A cognitive semiotics of Western Esotericism is proposed with reference to the opaque aspects of esoteric discourse and texts, exemplified by Crowley's Liber AL and the tradition of Thelema. Such discursive opacity (leading to failed interpretation) is a semiotic problem, as it would hardly be tolerated in ordinary communication due to expectations of relevance (i.e. that the discourse will be intelligible and informative). It is argued that this is different when the context is religious, i.e. that in religious contexts, opaque signs/texts will effect a shift in interpretive strategy from linguistic interpretation (to understand the text’s linguistic import) to indexical interpretation (intuitions about the text’s background), leading to a psychological effect, a motivating sense of relevance—the relevant index effect. Findings in the cognitive study of reading provide suggestive evidence in this vein. With reference to the relevant index effect, a model for the transmission of esoteric traditions is proposed. In conclusion, theoretical and empirical avenues are explored.
‘The book was a complete puzzle to me. I didn’t understand a thing it was saying but it evoked such powerful images that my heart pounded fiercely and I began to sweat.’ This is how Lon Milo DuQuette, a prominent figure in Aleister Crowley’s tradition of Thelema, describes his first encounter with Thelema’s sacred text, Liber AL vel Legis or The Book of the Law. Thumbing through the book, which a dear friend had given him, DuQuette had come across a puzzling statement: ‘The study of this Book is forbidden. It is wise to destroy this copy after the first reading’. DuQuette did indeed burn the book to ashes but it had made such a strong impression on him that he did not rest until he found another copy.1 Now imagine a different scenario. DuQuette is casually reading the morning paper, but this morning’s issue is utterly incomprehensible, so he throws it away. In this case, it is doubtful that he would have cared much for another copy. This imagined scenario puts the key question of this article into relief: why do opaque texts (such as Liber AL vel Legis) persist in religious contexts when in casual communication (such as the morning paper) they would not?
1.1. Opaque Discourse in Western Esotericism
Among the features that Antoine Faivre identifies in his definition of “Western esotericism” (hereafter esotericism) is the engagement with signs. Indeed, according to Faivre, esotericism is characterized by a semiotic engagement with the world as a system of correspondences, which are thought to exist between all levels of existence (such as microcosm-macrocosm). Faivre writes:
These correspondences, considered more or less veiled at first sight, are, therefore, intended to be read and deciphered. The entire universe is a huge theater of mirrors, an ensemble of hieroglyphs to be decoded. Everything is a sign; everything conceals and exudes mystery; every object hides a secret.2
The semiotic concern of esotericism is apparent, for example, in alchemical writings.3 As Faivre puts it, when an alchemist speaks of a substance ‘any word or image becomes the signified of several other signifieds, so that […] the distinction between signified and signifier becomes blurred […]. A word or an image refers less to an empirical substance than it leads back to other words or other images’. Thus, readers find themselves ‘entangled in a circular discourse that ends up functioning as a veil which eventually seems to constitute the message itself.’4 Of course, the preoccupation with decoding nature’s hidden signs is not restricted to alchemical writings. Many alchemical and other esoteric texts are ‘supposed to contain a secret which, in turn, will refer us to another secret, so that there seems to be no ultimate definable secret or truth at all […]’. This, according to Faivre, is related to the ‘preference of many esotericists for exotic lore, hieroglyphical signs, mythological figures and settings, and incomprehensible languages attributed to a remote past’.5 These tendencies also find expression in cryptography and secret writing associated with magic and communication with celestial beings.6 In this article, such opaque discourse will be exemplified by Crowley’s Liber AL vel Legis.
1.2. Cognitive Semiotics
The problem at hand—the persistence of opacity in esoteric discourse—is a semiotic problem as it has to do with how humans process signs and construct meaning. Therefore, it is best approached with theoretical tools from semiotics. Concretely, in this article I will discuss textual opacity in light of Charles Sanders Peirce’s (1839–1914) ground-breaking work on signs, especially indices.7 I will also draw on more recent developments in cognitive semiotics, including the work by Terrence Deacon on memetic or evolutionary semiotics,8 Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson’s relevance theory,9 and a model of discourse coherence proposed by cognitive linguist Ronald W. Langacker.10 Within the cognitive science of religion so far, cognitive semiotics has been most prominent in Jesper Sørensen’s work on magic.11 As I hope to demonstrate, cognitive semiotics supplies us with an array of tools well suited to deal with many aspects relevant to religion, such as meaning construction, interpretation, real-time cognitive processing, and cultural transmission.12
I begin by presenting Langacker’s model of how discourse is cognized in real time and applying his model to Crowley’s Liber AL vel Legis (Section 2). This analysis shows how the book systematically thwarts our default expectations of discourse coherence. The next step is to develop the discussion of this particular case in the direction of a general cognitive semiotics of esotericism. In Section 3, I introduce the semiotics of Peirce and Deacon along with Sperber and Wilson’s relevance theory. After looking at findings in the cognitive study of reading as tentative support, the discussion culminates, in Section 4, in a proposed psychological effect—the relevant index effect—and a model for the transmission of esoteric traditions. In the discussion (Section 5), theoretical and empirical avenues are explored, among them implications for the study of Thelema. Finally, possibilities for further developing and testing the hypothesis of the relevant index effect are considered with reference to work on opacity in ritual and religious interaction, one partly based on research on schizophrenia, and another rooted in the paradigm of predictive coding.
2. Discourse Coherence, Opacity, and Liber AL
2.1. Discourse Coherence
One of the key notions in cognitive linguistics is that language is rooted in discourse and social interaction.13 According to Ronald W. Langacker, discourse can take the form of any series of “usage events” (actual instances of language use) whether spoken or written, from self-directed speech to conversation to reading.14 For discourse to work it has to conform to expectations of coherence. In the context of narrative, Leonard Talmy has described coherence as
the property that the parts of the work fit together into a sensible whole. That is, relative to the average human conceptual system, the parts of the work can be cognized together in a way that they constitute a higher-level entity that can be assessed as a unity. A work loses coherence to the extent that parts of the work are experienced as contradictory, irrelevant, or random with respect to each other.15
Langacker has outlined a useful model of discourse coherence in terms of building and maintaining a mental space as discourse unfolds in real-time (figure 1). The model depicts a usage event at the centre of which are speaker (S) and hearer (H), or writer and reader. The “ground” denotes their immediate, communicative circumstance, such as colleagues (S and H) talking in their lunch break; a lecturer (S) speaking to an audience (H); someone (H) listening to a voice message (S); or, as will engage us later on in this article, a reader (H) reading a book, the words of a writer (S). Whatever engages the attention of speaker and hearer at a given moment is focused within a “window” and always grasped in relation to the ongoing discourse itself, depicted as succeeding frames. The immediate physical and social context and a repertoire of shared knowledge serve to underpin the interpretation of elements brought into focus. All of this constitutes the “current discourse space” which is continually manipulated and updated as words and phrases are spoken, written, heard, or read. Below, Langacker’s model will be applied to analyse examples from Liber AL.
2.2. Liber AL and Its Context16
Liber AL vel Legis or The Book of the Law (hereafter Liber AL) is the central text of the tradition of Thelema, established by Aleister Crowley (1875–1947).17 According to Crowley, the book was revealed to him in Cairo in 1904 by a supernatural being called Aiwass, conveying the message of three Egyptian deities, Nuit, Hadit, and Ra-Hoor-Khuit or Horus. The book is highly cryptic and Crowley’s interpretation of it changed over time. As he came to understand it, Liber AL proclaims a new law for mankind, a new aeon of Horus, and Crowley himself as a prophet chosen to spread its message among humanity.18 Liber AL is a brief text, divided into three chapters and, for the most part, short verses, written in an archaic, English style akin to that of the King James Version of the Bible.
Various things influence how readers approach Liber AL. Many of these can be described in terms of Gerard Genette’s concept “transtexts”, that is, secondary texts that are indexically linked to a given primary text. These transtexts can be paratexts, i.e. texts that are on the threshold between a book and its readers, such as titles, forewords, and dust jackets, metatexts, such as interviews with the author or third-person commentary on the text, or hypotexts, i.e. other texts which the primary texts quotes or imitates. All these types of transtexts may influence how a primary text is received.19 In the case of Liber AL most readers will be aware of Crowley’s notoriety, if only through popular phrases like “the wickedest man in the world”, “the Beast 666”, and striking photographs. Those who become acquainted with Crowley’s biography and other writings, such as his exegetical commentaries on Liber AL, will be aware of various claims about the book’s historical consequences and talismanic effects (e.g., the outbreak of First World War as a consequence of its publication in 1913).20 Readers that go on to study ritual texts or participate in them will know that Liber AL is a ritual object in Thelema’s central ritual, the Gnostic Mass.21 And, as we saw in the introduction, Liber AL is accompanied by a short, striking statement, The Comment, saying, among other things, ‘The study of this Book is forbidden. It is wise to destroy this copy after the first reading.’22 Obviously, many more transtextual elements that may influence readers could be considered, but these are arguably the most obvious.
The point of the analysis below is not that the whole of Liber AL is opaque but rather that opacity is among its most striking qualities—a fact to which Crowley himself draws attention.23 Most readers of Liber AL will doubtless read the book on its own at first and only later, if they have become interested, move on to read Crowley’s exegetical commentaries on the book.24 I will proceed in a similar fashion, considering first the text itself and, as a second step, the transtextual context provided by Crowley’s exegesis. Liber AL will be cited by chapter:verse.
2.3. Opacity in Liber AL
In Langacker’s model, during a given “usage event” (e.g., reading, conversation) the mental discourse space is manipulated and updated by what he calls “linguistic units” (typically, words and phrases). In Liber AL, linguistic units show various irregularities that perturb the reader. Some of these deviations are minor ones, such as irregular capitalisation—e.g., ‘a Circle in the Middle, & the circle is Red’ (I:60). More serious irregularities include unusual English, foreign words, and obscure word constructions. Consider some examples (emphasis added): ‘I will make easy to you the abstruction’ (III:11); ‘die cold and an-hungered’ (III:43); ‘The word of the Law is Θελημα’ (I:39; Thelema, Greek for ‘will’); ‘The Khabs is in the Khu, not the Khu in the Khabs’ (I:8; derived from Egyptian); ‘Bahlasti! Ompehda! (III:54); ‘the Force of Coph Nia’ (III:72); ‘listen to the numbers & the words: 4 6 3 8 A B K 2 4 A L G M O R 3 Y X 24 89 R P S T O V A L’ (II:75–76).
Sometimes it is hard to see how two elements joined by a conjunction actually belong together. Consider these examples, both with the conjunction “because of” (emphasis added): ‘My incense is of resinous woods & gums; and there is no blood therein: because of my hair the trees of Eternity’ (I:59); ‘That stélé25 they shall call the Abomination of Desolation; count well its name, & it shall be to you as 718. Why? Because of the fall of Because, that he is not there again’ (III:19–20). In Langacker’s model, conjunctions and other such units incorporate discourse expectations, connecting frames (the “window”). This process is disturbed in the above examples.
Perspective, or “viewing arrangement” in Langacker’s terms, is an important element in the conceptual substrate of the discourse space. The basic perspective in Liber AL is simple enough: Crowley, the writer, receives a direct voice dictation from Aiwass, the discarnate messenger, channelling the words of Nuit, Hadit, and Horus (Nuit/Hadit/Horus → Aiwass → Crowley). But once in a while this perspective shifts unexpectedly. This is, for example, the case in verse I:19 when Nuit appears to address herself (Nuit → Aiwass → Nuit+Crowley). Elsewhere, Nuit and Crowley, both mentioned in the third person, address one another (26–28 and 33–34). Here, a complex arrangement emerges where Aiwass inserts their thoughts into ‘a story’ where they address one another—thus, Crowley, in effect, indirectly, addresses himself (a similar arrangement is found in III:36–38).26 Such shifts in perspective confuse the conceptual substrate in different ways. For one thing, they can be difficult to understand on their own; for another, they appear sudden and seemingly without motivation.27
Langacker characterizes the interlocutors’ apprehension of the ongoing discourse itself it as a ‘mental record of who said what, in what order, and with what effect. At least momentarily, the interlocutors recall the specific form expressions took. For a while longer, they recall the content expressed at each stage, though not the precise manner of expressions’.28 Such elements are collapsed into a consolidated structure which is modified as discourse unfolds. In simple terms, this can be thought of as a succession of discourse frames, existing on various levels of conceptual organisation (say, phrase-by-phrase, paragraph-by-paragraph, and so on), the current frame being relegated to the background as a new one appears on the discursive horizon.29 Such continuity is threatened in Liber AL as the connection between frames is often difficult to establish. One could characterize the text’s flow in terms of continuous creation and destruction. Thus, the reading process does not result in the gradual development of a coherent, holistic structure, but rather in an array of culled semantic strands.
2.4. Crowley’s Commentaries
Those who go on to read Crowley’s commentaries on Liber AL gain an important secondary source of context and background knowledge which they can bring to bear on the primary texts. In some cases, the additional knowledge provided by Crowley’s commentary helps make better sense of Liber AL, but other passages in his exegesis present the reader with a new set of challenges.
Sometimes, the context and background Crowley provides is uncertain and adds little. Consider, for example, verse I:45: ‘The Perfect and the Perfect are one Perfect and not two; nay, are none!’ In his commentary, Crowley remarks that this passage ‘[p]erhaps means that adding perfection to perfection results in the unity and ultimately the negativity’.30 At other times, it is hard to see the relevance of the context he provides. This is the case, for instance, when in his commentary a set of belligerent verses about fortifying an island (III:4–9) become a manual of meditation (e.g., ‘smite the peoples’ becomes ‘suppress invading thoughts’).31 In yet other cases, the suggested background seems just as opaque as the verse it is supposed to elucidate. Throughout his exegesis, Crowley applies a complex system of correspondences based on the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, where numerous systems (Hebrew alphabet, Tarot, mythology, and so on) are organized into series of tables and thus brought into parallel.32 As the system is designed to create contact between disconnected ideas, it is in many ways an effective tool to thresh sense out of opaque material. However, it can also lead to a highly technical and idiosyncratic exposition. In such cases, arguably, one set of liturgical (and opaque) language is substituted for another.
An interesting aspect of Crowley’s commentaries is how he undermines the conventional value of words and phrases. Sometimes, ‘not’ is far from an ordinary negation but, rather, a designation of the goddess Nuit. For example, in verse II:76 ‘[t]hou knowest not; nor shalt thou know ever’. Here Crowley comments that ‘not’ is Nuit, adding that ‘[t]he word “ever”, too, may be the object of “know” rather than merely an adverb’.33 Another example of this is when he comments (on verse II:54) that a number of quite ordinary words may conceal hidden meaning: ‘[t]here is an elaborate cryptographic meaning in this verse; the words ‘folly’, ‘nought’, ‘it’, and ‘me’ indicate the path of research’.34 By this device, uncertainty enters the interpretative process throughout. This uncertainty is compounded by the insistence on the form of the text itself, as is stated in Liber AL: ‘Change not as much as the style of a letter’ (I:54). A similar suggestion is made with reference to the manuscript, a facsimile of which is to accompany every publication of the text: ‘for in the chance shape of the letters and their position to one another: in these are mysteries’ (III:47). This suggests the possibility of multiple interpretations throughout the text.
To sum up this section, looking at Liber AL in the light of Langacker’s model we can see that the text thwarts default expectations of discourse coherence in various ways. Even if the reader proceeds to Crowley’s commentaries, opacity remains an issue. This leaves the question: Why is such textual opacity tolerated?
3. Towards a Cognitive Semiotics of Esotericism
3.1. Relevance, Incomplete Semiosis, and Indices35
In their relevance theory of communication, Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson use the term “ostension” to refer to attention-grabbing behaviour, such as waving or raising one’s voice, that signals “relevance”, i.e. the promise that paying attention will be worth your while.36 In day-to-day communication, we rely on certain biologically and culturally established ways of signalling relevance (as speakers) and on decoding such signals (as hearers and readers) so as to optimize our communitive efforts, and so prevent us from wasting time and effort on irrelevant information, while not missing out on what is crucial. Langacker’s model presented above incorporates these elements: ostensive signals (speaker), expectations of relevance (speaker and hearer), and discursive constraints that minimize effort (updating the current discourse space). When we read the morning paper, we expect some standard of relevance—were the journalists to indulge in Dadaist cut-up techniques, thus raising cognitive cost for little interpretative benefit, we would lose interest and turn our attention to more relevant information elsewhere. If this is how people generally react, we should expect discourse that deviates strongly from discursive constraints to disappear from the cultural stream. This makes the persistence (publication, reading, engagement) of a text like Liber AL, and other such esoteric material, something of a conundrum—why is it tolerated when in day-to-day communication it would not? Of course, this is a simplification (there are other deviant forms, such as poetry, as we will return to) but it allows us to put the problem into relief.
Peirce coined the term “semiosis” for the process whereby meaning emerges (see figure 2a).37 In the context of this article, semiosis can be characterized as people’s engagement with—or responses to—signs. Importantly, meaning or reference is not inherent to the sign, but something that arises in human cognition through the engagement with the sign. As Terrence Deacon, one of Peirce’s current proponents, formulates it
reference is not intrinsic to a word, sound, or gesture, or hieroglyph; it is created by the nature of some response to it. Reference derives from the process of generating some cognitive action, an interpretive response […] In cognitive terms, […] whatever enables one to infer the reference from some sign or signs and their context.38
Signs are differentiated by the interpretative responses they provoke—an “icon” by a perceived similarity to its referent (such as a picture); an “index” by an inferred correlation or causal connection (say, smoke indicating fire); and a “symbol” by convention and systemic relations, most typically language.39 Deacon emphasizes the hierarchical nature of Peirce’s trichotomy, in short, icons are primary; indices associate icons; and linguistic symbols emerge by establishing systemic relations among indices in memory linked to a social convention.40 To illustrate, when you recognize smoke as just that, smoke, it is an icon as you are noting a similarity between what you see and previous experiences of this phenomenon (the same would apply to any phenomenon you recognize based on similarity). When the sight of smoke alarms you to the presence of fire, you are associating two icons (smoke and fire) and drawing a causal conclusion (indexical reference). Finally, if you recognize a series of smoke signals as “lunch is ready in an hour” you are applying systemic relations among indices and icons in memory associated with a linguistic, social convention (symbolic reference). In all three instances, the physical sign is the same thing (smoke) but its nature varies depending on the interpretative response, which is built up in a hierarchical fashion from icons to indices to linguistic symbols.
Semiosis (an interpretative response) is not always successful or complete. Even signs that are capable of supporting conceptual reasoning may fail to do so (say, an academic text where the reader lacks the necessary training).41 Here, such failed or incomplete semiosis (in effect “asemiosis”, see figure 2b) is understood to exist on a spectrum from total lack of understanding to partial understanding.
As we noted above, in light of relevance theory, people should lose interest in texts when expectations of relevance are disappointed. Yet, obscure texts persist. Sperber has argued that this can be explained by the authority attributed to a text’s source, that when relevance is taken for granted—when it is given a priori—any level of difficulty will be taken as an indication of importance. This may apply, for example, to difficult theological concepts, such as the trinity or omnipresence: ‘Given that, for the faithful, the relevance of the belief is beyond question, its very mysteriousness is a strong indication of its significance. Impenetrability indicates profundity’.42 This strengthens the sense of authority vested in the source of the belief as the ‘existence of barely glimpsed hyper-relevant content is yet another confirmation of the supreme authority of religion’.43 Commenting on difficult philosophical statements, Sperber says, in a similar vein, that ‘the very effort required [to interpret such statements] tends to be seen as an indication of high relevance and to favour interpretations consistent with this indication’, and that ‘[e]ven if these statements remain hopelessly opaque, readers may take their very opacity as evidence of their depth’.44
How would this look in the light of Peirce’s sign trichotomy? As we saw in the analysis of Liber AL, in the case of an opaque text, it is linguistic (symbolic) reference that breaks down. The next mode of interpretation in Peirce’s hierarchy after linguistic symbols is the indexical one. Thus, in the face of an opaque text, there will be a shift from linguistic (symbolic) interpretation to the simpler mode of indexical interpretation. So, the lack of meaning becomes an index of something. In a casual context, that ‘something’ would be irrelevance and one would lose interest. But in a religious context, where the relevance of the text is taken for granted, it is not unreasonable to assume that this ‘something’ is the religious context itself, i.e. the relevance of the text and, by corollary, the religious authority which defines it (see figure 2c). This is consonant with Sperber’s argument. In short, when relevance is given a priori, attention-grabbing deviations in the text become indices that confirm the authority and relevance of the text.45
But how would authority and relevance be established a priori, and once established, is the semantic quality of relevance stable or will it vary depending on the situation? My assumption is that a text can be established as authoritative and relevant by any number of means—rituals, transmitted beliefs, observed devotion of others, and so on. As we observed above, various contextual and paratextual features influence readers’ perception of Liber AL—it is a ritual object, it is published accompanied by conspicuous statements, and so on, all of which signals that it is extraordinary in some respect. At the outset, we encountered a reader who received the book as a gift from a trusted friend, a simple act which can itself establish relevance. As to trust, the presence of religious authority figures, in rituals or in other forms of social interaction, is without a doubt important when expectations of relevance are triggered. So a priori relevance is not stable but can be established by any number of means and will depend on context.
But how would this shift in reference—from linguistic (symbolic) to indexical—take place? According to Peirce, one of the hallmarks of indices is to mark contrasts in our experience, to draw our attention to something. This is because indexical reference is based on a perceived correlation or causal connection between the index and what it signifies (say, an expensive car indicating wealth). In short, an index is direct and it points to some underlying cause or reality.46 Now, as failed semiosis is the result of an interpretative attempt, it entails expectations of relevance, viz. that interpretation will be fruitful. Usually, when something does not meet our expectations, it catches our attention, it stands out in contrast to what we expect and so becomes significant—a ‘difference which makes a difference’, as Gregory Bateson put it.47 In this way, the lack of meaning where we expect it becomes an index.
One of Peirce’s interesting proposals is that when signs fail to support conceptual interpretation—incomplete semiosis—interpretation may stop at an emotional response, i.e. some sort of a rudimentary feeling for the sign’s meaning. He considered such an elementary response, and some development of it, the first step when we try to understand signs, prior to conceptual interpretation.48 Such an affective response, in an authoritative or religious context when confronted with a deviant text, would be a simple solution to resolve failed semiosis prior to conceptual reasoning, a gut feeling attesting the text’s importance—an affective index of relevance.
These semiotic considerations where, in a religious or authoritative context, the lack of linguistic meaning becomes an index of a text’s relevance are mostly based on conjecture. Is there any evidence to back this up? Tentative support is found in the cognitive study of literary reading.
3.2. Nonliteral Interpretation and Emotion in Literary Reading
As to research on literary reading, what is most relevant to this article are findings about “nonliteral interpretations”. In a recent review of empirical studies by Kathryn McCarthy, nonliteral interpretations are characterized by going beyond the literal meaning of the text, when the reader
generates inferences that connect information in the text with ideas about the world beyond the story, such as identifying an object in the text to have a symbolic meaning, or the text as a whole, such as an understanding of how the story speaks to the state of the real world […].49
Among textual features that trigger nonliteral interpretations is “foregrounding”, i.e. the ‘use of variations and devices in language to make some parts of the text more important or striking (in the foreground) than other parts (the background)’.50 Foregrounding is implied in changing the reader’s perspective and is associated with interpretative uncertainty.51 There is some evidence that foregrounding stimulates affective responses that help to make sense of the text and that they are automatic and come prior to conceptual interpretation.52 David S. Miall summarizes the properties of affective responses in reading saying that
feeling facilitates border-crossing, that is, feelings enable us to relate concepts in unrelated fields. Second, feeling prompts us to take a certain stance towards events, preparing us to interpret incoming evidence in a specific way; anticipation of this kind seems to be one of the fundamental properties of feeling. Third […] feeling is generally self-implicating; it occurs when some issues of our self-concept is in question.53
In her review, McCarthy proposes that foregrounding constitutes signals or rules: ‘These rules (such as repetition, a shift in tone, juxtaposition, privileged position, and deviations from norm or disruptions and discrepancies) indicate to the reader how to approach the text.’54 Reading a difficult poem, a reader can ‘bypass this gap in local coherence by shifting to understanding the text as a whole and the words’ aesthetic purpose instead of their semantic one. The foregrounded features of the text are signals that encourage the reader to adopt a new purpose for reading that focuses on the bigger picture of the text.’55 Interestingly, and in accordance with the concept of relevance, when people lack literary background knowledge, they are more likely to respond to textual irregularities by giving up.56
In sum, studies of nonliteral interpretation in literary reading arguably provide evidence that tentatively supports the above semiotic analysis. The deviant aspects identified in Liber AL constitute a form of foregrounding. Furthermore, that foregrounding is implicated in affective responses speaks to Peirce’s idea that incomplete interpretation may stop at an emotional response. The affective elements, too, reflect the idea that indexical reference emerges pointing beyond the text, that is, to the religious context or authority (border-crossing); that the text is relevant a priori (anticipation, a certain stance); and that the text is relevant to the reader herself (self-implication). Finally, in my semiotic discussion, deviations (foregrounding) did constitute ostensive signals telling the reader to adopt a particular reading strategy—that is, the lack of meaning indicating the relevance of the text itself and the bigger picture beyond it, i.e. the religious context or authority.
But to what extent can we compare literary reading to its religious counterpart? In his cognitive study of evangelical biblicism, Brian Malley found that in order to make the Bible relevant to believers, various nonliteral devices are used in both sermons and individual reading to take practitioners beyond the text itself.57 While these strategies are similar to what McCarthy found in literary reading above, Malley also found significant contrasts between religious and casual reading. Taking the Bible’s relevance for granted, believers read it more carefully than ordinary texts, often searching for personal significance, and sometimes going to great lengths to establish the meaning of difficult passages.58 It is not unreasonable to expect such tendencies to be accentuated in esotericism given its cryptic aspects and the emphasis on hidden knowledge. In reply to our semiotic problem above, the persistence of deviant, literary texts, such as poetry, would be rooted in aesthetic pleasure. Herein lies perhaps the difference between literary and religious reading, viz. between the pleasure found in fictitious ideas as opposed to the seriousness of religious convictions.59
4. The Relevant Index Effect and Transmission
We started out with a semiotic problem: why do opaque, esoteric texts, such as Liber AL, persist in a religious context when, given expectations of relevance, we should expect them to disappear from the cultural stream? The answer proposed above is that when one is faced with an opaque text whose importance is assumed beforehand, the text’s very opacity will encourage interpretations that confirm its assumed authority. In other words, when relevance is given a priori, attention-grabbing deviations in the text become indices that confirm the relevance and authority of the text—a correlation or a causal connection is inferred between opacity and importance. In other words, a shift has occurred in interpretative strategy from linguistic (symbolic) interpretation to the simpler mode of indexical interpretation. It was further suggested that when conceptual reasoning fails, interpretation may stop at an emotional response, a gut feeling attesting the text’s importance—an affective index of relevance.
These points sketch out a psychological effect: a motivating (as it confirms importance) sense of relevance which could be called the “relevant index effect”. With reference to the semiotic problem stated at the outset, the claim here is that it is by this effect that opaque texts persist in religious and authoritative contexts.
Above I have talked of authoritative and religious contexts more or less interchangeably. But how important is the religious aspect (such as claims about supernatural agents)? Above, the key terms are formal: opacity in the context of authority and a priori relevance, that is, they can be stated without reference to religion. Indeed, these features may be seen in secular settings, such as museums of modern art where opaque objects are displayed as highly relevant, guarded by a caste of specialists. In this light, religious contexts become a form of authoritative or special contexts—arguably, a very effective form. As to religious claims, such as about supernatural authorship, note that I argued above that a priori relevance can be established by any number of means, where specific religious claims constitute just one type. One way to formulate this is to say that once a priori relevance is established (in whatever way) the relevant index effect can take on a life of its own.60 What I suggest is that when opacity is strong, like in some esoteric material, it will gear up a sense of relevance to the extent that specific, religious claims become secondary.
With reference to the relevant index effect, it is possible to propose an outline of a model for the transmission of esoteric, religious, and authoritative traditions:
- 1.When a set of signs is established as relevant a priori by authority,
- 2.opacity in its composition will lead to a psychological effect (relevant index effect) that confirms the signs’ relevance and, by corollary, that of the religious authority.
- 3.This motivating effect, confirming and thus sustaining religious authority, will serve to make believers more likely to transmit the signs in question and traditions related to them, such as rituals and exegesis.
A priori relevance (1) is the foundation on which the other elements (2–3) depend; without it, the dynamics will not hold and opacity will just lead to irrelevance and loss of interest.
This model turns on the reproduction and selection of signs in the cultural environment, a kind of memetic (or evolutionary) semiotics.61 In a religious or authoritative context, signs that provoke this motivating effect should be at an advantage. Thus, in the parlance of Robert N. McCauley and E. Thomas Lawson, we have micro-level psychological variables exerting selection pressures on macro-level cultural forms.62 In addition, as opacity calls for interpretation, such signs create the need for exegesis and thus a milieu where religious specialists can gain a foothold. In this way, the model implies reinforcing psychological and social elements. Esotericism, in its various forms, seems to betray these elements as it is very much concerned with opaque material and hidden knowledge where initiation in a way transforms the practitioner into a religious specialist—Crowley’s life, indeed, could be described in these terms. Within the tradition of Thelema, the opacity of Liber AL becomes a catalyst for its transmission, exegesis, and even the tradition’s rituals.
The implication here is that this outline represents a universal model. Ideally, the model should be applicable in any authoritative context where opacity is at play, whether it would be undergraduates reading Derrida, Thelemites grappling with Liber AL, or renaissance scholars dealing with speculative alchemical manuscripts. To be useful, a model such as this must be adapted to the specific circumstances it is meant to illuminate. The ideal reader implicit in the above analysis, who reads in the context of an educated commentary, has probably more in common with the undergraduate hoping to get his head around Derrida than with the pre-modern alchemist. Be that as it may, it is my contention that we would see the relevant index effect at play in all three cases. As Sperber says when discussing difficult philosophical statements, we should expect that the effort required to interpret the material in question would tend to be ‘seen as an indication of high relevance and to favour interpretations consistent with this indication.’63
In simple terms, the model highlights two distinct types of signs: (a) the opaque text, which is indexical, and (b) the exegesis, which is linguistic (symbolic). In this optic, (a) the opaque text is primary, its cryptic nature driving the creation of (b) exegesis. Further, its opacity works as a protective cloak shielding it from critical scrutiny due to its lack of material meaning—thus, (a) the opaque text should be more stable while (b) exegesis should be variable, responding to the sociocultural environment. This is reminiscent of Rappaport’s consideration of cultures as systems adapting to changes in their environments. According to Rappaport, “ultimate sacred postulates” of liturgical language provide continuity in a traditional, cultural system. A key factor is how vacant these postulates are in material meaning which makes them relatively immune to critical scrutiny and thus stable (they are often ancient, like the Jewish Shema).64 Ultimately sacred postulates sanctify more variable and material ideas about the world (when the latter are associated with the former). The cryptic nature of ultimate sacred postulates is important ‘for if they are vague the association of the ultimate […] with the immediate realities of history requires continual interpretation.’65 Rappaport notes that scripture can throw a wrench in the spokes of this dynamic when concrete ideas (with material meaning) are elevated to ultimate status in writing. He goes on to say that these ‘difficulties of scripture may be ameliorated […] by their cryptic nature, for that which is mysterious allows for, and even demands, interpretation’.66 Thus, in Rappaport’s view, opacity in religious discourse allows a cultural system to adapt to historical changes. Rappaport’s idea lends itself to the above model of the transmission of the two type of signs, that is, (a) the opaque text, indexical, stable and primary, and (b) the exegesis, linguistic, variable and secondary. It is by the interplay of (a) and (b) that a religious discourse or tradition responds to its surroundings.
As the above model is articulated in terms of the selection and transmission of “signs” based on Deacon’s memetic (or evolutionary) semiotics rather than Sperber’s “epidemiology of representations”, which has dominated the cognitive science of religion, a few comments are in order.67 I don’t believe these two approaches are at odds with each other.68 In simple terms, Deacon views cognition as embedded in culture, while Sperber is concerned with how cognition moulds culture, but ultimately I believe that the two complement each other. According to Deacon, a sign is ‘some physical thing which, by virtue of some distinctive feature, can be recruited by an interpretative process within a larger system’.69 Hence, the semiotic account highlights external, cultural constraints found in the distribution of signs (such as texts). Thus, a sign is a kind of mnemonic artefact. This view of culture in terms of external mnemonics that provide scaffolding for cognitive and sociocultural practices is compatible with the concept of “distributed cognition”,70 a view that avoids the fallacy that culture is something shared by everyone in a group, which is one of Sperber’s important points. As to the spread of signs Deacon says
a sign’s replication depends upon its effect on what brains do, via the behavioral adaptations the signs promote. To the extent that this behavioral or cognitive phenotype increases the probability that the signs will be produced and used again […] they will be spread and stabilized.71
Here we have the copying of signs in tandem with an epidemiology of behavioural and cognitive patterns much like that proposed by Sperber. Again, I believe that much could be learned by bringing these approaches together.
What about empirical avenues? Does the model bring anything to the study of Thelema? In general terms, it provides an understanding of what motivates adherents and sustains and transmits the tradition. More specifically, it brings certain dynamics into relief which could be of interest to understand the transmission and development of posthumous discourse about Liber AL, i.e. discourse after Thelema became a movement of sorts, which was only in the past three or four decades (as this is a transmission model its effects should set in as more people communicate). In light of the model—given that the relevant index effect is independent of specific religious claims when opacity is strong (see Section 4 above)—we should expect thelemic discourse to focus more on the text itself and its properties than on the claim that it was revealed by a supernatural agent. If this expectation is supported, it would be of interest not the least since Crowley, after he took to his role as a prophet, consistently emphasized the book’s supernatural authorship, a conviction that, if anything, grew stronger as the years passed.72 Further—given that opaque texts are more stable than the exegesis they provoke (see the discussion of the primacy of opaque signs at the end of Section 4 above)—we should expect the opacity of Liber AL to be a factor in Thelema’s ability to respond to sociocultural changes as that which is cryptic allows for new interpretations (examples of such changes could be the progress of modern science, LGBT rights, and so on). This second expectation is less precise than the first but it should be possible to evaluate it, say, by analysing how sociocultural developments figure in thelemic discourse and see how and if the viewpoints expressed are anchored in interpretations of opaque passages in Liber AL.73
If we look to cognitive science, is it possible to develop and test the hypothesis about the relevant index effect? One option could be to draw on the empirical methods used in the cognitive study of reading discussed above. Below, however, I will consider two approaches within the cognitive science of religion that I believe can be brought into a fruitful dialogue to further explore the theory proposed in this article.
The first is Quinton Deeley’s social, neurocognitive study of ritual. Deeley asks, given that ritual is instrumental in conveying important conceptions, why does it so often depend on methods that seem to ‘imply possible interpretations rather than explicitly stating them?’ Why rely on such ‘ambiguous media?’74 Deeley emphasizes processing strategies that imply loose association of semantic concepts, metaphorical connotations as opposed to literal ones, and detecting patterns in what would otherwise appear as random stimuli. In addition, he highlights emotional processing. Psychosis in schizophrenia is characterized by attributing strong significance to often unrelated things. Dopamine has been suggested to mediate “motivational salience” by attributing salience to otherwise neutral stimuli. Deeley proposes that in cultural displays and interaction, such as ritual, ‘[m]odulation of dopamine release critically contributes to “tagging” ideas and percepts with an enhanced sense of reality and motivational salience.’75 He does not confine this effect to ritual, noting that ‘cultural forms that engage analogical semantic processing—for example, poetry, music, theatre, art, religious ritual, jokes, play—are also associated with accentuated emotion, significance, meaning (pattern recognition), and reverie (i.e. fluency of emotive mental associations).’76 In sum, Deeley proposes two main strategies employed in ritual to impart conceptions and invest them with a sense of reality and emotion: a sensory route which engages salient thought, experience and emotion by sensory stimuli (e.g. dancing), and a semantic route ‘in which the presentation of enigmatic but suggestive verbal and non-verbal symbols engages an analogical […] processing strategy to make sense of what is authoritatively presented as real but incompletely understood.’77
I find it an extremely interesting thought that cultural phenomena might trigger some of the same processes that are found in psychosis. Of course, Deeley focuses on ritual but he does point to other cultural elements as well (such as poetry), as indeed his concept of the ‘semantic route’ indicates. I believe it should be possible to develop the proposed relevant index effect with reference to Deeley’s theory, and devise empirical tests based on the neuroscience he draws on.
The second approach that can be brought into play with the relevant index effect is the “predictive coding” paradigm. Predictive coding, which has been gaining ground in the study of perception in recent years,78 aims to present a model that bridges perception and cognition and hence has implications for a range of phenomena from basic visual processing over psychological disorders to social interaction. In a nutshell, the predictive coding paradigm states that we bring a set of tacit expectations or predictions (top-down models) to bear on any given perceived scene; incoming sensory signals (bottom-up) are then compared to the predictions made which are updated if there is a mismatch between the predictions and actual stimuli (“prediction error”).79 The implementation of predictive coding will, of course, vary across different domains. In complex situations, such as social interactions, one will have compound predictions derived from various representations in memory. Moshe Bar has characterized these as “mindsets” which ‘can be seen as composed of a broad set of predictions, a repertoire of what is expected in the given context and what is not, which constitutes a state for guiding behaviour and for tuning our perceptions and cognitions’.80
Uffe Schjødt and colleagues have applied predictive coding in the study of opacity in ritual.81 They have shown that while goal-oriented actions are easily processed with low strain on attention, the opposite is true of opaque, ritualized acts. Schjødt and colleagues suggest that high attention to detail due to opacity results in chronic prediction error and thereby hampers the formation of a more global, coherent action structure in the mind of participants—who, in a way, cannot see the forest for the trees. A key point is that this limits participants’ capacity to create their own interpretation of the ritual. Thus, there remains an interpretative gap which is filled by prior expectations and post ritual interpretations, often provided by authority figures. Schjødt and colleagues suggest that ritual ‘may use obscurity to increase participants’ susceptibility to authoritative interpretations by religious experts’.82 They have also looked at the effects of the presence of charismatic authority by scanning the brains of devoted Christian and secular participants finding that devoted Christians showed a massive deactivation of executive regions in the brain (such as attention) when listening to prayers they thought were read by a charismatic, Christian reader.83 The authors compare this to findings in hypnosis research where subjects ‘hand over’ executive control to the hypnotist. They also propose that ‘this relation may touch upon a central psychological mechanism of trust which is ubiquitously present in interpersonal interactions, e.g. in leader-follower, doctor-patient, teacher-student, producer-consumer and parent-child relations’.84
I believe that the hypothesis of the relevant index effect could be developed further and tested within a predictive coding paradigm, not the least with reference to Schjødt and colleagues’ work on opacity in ritual and the effects of the presence of authority figures. For example, it would be interesting to see if attention to detail due to opacity is found when people read texts, which would fit the emphasis on textual detail we saw in the analysis of Liber AL. The notion of mindsets could also be useful to understand how an authoritative or religious context works at the level of individual cognition, that is, how a religious context may prime participants, triggering repertoires of expectations. Finally, the concept of semiosis can be understood in terms of prediction, error, and adjustment. A sign is a perceived pattern; attempting to interpret it implies the expectation that it is relevant; as semiosis progresses, the top-down models that guide interpretation are updated by bottom-up signals—the sign and its context become clearer. Also, Langacker’s discourse space, which incorporates expectations of relevance, captures this process in the context of communication—as discourse unfolds, the current discourse space is continually updated. Further, when updating is hampered, we have prediction error, corresponding to failed semiosis.
6. Concluding Remarks
At the outset, we encountered a reader who ‘didn’t understand a thing’ about what a religious text—Liber AL—was saying. Yet, he found the text highly relevant and did not rest until he had ‘found another copy’. This has been the crux of the above article, argued as a semiotic problem, that is, why does opaque material persist in religious and esoteric contexts when in casual communication it would not? The answer was sought in cognitive semiotics and relevance theory, tentatively supported by findings in the cognitive study of reading. The proposed answer was as a psychological effect, viz. that when a text’s (or other sets of signs’) relevance is taken for granted—a priori relevance—opacity in its composition will be experienced as an index of relevance. With reference to this “relevant index effect”, a model for the transmission of esoteric, religious traditions was outlined where opaque signs and traditions related to them, such as exegesis, gain a selective advantage in the cultural environment. The proposed effect brings interesting expectations to bear on Thelema. Also, it should be possible to develop and test the hypothesis with reference to the cognitive neuroscience of religion, especially the paradigm of predictive coding. Thus, having taken these steps to a cognitive semiotics of Western esotericism and glanced the route ahead, we have our work cut out for us.
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I am grateful to Egil Asprem, Markus Altena Davidsen, and Armin Geertz for discussions at formative stages. Further talks with Armin, Uffe Schjødt, and PhD students at the Religion, Cognition and Culture Research Unit during a visit to Aarhus University proved invaluable. In addition, I am obliged to a number of people for taking the time to comment on earlier drafts or assist in other ways: Peer Bundgaard, Pierre Chevaldonné, Steindór J. Erlingsson, Gretchen Koch, Bergljót Soffía Kristjánsdóttir, Tom Lawson, and two anonymous reviewers. Needless to say, the sole responsibility for any view expressed is my own.
Faivre, Access, 10, emphasis added. For an overview of the history of esotericism and its academic study, cf. Hanegraaff, ‘Esotericism’. On the varied forms and aspects of esotericism, cf. Hanegraaff et al., Dictionary of Gnosis & Western Esotericism.
Cognitive semiotics is a broad field in the study of signs and meaning straddling the sciences and humanities which integrates ‘perspectives, methods, and insight from cognitive science, cognitive linguistics, and semiotics, placing meaning-making into the broader context of cognitive, social, and neurobiological processes’ (Bundgaard et al., ‘Editors’ note’). For a recent overview, see Zlatev, ‘Cognitive Semiotics’. It should be mentioned that relevance theory is not a common element in the arsenal of cognitive semiotics. Those familiar with their Sperber and Wilson’s Relevance will also note their critique of semiotics. However, they do not discuss Peircian semiotics, which is the main theoretical ingredient in the semiotic approach of the present article.
For an overview of Crowley’s life and ideas, cf. Pasi, ‘Crowley’. Thelema is a conspicuous thread in the tapestry of the “magical family” of modern, Western religions (cf. Melton, ‘Modern Alternative Religions’), its influence showing in a variety of ways, from Wicca (cf. Hutton, Triumph) to popular culture (cf. Lachman, Aleister Crowley; Robertson, Illustrated Beast) to underground culture (cf. Keenan, England’s Hidden Reverse). It is only recently that Crowley began to attract academic attention, e.g. Pasi, Aleister Crowley and the Temptation of Politics; ‘Neverendingly Told Story’; Bogdan & Starr, Aleister Crowley and Western Esotericism; Asprem, ‘Magic Naturalized’.
Crowley, ‘Genesis’; cf. also Confessions part 3. Crowley did not take to his role as a prophet of Thelema until a few years after he claimed to have received the text and it was not until the First World War that it became the focus of his writings (Pasi, Aleister Crowley, 26). For a useful introduction to the history of Liber AL and Crowley’s reception of it, cf. Beta, ‘Editor’s Introduction’. On how his conception of Aiwass developed, cf. Pasi, ‘Varieties’.
Genette, Palimpsests; Paratexts. For a recent application of Genette’s concepts in the context of fiction-based religion, cf. Davidsen, ‘The Religious Affordances of Fiction’.
Liber AL has been published numerous times, e.g., Crowley, ‘Liber AL’. There have been a few different editions of his commentaries, the one cited below is Crowley, The Law is for All.
Deacon, Symbolic Species, 63, emphasis added. The account developed here owes more to Deacon than to Peirce himself. Hence, much of Peirce’s terminology is avoided. His classic definition of a sign reads: ‘A sign, or representamen, is something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity. It addresses somebody, that is, creates in the mind of that person an equivalent sign, or perhaps a more developed sign. That sign which it creates I call the interpretant of the first sign. The sign stands for something, its object. It stands for that object, not in all respects, but in reference to a sort of idea, which I have sometimes called the ground of the representamen’, ‘Logic’, 99, emphasis in original.
Jesper Sørensen has described a similar effect in terms of “de-symbolization” (in Peircean sense) in ritual participants’ response to opaque words in magical rites—archaic and dead languages, deviant grammatical forms, even pure gibberish—where attention is directed from symbolic (linguistic) meaning of an utterance to its perceptible, iconic, or indexical features (‘Magic Reconsidered’, 237; ‘Problem of Magic’, 107 ff.; ‘Acts’; Cognitive Theory of Magic.). Further, with reference to ritual acts, Sørensen says that the ‘strange’ behaviour of a shaman is interpreted by ritual participants as ‘an index of the underlying special quality of the agent’ (‘Acts’, 292, emphasis in original). How opacity may gain significance in religion and culture has, of course, been discussed by scholars before, prominently by both Roy A. Rappaport (‘Obvious Aspects’, 204; ‘Adaptive Structure’) and Dan Sperber (Rethinking Symbolism) in the seventies.
This is Bateson’s definition of information, cf. Steps, 452 f. The theme of Deacon’s Incomplete Nature, which draws partly on Bateson and Peirce, is the significance of “absences” as a causal factor.
Here, Peirce is talking about our understanding of concepts: ‘It is not to be supposed that upon every presentation of a sign capable of producing a logical interpretant [i.e. an intellectual concept], such intrepretant is actually produced. The occasion may be too early or too late. If it is too early, the semiosis will not be carried so far, the other interpretants [i.e. emotional and energetic] sufficing for the rude functions for which the sign is used.’ ‘Pragmatism’, 284 f. Peirce called the rudimentary responses prior to conceptual reasoning ‘emotional interpretant’ and ‘energetic intrepretant’, the latter mediating or elaborating the former, p. 277.
Miall, ‘Emotions’; ‘Beyond Interpretation’; Miall is one of the proponents of empirical studies in this domain, his main statement being Literary Reading. There is some controversy as to how automatic affective responses are and to what extent they are implied in further interpretation, cf. McCarthy, ‘Reading Beyond the Lines’, 104 f.
For a useful discussion of the difference between fiction and religious narratives in the context of fiction-based religion, cf. Davidsen, ‘The Religious Affordances of Fiction’.
This is similar to Sperber’s “guru effect”, where, in a social setting, a runaway trust in authority creates a vicious circle where obscurity leads adherents to granting near absolute authority to sources just because they don’t understand them (Sperber, ‘Guru Effect’, 591).
Deacon, ‘Memes as Signs’; Sperber, Explaining Culture; Boyer, Religion Explained; McCauley & Lawson, Bringing Ritual to Mind; Whitehouse, Modes.
Interestingly, both share a similar objection to the “meme” concept which was originally proposed by Dawkins in The Selfish Gene to account for cultural evolution and most notably developed by Susan Blackmore in The Meme Machine. In short, both Deacon and Sperber criticize the notion that ideas can be copied from brain to brain (cf. Deacon, ‘Memes as Signs’; Sperber, ‘Objection’). In Deacon’s view, what is replicated is “signs” (external, perceptible patterns) while their interpretative, cognitive effects (ideas) will vary.
For views on culture in this vein, cf. Donald, Mind so Rare; ‘Slow Process’; Deacon, Symbolic Species; ‘Memes as Signs’; Hutchins, Cognition in the Wild; Tomasello, Cultural Origins; Geertz, ‘Brain, Body and Culture’; Sørensen, ‘Religion, Evolution’. An account of atheism has been developed in these terms in Geertz & Markússon, ‘Religion is Natural’; and on modern, Icelandic Ásatrú in Markússon, ‘Salience and Relevance’.
We may see an example of these tendencies in the writings of IAO131, a prolific thelemic writer. The former expectation may figure in his monograph Psychological Commentary on Liber AL vel Legis where, as the title suggests, he discusses Liber AL in psychological terms. The latter may figure in his short essay ‘Why Thelema Kicks Ass’, in which he argues that Thelema is particularly suited to modernity, and in some other essays within that same collection.
Cf. Bar, ‘Proactive Brain’; Clark, ‘Whatever Next?’; Surfing; Frith & Frith, ‘Social Brain’; Roepstorff et al. ‘Enculturing Brains’.
Ibid., 1058; Pape, ‘Cryptography’.
Ibid., 263, emphasis added (except on real which is in the original).
Bar, ‘Proactive Brain’, 1239, emphasis in original; 1235 f.
Ibid., 125. Recently, they have found similar trust effects in people’s evaluation of the credibility of Bible translations using eye tracking methods, cf. Schjødt et al., ‘Source Credibility’.