Jun 26 2013

Magick in Theory and Practice

Published by at 9:30 pm under Consciousness,Crowley,Esotericism

In 2003, I packed up what little life I had, and drove 3,101 miles to California. My goal was to find a way to organize the research I had been doing up until that point into the nature of consciousness. I found a graduate program that suited my needs, applied, and was accepted.

This is not that story.

In the deep dark days before the Internet, if you had an interest in occult matters, you had to rely on word of mouth, or patch together your own connections. Or, at least you did, if you grew up in suburban Maryland, like I did.  Let me give you a brief rundown of how this worked in my case.

  • Junior High: Laurie Anderson’s album, Mister Heartbreak is released. I am 14. William S. Burroughs provides vocals on the track “Sharkey’s Night.” A friend of mine lends me the album. WHO THE FUCK IS THIS OLD GUY WITH THIS STRANGELY HYPNOTIC VOICE?!“William S. Burroughs, author of Naked Lunch,” my friend tells me.
  • naked_lunch.us.grove.1990Next time I go to the mall, I stop into Waldenbooks. This, and B. Dalton (also at the mall) are the only book stores within a reasonable distance from my home in 1984.  Sure enough, I find a paperback edition of Naked Lunch.  It looks mysterious – possibly dangerous. I flip through the book (honestly?  I can still recall the smell of the book and Waldenbooks in my head as I write this – the book is that powerful). The book is, let’s face it, not the easiest of things to just dive into.  I don’t buy the book (until several years later).  But Burroughs is on my radar.  Obviously he’s somebody important, otherwise Laurie Anderson wouldn’t have put him on her album.  Right?
  • As anybody who grew up in the 80s can tell you, Waldenbooks was also the purveyors of such wonderful paperbacks as The Satanic Bible, and The Necronomicon. Shortly after becoming aware of Naked Lunch, I stumbled upon these. Some kids go to bookstores and sneak peeks at Playboy (or Heavy Metal) back in the day, I was the kid who snuck peeks at The Satanic Bible and The Necronomicon I didn’t discover Lovecraft until a few years later, so as far as I knew, this was HEAVY SHIT. And, hey… what was this?! William S. Burroughs had blurbed The Necronomicon! “Let the secrets of the ages be revealed. The publication of the Necronomicon may well be a landmark in the liberation of the human spirit.” WTF was going on here?  Also, in my many glances through the (let’s face it, equally incomprehensible) Necronomicon was mention of some fellow named “Aleister Crowley.”  My search for Crowley yielded no results at the time. As I’d gotten friendly with a number of the staff at both mall book stores, it wasn’t a subject I felt comfortable bringing up with any of them.
  • necronomicon-simon-paperback-cover-artEventually, I purchased both books (and later discovered the works of H.P. Lovecraft, whom I love to this day), as well as Israel Regardie’s book The Golden Dawn. Yet Crowley remained elusive.  At least until I got to college. One day, on a whim, I looked him up in our college library. It turned out that, much like Lovecraft’s fabled Miskatonic University, Gettysburg College had a few “forbidden tomes” in its stacks – in this case, Magick in Theory and Practice and Book 4. I think at some point, I even convinced my parents to get me a copy of The Confessions of Aleister Crowley (finally available at B. Dalton’s!) for Christmas one year. Forgive them.  They know not what they did.
  • Eventually, more and more of Crowley’s works seemed to turn up in mainstream book venues. I’d had quite the library at one point.  Now I’ve trimmed it down to a few volumes. Over the years, I’ve had an odd fascination with the man, and with Thelema.  And that is what this story is about.

If you’ve read through or glanced at the Commonplace section of this site, you’ll see that I’ve written about Crowley a few times. Over the years, as I delved deeper into reading him, I pondered trying to join the O.T.O. or the A:.A:.

(I am simplifying this story a bit, from here on out, because my run-ins with Satanists, Setians, former TOPY members, and Chaotes really aren’t relevant to where I’m going with this whole narrative).

Crowley’s doctrine of Thelema (“Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law”) spoke to me. The idea of finding one’s True Will, one’s Purpose, and living life according to it, is seductive, and I still believe, to be a sound goal to have in one’s life.

For a brief while, I was involved with someone who fancied herself a Thelemite. She was performing LRPs every day, and having mixed results.  One thing I noticed, however, was her genuine frustration at nothing really happening with it. Also, she was rather wrapped up in the drama of the chain of succession after Crowley’s death. She was in the Marcello Motta camp. I didn’t really have a camp, as I believed (and believe) that making Crowley’s works available to people was what was important. Whether Motta did it, or Grady McMurtry did it, was unimportant to me.

I’d also been on a few Thelemic e-mail lists, and was frankly surprised and disappointed that the level of discourse was pretty consistently along the lines of:

You’re an asshole!

Oh yeah? How do you know it isn’t my Will to be an asshole?!

I’d hoped this was all isolated idiocy, and thought maybe one day, I’d find an O.T.O. Lodge worth joining, and learn from people who had more to offer than general bitchiness. I’d also looked a bit into Chaos Magick by this point, and this was starting to make more sense to me.

As time wore on, my interests diverged. I still found Crowley to be a fascinating individual (and still do), but had given up any sort of hope for contact from any of the organizations using his name and works as a basis.

A few years ago, I met someone who randomly invited me to attend a Gnostic Mass in Oakland, at what I’m assuming to be the Blazing Star Oasis, as Thelema Lodge had run into some “difficulties” in the past. I was taken aback.  I hadn’t even been actively seeking any contact with the O.T.O. for years at this point. Was this a case of “when the student is ready, the master will appear,” or merely “too little, too late”?

I’d been going through some immense personal difficulties at the time, and it was tempting to think that I could find refuge and solace with a group I’d once very much thought I wanted to be a part of. But at this point, I also was able to recognize the subtle flattery that comes with trying to get someone to join in an ultimately unrewarding relationship. It was curiously reminiscent of being recruited for Amway.

Ultimately, I declined, and I think this was the right decision. Over the years, I’ve noticed that group structures do not hold. Groups seem to have a limited shelf-life before devolving into schisms, factions, in-fighting, and disintegration (even moreso when the original charismatic leader dies).

The problem with groups is, ultimately, that they’re made of people.

People disagree about things.

Or, conversely, sometimes they agree too much about things.

I’m okay with limited shelf-lives for groups.  I think it’s of vital importance, as it allows ideas from dead groups to permeate into new combinations of ideas in new groups, until they fall apart, and so on. Circle of Life, and all that.

The other day, I randomly stumbled upon a text called The Black Lodge of Santa Cruz, by “Satyr,” in which the dirty laundry of Thelema Lodge, specifically, and the O.T.O. in general is put out in the open. I was originally attracted to the story, as I have been to or lived in several of the geographical locations where the story takes place. I probably also know people who know the players involved. Additionally, it is fascinating to read all of this and consider that it is going on underneath the radar of ordinary existence. It’s a lot of drama. A LOT.

Reading this, led me to Peter-Robert Koenig’s site The Ordo Templi Orientis Phenomenon, specifically the article on Spermo-Gnosis (I realize there’s a long convoluted tradition of this in various systems – personally, I think it’s a way of disguising one’s sexual proclivities. If you’re into this kind of thing, hey, awesome. Just don’t try to disguise your kink under the auspices of something else).

And, then there’s Allen Greenfield’s takedown (short version here, long version in his book  The Roots of Magick).

What a colossal cluster-fuck of lunacy.

While I can’t vouch for the legitimacy of either Satyr’s narrative, Koenig’s research, or Greenfield’s assertions, put together they constitute a massive amount of WTF for me. I am grateful I dodged this bullet.

In 2003, I had the good fortune to attend a book-signing/reading by Gary Lachman in Oakland.  I had just finished reading his book Turn Off Your Mind: The Mystic Sixties And The Dark Side Of The Age Of Aquarius.  I’d been struck by his portrayal of so many people who had delved into occult matters as having failed, utterly.  Was it the material? Was it the people?

I couldn’t help but notice that a lot of the people who got involved in the occult -of which I have an interest myself- wound up going mad, or were just crap people. I’ll be the first to admit that Crowley was no saint. My interests are in trying to salvage the good and the meaningful from the systems, primarily, and seeing how they can be used. Do you think the failures that you’d noted were due to the systems themselves, or the personalities of the people involved? In a way, the book almost reads like ‘VH-1′s BEHIND THE MAGICK’”

Gary’s answer hit the nail on the head:

“Ultimately, both, and that a lot of people don’t ground themselves when looking into the occult, or spirituality, and that there is a reason that most of these systems strongly urge people to be of at least a certain age before getting involved, so they understand life first. These systems sound great, but without an underlying structure, they can run amok.”

Honestly?  At this point?  I still believe there is some value in the basic tenets of Thelema, and Crowley is still an endlessly fascinating character.

As far as I’m concerned, however, the O.T.O. can eat shit.


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