Making the Book Talismanic: An Interview with Robert Ansell

Robert Ansell is the Director of Fulgur Press, which has published the work of esoteric artists for 20 years.

Robert Ansell is the Director of Fulgur Press, which has published the work of esoteric artists for 20 years.

'We who proudly make ourself every graven image,
Shall have great copulations
And are allowed to love our Gods:
Amen.'

-Austin Osman Spare, The Witches' Sabbath

Avi What led you to work at Sotheby's?

Robert: Well, my formal education was somewhat erratic, but I decided to pursue a career in fine art, starting out as a saleroom porter—in those days, this was considered an apprenticeship of sorts. I joined Sotheby's in September 1984 and within months was transferred to the Book Department, working under the tutelage of Simon Heneage. He proved to be an inspirational mentor and a lasting influence, because it was Simon who introduced me to the work of Austin Osman Spare.

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Avi How did encountering Spare's work change you?

Robert: Oh profoundly, but I feel it significant that my first connection with him was through a direct experience of his art. Only subsequently did I get to know the contextual narrative of Kenneth Grant, and later still, Pete Carroll. Of course, their approaches are hugely important and influential, but personally my context for approaching Spare has always been through that feeling his work produces, what we might call the magico-aesthesis. There is actually very little written about this aspect of his work. This is because the popular approach has been through his development of sigils, but I suspect Spare's early awareness of magico-aesthesis formed the very foundation of his practice as an artist-practitioner. So perhaps—since encountering Spare's work—you could say I have developed an interest in the relationship between creativity and certain states of perception.


Austin Osman Spare: The Self's Vision of Enlightenment, 1910

Avi Can you illustrate what you mean by 'magico-aesthesis' with an example from Spare's artwork?

Robert: Yes. Let's look at one of my favorites, an early image from 1910 titled 'The Self's Vision of Enlightenment.' As a drawing it would seem to evoke a certain kind of elusive quality, a feeling of strangeness perhaps, which is typical of Spare's best work. We can see something similar in the work of the fin-de-siËcle symbolists—indeed G.F. Watts was a big influence on the young artist—but somehow Spare's approach is more personal, more intimate. And it is this juxtaposition of intimacy and strangeness that continues to fascinate so many, while deeply unsettling others. Even in the early days, George Bernard Shaw is alleged to have remarked that Spare's work was 'too strong a meat for the normal man' and over the years I've met collectors who have kept his work in cupboards, cellars, attics—even in the garage. I once asked an elderly friend of Spare why. 'Because they don't stay in the frameÖ' he said, without a trace of humor. Only years later did I begin to understand the phenomena he was talking about, but suffice to say here that Spare developed formulas for representation that evoke ambiguities within our field of perception. In my view, this is the essence of his magico-aesthesis. Take our sample image. Several elements are liminal in nature; the shading, the partially finished areas, the grotesque physiology of the central 'skull-hands'; even the draped figure takes on a more masculine appearance the longer you look. But the real punctum—to borrow an expression from Barthes—is the open eye of the face. Here we find Spare has combined several disruptive elements; the facial features are exaggerated, the figure is both asleep and awake, the right hand is raised in some kind of communicative gesture—although the meaning remains obscure, creating a sense of displaced tension—and all the while that open eye is fixed upon us, making it personal. And let's not forget, as an occult image this is somewhat radical because there are no esoteric symbols here, no obvious indicators that allow us to place the image comfortably. In some sense, it reminds us that art and the occult can both claim a power to evoke; and in terms of practice, Spare internalized both.

Avi So a deep internalization of occult doctrine can contribute tremendously to an original creative output? David Chaim Smith's work in "The Sacrificial Universe" is an example of how a "traditional" doctrine like the Kabbalah can inspire radical new perceptions and art forms provided it is truly imbibed within.

Robert: Indeed, because what we see as originality is often born from a blending—a mash-up—and deep internalization offers results with the most integrity because it provides for a very thorough mix. In this regard David's work is an excellent example, because over many years he has drawn inspiration from several spiritual sources and then fully internalized these sources through his practice. Consequently, his vision is often radical and even challenging for these traditional doctrines, although personally these are some of the qualities that I like the most about his art; that it resists closure and forces you to accept it for what it is.

Avi So for example David Chaim Smith's triple world biomorph cover illustration almost suggests a remix of driftwood art with an internalized reworking of the kabbalistic worldview.

Robert: Actually I think it suggests many things, but yes, this is the way the mind seeks closure—comparing the unknown to the known. In this way we build a map of experience, of certainties. By the time we are adults we don't see the real world at all, only the map, the maya. All that we perceive is measured by it. But you know, this comparing and checking is so automatic, so continuous, most people only become aware of it when the process is interrupted. Art has the power to do this, which is why from an esoteric perspective it offers such an important context for exploration and revelation.


David Beth, Voudon Gnosis, Medji Edition, 2010

Avi Solomon: What do you mean by a Talismanic book?

Robert Ansell: The idea of the talismanic book was something I encountered in 1986 while working at Sotheby's. I chanced upon a copy of Aleister Crowley's "Ahab, and other poems" and was immediately struck by its mesmeric qualities. It wasn't simply a matter of materials or typographic design, but somehow as a whole the book seemed resonant and vital. Later I discovered that Crowley had noted the similarities in manufacture between traditional books and the magical talismans of the Golden Dawn and had begun experimenting with merging the two methods. At the heart of this process was the notion that the book-talisman should be charged with the force that it was intended to represent. Of course, this can be interpreted in many ways—and my own take is fairly post-modern—but when I first encountered it in the mid 1980s, this approach seemed the very antithesis of commercial book production, particularly within the occult genre. Curiously, I found that inspiring.

Avi How can one make a book talismanic? Is the book's talismanic potential necessarily dependent on it's maker's intention and craft or can the reader bestow a talismanic patina on it in turn?

Robert: In terms of talismanic potential, I think we are discussing two distinct yet overlapping processes here, but what they both provide for the reader is a powerful sense of embodiment. There are several ways to express this, but since the beginning of Fulgur in '92 the approach I have developed has been to bridge the divide between book-subject and book-object. In this way, by reaching for certain transcendent qualities, it becomes possible to provide expression for what might be described as the genius libri—the spirit of the book. But candidly, for me at least, the book design process is less about conscious intent and more of a revealing.

Avi Can an e-book be talismanic?

Robert: Philosophically, that's an interesting question. Given an e-book is a disembodied text it would be easy to say no, but it's worth remembering that e-books are still in their infancy—there are not yet digital counterparts for Manutius, Baskerville or Bodoni, much less Tschichold. And as a medium, the printed word casts a long shadow. That said; I could see a time when e-books might offer certain talismanic qualities, some of which would be unique to the electronic format. I find this a fascinating area, because it confronts some of Walter Benjamin's established thinking with regard to the auratic authority of the art-object. When I left sothebys.com in 2001 I actually developed a proposal for an entirely digital publishing concept along such lines. It was wildly progressive back then, but perhaps today less so.

Avi How does running Fulgur help you pull these threads together in practice?

Robert: Today, Fulgur serves as a medium of expression for esoteric artists, primarily through publishing books and editions, but also by providing dealer representation. Running the business has been a privilege actually, because over the last twenty years I have been fortunate to work with some talented and fascinating people. In addition to the limited edition books, a few years ago I launched an esoteric journal entitled Abraxas that aims to represent the best of contemporary and historical esotericism. It is of large format, highly visual and art rich—those who love Parkett and FMR will certainly appreciate the quality—but the content is firmly devoted to serious engagements with the esoteric. I feel this important because as a genre the occult is often marginalized from a cultural perspective; Abraxas tackles that head-on. In a sense, you could say it is a more culturally mobile expression of the central idea that founded Fulgur—put simply, when a book is rendered as a talisman it also becomes a metaphor for our most spiritual of experiences; rare, mysterious and inspiring. As a publisher, my instinct has always been to share that.

Published 6:00 am Mon, Sep 24, 2012

About the Author

Avi Solomon is a Technical Writer & Gardener

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14 Responses to “Making the Book Talismanic: An Interview with Robert Ansell”

  1. Bishop Mapple says:

    Loving the art… but does anyone else find his explanations convoluted to cover up how endlessly vague they are? Is that just the nature of occult study? Are people ok with an entire field that demands dancing around because the whole thing crumbles to dust under a direct stare? Not trying to attack… but I would like to understand how people justify their engagement with this kind of stuff. Do you find concrete meaning… or is this just more of THE TRICK?

    • Mighty Blowhole says:

      What spiritual belief system’s specifics DON’T crumble under close scrutiny?
      Magick’s just another avatar of THE TRICK, like religion… Don’t pay so much attention to the cracks in the road + just keep on walking (+ maybe looking out for a good diner).

    •  His explanations seem considerably less convoluted than the majority of discourse that surrounds the fine arts today.  What he is saying regarding “talismanic books” is hardly esoteric at all, and one would imagine that the desire to merge the form and content of a book into a unified art-object should be a general staple of good book design.  Are you sure you are responding to what he is saying per se, or to a personal conviction that the occult is hooey?  Implying that people should be uncomfortable with a whole field of study because it apparently “crumbles into dust under a direct stare” is attacking plain and simple, and in that sense you are the one who is dancing around what you are saying.

      • Bishop Mapple says:

        Thanks for leaping on your presumptions of my personal convictions. But while it’s hard to believe that there are genuine undecideds when it comes to things like politics, the occult seems like one area where I can genuinely and believably be unsure as to how I feel. In other words, I’m not just concern trolling.
         I would say I find it very intriguing, but I don’t have the depth of understanding to know where the solid ground lies. Not to say it has to have any necessarily. Things accrue value through the meaning we place in the discourse built around it. Your example of the fine arts is a useful one to me, but I also feel that discussion of the occult often has a hinted at suggestion of some further meaning (or even practicality) just out of grasp of the words, and I suppose it’s that I’m primarily wrestling with. Here are some of the passages I found convoluted and/or ultimately impossible for me to parse or grasp: 1. The concept of “deep internalization” and the subsequent example of David Chaim Smith fully internalizing concepts “through his practice.” Is this form of internalization more than deep reading or literary analysis? Is there a systematic approach be suggested or alluded to that’s unique to the occult framework? 2. “It wasn’t simply a matter of materials or typographic design, but somehow as a whole the book seemed resonant and vital.” But aren’t these heightened feelings exactly the result of form and content working together well? He alludes to combining book design with the magical talismans of the Golden Dawn and charging something with the forces it is meant to represent… but how is it charged? What does that mean in practical terms? 3. How does he “bridge the divide between book-subject and book-object”? I understand the instinct to view my questions as provocations and to place me on some theoretical attacking “other side.” And I also know that some of my ignorance in regards to this interview result from a lack of knowledge regarding the sources and concepts to which he alludes. Is there some place you’d suggest I start in learning how to adopt the proper framework?

        • Yrch Svartblut says:

          1: yes it most certainly is.  This is like the difference between picking slowly through a song on a guitar because your fingers don’t know where the notes are, and being able to improvise because they do.  A closer analogy is that you can read in a book on Buddhist thought how ‘you’ don’t really exist as such, and find it a curious notion.  Some time later this may become internalized and lead to a moment of having your mind blown, when you genuinely get it.  

          2.  In practical terms, such charging is an act of magic on the part of the practitioner, generally utilizing some actions designed to help them do so (which are arbitrary in nature).  If you aren’t a practitioner, this is rather difficult to communicate, but the core, essential part is something that can’t be seen any more than thoughts can.  This is a rather big subject and an astronomical number of pages have been writ to try to explain it.

          3. As to his specific techniques I don’t know, but the basic idea is this: Take… Kipling’s Jungle Book.  A tale of nature red in tooth and claw.  Now, mass market print it with a cartoon tiger on the front and set the type in Comic Sans.  Doesn’t feel right, right?  Instead, let’s have it hand copied in blood on hide with a tiger skin cover.  THAT is bringing the two together.  A copy of the Fall of the House of Usher might do well to be slightly charred or otherwise traumatized.

          Adopting the proper framework as you put it essentially means beginning to study what the people who made the art did. For example, a bit of reading on Chaos Magic will well prepare you to read Grant Morrison’s comic-book-that-is-also-a-spell The Invisibles. A study of the general ideas found in various magical systems will certainly help to understand a great deal of the art and literature produced by their adherents more deeply. Remedios Varo’s paintings, for example, make a hell of a lot more sense if you understand the principles of sympathy and the ideas of invocation and evocation.

        • thadmckraken says:

          Here, 
          Let me cut the shit for you. Draw a picture, attach a meaning to said picture. This should be a plotline you’d like to see manifest itself into reality. Try not to make it overly selfish. Smoke pot to induce an altered headspace. Go have sex or masturbate while high. While doing so focus your mind’s eye on the image you designed, using the weed and erotic stimulation to help induce a deeper visionary state. This sexual inner focus is what’s normally referred to as charging. 

          I just summed up Spare’s sigil magick for you in less than a paragraph. Try it, and keep trying it for several months every single time you have sex or masturbate. Most likely, weird shit will happen that you’ll have a hard time dealing with as a Westerner. I have no idea why so many Occultists are so uptight about this stuff and couldn’t agree more with your critique of their intentionally coded texts. Oh, you should probably have a banishing ritual if you’re going to try that though. Cliff notes version: pick a song that makes you feel happy and care free and sing that over and over to yourself in your head when you feel the intrusion of negative thoughts into your headspace. 

          Thad

        • y apologies for an over-hasty appraisal of your personal convictions! I’ve studied the occult in an armchair capacity for some years, and I still find myself asking similar questions to your own. I’m not a Necromonicon-thumping advocate of the occult, but I do believe that it can be extremely stimulating and rewarding to certain people, and less so to others, for reasons of differing disposition. I think the occult is certainly valuable to the arts, and this aspect of it is why it has been so attractive to figures like WB Yeats and Alan Moore in more recent times.

          1) What I take him to mean regarding “deep internalization” is this: as an example, to study the Kabbalah, in the manner of the Western esoteric tradition, involves studying the Tree of Life and using it as the object of meditative practice. Dion Fortune called this practice “the yoga of the west”; hence to internalize it(I assume) would mean not merely to have a glancing or theoretical knowledge of the Tree of Life, but to have used it as part of a meditative practice whereby it becomes part of one’s conscious and un- or less conscious mental framework. It’s simply the difference between having read a couple of books about yoga, or any of the Eastern mental disciplines, and having actually practiced them with some seriousness of purpose.

          2) With regard to this question, I think on the one hand what he is saying is very close to simply stating that the form and content work very well together. But to approach the more occult aspect of this, I’m afraid you are definitely heading in the direction of “further meanings that are difficult to express in words or rationally explicate.” Modern occultism was closely related in many respects to surrealism, and many occultists seemed fascinated by the idea that occult books, or art, or rites of initiation, served the function of fertilizing the unconscious mind of the recipient, or opening it up to certain images, ideas, or ways of thinking, in a very indirect, unconscious fashion. Some years ago, I came across a book called Outside the Cycles of Time by Kenneth Grant. The text of the book struck me as insane, incomprehensible, and nonsensical; but the effect the book had me, including the illustrations, the language, the physical object itself, was very much the type of effect Ansell describes as “talismanic”; and interestingly, Grant implies in the introduction that the book was designed to have this very effect: “Similarly, a magician devises his ceremony in harmony with the forces he wills to invoke, so an author must pay considerable attention to the creation of an atmosphere that is suitable for his operations. Words are his magical instruments, and their vibrations must not produce a merely arbitrary noise but an elaborate symphony of tonal reverberations that trigger a series of increasingly profound echoes in the consciousness of his readers. One cannot over-estimate the importance of this subtle form of alchemy, for it is in the nuances and not necessarily in the rational meanings of the words and numbers that the magick resides.” I can only describe these types of effects in terms of, say, psychedelics: the feeling of getting something very distinct, without being able to articulate it.

          All of which may sound like a crock. Anyway, those are my answers and I don’t mean to second guess or put words in Ansell’s mouth.

          • Bishop Mapple says:

            Thanks for the thoughtful reply. You’ve given me a lot to think about. I’ve been talking with friends about this thread all day. I knew my original post was aggressive, but I also suspected that this community would engage with the questions I have and what was troubling me… and you and they have. Also, enjoyed your post on alien abductions!

  2. Klaus says:

    Much of what he is saying is drawn from Aristotle, so there is def. a solid basis for it. Am fairly curious about a ‘talismanic’ e-book, I have to say.

  3. coiled embrace says:

    Chichi, pretentious overpriced boutique “occult” books… If it’s not Fulgar it’s Scarlet Imprint ( http://www.scarletimprint.com/ ).

    If they don’t already go for hundreds of dollars when they’re new, just wait until their extremely limited printing sells out and they skyrocket in price on eBay or anywhere else you might be lucky to come across a copy.

  4. CP-S says:

    This article was fascinating, and I love the starry background–is it by any chance from LucasArt’s “Loom?” If so a fine choice, and a sly nod.

  5. dovidsmith says:

     The comments confuse a publisher’s role with basic misunderstandings about the traditions which are being published. Robert Ansell is a highly unusual publisher with a highly unusual vision. That is what should be considered and appreciated, because it is unique. He is not a propagandist, ideologue, zealot, or apologist for any particular path or spiritual tradition. Here he speaks in simple brief terms about his vision, while giving a bit of background to contextualize it. He is not interested in delivering a thesis on the methodological axioms of these systems to inform the public about their implications. His role is to provide a solid bibliographic context in which rare practitioner-authors can articulate their disparate and obscure directions. Do not fault him if you fail to appreciate the difficult systems he has helped nurture into tangible literary form. If one is interested, go to the sources. Study the works he has published.  Best to allDavid Chaim SmithFulgur author

  6. My sincere thanks to everyone who has contacted me directly as a consequence of this interview; your comments and encouragements have been greatly appreciated. And as will be evident from some of the posts on this thread, in the last few years there has been a new wave of publishers who have taken-up many of these ideas. In an age when the future of the book is supposedly in doubt, I find such enthusiasm gratifying to see.

    If anyone has further questions on these topics, I may be contacted via the Fulgur and Abraxas websites.

    Robert Ansell
    http://www.fulgur.co.uk
    http://www.abraxas-journal.com

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