a prototypic American, one whose view of honor and dignity was circumscribed by lust for gain. He thought of Americans as a decadent people whose idea of refinement is fluffy toilet paper. Affluent children who race about their highways, playing with their CB radios, pretending to be World War II pilots. Where is the fiber in a people whose best-selling poet is Rod McKuen, the Howard Cosell of verse?
He had known about the general prosperity that had bloomed continuously, like the flower of some giant and impossibly hardy weed, for the forty years since the end of World War II, and he had known how this wealth had been distributed among and spent by the nearly all-inclusive middle class that, as every year passed, put more time into less productive work and made more money for it.
Aleister Crowley: The Beast in Berlin: Art, Sex, and Magick in the Weimar Republic by Tobias Churton, a new hardcover volume from Inner Traditions, has arrived at the Reading Room courtesy of the publisher.
“Gnostic poet, painter, writer, and magician Aleister Crowley arrived in Berlin on April 18, 1930. As prophet of his syncretic religion “Thelema,” he wanted to be among the leaders of art and thought, and Berlin, the liberated future-gazing metropolis, wanted him. There he would live, until his hurried departure on June 22, 1932, as Hitler was rapidly rising to power and the black curtain of intolerance came down upon the city.
Known to his friends affectionately as “The Beast,” Crowley saw the closing lights of Berlin’s artistic renaissance of the Weimar period when Berlin played host to many of the world’s most outstanding artists, writers, filmmakers, performers, composers, architects, philosophers, and scientists, including Albert Einstein, Bertolt Brecht, Ethel Mannin, Otto Dix, Aldous Huxley, Jean Ross, Christopher Isherwood, and many other luminaries of a glittering world soon to be trampled into the mud by the global bloodbath of World War II.
Drawing on previously unpublished letters and diary material by Crowley, Tobias Churton examines Crowley’s years in Berlin and his intense focus on his art, his work as a spy for British Intelligence, his colorful love life and sex magick exploits, and his contacts with German Theosophy, Freemasonry, and magical orders. He recounts the fates of Crowley’s colleagues under the Nazis as well as what happened to Crowley’s lost art exhibition–six crates of paintings left behind in Germany as the Gestapo was closing in. Revealing the real Crowley long hidden from the historical record, Churton presents “the Beast” anew in all his ambiguous and, for some, terrifying glory, at a blazing, seminal moment in the history of the world.” — flap copy
Heading into my read of an advance review copy of John Crowley’s forthcoming Four Freedoms, I was unsure what to expect. The publisher’s blurb told me that it was a book about “a disabled man…among a crowd of women” at “the height of World War II.” It didn’t seem obvious that this scenario would be a setting suited to the artful exploration of ideas I had enjoyed in the author’s AEgypt cycle, a set of four novels that develop a complexly interwoven text about the human experience of magic and the magic of human experience. I needn’t have worried.
The Four Freedoms of the title are the ones articulated in FDR’s 1941 State of the Union speech: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear. The fact that the novel is divided into four parts suggests a correspondence, but there’s no obvious one-to-one relationship between those parts and the freedoms. They seem more like the four movements of a symphony, and here is the key to the esoteric dimension of Four Freedoms: the Théorie des quatre mouvements et des destinees generales (1808) of Charles Fourier. Crowley is very coy about this element of the novel—unlike his free admission of the historical and scholarly grist for his mill in AEgypt—he never even mentions Fourier by name, either in the novel or in the afterword that discusses his research sources. Still, the unavoidable fact is that Four Freedoms character Pancho Notzing’s “Bestopianism” is Fourierist though and through: a magical ur-socialism founded in “Passionate Series” generating “Harmony” through the satisfaction of dynamic and heterogeneous desires. Pancho himself is even a biographical cipher for Fourier. Where Fourier was the son of a prosperous cloth merchant and had a career as a traveling salesman, Pancho is retiring from a career as a traveling salesman of luxury cloths.
The Theory of Four Movements is Fourier’s earliest and most bewildering exposition of his system. The movements themselves are enumerated only in a footnote and some brief glossary material, where they are given as social, human, animal, and organic—in descending order. The hierarchy of the Fourierist movements perhaps accounts for the sparing but curious use of the first-person plural in the frame of Four Freedoms. The “we” narrating the novel could be the collective identity of the quasi-phalanx of the Van Damme Aero manufacturing plant, a “Temporary Harmonious Zone”—cousin maybe to Hakim Bey’s Temporary Autonomous Zone.
Both the little society of the Ponca City plant and the greater society of WWII America with its socialized command economy are especially worth readers’ attention at a time when the US is confronted with a need to fundamentally reorganize its material and industrial bases. The historical setting of Four Freedoms is bracingly topical while we confront a “great recession” or even “greater depression” that seems bound to displace what “postwar” generations have been taught to consider the American “way of life.” A gasoline ration of four gallons per week? That was a reality of the home front.
I cried once in the course of reading this book. If it has that effect on anyone else, I wouldn’t necessarily expect it to be at the same place: there’s a lot emotional power distributed through many personal stories over the course of the novel. As I have come to expect from Crowley, his narrative voice is sure—both efficient and beautiful—and his characters are compelling. The plot is largely subordinate to the characters, and tends to fan out from them in individual tributaries of memory, told to one another or simply recalled.
Crowley’s AEgypt (especially as read backwards from the final realizations of Endless Things) can be considered a meditation on “neurodiversity”: the idea that there are many necessarily partial and complementary ways of perceiving and understanding the world. Four Freedoms can be read as a corresponding exploration of physical diversity expressed through sex, age, disability, and race. But this is no moralizing, didactic exercise. I recently had a conversation with a literal fellow traveler on an airplane, regarding the importance of storytelling in the learning process. The stories in Four Freedoms can remind us of the kind of learning we all need to do, and that we will do whenever we remember our diverse radical passions. [via]
“Mixing the invented and the real, The House of Rumour explores WWII spy intrigue (featuring Ian Fleming), occultism (Aleister Crowley), the West Coast science-fiction set (Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and Philip K. Dick all appear), and the new wave music scene of the ’80s. The decades-spanning, labyrinthine plot even weaves in The Jonestown Massacre and Rudolf Hess, UFO sightings and B-movies. Told through multiple narrators, what at first appears to be a constellation of random events begins to cohere as the work of a shadow organization—or is it just coincidence?
Tying the strands together is Larry Zagorski, an early pulp fiction writer turned U.S. fighter pilot turned “American gnostic,” who looks back on his long and eventful life, searching for connections between the seemingly disparate parts. The teeming network of interlaced secrets he uncovers has personal relevance—as it mirrors a book of 22 interconnected stories he once wrote, inspired by the major arcana cards in the tarot.” [via]
There’s also a review with spoilers by Charlie Jane Anders over at “In House of Rumour, Ian Fleming and Aleister Crowley win World War II” if you want to check that out.
Here’s a newly posted (almost) midnight (pacific time) ghost story at Who Put Bella In The Wych Elm? by Rik Rawling, with an Aleister Crowley cameo.
“The tale gets stranger still when (inevitably) Aleister Crowley enters the narrative. By the time World War Two ignited, The Great Beast is in the twilight of his extraordinary life, but still keen to do his bit for, if not Queen, at least then for Country. His initial offers of assistance were politely dismissed by the War Office, but as the military leaders began to learn more of the Nazi hierarchy’s obsession with matters esoteric, they came to suspect that perhaps Crowley might be some use after all. Having gained a substantial propaganda victory by luring Hess to Britain, they now had to glean what information they could from him. Crowley was expected to act as an intermediary, his magickal talents providing a draw to the supernaturally-inclined Nazi. At the last minute though, the War Office became uncomfortable at the idea of what a man like Crowley might learn and use for his own nefarious purposes, and politely refused the meeting to happen. Exit Aleister Crowley…”