No one’s ever been rude enough to ask me the question directly. But it has sure as hell been implied.
The anarchist friend who heard about my ouija board experiments and took it upon himself to explain to me that there’s no such thing as supernatural spirits, as if I might not have thought about that for myself…
The Surrealist friend who ranted on social media that he was sick and tired of fellow Surrealists treating the occult as literal truth rather than poetic metaphor, as if those were the only two options available…
The academic friend who looked aghast when I mentioned an interest in kabbala, and edged away as if I might be about to subject her to unspeakable acts of non-consensual reiki…
Oh yeah. The question’s been implied. I’ve actually been waiting for years now for someone to have the rude decency to ask it outright.
So today I’m going to pretend that you have, just to give myself the fun of trying to answer.
Believe It Or Not
It all starts with the distinction between believing and supposing. This distinction was neatly summed up – and brilliantly practised – by experimental theatre genius Ken Campbell:
Don’t believe in anything – nothing which is the product of the human mind is a fitting subject for your belief – but you can suppose everything – and in fact you should. Supposing as much as possible is mind-opening, mind-widening. Suppose God. Suppose flying saucers. Suppose fairies. I suppose you could suppose that one of the big religions had got it right – down to the last nut and bolt! But don’t believe it.
I’ve also seen Campbell’s position pithily summed up as “supposing is mind-expanding, believing is mind-deadening”. And that’s exactly my attitude to the occult.
To explain what I mean, I’ll use those old ouija experiments of mine as an example. Actually, they weren’t only mine. Back in the days of the Surrealist London Action Group, they were a major collective pursuit for quite some time. We’d whip out the old planchette at the drop of a hat. Ah, halcyon days.
But although (almost) all of us were enthusiastic participants, there was strong disagreement within the group about what was actually happening. At least a couple of people genuinely believed that we were contacting the dead. This was (a) distressing on the occasion when one of the dead people that came through was a group member’s much-missed friend, (b) hilariously ridiculous on the occasion when the putative dead person claimed to be inhabiting the barometer in my hallway, and (c) limited and pedestrian as a way of interpreting many of the messages we received – messages of shimmering beauty.
To simply believe in supernatural explanations for ouija phenomena struck me as boring. But then again, simply disbelieving such explanations and taking up the sceptical position felt like chucking out the poetic baby with the supernatural bathwater. So instead, I decided to take the Campbellian attitude of supposing.
If we supposed a certain message was from a dead Victorian child, that could certainly get us somewhere. If we supposed other messages were from an egregore summoned by our collective unconscious, that could get us somewhere too. And if we supposed yet others were from aliens, or from interdimensional beings, or from geometrical abstractions weirdly endowed with consciousness, that could get us somewhere else again. Different suppositions, different destinations, different adventures. That was the great game of it.
Supposing is an attitude I’ve adopted ever since. It’s guided my encounters with supernatural phenomena, occult practices and moments of high strangeness, as well as with poetry and Surrealism. So no, I don’t really believe in all that woo-woo crap. But I like to suppose that some of it’s true, just to see where it will take me.
I Got Those Woo-Woo Blues
Now, of course some suppositions are more interesting than others. This is largely a matter of tastes and sensibilities.
For example, I love Tarot and kabbala, and I can sometimes be persuaded to get excited about astrology, but anything to do with crystals or crop circles bores me to tears. For lots of other folks it’s the opposite way around. That’s just how people are.
It’s all fine either way, as long as we all agree that we’re supposing this stuff without believing it – or even worse, claiming to know it. Supposing that neolithic standing stones have mystical powers is one thing; quitting chemo and going to lick lichen at Avebury instead is quite another.*
It pains me to have to explain that. But I know I do have to, because there’s a certain sceptical cast of mind that automatically equates being interested in the occult or supernatural with being a fucking idiot. And there is also, alas, a certain gullible cast of mind that is truly idiotic, even though it’s not nearly as widespread as the sceptics’ movement likes to think.
So let me say this right out loud:
Anyone who believes in magick, the occult or the supernatural rather than supposing it is (in my opinion) tying their mind down unnecessarily, and is missing out on the joy and freedom of a suppositional imagination.
But even more seriously, anyone who believes in magick, the occult or the supernatural to the extent that they reject objective or empirical knowledge has understood nothing, and has no imagination either. Because it takes both understanding and imagination to grasp the point that, say, magick and medicine operate on different planes.
Ironically, it’s a point that magick might be better at articulating than empiricism. The Western magickal system is firmly rooted in the idea that there are different planes of the cosmos – the material plane versus the astral plane, for example. Those planes are beautifully glyphed in the kabbalistic tree, as well as in the hierarchical structures of certain secret societies.
And it’s a basic watchword of any vaguely competent occult practitioner that you should never confuse the planes.
The astral plane is the plane of subjectivity and imagination. The material plane is the plane of objectivity and empiricism. Matters of fact are exactly that – matter. They are located on a different plane from the suppositions of imagination. That’s why occult practitioners need to be adept at handling ambiguity and contradiction. Different and seemingly contradictory propositions may be in operation simultaneously, but the contradiction disappears as soon as you realise that they are just simply operating on different planes.
So yes, I do like to suppose various kinds of woo-woo crap, according to my own tastes and interests. But that doesn’t mean that I reject all claims to objectivity, or that I think there’s no such thing as facts, any more than I’ll try to open a tin of baked beans with an air dagger.
And if I suggest now that there are different kinds of truth – objective truth, subjective truth, empirical truth, mystical truth, poetic truth – it’s not because I’m a relativist, or because I think those truths are all equally valid in all circumstances.
On the contrary, I think each kind of truth is only valid on its own proper plane – and invalid on any other plane. If I encounter a demon at the top of the stairs in the middle of the night,** there are all kind of facts you might recite at me about brain chemistry, EEG fluctuations, visual perception and that squeaky floorboard, and they would probably all be true. But they’re not going to stop me from supposing it was a demon all the same. Your facts are true on the material plane; my demon experience remains true on the astral plane.
As regular blog readers will know, the difference between belief and supposition isn’t the only one that buzzes my bonnet.
I spend a lot of time here pondering the similarities and differences between Surrealism and magick. It’s an endlessly fascinating topic, and I probably do mean endlessly…
But fresh light can be shed on it if we start from the notions – or rather, attitudes – of supposition and belief that I’ve just sketched out. And I’m going to try to nurture that light some more in upcoming blog posts.
So watch out for posts to come… And in the meantime, keep taking the suppositories.
* Ok, so probably no one has ever actually suggested doing this. Don’t write in.
** This actually happened to me a few nights ago. Sometimes supposing stuff kinda sucks.
Sefirotic diagram from von Rosenroth’s Kabbala Denudata (1684), in the public domain.
Ken Campbell’s Meaning Of Life, video via James Nye’s YouTube channel.
All other images from Spectropia; or, Surprising Spectral Illusions (1865), in the public domain.
Take a peek behind the veil.