by Sib. James Gordon
I thought this article published by Brother Sol-Om-On on Thelemic Union was important enough to warrant a full review. I don’t usually speak critically of other people’s writing, but this is very much the exemplar of a piece “full of sound and fury,. Signifying nothing.” In a lot of ways though it summarizes much of the weakness and internal contradiction in the idea of a doctrinaire ideological interpretation of Thelema.
Lest that sound ad hominem, I’ll be specific that it is a sort of bizarre cocktail of petitio principii, circulus in demonstrado, and plurium interrogationum, which is a fancy way of saying it mostly argues from its own presupposed conclusions with a healthy dose of faulty generalizations.
Thelema “since Crowley died.”
I’ll start by picking a nit, because I think it serves to really illustrate the author’s depth of knowledge and understanding of the subject matter.
“However, the trend in the last few decades — perhaps since Crowley himself died — has been to substitute the true disciplined rigor of freedom of Thelema with a sloppy sentimentality of “anything goes”.
Really? Since Crowley died? Let’s consider how many Thelemites were in the world when Crowley died. That’s Agape Lodge, minus Smith because Crowley had alienated him, with Crowley spending most of his time lamenting that Parsons was an idiot and that nobody was doing it right. Many of the people who were significant to Crowley in London weren’t Thelemites at all, e.g. Symonds, Yorke. Grant was, but he drove Crowley nuts. Crowley had just given the IX to Grady McMurtry on brief acquaintance with a charge to go set the Californians straight, and Gerald Gardener in a panic on less acquaintance still. The entire body of “Thelemites” that were…because Crowley was still alive…in Crowley’s own estimation proper Thelemites would be difficult to count beyond the fingers of one hand.
My point here is that nearly the whole of Thelemic history is from “after Crowley died,” and the part that came before he died was mostly riven with controversy and disagreement and no more consistent than the present day.
The Existential Threat of Postmodernism
Most of this piece goes on to suppose a lot of things about Post Modernism without actually discussing what it is, and then blame all the perceived ills of Thelema on Post Modernism.
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy begins its article on Postmodernism by stating “That postmodernism is indefinable is a truism,” so I am glad the author understands it so well as to lay all the evils of Thelema at its doorstep.
What Is Modernism?
First, what is modernism? “Modernism, in general, includes the activities and creations of those who felt the traditional forms of art, architecture, literature, religious faith, philosophy, social organization, activities of daily life, and sciences were becoming ill-fitted to their tasks and outdated in the new economic, social, and political environment of an emerging fully industrialized world.”
Crowley was without question a modernist.
The magical revivals of the late 19th century with the arguable exception of a strain of Theosophy were heavily neo-classical or traditionalist. The Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor, Westcott, Mathers, Ayton, Waite, were all heavily influenced by Pre-Raphaelite sensibilities. Even W.B. Yeats has an edge of traditionalism. There were certainly glimmers of modernism…Florence Farr’s Sphere group comes to mind…but they were points of consternation and controversy. To be a magician was essentially to be a traditionalist of some sort.
In short summary “Modernism also rejected the certainty of Enlightenment thinking.”
When the Equinox was published with the motto “THE REVIEW OF SCIENTIFIC ILLUMINISM. THE METHOD OF SCIENCE — THE AIM OF RELIGION” on its cover, it was as striking a departure into modernism. Crowley wrote about, respected, and venerated older traditions, certainly. Modernism is not about idiotic rejection of all things past. But he placed them into a modern context. This is why you see Crowley, not Mathers with his quaint Jacobean pretensions on the cover of Sgt. Peppers. Crowley advocated the wisdom of the past but he never suggested “we should do this thing slavishly because it is old and comfortable.” At every turn he is an iconoclast calling for change, “it is the fundamental error of the “Black Brothers” in their policy of resisting all Change, to try to maintain it as fixed and absolute.”
So What Is Postmodernism?
Rather than distill a lengthy article, I’ll give a decent summary from Wikipedia that I think is a lot more accessible. “While encompassing a wide variety of approaches and disciplines, postmodernism is generally defined by an attitude of skepticism, irony, or rejection of the grand narratives and ideologies of modernism, often calling into question various assumptions of Enlightenment rationality. Consequently, common targets of postmodern critique include universalist notions of objective reality, morality, truth, human nature, reason, science, language, and social progress.”
Skepticism? Irony? Universalist notions of objective reality? Crowley? Never.
I’m not going to try to argue that Crowley was the first postmodernist. Postmodernism isn’t really some complete rejection of modernism, rather a refinement. The term exists essentially because we need to have a term to reference a point when rejection of enlightenment narrative became the prevalent force. It might be easier to look at entire modern era as a slow slide away from concepts like Patriarchy, Manifest Destiny, etc., with the point between modernism and postmodernism as Gladwell’s “tipping point.”
In this sense, Crowley was far more of a Postmodernist than most of his peers.
Thelema is not postmodernist in the sense that some magical disciplines, particularly those stemming from Osman Spare, are. Those certainly disciplines nursed at Crowley’s bosom, and represent his influence on modern society, but Thelema has some structuralist elements.
That said, how structured? Sure, the whole Crowned and Conquering Child sounds just like the Second Coming of Christ, or the literal city of Jerusalem which one of the Christian sects believes will float down out of the heavens to sit like the Close Encounters starship in the midwestern desert.
But let’s listen to Crowley describe that era
“We may then expect the New Aeon to release mankind from its pretence of altruism, its obsession of fear and its consciousness of sin. It will possess no consciousness of the purpose of its own existence. It will not be possible to persuade it that it should submit to incomprehensible standards; it will suffer from spasms of transitory passion; it will be absurdly sensitive to pain and suffer from meaningless terror; it will be utterly conscienceless, cruel, helpless, affectionate and ambitious, without knowing why; it will be incapable of reason, yet at the same time intuitively aware of truth. I might go on indefinitely to enumerate the stigmata of child psychology, but the reader can do it equally fro himself, and every idea that comes to him as characteristic of children will strike him as applicable to the events of history since 1904, from the Great War to Prohibition. And if he possess any capacity for understanding the language of symbolism, he will be staggered by the adequacy and accuracy of the summary of the spirit of the New Aeon given in The Book of the Law.”
Suddenly that sounds a lot more like a post apocalyptic world delineated by William Gibson or Cormac McCarthy than the cut and dried religious ethos of the Pre-Raphaelites. It also sounds like a decidedly postmodernist world. It makes even Theosophy and the Golden Dawn seem quaint. That is why it is still fiercely relevant.
Post Modernism is the Conservative term for “Moral Relativism”
“Post-modernism” has become, among the “‘Black Brothers’ in their policy of resisting all Change,” whether they are fascist leaning Thelemites or the former fundamentalist Governor of Indiana, a catch phrase for the actual issue of “moral relativism.” There is a desire for moral absolutism, to know that “some things are just right and wrong.” Lack of this black and white thinking is the “Sickness of post modernism.”
Why use an abstract philosophical term for what boils down to an argument about “moral relativism?” Well, if you’re a common person, postmodernism sounds like something alien which people in black turtlenecks do in New York Galleries, and you want no part of it. If you’re a freethinker though, “moral relativism” doesn’t sound half so bad, especially if you contrast it with “moral absolutism.” So…it’s a lot easier to shame people off the concept if you call it by another name.
The idea of maintaining a personal moral foundation while believing in moral relativism can still be a tough concept to grasp. Jack Parsons got it quite well. “Freedom is a two-edged sword of which one edge is liberty and the other, responsibility. Both edges are exceedingly sharp and the weapon is not suited to casual, cowardly or treacherous hands.”
At some point, I’d like to investigate Crowley’s take on the issue of what would socially be called morality. In many ways it’s halting and contradictory. On one hand all actions are equal. On another if we all pursued our true will we wouldn’t collide with the will of another which discloses a strain of Calvinism in Crowley’s upbringing. On the other there is the comment, pointed out a few days ago. “There seems to be much misunderstanding about True Will … The fact of a person being a gentleman is as much an ineluctable factor as any possible spiritual experience; in fact, it is possible, even probable, that a man may be misled by the enthusiasm of an illumination, and if he should find apparent conflict between his spiritual duty and his duty to honour.”
Nevertheless it is possible to build a coherent schema. The mathematical equivalence of all acts does not make them all equally good to us, and we are entitled to interpret them relative to us. That’s a decidedly modern point of view. The tiger isn’t evil, and we probably shouldn’t hunt the tiger to extinction, just because it hunts us. Neither are we prohibited from firing on it pounces. Things happen, but that doesn’t mean we can’t assign them values and react to them.
This space is inadequate for a real analysis of those concepts, straggled as they are through Crowley’s work and notes. Suffice it to say that Thelema is replete with moral relativism, and is almost by definition the morally relativistic rejection of Christianity and what Crowley would call Procrustean…that is inflexible…morality.
A train wreck of fallacies-by-association
Here we begin the endless train of fallacies…
“There is a subtle seductiveness of this post-modern view. Each will is unique so each perspective or point-of-view is unique as well… naturally this means no one but you can with finality and certainty say what one’s Will is. But this does not mean every passing thought and opinion you have is true, nor does it mean anything you choose is part of your Will.”
Who has said that it does? Nobody that I know. In fact almost everyone I know says the exact opposite of that. I have never had any Thelemite say “whatever random idea I have today is my true will.”
But let’s consider what the author really means by this. Perhaps it could be more honestly stated:
“There is a subtle seductiveness of this post-modern view. Each will is unique so each perspective or point-of-view is unique as well… naturally this means you claim I cannot with finality and certainty say what your Will is. But this does not mean every passing thought and opinion you have is true, nor does it mean anything you choose is part of your Will.”
The unspoken conclusion “And of course what I think is your will…or what some person who has some grade or title thinks is your will is correct, and you are just fooling yourself, especially if your will has any of that hippy dippy progressive stuff I panned in my last Thelemic Union piece.”
The author tells us that “We need to graduate past the childish postmodernism that ‘any opinion is just as true as any other opinion’.”
Definitely what Crowley meant when he said “Besides the above considerations, it may be observed that Knowledge, so far as it exists at all, even as a statement of relation, is no more than a momentary phenomenon of consciousness.”
Orders don’t teach, people do
The author also tells us “In this way the Orders that treat truth this way have nothing to teach.” I could not agree more. Only that I would add that the Orders that pretend they have some ineffable truth which is by virtue of their structure or existence somehow conveyed to their heads or members have still less to teach.
I don’t believe any Order (including the one I am a member of) has anything to teach. That is not a slight on any Order.
I believe people have things to teach. Some of them quite brilliant things. I think Orders can provide a space for that to happen. An Order is a room for teaching, but it is only as good as the quality of minds that are in it. When an Order is organized so that many voices can be heard, and also their speech discussed and criticized, then much is taught. But it is not the Order that taught it. It is the people within the Order. An Order can, sometimes, present a place for ideas to be set forth stripped of personalities and politics. But that does not make them any more or less valid, simply allows for their contemplation without prejudice.
“Stong Leaders”…as long as they agree with me
The author laments that “The absolute vacuum of real, strong leadership of these Orders has led to the point where OTO and other orders can barely even claim they teach anything….Our modern current has Bishops and other authorities that are basically too afraid (or lazy) to ever put their foot down and say something actually means something in particular and not whatever you’d like it to mean. The Lance means something, the Cup means something; they are not interchangeable.”
So. There are a few things that the author is certain of and anyone who doesn’t agree is clearly lazy for refusing to stand up and say these things are true. One is that “The Lance means something, the Cup means something.” I hope we’re clear that’s a dog-whistle for “boys are boys and girls are girls.” I happen to know with just as much certainty that “The Lance means something, the Cup means something; and sometimes they are the same or those meanings shift depending on who is holding them and why.” I consider this to be an absolute. So we disagree. The only difference in those opinions is that I do not make any suppositions about what the Lance and Cup mean to the author, or say that within the author’s personal frame of reference those suppositions are wrong.
That said, I would be curious to know, given that “meaning” is manifestly a function of “knowledge” and “Knowledge, so far as it exists at all, even as a statement of relation, is no more than a momentary phenomenon of consciousness,” precisely how it is that the “meaning” of the Lance and Cup form some uber-truth that Bishops must uphold?
Crowley on Oaths
The author complains that “In fact, going deeper into the initiations, it is the practice (perhaps more explicitly in some areas than others) in many OTO locations to claim no one can interpret your oaths except for you. While this might sound nice on its surface, it undercuts the entire business of oaths: Oaths are bonds, bonds between you and the organization, and bonds between you and other Brethren. If everyone interprets oaths however they like, no oath has been sworn, no agreement has been made, no contract has been established — it is simply two people who happen to nominally believe similar things but in reality believe whatever they like.”
Yes. Crowley, who determined that the Secret Masters had abandoned Mathers and thus his oaths were abrogate most definitely believed that one should slavishly allow an imagined “superior” to interpret one’s oaths rather than interpret them for oneself. To be fair, Crowley took oaths quite seriously so long as he was on the receiving end of them. Even then, in his discussion of the A∴A∴ oaths in Confessions, he made it clear that any enforcement of oaths is a matter of “having switched on a current,” not obedience to authority. Thus the punishment for breaking an oath is, like everything else, relative.
He also states “In the A.’. A.’., which is a genuinely Magical Order, there are no extravagant oaths.” I’ll leave it to the reader to consider the obvious implication, particularly in light of his above statement “In Freemasons’ Hall he can swear quite cheerfully to keep silence under the penalty of having his throat cut across, his tongue torn out, and all the rest of it; the oath becomes a farce.” Clearly Crowley considered extravagant oaths of the sort the author seems to allude to to be a farce in the first place, and one might reasonably question whether their inclusion in some rituals put forth by him constitutes a lapse in judgment, or a test of foolishness.
We need to establish First Principles…by which I mean my first Principles…
“We need to establish First Principles. We need to establish Tradition. “
How does one take this, except as “you need to bring your first principles and tradition into conformity with what I believe.” Here is a First Principle for you. “The Lance and the Cup may mean many things depending on who holds them.” Here is a Tradition. “Suitability to hold the Lance or the Cup may only be determined by the holder and none other, for thou hast no right but to do thy will.” There we’ve taken care of that.
The key here is “we.” A “we” that I suspect includes the author and their friends, but not myself or my friends. More to the point given their compulsion over oaths I suspect the author means some superior who they have given power to dictate what they should believe about these things.
“If we define Thelema and it leaves some people out, so be it – our goal should not be to be as inclusive as possible, but as authentically ourselves as possible.”
I differ from the Author on this. I am more than willing to define my practice of Thelema to leave some people out…and I suspect the Author with their Lance and Cup dog whistle is one of them. But I have no more authority than the Author, or anyone else to say what Thelema is and isn’t. I am free though choose in which company of stars I practice it. That said, I will caution the author that if they are obsessed with authenticity, they may wish to understand a great deal more about Crowley’s sexuality if they wish to be “authentic.”
Finally, I have some consolation for the author “I hope we can begin this Work or I feel our current may run its course sooner than we may like…”
I’ve already begun and so have many others, each in our own course. Perhaps the author is waiting for the orders of some superior, but I don’t think the rest of us feel that need.
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