Venomous Words | an Afternoon Tea in London
So today I had the privilege of a free afternoon in London. It offered just enough time to take a cab down to the Natural Museum and to see their current exhibition on these venomous beauties.
The most wonderful part to me of this truly dark and amazing exhibition was Justin O. Schmidt's four-point scale of venomous pain. Established over many years of self-inflicted torture Schmidt gathered each single data point by making the world's most poisonous insects deliberately sting, scratch and bite his true hands-on-researcher-body. Analysing the following personal perception of pain, he came up with a wide differentiation of various levels of poisonous pain. His detailed classifications read like this:
Level 1: Red fire ant - Sharp, sudden, mildly alarming. Like walking across a shag carpet and reaching for the light. (...)
Level 1,5: Suturing army ant - A cut on your elbow, stitched with a rusty needle. (...)
Level 4: Warrior wasp - Torture. You are chained in the flow of an active volcano. Why did I start this list?
Level 4: Tarantula hawk wasp - Blinding, fierce, shockingly electric. A running hair dryer has just been dropped in your bubble bath.
Well, the actual full list forms the appendix of his recent book The Sting of the Wild. And as you'd expect from a true researcher it goes on in small font over many pages of pure, personal, sharply dissected pain.
How to have more fun on a Saturday afternoon? Obviously - except for the mandatory British Museum visit - there is just one other place that offers equal delight: the Watkins Book Store.
With relative regularity I get to visit this wonderful book store, crouched in between the edge of London's Leicester Square and the outskirts of Soho. And each time I leave, after an hour or so, I feel the same bittersweet mix of pleasure and pain. Actually, not unlike Justin O. Schmidt possibly after a nice afternoon tea with e.g. the trap-jaw ant (level 2.5).
First the bitter: I truly had hoped this wave had passed? Yet it seems, there are still so many new books coming out that drip with equal amounts of pride and insecurity of their authors. Even though English is not my native language, I am reading and writing it professionally for more than 20 years now. So if I don't even understand the bare bones of what an English speaking author on magic is trying to tell me, it just pains me. I guess, deep inside the pain I actually feel the urge to sit down with some of these authors - best it might be over a hot cup of camomile tea - and carefully ease them into the simple truth: When writing non-fiction, hiding behind smoke and mirrors of arcane language is never good style, but just another version of the Emperor's New Clothes. If your younger siblings wouldn't understand - at first glance that is - what your sentence has to say, cut it down and re-write it. Magic will dwell in your words, when you have sentences to say that can be read and understood on multiple levels - not by replacing an 'i' with a 'y' or trying to imitate the powerful and yet complex language of one Daniel Schulke.
Many, many years ago the wonderful proverb was coined "If I had more time, I would have written you a shorter letter". It has been accredited to Gottfried Ephraim Lessing, Mark Twain and even Karl Marx. Yet it still captures the essence of all quality (non-fiction) writing: Pinning down the precise meaning of what you are aiming for in just a few, plain words is incredible hard work.
Obviously I am writing this as someone who is guilty of not doing this as well. In fact, guilty like hell! By the time I turned 20 I had to throw away my collected personal diaries. I just couldn't stand anymore the words and stories I had hidden behind. Their sheer lack of authenticity. I also had to bury my first three novels for the same reason: I was imitating other people's voices instead of being bold enough to find my own. Ultimately that is what brought me to write in English: Here I had to deal with the hugely limited amount of the few words I actually knew. It's hard to meander or decorate if you can hardly express yourself.
Now, as mentioned, leaving the Watkins Bookstore is always bittersweet. And here is the part that was just sweet. I found the below five treasures and took them home. In fact, the book that currently shines the brightest and most glorious in the shop is Fulgur's outstanding Touch Me Not. I literally had to pull myself away from the beautiful standard edition three times, knowing my fine edition was somewhere on a plane, heading towards the Alps already...
A quick word on two of the books in particular.
I strongly recommend Michael Muhammad Knight's introduction to Magic in Islam. Just take time to delve into its first fifteen pages. They have to be amongst the finest on such a complex subject I have ever read: The language is plain, the thought process Knight illustrates is sharp like a needle and it's easy to follow its weaving and see fantastic new patterns emerge. History lessons from a master - I cannot wait to read the rest of it.
And then this: Quest for the Red Sulphur by Claude Abbas. The first modern biography of Ibn 'Arabī (1165-1240), the saint, scholar, mystic, poet, philosopher and greatest of all masters of Sufism. Even though in its first edition from 1993 already, I'd bet, the founding fathers of the Golden Dawn in their graves would still kill for holding this book in their hands. Understanding this man's life properly forms a bridge that not only leads right into the piercing bright desert-light of Sufism. It also forms an essential bridge into better understanding the heretic path of our own Western Tradition of Magic.
So much for now, fellow traveler. Enjoy the rest of your week or weekend - whenever you might read this.