Austin Osman Spare: An introduction to his psycho-magical philosophy
Austin Osman Spare, a painter and draughtsman of great skill and originality, carried out researches in the sphere of occultism which have remained until now almost unknown to the world at large. On his death in 1956, however, a great quantity of material was discovered which throws much light on the psycho-magical philosophy which he expressed largely through the medium of his art.
I have presented the main points of this philosophy in a book which is nearing completion, but here are some of its essential features minus the large quantity of quotations drawn from unpublished material which Spare bequeathed to me at the time of his death.
When referring to himself in relation to his magical philosophy Spare usually identified himself with a concept which he named Zos, and he is alluded to as such throughout this essay.
He explained this concept in ‘The Book of Pleasure’ (1913) thus: “The body considered as a whole I call Zos”; it was the alembic through which he wrought the alchemy of his art as well as his no less individualistic mode of magic. The symbol complementary to this Zos concept he called the Kia or Atmospheric ‘I,’ which uses Zos as its special field of activity. The cult of the Zos and the Kia is the cult of the interplay of dynamic forces which are further symbolised anthropomorphically by the hand and the eye. These, in complete co-ordination, enable the artist-magician to summon hidden images which are latent in the storehouse of cosmic sub-consciousness. All-feeling Touch and all-seeing Vision are the instruments of that primal id, or desire, which Zos is ever seeking to reify in the raiment of flesh.
It is Zos’s basic theory that all dream or desire, all wish or belief, anything in fact which a person nurtures in his inmost being may be called forth in the flesh as a living truth by a particular method of magical evocation. This he named ‘atavistic resurgence’; it is a method of wish-fulfilment which involves the interaction of will, desire and belief.
Firstly, the will must be strong enough to probe depths of latent and cosmic memory until a required atavism is located. Secondly, the desire for reification must be strong enough to clothe the image of the will in a form sufficiently attractive to inspire nexus. Thirdly, a quantity of belief or faith must be freed for activity in the latent depths so that profound and nostalgic stirrings of awareness cause a violent series of impacts which create a shock of identity. The resulting ecstasy incarnates the latent desire into patent actuality and power.
This is the aim of almost all forms of magic but a difference here lies in the simplicity of the method employed, requiring as it does no ceremonial equipment or the participation of a concourse of adepts. The specific desire for which any given magical operation is designed must be visualised subconsciously, while the conscious mind is rendered oblivious of the process. When any concept intrudes upon the mind it breeds on contact with it, and there always remains part of an idea which, because its meaning is cryptic and therefore enigmatic to the ordinary consciousness, fecundates the subconsciousness. By observing what occurs to this conceptual residue Zos was able to build up a system of sigils which facilitated entry of the total desire to subliminal realms, there to search out its own level and germinate secretly and unobtrusively.
Any wish may be given symbolic form, but in this case the form should bear no pictorial approximation to the particular desire in question. By magical means the symbol may then be implanted in the subconsciousness, there to await ultimate extrusion as reified fact after having bypassed the conscious censor and attracted all the necessary elements from the external world. It is, however, of the utmost importance that the conscious mind may conceive nothing from such a symbol.
Three methods of awakening subconscious memory-strata have been evolved by Zos: the system of sigils, the alphabet of desire, and the use of sentient symbols. Examples of all three methods may be seen in the accompanying illustration from the author's collection. A brief explanation of their working here follows.
The use of sigils: Enshrine your desire in a short sentence; write out the sentence and then put down all the individual letters of which it is composed, omitting any repetition of a letter. When the sentence has been reduced to a minimum number of letters, unite them graphically in one composite glyph which does not suggest the nature of the desire. Then—and this is of great importance—forget the desire and sink the sigil in the subconsciousness.
In the alphabet of desire each letter represents a 'sensation thinking,' an aesthetic concept localized in a stratum of past memory appropriate to its form and nature. This subtle alphabet can be used to call forth elemental automata and the spirits of other spheres.
The third method evolved by Zos, namely sentient symbols, concerns itself especially with prophecy and divination. By a form of Delphic Oracle involving the use of sigils and by intruding a sigil into the subconsciousness, it is able to think for us, and, if the sigil resumes a query concerning some future event, will breed from its own sentiency the true child of its symbolic parts. If a glyph is correctly constructed so that no superfluous elements remain to breed useless ramifications, it will—surely as a geometrical symbol—give birth to its own truth or answer, for every query whatsoever has its solution inherent within it.
These three systems of symbolism are not the only contribution Zos has made to the field of practical magic; he also evolved the concept of the Death Posture or New Sexuality, that oblique approach to reality which he calls the precarious funambulatory pathway between ecstasies.
It is too early yet to say how Zos's influence will be incorporated into the main body of occultism; it tends rather to dispense with tradition than to draw upon it, stressing the individual and unique approach to reality so that only the mind which is concept-free is great enough to embrace it. Tradition can only be that form of belief which, being fixed and past, no longer harbours dynamic possibilities; Zos often refers to tradition as 'the inferno of the normal,' the convention of empty belief or the crystallized belief of others, of our past selves, which can but imprison and not release vitality.
Zos locates the apprehension of reality in the lightning-swift ‘inbetweeness' reciprocation between the dual terminals of ego and self. Ego being the self as it is at the moment, perpetually melting into a background awareness of an illimitable ego, or self, which is neither fixed belief nor desire toward any other form of the energy which is released when the ego breaks up and dissolves. It is, in fact, the ‘neither-neither’ or Atmospheric ‘I’ which is both fluidic and fixed in a unity of voidness free from conception; a state of seity unconceived and inconceivable. Hence the self represents desire; the ego, the belief incarnating; ‘Does not matter—Need not be’ (a much reiterated formula of Zos) suggests the thisness of which ego is at any given moment a merely fleeting reification or limited concept, bereft of true reality. ‘Does not matter—Need not be’ signifies that which ego cannot contain or conceive.
The subject and object, ego and id relationship represents in Zos’s doctrine the ‘as now’ and ‘as if’ phases of the I's excreation in matter as refracted through the mind. The ‘I’ is increative, conceptless and ever free; but when experiencing itself in terms of imagined concepts such as time and space it assumes the dual role of ego and id, whose interplay constitutes a symbolic ‘rehearsal of reality’ in the world of ideas.
It is the imagination which is supreme, for without this mysterious power or faculty, which is in a sense the mind-in-movement-through-time-and-space, there can be no ego and no id, no subjective apprehension of surrounding phenomena and no objective universe of infinite variety.
The art of Austin Osman Spare is not other than the expression of the Zos through which the Kia rehearses its dream of reality. And to what end? For pleasure. Bliss might perhaps be a more apt expression, although it suggests rather a passive state of acquiescence in intense happiness than a positive and vibrant joy. Ecstasy and rapture are equally applicable terms.
The ceremonial magician sets his stage for the rehearsal of reality with all the traditional weapons; but Zos maintains that this is unnecessary mummery, because the apprehension of our greater realities is to be effected consciously through living the symbolic simulations of the ego ‘as if’ they were real, not as a mock rehearsal, but as a spontaneous evocation within the magic circle of immediacy—now. This resembles but does not equate with the doctrine of Zen Buddhism. Whereas the Zen process shocks the mind into inactivity so that individualized cosmic energy may flow unhindered into the ocean of absolute consciousness, in Zos Kia cultus it is the body which is rendered affective to impulsions of the cosmic wave, so that ‘on becoming all sensation’ it realises all things as flesh and in the flesh.
The term flesh denotes in this context the fully conscious awareness of the Atmospheric ‘I’—the 'neither-neither' principle, now, in the all-pervading body of the present. A traditionally symbolic form of this concept is encountered in Tibetan Buddhism under the Yab-Yum image, which is a representation of the Kia rehearsing its blissful contact with the Zos or ‘body-considered as a whole.’ The Kia is present everywhere, but the immediacy of its realisation is sought through the flesh, as in Zen it is apprehended through the mind. The object is the same in both methods, but the means appear to vary. There is actually no difference in the organ of awareness whether considered as body or as mind.
A symbol is in a certain mystical sense identical with that which it symbolizes. A true symbol should be a perfect vehicle for the sum total of energy which goes to inform it; it is thus equal to that which it symbolizes because its energy becomes infinite when belief in it is vital. Belief, to be effective, must be vital, dynamic; it must work subconsciously even to the extent of its denial in consciousness. When it is vitalized by being sunk into subliminal depths it bypasses the ego, is suppressed by the censor and thereby forgotten; hence desire is aroused and this exhausts the conscious content of belief. Absentmindedness then becomes the means of its apotheosis.
Zos suggests through ambiguities which do not consciously formulate the object of desire but create its presence by subtle evocations; he is always oblique, never direct, for openly to acknowledge belief allows the ego to conceive from the symbolic form of that belief, thus rendering it falsely. There is a certain similarity of technique in this process with that used by the poet Mallarmé, whose method of suggestive evocation arouses sensations and meanings quite foreign to the words by which they are seemingly communicated.
Two other factors of importance are Free Belief and Exhaustion. Any symbol is a limitation of belief, or energy, by its own particular form and nature. In order to release the energy of belief, its form or symbol has to be destroyed so that the quantity of belief which it enshrined becomes free to merge with the belief-potential of the believer, which is—ultimately—infinite. When this is achieved, belief becomes free and vast enough to contain reality itself.
One method of freeing belief is by intense disappointment, particularly through loss of faith in a friend, religion, or the shattering of some ideal. When fundamental disappointment is experienced, the symbols enshrining a quota of belief is destroyed. In some cases the individual is unable to survive the disillusionment. But, if at such times the moment is seized upon and consciously experienced for its own sake, the vacuum attracts into itself the entire content of belief inherent in the person at the time of disappointment.
On a smaller scale, though still with great magical effect, the void moments succeeding any type of emotional exhaustion or shock may be similarly utilized. It is preferable, of course, to exhaust the psyche through pleasant means, although—as the Buddha declared—sorrow is one of the greatest single factors leading to introversion of the mental faculties to their source, and therefore to the real. So long as the mind thinks, imagines or conceives, there are symbols; and so long as symbols endure, conceptions proceed from them. Freedom from form and its limitations occurs only when the Kia remains alone and when the Zos realizes the extent of itself; for when ‘the body as a whole’ fully realizes its extent—which is infinite and eternal—then is it one with the Kia or Atmospheric ‘I.’
Two other fundamental factors which render Spare’s system in terms of primal magic, as it were a new obeah or science of resurgent atavisms, are obsession and ecstasy. The subconsciousness, impregnated with any given glyph, must be energized obsessively by continual ecstasies, on the theory that the primal depth resounds to old nostalgias re-living their original beliefs. The alphabet of desire, with each letter representing a vital principle, is primarily adapted for tapping deep currents of ecstasy, and when the full flowering of the obsessional idea is effected, the explosion of bliss is itself the fulfillment of Zos.