Soon after moving to Leeds in 1993, one morning a zine from TOPY Sheffield dropped through my letterbox. I jumped back under the duvet in my bedsit to enjoy it, and was engrossed by a short story by Phil Hine. I was just getting interested in the occult, and this story became a subtle but significant milestone in that interest. The author was writing about the kind of life I had just plunged into, in the very same community. Mention of the Royal Park pub gave me a strange jolt — here was the ostensibly exotic world of esotericism, happening just down the road.
Phil had moved on from Leeds by then, but becoming aware that a seminal chaos magic scene had unfolded in my new stomping grounds acted both to connect me to magic’s imperative to push boundaries, and to be reminded that for all magic’s outlandish allure, its most important struggles and breakthroughs happen — where else? — in the thick of your everyday life.
‘With Both Hands’, the short story in question, is included here in the Fiction section. Its tongue-in-cheek, down-to-earth, semi-autobiographical depiction of the messily naive side of Phil’s magical path stands the test of time in showing a commitment to the complicated realities of occultism. The combination of a willingness to dive into uncharted waters, with a lack of shame in admitting to being scared shitless — and learn — is a testament to the great value in chaos magic’s contribution to modern esotericism: irreverent boldness combined with a refusal to cloak experience with exoticist obfuscation.
The collection is divided into sections representing Phil’s wide range of interests over four decades: ‘Chaos’, ‘Paganisms’ (his early years involved a lot of Wicca), ‘Practice’, ‘Tantra’ (the path which has come to dominate his practices), ‘Sexualities’ (there’s some wonderfully honest and revealing explorations here), ‘Histories’ (Phil’s been increasingly involved in edifying excavations of occult history), and ‘Fiction’ (a few great little examples of blunt humour undercutting the po-faced side of occultism, mixed with a great sensitivity to the importance of the imaginative engines at the heart of magical practice). Everything is framed by present-day reflections, contextualising each piece with personal and cultural history.
Interviewing Phil in 1997, he told me he saw himself as ‘an anarcho-romantic Chaos Magician, rather than a rational, technocratic one’, but Phil’s willingness to embrace analysis and theory has always been a fruitful counterpoint to his romantic leanings. Drawing on his sociological studies, early fascination with IT geekery, and his experience of group dynamics in occupational therapy and the corporate world, he shows that cynicism about cold, utilitarian approaches to practice needn’t preclude mining aspects of those worlds to sharpen the tools in your kit. He’s keen to delve into continental philosophy for new models of thought and experience without being captured by the glamour of its jargon. And chaos magic’s hands-on results-oriented is complemented by an insistence that theory always informs practice — and as such, should be questioned. His appraisals of magical group dynamics especially demonstrate an awareness which is both sophisticated yet plain-speaking. More than any romantic-rational binary, Phil’s overall approach makes me think of the bog-standard Western magical ideal of balancing the four faculties of intellect (the Sword), emotions (the Cup), embodiment (the Pentacle), and will (the Wand). But there’s no trace of anodyne, abstract harmonisation here; the balance is found in ongoing engagement which never settles into illusions of completion.
Phil’s biggest critical issue with chaos magic is the tendency for its detachment from specific belief systems to unwittingly(?) hook up with the modern West’s tendency to see itself as ‘above and beyond’ other cultures, a kind of superior and neutral vantage point. This manifested in spiritual discourse as ‘perennial philosophy’ — from Renaissance Hermeticism’s Prisca theologia to Joseph Campbell’s Masks of God. Despite good universalist intentions and certain valuable insights, this modern perspective is often freighted with colonialist baggage. And despite its ostensible rupturing of habitual modern thinking, chaos magic too often persisted this insidiously ‘above it all’ aspect of modernity, missing how it ironically represents a manifestation of our own particular historical conditions. Phil juggles this complex conundrum skilfully. For myself, I’m reminded of the emphatic immanence found in the heart of apparently ‘transcendental’ traditions like Zen and tantra. Here, the quest for a remote ‘nirvana’ is both completed and undercut by the nondualist realisation that nirvana is samsara (and samsara is nirvana). From deep dives into historical particularities to immersion in sensual immediacy and the messy tangles of human relationships, Phil’s transcendent drive never loses sight of the illusory nature of separation between transcendence and immanence.
This excellent collection is at once a valuable series of reflections from an experienced magician, and an eclectic guide to the magical path which will both undermine the pretensions of ‘advanced’ practitioners, and warmly encourage the uncertain enthusiasm of the novice.