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American Magus / Harry Smith: A Modern Alchemist

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Oct. 26th, 2006 | 09:49 pm

The following interview is taken
with the permission of the editor
American Magus / Harry Smith:
Edited by Paola Igliori,
New York:
1996, ISBN 0-9625119-9-4.

The Smith

Khem Caigan
November 1, 1995 e.v.

Paola: It's strange, this is the first time we meet, so I don't really know how to angle the conversation. All I know is that you were a really good friend of Harry and you spent a lot of time with him, and also I was thinking of these notes that caught my attention this morning and I couldn't find any further explanation. They said that Harry was working on a system of equating the Enochian system to the Scottish Highland tartan patterns. And on the way over here I thought maybe I can ask Khem about it and now after five minutes with you, you bring out this book on the Enochian system, so I think that's how we should start.

Khem: I started by bringing books out because there is no end to bringing books out. But the business about the Enochian system and the tartans is one of those things, like a half-facetious thing for Harry. One of the fellows that was largely responsible for the Golden Dawn system and for elaborating the Enochian Chess system was Samuel Liddell Mathers, who additionally took the name MacGregor Mathers, and the MacGregors are a Highland clan, and they have one of the older tartans around.

It was one of those "clang" associations, because you look at the tartan setts and you can see this sort of checkerboard grid system emerging from it. It's only natural to link the two of them, especially when you've been wired for any length of time, because everything becomes significant and any sort of resemblance just challenges you to make it significant. So it's one of those things he had fun with.

I don't know anything about the Enochian system, but you were telling me that it's based on the Four Elements: Water, Fire, Air, and Earth...

John Dee  and Edward Kelly, to take their story at face value, were approached by angels of the Presence, and they were set the task of recording the elements of this language, and it's referred to as the Enochian language simply because it's the language that biblical patriarch Enoch spoke with Yahweh and the angels at some time in the past. It was at a time when angels and humans and deities were communicating after this fashion - and it was only afterwards that various misunderstandings crept in. So this was like the original, the primordial tongue. The first language.

And you were saying that they had different multiple degrees - like Air/Air would be the purest and the most near to the ideal-

-- on the tables, yeah. And it's a lovely language, the poetry is just incredible. So if for no other reason than that it's aesthetically pleasing, it's a lot of fun to research.

And Earth would be the most gross Element?

- more material, like something you can bonk on (hits the floor). In that way of dividing the Elements on the four tables, you had one particular quarter of the table that was assigned to the Element at its most pure.


Fire Table

For instance, in the Fire table you had Fire of Fire, but you would also have admixtures of some of the other elements that modified it, and it's those particular mixtures that rendered them a bit more tangible. You would have Earth of Fire, which would be the most dense; and then you would have Water of Fire and Air of Fire in between.

So, starting out at the very bottom of the scale, you would have Earth of Earth, which would be absolutely as dense and passive and inert as you could possibly get, and then at the top of the scale you would have Fire of Fire, which would be as tenuous and active and dynamic as you could possibly get.

Sure. So for example, relating it to that correlation that Harry was kind of half-facetiously and half-seriously trying to make between the Highland tartan patterns and the Enochian system, then these crosses of colors that are the Highland tartan patterns could correspond to some of these crosses of the system and could in a way say with what energies the clan vibrates - could be like a secret name of the clan...

Absolutely. Especially in those particular setts or tartans where you see the complementary colors - where you have for instance blue and orange, which flash over each other. Or red and green, which again clash off of each other. It really stands out.

Wow. And what is the book you and Harry were working together on?

A True and Faithful Relation of What Passed for Some YearsBetween Dr. John Dee and Some Spirits [Meric Casaubon, A True and Faithful Relation of What Passed for Some Years between Dr. John Dee and Some Spirits (London, 1659, reprinted New York: Magickal Child, 1992)]
This is a facsimile edition - we had one that was much like it, and we went through the text and set up these charts showing the frequency with which certain words and letters would turn up. The idea being to see... to sort out the Enochian language, to see which languages it was most clearly related to. As far as the internal evidence goes, it's pretty close to English - in so far as the way it's spoken. It's safest to say that it's Indo-European, which pretty much covers a multitude of things. And the script itself is Amharic, which is an earlier form of Aramaic or Syriac script.

Is that the earliest form of script?

I don't know that it's the earliest one, but that particular area coincides with the Coptic - Abyssinian stuff. Also the Nabataeans had a very similar script - they are the ones that built Petra.

Oh I see - you were mentioning that in Mahagonny Harry was doing something similar.

With regard to Enochian Chess, yeah. He was trying to pull off something very much like that with Mahagonny. He had the imagery parsed in a certain way where you would have - let's see, it was:

Scenes/Symbols, and

And there was a palindrome that I remember learning so that I would be able to go through and sort out all of these slips of paper that described the different image sequences that had to be spliced, one after the other, in order for the film to be assembled. And after the cards had been sorted out, we transferred each series to long scrolls of paper.

One of these scrolls was the timeline for the image sequences appearing on each of the four main screens.

There were another four scrolls in addition to the scroll that served as the timeline for the four main screens, and each of those four scrolls in their turn listed all the colors, slides and film sequences that were supposed to be shown on the smaller screens surrounding each one of the four main screens.

Just thinking about the job of the poor soul that was going to do the editing on this thing; whew, that task would be formidable. I don't know if it ever did make it into the can, all that work, but I know that I had a pretty tough time with it, just with sorting out all those little slips of paper and making up the scrolls.

The palindrome went like this:


As you can see, the whole thing hinges on Nature.

The breakdown was:



What is a palindrome?

A palindrome is a word or a phrase that reads the same in either direction, like the phrase 'Madam, I'm Adam', or 'Evil did I dwell, lewd I did live'.

But how did you use it, in order to keep track of which piles were the animations, the people...?

It was the order that I discovered in the layout that he had assigned me, and that was the way I could keep track of which grouping came next in the series. I just happened to discover, or discern, that palindrome as I went along, and it helped me put the image sequences back in order when things got up-ended. So I would go through a particular sequence and then I would start all over again with all these little slips of paper that I had color-coded, and that was the way these images were categorized. So you just start over with the next batch, working your way through each image string front to back - and we had stacks of shoe boxes stuffed full of these things. In fact I still have some of the old back-up stacks we used for error-checking in storage - and it was the same technique we used for going through the word counts for the Enochian language.

Yeah, it's always finding a system within ... and it's strange, like you said, he had an almost maniacal attention to detail, at least in a certain period of his life, but it's always out of this chaos that he created these systems and at times it almost seemed there was an opening to apparent randomness in his things.

Harry understood the nature of obsession, and in fact he made studies of obsessive systems, of systems of madness. And there was the Phrenomnemotechnic Dictionary [ see also, Fauvel-Gouraud's Phrenomnemotechnic Principles, Houel and Macon, NY, 1844 ], which he pointed out to me a few times at the library, suggesting that I take a look at it.

It's a fairly recent book in the history of what used to be called the Art of Memory or the Ars Memoria. It goes back at least to Aristotle's time as far as we know, where you actually construct what was called a Palace of Memory and in all the Places in this strucure, you put different Objects that signify certain Ideas, and you can just find yourself wandering around... if you're delivering a lecture, for instance, and without reading from your notes, you're actually able to reproduce something like The Iliad from memory, simply by wandering down the halls of your Memory Palace. Everything speaks to you and loans you back these ideas. But everything that you look at also enables you to project certain feelings that can be felt by your audience as well, so it was also a very magical system - understandably it was condemned by the church because it was considered sorcerous and therefore damned.

This dictionary is recent?

It's sort of the same idea, the idea that you're actually able to assemble ideas with certain associative structures that you hold in your mind and you can recall anything you want. When most people think of something like this, they think of that autistic character in Rain Man who could simply reel off tables of precipitation in different geographical locations -

Or think of Harry - the incredible amount of knowledge! - so maybe he practiced this!

- aspiring to the autistic state! And let's see, there was Daniel Paul Schreber's Memoirs of My Nervous Illness - all kinds of material...

You were telling me Harry told you about many books that really got you started in different directions-

I was bookish to begin with. I have entire notebooks filled with bibliographies that I compiled while I was at the library - CATNYP is nice, that computer system they've got - but I really miss those file cards. Those really nice, buttery-colored wooden cabinets where you slide the drawers out and flip through the little cards. I like the smell - I like the smell of old paper. And every book would lead into something else again.

How did you meet Harry?

I was introduced to him while I was living at Samuel Weiser's old warehouse in Manhattan. That's where I met Jim Wasserman and Bill Breeze and a lot of people. I think it was on one of the first occasions we met, I showed Harry this bed of nails that I had brought with me from Florida. It was a bed of nails that I inherited from this fellow that I worked with at the International House of Pancakes in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. This guy used to sit on this bed of nails without breaking his skin, and the nails weren't that closely spaced either, but there's a trick to it: you just sort of evenly place your weight on it when you sit down, and Bob's your uncle. It looks pretty impressive.

Was that in the 70s?

I guess it was. I would go and visit him over at the Chelsea, at first with Jim Wasserman, and then pretty much on my own. I'd bop by; give him a ring from the lobby. We'd talk, or I'd accompany him on his walks. I remember that it was incredible how often we'd be walking along and we would find paper airplanes. It was almost like somebody would see us coming, and they'd fold up some paper and leave it on the ground for us to find. Paper airplanes made out of band notices - all sorts of things.

And when did you start working on the John Dee?

The frequency tables for words and such? I don't remember exactly when it was. It was an ongoing thing.

But in the 70s?

Yeah - some nights that would be what we were doing, some nights we would just listen to Kurt Weill's Mahagonny - Lotte Lenya... wailing away.

Bill Breeze was telling me to ask you about the concordances you worked out for the Enochian system.

The Concordances? We actually recorded the number of times a word would occur in the entire manuscript. And we also kept a record of the pages and the paragraph numbers for just where you could find each word on each and every page -

And the word was given as it is and reversed he told me. What was the reason?

That was the way they were received by the angels - or rather the way the angels transmitted them, through Kelly to Dee. And then they had to transcribe it. The idea being that these words were so powerful -

So they were reversed to deactivate them in a way.

Yes, but it was even more complicated than that because there's an entire book of just page after page of letters and numbers in grids, Liber Loagaeth, and Kelly would see these grids in the shew-stone and the angels would be -

In the what?

In the shew-stone. It was either a ball of rock crystal, about the size of an orange I guess, that had been delivered by the angels - (Gustav Meyrink wrote a novel on this: The Angel at the Western Window) - or occasionally they used a black obsidian mirror, very well polished, that had come from the New World. They probably got it from Maximilian II. It was passed on along with a manuscript - the Laud Codex - a hieroglyphic text that had come from the New World, before Columbus "discovered" it!

But to go back to the manuscript - Kelly would see one of these little guys come marching in, just like on the Elizabethan stage, a Shakespeare play.There would be a table on the stage, and they would pick up a little wand or pointer and begin pointing to individual letters on these grids. And Kelly would say something like "the forty-first down, seventy-first over." Dee would have to scan through his version of the table and he would make note of the letter in the grid - he would assemble these texts. If you can imagine somebody chopping up all the individual letters and numbers in the New York Yellow Pages and throwing them all over the floor, and then have, you know, Brion Gysin and William Burroughs come wandering in wired up with amphetamine and splicing things together according to rules of dice and who knows what all - it's kind of on a par with that.


I showed you some of the pieces that they transcribed out.

Yeah. So each one of the words would have such power that they gave it in reverse to kind of deactivate it. But did they tell them exactly what the word referred to, what its power was?

They also translated the words for them, sure. There would be beings like "Nalvage" and "Ave" and "Madimi"- some of them would be very playful and some very stern - and they would all come in and relate different aspects of the mystery insofar as it would be given to them. 'Cause they were all assigned certain tasks and they would be able to relate information that had to do with their particular subjects, but they didn't have any one comprehensive Being that could explain the whole scheme to them. There wasn't any one Being they could refer to when they had a particular question that none of the others could answer.

Wow, that's great. So that book that you showed me is the one with which you and Harry worked on the system.

This is a facsimile. It's still in print. And then there's an excellent book by Geoffrey James dealing with the entire working: The Enochian Evocation of Dr. John Dee. It was published by Heptangle Books, and I think it has been released again by some other publisher as a paperback now. More or less at the same time, Athanasius Kircher was having a go at translating the Egyptian hieroglyphs - unsuccessfully I might add -

Did you work on other projects with Harry?

Yes. There was Mahagonny -- I told you about the different color-coded scenes and the palindrome... I read somewhere this morning that Mahagonny is still intact, so they're going to show it somewhere.

I think so.

That's great - unless it gets struck by lightning or is spontaneously combusted (laughing).
[ note: Harry's Mahagonny has suffered a fate far worse than mere immolation, at the hands of people employed by the Getty Foundation to "restore" the film. ]

Talking about natural disasters - Jonas Mekas told me that once, in a tantrum Harry destroyed a really rare book Atalanta Fugiens by Michael Maier  -- did Harry and you ever discuss Atlantis? And do you think it makes sense that there could have been a very advanced antediluvian world?

I recall that Harry and I did discuss Henriette Mertz's book Atlantis in America. I think that most people involved in the magical arts would agree that the disasters themselves simply submerged the information, rather than obliterating it. It's still shared among people that take the time to enlighten themselves. It always has been.

When you talk about naturally-occurring disasters, one of the things I find is that people are constantly being barraged with disasters they have created for themselves. One of the reasons we can't really speak with any authority about the depth of so many ancient civilizations is because one of the first things that you find with certain people coming to power in any given region is that they go out and they locate the nearest repository of written and/or oral knowledge and torch it to the ground! The Library of Alexandria - they fed the furnaces of the bathhouses with books to keep people in hot water; the Library of Bangor in ancient Wales - ditto - every time a new dynasty came into ascent, you had histories being destroyed and rewritten.

Yeah - either through genocide or through destroying the artifacts and the literature - absolutely. So history is always written by the winners and there are only fragments and traces that we can piece together -- you're right, it's a very important consideration.

To go back to the Chelsea  - the Chelsea  was a wild place then, wasn't it?

Oh, yeah! There wasn't a single fire axe left on the walls. Everybody pretty much copped them and kept them in their apartments for when they wanted to visit their neighbors - to smash their way through their doors. Harry told me about rumors of there being bodies buried in the basement, bodies found on the roof...

You told me something about sucking on a - getting amphetamine on a -

When Harry was all wired up, he was absolutely intolerant of the idea that you might have to go home and get some rest, so he taught me the fine art of using little bits of amphetamines so that I would be able to keep up with him. But just so that you would be able to keep yourself awake.

Put it on a matrix, you were saying?

That is pretty much the way that the tablets themselves were made. [ This was the pharmaceutical amphetamine Desoxyn ] You had an inert matrix, almost like rubber cement, that the powder was embedded in. You just put it in your mouth and suck on it for a while and then take it out. That way you don't go into palpitations or something.

Then you were saying you could go down the hall, knock on doors and borrow half a cup of-

- half a cup of whatever the drug of the week was. Yeah, there were all kinds of drugs going around.

Tell me what was most inspiring to you about Harry. I know that Harry was encompassing so many different things, but your specific connection.

We were kindred spirits and we were able to keep up with each other, because we could discuss widely varying subjects, and there was always a pretty good chance that on any particular landscape, that we'd been through much of the same territory before.

Harry showed me so many things! He also showed me how to take posters down from walls. Like, he would be interested in drawings that people had made on posters or band notices or something. We would return to these same sites several times over a period of days, and there was this whole elaborate thing of wetting them down with different substances. Then there was always the chance that somebody else would trash it before you got there, but if it was still there, you'd just very gently peel it off the wall. And then he'd take these things home and they would disappear into his archives. I still have a whole collection of posters and things from that period - all tucked away in some boxes. I've got quite a mess for that matter.

You were telling me about Harry showing you this Eskimo music...

Yeah, it was the first time I heard anything like that! They would actually sing into each others mouths and you would get these harmonic overtones that would arise off of their individual vocal cords so that you had these other sounds that would be produced from the combination. So you actually had three or more voices going on, in a sense, while two people were singing. That's why I brought over the Harmonic Choir tape for you, 'cause I can't lay hands on the Eskimo material.

But did you actually listen to it with Harry?

Oh, sure. We played music like that at all hours - that was just one of the ways we annoyed our neighbors. In fact there were a few times that I came in and the door had been smacked down by people with fire axes. People would come in and swipe his Ukrainian Easter eggs - I still have some of the eggs that he taught me to make, where you just set them aside and let them dry. You can hold it against your ear and rattle it and hear the yolk inside.

Oh yeah? I thought that you would pierce it with a needle and let the egg come out before you painted it instead of boiling it. How do you dry it?

You just let them sit over a period of a year or so, and the egg yolk itself just contracts into a pebble inside and becomes very hard and dry. And if it doesn't explode on you, it's ready to go, and you start painting. There were a lot of eggs that he painted too, as well as the Ukrainian Easter eggs.

Are there any of the ones he painted still around?

Most of those were stolen.

Oh they were. So much of his stuff was stolen or bartered or sold or given. Well there's still an enormous amount left to sort of detect the flow charts of his enquiries! I know that you're an active alchemist, not only a mental alchemist but an herbal alchemist as well. Did Harry do some alchemy too?

Well, he pointed me in the direction of a few journals that dealt with it: a periodical named Isis, and another periodical called Ambix, and they were just full of all kinds of information. That stuff wasn't just alchemical, it was paleochemical; early metallurgy and such. And Harry did talk about having a forge and other tools and such given him by his dad, and making all kinds of instruments as a kid. I don't know if his dad was being facetious or not, but he told him to try to turn lead into gold. And I don't know if he ever did that sort of work, but he certainly encouraged me to go ahead and try it and explore it. There really is a lot of material now that's been made available in print dealing with early chemistry. I mostly work with herbal tinctures and essential oils and such.

Going back to the subject of the Phrenomnemotechnic Dictionary, I just realized in my little experience that we can access memory in our body and a universal source of memory that has mainly visual and archetypal images. I think that we can also access genetic memories, species memories - I mean I'm very visual so sometimes I have these images, like once it was images of creation and I guess it was like molecules splitting getting together and rolling and growing in a ball and then with the inertia of its own movement becoming little beings and growing in all shapes of animals and plants. That's species memory, maybe.

They used to call it Anima Mundi, the Soul of the World, and it is just like the blood moving in our veins, or the air that we breathe. It is a part of all life - in the same way that the air moves, so does this primordial consciousness. When people talk about the Akashic Records as a storehouse of ideas, the memory systems of the past, they pretty much take that metaphor of a building within the mind that is constellated of images and ideas. Where you have this building and all these places, and you distribute all of these different furnishings and such, paintings and trees and what-not. Everything that you see around you, just where it is in relation to all the other objects, it contributes to the sort of museum that you're building of ideas - all those treasures.

You were also saying that in each molecule we have it all!

I was referring to Lewis Thomas' notion in his book Lives of the Cell, where he was talking about coming to an understanding of all the different organisms in our bodies, an awareness that all the cells are conscious. All the molecules, all the constituents of the cells are conscious. He felt that this was actually the collective unconscious of all life - that it could be found on the cellular and sub-cellular level. Then there was that biologist and chemist Albert Szent-Gyorgyi - I recall that he got a Nobel Prize, but he didn't get much recognition for this really neat book - the title was Introduction to a Submolecular Biology. At the time that was considered somewhat heretical, because he pretty much wiped out the distinction between what chemists think of as organic and inorganic, since he was talking about a submolecular biology, which already presupposes that there are life processes going on at the atomic level. I don't think that people liked the fact that he was blurring the lines there. Again.

Going back to the idea that the cells contain the whole memory--like the Akashic Record is in each one of our cells - I found in my experiences that there are certain places in the body in which different memories are stored - like our own family genetic memories, species memories and soul memories about different lives maybe and archetypal knowingness. Sometimes I access things, and an archetypal store of images comes up at times as answers to questions I ask and it seems to me that they're connected to different energy centers in our body. I'm sure you can access everything from everywhere, but different energy centers retain different memories. And it's as if we live in multiple universes, and we can access many things.

Sure. When people use the Sephiroth of the Tree of Life, or in Taoist Yoga, where you have the different cauldrons, stacked one on top of the other, or in Hindu Yoga, where you've got the chakras. Certainly people experience this, though it's folky, and it doesn't seem they're always distributed in the same places. It's like there are a lot of different maps or different kinds of maps that people can apply to the landscape, but it ain't the landscape.

Yeah, and I guess that whatever system works for you if you connect to it so it's just a question of connecting I guess. In a way Harry was always creating these systems out of randomness and cyclical correspondences etc. etc. etc .... and he was always categorizing, detecting, creating.

He was never boring! There was this image in Herman Hesse's Demian, where Pistorius was speaking about Abraxas - one of the Gnostic deities. Abraxas is sort of a rebus figure, not necessarily male or female, just a transcendent entity. Anyway, Pistorius says that if you become boring, Abraxas no longer uses you for his cooking pot.

 "...Our god's name is Abraxes and he is God and Satan and he contains both the luminous and the dark world. Abraxes does not take exception to any of your thoughts, any of your dreams. Never forget that. But he will leave you once you've become blameless and normal. Then he will leave you and look for a different vessel in which to cook his thoughts."

 -  Herman Hesse, Demian

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Comments {8}

Materia Confusa

(no subject)

from: materia_confusa
date: Oct. 27th, 2006 11:18 pm (UTC)

Thank you VERY much for posting this, it is most elucidating. Recently they held a film festival of sorts here in Seattle of Harry's works. Mahagonny was shown. I wish I had read this before seeing it though as I got the distinct feeling that there was a hidden symmetry/meaning that I was obviously missing.

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Khem Caigan

Harry Smith - Mahagonny

from: khem_caigan
date: Oct. 28th, 2006 01:04 am (UTC)

I am very glad that you enjoyed the interview.

I was invited to an early screening of Harry's *Mahagonny* at the Anthology Film Archives in Manhattan a few years ago, and was unable to recognize the film that Harry and I had worked so hard on - it was criminal, just how very badly it had been edited and "restored".

It really is a terrible shame that the Getty has screwed Harry's film up so badly.

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Wentzel Jamnitzer

Re: Rani Singh -Ranihagonny

from: lhasa7
date: Oct. 28th, 2006 04:58 am (UTC)

Well, I have proposed that the ‘restoration’ be referred to as Ranihagonny for the sake of clarity, and I now second the motion.

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(no subject)

from: caelum_rainieri
date: Oct. 28th, 2006 01:39 pm (UTC)

This was a fascinating read. Thanks very much for posting it.

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Khem Caigan

Harry Smith - Laud Codex

from: khem_caigan
date: Oct. 28th, 2006 06:30 pm (UTC)

Happy to hear that you enjoyed the interview.

Did you catch the link to the Laud Codex?

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Re: Harry Smith - Laud Codex

from: caelum_rainieri
date: Oct. 28th, 2006 06:53 pm (UTC)

I did. I'm re-posting it at my Aztec Reconstructionism Yahoo group. It'll make for some interesting discussions, I'm sure!

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tenebrio minor

(no subject)

from: noon_sickness
date: Dec. 31st, 2007 07:53 pm (UTC)

i've searched quite a bit for american magus in some viewable format, but haven't been able to find it anywhere. i'd be grateful if you could give me some leads, arrow signs, garbled clues, etc.

by the by, i really enjoy your writings here, as well as the treasurehouse of links your journal serves as - livejournal's hidden wunderkammer.

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tenebrio minor

(no subject)

from: noon_sickness
date: Dec. 31st, 2007 07:54 pm (UTC)

and by american magus, i'm speaking of the film.

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