On talismanic publishing
Secrecy & Revelation
After the body, the book is the quintessential magical technology. Knowledge is conveyed across time and space, the dead speak, spirits appear and grant us knowledge. We are transported to other realms whilst apparently sitting still. The magic of signs that talk, of writing, is in itself intrinsically powerful. This is easy to forget in a supposedly literate culture that does not ask us to interrogate its branding of our inner landscape and that renders the word itself banal. We are assailed with sigils, colours, slogans, triggered emotional states that promise us sex, power, status, security, food, or intoxication by linking them to the products of industrial culture. It is my contention that as our world recedes into disenchantment, the book gains power again set against such tawdry gewgaws. It is an antidote to the splintered attention span, and it enables us both to dream true and to develop the intense concentration necessary to be present in and engage with the moment. This is the essence of magic, the acquisition of and the implementation of knowledge which is power.
The book, like those other essentials, knife, fire, cup, cannot be improved upon but reached its perfect state early. The essential form is that of words or images on pages sutured together to remain in order and wrapped in a cover which is merely to name the folio and protect it from damage. The word book, of course, comes from the Germanic word for birch, the tree used for the tablets that runes were carved upon and stained, that is, potentised, with blood. We are keenly aware that we are part of this tradition, where language itself and writing are sacred magical technologies. The dimensions of the book itself are also dependent upon human physiology; the book is in a very real sense, our measure. This simplicity is paramount and we must bear it in mind, or we risk obsessing about the object and not the world which has manifested it. Our art is therefore the result of limitation which paradoxically makes it inexhaustible. Like poetry or dance, we work to convey the truth, finding the form that conveys the essential essence. The book is not a retreat from the world, but an entry point into a deeper engagement with it.
It is important at the outset to remember that books age and die as we do, covers dog ear and pages tear, margins swarm over with notes, passages are underlined with indignity or delight. The spines finally break, the stitches rot, and the pages flutter out to mulch into the earth and are washed clean of their ink. They are as imperfect and ephemeral as any of the works of man. All spirits however ingeniously bound will ultimately attain their liberation; this too is part of our process and inherent in our design.
In the beginning…
When we began Scarlet Imprint we considered the making of fine-bound books as a rebellious act, the creation of impossible and wilful acts of beauty in the world. In an early statement we described our books as ‘Fabergé hand grenades.’ We saw them as a way to ensure the survival of spirit and ideas into a projected future of collapse. It was clear to us that these treasured objects would be preserved as Empire fell. That position has shifted, and radically so, in ways that I will outline later on.
We need an origin myth, an ‘in the beginning,’ so here is ours. I wrote a magical book, The Red Goddess, which was an ecstatic, destructive process of erotic conjunction and visionary states. The book, or more accurately the Goddess, brought Alkistis into my life, and Scarlet Imprint is our mutual endeavour. I knew this book needed to be published in a particular form, in a particular number, on a particular date. What she wanted was an hundred and fifty-six copies on the 7th of the 7th of 2007. It then needed to be ritually consecrated and had work to do in the world. It is important to state that these requirements came from my experience as a ritualist and the resultant direct contact with Babalon.
The kind of stipulations demanded by The Red Goddess meant that it was not suitable to take to any existing publisher. Furthermore, to us the occult book world seemed largely moribund, reprinting the works of the dead or churning out bland mass-market material. It was not representative of the work that we knew was being done by living practitioners such as ourselves. I had also written the book to be deliberately antagonistic to the accepted ideas of what a magical book should be.
We were not drawing on the example of any specific previous works, but were infused by a mutual love of books. If we were to cite a single influence on our ethos, it would be the life work of Alfred Jarry. However, we possess a thriving collection of titles across a bewildering variety of subjects, that inspire and inform us; as does the world of spirits that we walk and dream with. Our advice to those interested in pursuing a magical path is also this: to read and to experience widely, to engage in acts of creation. We are interested in opening up the dialogue of magic with art, literature, poetry and performance to rediscover the experimental and the avant garde which has long been a vital part of it.
Scarlet Imprint was to be a single shot weapon, but the universe had other ideas. Like all sorcerer’s apprentices we had unleashed something beyond our control. The spirits of goetia came to us unbidden, and when your life becomes invaded by twelve foot spectres, psycho-kinetic phenomena becomes commonplace and you suffer break-ins by intelligence spooks it becomes evident that there is more work to pursue. To be clear, this began as an entirely punk enterprise, but we have not stuck with three chords – instead we have spent the seven years since learning our craft. We have now produced 20 titles in 49 editions and published close to a hundred writers, poets and artists. We have helped create the current renaissance in esoteric publishing and the book arts. As a result many consider us as one of the pre-eminent occult publishers, and certainly one of the most radical, as well as publishing works which are both traditional and progressive in vision and in practice. As examples of what we have accomplished I can cite works such as Nicholaj de Mattos Frisvold’s on Quimbanda and Palo Mayombe, which are being put to use by those within their respective cults. As these traditions are threatened by modernity, we have been able to preserve and transmit songs, chants, recipes, signatures and spells that might otherwise be lost and fed them back into the tradition. Or we might mention the collected volumes of the Encyclopædia Goetica by Jake Stratton-Kent, who has redefined our understanding of the Western magical tradition.
We are a magical and artistic partnership, and together we are working to develop and encourage new aesthetics for the esoteric arts, whether in the field of book design and typography or in the creation of iconography. Our approach to book design is informed by the doctrine of sympathies, the visual language of heraldry, punning, the green language of poetry, the games of the alchemists, as well as art, literature and Nature. There is always a particular moment when we see the book, or rather, the book reveals its desired form to us, that confirms it has been correctly conceived; it must exist in the mundus imaginalis before it manifests. Some books function as a spirit house; others as vehicles to carry a specific intent, and under the auspices of particular spirits with which we have working relationships. A book needs to be fit for the purpose and force that it contains, in exactly the same way you would create a shrine, talisman, ritual or spell. So the books themselves transmit the art of magic, both in the words they contain and in the way they are bound. The cover of Howlings, a psychedelic piece of Islamic geometry, is a necessary spirit trap, hidden in plain sight, and a play on the plurality of voices and perspectives in modern occult practice. Another example I can give of our process is the design for the hardback edition of The Red Goddess, which is white so that the virginal cover will be besmirched. It is impossible to keep in pristine condition, it is designed to become part of one’s ritual and devotional practice, to be subject to the same processes of change as we are.
All of our books contain these kind of riddles and games, which inform each aspect of the process of design – from the initial conception and through the inevitable creative struggles with the limits and restrictions to realising a work in its final form(s).They are spells for the senses and ritually potentised. We do not wish to give away all of the secrets of the sphinx, so I will not dissect the meanings further but offer the potential for them to flower in your own imaginations. Magic, like reading, requires your full engagement, you have to be willing to play.
It is important to state that we are engaged with magical intent for the entire process, from editing, typesetting, design through to selecting and commissioning the materials for each of the editions, to hand-numbering, wrapping and sending the books. Publishing is intensive work.
We are privileged to be able to support the fine book arts by working with the master craftsmen who bind the special editions, and with talented artisans who make and decorate the papers and leathers we use; it is a tradition that we are keen to contribute to, with innovation and artistry.
Yet talismanic publishing can seem to be a discussion of the shell case when we want powderburns, cordite, the bullet in the heart, the direct experience. Our project is also to innovate and transform conceptions of what magical writing is and what it means in a world literally on fire. These are not simply pretty wrappers, they are delivery mechanisms.
Having discussed a little of our process it is now important to understand the purpose and the meaning of books in our world. The library of the magician does not only show an obsession with collection, it is a working battery, a literal assemblage of bound spirits. I must underline that neither of these statements are metaphors. For the modern practitioner the book has perhaps regained power in that it has become an anachronism. It has become a mysterious stranger to us again. However, we are not building walls out of bookcases to stop the ingress of modernity. Rather, we are like the aficionados of heavy weight vinyl sensuously aware that this is how rich the experience is meant to be, and that the digital version and the industry that produces it are counterfeits. In contradistinction to the ephemeral product of a destructive and cynical book industry we use heavy weight paper, cloth, leather, silk, gold to produce works of enduring value. These are not chosen because they are luxury goods, but because they are materials which have specific magical virtues necessary for the production of a talisman. This does not make them cheap, but here we remember the injunction of the grimoires, not to haggle over the price of a black hen’s egg.
Sometimes people mistake what we do as being elitist, not understanding that, in this age, beauty is an act of rebellion, and that as artists who have seized the means of production we are actively re-enchanting a disenchanted world. Perversely, we have been enabled to do this by the very process which is destroying not only the book as coveted object, but the world from which it is fashioned, the mossy green claps of what the alchemists describe as ‘the Book of Nature.’ We are well aware of this bitter irony, but will not allow this to prevent us from using the weapons of the enemy against it. In an asymmetric conflict, everything is permitted.
To read books is to enter a private world, and is often viewed with suspicion, from the exasperated rejoinder of Hamlet when asked by Polonius what he was reading of ‘words, words, words!’ to the famous reaction to Bill Hicks in a redneck diner: ‘looks like we got ourselves a reader.’ Like any other form of self-pleasuring it is for the most part a solitary act though sometimes brazenly performed in public. It demands that we are not disturbed but sovereign over ourselves. This provokes the censor who wishes to own even those fantasies which will never become flesh as much as those that will step off the page. Reading, like writing, is liberating and grants us the miracle of de Sade, Genet, Artaud, Manson: the ability to defy the highest prison walls. Such a prison is being built, the likes of which has never been seen. Magicians, those who know the importance of oaths, of secrecy, of cognitive sovereignty, should be more aware of this than most, remembering that one of the words for magical books has always been ‘the Key.’
Who is reading which books in the library has often preoccupied the state; books are forbidden, added to lists, burned. Our earliest grimoire The Testament of Solomon was being torched by Hezekiah in the first century. This has been the fate shared by magical works, political tracts and subversive literature. Often all three categories overlap. This fear of readers and reading can be seen in our own surveillance state, the convenient Amazon wish lists functioning as a confession booth for self-incrimination. In 2014 we have seen the UK Government require ISPs to block access to occult websites. Reading remains a seditious act as, by implication, does awareness that we inhabit a world of spirits. The book as a handheld device without a GPS chip, microphone and camera is not a spy for the ‘internet of things’ and will therefore only gain in potency. I predict that it will become the sign signifier and conduit for the spirit of rebellion in the turbulent years ahead. Ownership of the book, reading in public, reading aloud in small groups will once again be magical actions that challenge the hegemony of control.
Magical books have this performative aspect; they demand that you execute actions in specific places, at specific times. The words are to be resonated through your bones. They reconnect us to the landscape through a bricolage of chalks and coins and blood and string and smoke.
The shadow play of late capitalism is becoming ragged and the book offers a way to engage which is not the rapid cut disorientation of postmodern visual culture. The magical book is a profoundly interactive experience, not in the manner of false choice – Apple or Microsoft, Democrat or Republican – but, more akin to ‘The Lottery in Babel’ of Jorge Luis Borges, it introduces both lucky and unlucky numbers. Inviting magic into your life invokes risk. Let me paraphrase, as an example, an email I received: ‘Dear Peter, I read your book, I crashed my car, my house burned down, I lost my job. Thank you.’ Rather like that other paper-based sacrament, LSD, once you have dissolved the book into your skin there is no stopping the process. Therefore by creating magical books we are potentially inspiring and empowering a generation of magicians and witches far more effectively than by initiating individuals into an hierarchical cult. For books open worlds to, and within, the reader. Yet this is not a passive arrangement, it is an intimate relationship. There is no virtue in having a magic bullet if you have not made of yourself a magic pistol. The book promises that it can become proof of a sworn pact, just as the Bibliothèque bleue grimoires were to be activated by the signature of the crossroad spirit of black midnight. You are an extension of the book, just as it is an autonomous extension of the spirit world.
It could be argued that the talismanic book is nothing more than a piece of congruent design. For those who do not have an animist understanding of the world, that is simply what it is. What the magician does may seem no different, in its external form, to the profane marketing of the book industry, but it is potentised by a living knowledge of sympatheia, astrological timings and the magical arts. Capitalism, being omniphagous, is of course responding by making books that mimic those published by small presses, with higher quality materials and better design, recasting the book as a niche status symbol. It has recognised that in an industrial culture all mass produced objects leach value exponentially. Consumers, (or as we prefer to call them, people), are seeking not ‘cool,’ the marketing buzzword of the eighties, but ‘authentic.’ The cynicism of postmodernism has not freed us, it has scoured out the sacred and we burn with longing for it. We crave the very meaning and story that industry has slaughtered, and so it comes back to us wearing its flayed skin.
What is considered ‘authentic’ is treasured precisely because it has (hi)story, something the antiques and sundry other grave-robbing businesses call ‘providence.’ Perhaps we can glimpse another desire here, for a true story – which is precisely the definition of ‘myth.’ We need this now in a culture that is bereft of any direction, other than over the edge of the precipice. At this juncture I will state that we have an apocalyptic world view, an eschatology which understands that we will be the last generation alive on Earth. Climate chaos is one sign of the complete collapse of the systems of life brought about by the actions of man. This is now inevitable. So the books, no matter how beautiful, are no longer something that we foresee will survive in physical form to hand down to future generations, but are the battlefield actions, the Samurai rouge, acts of devotion and resistance.
As we approach the Endzeit, we scrutinise the Urzeit to divine the reasons why it has all gone wrong. We believe that the book remains, even in these times, the most effective means of communicating and transmitting knowledge without restrictions; and can give meaning and weight to practitioners in a hostile or indifferent culture. Furthermore, it is the measure against which the insubstantiality and inauthenticity of other experiences are reckoned, just as witches were once proved on the scales against the Bible to decide their fate.
In the world of magic the search for the authentic has returned after a detour into the phantasmagoria of Kenneth Grant and the necessary punk eruptions of TOPY and Chaos magic – caused in no small part by the collapse of the Murray thesis in Witchcraft and the ossification of the Golden Dawn derived magical Orders. A full discussion of this subject is beyond the scope of this talk. What I will say is that authenticity does not mean age or the studied use of archaisms. Scarlet Imprint seeks to demonstrate the working principles of magic here and now, extending them into the future, rather than being trapped in either an idealised imagined past, or an assemblage of hip cultural junk. We wish to demonstrate that tradition is a living process and that the artist must always innovate to demonstrate mastery. Every new book begins for us with a blank sheet of paper and the calibration of the peculiar demands of its unique horoscope. In the often conservative world of the book arts we continue to innovate.
So let us return full circle. The hand-copied black book or personal grimoire was often burned or buried with the owner. Some were passed down within family traditions. The mere possession of a book was taken as a sign of magical prowess, something that cunning men and women, wizards and wise women traded on. The book itself was seen as the source which emitted magical power often as a result of being incomprehensible. It was understood that not only was the book powerful but that it granted power to the one who possessed it. It is inevitable that the book would be created as a talisman or fetish itself, and fitted to be a repository for this force. We are heirs of this tradition.
But we are not people of ‘the Book,’ but people of books. Heresy, like life, is always multiplying and the Devil as god of the printing press democratised magic with the first book printed with moveable type in the West, the 1450 Gutenberg Bible. The industrial process changed the fate of the magic book, which would no longer be the preserve of the few, whether the collector, the clergy, the academic or the specialist practitioner. Economic forces, that is the needs of technological slavery, required wider literacy and this carried the danger of rebellion, through the reading of inappropriate or forbidden works: the heady brew of sex, politics and magic. The book remains invested with this power to create social change and unleash supressed diabolic forces. Magic and witchcraft are democratising in that they give recourse to the poor against those in positions of power. A fictional example of this is Michelet’s La Sorcière (1862), a novel which still informs strands of modern witchcraft. This is the same conflict we see in the 1960 trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover with its cross-class sexual liason and the barrister’s question whether this was a book ‘you would wish your wife or servants to read.’ Our books will always ghost this same hinterland of illegal and outré. The book has the potential to create a cascade of social change, something we would consider to be collateral magic. We therefore also print paperback copies of our books under the banner of Bibliothèque Rouge, in homage to the inherently democratic nature of the printing press. We feel that it would be dishonest not to. The value of our work is not dependent on the manipulation of artificial scarcity.
The Digital Imperative
As we have seen, the magical book has gone through radical evolution from something to be burned or buried with their keeper, to the single copy written by the chosen student or kept treasured in the family, through to the mass pulp prints of the Bibliothèque bleue and our own talismanic work. Now sequenced into zeros and ones it resides in the infinite clones of digital data.
Can we consider this a process of loss, a descent into disenchantment through industrialisation where meaning is bleached out even as it is printed across a forest of pages? Is the magic of the word lost in the doppelgänger we have summoned? Are we to locate the Devil or double in the stencil, the roller, the letterpress, the digital printing machine the landfill of e-readers? Does the geometric replication function like the despised Archons of the gnostics and trap us and the Sophia in this rotten place, unable to distinguish between the mirror and the beloved?
The swarm of torrents and trackers reveal that everything that can be counterfeited, copied, will be and in the digital world there is no discernable difference in the output. But this merely tells us that we are lost in a stream of supposed information that has in effect simply become noise. Our attention spans are fractured. We are consumed by demands that are a repeating loop of our sublimated desires. The promised future that we will all be artists and select and interact with our data, cut-it up to find new meaning has proved false. People are simply recycling memes and functioning as repeaters of advertising from a trusted source. Quantum computing now promises, or rather threatens to remove the artist, the writer with an algorithm. We are about to be gamed. Our choices have not been discerned, but sculpted by the bio-feedback machine of social media and sold back to us as the products of industrial culture. But here the magical object gains even greater potency. We come back to the book, as the most fitting house for the spirits. The digital version has not swept all before it, our experience is quite the opposite, it has seen people returning to the original artefact; the written word and the book itself. I am talking here of the specifically magical book and the magic of the book which offers both a way out and a way back in. We must continue to devour this forbidden knowledge, to be transfigured by beauty and the bitter green of wisdom. The potency of the book prevails and it is our task to ensure this transmission.