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Today is the 48th anniversary of the death of Prince Matila Ghyka, a polymath writer and Romanian diplomat. I recently reviewed his one book that is probably most available to 21st-century readers of English.
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The Geometry of Art and Life is a genuine math book, not a mere popularization of mathematical ideas. Despite the fact that the Dover reprint I read has only 174 pages, of which 80 are dedicated to illustrative plates, full appreciation requires a slow "read" of formulas, equations, and tables -- especially in the first half of the book, which treats the mathematical features of key proportions and the features of regular plane and solid figures. I was especially fascinated by the extensive discussion of Archimedean solids, which were new to me. The later chapters address the prevalence of such mathematical patterns in biological and artistic phenomena.
With respect to the "geometry of life" (which is treated before art in the book, contrary to the sequence in the title), this book shows its mid-20th-century age by being ignorant of fractal dimension and non-linear self-similarity. The mathematics of natural forms was revolutionized just one generation later than this book's issuance. The later discoveries of Benoit Mandelbrot and others were greatly facilitated by automated computing. Still, Ghyka's chapter on the topic is a concise summation of the earlier state of knowledge, and these concepts were not invalidated by fractal geometry.
The most significant portion of the "geometry of art" addresses the use of proportional canons in classical and gothic architecture, as rediscovered by modern scholars. Ghyka endorses a theory of the "transmission of geometrical symbols and plans" which implicates the ancient mysteries and asserts a continuity through medieval stonemasons to modern secret societies. There is no mention, however, of the further participation of isopsephy in the classical schemes. (For that, see David Fideler's Jesus Christ, Sun of God.) The final chapter discusses conscious and unconscious applications of "symphonic symmetry" in modern art.
I enjoyed this little volume hugely, and I recommend it to anyone who shares my interests in mathematics, morphogenesis, and mysticism.
Today is the anniversary of the 1887 birth of Julian Huxley, whose book Religion Without Revelation I just finished reading this week.
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Most of that volume is committed to elaborating a theory of religion that, while refreshingly sound in its definition of religion, was already rather dated in much of its details when biologist Huxley composed it in the 1950s. In particular, he is greatly beholden to J.G. Frazer and that scholar's evolutionary systematization of magic-religion-science (e.g. 53-60, 96). He has a rather naïve view of historical religions as being each "the creation of a single personality" (82), and he does not impress with his facile dismissal of historical accounts of demonic possession as being uniformly attributable to "mental disorders" (94).
Still, there is much to like in this book. Huxley apologizes for an autobiographical chapter that demonstrates appropriate scholarly "reflexivity" far ahead of its academic time. And his ultimate solution to the conflict between traditional religion and modern science is to call for the formulation of a new scientific religion, of the sort invoked by Aleister Crowley's illuminist agenda. The comparison might seem strange, given Huxley's derision for the world-view of ancient and historical magic, but that world-view is not shared by Crowley's non-supernaturalist Magick, which instead emphasizes exactly the sort of criteria that Huxley advances for "Evolutionary Humanism." The Nietzschean "transvaluation of values" (201) for which Huxley calls is to understand that "Man's most sacred duty, and at the same time his most glorious fulfillment ... includes the fullest realization of his own inherent possibilities" (194).
The mention of "sacred" in the previous quote points up the fact that Huxley is indeed calling for a new religion, a sacred humanism, not merely granting a franchise of quasi-religious prerogative to secular humanism. There must be ritual, symbol, and narrative to appeal to the perennial human appetite for sanctity, and an intellectual apparatus to connect these with the ordering of society and personal discipline. Being trained in the methods of natural research rather than those of sacerdotal art, Huxley admits to not being able to formulate all of this from the principles that he hopes will ground it.
The point on which Huxley and Crowley are at odds in their visions of scientific religion is evident in Huxley's title. Crowley insists on the revelation that Huxley says we should do without. Huxley sees the institutional certification of "revelation" as grounding "the unfortunate tendency of ... religion to become an unduly conservative force, [which] has often led to religious thought and practice being below the general level of its times" (179). Crowley, by contrast, calls for revelation to become both epidemic and idiosyncratic: each man and woman should strive for his or her own life-governing message. And even when Crowley asserts the universal jurisdiction of the Thelemic revelation communicated to him (in Liber AL vel Legis), he cautions that each adherent should be at full intellectual liberty in the interpretation of that oracle. While Huxley rejects "the so-called revelation of Scripture" (88), Crowley's own new scripture instructs that "All words are sacred and all prophets true; save only that they understand a little."
In connection with Huxley's categorical dismissal of divine revelation, he also claims that "The beliefs of theistic religions thus tend inevitably to be authoritarian, and also to be rigid and resistant to change" (185). There have been in fact many non-theistic authoritarians (e.g. Stalinists) as well as theistic antinomians (e.g. Ranters and Muggletonians). As I've remarked elsewhere, authoritarian religionists will naturally insist that antinomians be disqualified as irreligious, but there's no reason to let the authoritarians own the category. If Huxley was willing to contest their ownership of religion, I don't see why he shouldn't have joined me and Crowley in doing so for revelation as well.
Nice that it falls on "Holy Saturday" this year.
His soul went forth in the albed procession in its white and solemn order, the mystic dance that signifies rapture and a joy above all joys, and when he beheld Love slain and rise again victorious he knew that he witnessed, in a figure, the consummation of all things, the Bridal of all Bridals, the mystery that is beyond all mysteries, accomplished from the foundation of the world.
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(from "A Fragment of Life")
Francis is pope just in time to get people upset about his implementation of a customary Maundy Thursday ceremony.
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The obvious reason there's never been a Jesuit pope before is because of fear that the white pope might answer to the black. I think they're probably just pals now, and serious disagreement between them is unlikely. But ... Que es mas macho?
Inside the Occult is a 1975 reprint of the first of six volumes from Henry Steel Olcott's Old Diary Leaves, in which he provides a memoir of the Theosophical Society, for which he was a founder and the first president. Although Daniel Grotta-Kurska (better known as a Tolkein biographer) provides a new introduction for this reprint, Olcott's original foreword is omitted. This volume covers the period of 1874-1879, and might have been titled "H.P.B. and Me: Origins of the Theosophical Society."
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Old Diary Leaves was written after the death of H.P. Blavatsky, the famous sybil who had been Olcott's chief collaborator in the creation of the Theosophical Society, as well as their most conspicuous link to the Masters, Adepts, or to use the later-standard Theosophical jargon, Mahatmas. Olcott and Blavatsky had had some disagreements in the period between the events described in this volume and her later death, but his memories of her here are highly complimentary. She is presented as noble in intention, if flawed in character, and certainly in possession of supernatural powers, although these are employed in strange mixtures with trickery for purposes that are inscrutable often even to herself. Olcott suggests that he and Blavatsky's other close associates at the time may have had their perceptions routinely altered by post-hypnotic suggestions of her devising.
Olcott discusses the manner in which H.P.B. served as a vehicle for a variety of adepts who were understood to have guided the creation of the Theosophical Society and the authoring of Isis Unveiled, that erratic compendium of lore that was such a touchstone for the occultism of its era. It is important to note that Blavatsky did not profess herself, nor was she viewed by Olcott as, a passive trance medium for spirits of the dead after the fashion of the Spiritualism of the time. Spiritualism had provided the setting for these two to encounter each other initially, but their own later Theosophical occultist reading of Spiritualist phenomena held such operations to be misunderstood and misrepresented by their advocates. The "spirit controls" were actually "elemental and elementary" spirits being given undeserved free rein among human dupes. Blavatsky's possession by her Masters was in contrast a conscious collaboration with still-living humans of supernatural puissance.
In a somewhat tentative passage, that is still one of the most striking in the book, Olcott goes so far as to hypothesize that the woman Helena Blavatsky may have actually died a violent death in Europe before he met her, and that during the entire period of their association, she was animated by the combined efforts of a group of adepts who were using her as their worldly instrument.
Not all of the book is about H.P.B., however. The essential narrative is that of the creation of the Theosophical Society, from its initial combinations of Spiritualist and occultist milieux and eventual addition of Eastern (i.e. south Asian) philosophies, up until the establishment of the British branch of the Society and the departure of Olcott and H.P.B. from New York to found the new headquarters in India. A full chapter gives an accounting of the "first cremation in America," as engineered by the founding Theosophists. And there is a great deal of anecdote and description regarding the New York apartment "Lamasery" where H.P.B. wrote Isis Unveiled, and where Olcott presided over their "little Bohemia" of Victorian esotericism. Also, Olcott discusses his own experiences of astral projection, encounters with adepts, and other phenomena from which he exempts H.P.B. as an actor.
There is just no getting around the Theosophical Society in the history of modern esoteric movements, and this firsthand account of its origins is both entertaining and revealing.
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In Ronald Hutton's book The Triumph of the Moon (2000) he provided in one chapter what was at that time the most fair and thorough study of Crowley's influence on the origins of modern religious witchcraft. His chapter here does not merely rehash that material, but updates it with new findings and perspectives. Unlike Introvigne, Hutton does perceive the properly religious character of Crowley's 1904 revelation and consequent activities. However, he wants to dismiss the religious dimension of Thelema on the (somewhat justifiable) basis of the magical-rather-than-religious orientation of many latter-day Thelemites. It is an understandable position for him, in defense of his slogan touting Wicca as "the only fully formed religion that England has ever given the world." (In light of the patently and confessedly religious nature of O.T.O., I would suggest a different gambit to Hutton: The revelation in Cairo to the globe-trotting adventurer Crowley, the German roots of O.T.O., and the subsequent formation of the first durable Thelemic communities outside of Britain indicates that Thelema isn't so much a product of "England" as it is an inherently intercultural, cosmopolitan synthesis.) As in The Triumph of the Moon, Hutton is here focused on English witchcraft, especially as formulated by Gerald Gardner. He consequently gives no attention to the witchcrafts of American Jack Parsons and Australian Rosaleen Norton, both strongly influenced by Crowley themselves, and not via Gardner's work.
The case of Norton is taken up in a study by Keith Richmond, who does her full justice. Adding nothing substantial to the reader's knowledge of Crowley himself, Richmond instead illuminates Norton's regard for and understanding of Crowley. She seems to have been friendlier to Crowley's work in private than in public, which is understandable, in that she had no need to borrow notoriety!
Hugh Urban's chapter treats Crowley's possible influence on L. Ron Hubbard and the Church of Scientology. Urban does some contextual violence to various Crowley quotes from Magick in Theory and Practice, but his readings may be consistent with the way Hubbard approached the material, so for immediate purposes there's not much point in arguing about them. The chapter's thesis is the conclusion that any dispassionate observer should reach: Hubbard was influenced by Crowley, but Scientology incorporates so many other elements -- some others of which have come to predominate while the ones rooted in magick have faded -- that it would be false to simply view it as some sort of crypto-Thelema.
The final chapter, contributed by Asbjorn Dyrendal, is an assessment of Crowley's influence on two of the seminal organizers of contemporary Satanism: Anton LaVey and Michael Aquino, of the Church of Satan and Temple of Set respectively. Although there is a little confusion of the distinct notions of "black magic" and the "Black Brotherhood" in Crowley's work, this examination is conducted with great care and accuracy on the whole, pointing out both debts to Crowley and explicit rejections by Satanists of some of his teachings. It is interesting to contrast the Satanists' criticisms of Crowley with Urban's appraisals of him, since they come to such different conclusions. (While I differ with their ultimate valuations, I think the Satanists are more accurate here.) Although Dyrendal touches briefly on LaVey's successor Peter Gilmore, he keeps the discussion very focused on the two Satanist founder figures, and it would have been interesting to bring in some of Don Webb's outspoken opinions on Crowley, for example (he wrote a short monograph called Aleister Crowley: The Fire and the Force), thus demonstrating Crowley's direct effects on the enduring Satanist milieu.
With a few minor exceptions, the level of scholarship in this volume is considerable. More than that, the papers tend to be lively and challenging reading. As Wouter Hanegraaff points out in his foreword, the caricature of Crowley as a quasi-medieval Doctor Faustus conceals a figure who is quintessentially modern, and to give the Beast his third dimension places him in the same space that the reader inhabits.
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The Tobias Churton piece on "Aleister Crowley and the Yezidis" is admittedly speculative and conjectural, and terribly sloppy even so. Churton recklessly juggles the historical Crowley with the "'Aleister Crowley' of popular imagination," while his comparisons to Yezidism are nearly all in the subjunctive. The paper goes from bad to worse as Churton provides a long concatenation of mixed-together quotes from Thelemic and Yezidi source material, distinguished from each other only in the endnotes! And then in a big wrapup, he writes like an episode of Ancient Aliens, letting loose a stream of absurd hypotheses in the form of questions (e.g. "Are Yezidis prototypes, or long-lost cousins, of Thelemites? ... Was Crowley a Yezidi Prophet?"), and bashfully disdaining to answer them. As an "alternative history" video host might say: "Could these things be true??? The answer is: yes." But they probably aren't.
The "Frenzied Beast" paper by Matthew Rogers is excellent, but too short. The author's conspicuous good looks are absent from the printed page, and the article would have been improved by adding further materials on Crowley's orientation toward Neoplatonism. In particular, the augoeides doctrine in Crowley's works should have been given more exposure in connection with the source material in Iamblichus, and there should have been a comparison of "astral travel" in Crowley's modern occultism with its classical antecedents. Rogers is obviously aware of these features, and if he had known how long it would take this book to get to press, he probably would have expanded the scope of his paper to address them in greater detail.
Martin Starr's chapter was first written for the prestigious Masonic research journal Ars Quatuor Coronati, and in it he attempts to explain Crowley's relations with Freemasonry (originally to an audience composed of Masons who jealously assume the priviledged status of the United Grand Lodge of England and the "regular" bodies in its network of recognition). The chapter certainly presents a credible narrative to account for the development of Crowley's distaste for and derision of Freemasonry. Since its original publication in 1995 however, this paper's judgment of Crowley's Masonic standing has received a considered rebuttal from David R. Jones, who also explains some of the technical terminology of Masonic organizing that Starr's piece takes for granted. The relevant features of Crowley's American period have been fleshed out in Kaczynski's Panic in Detroit: The Magician and the Motor City.
The real opinions and motives in the relationship between Aleister Crowley and Arthur Edward Waite are a considerable enigma, and the chapter by Robert A. Gilbert provides as complete a picture of their interactions as one could reasonably expect on the basis of the surviving evidence, which makes for very interesting reading. Unfortunately, the closing paragraphs expose Gilbert's hostility toward Crowley, offering condemnation in a nonsensical comparison with Waite. Supposedly, Waite left (in his writings?) a real means of attainment to later generations, while Crowley did not. And Gilbert derides the contemporary O.T.O. in terms that have had debatable applicability in earlier decades, but are certainly false now. Or is Gilbert here tipping his hand as an exponent for some survival of Waite's Christianized "Holy Order of the Golden Dawn"? In the end, the matter is no clearer than the true sentiments of the dead occultists.
In another of the collection's older papers, Massimo Introvigne offers a few startling errors about Crowley (e.g. claims that Crowley hated his father, that Leah Hirsig was his first Scarlet Woman), but none of them have much bearing on his fascinating central topic of Crowley's admiration for Joseph Smith and Mormonism. Of the various papers in the volume, this is one of those which touches most directly on a larger theoretical issue of scholarship, in exploring the distinction between religion and magic in the inspiring and organizing of new sects. Sadly, Introvigne simply assumes the "magic" character (by his own definitions) of the revelation of Liber AL vel Legis, without any actual inquiry into or discussion of the Cairo working. In this chapter, Crowley ultimately serves as a hostile witness for the defense in an effort to exonerate Mormonism against accusations of having a magical basis. Not that Crowley was hostile to (his own notion of) Mormonism, but he would have wanted to see it convicted of magick!
(Next and concluding post: Witchcraft, Scientology, and Satanism)
Last year, Oxford University Press published a groundbreaking collection of academic studies concerning Aleister Crowley and his place in modern intellectual and religious history. The component chapters of Aleister Crowley and Western Esotericism had been written at various points in the last twenty years, and taken together they demonstrate the considerable breadth of relevant subject matter. I am in the process of reading the chapters that I hadn't yet gotten around to exploring, and I'll be registering my reactions to all of the book's contents in a short series of posts here.
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The Alex Owen chapter that follows the editors' introduction is actually an earlier version of a paper that was eventually incorporated into her constructive monograph The Place of Enchantment, which provides a revisionary perspective on modern occultism. In this version, she seems to be at lesser pains to make Crowley out to be a villain against liberal ethics, but she has the same uninformed regard for his later career, using one or two references to conclude that he was broken and failed after his Algerian operations of 1909. The simple fact is that his most enduring and successful work was done after that: writing Magick in Theory and Practice, reforming O.T.O., designing the Thoth Tarot, and so on.
Marco Pasi provides a valuable primer for academic readers regarding Crowley's ideas about magic and mysticism, elucidating a tension between the materialist theorizing of Crowley's early work and the more metaphysical concessions of the fully-initiated Beast. Pasi rightly distinguishes between the Cairo Operation of 1904 and the subsequent attainment of Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel that Crowley claimed in 1906, observing that the identification of Aiwass as Crowley's personal genius was a later development. He errs, however, in speculating that the equivalence was formulated as late as the writing of Magick in Theory and Practice in the 1920s. In fact, it is a feature of Crowley's 1909 vision of the Eighth Aire in The Vision and the Voice.
Volume editor Henrik Bogdan's contribution is a solid paper that fills a lacuna in the literature on Thelema by pointing out the positive contribution of the Plymouth Brethren dispensationalist doctrine to Crowley's idea of magical aeons. While acknowledging the contemporaneity of occultist "new age" concepts (contrasted as largely pacifist vis-a-vis the martial Aeon of Horus), Bogdan does neglect to point out the important symbolic grounding of Crowley's hierohistory in the Golden Dawn Equinox ceremony. (For that in detail, see my web-published essay "Aeons Beyond the Three".)
Gordan Djurdjevic's paper presents "Aleister Crowley as Tantric Hero" in a morphological, rather than a genealogical sense, stressing the notion of functional parallel between Thelema and Tantra. He makes a sound point about the confusion over Crowley's Tantric bona fides originating in the secondary materials of biographers and students, rather than Crowley's own claims. But he fails to address the younger Crowley's derision of Tantra ("follies of Vamacharya [debauchery]" in The Equinox), and omits to observe that while the older Beast claimed to have studied "numerous writings on the Tantra," he conscientiously referred aspirant Kenneth Grant to David Curwen for sounder Tantric instruction than the Prophet of Thelema could supply.
In Richard Kaczynski's chapter, the heroically thorough Crowley biographer provides a somewhat exhaustive exposition of a specific range of Crowley's own sources, presenting Crowley as a synthesist of Rosicrucianism, Freemasonry, and phallicist theory of religion. These are certainly the ingredients that most saliently inform the O.T.O., and thus Crowley's social/institutional legacy, and this chapter amounts first and foremost to a bibliographically-dense essay useful to readers interested in understanding precedents for Crowley's work with O.T.O.
(Next post: Churton, Rogers, Starr, Gilbert, and Introvigne)
Your own personal Lovecraft
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Someone in deep despair
Someone out there
Your own personal Lovecraft
Someone in deep despair
Someone out there
And you're all alone
Flesh and bone
In the Ghooric Zone
Into voids unending
Take it from me
There still is a key
Leading to see
Your high reverie
Dreaming a solution
From this mundane confusion
Just a quote this time:
Apart from the Sacrament, God is partaken of spiritually; in the Sacrament he is partaken of materially, i.e., he is eaten and drunken, assimilated by the body. But how couldst thou receive God into the body, if it were in thy esteem an organ unworthy of God? Dost thou pour wine into a water-cask? Dost thou not declare thy hands and lips holy when by means of them thou comest in contact with the Holy One?* Thus if God is eaten and drunken, eating and drinking is declared to be a divine act; and this is what the Eucharist expresses, though in a self-contradictory, mystical, covert manner. But it is our task to express the mystery of religion, openly and honourably, clearly and definitely. Life is God; the enjoyment of life is the enjoyment of God; true bliss in life is true religion.
(Emphasis in original.)
* Or, as we Gnostic Catholics say in our paraphrase from the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead
: "There is no part of me that is not of the gods."
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Sometimes, when I describe the Gnostic Mass to people, they are confused by the fact that we don't ground our Eucharistic magick in some sort of pseudo-historical institution narrative regarding a Jesus-type savior. And they are certainly puzzled by what value "eating the body and drinking the blood of God" could have for someone who both rejects any sort of conventional piety and spurns the entire enterprise of "theology." ("God" is a rhetorical object only, and theology is the most obtuse and degenerate form of rhetoric. The theologian is infinitely farther from God than the unlettered worshiper.)
In a footnote to The Essence of Christianity (Part II, Ch. XXV), Feuerbach gets at what I take to be a significant mechanism involved in the Thelemic Eucharist:
Man is occupied with himself in and through God. God is the means of human existence and happiness. This religious truth, embodied in a cultus, in a sensous form, is the Lord's Supper. In this sacrament man feeds upon God -- the Creator of heaven and earth -- as on material food; by the act of eating and drinking he declares God to be a mere means of life to man. Here man is virtually supposed to be the God of God: hence the Lord's Supper is the highest self-enjoyment of human subjectivity. Even the Protestant -- not indeed in words, but in truth -- transforms God into an external thing, since he subjects Him to himself as an object of sensational enjoyment.
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This collection of Wakefield's stories is very good. Although there is a slightly larger range of supernatural horror than might be suggested by the title's category of "ghost stories," most are in fact about spectral hauntings and the effects of genii locorum -- always malign. "The Red Lodge" and "Blind Man's Buff" are, for example, almost painfully traditional haunted house tales in terms of plot, but told with great skill and effect. Wakefield's curses and ghosts are never exorcised; at best (and that rarely), the living characters manage to flee and escape their further influence.
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A couple of the stories are concerned with sport. "The Seventeenth Hole at Duncaster" drew on the author's own long-term enjoyment of golf, and is in many ways a solid example of his work in the ghost story genre. As usual, the origin and nature of the spirits are much murkier than their effects. "Professor Pownall's Oversight" is a chess ghost story, and not only a good one, but perhaps the best chess ghost story possible.
Another notable feature is in the two stories featuring characters modeled on the magus Aleister Crowley. In "He cometh and he passeth by ..." Crowley is made over into the homicidal sorcerer Oscar Clinton, while in "A Black Solitude" Apuleius Charlton is based on an older and more benign Beast: "He was sixty odd at this time and very well preserved in spite of his hard boozing, addiction to drugs and sexual fervour, for it was alleged that joy-maidens or temple-slaves were well represented in his mystic entourage. (If I were a Merlin, they would be in mine!)" (128)
The stories are a rough mix between those in which evildoers meet some justified comeuppance, and others where the supernatural afflicts characters merely mediocre or already cursed with unusual talent. In several cases, there are both, or it is left to the reader to judge which of these categories applies. Wakefield's work had the admiration of M.R. James and H.P. Lovecraft alike, and it is easy to see why.
Unto Faust may there be granted the accomplishment of his feline will.
All beasts are happy,
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For, when they die,
Their souls are soon dissolv'd in elements;
But mine must live, still to be plagued in hell.
(Christopher Marlowe, Dr. Faustus, scene xiv)
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I read Jeremy Narby's The Cosmic Serpent in a sequence that I began with Bateson's Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity and continued with Koestler's The Ghost in the Machine. All of these books are generalist studies that apply the latest (1960s for the earlier ones, and 1990s for Narby) scientific information about biology and evolution to problems that include the nature of consciousness and the alienation of humanity. Narby, like Bateson, is an anthropologist by primary academic training. Like Koestler in The Ghost in the Machine, he turns vigorously against the intellectual status quo, challenging the implicit doctrines of anthropology in the way that Koestler does for psychology. All three authors ultimately reject to varying degrees the mechanistic materialism that is the principal intellectual heritage of the 19th and 20th centuries.
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If you make a trip to Hastings, you might stay at the ASTRAL LODGE. And if you need repairs, you could call up ADEPT CONSTRUCTION.
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