Gems of Criticism

Of all the incidents in Aleister Crowley’s extensive history of shit-stirring in the occult subculture of the early 20th Century, The Equinox is the one which left behind the most material for later generations to pick over. The Equinox was Crowley’s journal of esoteric philosophy and practice; with the motto of “The Method of Science, the Aim of Religion”, it had an initial run from 1909 to 1913, then returned briefly for a bumper issue in 1919 (the so-called “Blue Equinox”), and then for all intents and purposes that was that. (Such subsequent volumes as issued during Crowley’s lifetime were basically self-contained books on a single subject, rather than journals with articles on varied topics; in the case of books issued during World War II, this was a wheeze intended to take advantage of the fact that magazines were under different paper rationing restrictions from books.)

For its brief run, the original Equinox was supposed to be the teaching organ of the A∴A∴, a splinter group of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn founded by Crowley and some of his allies. Crowley’s eclectic approach to spirituality doesn’t quite hide the fact that, overall, the entire shebang is basically a sort of repackaged Theravada Buddhism, the magical goal of communication and union with one’s Holy Guardian Angel being part of the process of attaining the enlightenment of ego-death.

 

This may be surprising to those whose exposure to Crowley is mostly via horror stories, Ozzy songs, and his own self-publicity, but even though Crowley made a grand effort to embrace the tabloid caricature of him as a curse-slinging warlock in league with Satan, ultimately his whole system as presented here is framed as a method for spiritual self-improvement rather than any sort of tool for casting spells with effective practical results in the real world. To that extent, Crowley wasn’t really deviating that far from the Golden Dawn and other self-styled “Right Hand Path” systems of occultism and mysticism, in the sense that they also tended to frame personal spiritual growth, unity with God and the cosmos, and so on and so forth as being the right use of magic, and looked down on magic used for strictly material gain.

What you ended up getting in The Equinox, then, was an unusual mixture of yoga instructions, allusions to Buddhism, discussion of the philosophy of Thelema and presentation of its core texts as produced by Crowley and disciples (or as transmitted to them by Aiwass and other secret masters, if you bought into that), and magical rituals and practices (many of which were cribbed from the Golden Dawn), over all of which Crowley sprinkled a generous helping of self-aggrandisement. Never would he write an article plainly and simply if he thought it would be more impressive if it were written like some form of holy scripture; of course, given that what he was advocating included sex magic practices which would have outraged the prevailing morality of the time, maintaining a somewhat obscurantist approach to presenting his magical texts allowed him to slip in allusions to sex magic here and there without necessarily making it obvious where the dirt was.

As such, it’s a bit of a daunting mixture of stuff, with basic instructions on yoga sitting cheek-by-jowl with works of pure fiction, sat next to works of fiction which are supposed to conceal occult information, sat next to works of autobiography which read as fiction, and so on and so forth. Israel Regardie, who made something of a career in taking the vast morass of material produced by the Golden Dawn and its membership and whipping it into some sort of organised form over the years, helped boil the multi-volume epic down to its essentials in Gems From the Equinox. This compiles the most crucial Equinox materials along with works of comparable importance like The Vision and the Voice – Crowley’s deep dive into Enochian visionary magic/mysticism in which he explores the 30 Aethyrs which Dr John Dee described the universe as consisting of – and The Voice of the Silence, allegedly a Tibetan Buddhist document translated and published to Western markets by Helena Blavatsky, to which Crowley adds his extensive commentary.

(It’s evident that Crowley simultaneously thinks that Blavatsky had deep spiritual insights to share but was also full of shit when it comes to her sources – a contradictory position, perhaps, but perhaps Crowley was seeding the ground for later critics in case people managed to poke sufficient holes in his story about how he obtained The Book of the Law; after all, if you accept the idea that Blavatsky’s ideas may have merit even if her sources were made up, then if you later decide that Crowley’s sources were made up, you’re going to be less inclined to dismiss his ideas outright as a result of that conclusion.)

Gems has become less essential in recent years, since Thelemites have dutifully made sure that the entire run of The Equinox – along with Crowley’s other religious, magical, and mystical texts – is freely available online. However, a look at Gems shows that Regardie did, in fact, manage to distil what is the actual genuinely interesting part of Crowley’s work on the journal.

This is not the documents on the setup of the A∴A∴ and its management and how it works; that’s so much drama from the meltdown of the Golden Dawn which is better and more overtly told elsewhere. It’s not the material on The Book of the Law, which is largely an exercise in “my homebrew religion: let me show you it”; Crowley’s system of spiritual advancement suggests that sooner or later everyone comes up with their homebrew religion, at which point Thelema seems to be no longer particularly interesting except as a worked example of such. It’s not the introductory material to yoga, which is an exercise in a Westerner attempting to explain to other Westerners an Indian system of physiological and meditational exercise. It’s not the magic stuff, which mashes up reheated Golden Dawn material with a laudable attempt to say “Hey, you can have sex while doing this too and then even if you don’t get the effect you wanted at least you had sex.”

It’s not even the combination of “The Method of Science” with “The Aim of Religion”, because Crowley’s occult explorations and that which he encourages the A∴A∴/OTO members to undertake are in no sense carried out in a remotely scientific manner. There’s a big emphasis on keeping a magical diary, a record of your work, and analysing it after the fact to consider whether any actual results came about and whether they were the results which were expected (a practice reminiscent of the End Phenomenon in Scientology – the particular thing which is supposed to happen when you have completed a particular stage of Scientology training and treatment correctly). That, however, is a mere figleaf of empiricism rather than an actual rigorous scientific test. Crowley’s particular conception of the universe and how spiritual advancement works has no more scientific basis to it than Scientology, but Crowley at least acknowledges the contributions of others to his field, which puts him ahead of Scientology’s insistence that Hubbard is the sole Source of “spiritual technology”, as they like to call it.

No, friends, the really interesting thing about The Equinox, the aspect which generations of occultists and spiritual searchers have impatiently flipped past, much to their personal detriment, the bit which I actually personally enjoy reading on its own merits without a shred of irony, the truly important part which Regardie manages to lampshade by devoting a big fat chunk of Gems to it… is the book reviews.

The reviews focus mostly, but not exclusively, on books of a reasonably obvious occult interest; there’s also the occasional review of science textbooks because, whilst Crowley didn’t really apply the scientific method to his spirituality, he was keen to jump on new scientific discoveries about the cosmos and incorporate them into his religious system. (If you are going to dedicate yourself to the Goddess Nuit, every new astronomical discovery is like a new fact about your spiritual patron for you to enjoy.) They are largely written by Crowley, but not exclusively, because believe it or not the A∴A∴ did actually include people other than Crowley and whoever Crowley happened to be banging at any particular time.

And they’re a delicious outpouring of Edwardian literary snark. The Golden Dawn included a significant number of writers – in retrospect, it’s a wonder that their secrets remained secret as long as they did – Crowley among them, and Crowley was the sort of dude who had very developed opinions as to what he liked and didn’t like when it came to his reading matter. The upshot is that if you just read the reviews The Equinox what you get is a sort of Edwardian occult spin on… well, this blog, or Ferretbrain before it.

Sometimes, Crowley would decide to get personal. His long-running feud with A.E. Waite, the most boring man in occultism, is legendary. (Waite’s general view was that the responsible thing for occultists to do was to study magic and mysticism and then not do any magic whatsoever, because that’s naughty and bad and would give Jesus a sad, and solely concentrate on mysticism; Crowley and others were of the opinion that if you weren’t going to do any fucking magic, there was more or less no point joining a magical order.)

Whenever the subject of Waite comes up, Crowley is entertainingly rude about him. Some of Crowley’s essays on Waite take the form of comic short stories, little vignettes in which Crowley manages to encapsulate Robert Anton Wilson’s entire schtick decades before Wilson’s birth, do it better than Wilson ever did, and add an extra layer of erudition on top of that. There’s a particularly interesting review where Crowley covers the Rider-Waite tarot deck; if you’ve seen any tarot in any pop culture at all, odds are this was the deck which was used (or one drawing on its imagery very strongly), because it’s kind of iconic in that sense, and it’s interesting how Crowley tries to be as dismissive as he can of Waite’s treatment of the tarot whilst at the same time trying not to say anything bad about Pamela Coleman Smith, the actual artist. (Thus, he saves most of his barbs for the accompanying book which was published alongside the deck – Waite’s Key to the Tarot – and suggests that the main downfall of the Major Arcana in the deck is that Coleman Smith was working within the constraints of Waite’s flawed instructions.)

That said, Crowley wasn’t altogether ruled by his grudges. Elsewhere he eagerly recommends Arthur Machen as a far superior author to Algernon Blackwood, despite the fact that Machen was close buddies with A.E. Waite, but that just means that Crowley had some semblance of good taste. (One might look askance at his distaste for Blackwood, though I’d say that Blackwood is actually not all that consistent an author and so perhaps Crowley simply wasn’t reading the right Blackwoods.)

Away from Golden Dawn-adjacent material, Crowley mixes recommendations of stuff he genuinely likes with delicious takedowns of stuff he very much does not like. Crowley has little time for the narrow morality promoted in the Edwardian era by conservative sorts, and it’s delicious to see him rip its advocates to shreds when he has the chance. Take the essay A Galahad In Gomorrah, issued in response to Lord Alfred Douglas’ reinvention of himself as a far-right campaigner for public morality and against homosexuality (a prelude to his later turn into outright promoting anti-Jewish conspiracy theories); Crowley applauds Douglas’ moral crusade and suggests he turns his attentions to a certain moral reprobate – responsible for writing a book incorporating various poetic works celebrating homosexuality, including a piece entitled Two Loves which coined the phrase (much misattributed to Wilde) “the love that dare not speak its name”. Crowley concludes:

We have surely said enough to establish clearly the abominable character of this book. We are sure that the moment it is brought to the attention of Lord Alfred Douglas he will take the proper steps to crush the perpetrator.

The title-page discloses, as might be expected, both the title of the book and the name of its author.

The former is Poemes, and the latter is Lord Alfred Douglas.

In A Literatooralooral Treasure-Trove, meanwhile, Crowley reveals himself to delight in obscure so-bad-it’s-good material when he roasts Sonnetical Notes On Philosophy by Howell Williams – a vapid collection of terrible, terrible poems, the pain transformed into hilarity by Crowley’s razor-sharp dissection of the worst of the poems, and his inference of the various rules of Williams’ poetic technique, like “A sonnet should if possible contain one sentence only. That sentence should have no subject, predicate or object. But the reader should be led to think that they are there, and gently undeceived as the sonnet unfolds.”

The writings of Crowley constitute holy texts for Thelemites; just how holy each bit of the Equinox actually is can be a matter for debate. It is a nasty part of me which enjoys laughing at other people’s holy books; it’s a rare and pleasurable moment when some of that sacred literature is actually written for laughs in the first place.

One thought on “Gems of Criticism

  1. Pingback: Regarding the Dawn – The Thoughts and Fancies of a Fake Geek Boy

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s