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Monday, May 27, 2024

Liber "Weird AL" vel Legis


"Liber Weird AL vel Legis", I thought one day, out of the blue. Mashing up the name of a famous novelty songster and the title of a prominent book of Thelemic magic is typical of the sort of nonsense produced by the colliding synaptic relays in my mind, and sometimes they provide me a private chuckle or a profound insight. Sometimes I am able to turn them into a silly joke to share on Twitter, and sometimes they open the door to deeper meanings. Often, the inspired stupidity of such momentary flights of linguistic fancy falls away and is not shared with anyone. 

For some reason this absurdity came to mind again one morning while I was preparing to go to work. While I considered it, I thought perhaps I could provoke some esoteric truths to show themselves, to stop hiding behind a dumb joke in my head. I had all but decided to shrug it off, let it fall away, when I heard a familiar noise. The sound I heard was nearly identical to the little chittering meows my cat, Lucypurr, makes when she's watching birds in the window- but to my surprise I found that this time the noise was coming from a bird! I had heard of, and seen, catbirds before but never knew why they were so named. Similar to mockingbirds and other feathery mimics, they are able to imitate and reproduce sounds from other animals. With that, the bird flew off and a marble dropped, setting in motion the Rube Goldberg contraption in my brain that produces these Weird Writings...

An aspect of occultism that often goes overlooked, especially among those with no practical experience in it, is how funny it is. This isn't lost at all on the atheists, materialists, and debunkers who see it all as kook science and hocus-pocus, the derisive "woo woo" of bygone eras holding humanity back from a "sane" view of reality. The intention here is not to align with the scoffers, but rather to balance the pop cultural view of grim wizards and dark sorcerers with a touch of humanity. Our modern occult world is populated with the spectres of magicians who came before, each of whom has their own personal mystique and mythology built up around them. There is no better example of this than "the Great Beast" Aleister Crowley, who courted controversy and seemed to enjoy being reviled during his lifetime. Following his death in the 1940s, his exploits have become the stuff of legend, to the point that anyone with only a passing interest in magic and mysticism would recognize the name. For those who are open to the Wyrd, but have no direct experiential knowledge of occult practice, Crowley can become inflated to grandiose proportions as a Master Magus calling down Angels and Demons; to the skeptic, he was simply a loony or a charlatan. Whatever one's personal preference within magic, though, those with any level of practical experience recognize that Crowley was first and foremost a man. He laughed, he joked. He ate food and hung out with friends, and enjoyed climbing mountains. It seems strange to even have to say these things, but it feels necessary- we often forget the mundane humanity of larger-than-life figures, and thus they become more like comic book characters with various storylines and continuities and canons. The static grim Crowley that exists as a peripheral phantom, particularly in the Fortean, conspiracy theory, and UFOlogy worlds persists. The phantom is really a person who is not only misunderstood, but not even engaged with by many on a level that could lead to understanding. That understanding begins with recognizing that he was just a dude.

Pictured: A Dude.

A dude though he was, he was insightful and, as already established, hugely influential. The notoriety or the infamy, depending where you stand, endures as his magical name "Perdurabo" would intimate. The particulars of his life have and will continue to be the subject of debate and speculation by those within and outside of occult practice. In many cases, it is perhaps best to just accept that he was a complicated person- and, when necessary, laugh at him.

Understanding Crowley, even to a minor extent, involves framing him within a larger context of modern occult beliefs and organizations. Virtually all groups use similar terminology and define them differently, so for our purposes here "Occult" will be the broad term for various magical systems. It's worth bearing in mind that "occult" simply means "hidden", and this will be a running theme. In my personal experience as a guy who knows some stuff about things, I've found that when approached with questions about any particular Occult figure by someone outside of any practice there is a tendency towards viewing that figure in isolation. It is extremely difficult to ever have an accurate idea about any specific occultist without squaring them against the time and place in which they lived, who they learned from, and where their ideas went after their physical existence reached an end. Thus we concern ourselves with the currents, threads, traditions, lineages- whatever term we wish to use- that wend themselves through the history of Occult thought. Along the way, we meet colorful and flamboyant characters who each have their own human foibles, biases, and motivations- but they all borrow from, react against, and even make fun of each other.

In this sense, it might be helpful to look at Occult literature as being not dissimilar to novelty music. Much as the rationalist might think of someone like Crowley as being nothing more than a mildly amusing historical nut, with nothing to offer the broader culture beyond that, novelty musicians such as "Weird Al" Yankovic are kicked to the margins of popular music. Although he has undergone something of a cultural reappraisal in recent years, for much of Yankovic's career he was acknowledged with an eye-roll by many fans of "real music". As a fan of his work, one could argue until they were blue in the face about his many talents without budging the opinion of a True Music Guy. Primarily known for his parodies, his albums usually contained at least as many original compositions. Sometimes these were pastiches of known bands or genres without being direct parodies of specific songs. Each album also contained a track made up of direct cover versions of popular tunes reimagined as accordion-driven polka. The humor driving the songs alongside the accordion was always more Mad Magazine than Mel Brooks, and certainly not everyone's comedic cup of tea. To the music snobs of the world, Yankovic may as well have been a children's entertainer like Raffi. Kid's stuff. Not real music.

"Weird Al" in many ways has become synonymous with novelty music, but of course he exists within a tradition of the genre along with folks like Stan Freberg and and Spike Jones. Barrett Hanson, better known as Dr. Demento, has had a long career as a historian and DJ of the niche category, and is responsible for promoting it to a wide audience. Listening to compilations from Dr. Demento of the novelty tunes that came before the 1980s gives one a broader context in which to consider "Weird Al", and also an appreciation for the role humor plays in capturing historical moments or in preserving culturally important works. How many of us are familiar with operas such as The Barber of Seville because of the Bugs Bunny cartoon that featured it? In a similar way, Yankovic has endured as a recording artist consistently longer than most of the "legitimate" musicians he's lampooned- and his catalogue of albums thus becomes a marker of what was popular at the time of each album's release.

Occultism and Novelty Music are not the same thing, but much in the way "Weird Al" exists largely on the fringes of popular music occult practitioners and writers occupy the margins of the broader culture. In both cases, there is a feedback loop between society at large and the periphery, which itself exists within a continuum of the same process. Some recording artists have viewed it as a badge of honor, or a rite of passage to have been parodied by Yankovic; and in the occult world there is a corollary, where magical ideas are reified and amplified in their legitimacy when borrowed or adapted by another magician. Without the broader context, some outside of the Occult might say that techniques or ideas were "stolen" when they see this in action. Likewise, the untrained eye might characterize themes within a current as being misappropriated or poorly adapted, when in fact they are being re-contextualized. Attempting to assess any modern occultist in isolation is like listening to a "Weird Al" parody without knowing the original song; you might still benefit from it, but in some cases the meaning and full value is diminished.

Societal pressures, and often threats, play a role in Occult literature. There is often also an interplay between the arts and magic, sometimes so much so that one is indistinguishable from the other. Occult themes infuse themselves in the art, poetry, and fiction of every era, hidden in plain sight. The weird dance between magical traditions and the societal structures in which they grow is difficult, if not impossible, to sort out without doing a heck of a lot of research. One can spend a lifetime, especially on one's own, seeking out answers- and that is, essentially, what one should expect to do if their pursuit of esoteric truths is genuine. Being well-rounded in investigating the people and ideas involved, it becomes easier to see why traditions formed in the way that they did as well as how intimately they are connected together. At certain points it was necessary to employ coded messages, cyphers, and occult blinds which often only became more ambiguous with the passage of time. Sometimes this is does as a safety precaution, to protect those involved; sometimes as a means of keeping magical knowledge out of the hands of those who would use it for destructive ends. Often enough, secret Occult truths remain secret simply by virtue of the fact that they require so much foundational knowledge that saying it plainly just sounds like absurdity. Occultism is insulated by the fact that many people treat it like a joke.

Magical beliefs are intrinsically tied up in the history of religions, arts, and sciences, but largely are obscured for fear that association with such beliefs discredits the person or product in question. Sir Isaac Newton is remembered for his scientific achievements, less so for his Occult interests- and that's not an oversight. We need our Newtons elevated above the riffraff of our Cagliostros and our Swedenborgs. Humor, when applied to music, can have the same effect. Frank Zappa always had weird and funny lyrics in his song, but when an edited version of his Don't Eat the Yellow Snow got played on Dr. Demento's show, it gained him new fans as well as the reputation of being a comedian more than a rock musician. Zappa, like the study of the Occult, has many facets to him and is really not for everybody. Hated by some, he is nonetheless a sort of cult figure in music history who occupies his own niche- and for the fans who get it, it can feel like being part of a secret fraternity; meeting other fans by happenstance, we know each other through certain arcane references and jokes. Being Occult-oriented is really no different. Evangelical Christians would have you believe it's all Satanic, and pop culture conjures Harry Potter, Doctor Strange, or Gandalf. But the truth is Occultists are largely seekers quietly seeking whether solitarily, with noses in books, or in small groups and online communities. The stigma is silly, but at the same time it seems built in- possibly as more of a feature than a bug. The Occult remains occulted, perhaps, because it works better that way- it requires those who seek to seek earnestly, just as the general weirdness of FZ filters out the kinds of people Zappa fans wouldn't want to hang with.

Zappa's lyrics were often derived from inside jokes between him and whoever was in the band at the time, which would develop organically in the tour bus. Occult symbols operate much like inside jokes, and it's helpful to consider that some authors of Occult texts may have been more playful than we give them credit for. 

Consider the 17th century novel Comte de Gabalis. The anonymous author, later revealed to be an abbott named Nicolas-Pierre-Henri de Montfoucan de Villars, recounts his meeting with the mysterious Count of Cabala. This meeting, or series of meetings, provides a setting in which the Count is able to explain the Occult secrets of the universe, promising to reveal all. (Spoiler alert: he doesn't.) Mostly he tries to convince the AbbĂ© to marry an elemental. This text is largely considered to have been a satire of Occultism, a parody of esoteric texts of the time. It inspired poets and writers like Charles Baudelaire and Alexander Pope. Eliphas Levi and Madame Blavatsky, as well as Manly Palmer Hall "took it seriously", we are told; but isn't it just as possible that they were "in on the joke" and found value in it, regardless? On the other side of it, Pope seemed to consider the work to be a true understanding of ethereal spirits. Crowley recommends it in his Magick: In Theory and Practice, even "despite its mocking tone". The Sylphs (air elementals) mentioned in the book and borrowed by Pope in his The Rape of the Lock also get taken as historical fact by Desmond Leslie in his flying saucer writings in the 1950s. Whitley Strieber alludes to them as well in Communion. But the Sylphs, Undines, Salamanders, and Gnomes referenced within its pages are borrowed from the writings of Paracelsus, and are fairly faithful to them. Blavatsky, Levi, and Hall would all have recognized this, but the genre of satire being applied makes them seem foolish.

Anyone intending to learn magic, to seek esoteric truths and practice them must ever be careful about assumptions and taking assessments at face value. Follow footnotes, check bibliographies, and read, read, read. 

It is difficult to say at this late hour whether I have relayed anything of value to you today. Perhaps Liber "Weird AL" vel Legis" should have dropped out of my head, and that gray catbird has played me for a fool by convincing me otherwise. That really is the whole point though; society at large, now and throughout history, has treated Occultists as foolish, delusional weirdos at best and conniving mountebanks at worst. Religious extremists have seen them as devils among us, and poets as fodder for parable and verse. For my part, I have long ago accepted that I am a very silly person. My general goofiness provides a barrier, much like the unorthodox nature of Zappa's music, or the denseness of Blavatsky's writing, or more directly like the corniness of one of Yankovic's jokes- so that the right people receive the signals I put out there. That number seems to be shrinking, these days- so for anyone who read this far, thank you! I will reward you with a goofy thread of Occult and Humor quotes:

"I've wrenched DOG backwards to find GOD; now GOD barks!"
-Aleister Crowley, The Book of Lies

"Outside of a dog, a book is a man's best friend. Inside of a dog it's too dark to read."
-Ascended Master Groucho Marx

"Oh, a wise guy! Woof! Woof! Woof!"
-Jerome 'Curly' Howard