FANTAST IN FOCUS: GORDON WHITE
“One of the roles of the Trickster is to introduce uncertainty and novelty into your existence.”
Also known as “the dark prince of modern Chaos magic”, Gordon White is a writer and podcaster. His website Rune Soup is a juggernaut in the occult blogosphere, a collection of prodigious musings that combines witty speculation with cunning erudition. Gordon is also the author of three books: The Chaos Protocols, Pieces of Eight, and Star.Ships. Star.Ships, a cross-disciplinary study of humankind’s mythogenesis, has the makings of a magnum opus—though it’s probably too early to say. Gordon’s next works remain—like an alchemical formula sealed up in some sepulchral and inaccessible laboratory—a mystery. Naturally, we jumped at the opportunity to speak with Gordon about his scholarly passions and magical goings-on.
The Custodian: Can you tell us a little more about how you got into anthropology? Which books and thinkers first gave you frissons?
Gordon White: Hmm. I’m not entirely sure I am into anthropology even now. My favourite exemplars of it are so far from the original definition as to render it meaningless. These include travel writers (Jan Morris), magicians, rogue scholars, and archivists (Charles Fort, Bob Wilson) and permaculturalists.
My second-favourite (living) exemplars who are closer to the term are still hamstrung by a materialist/academic worldview and so I inevitably parse their admirable research through a more magical lens. These would include Wade Davis, David Lewis-Williams and, most recently, Genevieve von Petzinger. The combination of personal experience -eg Wade Davis- and rigorous data analysis -von Petzinger- is the epistemological sweet spot. It is all too rare.
I came to a serious analysis of the topics studied in anthropology by way of a Film/Documentary degree so my first exposure to it was in its rejection: Barthes, Derrida, etc. And it was the better twentieth-century documentary filmmakers -especially Dennis O’Rourke– who were working in a cross-cultural context that gave me my first inklings there is probably a way to do it “right”. That’s where my frissons happened.
C: Do you remember your first encounter with the Atlantis myth? How has your passion for lost or fabled lands (let’s call it the “Atlantean impulse”) affected your travels and research?
G: I don’t have a memory of a time where I wasn’t aware of the idea of lost cities, which suggests I may have picked it up by way of some of the mythology books my father used to read to me as a very small child. But I could snorkel before I could read and was scuba diving by fourteen so the experience of actual wrecks and sunken detritus probably blended in there somewhere.
I’ve been diving all over the South Pacific and it took until my second year of a film degree before I could no longer contain myself and used a documentary module as an excuse to visit Micronesia to dive on Nan Madol and the WWII wrecks of Chuuk Lagoon. We ended up meeting Nam babies, the First Lady of the Federated States of Micronesia (she was restocking bookshelves in the library), Canadian smugglers, and American entomologists straight out of a [Rudyard] Kipling or [Graham] Greene novel. The film itself is terrible -I was nineteen, after all- but the taste for adventure never went away.
I’m not sure how much my interest in Atlantology and the adventures it wrought affected my research except insofar as it served as a reminder that you really don’t need anyone’s permission to do this kind of work. If your skills are sound, have at it. I know a thing or two about magical powers and I can tell you a large student debt does not confer any.
C: Keeping with the Atlantis theme—you also tend to take a pelagic, or open-sea approach to historical enquiry. Alternative history, esotericism, “deep-state” politics, and fringe science are among your most popular topics; collectively an oceanic “Kraken” (loved your essay on the “Consolation of Cryptozoology” by the way) of head-turning mysteries. Given your long-term interests in these subjects, how do you personally preserve a no holds barred sense of enchantment while maintaining a firm grip on reality?
G: With tremendous difficulty and sporadic failure, it must be said. And to quote the Borg Queen, “you imply a disparity where none exist.” The goal is the same: least inaccurate ontology. It is only the feeble-minded, Victorian categorisation of Creation into entirely artificial little boxes; biology, astronomy, politics, anthropology -plus the pathetic impulse in humans to literally make a subject up whole cloth and then declare themselves an expert in it- that can trip you up.
[Terence] McKenna said something similar when he received pushback on his Timewave Zero stuff: He was told there is no relation between the complexification of the universe following the Big Bang and the subsequent further complexification of the emergence and growth of life on earth because one topic is astronomy and the other is biology. Timewave Zero is mostly wrong -albeit nobly so- but he was right to call ‘fool’ on these so-called scientists who have probably completely missed the uneven distribution of novelty in the universe because once, long ago, London’s Natural History Museum had different wings for rocks than for insects.
The skillset or worldview that keeps one’s grip on reality is a proficiency in research and analytics. The majority of human intellectual endeavours are an example of solving the wrong problem in engineering. You don’t need to be an expert in every field that interests you, but you do need best in class research and analytics so that you can extract the high-quality information when you need it.
This is a rare skill at this point in the timeline but it is growing rapidly. A new metaphysics will emerge from data analysis that can interpret things like the uneven distribution of novelty or the appearance of waves/cycles and power laws at every level of observed reality.
And we mustn’t be too hard on ourselves. This kind of metaphysics can only have emerged in the last fifteen years with improved computing power. Talk to a retired economist about the difference in analysis when he/she was just starting out and what is going on now and it is truly a brand new day.
Very occasionally I get pushback on this from more staid magicians who have built too much of their identity around medieval and Early Modern categorisations to give them up now. (Twas ever thus for chaos magicians!) But this is how you separate out the real metaphysicians from the Renn Fayre folks. McKenna again: If it’s real, it can take the pressure.
C: If you’re like some of our other fantasts, you’ve had a fair share of chilling experiences with night terrors and other anomalous presences. Which ones were the most frightening or illuminating?
G: The classic early childhood hag attacks remain the most frightening so far, and I’m still not entirely unconvinced that they weren’t screen memories for abduction experiences. The correlation between hag attacks and sleep paralysis positively defines ‘necessary but insufficient’. Anyone else who has had them will assert they were so much more than ‘mere’ nightmares.
But, after a couple of decades of regular magical practice it’s surprisingly difficult to ‘get scared’ by the paranormal. One of my secret loves is professional snake catching videos on YouTube. For most people they are terrifying encounters. For the snake catcher they are not.
As for “illuminating”, in many ways ‘illumination’ is binary: there is the time before you viscerally experienced that magic/the spirit world/etc is fully, inarguably real. Then there is the experience that affirms this for you, frightening or not. And then there is the rest of your life, which may or may not include further filling out of the detail around that first illumination -which we might otherwise describe as the practice of western magic.
C: When and why did you take up podcasting? What’s the most difficult thing about it?
G: I’ve been podcasting weekly for almost a year, but appearing semi-regularly on other podcasts for a few years before that.
“Why” is more difficult to answer. I was very interested in the form back in 2004 when Steve Jobs coined the word because earbud headphones -however shit they are- had achieved an elevated cultural status and I found this creatively fascinating. (Remember those early iPod ads with the black silhouettes and white earbud cords?) And so I was fascinated by the idea -hearkening back to my documentary days- that you could independently put voices inside people’s heads- while they were going about their lives. I was living in Auckland in 2004 and spent a month or so walking around and penning a sort of radio drama set in the streets of Kingsland, Mt Eden and Ponsonby that people could listen to on the same streets. It was never made but you could consider it ‘analogue augmented reality’. I still want someone to do it. I want lots of people to do it, actually.
The most difficult things about podcasting are all production things. Time zones are a bitch, for one. The other is it takes a lot longer than most people realise to edit them. Otherwise podcasting is an absolute joy for me.
A previous guest and an amazing woman –Geraldine Beskin of London’s Atlantis Books– asked me why I was doing “all this” when I went into the shop to record the show. I grew up in regional Australia and found magic just prior to the internet. The very idea that the people who wrote these books all lived on the same wet, grim, little island and that they were real humans just seemed too surreal to contemplate. Now many of the people whose books I read I have not only met but consider friends. So I told Geraldine that I am podcasting for my teenage self or whoever that is today -some irritable queer misfit in the Ohio Valley or something. It’s all well and good to “find the others” -and I did- but she also needs to know they are real humans like her.
(It’s possible that made me sound more noble than I am. In the end it’s just me talking to people whose ideas I like. That hypothetical queer misfit may just need something to listen to on the school bus. As Homer Simpson would say, I’m not running for Jesus.)
C: You’ve also written quite a bit about the therapeutic nature of cooking and drinking. We’ve already seen the Egyptian pain-killer potion, but can you share your favourite liqueur/magical tonic recipe with us?
G: That’s a whole book -and one I may write some day- but I tend prefer provenance to individualised ingredients. (I love herbalism but in almost all cases the doses are far too low to do anything. Pot purri is closer to witchcraft than most extant “herb magic” you will read about, because at least that actually does what it promises. This is an inevitable side effect of the modern legal landscape, of course.)
So, provenance then. Actually even provenance isn’t quite right. If terroir is the local land/climate then histoire must be that plus the story of the barrels the whisky is aged in or the previous owners of the vineyard (Templars, Medicis, etc) or the indigenous names and histories associated with the agricultural land the products come from (Kapiti Coast in NZ, for instance).
At the very least the universe behaves linguistically and may well be composed of language so there is a way of folding histoire into magical feasts and experimentation. This is how one can build one’s own technical hermetica.
We’re heading into summer here so I imagine I’m about to switch to Barbancourt for a while -assuming I can find a supplier. Not only does it have great histoire, it is also the best rum on earth and I will drunk fight anyone who says otherwise.
C: Any future projects/publications in the works that you’d like to tease?
G: Definitely not.