by Mark Pesce
(This article is excerpted from Darklore Volume 7, which is available from Amazon US and Amazon UK. For more information on the series, including more free sample articles, visit the Darklore website.)
Magic is the cheat codes for the world, sending a signal to reality’s operating system.
– Planetary #7
Being Imbolc, the Illumination of all things Hidden and Occult, the holiday of Bride, who brings the Light of Knowledge to all those who humbly ask Her Grace to dispel Darkness, it is Meet and Proper to discuss Such Things as may lead to a Broader Understanding of the Relation between Word and Will. Once Requested, Thrice Granted. So mote it be!
Word and Will
I pitied thee,
Took pains to make thee speak, taught thee each hour
One thing or other: when thou didst not, savage,
Know thine own meaning, but wouldst gabble like
A thing most brutish, I endow’d thy purposes
With word that made them known.
– The Tempest, Act I, Scene 2
A recent issue of New Scientist celebrated William S. Burroughs’ most famous maxim: “Language is a virus.” It seems that language, our ability to apprehend and manipulate symbols and signs, has evolved to fill a unique ecological niche – the space between our ears. Human beings, together with most higher animals, share an ability to sequence perceptual phenomena temporally, detecting the difference between before, during, and after. This capability is particularly pronounced in the primates, and, in the case of Homo sapiens, left us uniquely susceptible to an infection of sorts, an appropriation of our innate cognitive abilities for ends beyond those determined by nature alone. Our linguistic abilities aren’t innate. They are not encoded in our DNA. Language is more like E. coli, the bacteria in our gut, symbiotically helping us to digest our food. Language helps us to digest phenomena, allowing us to ruminate on the nature of the world.
Why language at all? We are fairly certain that it confers evolutionary advantage, that a species which speaks (and occasionally, listens) is more likely to pass its genes on than a species which cannot speak. But we can’t make too much of that: nearly all other animals are dumb, to varying degrees, and they manage to be fruitful and multiply without having to talk about it. Despite the fact that gorillas can sign and dolphins squeak, we haven’t found any indication of the symbol-rich internal consciousness which we attribute to language. This means that other animals have a direct experience of the world around them, while everything we do is utterly infused with the fog of language.
We need to be clear about this: from the time, some tens or hundreds of years ago, that language invaded and colonized our cerebrums, we have increasingly lost touch with the reality of things. Reality has been replaced with relation, a mapping of things-as-they-are to things-as-we-believe-them-to-be. Language allows us to construct complex systems of symbols, the linear narratives which frame our experience. Yet a frame invariably occults more of the world than it encompasses, and this exclusion leaves us separated from the world-as-it-is.
It is impossible for a human being, in a “normal” level of consciousness – that is, without explicit training or “gratuitous grace” – to experience anything of the reality of the world. Language steps in to mediate, explain, and define. The moments of ineffability are outside the bounds of human culture (if not entirely outside human experience) because at these points where language fails nothing can be known or said. This alone should tell us that while we think ourselves the masters of language, precisely the opposite is true. Language is the master of us, a tyranny from which no escape can be imagined.
This is not a new idea. The second line of the Tao Te Ching states the matter precisely: “The name which can be named is not the true name.” In the origins of human philosophy and metaphysics, language stands out as the great interloper, separating man from the apprehension of things-as-they-are. Zen practice aims to extinguish the internal monologue, seeking a unification, a boundary dissolution between the internal state of mankind, encompassed at every point by the boundaries inherent in language, and the Absolute. This is the universal, yet entirely individual battle of mankind, the great liberation earnestly sought for. Yet, at the end, nothing is gained. And this seems reward enough, because the “mind forg’d manacles” which bind us to the world of words so hinder the progress of the soul that any release, even into Nothing, is a movement upward.
It is not as though all of us are imminently bound for Nirvana; while some will stop the Wheel of Karma, the rest will remain thoroughly entangled in the attachments of desire, hypnotically attracted to the veil of Maya. That veil is made of language; it is the seductive voice, the Siren’s Call, which keeps us from our final destiny. This is bad, in that attachments produce suffering, but it is also good, a point rarely promoted by the devotees of utmost annihilation. Being in the world means being at play within the world. Without play there is no learning, without learning, no progress to the inevitable release. And in the play of the world, as in any game, there are winners and losers: there are those who skin their knees or break their bones, but at the end, everything returns to potentialities, and only the memory of having played the game remains. All of our interactions within the world leave their mark upon us, and we wage war within ourselves: we should be both naked, unadorned, and as completely transformed as the Illustrated Man, whose entire body, covered in tattoos, tells the story of his life.
In the battle between Word and Will, there are two paths, which diverge from a common entry point, and converge upon a final exit. We wish to release everything and become one with all; we wish to encompass everything and become one with all. If you desire to remove yourself from the world, there are numerous sources, starting with Lao Tze and Buddha, who can steer you in the direction of emptiness. But if you decide this is too much (or rather, too little) to ask, there is another path. I find the emptiness of the Absolute a bit too chilling, the light from Ain Soph too revealing; not because they represent the highest, but rather, because they simplify the manifold beauty. “The Tao produces one, one produces two, the two produce the three and the three produce all things.” To choose the Tao over the many things which flow from it is to assert a hierarchy of values, a violation of the very essence of the Tao. We are that river; we flow from that source. Why do we feel the need to return?
As an answer to the demands of eternal return, the French philosophers have introduced us to the idea of forward acceleration. When you find yourself trapped in a seemingly hopeless situation, jam your foot down on the accelerator pedal, take it to the limit, and drive straight on through to the culmination. Immanentize the Eschaton. What if we were to say fine, bring it on, and accept language for all of its enslaving faults – but, at the same time, keep a consciousness of these faults constantly before us? Where would we find ourselves? Could this lead to freedom, a freedom which is less an escape from imprisonment than an encompassing awareness that the world, with all of its traps and cages, cannot be separated from the Absolute? In any case, a recognition of the “horror of the situation” – as Gurdjieff stated it – could only put us in a better place to plot our escape. When you find yourself in the belly of the Beast, why not curl up, make yourself comfortable, and conspire? That most concisely describes where we are today, in an instantaneously connected, universally mediated linguistic environment of human creation. But before we conspire in any sense of safety, we must consider how language shapes the relations between human beings. Otherwise we risk exchanging the illness of linguistic infection for the cunning traps of human power.
Rhetoric and Reason
Good friends, sweet friends, let me not stir you up
To such a sudden flood of mutiny.
They that have done this deed are honorable:
What private griefs they have, alas, I know not,
That made them do it: they are wise and honorable,
And will, no doubt, with reasons answer you.
– Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene 2
A few weeks before I wrote this essay, I had a private conversation with a neurophysiologist at UCSD (University of California San Diego), who passed along some stunning insights he’d gathered from his research on the human brain. It seems that although we like to perceive ourselves as rational, reasonable creatures, carefully weighing our decisions before we commit, the fact of the matter is precisely the inverse. We arrive at our decisions through emotional sensations, acting “from the gut” at all times. Our reason enters the process only after the decision has been made, and acts as the mind’s propagandist, convincing us of the utter rightness which underlies all of our actions. Beyond this, reason has a social function: to convince others that our actions are correct. Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears! Not so that you can think for yourselves, but that I might instruct you in what to believe.
Thus are all the great philosophies of Socrates and Plato overturned; these men, considering themselves the paragons of reason, used their rhetorical skills to create a new tradition in thought which had nothing more behind it than the force of the words which composed it. Seen in this light, the entirety of human history becomes more farcical (and more tragic) than could possibly be imagined. Right and wrong, good and evil, these carefully argued positions are foundations built upon the shifting sands of words. The linguistic infection has left us weakened, vulnerable to a secondary, and perhaps more serious illness – conviction.
Humans are faced with a dual-headed problem; it is bad enough that the world as-we-know-it is made of words, mediated by language, and still worse that this means that other human beings can employ this condition (more precisely, conditioning) for their own ends. It likely could not be otherwise, for we are social beings; that much is encoded into our DNA and our physiology. We need for people to believe in us, to support us, to conspire with us. A human being unwillingly deprived of the society of his peers descends into madness as the fine structures of perceived reality, maintained and reinforced by the rhetorical bombardments of others’ truths (and by his own, reflected back), rapidly unwind without constant reinforcement. What I tell you three times is true. What I tell you three million times is civilization.
Plato knew this: that’s why he banned poets from his Republic. What he could not (or, more sinisterly, would not) recognize is that all words are poetry, rhetoric regimenting the reason. To speak and be heard means that you are sending your will out onto the world around you, changing the definition of reality for all those who hear you. We do this from the time we learn to speak (imagine the two year-old asserting his will in a shrill cry for attention, and noting a corresponding change in the behavior of those around him) till the moment we breathe our last. For most people, most of the time, this is an unconscious process, automatic and mechanical. For a few others, who, by accident or training, have become conscious of the power of reason to change men’s minds, a choice is presented: how do you use this power?
“We are all pan-dimensional wizards, casting arcane spells with every word we speak. And every spell we speak always comes true.” Owen Rowley, my mentor in both the magical mysteries and in the mysteries of virtual reality, taught me this maxim some years ago, though it took some years before I began to understand the full magnitude of his seemingly grandiose pronouncement. More than anything else, it places enormous responsibility on anyone who uses language – that is, all of us. Because we are creatures infected by language, and because language shapes how we come to interpret reality, we bear the burden of our words. We know that words can hurt, we even believe that words can kill, but the truth is far more comprehensive: all of our words are the equivalent of a hypnotist’s suggestions, and all of us are to some degree susceptible. With this responsibility comes an awareness of the burden we bear. It is how we encounter this burden – as individuals and as a civilization – which shapes reality.
If power corrupts, and each of us is endowed with inestimable power, we could cast human civilization as a long war of words, a battle to determine what is real. Robert Anton Wilson once quipped, “Reality is the line where rival gangs of shamans fought to a standstill.” This statement hides the fact that we’re all shamans, and every time we say, “This is this,” we reset the parameters of the real. Most of these shamanic battles are relatively innocent, just primate teeth-baring and jockeying for dominance in a given situation. However, in the wrong mouths, words can lead to disaster. Consider Jim Jones or Adolf Hitler, who by force of their oratory, led hundreds and millions to their deaths.
If, instead, an individual conscious of the power of words to shape the world chooses to use this power with wisdom, seeking not hegemony but liberation – a different path opens up. In this world, nothing needs to be true, and everything becomes permissible. This is the realm of conscious magick, where the realized power of the word opens possibilities for the self without constricting the potentialities of anyone else. This is the safest path, both karmically and practically; if you stay out of the way of others, there’s less likelihood you’ll be interfered with yourself. The magician does not proselytize; and although he may present an irresolvable paradox for those who confront his magick with their own linguistically reinforced perceptions of the world, he bares no responsibility for their reactions, nor is he susceptible to their attacks. He exists in a world apart, because there is no agreement on a common language through which a linguistic infection could spread. The magician insulates himself, inoculates himself and protects himself from the beliefs of others, while holding his own beliefs in great suspicion. Rhetoric and anti-rhetoric, combined, produces a burst of energy which propels the magician forward, with great acceleration, into a new universe of meaning.
The products of power sometimes pose too great a temptation to the magician; we have the warning tale of Faust to remind us that although the mastery of the linguistic nature of the world confers great power over others, its use inevitably leads to destruction. The magician needs a higher consciousness – in the Sufic sense – before he can toy with the wheels and dials of such power. This is why many magical orders will not initiate candidates before they have reached a certain age, or have demonstrated a material responsibility which can form a foundation from which right action can proceed. To ignore such prohibitions is to court disaster, and the checkered history of magical orders in the 19th and 20th centuries shows that far too often, ignorance has been the order of the day. Only when the magician puts down his power over others does he achieve any realizable power over himself. You are your own High Priest, and no one else’s. From this everything else follows.
When the magician has arrived at this point in his path, matters of education and technique become paramount. It is very rare when an individual is granted sufficient gratuitous grace to travel on the path to wisdom entirely alone. The teacher or mentor reveals the mysteries to the initiate, but the teacher must be aware of how much the initiate can bear safely, doling out knowledge as one might dispense a powerful tonic which is also a poison. The right dosage can do great good; too much will kill. For this reason the Sufis believe that only with a “School” governed by a teacher with sufficient wisdom, can the initiate pass through the gates of wisdom.
Consider for a moment the case of John Lilly, a modern magician, who used sensory deprivation in combination with LSD-25 in a search for wisdom. He had enormous successes to begin with: Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer is one of the most effective magical texts ever published, useful for the magician throughout his training. Yet this could not keep Lilly from becoming a life-long ketamine addict, which finally left him hollowed-out and lifeless (in consensus reality), as he chose to remain in the Valley of Illusions. This is an individual choice, of course, and Lilly had his reasons (or rather, his emotions) for choosing this course for his life. But Lilly deprived himself of the opportunity for further advancement on the path of knowledge, becoming trapped within a world of chemical fantasy. His intense forward acceleration led only to a cul-de-sac, a dead-end from which he would never escape.
If such a luminary as John Lilly cannot safely pass through the gates of wisdom, what hope can be given to the aspiring magician, one who has become conscious of the power of the word to shape the world, but has no understanding of how to actualize that knowledge? We are fortunate to live in an age when all the teachings of all the ages are more or less freely available, a time when all the mysteries have been revealed. But the mysteries themselves are not enough. A community is necessary, a conspiracy of like-minded souls set on the same path, speaking the right words, words which reinforce the integrity of the self, allowing the magician to learn wisdom through a series of initiations (whether explicit or implicit), growing, like a child, into adulthood.
These do exist, and it is possible for the aspiring magician to find them without too much difficulty. Even so, a certain skepticism is necessary; “By their fruits you will know them,” and although the teacher may seem overtly stern, or authoritarian, it remains up to the candidate to prepare his vessel, ready to receive illumination. Even the most profane masters can be vehicles for the illumination of their students – provided the students are properly prepared. The student must remain conscious, vigilant, and never allow the master to use linguistic traps to assign the real; that’s the difference between a School and a cult.
Word and World
Now my charms are all o’erthrown,
And what strength I have’s mine own
Which is most faint: now, ‘tis true,
I must be here confined by you,
Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got
And pardon’d the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell;
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands.
– The Tempest, Act V, Epilogue
We have by now told but half the story. Our linguistic capabilities, as employed by our reason, act upon each other to create reality. Yet beyond the reality-in-our-heads there is an exterior world (let’s admit that, lest we be accused of nothing but solipsism and word play), which we are about to actualize as an exteriorization of our linguistic capabilities. The world presents two faces to us; the natural, that is, that which arose by itself; and the artificial; that which is the product of man’s interactions within the world. While both the natural and artificial are clouded with the omnipresent linguistic fog, only the artificial world is the product of our linguistic nature. Artifacts are language concretized and exteriorized. Technology is a language of sorts, in which the forms of the world are shaped by our words, and then speak back to us. We have been throwing technological innovations into the world since we discovered fire (at least a half million years ago), and since that time the technological world, the world of artifact, has been talking back. The history of humanity, viewed in this way, can be seen as a continuous process of feedback: as we talk to the world, through our hands, the world accepts these innovations, which modify the environment within which we participate, which modifies our understanding of the world, which leads to new innovations, which modifies the environment, which modifies us, and so on, and so on. This isn’t causality, or just a circling Ouroborus; this is a process, an epigenetic revolution, in which language continuously assumes a more concrete form. We are learning to talk to the hand, or rather, our hands are learning to speak, and are endowing the world of artifacts with the same linguistic infections that have so completely colonized our own biology.
This is a lot to assert, and a lot to absorb, but it is possible to approach this thesis from another point of entry, the idea of code. The word “code” has numerous meanings; it means one thing to a geneticist, another to a computer programmer, another to a cryptographer. Yet the underlying meaning is remarkably similar, because there is a growing sense in the scientific and technical communities that when all of the specifics are stripped away, when the very essence of the universe is revealed, it is naught but code. And what is code, precisely? Language. Whether the stepping-stairs of the amino acid base pairs which comprise the genome, or the sequence of logical steps in a computer program, or the mathematical translations which can either occult or reveal a message, code is a temporal organization of symbols – first…next…last – which establishes the basis for both operation and understanding.
The idea of the universe as code has gained great currency from mathematician Stephen Wolfram’s A New Kind of Science (Wolfram Media, Inc., 2002) which posits that the processes observable in the universe more often obey computational rules than algebraic formulae. He goes on to state that an enormous number of disparate processes we see in nature – the expansion of space-time, quantum interconnectedness, and the growth of biological forms – all have their basis in the fact that the universe acts as an entity which is constantly processing codes, executing programs, engaging in an execution of reality. Wolfram has been trained both as a physicist and a computer programmer; his background in both disciplines makes him uniquely qualified to identify the common ground that lies between these seemingly entirely distinct fields.
The ground seems to be rising to meet Wolfram. While biologists discover the codes of nature, physicists and chemists are applying codes to nature’s most basic structures, to produce atomic-scale forms known as nanotechnology. Whether or not we choose to acknowledge it, the arrow of the epigenetic evolution of the human species points to a time in the near future when the entire world will be apprehended as code. A forthcoming “Theory of Everything” won’t be a formula; it will be a program, a series of linguistic statements, which, like the words in a sentence, describe the execution of reality.
Here we come to the heart of the matter, where the individual apprehension of the world as linguistically conceived becomes convergent with the increasingly accepted scientific view of the universe as a linguistic process. We know that words shape the world as we see it, but now we have come to understand that words shape the world as it is. There is, at an essential level, an isomorphism between the world of the code between our ears and the reality of the code of the universe. The codes we create change our personal perceptions of the world, but they also change the world around us; the more we learn about how to modify the world, the more that language becomes convergent with reality, and the more our will extends over the real. In a real sense, beyond the narrow vision of the world underneath our skin, words are colonizing the world.
This places the magician in a unique historical position, or, rather, restores him to a position which he lost during the scientific revolution. Newton began his career as an alchemist, seeking the mystical union between man and nature which would result in the Philosopher’s Stone. He did not live to see the final convergence between the language of magick and the language of science, but, more and more, science will begin to look like magick, and magicians like scientists. I don’t mean this in the rude sense of Clarke’s Law that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” but rather, that the principles and techniques underlying these two seemingly separate disciplines are on naturally convergent courses. The magician, master of the code, will find himself completely at home in a universe which has become linguistically apprehensible as code. The scientist will find himself completely at home speaking a language in which his words change the world. With the exception of those few who pursue both disciplines, neither will have noticed that they have arrived at the same point. The magician will utter his spells, the scientist will speak his codes, but both will be saying the same thing.
It will feel to us as though we have come full circle. The ancients of the West compiled grimoires, magical texts which presented the lessons learned by generations of practitioners in a series of spells, linguistic incantations which used the word to shape the will. Aboriginal cultures wove these lessons into “songlines”, expressing the mythic narrative of culture as the infinite possibility beyond consensus reality, a “dreamtime”. Now, knowing the ground for the first time, we are using our gifts with language – in genetics and informatics and chemistry – to speak the word, and make the world. The idea of code is overflowing, becoming the world itself, and reality will soon be as programmable as the writer’s page, responding to the will of the magician like some lucid dream. In this executable dreamtime everything is true, within limits determined by experiment; once those limits are known, a new generation of magicians will undoubtedly attempt to transcend them.
What will this world look like? We have no precedent in profane history to use as a guide; we must look further afield, to mythology, to understand the form of a linguistic universe. It is the dreamtime of the Aboriginal Australians, or the Faeire of the Celts, the absolute expansion of possibilities – both angelic and demonic – in that everything expressible can be brought into being. The masters of linguistic intent in both magical and scientific forms (a false distinction) will be masters of word and world. Say the word, and it will come to pass.
Although this process appears inevitable, it could be that we are bound by the same “Single Vision and Newton’s Sleep” that William Blake prophesied 200 years ago. It could be that the universe is not code, but simply that the idea of code has overflowed from our brain’s linguistic centers into other areas of the cerebrum, colonizing our reason and intellectual capabilities as easily as it captured our ability to apprehend sequence. This could all be a chimera, an elusive possibility which may remain tantalizingly out of reach. Yet the whole world seems to be conspiring to teach us this: In the beginning was the word.
Mark Pesce is an inventor, writer, teacher, broadcaster and entrepreneur. The author of six books – including THE NEXT BILLION SECONDS (nextbillionseconds.com) – he has been studying the close relationship between ontos (being) and techne (doing) for a quarter of a century.