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Now and Then, Ancient Sorceries

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The Death of the Secret is a crime that no one really wants to solve. Perhaps the same perp killed the Author, that shady fraud who once crept around the title pages of books taking on different names with the ease of an expert forger. Like The Pentagon Papers and WikiLeaks, our truly hidden books are written collectively, and the enemy knows full well that the appalling evidence is always the labor of unskilled workers on both sides. Recent investigation has determined that the murder of all secrets was either suicide or an Orient Express-type board decision. And the witnesses? Only a fool would believe a historian, a grand vizier, or an alchemist.

Secrets may die but the society of secrets is immortal. The profound image of the Russian Doll haunts candidates, bureaus, corporations and nationalist blood orders. The venerable Rosy Crucians, who opened their first stateside office in Los Angeles, apparently date back to the Enlightenment and have lent a clandestine hand in distributing the film of history ever since. A new version of one of this shadowy brotherhood’s foundational texts, The Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz, attributed to mysterious Lutheran prelate Johann Valentin Andreae and first published in Germany in 1616, will be unveiled to the masses this November.

John Crowley has consulted several older English versions, as well as living German advisors (Rosicrucian adepts?), and has come up with an utterly unpretentious working of this weird old parable which reads like a late-night barroom colloquy. The action materializes in static allegorical scenes on a one-dimensional plateau, as if the religious art of the Middle Ages, quite archaic by the 1600s, had sprang to life in movable type. The secrets of the Chemical Wedding appear in number, fantastic animals, columns with engraved ciphers, extraordinary machines and crystal observatories, by the technology of communiqué and dream. Every repetition seems to hide a vast chart of correspondences. Every character is a symbol on its way to resurrection. Every tale has ending which does not quite make sense. This meddle is admirably depicted in Theo Fadel’s lovely line drawings which accompany the text. Crowley’s giddy English gives it all an exciting unheimliche tension, contra the silly half-assed lingua occulta adopted by most grimoire peddlers.

Christian Rosenkreutz (Rosy Cross) is invited to a wedding which he had seen earlier in a dream. A chance event leads him to take one of four paths (one for each element) to a great castle where he is met by a hall of absurd poltroons who stand for the various crackpot sciences of the day. This allows Andreae to take the piss out of disciplines such as alchemy and chemicalweddingastrology while hinting that he knows their true meaning. Christian undergoes a series of odd interrogations and initiations, listens to stories bitten from Boccaccio, and is shown all kinds of occult symbolic phenomena. I leave out the resolution, but it involves a complex of fugitive pages, detective intuition and lively Borgesian games on the part of commentators famous and infamous.

It is hard to escape the feeling that we are reading of the last gasps of Spengler’s Magian world here. Its ancestors are Avicenna’s Hayy ibn Yaqzan, ‘Attar’s Conference of Birds and other pearls of Islamic wisdom. Thus, the allegorical journey has an atmosphere of multiple buzzing heresies: Muslim, Freethinking, Deist. While Crowley rightly compares reading it today to Max Ernst’s collage-novels, it is closer to a Mughal miniature in form. Une semaine de bonté works against the received order of time and valorizes thievery and dislocation; The Chemical Wedding has the feeling of living for only an instant and it has quite different things to prove than homelessness.

The story also seems Utopian. Andreae himself was involved in a number of outré scholastic projects (one of which counted Kepler as a student), and he is deliberately obscure about whether his political vision is Digger Proto-socialist or Platonic Monarchist. Such confusion has lasted down to present-day cabal theory, where secret societies are thought to be simultaneously communist and elitist. During the Nazi Occupation in France, someone plastered the walls and mailed out threats supposedly from a shadowy tendency called Synarchism. The texts were so confusing and contradictory that the fascists were unable to determine the guilty party: Was it the Left resistance, the Allies’ propaganda arm, Freemasons, or some ultra-secret program of their own superiors? Synarchy never existed and was probably the work of a Claude Cahun-type partisan operating on her own in a basement. Anyway, it certainly came to be as a supply and demand mechanism of the Occupation’s pathological reaction.

Part of the strangeness in reading The Chemical Wedding is that we start to suspect all manner of intelligences working on its behalf – the spirit of the author (somewhat disputed), the spirit of the time it was written, and the spirit of the gulf that separates us from that world. It is impossible to grasp the innocence of the forest of symbols because they now conceal new, unintended things made just for us and possibly of our own making. An allegory uprooted from its time can only return later as a new and beguiling mobile. Interpretation, which has rendered the old readings obsolete, is left with highly odd symbolic shells which take on contemporary gravity like moss to an old barge, a groaning relic of phantom weight hanging in the readers’ mind. You – or rather I and Thou— are continually haunted by the idea that this little goblin book can say nothing at all to us, that it is truly inscrutable because its alchemic fable is so transparent. The initiatory ‘plot’ and rigid statuesque scenes no longer conceal any depth; it is actually hard to believe they ever did, which lends weight to the theory that the book was starkest parody. Behind the allegory there seems only an endless impenetrable black screen like the reverse of a common household mirror, a terror that we are constantly told is uniquely modern. But this is just the sort of fear than a magician who sees everything as it is not, meaning as it truly is, could never have possessed.

Perhaps once such a forbidden book lead outward to a world where hidden forms lurked behind both sculpture and birch. But the maze and the minotaur have undergone an unsubtle transformation over the centuries. Now this same initiatory process leads to a strange counterfeit inwardness of fetish-objects and the productions of an arctic medium between outposts of information. The answer as to why the lion has devoured the sun can no longer be found in the Great Work which dazzled Christian Rosenkreutz with its semblances, but in the phantasmagoria which cheaply hides the House of Pain in Derivatives and other djinn of the financial world. The sweatshop is the present initiatory garden and it leads to dark value prized from the Global South. Wasn’t the quest for knowledge always told as a journey to the East? Now rigged in tinsel of the poor allegory, a repetitive stain of bloody hands.

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Martin Billheimer lives in Chicago.

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