable, but it also affects how we react to the more delicate nudges, the softer growls of the Dog. She points out how most of the tales of the occult are formed as horror or have some aspect of terror to them. And in the middle of talking about this she suddenly says:
From the occult viewpoint, the paranormal exists as an intangible world that interacts with us. William S. Burroughs performed exercises based on synchronicity as part of his practice. He noticed that when a person would pay attention to his surroundings on a daily basis, the mundane would start to become symbolic. For instance, he was reading The Wicker Man, and the protagonist in the story is a religious cop. As he took his daily walk, this phrase from the book crossed his mind:
“I’m a police officer and when I ask questions I expect answers.”
At that moment, a police car cut in.
Over time, some people become paranoid from this exercise, noticing the same people throughout the day. A person isn’t following them, but according to Burroughs, they are in the same time groove. This is synchronicity. You won’t notice it unless you see that person the first time. You are attracting what you are projecting.
If you ring a bell, that frequency will set off another, but it’s not going to set off anything unless you ring it.
Immediately following that piece on my links was an article recommended by a Twitter retweet, called “Initiation, Individuality, and the Alchemy of Danger”.
The article looks at the necessity of danger – spiritual, mental, even physical – in mystical paths… and that outside of very few examples, modern Western life filters out those kind of risks. The author, Craig Williams, notes;
The elimination of danger is in many ways the ultimate attempt to eliminate the creation of the individual. The illusion of safety and security is consistently used to allow for mass manipulation and control; any voice which dissents from this facade is accused of being a radical and believing in “conspiracy theories.” William Burroughs deftly describes this:
’Danger is a very rare commodity in these times, monopolized by intelligence agencies and stuntmen.’
Spiritual transformation itself is dangerous. Often portrayed as a blissful peaceful process, much like birth from the physical womb, in reality it can be bloody and messy, at times dangerous. Yet we cannot avoid birth any more than we can avoid death. The more we seek to eliminate danger from our lives, the more we remove the opportunities for growth and radical transformation. Freedom exists deep within the dark heart of danger and this is why it is demonized and avoided at all costs in the modern age. The true individual now has to seek out danger to escape the clutches of the status quo.
Whenever the Fool walks the Path, the possibility of the Cliff is always present. Every shamanic ritual, as both Bob and Bill remind us, is replicating danger to induce neurochemical shock and thus imprint vulnerability. Sometimes the Dog’s bark can lead us right off the cliff, into, say, a special home with rainbow knickers on our heads. And sometimes, that’s both the point and the price.
In the middle of this wave of reconsideration of the entire concept of synchronicity, there was a surprise reappearance of someone those at the Carl Jung ritual in Liverpool will be all too familiar with, the English Loa of Synchronicity Himself… John Constantine.
Although a single season of an American TV show had featured The Laughing Magician last year but was not renewed, Conjob returned to the telly once more by popular demand in a guest spot on the superhero show Arrow a couple of weeks ago, played splendidly once again by the Welsh actor Matt Ryan.
And just this Friday, there was news that the long-postponed Justice League Dark film was finally going ahead, with Monica Bellucci as Madame Xanadu, Ron Perlman as Swamp Thing… and Colin Farrell as Constantine. (Be nice if they’d hired a Scouser… better still if the Yanks pronounce his sodding name right.)
Speaking of occult detectives… another announcement a couple of weeks ago hit a very personal spot: some months back, I was interviewed by author Jason Arnopp, a friend of our own John Higgs. Jason was writing a horror novel and talked to me about my previous career as founder and lead investigator of an occult detective firm called Athanor Consulting, which I formed back in 2001 and closed in 2009, as background research for his book.
Jason was interested enough in what the interview gave him to base a character in his book on me and my style of combat magic – but, in a nicely shamanic twist, the character is a woman. Jason sent me a draft of the book and I have to say that having my own words turn up in the mouth of a fictional Australian lass rejoicing in the name of Sherilyn Chastain was a distinctly odd sensation. It was like I had become fiction… a very Schrödinger’s Cat sensation.
That novel, The Last Days Of Jack Sparks…
…was bought around the time the Constantine episode of Arrow aired. It will be published next summer – so, just about when I’m due to hand in my book to the editor, my new fiction suit goes public.
And as for 23s… far too many to list here. Jason’s book has at least one, and I found them showing up even more frequently than usual.
Then I had a particularly fun walk along the Path in London a couple of weeks ago. I came to town for a gig and to meet an online pal. As usual I stayed in a cheap hotel in King’s Cross, which was handy as the gig was at The Lexington on Pentonville Road. It’s a fairly long road, but I happily strolled up it as dusk fell. Beautiful night. And on that road is Joseph Grimaldi Park: the burial place of the father of modern clowning.
I lingered a while, said a little prayer of thanks to Joey The Clown and all the Fools who followed him and walked on. This is the road two streets after the park.
And this is the breakfast room of my cheap hotel.
And, while I’m posting this image to Powerpoint, a song comes up on Spotify: ‘Stuck In The Middle With You’, covered by The Eagles of Death Metal. ‘Clowns to the left of me…’
Two days after, I’m showing Mad Max: Fury Road, to my son, who’s 23 years old – and I noticed that Furiosa doesn’t call him Max once throughout the whole film… she calls him Fool.
Sadly, this last week, was a sudden escalation in terror and danger as direct manipulation, in the name of religious domination and/or political control. But that rise in the general fear of sudden random violence is not the same as shamanic shock… though sometimes it can happen as a result, mostly it’s the kind of constant numbing sense of menace which Craig Williams noted as the implicit threat behind the illusion of safety and security:
“Play Nice Or The Bogeyman Will Get You.”
The Fool’s Path, of course, leads right into Chapel Perilous: where they learn the difference between surrendering to fear of a threat and facing it.
Fuck The Bogeyman. We face the fear. We travel on.
The Fool’s Path often involves treating a lot of ideas, hints and synchronicities which aren’t ‘true’ in any objective sense as having truth for the seeker. My weird little chain of connected events, internet articles and other oddnesses I’ve just told you is a few strides along my own Fool’s Path. It means something to me, and probably not much to anyone else, unless that person has a few other connections, coincidences and tales in common with it. To a supposedly objective skeptical observer, this is pure apophenia in action, just a bunch of false patterning.
But, to the magician and mystic, these supposedly ‘false’ patterns, these un-truths, are the only way to tell the truths that matter. As writers, actors, magicians, we use the untrue, the False Things, to share and even create truths – always plural – all the time.
Each of us walks our own Fool’s Path: but when we Find The Others and compare notes, the places where the dog’s bark saved us, the times we fell right off the cliff, climbed back out and continued on… these are the web of conscious connectivity that Jano Watts once described to Bob Wilson as “Indra’s Net”. The patterns and connections that we turn into truths are the links we make in what alchemists call The Golden Chain – the connected Paths of every seeker back through time.
We start a new branch of the Path, another link in the Golden Chain, today, together. Let’s shoulder our bindles, listen for the dog’s bark, watch the edge of the cliff… and stride along it as glorious Fools together.
Hail Eris. Hail Apophenia. Hail Pareidolia. And Hail every Fool in the whole fucking world.