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J R COLOMBO REVIEWS the anthropology of magic


The John Robert Colombo Page

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An eye-opener of a book written by Susan Greenwood is reviewed by John Robert Colombo

There is an amusing story that is told about the Danish physicist Niels Bohr who was showing a colleague the barn behind his chalet which he had converted into a study where he undertook his calculations. The colleague pointed out that above the barn door someone had nailed an inverted horseshoe, a symbol of good luck. He asked Bohr if he believed the horseshoe would bring him good luck. “No,” Bohr replied, “but I understand it works whether I believe in it or not.”

I was reminded of this tale when I began to read “The Anthropology of Magic” written by Susan Greenwood. It came to mind because the moral of her book – I am not offering a “spoiler warning” here so much as I am “cutting to the chase” – seems to be that “thinking makes it so” or “if you believe you can do something or if you believe you cannot do something, you are right.”

The two statements seem to be platitudes – indeed, the first is a cliché, and the second is a paradox – yet these truisms are … well … true. There is a kind of knowledge that results from “magical thinking” as there is a kind of knowledge that results from “scientific thinking.” This in a nutshell I assume to be the argument of Dr. Greenwood’s study. As for the nutshell mentioned in the previous sentence, it was Prince Hamlet (who has been called the first modern man) who boasted, “I could be bounded in a nutshell, and call myself king of infinite space …. ”

It occurred to the biologist Stephen Jay Gould while he was in Vatican City that there are two forms of authority (if not knowledge) and that these two forms are derived from “the magisterium of science” and “the magisterium of religion” and that the two magisteria do not overlap. At the time of this formulation Gould was in Rome, accompanied by Carl Sagan, the sceptical astronomer, who had a deep “sense of wonder.” They were there to participate in a scientific conference. Sagan derided Gould for his suggestion (or concession) there is any knowledge in religion, knowledge at any rate that resembles the “real” knowledge that results from the work of scientists, that produces measurable results, and that can be falsified. Gould was miffed and wrote an essay about the disagreement.

Aleister Crowley practised ritual magic the way Dorothy Clutterbuck practised the ceremonial magic of wicca. The Great Beast used to call what he did “magick,” and I seem to recall that he defined this practice as “causing change to occur in conformity with Will.” Crowley conformed to the image of the Black Magician. The White Witch may be seen in the person of Clutterbuck, who inspired Gerald Gardner, who gave much of the characteristic form and feel to the contemporary practice of Wicca, which is at home with the subtle forces of the natural and supernatural worlds. Both Crowley and Clutterbuck worked in “imaginal” realms.

These ideas and notions were rattling around in my brain (or mind) when I began to read “The Anthropology of Magic,” which is a serious contribution to both anthropology and magic written Dr. Susan Greenwood, who is Visiting Senior Research Fellow of the University of Sussex, Brighton, England. She is scheduled to deliver the keynote address at a seminar to be held at Girton College, Cambridge, England. It takes place on May 13, 2010, and the title of the session is “Legitimate Forms of Knowledge?” (I imagine that the question mark is important in her address.) So Dr. Greenwood is a scholar. She is also a practitioner of magic.

First, a note of “disambiguation.” Susan Greenwood is not to be confused with her near-namesake, Susan Greenfield. The former is an anthropologist; the latter is Baroness Greenfield, an Oxford scholar and a biomedical writer of considerable ability and media-savvy and the author of numerous works, including The Human Mind Explained, and other popular and not-so-popular texts. The two Susans are very able people, but the Baroness does not profess to be a magician.

The Anthropology of Magic, written by the scholar who professes to read tarot cards and to practice the healing arts, is a big book in that it is an oversize trade paperback that measures 6 inches by 9.5 inches. It is only viii + 164 pages long but the type is quite small so there are many sentences. It was issued in soft and hard-cover editions in 2009 by Berg Publishers, an academic house based in Oxford that publishes books and journals in a great variety of fields with a specialty in modern design. Its website lists and describes its serious publications, including the present one.

I imagine Dr. Greenwood to be a fine lecturer because she is a fine writer. I am tempted to say that for an anthropologist she writes with great clarity. Her sentences are crystal clear and the diagrams that she has added to the text to display contrasts between scientific and non-scientific modes of thought are ideal for PowerPoint presentations. She is one anthropologist who is interested in communicating with a public that is academic though not limited to fellow anthropologists or magicians. In this regard she reminds me of Susan Blackmore, who in her shift from espousing parapsychology to embracing scepticism has never ceased to be a psychologist and a scientist.

Like Dr. Blackmore, Dr. Greenwood is an enthusiast and a participant who is willing to advance atypical views. But the two academics are unalike in that Dr. Blackmore works as an experimental psychologist and follows the trail of the evidence (or lack of it), whereas Dr. Greenwood is a theorist and not a scientist who is concerned with finding a place in intellectual discourse for what is regarded as the irrational. Dr. Greenwood is arguing a case, and she argues well, but after a while the reader – this reader anyway – begins to feel that he is being led to face a series of foregone conclusions.

In the next paragraphs, I will summarize the contents of Dr. Greenwood’s book and thereafter offer an evaluation of her approach. Now I will begin with the Table of Contents which neatly outlines the subject – which I take to be how an anthropologist argues that we could look at magic as a source of knowledge, and if knowledge is a form of power, then as a source of power too.

There are four sections. The first section is titled “Explaining Magic” and it describes what used to be called the “participation mystique” (it sounds better in French) and the structure and operation of magical thinking (through connections and associations). The second section is called “The Experience of Magic” and it presents what the author considers “magical consciousness” and “a mythological language of magic.” The third section is labelled “Practical Magic” and it deals with “webs of beliefs,” basically how being human we can never escape this way of experiencing the world. The fourth section is termed “Working with Magic” and deals with what might be called consilience but which the author describes in the phrase “Not Only, but Also.”

So much for the arrangement of the contents of the book. I will now try to abridge the author’s Introduction, introducing some of my own impressions along the way, but downplaying to some extent the author’s great strength: her knowledge of and respect for the theories and insights of the great anthropologists of the past and the present. She argues that the discipline has always had to deal with the subject of magic and that the approaches that anthropologists have taken in the past have told their readers more about themselves and their societies than about the theory and practice of magic itself. As well, it seems, the conception of the nature magic has changed with the times.

There are two main problems: the “ultimate irrationality of magic” and its “inferiority … when compared to science.” Nevertheless magic lies “at the heart of anthropology” because of “the issues it raises in relation to human experience.” If it lies at the “heart” of anthropology, it lies at the “heart” of men and women too. We seem to be creatures who are able to respond to the world both magically and scientifically.

The author writes, “The time has come to propose another understanding of magic, and it is the aim of this book to examine magic as an aspect of human consciousness.” She is prepared to show how it affects “everyday conceptions of reality” and how it can be “an analytical category as well as a valuable source of knowledge.” Perhaps I am taking this further than the author does when I suggest that to her magic offers a way of knowing about ourselves in the world through the imagination, a way of knowledge that augments the way we generally know the world of matter through measurement.

“When I first started my doctoral research in the 1990s, I made the decision to study magic from the inside, as a practitioner of magic as well as an anthropologist. I wanted to discover what could be learnt through direct experience.” She explored the ramifications of this approach in her two previous books, both published by Berg: “Magic, Witchcraft and the Otherworld” (2000) and “The Nature of Magic” (2005).

A dozen pages of Introduction follow in which she discusses cultural assumptions and contrasts the experiences of magical practice in our own culture with those in other cultures. She notes the effects of “a detraditionalisation of mainstream religions”and limns the changing face of magic in Western occultism. In the process, I acquired two new words that have recognizable meanings: “Celticity” and “Druidry.” She amusingly compares traditional “African witch-doctors with Western political spin-doctors” (like those employed by prime ministers and presidents and other political leaders to create new “narrative”). She concludes, “Magic is alive and well as an analytical category in a whole range of new ethnographies.”

She writes, “The approach taken here focuses on _magical consciousness_, a term that I use to describe a mythopoetic, expanded aspect of awareness that can potentially be experienced by everyone …. ” Despite the importance of this mode of knowledge, magic has been marginalized in what she calls our “Western rationalist culture.” The writings of Tylor, Kroeber, Freud, Durkheim, and others are mentioned to demonstrate how magic has been dismissed as deluded, dangerous, deceitful, or dumb.

Yet shamanism is not so easily dismissed because it does produce a change in consciousness in the sense of a transformation of sensations, impressions, emotions, and conceptions. These in turn affect values. The transformation of consciousness immediately brought to my mind the following lines from the poem “Vacillation” in which Yeats describes the illumination of a fifty-year-old man:

While on the shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessed and could bless.

Many people feel (at times anyway) blessed, but anyone who is able to bless is a magician. It would seem the poets are there with the magicians.

A consideration of the truths or insights that come to us through the medium of poetry is offered through a brief but relevant discussion of Donne’s poem “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.” Yet only one page is devoted to the nature of consciousness itself, despite the advances recorded in the 1990s by neurologists and philosophers into the mind / brain division in the field of “consciousness studies.” I guess these are not subjects regularly discussed by anthropologists, nor should we expect them in a book about the “anthropology” of magic.

Some subjects do not yield their secrets to logic and this is one of them, so with relief she switches into a visionary mode. She begins one paragraph, “I remembered a dream I had had previously in which I was climbing down a deep tunnel in the middle of the earth …. ” The dream continues and it involves a loss of skin, a round space, swimming in water, narrow tunnels, bones being picked by a large crow, etc. This is a fertile field for a Freud or a Jung!

I have maintained a daily dream diary for the last five years, so I can attest that one’s dreams are significant to the dreamer but seldom meaningful to anyone else. These motifs in the dream world may or may not be relevant to the waking world. She concludes, “This experience had a profound effect on me,” and I do not doubt her, but was it an “imaginal experience” as she suggests? Not in Corbin’s meaning of that word. A dream is an experience, but it is the experience of an illusion, and no special effects necessarily issue from it. Are any such illusory experiences meaningful and significant? I doubt it but the subject may be debated and Dr. Greenwood does debate it well.

Psychology is not much to the fore. I read Tanya Luhrmann’s Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft when it appeared in 1989, but in the intervening years, I have found little reason to recall its argument. Luhrmann found magic or Wicca to be rich in psychological insight, period. Dr. Greenfield finds it to be rich in many other fields as well.

The author is concerned to square insights from the practice of magic with the understanding offered by her discipline. “The difficulty is that anthropology is a discipline with theoretical and methodological understandings located firmly in the material world, despite attempts to value all human orientations as valid.” Yes, but is there communicable knowledge beyond the confines of the material world? She would answer Yes. I am inclined to agree with her, but I prefer to hedge my bet, like the majority of scholars and scientists, and take refuge in the Scots verdict “not proven.”

The great anthropologist Frazer is given his due, limitations and all, for he was the Darwin in his field. One upon a time, à la Frazer, there was magic which gave way to religion which gave way to science. Given the paradigm shift proposed in these pages, it seems science may now yield to religion and religion to magic. Perhaps “paradigm shift” is the wrong phrase to use here, for there are no references in the text to Kuhn and his theory of just such a shift.

Dr. Greenwood much prefers what has been called the “interpretive drift.” This is part of the mythopoeic faculty which has always been inherent in the nature of man and woman and been granted at least some recognition in every human society (except, according to convention, that of ancient Sparta). Denis Saurat saw it explained as “philosophical poetry.”

The author discusses the views of the “mystical mentality” adopted by the philosopher Lévy-Bruhl and the psychologist Evans-Pritchard. She even writes an imaginary dialogue for them to debate their points of view. She feels their views hold promise today for they agree that “mystical mentality was universal to all human beings.” The savage of the past was no less rational than is the scientist of today. The anthropologist or psychologist is on safe ground in making this observation for the statement challenges neither of these disciplines. I recall reading somewhere that a researcher once said, “Superstition is superstition. But the study of superstition is science.”

The profession of magic is very much part of the author’s life, as is the profession of anthropology. “This book tells a story about my journey to discover the anthropology of magic; it feels like a patchwork quilt or a jigsaw of pieces of information that I have picked up over the years, both in trying to make sense of my fieldwork experience and also in teaching ideas about magic in anthropology of religion courses at Goldsmith’s College, University of London, and shamanic and altered states of consciousness courses at the University of Sussex.”

So much for the Introduction. If I continued to try to paraphrase and comment in such detail on the balance of the book, I would produce a tedious review too long to be read in a single sitting, and I would do the author’s thesis less than justice. Instead, I propose to do something unusual and allow the author to make her major points in her own words. I will do so by quoting the four paragraphs that the author has written to outline her argument section by section. These are well handled.

Summary of Section One:

“This section sets out to explain theories that help an understanding of magic: not the explanations that somehow reduce magic to its effects on human behaviour or society, but the essence of magic as an intuitive process of mind. Magic is a holistic orientation to the world that is essentially relational and expansive; it is not irrational or confined to the thought of so-called primitives, nor is magic the preserve of non-Western, exotic societies. Rather, it is an aspect of human consciousness, and therefore it is especially appropriate to study magic in modern, Western societies, where it often manifests as an undercurrent.”

Summary of Section Two:

“Using my own experience, in this section, I focus on breaking down the barrier between researcher and researched to show how magical consciousness flows through emotion and the mythological imagination.” (Added to this summary are two quotations. The first one has Dr. Greenwood quoting herself about the “uncomfortable process” of “self-examination and exploration.” The second one is an observation of Jo Crow, a British shaman, who alludes to the “multidimensional” nature of this experience.)

Summary of Section Three:

“Magic is often said to be about the purported art of influencing the course of events through occult means; it is a practice that is said can bring about certain effects such as causing harm or healing. It can be conscious or unconscious as well as rational and mystical, but above all, magic involves an immaterial psychic dimension to everyday reality; this is widely described as spirit. In this section, we will explore everyday magic, from the classical ethnographic work of Evans-Pritchard on Azande witchcraft, magic and oracles (Chapter 6) to divination and healing in various cultural settings (Chapter 7).” (Also included are three quotations from Evans-Pritchard, Tedlock, and Parrish which add little to the above description.)

Summary of Section Four:

“Anthropologists working in the field encounter specific challenges when confronted with the gap between informants’ accounts of spirit beings and their own position as researchers within the essentially rationalistic academic anthropological discipline. Magic poses problems for many anthropologists; this is due to the fact that its spiritual nature conflicts with Western notions of rationality, as we will see in Chapter 8. A more inclusive scientific framework is needed that overcomes the theoretical tendency to devalue magical experience and to recognize magical knowledge as a valuable aspect of human consciousness. Chapter 9 builds on ideas developed by Gregory Bateson and Geoffrey Samuel to just this end.” (Also included are short quotations from Turner, Lévy-Bruhl, and Bateson.)

I should add that the book includes extensive source notes and an index. There is no general bibliography but there are short bibliographies for “further reading.” There is no section called Conclusion, but I soon came to the conclusion that none is required for what the author would have to say in any final section is a foregone conclusion.

Dr. Greenwood is appreciative of the anthropologists of the past who devoted their lives to fieldwork. I imagine she regards her own experiences and the effects they have caused in magical circles as a form of fieldwork. She sees the great anthropologists’ insights into shamans and magical journeys as transferrable to today’s witches and their imaginative encounters. In this undertaking, she wins on points because she is what the French describe as “parti pris.” She knows where she stands and that is where she is heading. The reader is not taken on a journey so much as allowed to explore the intellectual ground already claimed. So her study does not add to human knowledge but it does examine some of our preconceptions of the nature of that knowledge.

There is a short but interesting section devoted to the relationship between mythos and logos. I wish it were longer and that it took into account the conception of that connection in the analysis of Northrop Frye who found the relationship to be one of “interpenetration.” But to do so would have required Dr. Greenwood to enter into the woods of the archetypal world of Nemi that is more frequented by literary critics and analytical psychologists than by anthropologists and ethnologists. As well, the author spends some time with phenomenology, she never really exorcizes its demon of subjectivity, even misspelling that word on page 141.

Yet I find “The Anthropology of Magic” to be an eye-opener of a book, not so much because of what or how it argues, but more because of the position for which it argues: the postmodern notion which is rapidly gaining ground that it is not necessary to believe in anything.

Near the end of the book she writes, “Whilst participating in a magical aspect of consciousness, the question of belief is irrelevant: belief is not a necessary condition to communicate with an inspirited world.” What works, works. William James’s contribution to the notion of multiple consciousnesses – not just to multiple layers of consciousness – is acknowledged, and as a pragmatist he would have agreed. So would Niels Bohr with his horseshoe.

John Robert Colombo, an author and commentator who lives in Toronto, is an anthologist, not an anthropologist (although he did pass two “anthrop” courses at the University of Toronto in the late 1950s). His latest publication (co-edited with Dr. Cyril Greenland) is an expanded edition of “Walt Whitman’s Canada.” He is currently writing an introduction to an omnibus edition of the five Sumuru novels written by Sax Rohmer (the mystery story writer who created Dr. Fu Manchu). Colombo’s personal website is http://www.colombo-plus.ca

HERMETICS & GENETICS: CODE OR CODES?


John Robert Colombo Page

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A review of Michael Hayes’ The Hermetic Code in DNA

I quite enjoyed reading this book, but its title is a mouthful of
words, so I have found myself referring to it, in conversation with
friends, as “the new book which I am reading that tries to find a
relationship between the so-called ‘hermetic code’ and the code that
informs the structure of human DNA.” When I say that, people look
amiss or agog, and I know why. I repeat that the author is “trying to
find a relationship” and that it is an struggle worthy of the
exertions of a Sisyphus (an uphill battle) or the frustrations of
Tantalus (an ever receding reward).

The author who so resembles Sisyphus or Tantalus is Michael Hayes is
described on the cover of this quality paperback as “an administrator
at the University of Central England” (formerly Birmingham
Polytechnic) and “the author of ‘The Infinite Harmony: Musical
Structures in Science and Theology’” (McArthur & Co. / Orion Con Trad,
1994). I have yet to see a copy of that publication. After reading the
present book, I find myself moderately curious about it.

The present book is not a new title, for it was originally published
in England in 2004 by Black Spring Press, a quality literary publisher
in London, under the title “High Priests, Quantum Genes.” The edition
that I am reviewing is titled “The Hermetic Code in DNA: The Sacred
Principles in the Ordering of the Universe” and was published earlier
in 2008 by another quality house, Inner Traditions, Rochester,
Vermont, which specializes in book of a specular and spiritual nature.
(Both companies have readily accessible websites.)

Here are some bibliographical details for the American edition under
review: Trade paperback, 6″ x 9″, xviii + 334 pages, ISBN:
978-1-59477-218-4. $18.95. There are 17 chapters with notes,
bibliography, and index. Also included is the arresting Foreword, to
which I will now turn my attention.

The Foreword is a long personal essay from the fountain pen or
personal computer of Colin Wilson. I am second to none in my
admiration of Wilson’s oeuvre, and I really enjoy reading what he
writes for his choice of subjects and his agreeable style. His
strength has always been his remarkable ability to present the
unconventional ideas of “outsiders.” He is a great explainer of
ancient and advanced thinking, though lately he has become more of an
advocate more than an interpreter.

Here, for instance, is the first paragraph of the Foreword to the
present book: “I suspect that the name of Michael Hayes is going to be
remembered together with those of Stephen Hawking and Watson and Crick
as a thinker who has made a revolutionary contribution to our vision
of modern science.”

That is taking a giant step. Indeed, it is equivalent to the step that
Wilson took when he completed “Alien Dawn: An Investigation into the
Contact Experience” (1999). That book about the contactee dimension of
ufology concludes with the statement that the author believes that not
only do aliens exist, but aliens are here right now, walking the
streets of our cities, moving among us. The evidence for this claim is
lacking, but people will believe what excites them and what they want
to believe.

Indeed, when the atomic scientist Leo Szilard was asked if he believed
in the existence of alien beings, he replied that he did. Then he was
asked, “If they exist, where are they?” He replied, “They are here
right now. They live among us. They are called … Hungarians.” Unlike
Szilard’s aliens, Wilson’s critters are creatures or characters from
outer space, from other times, or from other dimensions – hybrid
humans, perhaps. Maybe.

I doubt that Michael Hayes’s name will ever be linked with those of
Hawking, Watson, or Crick – at least not as long as the names of those
scientists are honoured. And Hayes has yet to make a contribution to
“our vision of modern science,” but he has modestly contributed to our
view of “the wisdom tradition.” From now on Hayes’s name will be
linked with a lively and intelligent discussion of a range of subjects
of popular speculative interest. This book of his will be shelved
alongside works of dozens of writers who have contributed to the
“occult sciences” or what I have called in another context
“speculative non-fiction.”

Numerology is one such subject and it has been newsworthy for the last
decade. For instance, the Fortean movie “Magnolia” (1999) features the
number 8. “A Beautiful Mind” (2001) drowns in a tsunami of coded
numbers, zillions of digits. The comedy “The Number 23” (2007) makes
much use of the correspondences of the unlikely number 23. Behind much
of this is the Kaballah and behind that cerebral discipline there are
the 613 Hebrew laws (curiously, the number of bones in the human
body).

In the present book Hayes devotes chapters to different traditions, so
each has its own special number or numbers. Hayes finds special
relevance in such digits as 3, 3.14157, 4, 7, 8, 22, 64, 838, etc. The
Law of Three and the Octaves of the Ray of Creation are featured. But
no special importance is given to the numbers 1.6, 9, 13, or 613,
perhaps because these come traditions that are not surveyed here– in
this case, sacred architecture, Bahá’i, the superstition of folklore,
and the Kaballah.

Excuse me if I am a little light-headed or flippant, but unlike the
scientists named by Wilson, Hayes undertakes no research, contributes
findings to no scientific publications, and demonstrates no special
scholarly or linguistic abilities or aptitudes. However, what he does
display is an omnivorous curiosity and the ability to respond
creatively to extensive readings in many popular books and a few
serious ones (although it is with the latter that he does express some
serious reservations).

By popular books I mean “eye-openers” like Robert Bauval’s “The Orion
Mystery” (1994) and Christopher P. Dunn’s “The Gaza Power Plant”
(1998). By serious books I mean Richard Dawkins’s “The Blind
Watchmaker” (1988) and Giorgio De Santillana’s “Hamlet’s Mill” (1992).
I am limiting myself to titles selected at random from the first page
of the three-page bibliography. Hayes also credits reprints of G.I.
Gurdjieff’s “Beelzebub’s Tales” (1964) as well as P.D. Ouspensky’s “In
Search of the Miraculous” (1976) and “A New Model of the Universe”
(1977), recalling here and there some of their pertinent passages to
good effect.

“The Hermetic Code in DNA” is hard to beat for a fast-moving survey of
current thought about the interaction of the wisdom tradition from
archaic times to the postmodern period and its possible connection
with the recently revealed structure of the human genome, specifically
its basis in the DNA. It makes use of comparisons and contrasts,
similarities and analogies, and above all it uses associative thought
processes, what in another context Ouspensky called “psychological
thought” to distinguish it from “logical thought.”

I am not going to pursue them here, but two general criticisms that I
have are that there is no discussion of the tendency of the human mind
to find symmetry where none exists, and there is no discussion of the
nature of language itself, the appeal of metaphor, or Northrop Frye’s
“order of words.” Nor is the insight of the poet as distinct from that
of the scientist mentioned. At some later point I may tackle those
criticisms as subjects worthy of consideration in their own right, for
such shortcomings are characteristic of “occult literature” generally.

Basically what Hayes has done is offer a discussion of the scientific
basis for the existence of the spirit, as well as the spiritual basis
for the existence of science. What we have here is a convergence of
two disciplines – call one of them “science,” the other “occult
science.” (Hayes handles this distinction by distinguishing between
“regular science” and what he calls “Science with a capital ‘s’.”) If
I can encapsulate Hayes’s aim in writing this book, it is to find a
convergence and ultimately an identity between hermetic studies and
the structure of the gene. In other words, we have in our genes –
coded in our genetic structure – the wisdom of the ages. It evolves
physically and psychologically through the Law of Three and the Law of
Octaves.

Hayes encapsulates this theme for the reader in the sole detailed
footnote of any length. Here it is: “One would not expect exact
superimpositions to be visible at every level, because the universe is
continually evolving, constantly in flux. But as long as the various
symmetries link in at these main ‘points of entry’ the Hermetic Code
is valid. If anything, the fact that the code can be directly linked
to all of these various symmetries – and many other found throughout
the natural world – is precisely what one would expect of a ‘theory of
everything.’”

Apparently mathematicians and cosmologists are johnny-come-latelys
with their own physical “theory of everything,” trailing by centuries
if not by millennia metaphysicians associated with obscure schools and
monasteries in claiming to have found “a key to the enigmas of the
world.” But enough of beating around the bush. Hayes in his book
focuses on the following subjects and argues in the following fashion.

Introduction. Proponents of all the major belief systems agree that
there is an existence after death, the author writes. Matter is
composed of particles or vibrations of light. There is a timeless or
eternal form of reality. The major religions harness very real forces.
Creation is the result of the Law of Three and the Law of Octaves
embodied in the nature of the mathematical ratio pi. The DNA in the
cells of human bodies has four chemical bases. There are parallels
here with the 64 permutations of the I Ching. Music and specifically
musical harmony offer a scientific key to the tones or wave-lengths
under discussion. He writes:

“As the first recorded version of this archaic science first appeared
in the Nile delta about five thousand years ago, I have called this
musical symmetry the Hermetic Code, after Hermes Trismegistus, the
Greek name for Thoth, the ancient Egyptian god of wisdom …. This is
the Hermetic Code, a universal formula that as we shall find out,
encompasses within it practically everything.” This is another form of
the axiom: ‘As above, so below.’”

The author’s Introduction takes the reader this far. As a reader of
the book, I like the handling of the details that appear in the
seventeen chapters. As a reviewer all I can do is point out a few of
the approaches that the author takes. Suffice it to say the author
writes very readably, he is familiar with standard popular books on
offbeat topics, and he seems intent on proving that there is a
numerical code if not a Hermetic one that underpins the genetic code
and acts as a cipher for philosophical and theosophical systems.

Here is my simplification of the author’s argument: There is the
four-fold nature of the DNA. There are the four traditional elements
in the natural world. There is a parallel here between scientific
discovery and metaphysical inquiry. Could this be a coincidence? (I am
inclined to say that in many cases the “resemblance” or
“correspondence” is an artifact of the question itself.) Now here is
the author’s argument chapter by chapter (with one sentence or two for
each of the seventeen chapters).

1. “The Sacred Constant.” Ancient wisdom first appeared in Egypt some
5,000 years ago B.C. and it holds the “sacred constant” expressed in
the number 8. This is the Law of Octaves, counting the two do’s. Note
that 8 x 8 = 64, another type of greater harmony associated with the I
Ching.

2. “A Different Way of Seeing.” Rhythms and harmonies of the universe
are expressed by the Hermetic Code, especially as evolution proceeds
by octaves, and this is seen in music and art (Gurdjieff’s distinction
between subjective and objective art) and architecture (René Schwaller
de Lubicz’s views on architectural forms of man).

3. “Music over Matter.” Music (all those octaves) may have managed the
construction of the megaliths, evoked by the phrase “musical magic,”
and perhaps the phenomenon of the “group-mind” as advanced by Colin
Wilson was used by early peoples to great effect: mental building
cranes and cranial forklifts.

4. “The Electron and the Holy Ghost.” Subatomic particles and the
theory of “quantum potential” advanced by David Bohm are considered,
as are the views of Sri Aurobindo, leading to the conclusion that
matter is alive and composed of vibrations and / or light.

5. “Further Light.” Christopher Dunn’s speculations on “sonic /
ultrasonic stone carving and drilling” and Princeton physicist Robert
Jahn are, in a sense, compared. This chapter and indeed much of the
book is “metaphysical” in the sense that literary scholars call John
Donne a “metaphysical poet,” for there is a roping together of
heterogeneous elements to create a greater whole. A sense of the
greater whole may be felt in these two long sentences:

“So the Great Pyramid, the most impressive monument to light ever
created on Earth, massive and imposing as it is, is really no more
than a foundation stone upon which has been constructed another,
infinitely vaster, metaphysical structure, a creation of sorts, whose
indeterminate dimensions are even to this day expanding ever outward
and upward. I am referring here, of course, to the ongoing evolution
of human consciousness, which began its present stage of development
at the time the Great Pyramid was designed, and which has ever since
been guided subconsciously by the also-embracing hermetic principles
embodied within it.”

This is indeed “metaphysical” prose. In another comparison, it
embodies the principle of the hologram, for from a single fragment may
be generated or regenerated the multifaceted whole.

6. “Live Music.” So-called “scientific creationists” and evolutionary
scientists are contrasted and Richard Dawkins is taken to task for his
notion that “stumbling blindly through geological time” led to life as
we know it today, not a noble notion of “transcendental evolution”
whereby “it is possible for individuals to emulate the living cell and
to achieve a similar condition of ‘optimum resonance.’”

Here the author expresses his naked thesis: “I stated above that I
believe that the growth and development of consciousness is an organic
process. Logically it has to be, because the Hermetic Code and the
genetic code are fundamentally one and the same system.”

7. “Extraterrestrial DNA.” Another extension of “the theory of
transcendental evolution” which leads to the Pyramids (“The Lights” is
apparently how these structures were known to the Egyptians of old)
which leads to the star systems above them, Sirius and Zeta Orionis,
as well as to the starry-eyed speculations of Rodney Collin.

8. “Interstellar Genes and the Galactic Double Helix.” Robert Temple’s
“The Sirius Mystery” is discussed, along with Gurdjieff’s “missing
semi-tones,” to suggest that the universe is a being that is fully
conscious.

9. “The Hermetic Universe of Ancient Times.” The Pythagorean
cosmological system is considered with respect to reincarnation, the
nature of the universe, modern science, metaphysics, and “zoon,” the
Greek term for “a living thing.”

10. “The Hierarchy of Dimensions.” So the universe is “organic,” but
it exists on a hierarchy of planes or levels or dimensions.
“Confused?” the author questions the reader. “To be perfectly honest,
so am I. Frequently. But then we are trying to come to terms with the
imponderable here, and left-brain logic alone can take us only so far
in the quest for the ultimate reality.”

11. “The Fate of the Universe.” Speculation on the fate of the
universe gives equal weight to science-fiction writer Wilbur Wright in
“Time: Gateway to Immortality” and writer-scientist Paul Davies in
“The Last Three Minutes,” to build the argument that there is “music
literally everywhere, in the chromodynamic and atomic scales of
matter, in DNA and the genetic code,” etc.

12. “Inner Octaves.” Outer octaves were explored, so here the
investigation narrows and deeps into the inner octaves, through the
symbol or structure of the Ray of Creation.

13. “The Holographic Principle.” Michael Talbot, author of “The
Holographic Universe,” is a big help here to demonstrate that a part
is as great as a whole, a whole as great as a part.

14. “Quantum Psychology.” What the author calls “quantum psychology”
sheds light on the findings of particle physicists (notably Karl
Pribram), parapsychologists, and neurophysiologists, permitting the
reader to see that there are ways the brain resembles subatomic
particles in their “non-locality.” Here I recall the delicious pun in
the movie “The Golden Compass”: Lord Asriel is described as “a
particle metaphysicist.”

15. “QP2: The Universal Paradigm.” Man is composed of “triple octaves”
of resonance, so we are “‘walking trinities’ composed of our
sensations, emotions, and perceptions,” a point that Hayes argues in
his earlier book “The Infinite Harmony.”

16. “The Shapeshifters.” Mayan and Egyptian texts and Graham Hancock’s
“Fingerprints of the Gods” all lead to an examination of
“extraordinary mental and physical powers” shown by members of “the
Egyptian elite” to permit them to build their monumental structures.

17. “‘Al-Chem’ – the Egyptian Way.” Octaves of resonance are invoked
to account for the harnessing or focusing of exceptional powers for
exceptional effects. The author writes powerfully:

“We know that in the natural course of Darwinian evolution successful
genes can survive all manner of catastrophes: ice ages, rapid
meltdowns, deluges, earthquakes, cometary impacts. In the same way,
the hermetic ideas we are dealing with here – the metaphysical
equivalent of successful genes – have survived all kinds of social
upheaval: wars, dark ages, periods of total ignorance and barbarism,
inquisitions, revolutions, and so on. Therefore we are not speaking in
metaphor: we are talking about organic processes of creation and
evolution, both microcosmic and macrocosmic, which are identical in
every way, with a difference in scale only.”

So much for this Baedeker-like tour of the countryside. My own view of
Michael Hayes’s achievement is that “The Hermetic Code in DNA” is a
literary composition written in an underrated literary form, that of
the “anatomy” – think of Robert Burton’s “Anatomy of Melancholy” – and
that through accumulation of detail and organization by association,
rather than by classification and disinterested pursuit of its thesis,
it embraces other subliterary forms in an attempt to reveal common
characteristics and congruent conceptions that have to do with the
evolution of nature, man, and spirit. It is an ample and in a way an
impressive anatomical achievement.

How successful is it? That is for the reader to decide, the reader who
is familiar with associative thinking as well as the material that is
included and the material that is excluded, or the reader who is
flustered by all the material and perhaps overimpressed with it. Hayes
is committed to his point of view (Hermetic Code = Genetic Code) to
the exclusion of criticism of sources and common sense reservations.
Even so, Robert Burton was ultimately unhappy with his classic
“Anatomy of Melancholy,” perhaps because most people read it for its
bits and pieces rather than for its “metaphysical” whole.

John Robert Colombo is an author and anthologist who lives in Toronto.
His current publication, 500 pages long, is called “The Big Book of
Canadian Ghost Stories.” He is an Associate, Northrop Frye Centre,
Victoria College, University of Toronto. His website is www.
colomb-plus. ca.

BEHIND THE LOOKING GLASS


John Robert Colombo Page

John Robert Colombo comments on a new academic study of “the Alice
books” written in light of the tradition of Western Esotericism

It must be fifty years ago that I first read the two “Alice” books –
“Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” (1865) and “Through the Looking
Glass and What Alice Found There” (1871). Since then at least once a
week I encounter a reference to Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland”
in one context or another – Martin Gardner’s “Annotated Alice,” the
Disney movie, passages quoted like “curioser and curioser,” parodies
like “Malice in Blunderland,” mathematical or metaphysical puzzles,
etc. It seems Alice will never die because, as someone once said it
about another fictional character, she never lived.

Freud, Jung, and Adler have offered their interpretations of “Alice”
and her pre-pubertal (or post-Modern) world that the imaginative books
effortlessly create in the minds of their readers “of all ages.”

Although it is certainly no secret that “Lewis Carroll” was the pen-name
of the Oxford don and mathematician named Charles Lutwidge
Dodgson, it is not well known that about the time Carroll / Dodgson
was composing the first of the “Alice” books, he published not only a
four-volume mathematical study called “An Elementary Treatise on
Determinants” but also a series of collegiate monographs devoted to
subjects of passing interest (with such titles as “The New Belfry at
Christ Church Oxford”).

Just as Carroll was the creation of Dodgson, so the “Alice” books are
much more than the adventures of a rambunctious girl, for the books
recount not merely her musings and amusements but her puzzlements when
faced with the greatest questions of all times – the ones that
philosophers enjoy questioning rather than answering. The author is
believed to have modelled his Alice on a “real live” little girl named
Alice Liddell, daughter of the Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, whose
family name rhymes with “fiddle.”

Every reader of the books has his or her own image of Alice, usually
the one created by the immensely agile Sir John Tenniel who
illustrated the original editions with his deft lines. My own image is
other than Tenniel’s. I see Alice in two ways: as a lively young girl
and as a full-bodied young woman. This is so because in Toronto, where
I live, we are lucky enough to have two oil paintings of Alice in
public institutions. It is not widely known that the British artist
Arthur Hughes was commissioned in 1863 by the Dodgson family to paint
images of Alice Liddell. The Osborne Collection of Early Children’s
Literature in the Toronto Public Library has the original oil “Girl
with Lilacs”; the Art Gallery of Ontario (currently undergoing a
facelift by the Toronto-born architectural superstar Frank Gehry) has
the same artist’s “The Lady with the Lilacs.” Thus Toronto boasts both
the younger and the older Alice, befitting a city at once younger than
many of the world’s great cities but these days somewhat feistier.
(After all, Toronto will host the next “All and Everything Conference”
in April 2009.)

“Girl with Lilacs,” commissioned by Carroll, depicts a pale, young
girl with large, curious eyes and across her fair features a quizzical
expression. Hughes was undoubtedly familiar with the sketches of Alice
that Carroll himself had executed a year earlier for “Alice’s
Adventures Under Ground,” an early manuscript version of the classic
novel. That accounts for the strong resemblance between the sketches
and the portrait. The other painting, “The Lady with the Lilacs,” is
no evocation of childhood, for it depicts a maiden approaching the
point of full womanhood, and hence as portraiture it is both appealing
and conventional. Between them, the two pre-Raphaelite paintings catch
the sexual ambivalence that we experience with the “real life” Alice:
best caught, perhaps, in the name “Lolita.”

All of this has little to do with the book under review. “Behind the
Looking Glass” was published earlier this year by Cambridge Scholars
Publishing, an academic imprint established in Newcastle, England, by
scholars with an association with Cambridge University. (CSP is not an
imprint of the University, yet its 250 or so titles are worthy of the
Cambridge University Press imprint.)

Here are some bibliographical details: “Behind the Looking Glass.” By
Sherry L. Ackerman. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008.
ISBN (10): 1-84718-486-3. Cloth-bound, jacketed. Pages: xii + 170. The
list price is close to 30 pounds. There are two Appendices.

Appendix A lists mathematical and other works written by Dodgson.
Appendix B is something I have not seen in some time: “a syllabus” for
a course that introduces philosophy (especially epistemology and
metaphysics) using the Alice books as the launching pad. The course is
titled “Questions Behind the Looking-

Glass: A Carrollian Introduction to Philosophy.” There is as well a
far-ranging Bibliography (with entries for books by Bishop Berkeley,
Annie Besant, Madame Blavatsky, Harold Bloom, etc.) and an Index.
There are no references at all to Gurdjieff or Ouspensky.

The author of “Behind the Looking Glass” is Sherry L. Ackerman, a
scholar otherwise unknown to me. She has her own Wikipedia entry,
which begins as follows: “Sherry L. Ackerman, Ph.D., is Professor of
Philosophy at the College of the Siskiyous, in Northern California,
U.S.A., as well as an international dressage clinician. As an active
scholar with the International Society for Neoplatonic Studies, she
has authored numerous papers and journal articles. She is also one of
the American equine industry’s foremost proponents of eco-spirituality
and nature mysticism.” Wow!

Not only was I unfamiliar with Dr. Ackerman but I knew nothing at all
about the College of the Siskiyous, where she teaches. The college’s
website describes itself as “one of the most beautiful community
colleges [sic] campuses in California” with a student population of
2,500. The campus is located “at the base of majestic Mount Shasta,” a
mountain noted for its connections with gurus from India and flying
saucers from outer space.

The author knows exactly what she is doing. She is “deconstructing the
Carroll Myth” and “recontextualizing Carroll.” Never fear that
something valuable will be lost; something of equal or equivalent
value will be gained: “The myth he crafted, however, was neither
social nor sexual … it was spiritual.” Carroll fits hand in glove
into “Victorian esoteric trends.” It seems “The Victorian Cult of the
Child was, more accurately, a reappearance of the Orphic theogony for
the belief in a divine child.” We have here a description of “the
initiatory process” en route to “achieving gnosis.” A tall order.

British society in the middle-to-late-1800s offered Carroll the
Platonic revival and the Theosophical movement not to mention the new
religion of Spiritualism as well as theories about “the Arctic Home of
the Vedas.” It also offered him Christianity. But instead of taking
Holy Orders, as he was required to do to retain his academic
appointment, Carroll waffled: “Carroll chose to sing a new song.
Instead of dogmatic liturgy, he sang the theosophist’s intellectual
hymn to Love and preached from carefully crafted allegory instead of
from a pulpit.”

Dr. Ackerman goes on a bit: “I … feel that I have constructed a
strong preliminary case for a Carroll whose mysticism colored every
aspect of his life. The mystical consciousness considers unity as both
an internal and external focus as it seeks the truth about reality.”
Then, using an idiom from dressage, she takes the bit between the
teeth: “Carroll turns Alice into Odysseus journeying home to Ithaca.
The hero’s journey always involves the departure, an initiation and
the return.” Carroll naturally kept all this to himself. “Carroll
concealed his secret carefully, leaving it so that it could be
understood only by the efforts of the studious and wise.”

Maybe. The words “studious and wise” have a meaning deeper that the
one advanced here but even here they offer a whiff of the esoteric.
While it would be nice to consider readers who embrace Dr. Ackerman’s
thesis to be “studious and wise,” I wonder just how erudite and
sagacious her thesis is. She fails to take into account competing
theories, and she overlooks the work of predecessors like Northrop
Frye, who noted, “I’ve often said that if I understood the two Alice
books I’d have very little left to understand about literature.
Actually I think the Alice books, while they carry over, begin rather
than sum up – a new twist to fiction that has to do with intellectual
paradox & the disintegrating of the ego.”

That insight comes from one of Frye’s Notebooks; in another Notebook
he writes, “I suppose the fascination with Alice is not that she’s a
child in the state of innocence, but that she’s a preternatural child:
what seven-year-old girls would have been like without the Fall.” And
in one of his studies of the Bible, he observed dryly, “In a slightly
different but related area, one feels that Alice could hardly have
held her Wonderland together if she had even reached the Menarche,
much less become an adult.” (The sources are available to any reader
who requests them.)

Dr. Ackerman’s thesis is not novel. For at least two generations now,
scholars like Frye and Harold Bloom have treated imaginative
literature as a species of “secular scripture,” and have regarded it
as “mythopoeic” or “archetypal,” perhaps in an attempt to do away with
such exclusivist critical perspectives as historical criticism,
Marxist, social, biographical, feminist, theological, psychoanalytic,
New Critical, explication de texte, literary critical, etc.

What I do find interesting is what Dr. Ackerman is doing, quite
single-mindedly, and that is exposing her students to is a body of
knowledge and a tradition of outsider thought that was hardly
recognized as such in the anglosphere before the 1960s. She is
introducing them to the tradition of Western Esotericism. Before the
1960s, for instance, it was permissible to cringe in embarrassment
when mentioning W.B. Yeats’s membership in the Hermetic Society of the
Golden Dawn, as one of my own professors did at the time at St.
Michael’s College, University of Toronto; since then no study of the
laureate’s poetry or his politics is complete without at least one
chapter devoted to the Irish poet’s mystical bent and the source of
his cache of esoteric thoughts and occult imagery. No doubt Carroll
was familiar with Neoplatonism and Gnosticism, but is there any
evidence that he actually read and favoured such texts?

While I would enjoy working my way through “Behind the Looking Glass,”
to answer a question like this one, and to describe chapter by chapter
how Dr. Ackerman approaches the texts in question, I feel it would
take up too much space and not really account for the charm and power
of the Alice books. As well, it is more practical here to make a few
general remarks about the author’s preconceptions and the usefulness
of approaching Carroll’s books through the polarized eye-glasses of
Gnosticism.

* Dr. Ackerman believes that Carroll “did a masterful job of
concealing his secrets from the crowd.” Did he have any secrets?
Martin Gardner is able to solve the philosophical puzzles without
resorting to quadratic equations or mystagogic utterances. Alice
encounters puzzles, not mysteries, and as everyone knows, the
difference between a puzzle and a mystery is that the former may be
“solved” (because all the parts are present if haphazardly so) whereas
a mystery may never be “explained” (because an essential part is ever
elsewhere). It seems to me that Carroll deals with intellectual
puzzles, more than metaphysical mysteries.

* Dr. Ackerman finds Carroll and his works to be “a radical
religio-philosophical counter-response to patriarchal materialism.”
The response is “radical” in the sense of “root” rather than
“revolutionary,” as were the Prophetic Books of William Blake, which
go unmentioned, despite Blake’s “radical innocence.” Is materialism
“patriarchal,” mysticism “matriarchal”? Assumptions.

* Dr. Ackerman uses literature to illustrate philosophy. “‘Matter’ is
not a name in the way that ‘Humpty Dumpty’ is a name. Carroll’s story
about Humpty Dumpty is suggestive of a satirization of Berkeley’s
nominalism. Humpty Dumpty, from this perspective, subscribed to an
extreme form of nominalism, according to which all that is common to a
group of particulars is their being called by the same name.” (In that
passage, a lot hangs on the uncomfortable adjective “suggestive” as
well as on the ugly noun “satirization.”) The analysis continues with
a roll-call of names: Berkeley, Locke, Plato, Euclid, etc. Her
conclusion? “Carroll’s ultimate work-in-progress – the evolution of
his own consciousness – is available, with some literary archeology,
to be showcased.” Perhaps.

* Dr. Ackerman keeps her eyes focused on Carroll himself as much as
she does on his writings: “We find Carroll himself irreconcilably, and
probably unconsciously, suspended between the phenomenal and noumenal
realms.” “It appears that Carroll, like most academics of this period,
confused the map with the territory.” “As previously noted, Carroll
always vehemently denied that ‘Charles Lutwidge Dodgson’ and ‘Lewis
Carroll’ shared the same identity. They were very much two different
personae.” It is difficult to sidestep biographical criticism.

* Dr. Ackerman notes that “Carroll had originally intended to call
‘Through the Looking Glass,’ ‘Behind the Looking Glass’ but, after
more deliberation, settled upon ‘Through.’” She herself has written
the book that Carroll did not write, employing the preposition
“Through,” though it is a book that Charles Lutwidge Dodgson might
well have written, had he lived through the 1960s. So it is a very
serious work but, I feel, somewhat beside the point.

* Dr. Ackerman has an genuine and infectious enthusiasm for the
philosophy that she says lies “behind” the Alice books. So
apparently – nominally anyway – her book belongs to a class of books
that are revisionist in nature, as her work seeks to reinterpret this
imaginative fantasy as a work of philosophical (or better
metaphysical) inquiry. The author is one of nine academics concerned
with cultural studies who have formed a group they call “ContrariWise:
The Association for New Lewis Carroll Studies.” Members of the group
are intent on offering new insights into Carroll, the Alice books, and
other 19th-century works of literature. Good luck to them.

I doubt that “Behind the Looking Glass” will be of interest to the
general reader who recalls from childhood the pleasure of reading the
Alice books. The study offers few insights into those texts, as
literature, certainly not enough to detain the literary critic. But
the study will reward scholars of children’s literature and perhaps
those cultural historians who may wish to trace the possible influence
on Carroll and other imaginative writers of the period of what James
Webb and Joscelyn Godwin after him have characterized as “rejected
knowledge,” that is, the whole tradition of Western Esotericism. If
this trend continues, in another fifty years “Western Esotericism”
will be so well known that it will have to be renamed “Western
Exotericism.”

John Robert Colombo, the author of many books, studied Literature and
Philosophy at the University of Toronto. He is currently a Fellow,
Northrop Frye Centre, Victoria College, University of Toronto. He twin
interests are Canadiana and “rejected wisdom.” His website is
http://www.colombo-plus.ca

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See http://www.ccwe.wordpress.com
for more re Sherry Ackerman and Alice at
HIDDEN SOURCES: Western Esoteric Influence on the Arts,
Conference to be held in Cambridge on Saturday 11th October 2008
Hosts: The Cambridge Centre for the Study of Western Esotericism

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