The Private Labyrinth of Malcolm Lowry

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Private Labyrinth of Malcolm Lowry: Under the Volcano and the Cabbala by Perle Epstein.

Epstein The Private Labyrinth of Malcolm Lowry

Since its publication in 1969, Perle Epstein’s book-length study The Private Labyrinth of Malcolm Lowry: Under the Volcano and the Cabbala has served as a point of reference for scholars interested in Lowry’s cabbalistic ideas. Unfortunately, she barely touches on the works of Lowry’s cabbalistic instructor Charles Stansfeld Jones, and she fails to discuss the aspects that made him distinctive as a cabbalist.

The one book by Jones that Epstein refers to by name in the body of her text is The Anatomy of the Body of God, and this book she painfully mis-characterizes as dealing “primarily with forecasting and manipulating the course of world events” (100). The only political language in Jones’ entire book is in the course of the last few pages, which include an exhortation to “those in whose charge is the Civil destiny of the Nations,” among other potential readers. There is no discussion of any sort of divination or prediction, regarding world events or otherwise. The Anatomy of the Body of God is in fact concerned primarily (and almost exclusively) with the geometric aspects of the diagram of the Tree of Life, its projection in scale and dimension, and the symbolic corollaries of Jones’ innovations in this regard, applied to alphabetic and numerical correspondences.

Epstein does devote a fair amount of attention to drawing a line between Jewish cabbalistic traditions and their Christian and hermetic derivatives, in order to point out that Jones and by extension Lowry were in the latter camp (14-44). (William H. New calls this section of Epstein’s book “factual, earnest and flat.”) But perhaps even more significant than the religious and doctrinal differences that distinguish what Epstein calls “The Two Cabbalas,” is the epistemological divide between these expressions of traditional mysticism and the modern hermetic cabbala of Jones and his instructor Aleister Crowley. For such Thelemic cabbalists, the purpose of the elaborate system of the Tree and the Paths is to afford heuristics by which any and all knowledge can be interrelated, with extrapolations to higher states of consciousness. Accordingly, it needs to be personalized with reference to individual experience in order to function.

This idea that the cabbala is a set of generic conventions to hold individualized contents accords quite well with Lowry’s description of the Consul’s ability to “dodge about in the rigging of the Cabbala like a St. Jago’s monkey.” It also accounts for the manner in which Lowry was able to seize on Jones’ cabbala as a mechanism for literary composition. It is, however, at odds with Epstein’s reading of the Volcano as employing a “Christian Cabbala” as a set of codified (if haphazardly syncretized) doctrines under symbolic coverings. To the extent that mystical doctrines are included in Lowry’s Volcano, they are Thelemic ones about the Adventure of the Abyss and the Black Brothers, alien to Epstein’s learning. Although she notices Lowry’s attention to black and white magicians, her explanation of that distinction (8) cites no authority and provides no clarity.

(My own study of Lowry’s cabbalism and his relationship to Charles Stansfeld Jones can be found under the title “Bizarre Sons” in the volume Success Is Your Proof.)