If someone asks us to recommend a book then we most certainly will. And some of us have recently been asked to do just that.
Having given this some thought, I’m going to attempt something a little less helpful: A history of chaos magic through a century of seminal texts.
There are two main problems with trying to shape a history of something -especially if you try to shape it based around a list of books or thoughts.
- In order to do so, you have to rely on inductive logic. Basically, this is stringing together a sequence of events after they have happened. You run the risk of assuming they are in any way related to each other. Unfortunately the human brain is wired to do exactly this. It’s why history is so interesting and always wrong.
- It’s the books that aren’t on your bookshelf that are the most important -not the ones that are. It’s the ideas you don’t have that paint a fuller picture. Trying to assess which are the most important books in chaos magic (or anything) means you will always fall victim to survivor bias: You’re only going to be able to make that assessment based on the titles that have actually made it to your bookshelf. It’s an inefficient sample. Unavoidably inefficient.
Be this as it may, I’m going to give it a shot. However, I really must stress that I am fully aware of the above two shortcomings and I wish to highlight the use of the word ‘independent’ in the title of this post. I’m not going to talk about various orders or historic personalities. I’m going to talk about books. Or rather; authors.
Sidebar: Most of this is not exclusively the story of chaos magic but rather a broad story of western occultism over the last hundred and thirty years. But you may note that it looks slightly different if you place your ‘year zero’ in the 1970s.
I feel this has wider implications for any historic narrative.
1. The Prehistoric (Themes: Exploration, new territory)
Anytime before 1970. Aleister Crowley, Austin Osman Spare, Michel Foucault and Robert Anton Wilson. (Yes, Cosmic Trigger was written in the seventies but it was about things that happened before.)
Note the absence of Lovecraft? It’s deliberate. That lazy, racist shut-in contributed nothing to chaos magic. Nothing. A 1970s games system based loosely on a few of his fictional creations had a large impact. He didn’t. He’s off the list.
From the 1970s to the 1990s. Peter J Carroll, Ramsay Dukes, Hakim Bay, Dave Lee, Chris Hyatt. (Undoing Yourself only in this case. Though I like most of his early stuff.)
Other than DuQuette, I’m reaching to find a magical personality over the last century that best suits the classical vision of a ‘wizard’ than PJC.
He’s a bit mad, he’s an undisputed genius, he appears and disappears from the world, has crazy adventures and he lives in the West Country. I adore him. Liber Kaos and Liber Null & Psychonaut are a bit dated now (but they were written more than thirty years ago). However, they are definitely chaos magic’s ‘Old Testament’.
3. The Modern (Themes: Attention-seeking, pop-cultural nihilism, fragmentation)
1990s – 2000. Phil Hine, Jan Fries and Grant Morrison. This was the era of musical cut-ups (horrible) and the exciting cyber world of dial-up internet. Too much of chaos magic is caught in this awful time-loop where The Matrix has just been released in cinemas and revolutions must always involve some really lame public graffiti.
These three writers are still very much worth your time, though. Don’t blame them for what their fans do.
4. The Postmodern (Themes: return to First Principles, integration versus disintegration, learning from the new rather than seeking it)
I guess this brings us up to right now. What interests me about popular/populist science at the moment is that it is painting a picture of a chaotic universe that is easy to live in. Which is why I am including them all as a single ‘author’ but with special shout outs to The Drunkard’s Walk, The Medea Hypothesis, Freakonomics/Superfreakonomics and anything by Malcolm Gladwell. I also want to add a personal recommendation in the form of my beloved Black Swan.
And then I’m going to use PJC’s latest book, The Apophenion, as the segue into proper magic because it straddles both. (Yes, he’s on the list twice. Because he is awesome like Chuck Norris.)
I wasn’t quite sure where to put Dave Lee’s Chaotopia! so I’m going to put it in this epoch because it was re-released with additional material in 2006. It also works really well with any of the probability books I am suggesting such as Outliers and The Drunkard’s Walk.
On the purely magic side, the best books in the Postmodern Epoch are Advanced Magic For Beginners (Alan Chapman) and Strategic Sorcery (Jason Miller). Sorry about that, Jason, I know you asked where you should be looking for good, current chaos magic thinking. Unfortunately I’m suggesting a mirror.
Neither of these titles are technically chaos magic, but then neither are the sociological or the scientific. If you are looking for a more detailed rundown of chaos magic history and publications then I’m going to throw you over to Psyche. She did a much better job than I ever could and she did it more than six months ago.
The judges criteria
Why are there so few actual chaos magicians on this list? Well, as previously mentioned, there really isn’t that much to chaos magic. You get bigger variations when you include wider source material.
Based on the above bookshelf observation, the real question you should be asking is why are there so many books devoted to other magical disciplines? The overwhelming majority of magic books are too narrow and endlessly repetitive. You know what’s going to be in a witchcraft book before you even open it. See if this sounds familiar:
- Bit of wrong-ish history. At least one picture of the Willendorf Venus. Maybe some Ogham diagrams.
- A chapter on deities. Blah blah the moon, blah blah horns. Some of the famous ones get their own paragraph. (One paragraph. For. A. God.)
- At least a third of the book taken up explaining the same festivals and sabbats as everyone else. Nothing new there.
- Finally some actual magic. Except it’s just a couple of pages of colour correspondence, a list of herbs that don’t grow anywhere near you and some overly optimistic but mostly useless ‘spells’. The chapter ends with a small section implying that you should maybe go and get some Tarot cards.
- Optional final chapter: How to start a coven. Because clearly, having read the previous four sections you are definitely at the stage where you should do that.
I must have bought about twenty of the exact same book back in the day. (Yes, I’m a slow learner.) Hence my attitude to new magical publications is usually one of suspicion. Because I am sick of buying the same book over and over.
How you can play along at home
This post has put me in mind of an experiment I played with a fellow occultist in New Zealand a few years back.
Well, I say it was an experiment but it was really more of a drunken argument after a boozy, ten hour lunch.
The Book Game
How would you introduce someone to magic using only books? He or she has a month in a lake house and will read whatever you tell them in the exact order that you tell them to. Not even any peeking at other books on the list.
- Fiction is allowed.
- You have to specify what brand of magician you want to build beforehand. (Hermeticist, chaos, etc.)
- You can’t tell the subject this.
- You must include books from at least three disciplines. (This is to stop you just giving the Complete Golden Dawn and then declaring the subject a GD-style magician at the end.)
- It’s only books. No guru teaching, no magical training. Just books. (It’s a book game.) Presume they will do the exact same amount of exercises out of the books that you did.
- The subject goes into the house without any belief in magic. They are a smug, modern agnostic.
- A maximum of ten titles. Trilogies count as three books.
Now, I don’t want anyone saying that you can’t build a magician just by having them read stuff. I know that. It’s a thought experiment. You’ll also note I’m not recommending you abduct someone and hide them in the woods while you brainwash them for a month.
What would you choose? Either leave it as a comment below or write it up on your blog. You know I’ll read it eventually, anyway.