Who doesn’t want a bit of magic in their life?
If there was a ‘Magical Lifetime Achievement Award’ then the person who I think deserves to receive it is my all time favourite Arch-Mage, Peter J. Carroll. As well as being Chancellor of Arcanorium College, he has published many books on the subject of Chaos Magic, including Liber Null (1978), Psychonaut (1982), Liber Kaos (1992), PsyberMagick (1995),The Apophenion (2008), and The Octavo (2010). As Pete’s new book, Epoch (written in collaboration with artist Matt Kabryn) is due to be launched very soon, I thought it would be a good time to ask him a few questions about life, magic, and well, Terry Pratchett…………
Anne: Hi Pete! So first off, Magic or Magick?
Pete: Ha! Well, Crowley certainly added some interesting tantric and shamanic practices to the rather dry procedures of the Golden Dawn magic that he first learnt- livening things up by using sex and drugs and yogic practices in his rituals and meditations. Plus he had a number of useful magical and mystical ideas and a talent for self-publicity and notoriety, which brought his work to public attention again in the occult revival from the sixties onwards. Nevertheless he remains in many ways a rather unpleasant sociopathic character and I regard his ranting Book of the Law as one of his most regrettable creations or channelings. I get material of a very similar nature emailed to me several times per year from psychos in bedsits.
Anne: There seems to be something of a revival going on in the esoteric world. I get the impression that with the growth of the academic study of esotericism, the subject is beginning to show symptoms of budding respectability. That hasn’t quite extended into public opinion on the practice of magic, which still seems to be widely seen as something like, at best, an absurd throwback to medieval superstition and at worst, the embarrassingly infantile and ungrounded pastime of freaks and weirdoes.
Why do you think that is?
Pete: Well it depends on what you mean by ‘esoteric’- we seem to have everything from new-age styles of positive thinking with various esoteric features practiced by successful upwardly mobile professionals, to outright crazy Satanism used as a crutch for the terminally underachieving.
Can you envisage a time in the near future when practicing Magicians might be regarded with the same degree of esteem that was historically awarded to the Persian Mages, for example? How could you see this happening?
Pete: Quite a number of people in the various life-coaching type disciplines basically use magical ideas- believe you can and you probably can, intention structures reality for you, invoke your heroes as role models, and so on. However, the market for this does not yet widely accept it couched in explicitly magical terms and I doubt that we will ever see much of a market for corner shop sorcerers. Whenever I cast spells for friends I tell them that they will have to go away and do all the necessary material things as well, like seek out the people and the opportunities, and I don’t charge. I think most people realise nowadays that you cannot materialise things with blue sparks out of nothing, you can only enhance the probabilities of success.
As someone who has successfully trodden the slippery path between being a well-known practicing Mage, and being at the same time, a member of the rather conservative Bristol society in your role as businessman, have you any advice for practicing magicians on how to maintain that balance between magic and respectability?
Pete: I never speak of magic unless someone asks. If the enquiry seems casual, I’ll often dismiss my own interests as merely philosophical, scientific, or historical, and see if they want to pursue any of those topics gradually. I don’t wear my pointy hat outdoors. The Memsahib acts with equal discretion, only her best friends hear of my interests.
Does it matter to you what wider society thinks about Magic? And I guess I’m wondering about the political side of things- do you think Magicians should have political aspirations or does magic operate on a completely different level? A lot of Chaos Magicians are active environmentalists, for example.
Pete: If people ask me about it I pitch my answer to their level of understanding and acceptance. Magicians have political leanings like everyone else, however with the decline of widespread polarised political ideology in Westernized countries, many have turned their attention to the more serious issues of ecology, climate change, and the human destruction of this planet’s resources- the Knights of Chaos try to prevent that with direct sorcery.
Also the scientific proof side of things, which you have worked on a lot- do you think we will see a time when magic is vindicated by scientists, and do you think it will be maths and physics, or neurology and psychology that holds this key?
Pete: I call upon all magicians to resist scientific attempts to prove the existence of parapsychology. If they can prove it, they can bust us for it, or tax it, or use it as a weapon. My work on the science of magic happened primarily because I needed to make it make sense to myself, hopefully a few others with mixed scientific and esoteric interests have found it interesting.
What do your kids think about having a Magician as their Dad? I know they are grown up now but was it something they were proud of or was it just seen as a hobby, like golf might be to some people? Have they any interest in the subject- any potential for a Carroll Dynasty there?
Pete: They tended to keep it quiet from their friends I think. However I still get spell requests along with funding requests. Perhaps when their prolonged academic studies end they may want to learn the arte themselves.
I think part of what Chaos Magic brought to the field, correct me if I’m wrong, is an enormous sense of fun and a strong emphasis on playfulness in practice- I guess it’s a kind of pop post-modern magic which opened up the idea of history and culture as a magical supermarket where you can take whatever you want off the shelf. Making magic dogma free. Where did that come from? I guess Crowley had that to an extent though Chaos Magic also managed to shake off the sinister element that Crowley was cloaked in. Even Spare was quite a serious man by all accounts. I think there’s something in the overlap between Chaos Magic, Terry Pratchett, and Robert Anton Wilson that creates this lightness. Can you tell me a bit about that?
Pete: You can do Science or Art with any desired degree of po-faced solemnity or playfulness but it probably won’t turn out as great Science or Art without some playfulness in there somewhere. The same applies to Magic- only monotheistic religions seem to demand po-faced solemnity and a complete lack of humour at all times. Any experimental discipline needs an element of playfulness, and I absolutely demand that Magic should function as an experimental discipline where we can laugh at our failures and laugh even more joyously at our occasional successes. Terry Pratchett has a real feel for the essence of magic, JK Rowling doesn’t in my view. St Bob had a great talent as an out of the box thinker, prepared to examine the strangest ideas going- meeting him for a couple of evenings at his place in LA proved a real blast.
The new book, The Epoch, spans an enormous time frame from the history of magic to considerations about where we are headed. Did you enjoy studying the history of magic? In terms of the future, I love the idea of tapping into ideas and knowledge that exists out in the universe and beyond- in what way do you think this differs from ancient invocations of the Muse or indeed from the idea of inspired Gnosis?
Pete: Studying the history of magic proved a fascinating exercise. Most of the ideas we have about esotericism and magic in the West seem to derive from the first few centuries AD when Pagan Polytheism, Classical Platonism, and Monotheism clashed in a fertile conflict that set off a huge psychological, intellectual, and religious upheaval that birthed our esoteric traditions. Despite claims to greater antiquity it seems that all the ideas which flowered again in the Renaissance, and again towards the end of the nineteenth century, basically come from this period. In the book I argue that the latest flowering of the esoteric traditions toward the end of the twentieth century embodies the germ of some radical new metaphysical and practical ideas which will become increasingly significant as the flowering progresses. We can still use, and indeed we should continue to use inspired Gnosis and the invocation of the Muses, but I think we are moving towards a more sophisticated view of what these things consist of and enhanced methods of accessing them.
Black Magic. Do you believe in Evil and how would you define it?
Pete: We all have a potential for Evil. Give people a cruel upbringing or put them in a situation where it seems their only option and they will often express it with enthusiasm. President Assad of Syria would probably have remained a mild mannered optician if events had not catapulted him into a situation of ‘kill or get killed’ like a medieval monarch. Then of course we have the random evil of ‘Acts of God’- earthquakes, tsunamis, lightning strikes, and so on. In the self-evident absence of god we just have to cope with this stuff without resorting to human sacrifice.
People with the skill to accomplish the ‘black magic’ of the popular imagination don’t usually bother with it. Instead they change the minds of the people they have problems with to their own advantage, turning liabilities into assets.
Are you optimistic about the future?
Pete: I feel optimistic that humanity will survive in the medium term and maybe get out into the Universe in the long-term. However we will have a rough and disastrous time of it this century if we don’t get population, resource consumption, climate change, and ecological destruction under control.
Are you a Mason?
Ha! Well I can do bricklaying. But seriously, I wouldn’t join an ordinary masonic lodge, their function really ended with the triumph of the Enlightenment. I could not acknowledge that this Universe has a supreme architect, it looks a bit of a random mess to me. My father and grandfather enjoyed the social and business side of masonry for a while apparently.
I really enjoyed listening to your recent interview with Gordon in the pub (available here- http://runesoup.com/2014/02/find-the-others-episode-3-peter-j-carroll/) and I suspect that everyone who heard it was wondering what you were drinking. So, final question, tipple of choice?
Pete: I had a randomly chosen pint of bitter to feign normality, I drink it so infrequently that I cannot tell one from the other. I only tend to drink to stave off exhaustion, a habit I’ve more or less given up by the simple expedient of going to bed earlier.
Thank you Pete.
The official launch of ‘Epoch, The Esotericon and Portals of Chaos’, a substantial book with 55 full colour illustrations and an accompanying deck of 55 large altar sized cards will occur at The Occult Conference 2014 on March 22nd in Glastonbury UK.
Peter J Carroll the author, and Matt Kabryn the artist, will both attend, and speak, and sign copies.