Friday, February 17, 2012

Lord of the Magicians Part II

In part one of this series I considered some of the occult aspects of the works of the acclaimed horror/fantasy author, painter, and filmmaker Clive Barker. As that piece wound down I began to examine my favorite Barker picture, 1995's Lord of Illusions. We shall further consider this film now, which is extremely rich in esoteric details. Barker has described the film as a hybrid of a supernatural horror film and private detective-centric film noir. Stylistically, that's pretty apt. But if such a genre as occult initiation existed, Illusions would certainly fit squarely therein. The film centers around two dueling magicians, a Manson-esque cult leader known as Nix, and his former apprentice, Phillip Swann.

Nix (top) and Swann (bottom)

As the film opens, we find Swann and several other ex-members of Nix's cult racing towards a desolate desert ranch. There Nix is holding a twelve year old girl hostage for reasons that are never entirely explained. Curiously, Nix keeps a pet baboon and uses it to terrify the the girl, named Dorothea. The baboon has been associated with the Egyptian god Thoth, who held dominion over science, writing, and magic. Sometimes Thoth was depicted with a baboon known as Babi as an attendant, and sometimes with the actual head of a baboon. Thoth was extremely important to the ancient Mysteries of Isis and Osiris.
"The goddess Isis married her older brother Osiris, whom she loved very much. Set, the old serpent of envy, hated their happiness and murdered Osiris by stealth. Then, to prevent all possibility of resurrection, Set dismembered the body of Osiris and scattered the pieces up and down the Nile River.

"When Isis learned what had been done, She called upon Thoth, god of Eternity, to stop the flow of Time, so that she could find all the parts of Osiris before the sun set. And Thoth stopped the wings of time, and the universe stood still, and Isis went forth weeping and griefstricken to hunt one by one for the pieces of the dead Lord Osiris. And when she had found them, she performed the Black Rite, and eternity gave birth to Time again, and Osiris was alive.

"And the secret of the Black Rite is the Secret of Secrets, and even those who know it do not know it fully..."
(The Cosmic Trigger Volume I, Robert Anton Wilson, pg. 221)

Thoth, in baboon form

Apparently the priesthood centered around Thoth was then entrusted with the secrets of the 'Black Rite,' which has been the source of much speculation in occult literature. In the director's commentary to Lord of Illusions Barker states that he fought to have the baboon included after the studio essentially believed it to be to expensive for such a brief appearance. If it is in fact a reference to Thoth, then is it possible Nix was planning his own Black Rite with Dorothea as a participant? Of course, Barker claims his insistence on the baboon was due to its dramatic effect, but the symbolism seems to fit a little to well for mere coincidence.

Nix's baboon

Nix is hanging from a suspended cruciform in the same chamber as Dorothea when Swann finally encounters him. A mock-crucifixion is another popular rite in certain occult circles.
"It is a ritual symbolic of rebirth but, even more than that, it mimics the death and resurrection of the initiate in psychological -if not spiritual -changes. It also unites the initiate with the whole history of his tradition, going back through all of those grimoires and spellbooks, all that gematrai and incantation, all that sacred geometry, until a karmic balance has been achieved between the actions of the initiate's life (or lives) and the life to come, the life he will lead. The cross on which he has been crucified fixes him at a specific point in space and time, bleeds him of karmic debt, fixes him like the alchemists fixed mercury, so that he becomes the engine of his own transformation, his own X and Y axis, the center of his own dimension and, as such, the center of all dimensions. What is death and resurrection, after all, but a conquering -an abrogation -of the linear, unidirectional flow of time, and thus of space as well...

"This crucifixion ritual would be mirrored in a ceremony that was performed by Charles Manson in Box Canyon near the Spahn Ranch in 1968, while he was under the influence of LSD..."
(Sinister Forces Book I, Peter Levenda, pg. 261)

Nix on his cruciform

Ah, more parallels to Manson and Nix. The notion of an individual being fixed in space and time upon being crucified is also interesting, when we consider that Thoth was also said to have stopped time itself so that Isis could resurrect Osiris. Resurrection becomes a chief theme of Illusions by the end of the opening sequence as well, for Swann manages to kill Nix (with more than a little help from young Dorothea). Nix's 'death' involves having a bizarre metallic mask attached to Nix's head via self-drilling screws. Swann describes the mask's purpose as binding Nix. Death, then, effectively stops time for Nix, who goes into a kind of hibernation after having the mask placed upon his face (in addition to being shot a few times).

Nix's 'death mask'

The rest of the film will center around several devoted followers of Nix as they go about attempting to resurrect their master from the grave. This endeavour really begins to pick up 13 years later when Swann has become a world famous illusionists, a la David Copperfield, in addition to marrying Dorothea, whose grown up version is played by Femake Janssen. When exactly the courtship between Swann and Dorothea began is never mentioned.

Grown up Dorothea

In fact, the relationship between the middle-aged Swann and Dorothea is quite odd on several levels. Dorothea states several times throughout the film that she did not marry Swann for love. The audience is given the vague impression that it was out of obligation to Swann for saving her when she was 12. Swann is seemingly obsessed with Dorothea and one is left with the impression that this obsession stretched over many years. Clearly Swann stayed close to Dorothea after rescuing her from Nix, possibly obscenely close.

To say that Dorothea was unenthusiastic about her husband throughout the film would be an understatement. Despite being stuck in an utterly passionless marriage, things aren't all bad for Dorothea. Judging by the size of Swann's mansion, being married to a world famous illusionist is at least not without its benefits. For our purposes, the most intriguing part of Swann''s mansion is the entrance room, featuring a black and white checkered floor and a winding staircase. This is heavily Masonic symbolism, and in keeping with the theme of initiation which we briefly explored in part one. Masonic lodges and parts of initiation rituals are supposed to mimic the structure of King Solomon's Temple. They also at times feature checkered floors.
"In addition, the floor of the temple may be constructed or decorated in a checkerboard pattern of black and white squares, a motif that is found on many Masonic documents, tracing boards, and other illustrations. The checkerboard pattern has a long and illustrious pedigree, calling to mind instantly the game of chess and its origins as a sacred game between the forces of light and darkness. Today, it might be interpreted as a grid, a group of cells called a matrix -from the Latin mater for mother, from which we get the words matter, material, and even Demeter, the goddess of corn (which is also an important Masonic symbol). The prima materia is an alchemical term indicating the base material of the Philosopher's Stone. All of these meanings would be relevant to the Temple's design, since -as a replica of KST -the temple represents the universe, not the universe in a chaotic state but as an ordered cosmos, created and designed by the Great Architect."
(The Secret Temple, Peter Levenda, pg. 11) 
Staircases are especially important in the symbolism of the second degree, the Fellowcraft.
"The lodge room for this degree is said to represent the 'middle chamber' of King Solomon's Temple, and the central icon of this degree is the Winding Staircase...

"The EA is then instructed in a strange and awkward method of walking, raising his feet high with each step, and progressing from the west to the east in this fashion. After this, the EA is made to kneel and hold the VSL -the Bible or another appropriate scripture -and made to swear another series of oaths with terrible penalties for breaking them..."
(ibid, pg. 17)
Best image I can find of the Masonic lodge-like features of Swann's mansion

EA stands for Entered Apprentice, the First Degree in Masonry which virtually every initiate begins at. In the first degree, the lodge is said to be the first floor or courtyard of Solomon's temple. In the third degree (the final in basic Blue Lodge Freemasonry), it is said to be the third and top most floor. In the third degree the initiate imitates the death of Hiram Abiff as they are made to mimic walking up a staircase in the second degree. Keep this in mind dear reader, for we shall return to the Masonic lodge-like aspects of Swann's mansion a bit later.

When the film moves forward 13 years the main character of Illusions, private detective Harry D'Amour, is finally introduced. Barker has stated that D'Amour is his favorite character and has described Harry as a kind of altar-ego. D'Amour has appeared in several of Barker's works including the short story The Last Illusion (upon which Lord is based) and the novels The Great and the Secret Show and Everville. D'Amour is supposed to appear opposite Pinhead in Barker's long anticipated The Scarlet Gospels. Needless to say, D'Amour is a fascinating character on many levels. Even the tattoos upon his body, which are said to be talismans that become warm when evil is near in the novel Everville, hold meaning. One of these tattoos appears on the back of Scott Bakula, who plays D'Amour in Illusions, though it is never explained. I dearly wish I could have found something on this symbol while searching the net, at the very least its name, but nothing useful came up. If anyone knows what the symbol tattooed on D'Amour's back means, feel free to share.

Scoot Bakula as legendary Barker character Harry D'Amour

D'Amour's occupation, private detective, is quite apt as well. The private eye is one of the most iconical and romanticized characters in modern American fiction. Frequently the private detective is portrayed as a lone light in a sea of pit-black corruption, a champion of the dispossessed and desperate. The image is the result of writers such as Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane and films like The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon. While the private eye is frequently depicted as David in fiction, their real life association is clearly with Goliath.

Private investigative agencies were born out of the labor unrest in America in the wake of the Civil War. These organizations, such as the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, were vast, featuring offices in virtually every major American city and employing thousands of people. In addition to detective work, many of these agencies also provided uniformed security guards for railroads, mines, and at times even towns (uniformed Pinkerton guards appeared on the streets of Chicago several years before uniformed police officers). They were also used to put down labor strikes (a speciality of the infamous Baldwin-Felts Agency) and to infiltrate labor organizations, which were frequently organized along the lines of secret societies. And so to were the detective agencies themselves, which laid the blueprints for both the modern Secret Service (the Pinkertons were in fact the original Secret Service, briefly serving as Lincoln's bodyguards) and FBI and heavily influencing the methods of the CIA in the process.
"The vital new ingredient in America that linked violence with revolutionary ideas was the flood of immigration that began in the mod-nineteenth century. As the country acquired new manpower from Europe to build railroads, tunnel mines, and fill factories, it also acquired a fresh infusion of ideas...

"Ireland played a particularly important role, providing 44 percent of the 3.5 million immigrants who came to America from 1840-54. The Irish brought with them a rich revolutionary tradition of secret organization and defiance of authority...

"After the suppression of the Ribbonmen in the late 1830s and the famine years of the mid-forties, revolutionaries in Ireland became more extreme and resourceful. Some new secret societies revived the old agrarian tradition of dressing in women's clothing ... and the Irish countryside began to talk about altogether new secret society under a legendary Molly Maguire.

"The Molly Maguires acquired an importance in the New World that they never had in Ireland. They became the defenders and organizers of the Irish immigrants who flooded into the newly opened coal fields of Pennsylvania. Anthracite mining was new to the Irish, who as Catholics were suspect and subjected to frequent unemployment, particularly in the recession following the Civil War. They looked for protection to the Molly Maguires, who organized largely in taverns as a secret, militant arm of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. They captured the imagination of America with their work stoppages climaxing in the Long Strike of 1875 against the Reading Railroad.

"A former radical Chartist, Allan Pinkerton, championed the counter-attack by the railroad owners, infiltrating the Mollies, and using 'flying squadrons' to break the strike and arrest its leaders. A sensational series of trails led to the hanging of twenty leaders in 1877, including the eight members of the inner, secret circle. Legends arose on the Left -and fortified a new literature of reassurance on the Right: the detective story. Just as Pinkerton provided a model of detective work in the service of the status quo, so Arthur Conan Doyle, after creating Sherlock Holmes, immortalized Pinkerton's tale of triumph over the Irish miners in The Valley of Fear of 1915."
(A Fire in the Minds of Men, James Billington, pg.434)

the actual logo of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency

In a way, American labor unrest of the 19th century can be seen as a war between competing secret societies, those of the labor unions and those of the detective agencies. What's more, the romanticized version of the private eye that would soon begin appearing in crime fiction was largely the construction of Allan Pinkerton himself, who became quite a prolific writer, in addition to the works by Dashiell Hammett (who wrote The Maltese Falcon, The Thin Man, and Red Harvest, among others), a former Pinkerton detective. But I digress.

Allan Pinkerton (left) with President Lincoln, making the sign of the 'hidden hand'

The New York-based D'Amour happens to be in L.A. working a divorce case when he stumbles upon the brutal murder of Quaid, a fortune teller who was with Swann during the confrontation with Nix 13 years earlier. Swann is deeply upset over the death of Quaid, spurring Dorothea to employ D'Amour on the sly to investigate her husband's past, allegedly. Of course, Dorothea is already aware of Nix, making her decision to employ D'Amour even more curious.

Shortly thereafter D'Amour and Dorothea attend one of Swann's performances at the legendary Pantages Theater in Hollywood. In the Director's Commentary on the DVD, Barker states that he was quite insistent that the Pantages Theater be used. This is most interesting, considering the odd history of the place. The Pantages was built by Alexander Pantages, a Greek vaudeville performer and early motion picture producer. Eventually he constructed a chain of successful theaters which RKO, under the direction of Joseph P. Kennedy, attempted to buy out. Pantages refused and shortly thereafter he found himself accused of rape by a 17 year old vaudeville dancer named Eunice Pringle. Initially Pantages was found guilty, but was acquitted during a second trial. Financially broken, Pantages sold his theater chain to RKO for less that what the motion picture company initially offered and for less than what was worth. Rumors have long persisted that Pantages was framed by Kennedy, the father of JFK and RFK.

Alexander Pantages (top) and Joseph Kennedy Sr. (bottom)

In Lord of Illusions, the Pantages Theater is the site where Swann opts to fake his own death. This is accomplished in one of the film's signature set pieces. Swann is strapped onto a revolving platform in the shape of a five pointed star atop a pentagon. Above him are numerous swords suspended from another revolving platform and on a timer. Every few seconds a sword releases and falls onto the platform below. As Swann is attempting to undo his bounds he falls behind the timing and the swords begin to fall into various parts of his body until they have all fallen and he is dead.

This sequence is symbolically important on several levels. As regular readers of this blog know, the five pointed star is a sign of Sirius, the Dog Star. Sirius is highly important in various occult strands. I've written more on this topic here and here. The five pointed-star combined with the pentagon on Swann's platform equals ten points. Ten was considered to be the most sacred number to the Pthagoreans.
"Ten was the number of the Pythagorean Tetraktys, the sum of the first four digits (1+2+3+4). It possesses a sense of totality, of fulfilment and that of a return to oneness after the evolution of the cycle of the first nine digits. The Pythagoreans regarded ten as the holiest of numbers. It was the symbol of universal creation, upon which they took their oaths, as 'the Tetraktys from which eternal Nature springs and in which it is rooted.' If all springs from ten and all returns to it, it is therefore also an image of totality in motion."
(Dictionary of Symbols, Jean Chevalier & Alain Gheerbrant, pg. 981)
Swords also have a curious symbolic meaning.
"The sword is the warrior's symbol, but it is also the symbol of 'holy war...' Holy war is above all else an inner struggle, and this may also be the significance of the sword brought by Christ... And it is also -in both its creative and destructive aspects -a symbol of the Word and of speech. While he preaches, the Muslim khitab holds a wooden sword in his hand and the Book of Revelation describes a two-edged sword in the mouth of the Word. The two edges relate to its dual powers, but may also convey the meaning of sexual dualism. The edges are either male and female, as an Arab writer explains, or else swords are ritually forged by a married couple or by a pair of smiths, in a series of operations which, as in Chinese legend, comprise a marriage."
(ibid, pg. 959)

I would venture to guess that the five pointed star is symbolic of the magical tradition, that of Sirius, that both Swann and Nix follow. Swann's (fake) death upon the ten points seemingly represents his failure to achieve perfection. The sword clearly indicates the struggle between Swann and Nix, and the two factions based around either. This struggle is a holy war in the purest sense, though Swann is totally ignorant of this. Swann has in fact failed to achieve perfection on many levels (even more so than Nix), which makes the ten points of his platform even more ironic.

D'Amour begins his investigation of Swann in earnest after the latter's alleged death. Among other places, the investigation takes D'Amour to Hollywood's legendary Magic Castle. It is here that D'Amour first hears of Nix, and rumors of Swann's involvement in Nix's cult. D'Amour also encounters the pompous illusionist Vinovich, played by the great character actor Vincent Schiavelli, who talks some jive about "divinity and trickery." Throughout Illusions I feel as those Barker takes several swipes at the shallowness of Hollywood and the buffoonish illusionists of the Magic Castle are used as stand-ins in this sequence.

Hollywood's Magic Castle

The oh-so-pretentious Vinovich character has actually witnessed Nix ad Swann perform actual magic, yet he holds his own illusions up to the level divinity and speaks of Houdini's 'spirit guides' (Houdini's legacy with Spiritualism is quite curious). This seems to be a reflection upon the 'magic' of Hollywood, and the importance the media and public alike attach to it, in comparison to the actual magic that is performed en mass daily across the U.S. As noted in part one, Barker has never directed another film to date after Illusions. It would seem the disillusionment was already weighing heavily upon him at this point.

the ridiculous character of Vinovich

As Illusions is part film noir it was inevitable that Dorothea and D'Amour would end up in the sack together. It is in Dorothea's bedroom, located in the top floor of Swann's mansion, that D'Amour and Dorothea are confronted by the still living Swann, in a de-materialized from. I will again remind the reader of the Masonic lodge-like structure of Swann's mansion, which I discussed earlier.

In the second degree of Freemasonry, the primary icon the initiate considers is the Winding Staircase, the 'middle chamber' of King Solomon's temple. Swann's mansion features both a checker boarded floor, as many Masonic lodges display, and a winding staircase. In making it to Dorothea's bed chamber, D'Amour passes through the second degree and is raised to the top most floor of Solomon's Temple. In the third degree, that of the Master Mason, the initiate reenacts the murder of Hiram Abiff, and is then figuratively resurrected. Here, D'Amour is confronted with a false resurrection by Swann before encountering Nix's actual resurrection a little later in the film. Is this whole sequence as well as the design of Swann's house meant to be symbolic of D'Amour's initiation, as well as the one the audience under goes as they view the movie?

This brief confrontation with de-materialized Swann is what drives D'Amour to seek out the actual Swann, which in turn sets in motion Nix's resurrection. In one of the film's most striking sequences, Nix's followers begin to head back to the desert ranch where they last encountered their master. Many of the cultist had settled into seemingly normal lives, but after receiving letters hinting at Nix's immanent return, they go about emotionlessly killing their families and coworkers before heading back to the desert. Talk about predictive programming.

It all leads to an inevitable conclusion with D'Amour and Swann rushing to Nix's desert lair, where the grown up Dorothea is once again being held hostage. Shortly before Dorothea was kidnapped by one of Nix's followers, she dropped one of the key lines in the film while paraphrasing Swann: "Flesh is a trap... and magic sets us free." Here again the subtle Gnosticism, as filtered through Crowley, of Barker's work once again makes an appearance. Of course, one of the deepest held Gnostic beliefs is that matter and the material world are a prison constructed by the Demiurge to trap the divine spirit of man. The Gnostic strand in Barker's writing is discussed much more in depth in part one of this series.

Nix, to his followers at least, is meant to be the ultimate embodiment of Swann's flesh/magic musings. It also seemingly brings the Masonic initiation allusions full circle. When considering the murder of Nix at Swann's hands, I can't help but be reminded of the legendary murder of Hiram Abiff in Masonic lore by the three 'unworthy' craftsmen.
"In the Masonic ceremony -and there are several variations but the main procedure is the same -the initiate listens to the story of the architect of Solomon's Temple, Hiram Abiff, as it is enacted with the initiate himself in the role of Abiff.

"The building of the Temple of Solomon involved two main personalities: Hiram, the King of Tyre, and Solomon himself. Hiram had been a friend of King David, and then of David's son Solomon, and when the time came to build the famous temple it was Hiram who offered assistance in terms of materials, labor, and even design. By allowing Jewish ships to use Tyrian ports, Hiram allowed Solomon to import many choice materials for the temple and the temple service. There was another Hiram -Hiram Abiff, in the Masonic legend -who was a craftsman in bronze for the temple. This Hiram is mentioned several times in the first Book of Kings, and is described as the son of a widow who was put in charge of bronze casting of the two pillars Jachin and Boaz and many other temple objects. There has also been speculation that the Adoniram mentioned in I Kings 5:14 as the one in charge of all construction labor at the temple was the same Hiram, and that the name Adoniram is actually a portmanteau of two words: Adonai Hiram, or Lord Hiram. Whatever the personalities involved, the skill of the craftsmen impressed the Jews greatly. All of the stonecutting and other stonework was accomplished at the quarry so that when the stones of the Temple were finally laid there was no sound or sign of hammers or other construction tools, and not metals at all. The stones were laid perfectly and joined seamlessly together on the site...

"There is no mention in the Bible of the murder of Adoniram, Hiram of Tyre, or Hiram the widow's son.

"Yet the legend as told in the Master Mason initiation ceremony is specific if allegorical in nature. Only Hiram Abiff was in possession of the word of the Master Mason -the 'Mason Word,' as it has been called since the seventeenth century. Other versions of the story say that Hiram Abiff was in possession of another kind of secret that he would not reveal. In any case, Hiram had knowledge that the others did not and they wanted it and would kill to get it."
(The Secret Temple, Peter Levenda, pgs. 20-21)

a Masonic reenactment of the murder of Hiram Abiff

In Masonic lore Hiram is murdered by three unworthy craftsman. In Illusions Nix is murdered by four individuals, all of whom are seemingly unworthy of his wisdom. One of these individuals is already dead before the 13 year jump, while another has been institutionalized. The third, Quaid, is a low rent fortune teller. Then there's Swann, a man blessed with divine knowledge who uses it to become a phenomenally successful night club performer. In other words, the four unworthy craftsmen are either totally broken by Nix's knowledge, or apply it to purely mercenary pursuits.

But what of Nix's himself? Coming off like an unholy merger between Manson and John the Baptist, he is the prototypical seeker. He has totally abandoned material comfort for the desert and filthy clothing where he can focus only on his magic. Yet Nix himself is every bit as corrupt as Swann. His ultimate life goal is to murder the world, as he confides in Swann. And he seems rather board with even this objective. He tries to show Swann the world for what it really is, in which human beings are nothing but vile clumps of matter, yet we can never be sure if this is a true vision, or an illusion Nix has convinced himself of.

Instead of spreading illumination to the worthy, he has become a de facto shepherd for a cabal of mindless, blood-thirsty drones incapable of discovering the Great Mysteries for themselves. Little wonder then that Nix murders virtually all of his followers shortly after his resurrection, telling them, "You waited like lambs. Well, I'm not your shepherd." In Nix's estimation, only Swann is worthy of his teachings and even Swann has long since lost interest in spiritual advancement. Nix is ultimately quite a pathetic figure, a man who has learned the secrets of matter and the mind only to find them to be utterly worthless. When Dorothea asks him what he is, Nix honestly responds: "A man who wanted to be a god, but changed his mind."

the resurrected Nix

Ultimately Nix is every bit as unworthy as the rest of his followers. It is only D'Amour, the most unlikely candidate, who passes through initiation. Over the course of the film three individuals are shown matter for what it truly is: Nix, Swann, and D'Amour. But it is only D'Amour that sees through this illusion and keeps sight of the spirit within matter. He is the only one not driven mad or mired in corruption as a result of Nix's knowledge. In the final moments of the film a dying Swann 'raises' D'Amour up like a god for his final confrontation with Nix. In Freemasonry, so to is the Fellowcraft initiate 'raised' to the level of the Master Mason in the final Blue Lodge degree.

And it is here I shall wrap up my examination of Lord of Illusions. I have tried to explain the rich symbolism of this film as best I can, though I'm sure I'm missing more than a few allusions. Most interesting to me is the Gnosticism that creeps into this work as it does in much of Barker's other works. Dorothea's line about flesh being a trap and magic setting us free is priceless in this sense. Ultimately the film questions the wisdom of this statement. Is matter truly a trap as Nix and Swann believe, or is it merely another illusion as D'Amour believes at the end? What's more, where do these notions come from in Barker's writings? Did he consciously pursue this theme, or did it come to him in a dream as he claims many of his ideas do?

And if it was from a dream, then where do such notions come from? As was noted in part one, Barker is hardly the first writer to be subjected to this 'Dream Gnosticism,' as I refer to it. But he has surely done more with it than many writers and filmmakers that have come both before and after him. Barker leaves his sympathies deliberately vague, but at least he makes us aware that such conversations even exist.

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