This “warts and all” account of an American Thelemite’s personal quest also chronicles the axial development of the Thelemic movement in the second half of the 20th century, as well as the New York City occult scene of the 1970s. It reads very quickly. The prose is occasionally transparent as the factual condensation of diary data, but the honesty concerning events described is positively bracing. When I first heard announcement of this book’s impending publication, I knew I would need to have a copy. And now that I’ve read it, that knowledge is thrice-confirmed by the way that it ties together its fascinating matter through the integral experience of a true magician. Br. Wasserman doesn’t hesitate to relay his personal judgments of those characters — living and dead — with whom he has interacted, and in those cases where I have my own personal acquaintance with them, I concur with his verdicts. As rewarding as the text is, the many glossy pages of photos are especially gratifying. My Other Reader considered at least one of them “scandalous,” and they provide an important set of images to complement the narratives I have been gradually learning for the last two decades.
This volume collects in full garish color and ample antic detail many dozens of short sequential art narratives about famous personalities of magic and occultism from the Middle Ages to the present. These were originally produced for Fortean Times magazine. The visual idiom is an “underground comix” sort akin to the work of Gilbert Shelton. The textual tone veers wildly between the poles of adulation and derision, and much of the humor consists of crude visual puns and anachronisms.
The organization of the book is chronological, but a bit sloppy. This sequence is apparently not that of their original magazine publication. The figures selected are well chosen on the whole, and they include a few that were new to me or surprising in this context (Cellini, Thomas Hariot, Torrentius, Evan Morgan, and Orson Welles). The work is not quite comprehensive, though. Some major occultists are notable for their absence: P. B. Randolph, Anna Kingsford, Gurdjieff (appears for a few panels in the P. L. Travers entry), Maria Naglowska, and Franz Bardon, for example.
Most of those treated get only a single entry of one to five pages in length. Robert Fludd and Gerald Gardner each get two, and Aleister Crowley gets eight, along with numerous cameos in entries for other figures.
The Crowley contents make a reasonable case study for merit when trying to estimate the other parts of the book: Crowley’s name is misspelled in a minority of instances as “Alastair” (e.g. 105). Hanni Jaeger is “Hammi Jeager” (95). Claims of fact are hedged with “alleged” and a warning about true, false, and meaningless stories accruing to Crowley (87). Writer Kevin Jackson’s summary verdict that the Beast was “a bit of a rotter” (90) is mostly counterbalanced by giving him so much attention, and Jackson does conclude his introduction to the whole book with the summary of the Law of Thelema (albeit with superfluous initial capitals).
Doubtless for purposes of visual shorthand, Crowley is almost always shown with a shaved head (and 666 on his brow), even during episodes from before he had adopted that style (88, 91). Although most of artist Hunt Emerson’s caricatures of historical persons strike a note of genuine recognizability, his work on Crowley tends to be more semiotic than representational, even in the full-page portrait that concludes the volume.
The four-page Mme. Blavatsky treatment is also rather hostile, and offers the curious error that H. P. Lovecraft “admired” her (51)–in fact, he knew of her Theosophy but found it distasteful. (Likewise, he dismissed Crowley as “a queer duck,” contrary to later misrepresentations concerning the “occult HPL.”) She also gets misspelled once as “Blavatski” (55).
Some notably helpful entries include those for Giordano Bruno, William Blake, Victoria Woodhull, [August] Strindberg, [Carl] Jung, and Charles Williams. There are also a few terrific standalone portraits illustrating the book’s introduction (8-11). Although it can be dismissive and the jokes are often shallow, I found some real merit in this book, and it kept my attention as both a comics reader and a student of esoteric history.
There’s even more press for the Windows to the Sacred: An Exploration of the Esoteric art exhibition touring in Australia, which is at the S H Ervin Gallery through September 29th, 2013, and which may be of interest. John MacDonald writes a bit about his impressions of the exhibition and of how these “[a]rtists cast a wicked spell as popular culture embraces all things supernatural, mystical and demonic” over at “Occult figures“.
“‘Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law,’ was the personal motto of Aleister Crowley (1875-1947), once known to the headline writers as ‘the Great Beast’ and ‘the Wickedest Man Alive’. It was a philosophy that would endear him to the counterculture of the 1960s and make him a hero for rock stars such as Jimmy Page and Jim Morrison. Perhaps the sealer for Crowley’s second coming was his inclusion on the album cover for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), at John Lennon’s insistence.
A famous sorcerer such as Crowley has an obvious appeal for a popular culture saturated in stories of witches and vampires, but he was no Harry Potter. Selfish, brutal, addicted to drugs and sexual perversion, Crowley was a terrifying but hugely charismatic individual. Those who fell under his spell often found themselves ruined for life. Today, Crowley probably has more disciples than ever before, but his image has been cleaned up for public consumption. The Great Beast has been transformed into the Great Libertarian.
Like Crowley himself, the study of the occult has become almost respectable, although the price is a high degree of Disneyfication. One of the revelations of Windows to the Sacred at the S.H. Ervin Gallery is the extent to which contemporary occultists have adopted the trappings of popular culture.
It is a sign of the times that such a show could be held at the S. H. Ervin. Not long ago it would have been unthinkable that a gallery operated by the National Trust would host an exhibition of ‘esoteric art’, featuring work by figures such as Crowley, Rosaleen Norton — the so-called ‘witch of Kings Cross’ — and Austin Osman Spare, a notorious British artist devoted to the supernatural.
This doesn’t mean the S. H. Ervin has become a haven for mystics and Satanists. It would be more accurate to say that nowadays those mystics and Satanists are about as controversial as the Australian Watercolour Institute. If the pictures by celebrated figures such as Crowley and Spare have a hermetic feeling, the works of contemporary esoteric artists such as Barry William Hale and Kim Nelson seem to be pitched at a mainstream audience, rather than an elite group of initiates.” [via]
Red Shambhala: Magic, Prophecy, and Geopolitics in the Heart of Asia by Andrei Znamenski from Quest Books is available. You may also be interested in an interview with the author over at “Buddhists, Occultists and Secret Societies in Early Bolshevik Russia: an interview with Andrei Znamenski” [HT Occult of Personality].
“Many know of Shambhala, the Tibetan Buddhist legendary land of spiritual bliss popularized by the [date] film, Shangri-La. But few may know of the role Shambhala played in Russian geopolitics in the early twentieth century. Perhaps the only one on the subject, Andrei Znamenski’s book presents a wholly different glimpse of early Soviet history both erudite and fascinating. Using archival sources and memoirs, he explores how spiritual adventurers, revolutionaries, and nationalists West and East exploited Shambhala to promote their fanatical schemes, focusing on the Bolshevik attempt to use Mongol-Tibetan prophecies to railroad Communism into inner Asia. We meet such characters as Gleb Bokii, the Bolshevik secret police commissar who tried to use Buddhist techniques to conjure the ideal human; and Nicholas Roerich, the Russian painter who, driven by his otherworldly Master and blackmailed by the Bolshevik secret police, posed as a reincarnation of the Dalai Lama to unleash religious war in Tibet. We also learn of clandestine activities of the Bolsheviks from the Mongol-Tibetan Section of the Communist International who took over Mongolia and then, dressed as lama pilgrims, tried to set Tibet ablaze; and of their opponent, Ja-Lama, an “avenging lama” fond of spilling blood during his tantra rituals.” [via]