PART 1. INTRODUCTION
Online Video Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RT3eSpOpBDU
Some might say we no longer live in an age of masters, as if they have somehow disappeared from our cosmos and from the metallic reality of our time. They were the ones of miraculous abilities, those who held certain otherworldly features, like no others, beyond all others, able to control the pathways of delirium, cruelty, hallucination, rumor, healing, and doom.
Above all else, though, the masters understood the many layers of secrecy, and thus they formed the great sects of past centuries. Underground societies, forbidden aristocracies, rebel cadres, cult gatherings, urban gangs, martial arts orders, avant-garde movements, criminal outfits, and mystical circles.
These masters and their alliances wore many masks, and their gifts to enchant the world were beyond measure…at once visionaries, liars, sorcerers, thieves, seducers, and assassins. And still, their obscure ways are something that can be grasped; they are fused together by highly specific and intricate concepts; each concept is a corridor of thought and sensation, and each corridor forms part of a larger cipher to be examined, a riddle broken into many pieces here.
Author: Jason Mohaghegh; Video Editor: Ghazal Zamani
Video Credits [Materials Included] — Film Selection: “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (Directed: Andrew Dominik, 2007)
Film Selection 2: “On the Silver Globe” (Directed: Andrzej Żuławski, 1989)
Score: Nick Cave. “Song for Jesse” from the soundtrack to “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (2007)
Images: “The Guardians of Time” installation (Manfred Kielnhofer); Sufi Mystics; Kung Fu Artists; Grigori Rasputin, George Gurdjieff; Muslim Woman.
PART 2 (SEPARATION)
The first principle of mastery is SEPARATION, from which we can explore the further concepts of departure, misanthropy, and desperation:
Sub-Concept 1. Departure
The master must leave all others, must withdraw from the everyday world and abandon the reality of the crowds. He must establish a sanctuary at far distances, somewhere in the hills, the caves, the subterranean lairs, a remote island, desert, jungle, or sea. Desolate landscapes where he can buy time to think, buy time to reinvent himself, time to transform into something more than what was allowed before. It is in this seclusion, this nowhere, that he becomes a phantom-being of different proportions, a horrendous or beautiful shadow, and starts to plot his eventual return to the world, both in hostility and in ecstasy.
Example 1. The Old Man of the Mountain
To better imagine the principles of separation and departure, we can look to the story of Hassan Sabbah, hypnotic leader of a famous group of killers known as the Hashishin (literally meaning “those who smoke hashish” but from which the word “assassin” also descends). They say Hassan Sabbah seized a fortress called Alamut in an isolated mountain range of Northern Persia. From there he formed a secret order, where by day he would train his disciples in poetry, philosophy, music, and mysticism, and then by night send them to commit strategic murders across the empire. For decades he would bring havoc upon kings and their palaces, never even leaving the courtyards and libraries of his tower; and yet all feared him, feared the daggers of the Hashishin. And it all began from the first impulse toward departure, the moment when he decided to take to strange heights, to exist in the chasms above, faraway and inaccessible, and thus to become the most iconic figure of his time…the Old Man of the Mountain.
Sub-Concept 2. Misanthropy
The master must slowly become a misanthropist, a figure of acute hatred, one who despises humanity from the far reaches of his own accursedness. From this outcast vantage, he passes judgment upon those who remained in the cities; and the more he remembers them, the more he sees only their wretchedness. He believes that existence has fallen into the wrongs hands and that mankind should not rule over the destiny of this life.
The master must believe in persecution; he must feel he is always under siege, always hunted by those who would subvert his plans. An epoch of rivals, stalkers, and killers surround him, ready to collect his head. His suspicion grows with time; he suspects that enemies wait crouching around every corner and down every quiet alleyway. Everything works against him; everyone seeks his downfall.
Example 2. Peasant of the Stone Garden
To better understand misanthropy, we can look to a deaf Iranian peasant named Darvish Khan, one who could hear nothing and speak to no one his entire life. As a consequence, he created an elaborate stone garden upon his land where he would dance in states of rapture and delirium. No human forms, only the rock fragments, the deranged sculptures, and the reflections of sun and moon to keep him company. We can wonder what he spoke to them in his infinite silence, in his aloneness, in the separation of the stone garden.
Sub-concept 3. Desperation
The master is a figure of pure desperation. This makes him dangerous, for he is capable of integrating whatever methods are required to survive. He believes that the laws of men and gods have betrayed him, that even the stars in all their chaos, and even the stray pendulums of chance and destiny, have left him to perish. He is the embodiment of misfortune, a pale image enveloped first in despair; but then he weaponizes this torment, and despair becomes harsher, sharper, more engraved. Despair becomes its more war-like elder brother: Desperation. And one should fear the most desperate ones.
Example 3. The Madman of the Asylum
The schizophrenic writer Antonin Artaud once said that the entire history of existence amounted to nothing more than an attempt to torture and crucify him. He claimed that millions of years ago, in the void of the cosmos, there emerged a whisper of black magic that spoke his name, Artaud, and that everything since then was just the grand procession of a vendetta against his soul and body. Thus, it was from within the cold walls of the Rodez insane asylum in southern France, that he wrote these words: “These terrifying forms which advance on me, I feel that the despair they bring is alive.”
Such is the voice of the one most separated from all else.
Author: Jason Mohaghegh
Video Editor: Ghazal Zamani
Video Credits [Materials Included]: Larbi Cherkaoui (black and white series, mixed on paper, 2013, http://www.larbicherkaoui.com/uk/); “Alamut” painting, Agit Ugur Uladag. Score: Max Richter. “Song”.
VIDEO 3. TERMINAL ALLIANCE
Online Video Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3V3VLsBAb6o
The second principle of mastery is that of Terminal Alliance, meaning togetherness-in-death, from which we can explore the further concepts of tightness, accusation, and inner violence.
Sub-Concept 1. Tightness
The master trains his followers toward a state of extreme tightness. He binds them to exist in supremely rigid circles, feasting at the same table, sleeping in the same quarters, his disciples laced together in webs of mortal harmony. They are taught that their individual lives hang in the balance of one another; they rise in victory along the same axis of glory, just as they bleed and extinguish on the same plane of defeat.
The tighter the sect grows, the angrier it becomes…by night and by day, they turn more exclusive, intolerant, unforgiving. Thus they form a ring of great distemper; the smallest agitations to their world-view open a gateway to wrath; they learn to invoke fury at the slightest trespass, as everything becomes punishable to the maximum limit. This is the paradox of their simultaneous power and their fragility, a power that indeed emanates from the fact that they are always on the verge of breaking.
Example 1. Yukio Mishima
The Japanese writer Yukio Mishima was born in 1925 in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo, ultimately becoming one of the most complex and legendary authors of the past century. From his earliest upbringing though, Mishima was subjected to quite dark psychological tendencies: on one side, an aristocratic grandmother who for years never allowed him to enter sunlight, and on the other a militaristic father who would often hold his young son before speeding trains only to wrench him back from the tracks at the last moment. It was against this cruel backdrop that Mishima began envisioning his first literary works, controversial manuscripts composed in total secrecy. With an instinctive genius like no other, his writing quickly developed an intense fixation with death and self-annihilation, territories of experience that would play themselves out in all his later texts.
Sub-Concept 2. Accusation
The master renounces all predecessors. He accuses all who came before him of being impostors or cowards. History is therefore irrelevant and even poisonous, its pages filled with those who lied or those who trembled and therefore did not go far enough. Thus every authentic master believes that he is the final master, the whirlwind of the ultimate itself. They are the culmination that will make right all the failures of past pretenders.
Example 2. Yukio Mishima (continued)
Yukio Mishima would rapidly become a central player of the intellectual and artistic scene of post-war Japanese society. His charm and eloquence was unparalleled, and his brilliance in both thought and style was known throughout the highest cultural circles. What was unknown, however, was that over time Mishima had developed a severe fascination with the old existential codes of the samurai, and had trained himself in martial arts, swordfighting, and the strict philosophy of Bushido. It was at this time that he also began recruiting devout students to his outlook, and formed a small underground warrior militia named the Tatenokai (meaning “shield society”). He trained the members of this forbidden organization on private grounds, made them swear vows of allegiance, and taught them that their mission was to forever protect the divine essence of the emperor. Nevertheless, he also instructed them that the reigning Japanese emperor was an illegitimate ruler, a mere human deceiver, and that he must be overthrown in order to restore the purity of the imperial throne.
Sub-Concept 3. Inner Violence
The master believes that the inner violence of his movement will supersede the outer violence of the false societies that gather in the centers of power. To do this, to unleash the violence of the sect against the violence of the human world, he trains his followers to believe in the collective force of the “we”–and one must beware the alarming vibration of this word, those who no longer say I but only we, for this means that the one has already become many, a storm that foresees many, has many marching behind it and many waiting in ambush ahead. They advance as a black cloud, carried forward by their disastrous intimacy. This logic of the pack, the swarm, the cell.
Example 3. Yukio Mishima (Final)
On November 25, 1970 Yushio Mikima and four of his Tatenokai warriors entered the main camp of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces. They barricaded the base from all sides as Mishima himself ascended the stairs to a balcony overlooking thousands of soldiers. He then delivered a speech condemning the corruption of the current Emperor and inciting them to immediate revolution, after which Mishima then re-entered the commandant’s office behind him and committed ritual seppuku (an ancient practice of self-disembowelment). A specific member of the Tatenokai society had been chosen to then behead his master in traditional form, but failed to properly perform the task several times before himself falling to his knees and assigning another to finish the beheading on them both. It was done, and this bewildering event, whose motives and origins remain shrouded in obscurity, is still known in Japan as the Mishima jiken (meaning the Mishima Incident) to this day. As an intriguing side-note, though, it was later discovered that the great writer Mishima had planned this occasion for years, dreamed of it with meticulous theatrical intricacy, down to the very death poem that he inscribed and apparently read right before the moment of his suicide. A vision of terminal alliance.
Author: Jason Mohaghegh
Video Editor: Ghazal Zamani
Video Credits [Materials Included]: Larbi Cherkaoui (red series, mixed on skin, 2014, http://www.larbicherkaoui.com/uk/); Anish Kapoor. Leviathan. Paris, 2011; Chiharu Shiota. “The Key in the Hand.” Venice Biennale 2015. Japan Pavilion. (Video by Sergey Khodakovskiy. http://www.hitartstudio.com). Video: “The Strange Case of Yukio Mishima” – 1985 – BBC – Arena (documentary). Score: Max Richter. “Embers”.
Video 4. Miracle I
Online Video Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ao9Skpc2Ebo
For thousands of years, the masters have been connected to the realm of miracle. Some were saints or prophets, others monks or magicians or even just wanderers. At times these miracles were the province of myths and legends: Some said that Cain’s mark on his forehead rendered him immortal, or that Oedipus’s blinded eyes gave him the power to bless or curse cities, and the sirens of Greek literature appear as half-women, half-bird like creatures whose singing alone could entice sailors to hurl themselves upon the rocks and drown among the waves. At other times though, miracles were the province of observed phenomena: many claimed they witnessed Sufi martyrs dance while burning, or stand and walk after their deaths, just as others have watched in amazement as certain Christian believers manifest the open marks of the stigmata on their bodies. The tales are seemingly endless, and the masters are always spoken of amid whispers of their miraculous histories.
These miracles each have very complicated origins, and can thus be broken into several categories. The first concerns miracles that revolve around Time. These include the ability of Time-Travel, the ability of Premonition (or seeing the future), and the abilities of Necromancy or Resurrection (which is to raise the dead or to bring oneself back from death). These time-based miracles always emanate from a radically altered relation to past, present, and future (one that is based more in paradigms of circularity or eternity than the linear clock-time that rules our everyday world).
The next category of miracle resides in the area of Manipulation, as masters are often said to exercise extreme control over those they encounter, including: the ability to read the thoughts of others, the ability to enter others’ dreams or whisper into their minds, the ability to drain special powers from souls or objects, the ability to bring good fortune or harm to others’ lives, and the ability of possession (whether meaning to seize hold of someone else or to allow themselves to be overtaken by another entity). In each of these instances, what separates the figure of the master is a certain outlook on existence as highly vulnerable, an interplay of forces of domination, or a system of thin puppet-strings wherein one is always either the architect or the slave.
Example 1. Grigori Rasputin, the Dark Mystic
The Russian holy man Grigori Rasputin still casts a cryptic shadow over modern history: to some a saintly priest, to others a demonic vessel, and to still others a charlatan who made his way into high political circles through cunning lies and tricks.
It was said that Rasputin displayed paranormal talents from a young age in his village: he was sometimes found removing deformities from the sick; he could allegedly tell when another person had stolen something; and he spoke with horses in an invented child’s language. Later he would have visions and reside in a basement for months wailing and shrieking lamentations to God, which soon gained him the title “The Cellar Preacher.” Still later, he was invited to the royal court and was said to cure the Tsar’s son of both lethal fever and hemophilia. He lived thereafter at the palace, gaining the close trust of the Tsar’s wife, but also began engaging in suspicious rituals of drunkenness, ecstatic dancing, and eroticism.
For the next few years, Rasputin became more sinister and intimidating to those around him. He was said to have a mesmerizing stare, and could hypnotize through his fierce gaze. He would also select political officials for the Tsar simply by looking into their eyes. Furthermore, Rasputin was a mithridatist: that is, one who took small doses of poison in order to immunize himself against its effects.
On December 30 1916, at the age of 47, Rasputin was assassinated by four high members of the Russian political world. They invited him to dinner and proceeded to slip enough cyanide into his wine to kill 4 ordinary men. When they noticed that he remained totally unfazed, they then shot Rasputin through the chest, beat him severely, and threw him into a freezing river assuming him dead.
Nevertheless, these conspirators would later recount the image of their own unthinkable horror when they saw Rasputin still alive, attempting to swim across the ice-cold water to the shore, though he would in fact drown. Soon after some local people would recover the body and, still fearing the dark mystic, took the corpse to a nearby forest to be burned for safe measure. As the flames enveloped Rasputin, the bystanders witnessed in terror as the body visibly began to move and writhe and appear even to sit up. Perhaps just the side-effect of a badly-performed cremation and the constriction of rigidified tendons that were suddenly heated, or perhaps the final miracle of someone deemed inhuman in his time, and not quite clear whether empowered by good or evil or something altogether beyond.
Author: Jason Mohaghegh; Video Editor: Ghazal Zamani
Video Credits [Materials Included]: [Video 1] FLUIDIC. “Sculpture in Motion” (kinetic sculpture). 2014.; [Video 2] DAYDREAM V.02 Audiovisual installation by NONOTAK STUDIO (Noemi Schipfer and Takami Nakamoto). Documentation video video from INSANITUS FESTIVAL 2013 in KAUNAS, LITHUANIA.; Score: Nick Cave. “Soundtrack to The Proposition” (Film, 2005).
Part 5. Miracle II
Online Video Link:
We return to the precise classifications of miracle then, as these strata provide us crucial insight into the types of wonder that masters induce in those who behold them and cross their paths. The next category of miracle is therefore linked to the Body, and there are countless variations of metamorphosis therein. These include: the ability of shape-shifting or incarnation, the ability to expand or dwindle to immense and miniature sizes (or even to change the size of one’s shadow along the ground), the ability to manifest crystals or electricity from one’s flesh, the ability to heal scars or diseases, the ability to withstand extreme deprivation (somehow surviving while being denied food, water, or even breath), and finally the ability to become air or liquid whenever the master chooses. These bodily miracles always emanate from a unique relation to the realm of sensation, to the scales of pain and pleasure, and ultimately to a knowledge of important techniques of endurance.
The next category of miracle involves Movement. These include the ability of flight, the ability of teleportation (meaning to jump in space) or of surface-climbing (such as walking on water or up walls), and the abilities of Invisibility or Disappearance. As a consequence, these movement-based miracles always emanate from a radically altered relation to space and boundaries, one that perceives borders not as barricades but rather as portals through which one can traverse, trespass, or escape.
The final category of miracle concerns the domain of Nature, and this bond is intimately familiar to those who have ever studied the genealogies of pagans, healers, shamans, medicine men, fortune-tellers, oracles, or priestesses. The masters here are always engaged intensely with the fluctuations of the natural world, concocting potions or elixirs out of bare ingredients, or interpreting the winds and rains in order to materialize transformations of some kind. Not transcendent, but visceral (even when speaking of transcendent things). They build their sensitivities to the weather, they translate the dynamics of land and smoke, they learn to strike deals with whatever is most palpable and tangible before them. Thus the stories of these miracles include the ability to control the elements (for instance, calling forward thunder or earthquakes), the ability to hear storms coming, the ability to speak in hidden tongues and communicate with animals, angels, ghosts, or demons, and the ability to emit light or darkness across a room. This miraculous grasp over the natural order is not accidental though, for it arises from a conviction that one can learn how to bend the spheres of fire or dust, to make them react and turn to one’s own desire.
Example 2. Unica Zurn, the Hallucinatory Artist
Unica Zurn was a visionary artist and writer of the 1950’s and 1960’s who worked closely with the Surrealists and generated both poetry and visual pieces resembling dreams, nightmares, fantasies, and fairy tales. At the center of her imaginative universe, though, was an extraordinary experience that she had as a young child, where she claims one day to have roamed into a garden to find a chimerical figure who she would name the Man of Jasmine. Zurn writes:
“One night in the sixth year of her life a dream takes her behind the tall mirror on the wall of her room…Then her vision appears to her for the first time: The Man of Jasmine!..He is paralyzed! What good fortune. He will never leave his seat in the garden…
And she marries him. The loveliest thing about it is that no one knows. And this is her first, her greatest secret.”
The image of this miraculous meeting would recur throughout the next decades of her life, even amid psychotic collapses and periods spent in and out of insane asylums. Thus Zurn speaks of her being perpetually encompassed by this entity, like an oracle occupied by a celestial spirit:
“Someone traveled inside me, crossing from one side to the other. I have become his home.”
Then one day, a startling event would occur in the hospital where she was staying, an event that would make an irreversible incision in her consciousness. The Man of Jasmine arrived to meet her, stepping into her room in human form. Thus she writes:
“She experiences the first miracle in her life: in a room in Paris she finds herself standing before the Man of Jasmine. The shock of this encounter is so great that she is unable to get over it. From this day on she begins, very very slowly, to lose her reason.”
In the aftermath, it was known that Unica Zurn became increasingly obsessed with numerology (particularly the number 9) and started devising compulsive anagrams (poems where the letters were rearranged to form other words and coded messages). And her drawings would now take on the settings of wild spaces: gardens, groves, jungles, endless vines and plants intertwined, and strange vegetal beings with many eyes and faces among them. The ideal kingdom for the Man of Jasmine. Thus she would paint the miracle over and again.
Author: Jason Mohaghegh; Video Editor: Ghazal Zamani
Video Credits [Materials Included]: [Video 1] Alessandro Bavari. “Metachaos.” (2010, http://www.alessandrobavari.com); [Part 2] Images: Rick Kanary. “Confessions of a Tightrope Walker.” (https://www.thesil.ca/confessions-of-… Lin Wang. “Funambule – Tightrope Walker” (https://www.saatchiart.com/account/pr… Video: Dean Potter. “Moonwalk” (Shot as part of a bigger project for National Geographic called “The Man Who Can Fly.”
Directed by Mikey Schaefer, Produced by Bryan Smith, Concept by Dean Potter); [Part 3] Hyun Jean Lee. “Light Green Leaves with Light (2012-2013).”; All further images (4) in Part 3 credited from Walt Spangler (Walt Spangler Design, http://www.waltspangler.com); [Part 4] All images of or by Unica Zurn (various selected drawings). Score: Max Richter. “The Leftovers, Season 1 Soundtrack.”
Part 6. Oblivion
Online Video Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uhqR004HEM8
The master learns to orchestrate oblivion (realms of obscurity, forgetting, disappearance). She plays at nothingness like a music box, knowing when time must perish of itself. We encounter 3 principles of oblivion here:
- To summon coldness at will (becoming when one must become indifferent, uncaring, and merciless).
- To enter into states of haze (becoming fog, mist, vapor, ghost).
- To imagine oneself as the last person on earth (post-apocalyptic solitude, world-extinction).
These are the first forms of oblivion, for which there is only vanishing and aftermath.
The South African visual artist Jane Alexander is known for constructing scenes of elaborate desolation. In these scenes, there are often three creatures looming, and each one a unique example of oblivion.
- The Wolf (figure of automatic movement, devouring, and collective brutality).
- The Monkey (figure of isolation, wakefulness, and despair).
- The Vulture (figure of stillness, hovering, and the wasteland).
Author: Jason Mohaghegh; Video Editor: Ghazal Zamani
Video Credits [Materials Included]: [Part 1] Image 1. Mikael Bertmar. “Dreamvision. The Cemetery.” Nordic Photos/Getty Images. (http://bertmar.se/); Image 2. [Video still] Ron Rosenbaum. “Video of Skull and Bones Ritual.” ABC News, April 2001.; Image 3. Michael Ackerman. Poland, 2005. (http://www.agencevu.com/photographers/photographer.php?id=1); Image 4. Olia Pishchanska. “Inside.” Deviant Art. 2012.(http://pishchanska.deviantart.com/art/Inside-207117197)
[Part 2] All images are derived from the visual artwork of Jane Alexander. “Surveys (From the Cape of Good Hope)” at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine. Photos taken by Agaton Strim, The New York Times. Art and Design section. (http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2013/04/26/arts/design/20130426-ALEXANDER.html)
Score: Arvo Pärt. “Für Alina No. 3.” 1976. Played by Jeroen van Veen.
Part 7. The Idol
Online Video Link:
The masters are often tied to the practice of idolatry, the worshipping of carved images or statues. These figures would therefore design and forge idols for their own movements, out of stone or wood or bronze, often in the shapes of fearful creatures that were half-human/half-animal or completely unrecognizable. In rare yet essential circumstances, the masters even choose to become the objects of adoration themselves, treating themselves as living icons. And still, there is an intricate philosophy behind the experience of the idol; it is not a simple matter of religious belief, but rather an entire constellation of impulses and moods that must come together in the right balance and imbalance, the right dosage and overdose. We will enumerate only 5 principles here.
First principle: the idol is a force of incarnation. It must not be understood as the symbolic representation of a god but instead as the material embodiment of that very god-force. It is therefore not a placeholder for some transcendent being who lives elsewhere or rules from impossible distances, but rather is the being itself manifest and crystallized…one that can be seen and touched with perfect immediacy. And one can understand the dangerously limitless territory that emerges from this notion, when one can stare into the actual face of the otherworldly, or hold it within their hands.
Second principle: the idol is a force of vulnerability. It is not immortal or untouchable as in classical sacred paradigms but rather can be shattered or buried, lost or stolen, fractured or decayed, but also rediscovered after time. Thus the idol can perish precisely so it can return, and this instability and imperfection, this highly delicate form that it takes, is the very key to its commanding presence, for it is at once reversible and irreversible, impermanent and eternal.
Third principle: the idol is a force of silence. We have seen these ancient sculptures in museum cases, still ominous and menacing as they sit quietly behind modern glass, their slit eyes full of unspoken malice and threat. No doubt, this very stillness of the tongue, this radical hush, is precisely what creates entrancement in the beholder, for the idol offers no written text to read or laws to follow, often not even a name, only a plateau of disturbing silence through which one must then hallucinate into the open void.
Fourth principle: the idol is a force of locality. It never pretends to reign over the universal; it does not seek to dominate the totality of things or to establish a world-order, but rather wishes only to exercise control over a specific region or people. The idol is thus always embedded in a defined terrain, casting its supremacy over a single island or mountain tribe or narrow patch of earth. This only enhances the allegiance and fascination of the group to whom it belongs, for they are endlessly devoted to what is theirs alone.
Fifth principle: the idol is a force of minimalist immensity. It does not require colossal stature to be colossal in dominion; it does not need massive scale to overwhelm and bring havoc or fortune upon the land. Instead, it oversees vast expanses of fate and time, it manipulates plagues and wars, all while emanating from the most miniature structure. This only enhances the awe and dread of the idol, for it draws elegantly upon the human terror of small things.
Alchemy: To understand the world of idols, one can look to alchemy and the master alchemists who stretched from Egypt to Greece, China to India and the Mediterranean. These secret circles experimented in closed quarters, risking body and sight and health while testing the combustible limits of sulfur and mercury, and then sharing their theories and findings in elusive codes and diagrams with other alchemical undergrounds. But what exactly were the alchemists after, and why was gold elevated to the level of an idol within these orders?
We will speak of only three imperatives of the alchemists here, those they thought that if somehow conquered would lead to the fulfillment of the soul.
First imperative: transmutation. Many of us know the most common image of the alchemists as those who strived to turn base metals into gold, but in actuality this was just a micro-platform by which they aimed for something far greater: the ability to distort destiny itself. Thus gold as material fortune stood for the larger puzzle of altering Fortune in the broader sense, meaning the power to invade, subvert, and twist the foundations of existential reality, to malform and reform the essence of things at will.
Second imperative: exoticism. Many have interpreted alchemists as dedicated to rituals of purification, but in fact deeper study reveals an interest in contamination above all else. They studied contagions and processes of corruption, so as to mislead things into what they should supposedly never become. The alchemists’ methods are therefore more criminal than scientific, not seeking some inner truth but rather the fastest way to turn forces against themselves, to make them betray their originary properties and burst outwards, luring and tainting them away from their oppressive natural states and into the anarchic beyond. Thus they sought the pathways to creating the formless and the unworldly.
Third Imperative: immortality. As we have seen, the alchemists did not respect the elemental laws and structures of being but rather always sought the escape-route, the defect, the deviation, and this holds even for the boundaries of life itself. Thus the alchemists’ highest quest was for the uncovering of what they called “the alkahest,” later known as the “philosopher’s stone”, which was a hypothetical universal solvent that could dissolve all other substances including gold. This liquid was also said to hold the crucial combination of ingredients to outlast and defeat death. Indeed, the search for this everlasting elixir consumed the entire life-spans of certain masters across many continents, but what this reveals most of all is that the alchemists somehow linked the secret of immortality to the ability to infinitely disappear the world.
Thus the alchemists and their manic love of gold bring us full circle to the experience of the idol, for they understood that the ultimate task would be to find the way to extinguish the ultimate itself, meaning to overthrow the very idol they exalted.
Author: Jason Mohaghegh; Video Editor: Ghazal Zamani
Image Credits: [Part 1] Video of the visual art installation of David Spriggs. “Stratachrome Gold,” Pittsburgh, 2017. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9y8GfYwDmNE)
[Part 2] Video of the visual art installation of Citizen. “Light Is Time,” Milan Design Week, 2014. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ajv14nINbUU)
[Score]: Max Richter. “Path 5 (delta)”.
Part 8. The Mercenary
Online Video Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=konqUZzKvOQ&t=12s
The masters often bring another conceptual identity into their midst: the mercenary. The mercenary is a paid figure, a hired gun always highly skilled in war, her body purchased to do what no other is willing, to kill or die in the same breath, but this also makes her an unbound being, mercurial and disconnected, moving without facial expression or emotional pulse, like a sleepwalker with vacant eyes. She is ready to dwell at the most lethal edges of existence, a whirlwind of violence, without belief or honor, her stare metallic and uncaring.
Here we will explore only 5 principles of the mercenary:
- Equality: The mercenary is a servant of universal death, and therefore views everyone as interchangeable targets. Anyone can fall beneath the knife, all can be taken down for a price.
- Accident: The mercenary respects only the lawlessness of chance, recognizing life and death as phenomena of pure fortune. Thus no one is ever safe, no outcome guaranteed, and no promises can be made, for there is only indeterminacy to rule our movements.
- Waste: The mercenary squanders everything in hollow expenditures (gambling, drunkenness, sensual exchanges). They spend themselves bankrupt in transient blasts of indulgence, draining themselves of material belongings in the dice-throw or card game, forfeiting whatever to the tavern and the alley, for this frees them of possession and attachment to life.
- Neutrality: The mercenary occupies a middle-ground of total indifference, neither traumatized by nor addicted to their own hired viciousness, but rather floating like a fragment of dark matter. They are never the origin of conflict, just the extended arm of a decision made elsewhere, an impersonal weapon that seals another’s hateful transaction. Thus they stand untouched by guilt, shame, regret, judgment, or even pleasure, entering and destroying worlds with the most seamless touch.
- Futurelessness: The mercenary grants herself no concept of the future, never contemplating tomorrow, for she expects no exemption from her master Death. She knows that the end will come for her as well, soon enough, to claim and collect her back from the surface of things, and that she too will perish in the field or in the street one night, alone and badly. This gives her an air of invincibility though, as if calmed by the knowledge of this imminent betrayal, this cutthroat hour that is always within striking distance.
In a parallel universe of thought, we can look to the example of the Watchers (Aramaic iryn; Greek egregoroi), a biblical race of angels presumably sent by God to look over humans since exiled from paradise, but with strict commands to never intervene or make direct contact with those who had broken the covenant. Thus they were to remain forever adjacent, observing and recording details at a close distance, but never actually encountering those flawed humans who had failed the test of the garden.
And still, after years of absolute neutrality, keeping silent company with humans as they struggled and cried out, the Watchers’ gaze began to accumulate interest; they developed a kind of telescopic passion for those under their constant sight and felt attraction to these humans damned; they could no longer withstand their continued disengagement, this state of the almost-touchable, this excruciating proximity, and begin aiding and reproducing with them.
Thus the Watcher angels inevitably broke their code; according to apocryphal writings from the Book of Enoch, grandfather of Noah, they taught men the heavenly art of war (making spears and swords) and women the equally heavenly art of seduction (using makeup and dance), and they took lovers among them at night beneath the moon.
These mixtures also created tainted offspring, a bastard species of giants (half-divine, half-mortal) called the nephilim who would terrorize the land with exceptional strength and rage. As it is written in Genesis, Book VI:
“When people began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that they were fair; and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose. Then the Lord said, “My spirit shall not abide in mortals forever, for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred twenty years.” The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them. These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown.”
But these strong forbidden hybrids of the nephilim could not last, and it was indeed their supposed perversion (according to some readings) that caused a now-angered God to cast out the Watchers, condemning them to a cursed valley, and to then call forward the great flood.
Thus we return to the figure of the mercenary, for it was a mercenary class of defiant angels that first crossed the divide between world and otherworldly, sent on a mission to remain anonymous but instead shattering the barrier between the ethereal and the living, sky and earth, and thereby eliciting the first catastrophe to drown us all.
Author: Jason Mohaghegh; Video Editor: Ghazal Zamani
Video Credits [Materials Included and Cited]: [Part 1] All images from the visual artwork of Lin Tianmiao. “Bound and Unbound,” Art Museum of China Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing, China, 1997; [Part 2] [Images] Odilon Redon, “Fallen Angel”, 1872; Paul Gustave Dore. “Elijah Fed By An Angel”, 1866 and “The Fall of the Rebel Angels”, 1868 and “The Deluge”, 1865; Giovanni Lanfranco. “Norandino and Lucina Discovered by the Ogre”, 1624; Hieronymus Bosch. “The Fall of the Rebel Angels”, 1500-1504; Edward Burne-Jones. “Love Leading the Pilgrim”, 1896; [Sculpture] William Wetmore Story. “Angel of Grief”, 1894. [Score] Zack Hemsey. “The Way”.