Austin Osman Spare
Introduction to The Book of Pleasure
Exploring Spare’s Magic
Neither-Neither: Austin Osman Spare and the Underworld
by Lionel Snell | First published in The Divine Draughtsman, Beskin Press, 1987
The Book of Pleasure describes Spare’s magical system and its philosophical basis. In it he introduces an ultimate called “Kia” (analogous to the “Tao”, the Cabalistic “Unmanifest”, or Jung’s “Pleroma”) from which all manifestation stems via a process of refraction through the principle of duality: we perceive, for example, black and white because they are manifest as a polarised pair, in the Kia they exist only in potential, being undistinguished and so unmanifest. It is clear from elsewhere in his writing that Spare was acquainted with Boehme”s tract “On the Supersensual Life”, where the disciple asks the master how he can come to know the supersensual life and is told “when thou canst throw thyself into THAT, where no creature dwelleth, though it be but for a moment…”
As humans we are caught up in dualities, divided against ourselves and ever seeking completion by living in desire, our universe being fragmented by our beliefs. Spare advocates a turning back to Kia and the end of all belief, denying all the dualities by his “neither neither”: think of a manifestation, eg “white”; not white implies black; neither white nor black implies what? say grey; neither black, white nor grey implies what? … and so on until our imagination is exhausted and consciousness teeters on the brink of the void – as in the Buddhist “not this, not that” meditation. Thus we get to know the Kia, and Freedom.
To practice Spare’s magic one must disentangle a conscious desire from one’s web of conscious and semi-conscious beliefs, distilling the essence of that desire into a simple sigil with no conscious associations, then carrying that sigil back into the Kia by exhausting oneself and collapsing into what he describes as “the death posture” – a total flop-out with no consciousness other than the awareness of the sigil, until that too fades. For greatest effect this should be done at a time of despair or disappointment, when some other desire has been thwarted and there is a pool of frustrated libido – “free belief” he calls it – to fuel the operation.
Such a bare description of his magic doesn’t do it great justice. It is best to read his original works together with the commentaries listed at the end of this essay*. Rather than repeat existing material, this essay suggests some further ideas for research.
THE BIRTH OF AN AEON
In 1904 Austin Spare wrote – or rather “created” – his first book, which was published in 1905 as Earth Inferno: “created” because this book contains more images than words, and half the words in it are themselves quotation from other sources. The result is pretty incomprehensible – even with hindsight.
In the wake of the “fin de siécle” decadence, was this incomprehensibility just a deliberate attempt by a trendy young artist to create an aura of mystery and glamour? Reading Earth Inferno I have the impression of someone who has passed through despair to receive a glimpse of mystical truth, and who is now struggling to portray that realisation. It looks like a revelation which fails to communicate (to me) the essence of what the artist experienced. The fact that nine years later he is still earnestly trying to explain his discovery, and with slightly greater success, in his Book of Pleasure does confirm a genuine desire to teach rather than mystify.
In that case, what is Spare trying to communicate? Nothing less than an entire philosophy of life and magic; but one so simple yet so difficult to grasp that it is perhaps best approached by comparison and contrast with other better known systems. I begin with some comparisons.
CROWLEY AND SPARE
The opening words of Earth Inferno are a picture caption (dated 1904), which ends with a prophecy: “Hail! The convention of the age is nearing its limit/And with it the resurrection of the Primitive Woman”, so Spare is announcing some sort of turning point in history. In that same year Aleister Crowley received his Book of the Law which announced the birth of a new age. Interestingly one element of this revelation is a celebration of the “scarlet woman” – a female archetype unchained and reminiscent of Spare’s “primitive woman”. This element is even more clearly present in the work of Dion Fortune. In 1904 she too was writing her first book: as a young girl she was finding inspiration for her schoolgirl poetry on the coast near Weston Super Mare, an inspiration which later blossomed in the book The Sea Priestess set in that place and concerned with a magical operation to liberate society from the Victorian straight-jacket and announce a new female archetype – the priestly woman of power.
These coincidences suggest that Spare might have “tuned into” what one would call, depending on one’s own beliefs, a ferment of ideas, a new current of thought, the spirit of the times, or the birth of a new aeon. There is other evidence of this surge of revolutionary thinking around 1904: this was the year when Jung became drawn to Freud and his concept of the “unconscious”; it was the year of another explorer of the unconscious – Salvador Dali; it was the time of Steiner’s disenchantment with theosophy which lead to the birth of “anthroposophy”. Other works completed in 1904 to be published in 1905 include Einstein’s special theory of relativity, and his paper on the photoelectric effect which won him the Nobel Prize in 1921 and which provided the first strong evidence to support the newly formulated quantum theory.
All in all 1904 was a most interesting year, and this was put most clearly by Crowley when he announced it as the year of the birth of a new aeon. So let us begin by comparing Spare’s revelations with Crowley’s.
Disappointingly there is no obvious comparison between Crowley’s Book of the Law and Spare’s Earth Inferno – one the work of a writer, the other the work of an artist. The nearest thing to “The Book of the Law” written by Spare is the first part of his later Focus of Life. It consists of three chapters of aphorisms dictated by three different beings – Kia, Zos and Ikkah – which first appear in Earth Inferno, and it therefore demands comparison with “The Book of the Law” which also consists of three chapters dictated by three beings. As the last words from Kia are “I – infinite space” it is immediate to identify Kia with Nuit and to try to see parallels in the two texts.
The only obvious parallels are in Spare’s second chapter which contains some pretty Thelemic utterances, such as:
“The mighty are righteous for their morals are arbitrary”;
“Judge without mercy, all this weakness is thy self abuse”;
“There is only one sin – suffering”;
“… be surely what thou wilt” (an interesting comparison with “do what thou wilt”);
“Fear nothing – strike at the highest” … and so on.
The Focus of Life was, however, written after Spare had been in contact with Crowley, so these similarities may well be due to Spare knowing The Book of the Law; but remember that he had rejected Crowley, so any influence would not be slavish imitation but rather ideas chosen because they were in accord with his own vision.
The conclusion I”m suggesting is that one way to view Spare’s magic is as his own interpretation of a new current which entered the group mind around 1904. He was seeing one facet of the whole; Crowley, Einstein, Jung, Fortune and probably many others were to pick up other facets of it. Each tried to explain what they saw: some like Crowley provided very full accounts, others like Einstein provided very detailed accounts of smaller parts of the whole. Spare was trying to give a full account, an entire philosophy of existence but did not communicate it very clearly. So we can understand his work better if we allow other people’s ideas to cast light on it.
The first difference between Crowley and Spare that strikes me is that Spare’s writing provides a simple, coherent theory where Crowley provides a detailed technology. It is possible to read Spare carefully and come up with the response “yes, but what are you supposed to DO?” – there is little practical instruction. Crowley, on the other hand, has provided an enormous corpus of ritual and other practices, more than any person could ever master in a lifetime, but there are times when one is hard to put to find one coherent theory behind all these practices – he went through his Golden Dawn phase, his Buddhist phase, his Thelemic phase and so on. By way of analogy you could compare Spare’s writing to Einstein’s – it may be hard to understand, but behind it lays a very simple model of reality. To obtain great energy, according to Einstein, it is only necessary to split the atom; to obtain a desire, says Spare, it is only necessary to remove it to the unconscious, organic level and consciously forget it. But in practice the simple splitting of an atom requires a vast investment in technology; similarly, most people cannot follow Spare’s simple instructions unless they have previously done a lot of self development along the lines of, say, Crowley’s magical technology (there may be some with innate magical sense, but most of us are still adrift on a sea of beliefs and desires). So one approach to Spare is to use his world-view to help clear one’s mind of a surfeit of gods, while actually practicing Thelemic techniques to strengthen one for Spare’s magical methods.
I like the contrast between Crowley’s “do what thou wilt” and Spare’s “be what thou wilt” because it illustrates my feelings that Crowley and Spare represent, as it were, the yang and yin of the new aeon. Though Crowley recognises that existence is pure joy, his magic reflects the will to power where Spare’s reflects the will to pleasure. There is much of taoism in Spare’s writings. Paradoxically, however, although female forms abound in his art, “the feminine” plays little part in his apparently misogynist writings. It is the spirit of his ideas which is so yin – as if the Feminine was working at the unconscious level in Spare whereas the Masculine was driving Crowley’s unconscious.
One example of the “yin” nature of Spare’s system is his emphasis on the importance of forgetting. In his system you have a desire, you devise an apparently meaningless sigil to encapsulate that desire, you exhaust yourself in a frenzy of activity until the only object remaining in consciousness is the sigil, you hold on to it until it has become charged with “free belief”, then you must do all you can subsequently to forget the original desire – for conscious desiring will impede the realisation of the sigil. This is the difficult bit. It is also rather puzzling because we find a big divide here in magical theory: those systems which emphasise the “not desiring” (eg Spare, taoism, zen) and those which advocate enflaming oneself with desire – as in Crowley’s instructions for devotion to a deity, or as in the “self help” systems which demand a constant affirmation of one’s objectives (I recall seeing an American lady doing Swedish drill while chanting “I MUST, I MUST, I MUST increase my BUST”). Both these extremes have a ring of truth, how can they be reconciled? It is not enough just to split the operation in two and say one needs to enflame oneself before it, and forget after – in traditional conjurations of the Holy Guardian Angel one goes on enflaming until success happens.
THE INNER AND THE OUTER
One possible explanation is that the distinction may reflect the difference between introversion and extroversion. The extrovert is positive to the outside world, and negative to the inner world. When the extrovert attempts “inner” work he finds it a crazy place like Alice’s looking glass world – you have to metaphorically walk backwards in order to move forwards. The introvert is much more at home in his inner world, but is more likely to be perplexed by the outer world: here the introvert finds that he has so often to go backwards in order to move forward. The introvert feels desire as such a vivid tangible force – perhaps more tangible than the actual object of desire – that the desire really does serve to block and render him impotent; thus the introvert is more often driven to using paradoxical methods in the outer world. This is in keeping with Eysenck’s idea of the extrovert as someone who needs greater stimulation to be effective, while the introvert needs to avoid overstimulation. If an extrovert wants his record in the charts he should plug it like crazy, but if the introvert wants to do the same he would do better to try to get the record banned! If the extrovert wants to become successful he should hang up “I”m the greatest” posters and constantly affirm his desire, while the introvert would do better to blow his desire on a sigil and then try so hard to fail that he eventually becomes an underground cult figure. Thus it seems that the magic of taoism and Spare is magic for introverts, while the out and invocatory stuff is better suited to the extrovert.
This is, of course, a gross oversimplification: no-one is pure extrovert or introvert; we are a mixture and so need to blend our magics. But it does suggest a useful concept to experiment with, and a possible answer to the problem that magic so often fails when the operator is too personally involved: if you wish to practice magic in a situation which seems very extroverted and “other” (like healing an unknown person at a distance), then you would well to “enflame yourself with prayer”. But if the matter is one which involves you very personally, then you would do better to follow Spare’s approach. Or perhaps the introvert would use Spare’s magic to operate on the outside world, and Crowley’s magic for inner working; while the extrovert needs Crowley’s magic for the outer and Spare’s on the inner? In either case, of course, the long-term object is to grow out of this slavery of the concept of intro/extroversion and start living!
MAGIC AND THE MAN
Another interesting point is the distinction between the magic and the man. Anyone studying Spare’s magic books would expect the writer to be a sort of ascetic Zen master: “simplicity I hold most precious.” He advocates simplicity, asceticism: “Bed, a hard surface; clothes of camel hair; diet, sour milk and the roots of the earth. All morality and love of women should be ignored.” He rants against ritual magicians and all their parade and paraphernalia, but later in life he painted an altar piece for Grant’s Nuit Isis Lodge and was prepared to do work for Gerald Gardner as described in Grant’s Images and Oracles of Austin Osman Spare.
One answer is that many years had passed since his books were written – the man had changed. Another is that perhaps Spare was primarily just a channel for his magical ideas: someone to whom they were revealed but who never succeeded in fully realising them. Perhaps he too had difficulty in practising what he preached, being a man ahead of his time? His final chapter of The Book of Pleasure contains these words: “I… am impervious in purity (of self-love) – but I dare not claim its service! I am in eternal want of realisation… An opinionist, I fear to advocate an argument, or compromise myself by believing my own doctrines as such…” and so on.
The Austin Spare described by Kenneth Grant in his Images and Oracles sounds much more like a tribal shaman than a Zen master. Some people have asked, “which is the true Spare?” Grant actually knew Spare in his later years, so it is reasonable to assume that Spare was as he describes at that time, and we hear of Spare co-operating with ritual magicians, using such elaborations as an “earthenware virgin” for sex magic, and muttering incantations as part of his procedure – elements which play no part in the system as described in The Book of Pleasure.
So do we conclude that he was a changed man? That he had degenerated (or even advanced?) from the pure system he described to a form of shamanistic sorcery? Personally I prefer to accept Grant’s overall view of him as a master shaman, and believe that through his innate skills he obtained an early vision of a new system of magic, a magic for the coming age. Rather than debating as to which was the true Spare, we should therefore look to him as a prophet rather than a perfect practitioner of his own system, and we should instead concentrate on developing the technology of that system for ourselves and for future generations. Is this not basically what the new school of magic known as “chaos magic” is all about?
If 1904 was indeed a revolutionary year, it is reasonable to ask if there are any astrological phenomena to support this. The most obvious one to strike me is the entry of Uranus (planet of upheaval) into Capricorn (sign of structures).
Once before since its discovery Uranus had entered Capricorn, in about 1820. This was the year when Oersted demonstrated the link between electricity and magnetism – a revelation which was to have a profound effect on conventional ideas of physical reality.
Although I”m not aware of any great occult crisis at that time, James Webb (in Flight from Reason) did choose 1820 to mark the beginning of what he called “the Age of the Irrational”. I suspect that the new electromagnetic theories of the time inspired the “etheric” occult terminology of the last century, just as Einstein’s theories inspire the occultists of this century to talk of “other dimensions”. But if the entry of Uranus into Capricorn was less significant in 1820, could it mean we are looking at a minor cycle which had exaggerated impact in 1904 because of an impending Aquarian age, or the transition to Crowley’s “Aeon of Horus”?
Anyway, in late 1987 we are now at the end of the final or “twelfth house” phase of this Uranus in Capricorn cycle, making it a very suitable time for a major exhibition and re-evaluation of Spare’s work before Uranus enters Capricorn again next February.
Is the convention of the age once more reaching its limit? And will 1988 be as fruitful as 1904 was?
Copyright © Lionel Snell, 1987
Reproduced with kind permission
* This refers to the commentaries included in the essay “Spare Parts”, a thorough introduction to the Sparean system of magic. This essay has been published in Uncle Ramsey”s Bumper Book of Magick Spells, and other essays on science and magic.