Jodorowsky: From Surrealism To Psychomagic

Alejandro Jodorowsky has enjoyed something of a career renaissance in cinema lately, mostly thanks to the Jodorowsky’s Dune documentary that related how his attempt to film Dune went totally off the rails. After becoming a cult figure in the 1970s, Jodorowsky’s career hit a speed bump after his Dune project collapsed, and he had dropped out of directing entirely from 1990 to 2015, but since then he has made three new films, each with a hefty dose of autobiography.

For a long time his work was difficult to get – especially El Topo and The Holy Mountain, the two 1970s works which really put him on the map and got him attached to the Dune project in the first place. Arrow Video have now stepped in and produced a boxed set of blu-rays providing a useful cross-section of his work: his debut feature Fando y Lis, El TopoThe Holy Mountain, and his latest release – Psychomagic, a documentary about his homebrewed style of art therapy that he has been practicing in recent years.

I’m going to be honest: over the course of watching these movies I have come to seriously dislike Jodorowsky and his work. He clearly takes a lot of inspiration from the Surrealists, but I think he increasingly uses the tools of Surrealism for the sake of shameless self-promotion and creating this Messianic aura around himself. In addition, in relation to El Topo in particular there is furious controversy around his claim that he actually raped one of the participants in the film. I will cover that in more detail when we get to that, so consider this a content warning.

Fando y Lis

The Final War has come and gone and all the cities are in ruins. Well, maybe not all. When he was young, Fando (Sergio Kleiner, or Vincente Moore when appearing as a child) learned of the hidden city of Tar from his father (Rafael Corkidi). If he could just find Tar, he’d have eternal happiness – and his lover, Lis (Diana Mariscal, or Elizabeth Moore when shown as a child), would both have eternal happiness and be cured of her paraplegia.

So off they trek across the blasted wasteland, Lis sat on a trolley as Fando totes her along. As they go, they have various encounters – real or imagined – with various figures of a largely symbolic or metaphorical nature, and bit by bit we as audience members find more and more reason to worry about the duo’s relationship. It doesn’t seem as idyllic and healthy as it seemed to at the start of their quest. Fando keeps wandering off – despite the fact that this almost never ends well for him – and increasingly gaslights and lies to Lis. Eventually he does something barbaric and irreversible. Maybe there really is a city of Tar out there – but will it take in someone who’s been as senselessly cruel as Fando?

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Crowley In Small Doses

Regardless of what you think of his esoteric endeavours; you can’t deny that Aleister Crowley tried his hands at a wide range of endeavours. Between being a mountaineer, an occultist, a chess enthusiast, and a poet, he also turned his hand to prose fiction from time to time. His novels Diary of a Drug Fiend and Moonchild get most of the infamy, but he also produced a good chunk of short fiction in his time.

David Tibet, though he was deep into Crowley when he started the Current 93 industrial music project that he is most famous for and has retained a long-standing appreciation of the man, does not seem to be a dogmatic Thelemite these days; however, he is on at least good enough terms with William Breeze, AKA Hymenaeus Beta – the current head of the “Caliphate” faction of the Ordo Templi Orientis (Crowley’s most famous magical order) – to have featured Breeze on a few Current 93 recordings and to have been appointed to the International OTO Cabinet. In this latter capacity, he’s a “non-initiate” advisor to the OTO – essentially acting as someone that the leadership can turn to for advice on his particular areas of expertise.

Among Tibet’s eclectic range of other contacts is Mark Valentine, who has edited anthologies for Wordsworth Editions’ Tales of Mystery & the Supernatural line. Wordsworth Editions, for those of you not in the UK, are known primarily as publishers of out-of-copyright work at a modest price; these days of course, there are absolute tons of small press outfits doing precisely this on Amazon, crapping out books on CreateSpace that are by and large horribly presented and feel nasty and cheap. Wordsworth are better than that: by and large the books they put out are nicely laid-out and properly edited, and by putting these out at a decent price they make a good selection of old literature easily available in hard copy for readers who might be on a tight budget, or might understandably object to paying a premium for a book which is nothing more than a reprint of something nabbed from the public domain.

The Tibet-Valentine connection makes sense when you think about it, given that both of them have made something of a career of researching into classic ghost and horror stories. (For an example of Tibet’s contributions in this vein, see my Stenbock article.) Tibet suggested to Valentine that a collection of Crowley’s short stories might be a nice addition to the Wordsworth Mystery & the Supernatural portfolio, and helped put Wordsworth in touch with William Breeze. Since the OTO believes it has a duty to make Crowley’s work available, Breeze was amenable to the idea, and though the copyright on the material had not yet run out (in the UK the copyright to material published by Crowley in his lifetime expired in 2017; posthumously-published material may still be in copyright depending on when it was first released), Breeze agreed to accept only a token royalty on the OTO’s behalf so that Wordsworth’s standard pricing could apply.

In the end two collections were produced. 2012’s The Simon Iff Stories and Other Works brought together two sets of stories that Crowley wrote as a series – Golden Twigs, a clutch of stories inspired by The Golden Bough, and the titular stories of the psychic detective Simon Iff, who would also appear as the protagonist of the novel Moonchild. Preceding it in 2010 is the book I’m going to review here: The Drug & Other Stories, collecting various standalone short stories Crowley wrote in a span of time from 1902 to 1922.

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The Necronomicon Wars

Even in his own lifetime, H.P. Lovecraft got the occasional bit of fan mail from occultists either asking if his mythology of the Great Old Ones was real – or insisting that it was real. Over time, it seemed like the Necronomicon became the particular focus of this sort of inquiry – perhaps because of Lovecraft’s technique of listing it and other invented Mythos tomes alongside real books when using it in his stories.

Lovecraft gently let down all such inquirers. He’d also disappoint fans who knew it was fictional but thought it’d be wicked awesome if he’d write an actual Necronomicon, by pointing out that he’d already established in his stories that the damn thing was hundreds of pages long – and whilst he might be tempted to cook up some scraps, he really didn’t want to spend that long cranking out a tome of that length. Nonetheless, an appetite for the book remained.

After Lovecraft died, pranksters would slip references to it into library catalogues and the like, but the efforts of Arkham House to exert control over Lovecraft’s intellectual property (despite August Derleth’s rather weak claim to be Lovecraft’s literary executor, a role it’s now generally agreed that R.H. Barlow had a better claim to) may have dampened any efforts to turn the artifact into reality. Derleth’s death in 1971, however, made such fakery significantly more tempting.

The early 1970s also saw Kenneth Grant put out The Magical Revival, the first volume in his epic Typhonian Trilogies – a sprawling account of his further development of Aleister Crowley’s occult system of Thelema. This included an astonishing claim – that Lovecraft’s fiction wasn’t fiction, but was on some level communicating psychic truths that were not only compatible with Thelema but were actually important components of it in their own right.

This created the impetus for a bizarre new feature of the occult scene – a spate of purported Necronomicons, at least one of which would inspire readers to actually try out the magic described therein, and a raging conflict in the wider scene over whether these books a) were what they purported to be and b) had any legitimacy as grimoires. In short, the stage was set for a conflict in which shots are still fired to this day – the controversy I like to call the Necronomicon Wars.

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Mini-Review: Book 4

So before I did my Foucault’s Pendulum review, I decided to take a look over some of the sources for the magical traditions that clash by the end of the novel, which is kind of why there’s been a trickle of occult content on the blog for a bit; having first read the novel knowing very little about the stuff it was riffing on, I wanted to see how it read to someone who actually knew the territory (it’s just as good).

Here’s a leftover from that research project. Crowley’s attempt to produce an all-encompassing manual of magic – published previously in several separate parts including Magick In Theory and Practice and The Equinox of the Gods – boldly proclaims that it intends to be a guide to magic which is accessible to everyone, and then spends most of its page count mired in technicalities, presenting various arguments trying to insist on the authenticity of The Book of the Law, and giving a somewhat confusing rundown of ceremonial magical procedure, with brief sections at the beginning giving a somewhat more coherent rundown of the basic practices of meditation and an idealised version of magical practice which seems to be entirely logistically unattainable for most practitioners.

The magical information in here is largely the Golden Dawn material, plus Crowley’s fixation on The Book of the Law and some other concepts added by Crowley, and it is perhaps more interesting as a worked example of how an actual practitioner might use and further develop the Golden Dawn system than a system in its own right.

It’s not Crowley’s fault that the book is a bit of a mess, since it had a long and frequently disrupted writing process and several aspects of it were dictated to Crowley by, he thought, spirits talking through his personal mediums, right down to the questionable decision to call a book for beginners “Book 4”. (There are numerological reasons for doing so, but it’s still confusing.)

Current editions have a biographical essay from the current head of the OTO, William Breeze, discussing how Crowley produced the book. It is notable how Breeze shines a light on Crowley’s use of a succession of “Scarlet Women” as mediums, a rather exploitative-sounding process which led to a trail of human wreckage in Crowley’s wake. If trampling down others in this fashion was the price of producing this book, I am not altogether sure it was worth it.

Swinging Between the Extremes

From the early 1970s onwards Italian politics became marred by increasing political violence on both sides of the political spectrum, with neo-fascist forces on the right and the Red Brigades on the left turning to increasingly brutal methods as both the Western and Eastern Bloc used Italy as a front in the Cold War. It was a paranoid time in which the groups acting on the street were fronts either directly controlled or indirectly manipulated by larger forces.

Fascist groups – as well as agents provocateur on the left – were backed by Operation Gladio, a NATO-backed “stay behind” paramilitary force intended to resist a Soviet Bloc takeover of Italy which had, depending on who you talk to, either slipped its leash and run riot or did exactly what it was supposed to do. The Red Brigades were supplied by the likes of the PLO and the Czechoslovakian intelligence service. In 1981 the bizarre Propaganda Due scandal revealed that Italian Freemasonry had become suborned into a network of political corruption and influence-brokering. Conspiracy seemed to be everywhere.

This is the political backdrop of Foucault’s Pendulum, Umberto Eco’s second novel. Set in the then-modern Italy of the 1970s and 1980s, it is narrated by one Casaubon, an intellectual sort whose heart is mostly with the hard left but who is alarmed enough by the propagation of ill-tempered violent rhetoric (which, remember, it would eventually turn out was partially driven by agitators set up by Gladio), and who seeks his refuge in his studies. A tendency to be a bit of an academic magpie, grabbing whatever seems shiny to him, Casaubon sets himself up as a researcher-for-hire after completing his studies, including a thesis on the trial of the Knights Templar.

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Regarding the Dawn

Odds are that any modern text you look at which purports to unpack “ceremonial magic” or the “Western esoteric tradition” will, on some level, owe a certain debt to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and whilst there might be a few people these days ploughing that furrow who don’t owe a certain debt to Israel Regardie’s original The Golden Dawn, they’re certainly making their lives harder if they are ignoring this particular source text.

As the most famous organisation of Victorian occultists out there, the Golden Dawn have had their material riffed on for over a century now. Founded by William Westcott, MacGregor Mathers, and William Woodman, working on the basis of some cipher manuscripts of dubious provenance and charter purported to be obtained from “Anna Sprengel”, a German noblewoman who almost certainly didn’t exist, the Golden Dawn purported to be a branch of the worldwide Rosicrucian order, the selfsame secret society which had inspired imitators ever since the Rosicrucian manifestos of the early 17th Centuries slipped out and purported to a history much older than that.

Riffing on ideas from the then-popular Theosophical movement, the Golden Dawn founders claimed that the true leaders of the Rosicrucian Order – the so-called Secret Chiefs – were immortal entities who might not exist on the Earthly plane at all, but who Anna Sprengel (and, later, Mathers himself) was in direct contact with, and who had prompted Anna to help Mathers, Westcott, and Woodman establish this new magical order.

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Occult Orders, Fraternal Fun, and Masonic Malarkey

Ritual America – or, to give the book its full title, Ritual America: Secret Brotherhoods and Their Influence On American Society – A Visual Guide – is a big, chunky, coffee table affair. Compiled by Adam Parfrey and Craig Heimbichner, it offers exactly what the title implies: an extensive visual treasurehouse showcasing the influence of Freemasonry and various other fraternal orders (the vast majority of which are rip-offs of Freemasonry) in American society and culture.

Though the book hails from Feral House, which has published its fair share of conspiracy theory on the subject of Masonry and similar secret societies (they’re the big bads in James Shelby Downard’s Carnivals of Life and Death, for instance, and regular features of Secret and Suppressed), it isn’t the wall-to-wall orgy of conspiracy theory it might be – it discusses the occasional outbreaks of anti-Masonic sentiment and some of the major scandals like the death of William Morgan and the Leo Taxil affair, but it doesn’t wallow in conspiratorialism. Nor does it obsess on the esoteric aspects of Masonry and its more occult-themed offshoots like the OTO or the various Rosicrucian-themed spinoffs from it.

Instead, the book takes a refreshingly broad approach to the subject, appropriate to the fact that Freemasonry is an awkward broad church of an institution and always has been – ever since a bunch of esotericists, toffs, and middle class intellectuals gatecrashed and hijacked some old, near-moribund stonemason’s guilds, appropriated and/or radically reworked some of their ceremonies and procedures, and made it into this weird mashup of eating-and-feasting-club, charitable association, mutual aid society, and occult talking shop.

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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.

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Wheatley’s Catalogue of Ceremonies, Curses, and Cultural Myopia

Think of Dennis Wheatley, and you think of the Devil. That may not be wholly fair; of the dozens of trashy adventure and thriller novels Wheatley churned out over the course of his career, only a minority actually deal with the occult. In fact, that’s true even of his series about the Duke de Richleau, despite that series including the most famous of his Satanically-themed novels, The Devil Rides Out.

Nonetheless, whilst most of Wheatley’s output has largely been forgotten, his occult-themed stories are what his name is largely associated with. It probably helps that the Hammer adaptation of The Devil Rides Out is, for all its faults (most of which arise from it being too true to the original book), one of the more enduringly-fun Hammer releases. Another factor might be that Wheatley’s views on the occult were absolutely bizarre, tied in as they were with his hyper-conservative views, with the result that they stand out all the more.

Whilst often you can glean aspects of an author’s worldview from their fiction – sure, people say you should separate the writer from the material, but if someone consistently, over the course of their entire career, writes women like trash and shows no sign that they are using techniques like unreliable narrators or whatever which means we shouldn’t take the narration at face value, you can draw a few conclusions from that. In the case of Wheatley, however, we don’t need to speculate about his actual beliefs on the occult: late in his career he write The Devil and All His Works, a coffee-table book combining his views on the subject and on spirituality in general with a fantastic collection of photographs (including the standard mildly titillating nudity expected of books on witchcraft from the 1970s).

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Beastly Sincerity

In writing A Magick Life Martin Booth sets himself a challenge. Biographies of figures like Aleister Crowley can be difficult because he was one of those people who devote their lives to subjects which believers take extremely seriously, but which sceptics tend to simply find amusing and/or disturbing (depending on just how prudish their instincts are).

In the case of Crowley, the subject in question is occultism and ritual magic, including sex magic rituals. This is the sort of subject matter people tend not to have mild, moderate, wishy-washy opinions about. For occultists, Crowley is either a hugely important figure in terms of recent innovations in the subject (Thelemites follow his system to this day, yet more draw on it, and chaos magicians tend to see his work as a necessary precursor to the sort of postmodern take they utilise) or one of the worst disasters to ever befall the field. Those who do not lend credence to occultism still tend to pass judgement on it; “it’s creepy and culty and manipulative” say some, “it’s an amusing eccentricity” say others, “it’s the work of the Devil” say yet others, “it’s asinine self-aggrandising nonsense” say still others.

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