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.

Three Books of Warehoused Notions

Just as Israel Regardie’s The Golden Dawn is, though it has its shortcomings, a widely-recommended source of raw information concerning late Victorian British occultism, Agrippa’s Three Books of Occult Philosophy is widely considered the encyclopedia of occultism as it was studied in Renaissance Europe. Indeed, it and the Golden Dawn’s system are not unconnected; Francis Barrett catalysed a resurgence of occult interest in Britain in 1801 with his The Magus, or the Celestial Intelligencer, which largely just plagiarised substantial chunks of the Three Books and perhaps a pinch of a different source in order to deliver its information, and then later when the Golden Dawn was formed great chunks of their inner practices were adopted either from that or, less likely, Agrippa directly.

The reason that it’s more likely that the Golden Dawn leadership got their details from Barrett rather than Agrippa is that for a good long time a full English translation of Agrippa wasn’t available, aside from a 17th Century translation riddled with errors. Donald Tyson’s presentation of the Three Books is the product of a laborious process of reconstruction, bringing the full text back into print in English for the first time in ages, repairing errors, and extensively annotating everything (and when I say “extensively” I mean “in many chapters there’s a greater word count in Tyson’s footnotes than in Agrippa’s actual text”).

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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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Apocalypse Culture

No book provides a more complete one-stop summation of the Feral House publishing company’s ethos than Apocalypse Culture: criminality, avant-garde art, dark musical subcultures, fetishes which range from the unusual-but-consensual to the taboo-and-definitely-not-consensual, extreme politics of all stripes, secret societies, conspiracy theories and cultural meditations all sit cheek-by-jowl in this collection of essays edited by the late Adam Parfrey, founder of Feral House itself.

For Parfrey, it was all about freedom of speech and giving a platform to anyone, no matter how offensive or controversial – if anything, the controversy helped. As Eric Bischoff coined the phrase, “controversy creates cash”, and it’s notable that Feral House’s boom period in the 1990s coincided with an era in which this was never more true. Parfrey’s decisions about what to publish would occasionally spark controversy; Feral House got a tidal wave of condemnation when it put out The Gates of Janus, a meditation on serial killers by Ian Brady, and Parfrey’s pre-Feral publishing venture, Amok Press, put out an English translation of Michael, a novel by Joseph Goebbels.

Apocalypse Culture doesn’t quite include any full articles by authors on Goebbels or Boyd’s level (though Parfrey does quote Hitler at one point), but the material here is pretty extreme. That said, whilst Parfrey himself seems to have particular obsessions and points of focus, at the same time the sheer range of extremist opinion offered here is incredible. You wouldn’t expect many of the authors in here to see eye-to-eye on much, except perhaps a certain disregard both for societal norms (as they existed in the late 1980s/early 1990s) and the centre ground which tends to reinforce them. Indeed, the title of the book comes from Parfrey’s contention that the centre cannot hold, and an apocalypse of bizarre and aberrant behaviours is just around the corner.

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Pickin’ Up Truth Vibrations, Part 1: In the Light of (Turquoise) Experience

There is today an active Gnostic sect. Few people can be said to be consciously enthusiastic members, but it is nonetheless a sect. It teaches a worldview which has evolved somewhat over the sect’s existence, but was from the beginning rooted in Gnosticism and has become increasingly reminiscent of Gnosticism with the passage of time, and in recent years has openly switched to some specifically Gnostic terminology to explain its ideas.

Its adherents wouldn’t necessarily think of it as a religious movement, and many of them actively follow other spiritual traditions in parallel to it – but if they have taken the teachings of this sect seriously, then that will inevitably affect their relationship with those other traditions and how they view them. Different levels of involvement exist, ranging from people who just read a few books or watch a few DVDs to more enthusiastic members who discuss the leader’s teachings enthusiastically on his website forums, or who attend massive, day-long lectures which the sect’s leader holds in major venues like Wembley Arena in order to endlessly restate, reiterate, and reinforce his essential points.

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Dissecting Lovecraft Part 7: Innsmouth, Heald, and Hitler

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

We’ve previously seen how Lovecraft’s work reached its peak of ambition with At the Mountains of Madness, only for Lovecraft to become disheartened at his failure to sell it. Still, Lovecraft couldn’t stop writing if he wanted to eat, so the next phase of his writing saw him trying to rekindle his enthusiasm for his solo sories whilst doing plenty of revision work to try and scrape out a living.

The Trap is a revision Lovecraft did for Henry Whitehead. This is seen as a “secondary” revision and in truth there does not seem to be much Lovecraft in it to my eyes, though it’s an interest enough story about a mirror that traps a boarding school student who must be rescued by his teacher. The close of the story, in which the student turns up back in the teacher’s room and they need to come up with some sort of convoluted ruse to avoid any dodgy questions arising from the boy just turning up in the teacher’s room in the middle of the night, makes for slightly uncomfortable reading in a “How did this guy who was a teacher in his day job put so much thought into smuggling boys into and out of his room?” sort of way, and to be honest there doesn’t seem to be an enormous amount to it that’s especially Lovecraftian beyond one mild touch in which, as a result of being caught in the mirror, the kid ends up with his organs mirrored so his heart is on the right-hand side and so on, which borrows an entertainingly discomforting idea from The Mound.

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Dissecting Lovecraft Part 5: Home Again, Home Again, Cthulhu Fhtagn

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

In March 1926, a little over 2 years since he hopped off to New York to get married, Lovecraft accepted an invitation from his aunt Lillian to come back to Providence and live there again, returning in April. This brought a de facto end to his marriage, even if it took some time to actually legally dissolve (and indeed, even after the legal procedures had been carried out Lovecraft was tardy about signing the final decrees, meaning that Sonia’s subsequent marriage was inadvertently bigamous). Lillian’s invitation came in part from the urging of Frank Belknap Long and his family, who had observed Lovecraft’s increasingly miserable state and were afraid of what would happen if he stayed in the city. (Long’s reports on this are inconsistent on whether it was him or his mother who wrote to Lillian imploring her to take Lovecraft back – Joshi points out that it is quite possible that they both worked on the letter in question.)

We’ve previously seen how prior to moving to New York Lovecraft had developed his craft to a high level of accomplishment, only for his New York-era stories to reflect either a glum lack of inspiration at best or bigoted axe-grinding at worst. Back in his habitual stamping ground, however, Lovecraft would begin a productive period of his writing. We get an early look at where his thinking is at in The Materialist Today. In this essay, Lovecraft expresses the view that people, whoever they are, are better off practicing the cultures of their forefathers. In this ethnoseparatist worldview, cultural diversity is fine in theory but in practice can be maintained only by careful segregation; cultural mingling and experimentation leads to disaster.

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