Austin Osman Spare

From Atavism to Zos:

Spare's Philosophy and Magic

Mark Pilkington

Spare produced three books of magical writing and drawing, Earth Inferno (1905), The Book of Pleasure (Self Love): The Psychology of Ecstasy (1913), which contains the core of his philosophy, and The Focus of Life (1921). At the heart of his cosmology lies the Kia, the state of 'inbetweenness' or 'Neither-Neither' that might be equated in the language of mysticism with the Ain Soph of the Kabala, the Tao, even Jung's Collective Unconscious: it is the one truth, the source of all manifestation, what, if you like, was there before the Big Bang. The other key element is Zos, the human in body and mind, which also served as Spare's magical name. As Nevill Drury puts it, Kia is the Primal Energy and Zos the human vehicle for receiving it.

A firm believer in reincarnation, Spare felt that each person's past lives, in a variety of human and animal forms, were retained in the subconscious. This could be tapped into, allowing one to observe and communicate with the many embodiments of the self that dwelt there. It was such inner journeys that inspired the fantastical menagerie of creatures and semi-human figures visible in so much of his art.

"Know the subconsciousness to be an epitome of all experience and wisdom, past incarnations as men, animals, birds, vegetable life, etc., etc., everything that exists, has and ever will exist."

Spare sought ultimately to pass back through the various levels of being until he had reached the very end, and so the beginning, the Almighty Simplicity. At this point he would be united with the Kia in an eternity of bliss. But, crucially, he also found that by tapping into the energies of these beings, through a method he dubbed "atavistic resurgence", it was possible to attain immense power.

""A microbe has the power to destroy the world… If you were to dismember its limb, the mutilated part would regrow, etc. So by evoking and becoming obsessed or illuminated by these existences, we gain their magical properties, or the knowledge of their attainment."

Spare is said to have used this technique to do all sorts of wonderful things: lifting heavy objects, mind reading, manifesting hideous thought forms, even magically procuring a pair of slippers for one startled gent, the Hon Everard Fielding (an associate of Bligh Bond.

The thinking behind the process is complex, but essentially Spare felt that one's desires could be focussed and embodied as sigils, ideograms composed of words and phrases that encapsulated a wish. These potent symbols were then hidden or destroyed in order to banish them into the subconscious. For example a sigil to acquire great strength was drawn thus:

(Of course not all of us are blessed with Spare's skills as a draughtsman, but it is the process of creating the sigil that is most important to a spell's success).

Key to the technique is the action of propelling the sigilised desire into the subconscious. For this to happen the mind must be blank, devoid of all rational thought, images or desires, the practitioner entirely without ego. It was vitally important to forget one's initial desire, allowing it to take root, grow and eventually become real: "When conscious of the Sigil form (any time but the Magical) it should be repressed, a deliberate striving to forget it, by this it is active and dominates at the unconscious period, its form nourishes and allows it to become attached to the sub-consciousness and become organic, that accomplished, is its reality and realization."

The best way to achieve this state of void, Spare discovered, was through sheer physical exhaustion, a highly effective method being the time-honoured Tantric tradition of masturbation. He also utilised a form of yogic meditation to induce a trance state in which his body would become rigid and immobile; this he referred to as The Death Posture, the subject of a number of his drawings.

At a time when much magical practice involved elaborate ritual, an obsession with occult paraphernalia and often ponderous psychodrama, Spare's solitary, shamanic and, on the surface at least, simple techniques must have seemed nothing short of revolutionary. Certainly they are far more in keeping with his own character, as one who rejected the pomp and glory of the Royal Academy in favour of his own rich inner world. His brief experience of Aleister Crowley's Astrum Argenteum order was evidently not a happy one: "Others praise ceremonial Magic, and are supposed to suffer much Ecstasy! Our asylums are crowded, the stage is over-run!" he wrote in The Book Of Pleasure.

As Lionel Snell writes in Exploring Spare's Magic (from the 1987 Divine Draughtsman exhibition catalogue): "If the extrovert wants to become successful he should hang up "I'm the greatest" posters and constantly affirm his desire, while the introvert would do better to blow his desire on a sigil, and then try so hard to fail that he eventually becomes an underground cult figure." While Crowley may be the most infamous magician of the 20th century, his copious volumes of dense writing are read only by the dedicated few, his rituals practiced by an even smaller number of devotees. In the past twenty years, as awareness of his artistic genius continues to increase, Spare's deceptively simple sigilisation process has been adopted and adapted by a new generation of so-called "chaos magicians", and incorporated into art works, the music of Coil (See FT 142)and others, writing and comics, most popularly Grant Morrison's The Invisibles.

Like a buried sigil growing deep in the collective unconscious, Spare's Zos Kia Cultus lives on.

Article reproduced with permission.

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Images from the John Balance & Peter Christopherson Collection, photographed by Rob Irving