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Kaleidoscopick Psychedelick

Published in 'Kaleidoscope' (Osaka Contemporary Art Center, 2005)


James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd and author of many works including The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner had a peculiar experience on a hillside in 1791, where he saw a ‘terrible apparition’ with a luminous halo in the mist.  He writes that he ‘never mentioned the circumstances to any living being before, save to Sir D. Brewster, who, of all men I ever met with, is the fondest of investigating everything relating to natural phenomena: he pretended to account for it by some law of dioptrical refraction, which I did not understand.’[1]


David Brewster, of course, invented the Kaleidoscope in 1816; and this incident with Hogg hints at the link between optical science and numinous vision that the kaleidoscope manifests.  Brewster and Hogg came out of the same religious background as I did, being the son of a Calvinist minister.  As with Hogg and Brewster, my fascination with numinous or mystical experience grew from the infernal cosmic machinations of St. Paul’s doctrines of divine predestination and election.  As a child, the sheer beauty and mystery of these little cylinders offended my frugal aesthetic sense; representing the dangerously extravagant visions of heathen sorcerors, seers and magicians.  I must therefore disagree with Dr Peter M. Roget (of Roget’s Thesaurus fame); who declared in 1818 of the kaleidoscope:


‘In the memory of man, no invention, and no work, whether addressed to the imagination or to the understanding, ever produced such an effect’[2]


for in gazing through this dream-machine of infinite variation; we are confronted with dynamic mandalas where the world is broken and re-assembled as sparkling simulacra; pattern’d repetitions ever-changing.  This is a religious instrument; Brewster’s true calling after he rejected the Ministry; to invent optical experiences that parallel the mystic visions of Ezekiel’s great luminous wheels; the opalescent arrangements of Tantra or the whirling vortices of the liminal realms described by ascetics and visionaries.


My personal favourite in my collection is the diminutive mushroom kaleidoscope.  It resembles the Fly Agaric mushroom which is sacred to many shamanic cultures such as those of Lapland and Siberia.  The great mycologist Gordon Wasson even claims that this is the divine Soma of the Vedic scriptures.  Participants in the mushroom ritual are initiated into a psychedelic realm of unbelievable kaleidoscopic intensity by ingesting the mushroom; archetypes reflected infinitely in interdimensional mirrors. 

My little mushroom kaleidoscope manifests this link between the optical experience afforded by it and humanity’s ancient engagement with the great cosmic kaleidoscope of our consciousness.


[1] Gray, Affleck The Big Grey Man of Ben Macdhui (Lochar, 1989) p.41-42

[2] Roget, Dr Peter M  in Blackwood’s Magazine, 1818

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