This is Vol. 2 of the Occult Reading list, where I collect all the interesting stories and strange pieces of trivia I’ve picked up over the past week from books, articles, and webpages. Also included are the songs that have been on repeat for me this week.
Guaranteed to make you more interesting at parties.
The Elements of Murder by John EmsLEY
If you look carefully at the entrances to university chemistry buildings, you’ll sometimes see strange symbols above the doors. These are alchemical symbols, and they come from the mystical pursuit of gold, enlightenment, and the secrets of existence. Despite being primarily historical true crime, The Elements of Murder delves into the connection between alchemy and science, showing how mercury, sulfur, and salt became the basis for a tradition of mysticism that transformed into what we call chemistry.
Each chapter is devoted to a different deadly element or poison and collects the most famous cases involving each. My favorite is the story of Qin Shi Huang, the First Emperor of China, who died from ingesting copious amounts of mercury, thinking that he had found the elixir of life (Huang’s city-sized mausoleum is the famous one filled with the life-size terra cotta soliders). According to legend, a miniature model of China’s river systems was constructed in the tomb, using mercury instead of water.
An Incomplete History of the Art of Funerary Violin By Rohan Kriawaczek
This books is an account of the lost Romantic musical genre called “funerary violin,” practiced in early modern England after the Protestant Reformation. The art was almost wholly improvisational and unwritten, and performed solely at funerals for the family of the deceased. According to the author, funerary violin was almost totally wiped out by the Church, which wanted sole influence over matters of life and death. Banned as heretics and struck from the records, their names, compositions, and guild fell from public eye, though famous composers of the day liberally borrowed (or even plagiarized) their sorrowful melodies. The author tries to reconstruct the lives and music of these violinists in order to keep the tradition alive. Only one problem:
The whole thing is a hoax.
There was never a musical tradition called funerary violin, and the Guild and names the author lists are all fictional. The New York Times ran a great piece on how the whole thing turned out to be a fraud, despite being “a sprawling 208-page volume complete with detailed biographies, black-and-white photographs and elaborate musical scores.”
I read this article in Wired Magazine back in 2014, but now that China has launched a satellite into orbit with the goal of uncrackable quantum communication, I went back and re-read it. It’s still a fascinating piece, partly because it explains (at least superficially) how quantum physics is meant to work. But most fascinating of all were the two central problems of the quantum computer featured in the article (called D-Wave).
First, the insane physical conditions that must be met to enable quantum computing: temperatures “1500 times colder than the depths of space,” insulation from all interference, including light and air molecules, and a chip made from tiny niobium loops. I’ve spoken in the past about how the tiny chaotic elements can result in imperfections in origami, and that no matter how good you get, there’s always a margin of error. In the case of the D-Wave, conditions must be perfect in order for quantum computing to work. This is where the practical, physical world meets the absolute, ideal world of physics and mathematics, and the boundary is fascinating to me.
Second is the whole idea of the qubit, the basic unit of quantum computing. Instead of a regular bit, which is either 0 or 1, a qubit can attain a state called “superposition,” something that is both a 0 and a 1. This goes back to my piece on using binary as magic and Leibniz’s fascination with the I-Ching: if the world is just a series of 1’s and 0’s, a whole system could be construed to express the world using just logic. And we did: computers. But now that superposition has been shown to be real, all of that is obsolete. In fact, the world starts to look more like the philosophy described by Zen, which attempts to transcend dualism by finding “the higher third,” which transcends dualism.
This was a great article in Rolling Stone about how LSD led directly to the Beatles’ creation of Revolver, one of their most experimental albums. It describes how the drugs got George Harrison and John Lennon interested in Hinduism, which led them to read The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, by Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner and Richard Alpert. The ideas from that book were expressed in Tomorrow Never Knows, which was meant to be a sonic representation of an acid trip.
The Bardo Thodol (the Tibetan Book of the Dead) has been a long-time fascination of mine, so it was cool to see how it tied in with drugs, the counterculture, and this unique music that ended up breaking a lot of barriers.
Cicada 3301 is my new obsession. Combining cryptography, anonymity, and strange ARG puzzles with mysticism and occult trappings, these bastards are probably the real-life Knights of the Eastern Calculus. I haven’t read too deeply yet, but once I do I’ll write a post just about them. If you’re not familiar with the work I did on The Rats in the Walls ARG, you should check that out here.
Here are the Cicada’s webpages:
By this River by Yoshida Brothers
There are a couple guys in the New York Subway system that play shamisen on the platforms, especially Union Square and Canal Street. They’re all very old Asian guys, and they sing very sorrowfully. This song has a different kind of melancholy to it, one that’s soaked in nostalgia. It’s a beautiful piece, and the vocalizations are so haunting.
Eclipse by Perturbator
Besides being one of my favorite musical artists, Perturbator has an aesthetic that hits all my favorite shit: cyberpunk, horror, the occult, and sweet, sweet retro 80’s visuals . One of my favorite songs of his is Eclipse, partly for this monologue at the end:
“We live in a era where our cities are armed with steel and concrete. Computers and electronics barricade our minds. It doesn’t change the fact that there exists a lot of strange phenomena, bizarre beyond reason or logic. Most folks just don’t see them. That’s because we cling to order, to any tiny happiness that comes our way, and we bust our humps to blind ourselves with our desires and our pleasures. There’s a world of darkness out there. Beyond time or space. A world filled with evil that is undeniably real, and in that world there are things that run wild.”
This is essentially H.P. Lovecraft’s thesis in “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” updated for the modern era and delivered in a voice like Rod Serling’s. Tenouttaten.