On a winter afternoon about 10 years ago, I climbed to the top of a stone tower on the banks of the Charles River in Weston, Massachusetts. The Victorian-era oddity was built in 1899 to commemorate a Viking settlement that some believe Norse explorer Leif Erikson founded on the banks of the Charles around 1,000 A.D.
Named Norumbega Tower, after the legendary settlement, the 38-foot column had iron bars on its windows and doors to keep out snoopers, ghost hunters, and beer-drinking high schoolers. All I knew was that I wanted to go inside. I slithered my six-foot-two-inch frame through a loose grill, discovered some graffiti left by devil-worshipping metalheads (Satan love them), and climbed a dank stone stairway to the top.
At that time in my life, I had one great desire burning in my heart: to become a writer. I had already been active in this direction, but I was not young — I was past 40. I swore from the top of that tower that I would establish myself as a known writer. I asked all the forces available to me on that frigid winter day, seen and unseen, physical and extraphysical, to come to my aid.
Something swelled up within me at that moment: I felt in sync physically, intellectually, and emotionally and at one with my surroundings; my wish felt clear, strong, and assured, as though lifted by some unseen current. It was a totalizing experience, which went beyond the ordinary. In the years immediately ahead, I did become known as a writer — I was published by Random House and other presses, won a PEN literary award, and received bylines in places including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Politico, and the Washington Post — publications not typically drawn to the kinds of occult topics I pursue.
My act that winter day was entirely spontaneous and spur of the moment. I didn’t plan or prepare for it, and I wasn’t reciting any ceremonies, spells, or rituals from a book. It was an example of what I now call anarchic magick. (I follow the alternate spelling of magick to distinguish it from stage magic.)
Having been through an orthodox bar mitzvah as a kid, and much later spending eight years within a deeply intellectual, and powerfully truthful, esoteric order, which demanded study, memorization, and a grasp of profoundly arcane topics, I have developed a yearning for freedom in my spiritual pursuits. I now have an allergy to the memorization of liturgy, spells, ceremonies, arcana, and call-and-response recitations. I believe that focusing the will; directing the mental energies; synchronizing your mind, body, and emotions with the natural world; and — possibly — summoning unseen forces or entities—all things that are part of traditional ritualistic and ceremonial practice—are best approached, for me and others, in a mood of impulse, anarchy, and anything-goes effort.
This does not mean that I dismiss the study of esoteric and ethical philosophies — not at all. But once you have assimilated the rulebook, or many rulebooks as the case may be, you must throw it away and dance on the edges of your intuition. This was true in a different line of work for the 20th century’s great abstract visual artists, such as Pollock and Dali, who knew quite well how to paint portraiture but at the first possible moment vaulted past expectations. Metaphysical seekers should demonstrate the same agency.
Anarchic magick means that you can, and sometimes must, abruptly depart one line of practice and just as abruptly begin another. Such a schismatic act can bring special power. Beginners and latecomers to any field often become its innovators. For a secular example, consider Gaston Glock, the inventor and manufacturer of the Glock handgun. As explored in journalist Paul M. Barrett’s brilliant Glock: The Rise of America’s Gun, the Austrian engineer had, until well into middle age in the 1980s, dedicated his career to manufacturing curtain rods and knives. Glock knew almost nothing about firearms. But when the Austrian military issued a call for a sleek, new-generation sidearm, the inventor was intrigued. Not knowing what “couldn’t” be done, Glock took three months to develop a working prototype of his lightweight plastic pistol, which went on to revolutionize handguns.
Embracing a pursuit belatedly — and proceeding to learn everything about it — spurs innovation and spurns prejudice, allowing you to leap past pitfalls and conventions and do things in a fresh way. This is as true in spirituality as in material matters.
I had the following exchange recently in an interview with the occult website and zine Secret Transmissions. It provides a good example of the types of practice anarchic magick encourages:
Q: Mythology is intimately intertwined with magic, whether it’s Norse, Greek, Egyptian, Celtic or other. But let’s say that you don’t feel compelled to join a group ruled by a specific pantheon but are nevertheless deeply moved and inspired by these deities and want to make them a part of your spiritual life; how might that be achieved?
Well, to share a personal story, many years ago on Canal Street near Manhattan’s Chinatown, I discovered an old office building that had a beautiful profile relief of Mercury above its entrance. Apropos of what I was saying earlier, I harbor questions about the lingering energies of the old gods.
I made a practice, for many weeks, of taking the subway to that slightly out-of-the-way place every morning and praying to that image of Mercury. I used to stand on the sidewalk in plain sight and pray in front of a very nice and indulgent Latin American woman who sold newspapers from on top of a milk crate in front of that building.
I don’t know whether she thought I was crazy — there is a greater tolerance and embrace of occult religious methods in Latin America, so I might not have seemed very odd to her. In any case, I venerate the personage and principle of Mercury, and this was a means of expressing that, as well as petitioning favor. I felt some satisfaction, though no sense of conclusion, from this act.
I strongly believe that no one has to join anything, or seek validation from anyone when conducting an experiment. Traditions arise from experiment. I heartily encourage individual experimentation backed up by some kind of education and immersion in the history and practices of what you’re attempting.
Never, ever permit anyone to tell you that some kind of prerequisite is necessary to begin a spiritual practice — who is saying that, and what is the condition of his life that gives him authority to do so? Brush past experts and commence your search or practice now, wherever you like — do it with maturity, dedication, intellect, grit, and seriousness, but never be deterred by any kind of entry barrier.
Study your physical surroundings to detect your natural temple, or places where prayer, affirmations, setting of intentions, or appeals to a higher force may take place. I’ve already named two. I recently found another in the main branch of New York Public Library, where I occupy a research room. On the third floor of the beaux-arts building appears a ceiling mural of Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods and enlightened humanity. Prometheus is a cosmic figure with special relevance to strivers, seekers, and even Satanists. Positioned around him on the floor below are marble lampposts with cloven-hooves carved into their base. In this setting, you can touch one of the cloven hooves, perhaps arousing your natural tendencies, and send Prometheus an intention or appeal for something you intensely desire. Are you willing to try this, or something like it, in your own surroundings? Or are you too “serious” to venture such a childlike exercise? The wish for respectability, observed spiritual teacher Jiddu Krishnamurti, is the greatest deterrent to selfhood and progress.
Some may wonder how what I am describing differs from chaos magick, the practice of asserting your will in self-devised and inventive ways. Well, I see my outlook as a cousin to chaos magick, but with an even greater emphasis on the do-it-yourself ethic. Everything that I cite here is an example: Throw it out and devise your own rituals. Share them only to inspire, not to instruct. Chaos magicians sometimes see their work from a psychological perspective; my path is spiritual.
Maybe it’s a little inflated, but I’m touched by the declaration of anarchist revolutionary Mikhail Bakunin (1814–1876): “I cleave to no system, I am a true seeker.” I take that as the informal motto of anarchic magick.
I invite you to run past everything you know, forget all your “respectable” spiritualities — and see what you find. When you do find something — and I am confident that you will — do not coddle and nurse it for too long. Do not remain still. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote at the opening of “Self-Reliance”:
Cast the bantling on the rocks
Suckle him with the she-wolf’s teat;
Wintered with the hawk and fox,
Power and speed be hands and feet.