Saturday, 25 October 2014

The Flaw in Pascal Beverley Randolph

In any history of the association of modern magickal thinking and sexuality, one of the ur-texts is the 'Magia Sexualis' of Pascal Beverley Randolph ['PBR'], a mid-nineteenth century American, but part of a broader body of work that was, in turn, part of the American transcendentalist approach to occultism. Randolph had a second round of influence, through the translation and interpretation of the work by Marie de Naglowska, in France but the historical importance of Randolph is not our primary concern here. What we want to do is critique his work from a modern perspective and see where this leads.

The flaw in P. B. Randolph's work is one very familiar to contemporary thinkers and not just those who set their stall on 'queer theory'. It is the very notion of polarity between male and female. Indeed, the flaw in all simple thought, one of the themes of our postings in general, is polarity - yin/yang, good/bad, male/female, love/hate and so on. It is convenient and it can be creative but it is not 'true'.

As regular readers will know (taking the last as one of many), I recognise the fundamental opportunity for difference between categories taken in the round - so that there is male and there is female - but there is no value judgement to be ascribed to either, certainly not in relation to each other. Human variation means that there is no exemplar of a 'type' and the Bell Curves of normality shade and overlap in complex and fascinating ways.

We have asserted elsewhere that the differences between the genders are real 'in the round' but are so highly specific and functional that attempts to extend the category that includes some specific attributes in order to represent some absolute, any absolute, is absurd. There are specific partial functions of feminity and masculinity with some public policy implications (and cultural codings overlaying these based on a reading of the functions for their use value in struggles for power or social cohesion) but there is no absolute quality of feminity or masculinity.

The terms of categorisation are always approximations, based on an averaging out of common attributes so that, as several friends have pointed out, a highly feminised male can still be a man, a highly masculinised female a woman and many entities between the two can be properly regarded as something else entirely.

In other words, the sexual relationship between persons can be ideologically 'genderised' as some sort of meeting of opposites or (in gay relations) of 'sames' but the actual practice of sexuality is far more interesting and complex than this, a matter of the 'magic' of personal rather than gender relations. To build a system around (say) a positive female pole and negative male pole, as PBR does, as if the earth's polarity and magnetism automatically applied to people, because of a primitive insistence on a debased form of microcosm reflecting macrocosm, is, to say the least, sloppy thinking.

As solipsistic poetic allegory, it may work but poetry is a perception of existence and not existence itself. This is not to argue that gender playfulness cannot incorporate such absurdities but only that, once understood to be absurd, we must, perforce, move on. Randolph, for example, writes that 'as in nature' the female attracts the male but, in fact, this was not a matter of 'nature' but one of culture, or rather his culture (a culture that determinedly persecuted him).

In another culture, the male attracts the female and the male attracts the male and the female the female and so on - his culture was the rigid culture of the dominant patriarchal male (much as I loathe the loaded feminist term 'patriarchy' as propagandistic distortion today, it does apply to gender relations in mid-nineteenth century church-going middle class Anglo-Saxon society) and his equally disturbed and disturbing fixed matriarchal counterpart.

But having excoriated PBR for writing nonsense at a strategic level, we can dig deeper into his poetic allegory and try to uncover what tactically exists of value in the false metaphor and a cod-scientific approach involving the volts and magnetism of a mid-nineteenth century American autodidact and fantasist. For, the essence of PBR's system is vitalism. Vitalism is not much liked scientifically or philosophically today but, taken as allegory rather than as 'truth', it represents the personal perception of the flow of biochemical change in a person and is a way of explaining what is not yet fully understood by science - the instincts of attraction and repulsion.

Some people are undoubtedly more 'vital' than others (which is not a value judgement about worth but merely an observation). Some have experienced unexplained attractions and repulsions whereas others go through life with no consciousness of their own connectedness to unexplained phenomena. PBR is making an honourable attempt to deal with and make use of a reality that will not bend itself easily to scientific investigation and, although his own system may be nonsense in relation to reality, his awareness of the phenomenon is generations ahead of his own culture.

Instead of repressing this vitalism, expressed most profoundly in sexual terms, he at least makes an honourable attempt to bring it into the open on terms that his generation might just understand - scientific materialism. He gets it wrong but then so did Karl Marx. Both, I contend, moved us forwards (as did Freud and Reich) without being 'right' and subsequent problems arise not from the authors of radical new ideas but from the dumb acceptance of them without critical thought after the event.

PBR, in linking sexual vitalism to another fascinating absurdity, magic, manages to bring in yet another aspect of the matter - the fact that for some persons in some situations sexual vitalism, as a practice rather than a theory, can lead to shifts in consciousness similar to those of some drugs. To extend this to magical purpose in the sense that sexual vitalism will lead to changes in the material world may pile on yet another absurdity in the eyes of many - until we start to consider that (as we have argued elsewhere) much of our reality is social.

Consciousness changes can shift our own viewpoint in regard to that social reality. Therefore, while the magician who thinks that will and magic will cause him to fly in the air is an utter fool, the 'magician' who believes he or she can use sexual vitalism to transform their personal nature and social presence is decidedly not.

However, the most effective argument against magical practice is generally that magical practitioners are not great advertisements for their own method. Their practices seem to be constantly associated with failure and social exclusion, with marginalisation and even with neurosis. To be successful appears to require that you embed yourself wholly in the reality presented by society and, although there is room for singular creativity in one line of endeavour (the way of the 'genius'), any attempt to question the broader grounds of false mass perception is to have one consigned to the mad house, the prison, the execution block or a troubled isolation (the modern solution). But this is deceptive on two grounds.

The first is that the marginalised and isolated are, in the first instance, drawn to desperate measures in order to integrate themselves into the social and yet to individuate. They are drawn to the fantastic and to the magical. The more marginalised they are (as was PBR as a mixed race petit-bourgeois in a racist aspirant and fast-growing society) then the more drawn they are towards such radical metaphors to explain their position. The history of voodoo in Haiti might be an exemplar of this relationship.

The second is that radical thinkers take enormous risks with their reputation to transform themselves and society. The massive dead weight of conventionalism with strike down the pioneer even if, in the long run of history, the flawed insights of that pioneer might prove themselves correct - Nietzsche, PBR, Crowley: all failures of a sort and yet ...

Any 'sensible' person would never think radically but would seek out the conventional, especially if they have a family to feed. Most do. Some simply give into necessity. Others are philosophical zombies, creatures of the social rather than individuals operating within the social. Things are probably better in this respect today compared to almost any previous age but there is still a price, even today, to be paid for not being a zombie and, living amongst zombies, many of us have to have dress in the stench of their kind so as not to be eaten alive.

As for PBR, his approach to sex magic is perhaps still worth reading but only in order to establish just how much he was embedded in the Christian culture of his day. His rules are filled with religiosity, involve complicated and ascetic limitations on behaviour that imply a sexual union that is over a month in preparation and has no serious understanding of sexual differences in orgasm.

Indeed, by the end of them, one's conclusion is that PBR is more concerned to make his congress moral and respectable than to encourage the sort of sexual energy that might transform consciousness. When he gets around to sexual positions, he seems open-minded and no doubt much fun was had but it is a sexuality surrounded by anxiety and magical protection and always conscious that respectability requires that the act be contained within a 'sacred' box.

PBR has nothing to teach us now about sexuality or consciousness except negatively - that is, he tells us that 150 years ago, the power of the conventional fear of sexuality was such that a person with a sense of sexual vitalism had to cloak his nature in the language of the 'enemy': ascetic, 'spiritual', theistic ... and that even a person whose 'passion' for the 'vital' forced him into the role of cultural maverick was forced to bend the knee to social convention if he was to be able to talk in any way about mutual male/female sexual love.

Of course his contemporaries were rutting around like crazy as all generations do but the language of the time meant that men and women had to inhabit separate linguistic environments - that of the prostitute and that of the home. PBR, to his credit, made a serious attempt to include women in a sexual dialogue and he compromised by bringing that dialogue into the Victorian hearth and this is what makes him a progressive force who was not without courage.

Unfortunately, the very act of speaking about the sexual in such a shared discourse proved shocking to Christian sensibilities and so this very mild-mannered and rather dull and exhausting sexual magic became demonised. An attempt to escape from zombie status and communicate sexual love was doomed in that culture at that time. Worse, those who went underground with it brought the compromising language of PBR into their 'spiritual' determinations of what sexuality was and should be and so the mastering ideology infected even the potential for resistance.

However, his existence as an underground figure, rarely actually read, helped to open the door to sexuality as something that could be spoken of between men and women. He was succeeded by equally brave women like Woodhull and Craddock who began a process of transformation that has led to today's freedom and openness. Even today, the American Evangelical Right would drag America and the world back to those neurotic and disturbed days when zombies ruled if they possibly could.

So, although PBR's system was scientific nonsense and his magic onerous and excessively essentialist, he should be lauded today for his eccentric courage and his preparedness to (at least) attempt to bring women into equal status, as sexual partners, with men. In this last he failed to take the final step and he remained 'the priest' but his determination to offer women rights to sexual pleasure (albeit in a weirdly religious framework) should make him a hero to all free persons. The right tribute would be to free his departed soul from the trammels of the religiosity that he felt it necessary to make part of himself to justify what really did not need to be justified at all - human freedom.