Austin Osman Spare and the Besz-Mass
O Zos, thou shalt live in millions of forms and every conceivable thing shall happen unto Thee!(Focus of Life, p.8)
The following essay explores Spare's work in the light of its passionate core - the Besz-Mass, which he sometimes spelt as 'Bess Mass' and similar variations. Consideration of Spare's work makes it plain how difficult and indeed ultimately futile it is to attempt to isolate the various elements of someone's work. In Spare's case, the various strands of magic, mysticism, sorcery, sigillisation and philosophy all spring from a common core, expressing the same thing in different terms, formats and media. In the process, each aspect throws light on the others.
This isn't a scholarly treatise. My interest in Spare is assimilative: that is, it is of most interest for the light it throws on initiation, or magical and mystical experience as I undergo it. In this process there are some extraordinary cross-currents generated. There is an example of this later in the essay, when a picture of Spare's was the focus of a dream which also involved a magical practice I was then developing; this highlighted a relationship between the subject-matter of the picture and the magical practice which, though obvious in retrospect, was a revelation to me at the time.
The Besz-Mass was a term used by Spare to describe the transformation which underpins his art, sorcery and philosophy. Besz was the dwarf-god of ancient Egypt who was the ever-changing, ever-transforming one; besz is a Chaldean word meaning 'to transform'. Besz or Vesz is the dwarf-god or bud-will who is the Ever Coming One, whose nature is not Being but Going, and who is perpetually creating itself anew through a process of continual change. The Besz-Mass thus celebrates the perpetual dance of transformation, through which undifferentiated primal energy is patterned as transient, fugitive form. These patterns flower, decay and fall back into primal energy, arising again in fresh configurations, new incarnations.
This insight is not unique to Spare, but has always been at the core of mysticism, as of magic. In the Hindu system, for instance, phenomenal existence is cast as the glamorous play of illusion, sometimes called the maya, or the Dance of Shiva. The word 'magic' comes from the same root as maya; hence magic is the manipulation of the maya, glamour, illusion. Much of magic, or Magick, as a means of attaining enlightenment, consists of realising what is in essence the illusory nature of manifestation, and finding the eye behind the myriad masks. There is a doctrine that the maya with all its diversity is akin to a play, in which all the parts are played by the same actor, Brahma, who has become so immersed in each part that he has forgotten his real, continuous identity. Because each part is an aspect of the whole, the whole can be assimilated via any of the parts; hence William Blake's epiphany of seeing the whole world in a grain of sand.
Spare left behind a substantial body of work. Besides his pictures, there are several grimoires, as well as essays on subjects such as sorcery and cartomancy. He was an extremely gifted artist; and, whilst not isolating his artwork from the other channels of expression which he used, the artwork I regard as quintessential. In much of his written work, the heart is in the accompanying artwork; thus, for a real understanding of Spare, it is to his artwork that we turn. The output was prolific, and the diversity is astonishing. It ranges from commissioned portraits that brought in the bread and butter, through to his automatic drawings which were often pencil and wash, to the vital and compelling pastel pictures of the 1940s and 1950s. However, in even the most apparently prosaic portrait, done in a short time for beer money, there is a vitality and a fluency which puts it on a par with his more overtly 'occult'work. Kenneth Grant, writing in the catalogue for Spare's 1949 exhibition, sought to define what he regarded as so extraordinary about the artist's work:
Amongst Spare's later work, of the 1940s and 1950s, there are many fine depictions of the Besz-Mass. One is Mind and Body, a magnificent pastel drawing on wood which featured in his 1953 exhibition, and which was reproduced as the frontispiece to The Witches' Sabbath (Fulgur, 1992). In the centre of the picture is the head of a man. To either side, images of the head fall away, like echoes shading into infinity. The grain of the wood has been heightened, emphasising the shimmering transformations of form, and suggesting subtle, filigree interconnections between the diverse elements of the picture. Above the man's head is that of a woman, smiling enigmatically, a snake around her brow. Below the man's head is a mass of protean matter, almost a 'primordial soup', out of which primitive, predominantly reptilian forms emerge, gazing up at the man's head. The protean matter is the raw material out of which is woven myriad form in the course of the Besz-Mass. The picture emphasises that all the forms and faculties, no matter how complex and highly-developed, are transient, sharing a common origin. Spare commented on this picture in his Introduction to the 1953 exhibition catalogue:
Spare had a love of arcane words which might seem initially to be clumsy and obscure. However, as Gavin W. Semple notes in his introductory essay to Axiomata (Fulgur, 1992), the vocabulary is precise. Echolalia is a term used in psychiatry for the compulsion to repeat mechanically words just spoken by another person; the term derives from the word 'echo'and the Greek lalia, 'talk, chatter'. Spare's reference to the Ego being "merely the echo of something greater" is similar to another of his remarks, in the same exhibition catalogue, that "we are shadows of a great reality, trying to escape our substance, and, wandering, have fallen into drunkenness ..."
Illation is inference, derived from Latin illatio, 'a bringing in'. Benthos is the bottom of a sea or lake, and signifies in particular the animals and plants living there; it is derived from the Greek bathus, 'deep'. All these elements have been expressed in Mind and Body, and it imparts a wonderfully clear insight into the Besz-Mass. Here the Besz-Mass is the transient patterning of 'mind-stuff', the 'first matter'. Spare's reference to "subconsciousness" is not simply to the personal subconscious, but to the wider and deeper ranges of consciousness of which we are not immediately aware, but of which we are part. The subsequent reference to "the mind" makes this clear: again, here is meant not simply the human mind, but cosmic or deeper mind of which the human mind is a refraction or echo.
Transformation is the theme of much of Spare's artwork. The automatic drawings are of fluid, weaving line, out of which the picture arises. This gives a freshness and vigour to the picture which makes it appear to shimmer and oscillate. Spare's automatic drawings arose from allowing the line to flow where it willed, then heightening or accentuating forms which suggested themselves from the weaving. This produces a picture which is vigorous and in a state of flux and flow - where figures come to the fore, appearing to move. The effect of such a picture on the viewer is stimulating and compelling, giving an impression of magnetic lines of force which spill out from the picture and insinuate themselves into the awareness of the viewer.
Art is not a static thing, but dynamic. It unfolds over time; there is an interplay between the art and the viewer. This is particularly marked in the case of Spare's pictures. There is a field of awareness between artwork and viewer, which is constantly changing. For instance, I have been fortunate in having unlimited access to a 1955 pastel, Ghostly Amalgam. This picture inspired the short story of the same name in the previous issue of Starfire. It depicts a tomb, bathed in hues of mauve and purple. In front of the tomb stands a figure in a winding sheet - the classical representation of a ghost. Around the tomb there is a seething amalgam of shapes and shadows, a multitude of ghostly figures which come to the fore and fall back again. These figures move, are in a state of flux and flow; the whole picture is dynamic. Sometimes the shrouded figure seems to glow, to gain vitality, and be on the verge of taking flesh. After several years of contemplating this picture, still there emerge and come to the fore faces and shapes not before noticed. Doubtless the effect is not confined to this one picture, but is common to many if not most. Many of Spare's pictures have no apparent occult theme: for instance, his pastel portraits. The remarkable thing about them, however, is their fleshiness, their presence - particularly the eyes. They seem on the verge of coming to life.
The interplay between a work of art and the viewer can go beyond the specific piece, as the following example will illustrate. There is a Spare picture called Sacred and Profane, a 1954 pastel on wood, which is a collage of images, some of which are drawn from various religions, others of which are secular. These images seem to emerge from the background, and to jostle each other for room. Also breaking out from the background here and there, and licking around the figures, are tongues of flame. These flames burst forth from the Sacred Fire which is at the core of creation. At the heart of this profusion of image and flame is a whirling, seething whorl of energy, the Besz-Mass.
At the time when my attention was caught up in this picture, I was developing a magical practice which became the Lam-Serpent Sadhana. In the course of this work the picture took on new meaning, and it became apparent to me that another form of this sacred fire was the Fire Snake, or Kundalini, a mask of which is the Lam-Serpent. This dawning insight rose fully into awareness in the aftermath of a dream one night, the dream revolving around the picture.
In the dream, my living-room fire was alight [I have a coal fire] and I noticed that the pastel had transferred itself to the inside walls of the chimney. It was extremely appropriate, given the subject of the picture, for it to be consumed by fire, but I felt regretful at the prospect of its impending destruction. I awoke from this dream, pondered it awhile, and then fell asleep again. The dream continued, and I was in an hotel room. Once again the pastel was transferring itself to another medium, this time to a huge piece of paper. As it did so, I noticed that it was larger, augmented by vignettes around the sides. I looked at the vignettes on the right-hand side of the picture, and realised that they formed a series from bottom to top. The bottom-most vignette showed a group of people who were standing around, expectant, waiting. The next vignette showed these same people, but now clearly touched by a gathering ecstasy, which I realised was the awakened and rising Fire Snake. Thus it continued, each succeeding vignette reflecting the rising ecstasy of the people. Each vignette was exquisite, recognisably by Spare in his 'automatic' style, and seemed in terms of position to correspond to a chakra. It was this which drew a parallel between picture and practice, heightening the vitality and passion of both.
The illustration which accompanies this article [not at this URL] is of a 1953 pencil drawing by Spare entitled Slip-Stream of Memory, and it has been included because it is a particularly fine example, incorporating elements of Spare's automatic artwork. A slipstream is defined as "a stream of air behind any moving object". To the right of the picture is a portrait; the figure is in pensive mood, immersed in contemplation of a fugitive stream of memory falling away behind and to the side. This stream is a seething mass of elemental and qliphotic faces billowing in the wake of the portrait, the slip-stream not only of personal memory but reaching further back, beyond personal consciousness to the origin of form in the Besz-Mass. This brings to mind the Buddhist insight that there is a constant stream of perception, from instant to instant, and the only connections in this stream of perception are the ones imposed by the ego as an act of memory. Contemplation of this picture gives a sense of the Besz-Mass; allow the mind to flow with the line.
The depiction of elementals, familiars, satyrs and the like is common in Spare. Often they are intrusive, resurging into awareness from deeper levels of consciousness, emerging from depths outside the usual awareness of the sorcerer. The perception of most of us is of a central unifying identity or ego, around which sensations coalesce. This might be characterised as a 'bundle of awareness'. The bundle is not a static entity with fixed boundaries; instead, awareness ebbs and flows, sometimes reaching out, sometimes shrinking back. In Spare's view:
Faveolate is a lovely adjective indicating a pitted, cell-like structure, like a honeycomb. The ego is thus not a single entity, but rather a multitude of personalities, of drives or Ids; indeed, one of his best pictures is called Man is a Bundle of Ids, and depicts the synthesis of several different such Ids. On a larger scale, there is the Universal or Cosmic Self, it too is like a honeycomb of personalities, of aspects which appear to be autonomous. Sometimes these shards of consciousness intrude into the waking world; sometimes they can readily be identified as part of what we consider ourselves; sometimes not. This is because there are no hard and fast boundaries, no definite division between 'self' and 'other' - just as the 'personal' subconscious shades into the collective unconsciousness, so we shade into the ocean of consciousness of which we are a part.
Like the Play of Brahma, like the Dance of Shiva, like the perpetual transformation of Besz, the continuum of consciousness appears to divide, coalesce and reform. Via the Besz-Mass, apparent entities crystallise from the sea of consciousness, flourish awhile, and then fall back, emerging again in some other form. As we become aware of this perpetual ebb and flow, then we cease to be caught up in these transfigurations, and realise our cosmic identity. Spare's artwork is a powerful celebration of the Besz-Mass, and contemplation of his pictures is a direct route to in-seeing.
(Focus of Life, p.12)
© Michael Staley
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