by Marcus M. Jungkurth
First published in Austin Osman Spare, Artist, Occultist, Sensualist, Beskin Press, 1999
Whilst much has been written about Austin Osman Spare, the artist and the magician, the psychological impact of his work seems to have attracted little attention so far. Leaving aside for the moment his fine art or his outstanding portraits with all their poetic strength, we will instead focus on Spare's symbolic and magically inspired drawings many of which have to be interpreted in the light of his written work. As modern depth psychology has shown, the human unconscious mind expresses itself in images, metaphors and symbols (1) rather than in words or contents of concrete meaning. Dreams, of course, are one example for the symbolic expressions of the unconscious we are all acquainted with and, according to modern models of the human psyche, they do not only occur during sleep but continue during daytime underneath the waking consciousness even though we are rarely aware of it. The psychologist and writer James Hillman has even gone further claiming that each individual appears to be re-living some archetypal drama from an-cient mythologies prevailing as a main theme underlying individual life. These strata reside within the depths of our unconscious and formulate the continuous dream-state by re-enacting the respective mythological theme. Besides outer factors like individual experience, social interaction and education which constitute the human personality, consciousness as a whole thus embodies on a deeper level also one or more of the archetypal figures (2). Myths are thus far more than just fairy-tales from mankind's remote past, they constitute a living reality in the life of modern man. Mythology is no doubt an important theme occurring over and over in Spare's work, and in the following we will try to analyse which archetypes seem to have had an especially strong impact on his life as an artist.
According to the model laid forth above, human consciousness is composed of a multitude of layers of simultaneous activity, the distinction between the conscious and the subconscious thus being a convenient but arbitrary mode of trying to draw a map of mind. Human consciousness is able to actively concentrate or focus on one level at a time only, which is why one is tempted to assume that all other planes are inactive in waking state, but actually we just shift our attention all the time. While walking on the street on the way home the dream, which we thought had ended when waking up, continues, while concentrating on the traffic, we listen to inner dialogs or recapitulate the day, and yet we perceive consciousness as a continuity by simply shifting the point of view as the need arises. Now some people, notably creative personalities and artists, have a natural affinity to also become aware of the other levels which for the most of us remain hidden, and thus it doesn't come as a surprise that Spare termed the unconscious "the storehouse of memories with an ever-open door". Especially artists by virtue of their ability to directly express their creativity through the unconscious often have access to those layers; besides the artist whose works this exhibition is showing, authors like H.P. Lovecraft or the contemporary artist H.R. Giger, to name but a few, spring to mind. The artist directly translates the raw material which is rising from his unconscious into form and image, drawings or paintings, or clothes it in poetry, prose or music. "All geniuses have active sub-consciousness, and the less they are aware of the fact, the greater their accomplishments. 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" (4).
What separates nocturnal dream-sleep from an actual direct experience of the unconscious layers of mind is a very thin borderline only, and the crossing of this line has been aptly described as 'the journey to Hades' (3). As we know from classical mythology, the intervention of Hades invariably turns the world upside down; now phenomena are seen not only through the eyes of Eros and human life and love, but also through Thanatos: "'Entering the underworld" refers to a transition from the material to the psychical point of view. Three dimensions become two as the perspective of nature, flesh and matter fall away, leaving an existence of immaterial, mirrorlike images, eidola ...the Greek word Eidolon signifying an image (2). Spare described the state when consciousness has crossed this fine line as Neither-Neither or Inbetween, "not this - nor that", out of which most notably his automatic drawings rose: "...the 'Neither-Neither" principle of those two, is the state where the mind has gone beyond conception ...The 'I' principle has reached the 'Does not matter - need not be' state, and it is not related to form. Save and beyond it, there is no other, therefore it alone is complete and eternal (4). The key to reaching this state is the attainment of a "total vacuity" of the conscious mind which concept is also an important part of Eastern religion such as the Buddhist path to enlightenment or Yoga and Tantra exercise. Spare seems to have been intuitively aware about the inherent dangers of his method, as he wrote total vacuity "is difficult and unsafe for those governed by morality, complexes" in which case an inflation of the unconscious followed by obsession is likely to occur. Spare's goal was to explore the strata of the un-conscious, the underworld, in a reverse evolutionary order in order to transcend the laws of cause and effect, thus to attain an absolutely pure and unadulterated state in which reality appears as truth as opposed to conception: "The law of Evolution is retrogression of function governing progression of attainment, i.e., the more wonderful our attainments, the lower in the scale of life the function that governs them." This retrogression was to reactivate the sentient atavisms of evolution still present in man, examples of which can again be seen in many of Spare's automatic drawings. Whilst this approach may seem to be directly opposed to the common idea that evolution consists of diversification and of structures getting increasingly complex, Spare's idea in some sense still fits many religious conceptions as, e.g., the Buddhist goal of reaching nirvana, nothing, by reducing the 'false' views and conscious constituents of mind gradually until nothing but absolute silence remains. Whether or not Spare succeeded in this respect, we will not attempt to judge in this place, but one of the apparent dangers of this special and highly original method Spare employed consists of the risk of becoming obsessed by whatever contents arise from the deepest levels of the unconscious or, to express it in more occult terms, fall prey to the spirits evoked in the accompanying states of trance. As Spare's "Note on the difference of Magical Obsession (Genius) and Insanity" (4) shows, he was well aware of this danger and therefore chose to consciously evoke magical obsession by using certain symbols or sigils which served as gateways to direct him to the unconscious levels he wished to explore. His systematic approach to categorise the strata experienced led to the development of his "Alphabet of Desire" with each letter, itself composing a symbolic representation of an archetypal and primordial state, representing a well-defined original principle with a strong emphasis on sexuality: "Twenty-two in number, they correspond to a first cause. Each analogous to an idea of desire, and are a symbolic cosmogony. ... By knowledge of the first letter, one is familiar with the whole alphabet, and the thousands they imply. They are the knowledge of desire" (4).
Not only in Spare's automatic drawings, but also in his other work archetypal and mythological motives prevail. Already in Spare's rather early book Earth Inferno (5), we find the puzzling statement "Death is All", and as "Zos vel Thanatos"-one of his mottoes and title of his creed which so far remained unpublished - he identified himself with Thanatos, Death, which was also one of the bynames of the Greek underworld god Hades. As in the famous mythological motif of Hades' abduction and rape of Persephone which, as we have to remember, is not just psychopathy but a central iniatory mystery in the Eleusis myths, the archetype of Hades bears an intrinsic erotic component whilst, as indicated above, it is at the same time turning matters upside down. No wonder, then, that also in Spare's interior worlds Thanatos merges with Eros, the spirit and principle of life, who however in this context is to be regarded the brother of death and not the principle that will save us from it (3). Eros as an archetype also bears distinct female qualities relating him to the anima principle, both referring to the reflexive instinct which Jung associated with the basis of consciousness, and so he defined her as the archetype of life itself, as the personification which unconsciously involves us with larger collectivities of both inner and outer worlds (11). In this sense we can speak of the anima as the projection - making actor, the Shakti and the Maya that gives life to a person and in the artist serves as his muse. The concepts of death and sexuality are thus intimately interwoven which explains why in ancient mythology many of the early Goddesses like the Phoenician Astarte or even Aphrodite in Sparta and on Cyprus were both Goddesses of Love as well as of War and Death; many other examples can be found in Egypt, Mexico and Mesopotamia.
Spare's night-journey to the Witches' Sabbath led him to encounters not only with satyrs, ancient creatures and demons, but most notably with the dark side of the Great Mother, reminding us of the hero's travels through the Gates of Night as found in the myth of Ishthar, the Egyptian Book of the Dead or in Apuleius' famous description of the initiation into the mysteries of Isis. The symbolic reality of the terrifying female draws its images mainly from the interior world, the negative elementary character of the female expresses itself in fantastic and chimerical images which do not originate in the outside world. Thus is becomes evident that the terrifying or monstrous female is a symbol of the unconscious itself. As Erich Neumann (5) has shown, the experience of the negative or evil side of the anima is part of the mystery of inner transformation by the annihilation of the male or patriarchal consciousness and the subsequent reincarnation out of the female womb. Again the motif of reduction or regression shines through, here by reaching back-wards to the cellular level of the very beginning of life itself. A destruction of traditional values occurs during this process, the ideals of beauty and harmony which are too often but a by-product of society's current tastes, are turned upside down in order to release the anima or female within: "The desertion of the 'Universal Woman' lying barren on the parapet of the Subconscious in humanity; and humanity sinking into the pit of conventionality. Hail! The convention of the age is nearing its limit, and with it a resurrection of the Primitive Woman". (6) His identification of the "Universal Woman" - the mediatrix of the unknown acting as psychopompos - with the element of Earth underlines the dark aspect of his anima, her relation to death, decay and age, as the caverns of earth even in ancient times were both temples of initiation and tombs: the Great Mother taking all back into her what had originally emerged of her. Spare's encounters with his "Universal Woman", the luring quintessence of desire, with whom he "strayed into the path direct", led to the formulation of 'The new sexuality of ZOS', a sexuality not being limited to mere sensuality, but defined as pure cosmic consciousness embracing reality, freed from all convention and condition. For Spare, this woman, of whom actual woman was but an incomplete and distorted image, symbolized "all otherness", and to unite with her would lead to the realization and attainment of the Self. The anima's male counterpart, the animus, however remains strangely vague in Spare's work, he shows in zoomorphic forms or is reduced to partial representations as head or phallus. Whilst the androgynous figure, the divine hermaphrodite, as a symbol of the hieros gamos, the sacred marriage and reconciliation of the opposites, is an occasional motif in his drawings, it appears as idealized vision, cloudy and distant in its expression, as if not yet fully realized. One has the impression that especially during his later years, Spare embraced the left side of existence under the exclusion of the other half of reality, the whole of which he was no doubt longing for. Also his increasing withdrawal from the outer world can be understood as a sign of denial which often follows a one-sided identification with the interior worlds, the anima as the guiding spirit being responsible for depersonalisation, as it is her who provides the relationship between man and the world; depersonalisation must be distinguished from depression in this context, as it is less an inhibition of vital functions and the narrowness of focus than it is a loss of personal involvement with and attachment to self and world (10). Naturally one wonders whether this form of imbalance is not that which exactly constitutes the great artist, whether the resulting inner strain is not a prerequisite and driving force for artistic creativity. The creative genius rarely is a well-balanced individual as the biographies of countless renown artists of the past clearly show.
Austin Osman Spare has left to us not only his extraordinary artwork which certainly makes him one of the most remarkable painters of his time, but also an interesting method and practical approach of gaining access to the unconscious. As, again, the unconscious ex-presses itself in symbolic ways only, art provides excellent means to enable us to enter communication with it. Besides other, more mental techniques like the active imagination, C.G. Jung also recommended to work with drawings or paintings as a means to get access to and express the archetypal contents of the psyche. Interestingly it does not matter whether the individual has artistic inclinations or not; to the contrary, the present author has found that the art created by the unconscious more often than not shows abilities and even technical skills the individual would not be capable to exhibit in the ordinary conscious state of mind. Spare developed a special technique which he called the 'Death Posture'-a drawing of the same title is the frontispiece of his Book of Pleasure (4) - which he defined as "a simulation of death by the utter negation of thought" and which was to reactivate the deeply buried unconscious memories (9). In less uncanny terms the whole process can be roughly summarised as a silencing and drawing-in of the senses in order to become 'empty', a 'vacuity', so that all mental processes come to a halt. In nature any vacuum will not exist for long, natura abhorret a vacuo, as soon as the chance arises, it will fill itself; the vacuum within being attained, the archetypal contents are automatically drawn up, any conscious effort neither being necessary nor desired in order to avoid any censoring by the values of the conscious mind. The actual process Spare himself used to pass through when working with the Death Posture can easily be adapted according to individual needs and skills. For reaching a vacuity in the mind, a variety of Yoga exercises or meditations can be employed which we have already described elsewhere (7). A work-space with paper or cardboard, pencils, coal or ink is to be prepared beforehand; oil-based paints and the like should be avoided, as the contents usually arise quite sudden, and there will be no time for detailed and refined elaboration. As the reader will have noted, Spare's automatic workings are coal and pencil drawings or have only later been worked out. The inner vacuity once being reached, the unconscious will immediately respond and express itself. You just have to wait and start to draw as soon as any image arises. Part of the present author's personal work was to investigate and represent archetypal contents by means of art, and one of the most remarkable outcomes was that the artwork produced in the state of being "inbetween" opened a direct pathway to archetypes which could be made conscious also beyond the trance. Faces out of dreams, of the past long forgotten, the countenances of the inner male and female, ancient deities rose out of the trance, thus building a bridge between the underworld and upperworld uniting that which has been "divided for love's sake, for the chance of union" (8). The recommendation to put this method into practice, very often yields a 'I couldn't do this, I have no talent' as a reply - this is far from being true. We firmly believe that the artist is buried in each and everyone of us, it is only matter of trustfully daring: "The soul has no language, levels or values, except its own, but it answers to all affectiveness" (9).
1. C.G. Jung, Mandala, Walter Verlag, 1993 (English edition out of print)
2. James Hillman, The Dream and the Underworld, Harper & Row, 1979
3. C.G. Jung, Psychology and Alchemy, CW 12, Princeton University Press, 1968
4. Austin Osman Spare, The Book of Pleasure (Self-Love), 1913
5. Erich Neumann, The Great Mother, Princeton University Press, 1991
6. Austin Osman Spare, Earth Inferno, 1905
7. Marcus M. Jungkurth, ZOS Kia, Stein der Weisen, 1985
8. Aleister Crowley, The Book of the Law, London: O.T.O., 1938
9. Austin Osman Spare, The Focus of Life, 1921
10. James Hillman, Anima - An Anatomy of a Personified Notion, Spring Publications, Inc., 1985
11. C.G. Jung, The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche, CW 8, Princeton University Press, 1969