Here is an excellent review of my book Aleister Crowley: Magick, Rock and Roll, and the Wickedest Man in the World, if I do say so myself. It gets the essential point of the book and recognizes that I take Crowley seriously enough to raise important criticisms about him. It is encouraging to see that some readers get what you are aiming at. It makes all the trouble you put into writing worth while. And I bet Crowley would like it too!
Archive for the Introduction Category
Here’s a review by Guido Mina Di Sospiro of my new book Revolutionaries of the Soul. With Joscelyn Godwin Guido is the author of The Forbidden Book, an excellent esoteric thriller that puts Dan Brown to shame, as well as a short but insightful work on the philosophy of sport, The Metaphysics of Ping Pong. Needless to say, I’m glad he liked the book.
My latest book, Revolutionaries of the Soul, is a collection of essays and articles written over the last twenty years or so, taken from various journals and magazines, such as Fortean Times, Quest Magazine, Lapis and others. The many mini-biographies that make up the selection – 16 pieces in all – amount to a brief introduction to modern esotericism, and include figures like C.G. Jung, Aleister Crowley, P.D Ouspensky, Rudolf Steiner, as well as some lesser known but important characters like the brilliant historian of the occult James Webb and Manly P. Hall, author of the classic The Secret Teachings of All Ages, as well as the subject of the excerpt included below, the late Colin Wilson. This piece, “Colin Wilson and Faculty X,” is the earliest of the lot, and was published longer ago than I care to remember. You can see it as a kind of test run for my book on Wilson, which, gods and goddesses willing, I will start work on in the new year. As readers of my work and this blog know, I am a great reader of Wilson, and I placed this article at the head of the collection as a small gesture of tribute and respect to one of the most important thinkers of our time. If you’d like to read the rest of the piece, not to mention the book, there’s one sure way of doing that…
Colin Wilson and Faculty X
There is a passage in Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf that never fails to move me. The Steppenwolf, Harry Haller, a lonely middle-aged intellectual, has spent an evening as he has spent other evenings, walking aimlessly through town, avoiding his room where awaits the product of his fruitless, listless days: the razor. Weary of avoiding his dismal fate, Harry enters a tavern for a brief respite, and there drinks a glass of wine. Slowly his mood shifts. The process is gradual, but as he sips his wine, the Steppenwolf’s thoughts expand, like a gas lighter than air. “A refreshing laughter rose in me,” Harry tells us. “It soared aloft like a soap bubble, reflecting the whole world in miniature on its rainbow surface.” He sinks into the warmth. Perhaps his fate is not so terrible. He meditates further still, then slowly, hesitantly, looks into his soul. “In my brain,” Hesse writes, “were stored a thousand pictures.”
Harry thinks of an ancient weathered wall; of old, forgotten illuminated texts; of poems long gone to oblivion; of a solitary cypress on a forlorn hill; of the movement of clouds at night above the Rhine. A thousand pictures come to him, more numerous than the Steppenwolf can imagine, each one contributing its own secret import, its own special significance to the seeming absurdity and chaos of his life. Harry reflects on these and realizes he is happy. “The golden trail was blazed. I was reminded of the eternal, of Mozart, and the stars.” Harry wouldn’t keep his appointment with the razor that night.
What exactly has happened? Has the Steppenwolf merely got drunk and forgotten his burden? Has the wine obscured something from his vision, namely the fact that he is a miserable middle-aged man who will sooner or later slit his throat? Or does it reveal something that until then had been obscured? The same sort of experience happens again and again throughout the novel. Lying in bed with a woman after an evening of love-making, the ordinarily miserable Harry feels that “For moments together my heart stood still between delight and sorrow to find how rich was the gallery of my life, and how thronged the soul of the wretched Steppenwolf with high eternal stars and constellations.” Does this sound like a man who wants to kill himself? What has happened?
Harry, the wretched Steppenwolf, has had an experience of what Colin Wilson calls “Faculty X.” Harry may have known about all these things before, but now he really knows about them. This “really knowing” is the basic idea behind Wilson’s philosophy.
Developed in his major studies on the paranormal – The Occult (1971), Mysteries (1978), and Beyond the Occult (1988) – and running through practically all his work, the central idea behind Wilson’s notion of Faculty X is that it is a sense of the reality of other times and places. As Wilson points out, probably the most famous example of Faculty X – so-called because we have yet to recognize it clearly and give it its own name – in modern literature is the opening of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (1913-1927). There, the narrator, Proust himself, tells of his curious experience eating his famous madeleine dipped in tea. Suddenly, from some dark forgotten psychic recess, the memory of his youth in Combray wells up in him, and it is as if he is there once again. The effect is tremendous; as Wilson quotes, Proust had “ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal.” Proust, too, suddenly realized the reality of his own life and the rest of his 1,100 page novel is an attempt to “recapture the past.”
Another example comes from T.S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday,” where the poet writes that “the lost heart stiffens and rejoices for the lost sea air and the lost sea voices.” This is essentially the same experience as Hesse and Proust describe: the sudden realization that the past really happened and that, in some strange way, it is just as real now as it was then. Which is another way of saying that reality, however we want to define it, is not confined to the present moment.
This is strange. As Wilson points out, we tend to believe that reality is confined to the present moment. This is why the realization of the reality of other times and places has such a profound effect on writers like Hesse, Proust and Eliot. Clearly this suggests one thing: there is something wrong with our ideas about space and time.
If you hold a chicken’s beak to the ground and draw chalk line from its eyes, it will not move. When it comes to time, human beings are very much like paralyzed chickens: we seem to be stuck to a particular chalk line we call “now.” The situation, Wilson argues, is absurd: human beings, he believes, are capable of transcending the limitations of the present moment and of achieving, as he calls it, a “mastery over time, as if every moment of your life could be recalled as clearly as the last ten minutes.”
We have seen three of the most important figures in modern literature bear this speculation out. There is also evidence from science. As Wilson points out, one of the most fascinating discoveries about human memory came from the work of the neurologist Wilder Penfield. While operating on a patient, Penfield tested the effect of electrical stimulation of the temporal cortex. The result was astonishing. Penfield discovered that when the probe stimulated the patient’s cortex, the patient would immediately be “sent back” to sometime in the past. (As neurosurgery is done without anesthetic – the brain feels no pain – patients were able to report their experiences.)
Penfield came to the conclusion that every moment of our lives is stored in some way in our brain, and that if triggered by the proper stimulus – an electric probe or a piece of cake – we can relive these moments in vivid detail. We might say that the brain has a built-in “virtual reality” machine. We also remember the enduring belief that at the point of death people see their entire lives pass before them.
Wilson has his own ideas about the part the brain plays in Faculty X, an altogether easier and less cumbersome means of grasping the reality of other times and places than having a near-death experience or undergoing brain surgery. One of the most curious facts about human anatomy is that we have two brains. In Frankenstein’s Castle (1980) Wilson discusses the split-brain research of Roger Sperry and Robert Ornstein. The basic findings of split-brain research are well known, that the left brain seems to control our logical functions, like language and mathematics, and the right our more intuitive powers. These have by now become a cliché: we say the left brain is a scientist, the right an artist. What seems less commonly known, Wilson suggests, is the strange fact that these two, the scientist and the artist, are literally two different people. You, reading these words, live in the left brain. In the right is a strange silent partner whom we call “the unconscious.”
Most of Frankenstein’s Castle deals with the interaction between the two sides of the brain. Wilson believes that the right brain is responsible for paranormal phenomena like synchronicities, and for mystical experiences and the curious bursts of affirmation that the psychologist Abraham Maslow called “peak experiences.” In a later book Wilson suggests the peculiar contribution that brain physiology may make to our question about the “reality” of other times and places. Relating how the novelist John Cowper Powys “appeared” one evening in the Manhattan apartment of his fellow novelist Theodore Dreiser, while at the same time sitting in his cottage in upstate New York – a phenomenon the 19th century psychic investigator Fredrick Myers call “phantasms of the living” – Wilson writes that:
“We take it for granted that we live in a ‘solid’ world of space and time, advancing from moment to moment according to unchangeable laws, and that we are stuck in the place that we happen to be at the moment. We are, in a sense, “trapped.” We fell this particularly strongly when we are bored or miserable – that we are helplessly at the mercy of this physical world into which we happen to have been born. Yet these odd experiences all seem to show that this is untrue. The ‘real you’ is not trapped in space and time. With a certain kind of effort of will, it can rise above space and time and be ‘elsewhere.'”
Commenting on the fact that neuroscientists really have no idea why we should have two brains, Wilson goes on to make a remarkable suggestion:
“My own belief is that we have two brains, so we can be in two places at the same time. Human beings are supposed to be capable of being in two places at the same time. Yet we have not quite discovered the “trick”. When we do, we shall be a completely different kind of creature – no longer the same kind of human being who lives out his life so incompetently on this long-suffering planet, but something far more powerful and purposeful.”
This is why Wilson believes that man is on the point of an evolutionary leap.
That’s optimistic, I know. But there’s a good chance there may be at least a few minutes of it this Sunday, when my friend Anthony Peake, author of books on consciousness, out-of-the-body experiences, time travel and many more stimulating subjects, and I bump heads -metaphorically, of course – on his Consciousness Hour radio program. Listen in if you can stay awake…
I’ve just got advance copies of my new book, Revolutionaries of the Soul, a collection of my articles over the last twenty years or so, from various sources: Fortean Times, Quest, Lapis, and other journals. It’s more or less an assortment of mini-biographies of some of the esoteric greats, as well as a few less well known but equally important figures, ranging from Rudolf Steiner to Jean Gebser, P.D. Ouspensky to the historian of the occult James Webb. I’ll be putting some excerpts up closer to the publication date next month.
Here is an interview I did with Kembrew McLeod of Iowa’s Little Village magazine. Kembrew edited this into an article, which you can find here. I took some trouble to answer his questions and felt that my replies warranted a life beyond the cutting room floor, as it were, and so here they are.
Q: Many accounts of Crowley (whether by his true believers or fearful fundamentalists) overlook his humor. What role did humor and irony play in his public life and writings?
A: Crowley did have a peculiar sense of humor. He is often funny, but very often getting his jokes requires familiarity with his predilections and obsessions, such as Kabbalah and the ideas associated with his Book of the Law. His Book of Lies is a collection of short pieces – essays and aphorisms, some only a line or two – in which he plays several games with the reader. But unless you have some insight into Crowley’s psyche and his work, the majority of these will escape you. In my book I say they are less accessible than Zen koans. His less intellectual humor emerged in his fondness for practical jokes. He liked serving his guests incredibly hot curries and watching them sweat. He went to immense lengths to trick a mountaineering acquaintance into thinking he had shot a haggis, a non-existent animal. That kind of thing. He is too often too clever for his own good, as when his remarks about child sacrifice in Magick in Theory and Practice – really about his ejaculations – were taken seriously.
Q: Despite Crowley’s irreverence, he wasn’t simply a prankster or a con artist, for he approached his magick quite seriously. How did this mixture of seriousness and irreverence contribute to misunderstandings of him?
A: As I say, he was too often too clever, and too eager to show the British reading public what fools they were. So he is inclined to add some facetious remark to a serious discussion about some arcane point, just to have a chance to show the conventional nitwits up. Sadly, for my taste it often makes it difficult to take him seriously, mostly because he didn’t himself. It’s an itch to maintain his superiority which more often than not winds up presenting him as clever schoolboy.
Q: Following up on the previous question, what lessons can we learn from the sort of tensions and play of opposites that Crowley often traded in?
A: Don’t overdo it and don’t indulge your high opinion of yourself too much.
Q: The last chapter of your new book provides numerous examples of Crowley’s appearances within 1960s and 1970s pop culture. What do you think is most significant popular culture appearance that helped inject him into the consciousness of the counterculture during that time?
A: It would have to be his appearance on the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s album. After that he got the counter culture’s imprimatur. A few months after Sgt. Pepper’s a full page profile of him ran in the UK underground newspaper International Times. After that, the Stones got into him. The rest is history, which you can read about in my book.
Q: Also, what aspects of Crowley’s public persona and writings were appealing to rock artists and the counterculture?
A: There was a full scale occult revival in the 1960s, which informed practically all of popular culture. I write about it in Turn Off Your Mind. There was also a remarkable blend of influences and currents, outside the ‘mainstream’, that came together for a brief period then: ‘revolutions’ in sex, society, drugs, a marketable youth culture, and so on. So you have the occult revival informing the radical politics of the late 60s, with Kenneth Anger and Allen Ginsberg trying to exorcise and levitate the Pentagon during the October 1967 anti-war march. Crowley in particular was picked up by the counter culture and later rockers because of his supersized lifestyle, his philosophy of “excess in all directions,” as his friend Louis Wilkinson called it. That was tailored made for rock and roll. Some people played around with magic for a while, like Jagger, but most dropped it by the early 70s, except for those in the specific ‘roccult’ genre that started with Black Sabbath and so on.
Q: You discussed this in the intro to your new book, and in New York Rocker, but for the purposes of this interview could you briefly recount the origins of the song “(I’m Always Touched By Your) Presence Dear”? And could you provide a specific example of what you meant by you and Lisa “sharing dreams” or a telepathic connection?
A: I wrote “(I’m Always Touched by Your) Presence, Dear” after Lisa and I discovered that we were having the same dreams. While I was on tour we would know when each one was going to call , and we would find out that we were both thinking of the same kind of thing at the same time, even though many miles away… that sort of thing, which is not unusual with couples.
Q: You wrote that Chris Stein and Debbie Harry had a “kitschy” interest in the occult. What did you mean by that? How was the reception of occult ideas different in, say, mid-1970s downtown New York versus the context of the 1960s counterculture?
A: Debbie and Chris had occult bric-a-brac around their flat and it also covered the walls when we were living on the Bowery. By kitschy I mean they weren’t really into it, they just liked the aesthetic. It was probably more Chris than Debbie – he and I shared some interests, like horror films and comic books. He was keen on voodoo and pentagrams; actually, he was kind of a Goth in the beginning, wearing eye liner and silver skulls. That sort of thing was also a leftover from the previous generation. They were both older than me and had been involved in that; I just watched it on television. There was a lot of cultural debris from the 60s strewn around. But it really wasn’t part of the music. The atmosphere in NYC then was more poète maudit, Rimbaud and Baudelaire, darker and more fin-de-siècle although of course both Baudelaire and Rimbaud were into the occult themselves – I write about this in A Dark Muse.
Q: How does your experience as an author compare to that of being a musician?
A: I work harder as a writer than I ever did as a musician, even including touring. You have to get up and confront a blank space every day, and transform its nothingness into a somethingness. It demands a different kind of concentration and effort. Before writing songs I wrote poetry – none of it has survived, I’m happy to say – but the two are very similar in the sense that they depend on inspiration. You walk around, you try to get in the mood, and you wait for the muse to turn up. I can’t wait to be inspired now – I have to meet deadlines – and I’ve learned that two or three hours forcing myself to write can usually do the trick. Also, you can say a lot more in a book, especially about ideas, which is what I write about. You do get to wear better clothes as a musician though.
Q: Your first book was Turn Off Your Mind, and since then you have written several books over the past decade. You had previously written short pieces for periodicals, but what led you to be such a prolific author of books?
A: I have a lot to say, I guess. But, yes, I wrote quite a bit of journalism for magazines before writing my first book, Turn Off Your Mind, which came out in 2001. One answer is sheer ego. I couldn’t consider myself a ‘real’ writer until I produced a book. And when I got the contract for Turn Off Your Mind, the publisher also asked me to do a book about Blondie, CBGB and all that. So New York Rocker: My Life in the Blank Generation was my second book. It is unlike any of my others. The voice is very different. Odd to say, it is a memoir, but the voice really isn’t my writer’s voice – that is too urbane and philosophical, ahem, for rock and roll. I had to become another person, re-invent myself as they say, in order to become a writer; this meant outgrowing Gary Valentine. Writing New York Rocker was a way of doing that. I said to myself: “How do you write this kind of book?” And almost at the same time as getting asked to do New York Rocker, a publisher I had approached with an idea some time before finally got back to me and said they wanted to do it. A Secret History of Consciousness came out in 2003. This is the first of the type of books I’ve been writing since then. So yes, I’ve done 16 books in about a decade, with a lot of journalism and occasional writing too. And I’m about to start a new book this month. It’s the only way I know how to make a living, and even that is being optimistic.
Q: I grew up in Virginia Beach, home to Pat Robertson and Edgar Cayce (my parents met in that town in the 1960s because of their interest in Cayce). As a result, I grew up to be skeptical of both Christian fundamentalist beliefs and more mystical ideas. It’s clear from reading your book that, while you certainly do take much of what Crowley claimed with a grain of salt, you feel that he did have magical abilities. Can you explain to me — a skeptic who nevertheless is willing to keep an open mind — what your understanding of magic is, and how it works in the world?
A: My basic belief is that our consciousness is much more powerful than we know and that in some strange way, it can interact with the outside world. One example of this is what Jung calls synchronicities, those weird ‘meaningful coincidences’. I’ve had enough of these over the years to accept that they are real, although I don’t think anyone’s come up with a convincing explanation for how they happen. But they do and they show that the outside world and our inside one often run parallel. In the book I say that Crowley had a knack for magic, but that he didn’t know how he did it. He even says that the best magic is done unconsciously, just as a perfect shot in billiards is. We are capable of it and sometimes we do it, but we don’t know how we do it. It has something to do, I believe, with focusing our consciousness in the right way, with concentration, but not the kind that has us huffing and puffing and furrowing our brow. Swedenborg speaks of a ‘passive potency’, a kind of calm alertness, in which the conscious and unconscious mind work together. Our conscious mind is only a part of ourselves. A very important part, but it is connected to something larger and deeper. We’ve lost touch with this but can connect with it on occasion – I feel it when I am writing well, a sense that everything is going perfectly and the ideas and words are flowing. Crowley had some sense of this, and even says that the real key to magic is awakening our inner genius, which is how he spoke of the unconscious. He knew that if he threw himself into the unconscious, more times than not his genius would produce something, although he couldn’t always say what. After my initial interest in magic and Crowley I moved away from it and became more interested in focusing on consciousness itself, without all the clutter. That to me is the important thing.