Don't start me talking
I'll tell everything I know
Gonna break up this signifying
Everybody's got to go
Sonny Boy Williamson
Magic of a kindIt’s funny how things come together. I didn't finish this yet, but here's take one...
I like magic (the conjuring tricks of my youth), but have difficulty contemplating magick (the ritual type), which (in spite of the protests of people I know who use it) seems to me like a religious or mystical modeling of the world. Still, they have lots in common (more than either might like to admit) – especially in the area of the manipulation of perceptions and beliefs.
Although a pre-computer geek sub-culture, the magic community has always seemed not so much a secret society as a ‘society with secrets’ (as the Masons also like to consider themselves). The Magic Circle of London has always sounded to me much like a sort of ‘gentleman’s club’ as so many other specialist lodges appear (My grandfather and uncle may have belonged to a masonic ‘music lodge’), but I don’t think it really bears comparison with Masonic groups, even if it shares similar structures (for decades membership remained men only, as initiation you have to perform magic in front of them, they award medals and ranks, and have an Inner Circle, etc. Still, people from all ‘classes’ – remember them? - belong.).
Membership may remain open to all, but it has an elitist quality which does seem to invite the middle classes, the established members of society, the respectable. Similarly, the defence of the realm (the intelligence services) have drawn most of their candidates from Oxbridge (I suspect you will find more John Le Carrés than Harry Palmers).
Magic and spiesAnd the skills of the magician (trickster version) have always figured in secret service skills and interests. The perfect murder? Slipping things into people’s drinks unnoticed? Picking their pocket, extracting information and returning it? Codes and ciphers? Hiding information? Misleading people?
You can find how John Mulholland (a widely respected magician) got involved with spooks, and shared his skills, and is now sometimes vilified by his fellow magicians – for misuse of the arts – in this book.
The MagiCIAn: John Mulholland's Secret Life
If you don’t want to read a book, this article in Genii (Genii - The Conjuror’s Magazine - April 2001) might do
THE SPHINX AND THE SPY
The Clandestine World of John Mulholland
By Michael Edwards Copyright 2001 by The Genii Corporation. _All Rights Reserved. _
"The manual as it now stands consists of the following five sections:
1. Underlying bases for the successful performance of tricks and the background of the psychological principles by which they operate.
2. Tricks with pills.
3. Tricks with loose solids.
4. Tricks with liquids.5. Tricks by which small objects may be obtained secretly. This section was not considered in my original outline and was suggested subsequently to me. I was, however, able to add it without necessitating extension of the number of weeks requested for the writing. Another completed task not noted in the outline was making models of such equipment as has been described in the manual.""As sections 2,3,4, and 5 were written solely for use by men working alone the manual needs two further sections. One section would give modified, or different, tricks and techniques of performance so that the tricks could be performed by women. The other section would describe tricks suitable for two or more people working in collaboration. In both these proposed sections the tricks would differ considerably from those which have been described.Gottlieb, whose goal was an operational guide that would be of use to agents in the real world, shared Mulholland's view that broadening its scope to include collaborative efforts by teams of operatives or by female agents was well worth the delay. On November 17, he authorized Mulholland to draft the two additional chapters and extended the timeline for completion of the book until May. This new work became MKULTRA Subproject 19…”
Magic, camouflage, dirty tricks and the occult...
And yet Jasper Maskelyne (of a family of British magicians) used his skills to confuse and bemuse the enemy in WW2 and seems to come out of it as a hero. Book: War Magician. Disguising tanks as trucks, and (when necessary) trucks as tanks, moving a whole port city along the coast (by lighting), so bombs fell harmlessly, and all kinds of camouflage and bluff got involved. ‘Dirty Tricks’ still had a glint of wicked deviousness back then.
Ian Fleming, Dennis Wheatley, Graham Greene, John Le Carré – I enjoy to see how much play-acting, fiction, magic and games (from chess to poker) have to do with the world of the spook.
So it almost bemuses me to find espionage doubts and suspicions directed at ‘occult practioners’, too.
Gurdjieff (in James Webb’s The Harmonious Circle);
Crowley (in Secret Agent 666: Aleister Crowley, British Intelligence and the Occult), and even hints about
HPB (Blavatsky) herself - spying for Russia in The Great Game of mystical imperialism (British Empire and Tsarist Russia fighting over central Asia - Tibet, Afghanistan, etc).
Scientific expeditions, or spying?
Early travelers and adventurers sometimes brought back useful maps and information which they perhaps shared if asked, bullied, blackmailed, pressurized, paid, etc. They might even have found it a good way to fund their explorations (as taking a tv crew can today), with upfront payments and commissions.
From the point of view of local peoples, however, foreigners often get treated with suspicion, and if border tensions increase then the unknown may look like military reconnaissance rather than science… Even Wordsworth and Coleridge, poetically wandering in the hills of Somerset (West of England), and conversing in French, were suspected of being spies from the French Revolution (a threat to Britain at the time) and got investigated.
Cells and such
Lone travelers may appear odd enough, but extended networks can come under even more suspicion, as the secretive nature of some business links crime, smuggling, espionage, etc.
Of course, any organisation using a clandestine cellular system has high security but still lays itself open to corruption from within – as small pockets of members with a different agenda are (by definition) isolated and able to develop its own path and priorities. So I don’t think of all Freemasons as ‘baddies’ (for instance) but I suspect that Freemasonic Lodges do sometimes get taken over (‘turned’), and misdirected from their original course. One example, in Italy and the P2, for instance.
The British secret service apparently ‘turned’ virtually every German agent in the UK during WW2 – and were effectively running the German network, feeding it good, bad or indifferent info and misinfo, etc.
Occult lodges seem a likely target for seeking out and drawing in people, and acquiring influence among intelligent, multi-lingual, well-travelled and perhaps ‘amoral’ people.
How much of the Russian ‘psychic research’ arose from the Cold War, (secret weapons, black ops, psychological warfare, etc) and how much as genuine scientific research still seems unclear to me, and it turns out the Americans had invested quite a lot of time and money in it, too. Think Puharich and Geller, or Jon Ronson’s The Men Who Stare at Goats.
There are so many threads to pursue. What of the connected stories implicating UFOs, alien abductees, secret experiments, social manipulation of belief systems, and all the other ‘paranoia’ of the ‘conspiracy theorist’ (and those inverted commas show how easily such comments get turned aside)?
Ah, yes, anyway...
When we published Magical Means, we dropped in passing mention of The Great Game (the battle between Brits and Russians over control of India, Tibet, Afghanistan, etc) but perhaps we didn’t take it seriously enough.
[Update: Aug 2014: new material on Houdini as spy in The Secret Life of Houdini]
As in any good scam (or double-cross heist movie), you eventually wonder who controls who...
A few more references:
Joyce Colin Smith – an appreciation of James Webb
In case (like Chris M) you mistake me for a total sceptic about psychic and paranormal 'stuff', can I point you to The Trickster and The Paranormal for an interesting mixed view. Website. Book. Blog.
All my own magic research links can be found on this blog.
An interesting edition of the Journal of the Western Mystery Tradition