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The Barrett Brown Review of Arts and Letters and Jail: I Wish I Could Do, Like, Magic

Shortly after I was transferred from the notoriously low-end Mansfield Law Enforcement Center jail unit over here to the posh Seagoville Federal Correctional Institution, which I’m now privileged to call home, I met my new fellow prisoner Sam Hurd, the Dallas Cowboy who had run afoul of the law, or at least the most recent Dallas Cowboy to run afoul of the law — unless yet another one has been arrested in the last few months, which, come to think of it, is more likely than not. I don’t follow sports myself, sport being merely a pale imitation of warfare, which is far more dramatic (with the obvious exception of American warfare, which I understand to now mostly entail the shooting of Arab teenagers with flying robots). But one day I happened to notice Hurd reading a book by Manly P. Hall, the early-20th-century stockbroker-turned-occultist whose comprehensive 1929 compendium of the esoteric arts, The Secret Teachings of All Ages, I had read during my stay over at Mansfield. We got to talking, and it came to light that both of us had likewise recently read Transcendental Magic, by fin-de-siecle Kabbalist Eliphas Levi. So I loaned Hurd my copy of Gnostic Philosophy, by the Freemason scholar Tobias Churton, and, later, when it was time for him to ship off to the medium-security prison where he’d be serving a 15-year sentence for cocaine distribution, I presented him with an autobiography of the renowned English initiate Elias Ashmole, for which he was quite understandably grateful.

Mysticism has always thrived among prisoners, but I suppose some explanation ought to be forthcoming as to why I myself happen to have so many occult texts lying around that I can just hand them out like candy to every magic-wielding football star who comes along on a drug rap. It might seem especially odd insomuch as that I used to write a column for The Skeptical Inquirer and the occasional book review for Skeptic. But the truth is that my heart was never really in all that skepticism stuff. By temperament, I’m really something of a druid, and meanwhile I’ve always despised science and the sordid fruits thereof. Now, populizers of the scientific method and secularization and all that — turtleneck-clad sorts such as Carl Sagan — will tell you that the natural universe, illuminated by facts, is more awe-inspiring than any hazy product of human superstition. But then Sagan, like most other reefer addicts, often talked a great deal of nonsense. Tell me what you like about the stars and the Big Bang and string theory, but for my money you’re never going to beat the Norse creation myth involving a giant cow that licks a block of ice until the first humans emerge from within.

It had also occurred to me, sitting in my jail cell one day, that I really do have quite a lot of enemies, a disconcertingly high percentage of which happen to be executives of shadowy corporations with ties to the intelligence community. If there’s any such thing as magic, I decided, it would probably be a good idea to get a hold of some.

Aside from these joke reasons I just made up, my main impetus for studying the occult was the truly wonderful novel Foucault’s Pendulum, by Umberto Eco, the Italian professor of semiotics who is perhaps better known for The Name of the Rose. Having read it at least four or five times since first being taken captive by the local nation-state back in 2012, I was gradually struck by how little I knew of Hermeticism, alchemy, Rosicrucians, astrology, necromancy, and the assorted emanations of the divine Sefirot, whereas just a few centuries ago all of this was common knowledge among literary men and members of the Royal Society and whatnot. Suddenly I felt uncultured by comparison — although in fairness to myself, I’m quite conversant in all manner of contemporary fictional lore with which Isaac Newton never had to contend, including but not limited to the Final Fantasy and Elder Scrolls video games, Frank Herbert’s Dune series, the Gulf of Tonkin incident, and the first seven seasons of The Simpsons. Still, I’ve always considered myself to be much better than Isaac Newton at most things, and so I had no problem setting out to match and even exceed his command of colorful nonsense. About a year ago, then, I started ordering books.

The first of these to arrive was The Hermetic and Alchemical Writings of Paracelsus, Paracelsus being the 16th-century alchemist and mage par excellence who also dabbled in legitimate medicine. The following extracts should give you an idea of what a High Medieval alchemical text involves:

“It is a great error to suppose that chiromancy is concerned only with the hands, for it includes the significance of the lines upon the entire body.”

“For the basilisk is produced and grows from the chief impurity of a woman, namely, from the menstrual blood… But who would be so bold and daring as to wish to produce it, even to take it and at once kill it, unless he had first clothed and protected himself with mirrors?”

“Take care not to be misled by Arnold de Villa Nova, who has written on the subject of coal fire, for in this matter he will deceive you.”

“I, as an experienced man, will lay before you what I have learned about sulphur… Sulphur confutes Aristotle when he says that the species of things cannot be transmuted. Sulphur transmutes them; and if Aristotle were alive at the present day, he would be completely put to the blush and made ashamed of himself.”

It was difficult to know what to make of all this information. I have as much contempt for Aristotle as the next man, but I wasn’t sure I was prepared to found my budding spirituality upon a desire to show his ass up (and I imagine that were he actually alive today, he’d be more embarrassed about his claim that men and women have different numbers of teeth than about having not been in agreement with Paracelsus’ obviously incorrect notion of what it is that sulfur does). And Arnold de Villa Nova had certainly never steered me wrong before. Having said all that, it’s hard to disagree that basilisks should only be handled by specialists, and you can’t help but like a guy who starts a sentence with “I, as an experienced man …”

Next up was the aforementioned Transcendental Magic, by Eliphas Levi, translated from the original French and otherwise edited by the American occultist Waite back in the 1930s. Waite himself seems to be some sort of savant, bearing as he apparently does an encyclopedic knowledge of every magical text ever written, including those by Levi; the footnotes consist largely of Waite pointing out, chapter and verse, in which other of his books Levi has written something that directly contradicts what he tells us here. The editorially ubiquitous Waite also intervenes on such occasions as he deems Levi to be simply in the wrong; whereas Levi claims that 40 days of preparation are necessary before summoning any sort of extra-dimensional entity worth having around, Waite explains that this is not at all the case, which is reassuring, as 40 days really does seem a little high.

My magical education proceeded apace even when I didn’t intend it to. One of my more surprising finds at the Mansfield jail library was a faded, Eisenhower-era paperback copy of The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, Cellini being the post-Renaissance goldsmith and sculptor. Not having any interest in the non-verbal arts, I expected to find the account rather boring. But this being 16th-century Italy, and Cellini turning out to be something of a murderous thug even for that time and place, otherwise dull passages involving the commission and execution of various jewel-encrusted doodads are invariably interspersed with the most extraordinary and frankly unjustified acts of violence, many perpetrated by Cellini himself. Even more entertaining is Cellini’s remarkable penchant for bragging. Naturally he is the greatest artist the world has ever known; more surprisingly, he is also the greatest lover. He shoots a pheasant out of a tree at some incredible distance and is immediately surrounded by hordes of lesser sportsmen who tell him what a fine fellow he is; modestly, he gives some of the credit to his special preparation of gunpowder, which is his own invention and, by the way, the greatest fucking gunpowder the world has ever known. When Rome is invaded, he mans an artillery piece and turns out to be the greatest heavy gunner the world has ever seen, etc. Later he is invited by a prominent local priest to practice some necromancy over at the ruins of the Coliseum, and of course Cellini manages to summon, on his very first try, hundreds and hundreds of demons, because, after all, he is Cellini. They didn’t spend 40 days in ritual preparation, either. Fuck you, Eliphas Levi.

Incidentally, you might expect that when one joins the Catholic priesthood there is entailed a sort of implicit agreement that one will refrain from engaging in recreational necromancy, but apparently not.

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Bible Verse of the Day: Exodus 21:23

“When a man opens a pit, or when a man digs a pit and does not cover it, and an ox or a donkey falls into it, the owner of the pit shall make restitution.”

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[Editor's note: Barrett Brown has been incarcerated for more than a year. He is being held in a federal detention facility in Seagoville, Texas. This is the seventh installment of The Barrett Brown Review of Arts and Letters and Jail. Go here to read earlier installments. Go here if you'd like to send him a book or put some money in his commissary account. He is inmate 45047-177. Go here to contribute to his legal defense fund and learn more about the charges against him.]