A Vade Mecum

Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer, Silence

The Book of Onei is an antinomian dream grimoire, providing deceptive yet true information about the art of Oneiromancy or dream magic in the form of poetry, fantasy, and intentionally ambiguous instructions.

1- Seek out darkness and silence.

2- Drift on the river of sleep and daydream.

3- Hear what the voices tell you; see what you see.

4- Record all glimpses of Onei, in daydream or nightdream.

5- Answer all riddles; complete all quests.

 

As hard at it can be to enter Onei intentionally, it is always possible to walk the Borderlands – the place in your mind between sleep and waking, between Earth and Onei. Spirits, dreams and messages from Onei will find you there.

 

I’ve lived here on the borders of the night,

Where dark divides from light.

I’ve walked the marches made of fire and snow.

 

Each night I lock the doors and close my eyes

To watch the rivers rise.

I’ve tasted all those memories- I know.

 

Though there are things that I can never mend,

If I could choose again

I’d take the path I took so long ago.

 

– from The Book of Onei, Part 1: The Art of Night Wandering

 

Image by Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer

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Interactions Are the Reality

Blake_jacobsladder

Form is the Illusion is a book about Relationship Theory, an unusual system of metaphysics developed by the late David Douglas Thompson. Relationship Theory addresses questions of ontology and epistemology in a way that is likely to be of interest to pagans and occultists.

Form is the Illusion: A Magical Philosophy (3)

“Proposition: We (humans) know only the various relationships an object has with ourselves and the rest of the universe as seen from our point of view. We cannot know the thing in and of itself, only observe its interactions with other objects.” (Notes on Relationships; David Douglas Thompson)

 

“Interactions are the reality; form is the illusion.” (The Ten Laws; David Douglas Thompson)

 

Although my father referred to this concept as Relationship Theory, it isn’t actually a theory in the scientific sense. Relationship Theory is a philosophy, highly similar to Interanimism, Agential Realism and similar currents in contemporary magical thought. The main difference between Relationship Theory and similar philosophies is that these philosophies are generally materialist in orientation whereas my father’s Theory is neither materialist nor idealist.

 

Philosophers have proposed a number of different answers to the question of what reality is, but most of these answers are variations on materialism, idealism and dualism.

 

Materialists assume that there is nothing except matter, and that anything that seems non-material (such as the mind) is actually just a side-effect or emergent property of matter. This is the most common view among modern scientists, although not the only one.

 

Idealists believe the exact opposite – that there is nothing except for mind, and anything that seems non-mental (such as matter) is actually just a manifestation of consciousness. This view is counterintuitive for most people, but it has a lot more going for it than it might appear to at first glance and historically has been a difficult position to effectively challenge. A few scientists in the modern era have been idealists, because it is easier to resolve some of the most complex paradoxes of physics if you assume a universe of mind rather than matter. Idealism is also the basis for mystical philosophies like Vedanta.

 

Dualists believe that both mind and matter are real and distinct from each other. The dualist mindset formed the basis of early modern science but is now out of favor among both philosophers and scientists, although a lot of people assume a dualist worldview without realizing they are doing so.

 

Of course, there are many philosophies that don’t fit neatly into one of these three camps, but most of them are actually variations on one of the three. For instance, some people believe that there is nothing but mind and that there are an infinite number of different minds. Others believe that all of reality is just a single mind. Both of these positions are idealist philosophies, but they have very different implications.

 

Immanuel Kant was a less extreme sort of idealist. He never said that mind was the only reality, but his philosophy does imply that we can’t possibly know otherwise. We would have to use our minds to even ask the question, so we can think about it all we want and apply any form of evidence we like – and all that thinking, measuring and experimenting will still be happening inside our minds. If there is any reality outside the mind, we can’t know what it really is in and of itself. Kant’s form of idealism is called “Transcendental Idealism,” and it had a huge influence on all subsequent philosophy.

 

Richard Tarnas, in The Passion of the Western Mind, described the dilemma of modern thought as the collapse of objectivity, the death of the illusion of absolute truth, and the alienation we experience as a result:

 

“The world is in some essential sense a construct. Human knowledge is radically interpretive. There are no perspective-independent facts. Every act of perception and cognition is contingent, mediated, situated, contextual, theory-soaked. Human language cannot establish its ground in an independent reality. Meaning is rendered by the mind and cannot be assumed to inhere in the object, in the world beyond the mind, for that world can never be contacted without having already been saturated by the mind’s own nature. That world cannot even be justifiably postulated. Radical uncertainty prevails, for in the end what one knows and experiences is to an indeterminate extent a projection.”

 

In such a world as the one Tarnas describes, there can seemingly be no metaphysics, because all metaphysical arguments depend on the ability to make definitive statements about reality based on the logical structures created by human reason. As these structures themselves cannot be objective, they can ultimately tell us nothing at all about reality itself.

 

The mind that observes the physical universe has no way of getting out of its own way while it performs its observations. All knowledge is provisional and contextual; there is no reliable way to determine whether anything we are experiencing is “really real.” To take one popular example, how can we know that our reality is not a simulation created by a superior intelligence?

 

It seems to me that before we can ask what we consider real, we ought to ask what we mean by “real.” If we’re trying to ask what is real in and of itself, then the question is unanswerable. The absolute perspective is not available to us, and it is logically untenable that it ever could be – unless a person could somehow step out of the universe, abstracted from all particulars, and watch the whole thing from outside. So the question of what is absolutely real is an incoherent one – it presupposes what might be called a “God’s eye view,” which is simply not available to us.

 

The most extreme alternative, however, seems intuitively false – that is, to consider all of reality to be completely subjective, controlled by our thoughts and beliefs alone. According to this view of the universe, all I can say is what is real to me, and my view is no more or less valid than any other – regardless of its relationship to anything else. This extreme form of subjectivism is simply untenable. If I step off a building I will fall, and it won’t really matter what I think about it.

 

What is needed is a more precise and yet more flexible understanding of what we mean by reality, one that adequately accounts for all observed phenomena without making any unsupportable claims to absolute truth. This is what Relationship Theory attempts to do, beginning with the assertion that there is no perception without contrast.

 

Suppose any situation in which there is no contrast of any kind – a field of white light or a pitch-black void – and the result is blindness. An example from the real world would be the condition known as whiteout, in which the white sky of a winter storm and the white of the snow on the ground produce snow blindness. For anyone to see anything, there must be some form of contrast.

 

This applies to other forms of perception as well. If your hand is at a higher temperature than the water you dip it into, then the water will be perceived as cold. This won’t happen if the water and your hand are both at the same temperature. A piece of silk feels smooth to the touch because it is smoother than your own skin. Perception is always a kind of confrontation, in which two things which are in some way unalike come into contact with each other. This encounter between unlike objects is by definition a relationship, an interaction between entities. The moment we encounter the world, we encounter relationship.

 

I look down at the desk on which I am writing this and am aware of its presence, due solely to a series of interactions. Beams of light passing into my eyes, changing as they are reflected by the lens, create a picture in my mind. My hand resting on the surface of the desk sends a message to my brain, creating a sense of its solidity and shape. All these experiences are perceptions of contrast, of that which is other than me in its encounter with me, of an entity which is contrasted in some way with the other factors in its environment and the interactions of that entity with those other factors. Without this interaction between opposing entities, I would be unable to perceive the desk at all, or anything else.

 

Our entire experience of the world we live in, the premise underlying all daily existence, is the interaction between things that are unalike. If either factor is not present, then there is no perception. Two entities that did not interact, either directly or indirectly, could not ever become known to each other or affect each other in any way. They would, essentially, not exist to each other, although for this to really be possible in a strict sense they would have to occupy different universes. Two entities so completely alike that no contrast could be perceived between them on any level would not be perceived as two entities but as one. To exist in the universe, we require the other. Erase the other and you erase the world.

 

Therefore, a thing cannot be known in and of itself, but only as part of a particular relationship. This is something we encounter on a daily basis. There’s no way for me to see you as you see yourself, because I cannot have the experience of being you from the inside but only from the outside. I don’t encounter you at all, but my interpretation of you. I cannot see the table as it is in itself, but only as it appears in its relationship with me. I cannot see this book as it is in itself, or the walking stick in the corner, or the floor beneath my feet.  There is nothing whatsoever that I can experience as it is in itself, because everything I do experience must be mediated by my senses, and then by the mind that interprets that information.

 

What I encounter in all my interactions is simply a flow of information, a set of relationships of which I am a part.

 

“Interactions are the reality; form is the illusion.” In other words, it doesn’t matter what form a thing has or seems to have (whether mind or matter, real or unreal, relative or absolute) – the only thing that matters is what interactions this thing has with other things.

 

In Relationship Theory, the categories of mind and matter are done away with and replaced by something called a “zed object.” An interaction or relationship is called a “zed,” so a zed object is anything capable of having an interaction with another thing. A human being is a zed object, each cell in that human being’s body is a zed object and every thought in that human being’s head is a zed object too. Every atom in the universe is a zed object, but all of the things made out of those atoms are also zed objects. Concepts and percepts are both zed objects. A gene is a zed object and a meme is a zed object.

 

Another way of putting it is that a zed object is simply a piece of information – any information of any type. So, where a materialist believes that everything is matter and an idealist believes that everything is mind, Relationship Theory says that everything is information. If we start from the assumption that all of reality is an infinitely complex network of interactions between information-units, we no longer need to analyze or question whether these information-units are “in your head” or outside it. We only need to look at what they do.

 

This doesn’t mean that all opinions are created equal. Why? Because any useful description of reality must account for all the relationships, it must deal with everything that is experienced. If you believe something contrary to what you yourself experience, your belief is not useful; it cannot account for all of your interactions with the universe.

 

For instance, if you experience yourself as having wings, but fall to your death when you attempt to fly, then your description of reality obviously failed to account for the entirety of your own experience. On the other hand, there is no need to second-guess whatever you do experience, to ask yourself if you are really just a brain in a vat being controlled by a computer. When you say that something is real, you are only saying that you directly experience it – there is no other meaning to the word “real.”

 

According to Hilary Putnam in Reason, Truth and History, metaphysical realism can be defined as the belief that there is “some fixed totality of mind-independent objects”. The problem with this philosophy is that it allows for only one description of reality to be complete and accurate – and that leads to some bizarre unintended consequences.

 

When you say the word “house,” it either refers to a real house that is actually there outside the mind or to an imaginary house that does not exist outside the mind. If you’re really nothing but a brain in a vat, then none of the houses you have ever seen is a real house. Popular science writer Neil DeGrasse Tyson expressed strong support for this view at the 2016 Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate, stating that the odds we are all living in an elaborate simulation of reality “may be very high.”

 

In Relationship Theory, the word “house” does not refer to some hypothetical mind-independent object called a house. It only refers to the direct experience we call a house. Relationship Theory treats whatever we experience as being real. This has just as many bizarre implications as metaphysical realism, but they are implications we can work with.

 

One of those implications is that there can be no single complete and accurate description of reality, as that would require “some fixed totality of mind-independent objects” and leave us stranded in the simulation problem. If reality is simply an infinite network of interactions between information objects, then there must be multiple different functional descriptions of that reality. So what do we do with that implication?

 

(Next: Ringing the Changes)

Image by William Blake

Seven Levels of Dreaming

by Chevigie {ca.1939}

The Book of Onei is an antinomian dream grimoire, providing deceptive yet true information about the art of Oneiromancy or dream magic in the form of poetry, fantasy, and intentionally ambiguous instructions.

 

1- the mundane

2- the curious

3- the mythic

4- the mysterium

5- a vision

6- an epiphany

7- annihilation

 

Mundane dreams are those that come in through the Gates of Ivory; they contain no magic.

 

Curious dreams are intermingled with hints and glimpses of magic.

 

Mythic dreams come in through the Gates of Horn; they are dreams of true and sacred things presented in the form of myth.

 

Dreams of the mysterium involve magic power, a drunken electric ecstatic presence.

 

Visions display the vividness and intensity of the Phantasia Catalyptica.

 

Epiphanies answer great riddles and questions.

 

Annihilation destroys the dream. That which waits here is the same as that which waits beyond death.

 

– from The Book of Onei, Part 1: The Art of Night Wandering

 

Image by Chevigie

A Metaphysics of Relationship

Walter Crane, Freedom, 1885

Form is the Illusion is a book about Relationship Theory, an unusual system of metaphysics developed by the late David Douglas Thompson. Relationship Theory addresses questions of ontology and epistemology in a way that is likely to be of interest to pagans and occultists.

Form is the Illusion: A Magical Philosophy (2)

Relationship Theory is both a theory of knowledge and a theory of being.

The ontology of Relationship Theory can be summarized in the phrase “interactions are the reality; form is the illusion.” In other words, the theory draws no distinction between different forms of existence. Material objects and mental objects are both referred to as “zeds,” or entities capable of being in relationship. The theory concerns itself only with the interaction between these zeds, without assessing which of them can be said to have some sort of objective validity and which cannot. The question of whether a particular zed “really exists” is treated as irrelevant because it is inherently unknowable.

 

We are constantly taught to doubt the reality of our own spiritual experiences – some of the most meaningful and beautiful experiences we have as human beings. Traditional religions teach us to question them as potentially demonic, while skeptical materialism teaches us to dismiss them as mere illusions. The constant presence of both these ideas is a barrier to experiencing real magic, because we cannot simply inhabit the worldview of our ancestors for whom the reality of the spiritual world was totally unquestioned. Rather than vainly attempting to inhabit a mental space we can no longer reach (and producing weak magic as a direct result), we can simply step around the barrier.

 

Interactions are the reality, so our relationship with the magical world is all that matters. Form is the illusion, so questions about its real nature are simply not relevant.

 

The epistemology of Relationship Theory can be summarized in the phrase “always ring the changes.” Because no distinction is drawn between different types of entity, it is taken for granted that there will always be many different possible ways of understanding the universe. Some of these worldviews work better than others, but there is no valid reason to arbitrarily choose between equally functional worldviews.

 

Rather than picking a worldview and sticking to it, the Theory encourages us to shift playfully between different worldviews, like bell-ringers changing the patterns while ringing church bells. This approach is basically the same as the practice of paradigm shifting in Chaos Magic. This is only to be expected, because both approaches are steeped in the postmodern experience. However, the application is somewhat different. In Chaos Magic, the magician is encouraged to completely adopt one worldview at a time, shifting between them as needed but believing in each one as deeply as possible while using it. The change-ringer is encouraged to hold on to the echoes of one worldview even while playing with the next, so that seemingly contradictory truths are held in the mind at the same time.

 

The change formulae of Relationship Theory describe how zeds interact with each other, and in what circumstances these interactions can change. These formulae provide a philosophical framework for magical experience, a tool for understanding the rhythms of enchantment.

 

We have a lot of ground to cover here, but we’ll take it one step at a time – first theory, then practice. In the next section, we’ll take a closer look at the ontology of Relationship Theory and the reasoning behind the assertion that “interactions are the reality; form is the illusion.”

(Next: Interactions are the Reality)

Image by Walter Crane

An Antinomian Dream Grimoire

Resistance, the Black Idol' by Frantisek Kupka {c.1903}

This book is an antinomian dream grimoire.

 

Oneiromancy, night wandering, mythic dreaming – by any name, dream magic is the art of traveling to the world of myth and wonder in dreams or half-dreams.

 

The things you do there, the quests you experience there, and the riddles you answer there are up to you. Your dreams are your own dreams, although some dreams are shared.

 

Nothing in this book should be taken literally. Nothing should be taken as a metaphor either.

 

Miracles and magic happen every single day, but dream magic offers something much more wonderful than power – a secret that waits beyond dream and death.

 

I step outside. It’s true, perhaps- the years

Have folded me, transmuted me, and made

A different man. The mix of light and shade

 

With which I started is, no doubt, the same

And yet the shape is altered. I have come

So far, this time, from where I started from

 

It feels like transmigration. And my self

Can’t quite recall the self it used to be.

I look up, feeling old and lost, and see

 

A sky of midnight blue. The clouds roll past.

The dead leaves whisper. In the rising wind

Are hints of what I thought I’d left behind.

 

I used to know a way out. That’s a truth,

Though not a fact, exactly. There’s a feat-

You don’t ignore the facts. You merely cheat.

 

And still they call me – shadows from the fire

That burns behind the door. The dark, red wine

Of knowing how to walk the borderline.

 

I turn, and go inside. Tonight I’ll dream

And slip through boundaries, past seas of glass

And mountains hot as blood and dead as ash.

 

Prometheus and I, we share a knack

For abstract theft. And though it’s been too long,

Still, “Whom the gods destroy.” You know the song.

 

– from The Book of Onei, Part 1: The Art of Night Wandering

Image by Frantisek Kupka

A Magical Philosophy

Evelyn de Morgan, Aurora Triumphans, c. 1886

Form is the Illusion is a book about Relationship Theory, an unusual system of metaphysics developed by the late David Douglas Thompson. Relationship Theory addresses questions of ontology and epistemology in a way that is likely to be of interest to pagans and occultists.

Form Is The Illusion: A Magical Philosophy (1)

Magic has been intellectually disreputable for a very long time now. The world we have created together is so thoroughly disenchanted that the phrase “magical thinking” describes a fallacy, an error of logic that assumes causality where there is no causality and imagines personality where there is no personality. We inhabit a world without any magic in it, a change in perception so fundamental we can no longer imagine our own ancestors without thinking of them as fools.

 

The effects of this worldview are increasingly destructive, and the scale of the destruction increasingly threatening. By convincing ourselves and each other that the world was inanimate, we gave ourselves and each other permission to murder it.

 

In giving ourselves permission to murder our world we may have begun the process of mass suicide. If we cannot find a way to restore some form of animism, the ability to relate to everything as a being with agency, then our future as a species seems precarious and bleak. If magic itself is only a fallacy, then the negative consequences of disenchantment are sadly irrelevant. A true proposition does not become false simply because it has harmful consequences. But what if the harmful proposition is also questionable in the first place? What if enchantment is a more useful working assumption than disenchantment?

 

Occultists have often defined magic in purely instrumental terms, as the ability to impose change on reality through an act of will. This is not what I mean by magic. Traditional magical practices are intended to produce results, but they include underlying assumptions about reality that are much more than a mere set of techniques for controlling what happens. These assumptions include the following core ideas:

 

  • That the world and everything in it is in some sense alive, even if this life is more sentient in some forms and less sentient in others.
  • That there is no hard boundary between life and death, only a transformation from one state to another.
  • That all entities have some form of agency: people, animals, vegetation, natural elements, complex systems and emergent patterns.
  • That it is possible to engage in relationship with any of these entities.
  • That there are methods for doing so, many of which use symbolism and ritual behavior as a type of language.

 

These assumptions are at the heart of many magical practices, but because they are assumptions they are usually not stated or debated but simply acted on. The philosophical examination of these assumptions could be described as “magical philosophy,” the theme of this work.

 

Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa’s Three Books of Occult Philosophy provided generations of magicians with a mental framework for their practices – an elaborate structure of ideas combining Christian Neoplatonism, astrology and the ancient pagan gods. To work effectively within this system, the magician would have to be able to completely inhabit Agrippa’s worldview. Living in a society with a very different perspective on reality, this is no longer easy for us. From childhood onward we are told that magic isn’t real, that the gods don’t exist, that visions and ecstasies are not to be trusted. We are always aware of other worldviews – fundamentalist religions, skeptical materialism and other claims on our headspace. We either distrust all claims to absolute truth, or we latch on to one of them with the fervor of someone who knows he can never truly believe.

 

If we want to escape this labyrinth and experience some magic, we need a theory that accounts for the world we live in today. The ideas in this work derive from a notebook written by my father David Douglas Thompson around 1984, containing cryptic formulae on the subject of metaphysics. These formulae seek to explain the patterns governing the interactions between all entities, the source-code or deep structure of reality as he saw it. He claimed to have been given this gnosis in a dream or vision, but the formulae themselves are simply philosophical propositions. Their application to questions of magic and pagan theology is only one small part of the idea.

 

My father referred to his system as Relationship Theory, because it treated relationships as the base-unit of reality. However, he was highly reticent to share or even fully explain his ideas in his own lifetime. Shortly before his death in 2006, he discussed the possibility of collaborating on a book to explain his concept, but died soon after and was unable to do so. The only record of his theory is in two short sets of notes. “The Ten Laws” presents the basic principles of the concept, although not in systematic form. “Notes on Relationships” presents the change formulae.

(Next: A Metaphysics of Relationship)

Image by Evelyn de Morgan

The Spider’s Song

oceanide.jpg!PinterestLargeJanToorop

The Book of Onei is an antinomian dream grimoire, providing deceptive yet true information about the art of Oneiromancy or dream magic in the form of poetry, fantasy, and intentionally ambiguous instructions.

In the city of Sophia in the land of Onei, only wisdom was valued and the foolish were outcasts. The wise used them only for pulling carts or breaking stones, but those whose foolishness was too offensive to the wise were driven away, forced out into the rocky wasteland on the borders of the Plains of Day and Night. Sometimes the lights from their campfires could be seen in the distance, but this sight made the wise uneasy and so they often chose to leave their shutters drawn. All over the splendid city made of colored glass and hammered bronze, onion-domed towers and lofty pinnacles, the night was dark, but in the rocky wasteland outside the city there were lights like distant stars. It was almost as if the wise were frightened of those campfires, which grew more numerous every year.

 

Such a fate was Aphron’s, son of the philosopher Qaran the Luminous. He had always been foolish, a drinker of strong wines and a sleeper at noon, but his father’s reputation for wisdom was so pronounced, even in a city as wise as this one, that he had managed to reach his nineteenth year before anyone dared to speak against him. When the outcry to banish Aphron came at last, his father Qaran took him aside and sought to prepare him for what lay ahead.

 

“My son,” he said, “you are not wise, but there is no need for you to become one of those who cluster around the campfires at the edge of the city. For there are two paths to wisdom, and one is close at hand. If you go out past the rocky wasteland and into the Plains of Day and Night, you will come to the Starry River. Cross that river, and seek the priests in the Plain of Day. They will teach you the wisdom of faith and service, and you may return here as a priest.”

 

So Aphron set off, and his path took him out through the rocky wasteland and past the ashes of the discarded cooking fires. None of the foolish were to be seen by day, and rumor had it that they shunned the daylight, seeking to hide their shame by burrowing and digging, living in caves like furtive animals. It took Aphron three days to cross the rocky wasteland, but he never saw any fools there, only their campfires after sunset. When he made an effort to approach a campfire, it would wink out like a closing eye, leaving the night in a more total darkness. So Aphron concluded that the fools had rejected him, knowing him somehow to be a seeker of wisdom. He pressed on into the Plain of Night.

 

The Plain of Night

 

The Plain of Night was a terrible place, where the sun never rose and the moon never shone, like the moonless nights preferred by thieves and reivers. No path showed the way through that dark, flat plain, but for as long as Aphron walked upon it he heard noises in the nearer distance. Stealthy footsteps crept slowly up on him, seeming to be preparing an ambush, but no predator ever struck. Sinister whispers seemed to breathe conspiracies, but he could never make out the words they were speaking. The fear of walking through constant danger was far worse for Aphron than an actual attack, for as a frequenter of taverns and wine houses he was no stranger to sudden violence, and he carried a long, flame-bladed rapier at his side. He clutched the hilt and prepared himself, but no attack ever came.

 

Without any sign of sun or moon, he had no idea how long he walked, but at last he came to a shining river, faintly silver with the light of all the constellations that seemed to glow from beneath the waters. Aphron could not decide if there were stars in the water, the night sky of some other world perhaps, or if it was only a reflection. When he compared the constellations in the Starry River to those in the sky above him, they did not seem quite the same, but he was at a loss to say exactly how. Remembering that he was a fool after all, he gave up wondering, and looked for a place to cross the river.

 

There was a ferry-man on the riverside in the silvery darkness, sitting and playing dice with no one and drinking dust from an old clay cup. When he looked up at Aphron and spread his hand for the fare, his smile looked as evil as a death’s head grinning, and his skin was stretched so tight over his bones he might as well have been a skeleton. But after Aphron had paid the fare, and the two of them had gone halfway across the river, his flesh filled out. His malicious grin became a somber frown, he grew a long white beard, and his eyes became bright and blue, though they stared blindly ahead of him. A moment later, they passed into daylight. Before the ferry-boat had crossed the Starry River, both sides of the bank had been the same black landscape. Now both of them were all but drowned in sunlight, and the Plains were a wonderland of grass and flowers, while the air was so fresh it tasted like honey. The ferry-boat landed on the Plain of Day, and Aphron walked in search of the priests who live there.

 

The City of the Gods

 

The City of the Gods in the Plain of Day was home to many temples, and the creed they taught was one of love and service – love for the gods, and service to humanity. The priests of the Plain of Day were not corrupt, but genuine servants who strove only to stand as interpreters between the earth and heaven, and who trained the priests of the many cities of Onei in the subtle intricacies of the celestial language. Aphron the Fool sought out the temple of Wisdom, for the goddess of Wisdom was the goddess of his city, and no man who had learned her mysteries would ever be accounted a fool.

 

“The highest wisdom,” the priest told him, “Is the wisdom of discernment, which will allow you to serve both god and man. And the key to discernment is to learn the flavor – the taste and the texture of wrong and right. First I will feed you the wrong.”

 

The priest gave him something that looked much like chocolate, the richest and darkest of chocolates, but its taste was sour. It was the taste of his mouth on a long and hateful morning after too much wine the night before, the sweat of an anonymous lover’s unloved flesh, the iron-like stench of blood on his blade after a misspent word.

 

“I know this taste,” he said. “And it is poisonous. Because of these flavors I was sent into exile.”

 

“Then consider that your first taste of wisdom. Now I will feed you the right.”

 

What the priest fed him now was like an amber-colored honey, the taste of goodness and piety, the taste of loving kindness. For many days he feasted upon it, because the taste was new to him, and at first it seemed to Aphron to be the greatest joy he had ever known. For one month and then three months and for one year and then three years, Aphron fed only on the honey of righteousness. But then in time it began to pall. The taste it left in his mouth was so sweet as to be nauseating, and he longed for something more solid to feast upon.

 

“Honey is sweet,” he said. “But it is not satisfying.”

 

The high priest sighed, and opened a door that led out of the temple. “In that direction is the Blue Desert. If you can cross its sand dunes and survive its dangers, you will come in time to the Cliffs of the Sages. They teach the other path to wisdom.”

 

And the high priest would not look at him, but would only point ahead at the Blue Desert with his face averted, as if Aphron had disappointed him or possibly shamed him somehow. So Aphron set out on the road again, two times an exile.

 

The Plain of Day was filled with temples, and Wisdom was only one of them. There were temples to all of the gods on the Plain of Day, from the lordly and wrathful Thunder Wolf to the Huntress with her bow and arrows. He stopped at none of them, though a man could learn wisdom by studying at any of them. The path of the priests was not for him.

 

The Blue Desert

 

On the third day after he left the Temple of Wisdom, Aphron reached the end of the Plain of Day. Blue sands of a darkly luminous color stretched out to the edge of the horizon and beyond, like an ocean without a drop of water in it. Aphron walked on into the Blue Desert without giving the City of the Gods another thought.

 

The Blue Desert was a dangerous place. The sands in the Blue Desert had a mysterious color, that deep yet still luminous color of the last minutes of twilight. This color is usually seen only in the twenty minutes or so before true nightfall, when the sun has gone down completely but the sky has not yet forgotten what the daylight used to be. It is the color of melancholy, the type of melancholy that is aesthetically pleasing, an emotion as hypnotic and fatal as the eyes of a cobra.

 

As he crossed the Blue Desert on foot, Aphron succumbed to that melancholy, suddenly swept by a terrible longing that yet seemed indescribably beautiful to him. He was thinking about a former lover from the City of Wisdom, a great beauty whose eyes had shined with much the same color (or so it seemed to him now). He suddenly decided he must have been in love. He couldn’t know this, of course, but they had already driven his former lover out, to join the other fools whose campfires dotted the rocky wasteland. This twilight-eyed beauty was far from tortured by thoughts of Aphron (being rather more concerned with immediate survival), but Aphron was suddenly tortured by thoughts of them.

 

If torture is really the right word for it, that is – because it had much to savor in it, this emotion of yearning and loss and poignant memory. He thought about their blue eyes, the same blue as the sands, and the soft waves of their long wheat-colored hair. He thought about the way they smiled at him when he came into the tavern, and the way they sang for him when the two of them were alone. These thoughts were painful – among the worst pain he had ever experienced – but he would sooner have given an arm than give them up, and that is never true of anything we do not crave. Aphron craved his own suffering, and for as long as he craved his suffering, he wandered aimlessly through the desert.

 

No one can say how long he wandered there, but Aphron was a fool – and no fool ever kept the face of one lover before his eyes for very long. He savored the beauty of his own suffering for a time that felt terrible, and he could have sworn that it was a hundred years – and then another old infatuation crossed his mind, a red-headed fruit seller he had met for just as long as it took him to buy some peaches. As soon as he thought of this fact, he laughed, and as soon as he laughed at his own foolishness, the blue sands lost their power. The Cliffs of Saint and Sage were right there in front of him, a walk of no more than a few hours.

 

The Cliffs of Saint and Sage

 

When he arrived at the cliffs, their height was terrifying, but he could see that there were people who lived on them in caves like birds. There were piles of bones below the cliffs, as of people who fell, but he couldn’t tell if they were the saints and the sages or merely would-be visitors who had tried to climb up to them. There was no way to reach the caves except to climb the cliffs, so Aphron disregarded the risk and began to climb.

 

Three times he almost fell and joined the bleached bones at the bottom, but each time he caught a hold and continued to climb. He reached a cave before nightfall, and the old hermit who lived in the cave was clearly a sage. He looked on Aphron with eyes that burned, and gestured for him to crawl into the cave.

 

“I have long awaited you,” he said. “Twice-exiled Aphron the Fool. You rejected the path of the priests, because the priests know nothing except right and wrong. Wrong and right are merely opposites, and the path of the sage is to transcend such opposites. By rejecting the path of the priest, you have begun the journey. To complete it, you must wear this hair-shirt, and live in this cage on the side of the cliff. When you no longer know of hot and cold, like or dislike, good or bad, you will have become a sage.”

 

So Aphron lived in the cage on the side of the cliff, praying and meditating and starving and itching. He understood the purpose of it – which made him wonder whether he was really such a fool as he had always been told – but the hair shirt scratched him and burned him, and the cold winds that swept the side of the cliff made him shiver, and the occasional bird’s egg the hermit fed him was less than nourishing. He felt his mind changing as the days wore on, but not in the way the hermit intended. He wasn’t piercing the veil between right and wrong. He wasn’t transcending his preferences. He was only becoming strange, sinking down into a deeper foolishness in which he thought he could begin to understand the language of the spiders, the music that sunlight makes, and the logic of the clouds.

 

The hermit pulled his cage in one day for the purpose of feeding him, saw the crazed look in his eyes, and began to beat him with an old bone. Aphron chose not to resist this violence, but it did make him wonder. How was it that a sage could become so angry?

 

What the Spider Said

 

As he lay in the bottom of the cage on the side of the cliff, a black widow spider crawled up to him. The spider said this: “Soon to be thrice-exiled, you are one of my kind, a follower of the third path. For there are priests and there are sages, but there are also magicians. The priest serves the community through prayer and sacrifice, through articulating its deepest values, and by mediating between god and man. The sage, on the other hand, makes men into gods, by teaching them the wisdom to stand as high as heaven. The magician does neither.”

 

“Then what does the magician do?” asked Aphron. And the spider sang:

 

In the ruined walls of Carthage

There’s a man who sits alone.

He can tell you what your dream is

From the cracks along a bone.

 

In the Empty Quarter, keening,

There’s a woman, old and blind,

And her milky eyes are staring

Through Saharas of the mind.

 

They will show you how to do things-

How to rule the wind and storm.

But you’ll find yourself a stranger

In the place where you were born.

 

As the spider completed this mysterious song, the hermit heard him, and came rushing forward with a little knife. “You’ve been listening to the spiders,” he said, “Just like the others!” And the hermit cut the rope, sending Aphron the Fool to his death far below.

 

Or such was his intention. For while most of those who heard the spider’s song had gained too much wisdom, leading them to contemplate their own deaths with a fatal dispassion, Aphron had only become more strange. He had achieved the foolishness of poetry and of the wandering stranger, and the laws of the world held no weight with him. He changed into a crow with a flick of his thoughts, flew out between the bars of the cage, and disappeared into the open sky.

 

“Where are you going?” yelled the hermit, waving his knife at the departing bird. “Where are you going, you fool?”

 

“I fly for Carthage,” croaked the bird.

 

Image by Jan Toorop