I first encountered Michael Moorcock's pansexual rock'n'roll secret agent messiah Jerry Cornelius at the tender age of 14. By then I had become steeped in Moorcock's work thanks largely to the Elric books, which represented a wonderful antidote to the army of Tolkien clones(and to no small degree Tolkien himself) littering the sci-fi/fantasy shelves of my local bookstore. After years of devouring tome after tome of rote wish-fulfillment fantasy of questionable depth or nuance, here was something I could fall for: Elric, an anti-social albino freak who was an outcast even among his own kind, a degenerate race of sorcerer-kings and demon worshipers. Elric consumed drugs to sustain his weakened frame, slept with his cousin, and wielded an intelligent, soul-draining sword which had sinister motives of its' own. This was no Bilbo Baggins, that was for sure.
Of course, Elric is but a small corner of Moorcock's oeuvre - even if one were to merely look at the Eternal Champion books. Moorcock has been roundly dismissed for his fantasy work, which many view as an attempt to piss in the pool of pulp fantasy and as such is merely a reactionary thumb of the nose to literature he deems beneath him. I think this is a bit uncharitable, but it I'll spill no more (virtual) ink in his defense on that account here.
Whatever else one might say about Moorcock's Eternal Champion stories, there is surely one weird permutation which lies apart from the rest - that, of course, is Jerry Cornelius. My first exposure to Cornelius was through the single-volume compilation of the first four Jerry Cornelius books; dubbed The Cornelius Chronicles, the bright orange paperback collects The Final Programme, A Cure for Cancer, The English Assassin, and The Condition of Muzak in one handy tome. I'm not sure what possessed me to purchase it other than a desire to read pretty much anything with Moorcock's name on it. Whatever the reason, I bought it, read it, and was thoroughly confused.
This was unlike anything else I'd ever read by Moorcock, and practically unlike anything I'd ever read period. The first book, The Final Programme, was clearly inspired by the early Elric stories (particularly The Stealer of Souls, which saw publication in 1961, four years before the first Cornelius story). The three stories which followed, however, were very much their own thing. Surreal and defying all logic, characters who died in earlier stories reappeared without explanation. Jerry himself would shift into new forms - in the second book Cornelius is a sort of negative version of the himself, jet-black skin and ivory-white hair. The books take place in late 60's / early 70's England and Europe but these are clearly not the England and Europe we know. England has become a proxy state in the Cold War, with both Israel and the United States occupying and fighting over portions of it. Jerry Cornelius also takes Elric's androgyny and sexual proclivities and dials them up to 11. Jerry's love affair is not with his cousin but his sister, and he seems to have few barriers regarding who he will sleep with or why, taking lovers of both genders at whim.
Yeah, you could say that as a young teenager my mind was pretty thoroughly blown.
That said, I didn't really get Jerry Cornelius. He was steeped in a lot of cultural touchstones I wouldn't grokk for another decade. I simply didn't have the context to appreciate him. Which didn't prevent me from touting Cornelius as an important influence on my young mind. And if I couldn't directly get Cornelius I could certainly see the effect Cornelius had on various other creators, chief among them being Grant Morrison...who would go on to influence my life in similar ways.
Later I would come to appreciate the British new wave science fiction movement, counting authors such as J.G. Ballard as fundamental groundwork for interests I would develop as the years passed.
But it always nagged me that I didn't fully appreciate Jerry Cornelius the way I should have. I picked up subsequent volumes of Moorcock's Cornelius work - and enjoyed them. But I've long wanted to re-visit those first four books with a fresh mind steeped in several decades of appreciation for Moorcock and the context in which the stories were written.
Not long after re-locating to the Seattle area I picked up another copy of The Cornelius Chronicles - the very same book that turned me on to Mr. Cornelius to begin with. And a couple months later I found a copy The New Nature of the Catastrophe, a collection of Cornelius stories that emerged from the circle of authors who ran with Moorcock's offer to use Cornelius in tales of their own. So - it seems like this is as good a time as any to dive back into Mr. Cornelius' strange world and re-acquaint myself.
Next: The Final Programme (including a comparison between the book and the film)
Tuesday, May 24, 2016
In retrospect, I think it was probably only a matter of time before I started practicing magick.
Looking back at the weird, winding path that led me to my current place in the fabric of spacetime I can see a clear pattern of constantly fermenting my brain - or having it fermented by others - in a weird stew of strangeness and absurdity. My mother is an artist and introduced me to the dreamlike works of Marc Chagall and Toulouse-Lautrec as a child - and would later turn me on to Warren Publications stuff like Creepy, Eerie, and Vampirella by slipping them into my Easter basket each year. I was reading sex -and-occult charged weirdness by folks like Alex Niño, Esteban Maroto, Pepe Moreno, etc. long before I took an interest in ‘people in tights having fights funnybooks’. Left to my own devices I sought out strange beauty wherever I could find it - the music of Brian Eno and Philip Glass and the haunting imagery of H.R. Giger.I found a copy of his Necronomicon in the University of Salt Lake City bookstore at the age of 9 and obsessed over it every time I visited...and was gleefully horrified seeing his vision turned reality later that year when my older cousin Steve took me to see Ridley Scott’s Alien upon its’ theatrical release. A year later I was introduced to the work of Werner Herzog by my father, who took me to a screening of Nosferatu at the local Playboy club.
I could write an entire blog post about the cocktail of ‘Things Kids Probably Shouldn’t Be Exposed To That I Was Exposed To As a Kid’ (and probably will someday) but I think you get the point. I was into some weird shit.
I don’t say this as a means of saying ‘look at me, I’m a goddamn special snowflake’ - lots of people are into the stuff I listed above. But there was a moment in the 70’s where being into that stuff meant something about you. I don’t have a name for it, but there’s a weird geeky subculture that wallowed in Heavy Metal magazines, Ralph Bakshi films, Dungeons and Dragons, black and white European horror comics, the shit Devo recorded that didn’t make it on to MTV, Frazetta paintings, etc. If that was you at nine, there’s a good chance that you at 25 will be listening to gnarly metal and punk, probably some experimental stuff like Coil and SPK. You might be hanging out with a bunch of hipster college students who read Aleister Crowley and various books about alternative spiritual paths because Neil Gaiman’s Sandman was like sooo deeeep and it gives their conservative parents the heebie jeebies.You may even have given some of that shit a shot, because you were bored and never really felt comfortable with the whole Chuch ‘n Jesus thing. But you didn’t stick with it and life happened and you spent your thirties and forties bouncing between watching your dreams dwindle into the distance and trying to commit yourself to ascending a corporate ladder that never really existed. And pretty soon your world sort of collapses into a black hole (or, rather, a black sun) and you start looking for ways to put your life back together.
That’s what led me to magick. Again, looking back, I can see an undercurrent of thoughts and ideas that made it more or less inevitable that I’d invest myself in magickal practice whole-hog. Strangely, though, one connection I hadn’t made until recently was the connection to magick and roleplaying games. It’s a rather obvious one, in retrospect. To hear Alan Moore tell it (and Grant Morrison, as well, in a slightly different context) all language and art is an act of magick - comics, a blend of several storytelling methodologies...visual and linguistic...therefore has great potential for the working of magick. Both his Promethea and Morrison’s The Invisibles are ostensibly works of magick (Morrison’s in particular, but we’ll get back to that in a moment). Roleplaying games, being an act of collaborative storytelling, are also potent magick.
Let’s step back a bit, though, and take more detailed look at this idea.
I came to magick partly through friends (and later Grant Morrison) who introduced me to concepts I’d later find were actually core concepts of a thing called Chaos Magick. I’d like to avoid the risk of turning this piece into ‘What the Fuck is Magick: 101’...there are a lot of resources on the internet if you really want to find out for yourself...so I’ll stick to the bits relevant to the point I’m trying to make.
WIthin the practice of Chaos Magick there lies a specific technique called Sigil Magick or sigilisation. The basic idea is to create a magick symbol, a glyph or as practitioners call it a ‘sigil’ to represent an intention or desire you want to achieve. You then empower this sigil through a method of your choosing and then, having charged it, destroy it. The destruction of the sigil carries the empowered thoughtform into the universe at large in the hopes that it will affect the outcome of events in a manner consistent with your intention or desire. Imagine tossing a pebble into a pond - the ripples created by the pebble entering the water are not unlike the effect the sigil has when cast. You may be aware of something called the Butterfly Effect - a scientific concept attributed by Chaos Theorists (no relation) to describe the concept of ‘sensitive dependence on initial conditions’. The example often given to explain this is a butterfly’s wings affecting weather patterns in some far-flung location because of the manner in which small-scale local changes propagate outward from the source.
Okay - so...how do you make this work, exactly? Well, the generally accepted method for using sigils is to write an intention. Like: I WILL GET MY DREAM JOB AS AN ARCHITECT.You write that out on a piece of paper...then you remove all the vowels (yes, you disemvowel it). Thus, with the above given intent you would be left with:
Then, you remove all the repeating consonants.
Looks like gibberish, right? Okay - so then you take those remaining letters and combine them into a magickal symbol - the sigil. (By the way, if there are any budding architects out there who want to use this sigil, be my guest...)
Okay, so now you have this weird squiggly design made of a bunch of letters on a piece of paper. What now?
Well, this is where it gets fun. You charge it. How, you ask? Well - you concentrate on it as you engage in some task which creates mental and physical excitation. You could exercise, mountain climb, run a few laps, do some acid...whatever. A lot of people who practice Chaos Magick tend to use, ahhhh, sexual energy...either with a partner or through plain old self loving. So, yes - the easiest and most pleasurable way to handle this is simply to jerk off. Then as you reach the point of orgasm you destroy the sigil - burn it, flush it down the toilet, eat it...whatever. Then you forget it.
The forgetting is the hard part. Sounds weird, but it is. Some practitioners write a handful of them out then when they feel like charging a sigil, just grab one out of the bowl and do the thing. That way you really don’t know which one you’re charging making it easier to forget the process.
So okay - at this point you’re probably thinking ‘Are you suggesting we turn our next D&D session into an orgy?’ Erm, no...that’s not where I’m going with that (unless your group is into orgies...I mean, who am I to judge?).
No, what I’m suggesting is something more like a hypersigil.
So - what’s a hypersigil then? A hypersigil is work of magick extended over a length of time.A long-form magic ritual, if you will. Grant Morrison, who popularized the idea of a hypersigil, conceived his book The Invisibles as a years-long magic work designed to create Invisibles in the real world. Here's Morrsion from his classic essay Pop Magic!:
The “hypersigil” or “supersigil” develops the sigil concept beyond the static image and incorporates elements such as characterization, drama and plot. The hypersigil is a sigil extended through the fourth dimension. My own comic book series The Invisibles was a six-year long sigil in the form of an occult adventure story which consumed and recreated my life during the period of its composition and execution. The hypersigil is an immensely powerful and sometimes dangerous method for actually altering reality in accordance with intent. Results can be remarkable and shocking.
‘ [...] incorporates elements such as characterization, drama, and plot.’ Sound familiar? What is a roleplaying campaign if not a work which ‘incorporates elements such as characterization, drama and plot’ extended through the fourth dimension?
It gets better. Morrison also developed an idea he dubbed the ‘fiction suit’. In Morrison’s mind, the act of creating little fictional worlds full of characters is like opening a dimension into a pocket universe...and if one wishes, one can step into these pocket universes by donning what he calls a ‘fiction suit’. The most famous example of this concept, unsurprisingly, is the character of King Mob in The Invisibles. A fiction suit is essentially an identity one assumes to enter a work of fiction or a fictional world. Morrison claims King Mob was a fiction suit he created to exist in the world of The Invisibles. (In one often cited example of the power of the fiction suit, Morrison claims that he came down with a life-threatening staph infection at the same time the character King Mob was infected with a form necrotizing fasciitis...and that he was only able to properly recover after relieving King Mob of his malady.) While the concept of the fiction suit has been extended to creating a fictionalized identity as a means of self-actualization akin to Leary and R.A. Wilson’s ‘reality tunnel’, for our purposes the original concept is good enough. After all, when we create characters to play various games - are we not in fact creating fiction suits which allow us to interact with the fictional world we are creating at the game table? Much has been made of the degree to which roleplayers identify with their fictional identities - and while I find the stereotype kind of awful and dismissive of gaming, it’s not hard to see how useful something like that can be if one were to turn it towards a purpose...like engaging in a hypersigil.
So - I think by now you have some sense of where I’m going with this. Magick is art and art is magick. Creating stories, fictional worlds, is magick. I’ve often remarked how odd it is that we often spend months - even years - gathered around a table spinning these stories, often about the same people, creating worlds and engaging in shared fictional spaces…a ‘consensual hallucination’ to coin William Gibson’s term. Ask any gamer to describe a long-running campaign and at some point they’ll start to describe the events that occured during that span as if they really happened, and that they were engaged in these activities - not some fictional character which only exists on paper as a scribble of stats and numbers. On some level, it’s as if - while gaming - we are actually inhabiting these worlds.
Okay, so this could get into Mazes and Monsters territory, you say. Talking about RPG’s in this manner hews perilously close to the kind of weird stereotype the media warned us of in the 1980’s.
No, not really - that’s not what I’m advocating.
What I’m saying is that...I think it should be possible to conceive of an RPG campaign as a longform magic ritual. A hypersigil - full of characters and things and events that somehow effect a change in the world. How, you ask?
That’s the hard part. I really don’t know. I’m sorry if that’s a bit of a letdown. But again - let’s look towards The Invisibles as a template. I think it would be easy to argue that The Invisibles did exactly what Morrison wanted - that, after the last issue appeared on the stands, that a seed had been planted. That a number of people who followed Morrison on that six-year journey - maybe not all of them, but a few - got it. Understood what Morrison was up to, even on a subconscious level - became real-world Invisibles.
Let’s face it, You wouldn’t be reading this blog post if that wasn’t true on some level. I’m well aware of the effect The Invisibles had on me, and I’m not alone.
So how do we do that with games? That’s a very good question, and sadly I’m not sure I’m equipped to answer it - at least not yet. I’m not saying that all games should do this, or that there should even be a movement towards roleplaying with this intent. But I think it would be an interesting experiment. Maybe a game should be designed with this in its’ DNA. Perhaps it’s time for that Jerry Cornelius game I keep hoping someone would make to be made...if not by myself, than by someone else.
I see RPG’s as something not unlike computer programs - instructions which, if followed, create specific kinds of output. The rules of a game influence and determine the kind of fiction that unfolds at the table. So maybe that’s where we start, with the rules.
Then again, my Chaos Magick leanings tell me to go the opposite direction - that the rules are a guideline, and that pragmatic discovery and action should be the guiding principle. That rules are dogma, and breaking the rules - or making your own - are the way.
I simply don’t know. At this point, the idea of gaming as a hypersigil is a curiosity - but it’s one that tweaks my brain in the middle of the night every once in a while. And like many ideas which refuse to disappear entirely, perhaps someday it will blossom into something strange and wonderful.