Modern Western Magic
Nevill Drury’s “Pathways in Modern Western Magic” is reviewed by John Robert Colombo
This is a hefty and handsome piece of bookmaking, something of a tome, a trade paperback that measures six inches by nine inches. It is bulky for it is one and one-quarter inch thick, with pages glued together rather than stitched, and x+470+6 pages in length. There is an informative introduction, a total of 17 substantial chapters, a section of interesting biographical notes about its contributors (complete with email addresses), and a detailed 27-page index. (The index has a passing reference to Grey Owl, but no reference to P.D. Ouspensky; there is a passing reference to the Great God Pan, but no reference to G.I. Gurdjieff.)
The tome is a collection of accessibly written though unsparingly earnest scholarly papers, each paper with its own endnotes and references, some quite extensive. While there is no list of illustrations, maybe thirty-five black-and-white photographs and drawings appear here and there to illustrate general references in the articles. It is a book to be read intermittently and to be consulted from time to time, should the reader be interested in what the editor identifies as “modern Western magic” and should the aspect of that topic of interest be covered by one of the book’s contributors.
The publisher is Concrescent Press, a relatively new imprint from Seattle, Washington, founded in the late 1990s but only now commissioning and publishing books that may be described as “esoteric.” I will refrain from defining that term, or trying to determine its definition by the publisher Sam Webster, but I will quote how he has described the aim of the press: “Our intention is to build a community of practice and scholarship primarily focused on Pagan Magic.” So it seems that Concrescent Press is an activist, semi-academic imprint that is beginning to specialize in the production of quality books of interest about a subject that is marginal in interest and perhaps imaginal in nature.
Scholars, take note: It is open for business! The publisher even offers a short preface which begins like this: “‘Pathways in Modern Western Magic’ launches a new imprint in the Concrescence family of books. This imprint specializes in peer-reviewed works of scholarship in the fields of Esotericism, Pagan religion and culture, Magic, and the Occult. Concrescent Scholars present their views from within and without the Academy. Here will be heard the Voice of the Academic, and also the Voice of the Practitioner, the native of the sometimes alien, sometimes intimate, spaces of the Esoteric.” My attention was caught by the distinction between “academic” and “practitioner” (both curiously capitalized) and I will refer to that distinction or dichotomy later in this review.
In passing, it is interesting to note that one of the imprint’s first publications is Sam Webster’s own title “Tantric Thelema.” So the press seems to have a definite orientation towards Aleister Crowley and “Crowleyanity” and his notion of magic as change in conformity with will. Although the word “concrescent” and its cognate “concrescence” are not widely used, they have a recognized meaning in biology to refer to the “growing together of related parts, tissues, or cells” or simply “the amassing of physical particles, or cells.” It presumably means the opposite of “excrescence”!
A book’s index speaks volumes about that title, and this index supplies a clue concerning who’s who and what’s what. For instance, there are 7 page references to Sigmund Freud; 18 to Carl Jung; 36 to Rose and Aleister Crowley. In the same vein, Consciousness and God run neck to neck with 90 and 91 references respectively, only to be outdone by tireless Time (with 128 references). The highest score goes to Magic/Magick at 271 references, so that for every two pages of the book there is one mention of the magical arts.
What the book’s index describes is dramatized by the book’s table of contents. Simplifying the principle of organization, the reader who stays with the text from page 1 to page 470 will encounter chapters that concentrate on the following subjects or topics: two theoretical considerations of esotericism in the West in our time; two discussions of Wicca; three analyses of what is called “Neo-Shamanism” and “Seidr oracles”; two deliberations about the Golden Dawn and Crowley’s “Thelemic Sex Magick”; one chapter on “Dragon Rouge” or the “Left-Hand Path”; three chapters on the Church of Satan, the Temple of Set, and “the Magical Life of Ithell Colquhoun”; a consideration of “two Chthonic Magical Artists” (Austin Osman Spare and Rosaleen Norton); one section on “Chaos Magics in Britain”; a forward-looking discussion of “Technoshamans and Cybershamans”; and one section on “a Hybridized Tantra Practice.” That is a lot to digest.
For the record, here are the names of the contributors of those chapters (sidestepping the multiple contributions made by the book’s editor): Nevill Drury, Lynne Hume, Dominique Beth Wilson, Nikki Bado, Marguerite Johnson, Andrei A. Znamenski, Robert J. Wallis, Jenny Blain, Thomas Karlsson, James R. Lewis, Don Webb, Amy Hale, Dave Evans, Libuše Martínková, Paul Hine. The majority of these scholars are widely published, they hold advanced degrees (some in interdisciplinary studies), and they mainly teach in departments of Anthropology, History, Humanities, Philosophy, Religious Studies, Sociology, etc., with universities in the United Kingdom, the United States, and Australia. I did not spot a single psychologist or psychiatrist, or any professor who teaches a course in Literature. (I think the latter is an interesting observation.)
The names of all of the contributors are new to me, including that of Nevill Drury, whom I should have known about, who is described as “an independent researcher whose specialist interests include contemporary Western magic, shamanism and visionary art.” Experienced as a book editor and publisher in his native Australia, he holds a doctorate on the Western esoteric tradition from the University of Newcastle. His book “Stealing Fire from Heaven: The Rise of Modern Western Magic” was published by Oxford University Press in 2011. He contributes a couple of chapters and writes in a way that is at once accomplished and appealing.
These details may be of incidental interest, but they set the stage for the discussion that follows. To use the distinction introduced by the publisher, the reviewer of this publication who is an Academic would have to relate it to academic publications by Ronald Hutton, Marina Warner, Joscelyn Godwin, Jeffrey J. Kripal, and other distinguished scholars who have contributed original research to the field, especially to the SUNY Press series on Western Occultism, whereas the reviewer who is a Practitioner would find it necessary to relate it to handbooks, manuals, grimoires, and half the books issued by Llewellyn Publications, Samuel Weiser Inc., and Watkins Publishing. It is not often that the twain do meet.
It is unlikely there is a single reader of this review who has this dual background – including the writer of the present review! – so a reasonable course to take here is to comment on each chapter to assure the prospective reader that the book is serious in intent, in interest, and in information. As the same time I have yet to be convinced (a) that there is a single chapter that is indispensable reading for the light it sheds on its subject, and (b) that the chapters dovetail in some unexpected way to form a whole that suggests that there is a paradigm for a new way to understand the subject matter and its supposed cohesiveness. In sum, the value of the collection is about equal to the sum of its parts.
I have somewhat the same reaction to this book as I had when in 2008 I reviewed for this website Joscelyn Godwin’s The Golden Thread: The Ageless Wisdom of the Western Mystery Traditions. The thread in that title is tangled and frayed and knotted: one thing happens after another without causal connection, though its knowledgeable and perceptive author offered his own “authoritative” voice to the puzzles and the mysteries that he described and discussed. This same problem was faced by Manly P. Hall way back in 1928 when, at the tender age of twenty-seven and all by himself, he researched and published The Secret Teachings of All Ages, which is the great-mother and mother-lode of all such books as these. (I also reviewed Hall’s work for this website.) Perhaps the fault here lies in the nature of the so-called Western tradition of esotericism, which includes magic, for the “tradition” seems to be discontinuous, a helter-skelter of false starts and abrupt stops. There seems to be no transcendent principle at work. Such, anyway, seems to be the fate of books that comprise the library of paradoxography.
“Pathways in Modern Western Magic” might better be retitled “Footpaths in Modern Western Magic.” There is something makeshift about the choice of what is included and what is excluded. A “pathway” suggests a well-defined religious goal, like a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, whereas a “footpath” suggests a walk through the woods in Indian file to no discernible destination, though a lot of ground is covered. No mention is made of some related subjects – including psychical research, parapsychology, psychokinesis, imaging techniques, the Algonkian oracular complex, consciousness studies, LSD, neuroimaging, brain research, consciousness studies. For instance, there is a lot that is “magical” and even “magickal” about UFOs, as Jung knew, but not in these pages.
Mythopoesis is short-changed, and the writers fail to turn to the literary imagination to illustrate their points. Perhaps it never occurred to them, though assuredly many of their points were memorably made by poets like William Blake (who goes without a single reference in the index) and Kathleen Raine (who is merely footnoted). It might be said (by me anyway) that Nevill Drury, the editor, is so intent on covering serious subjects of less-than-usual interest, that he neglects popular subjects of more-than-passing interest. To his credit he commissioned the majority of these substantial studies; only a few of which seem to have received prior publication. To the extent that the book is devoted to “magic/magick” in theory and practice – or given the academic tone, to theoria and praxis – it is detailed, and some of the chapters are comprehensive. The historical record gives way to the contemporary record and the 20th and 21st centuries have been rich ones indeed to innovations in this field (or in these pastures). At times I visualized Mages collected around tables and shrines and altars looking for all the world like historical reenactors, thuribles at the ready!
What I really miss are two chapters that should be written: one chapter devoted to contemporary churches in the West with their fundamentalist religious practices which are magical to the core (prophecy, faith-healing, speaking in tongues, revelators, etc.), and another chapter devoted to the depiction (as distinct from the description) of the magical arts in the literature and film of our time and place. But the first chapter would have to be written with great tact, and as for the second chapter, there is probably an unwillingness to regard any of the rituals and relationships and correspondences of these “magicks” as the products of the literary mind and the productions of the fictional imagination. This I feel is a loss (but it is also the subject for another article).
To suggest the seriousness and enthusiasm that are characteristic of this book, here is a survey of it chapter by chapter, with one or two impressions of each chapter, taken almost at random to suggest the richness in research, thought, and expression.
Introduction: Nevill Drury reminds us of the anthropological distinction between “etic” accounts and “emic” accounts — the former being accounts presented from the outside, the latter being accounts presented from the inside. Scholar or practitioner, self-exploration and spiritual renewal, these matters are stressed. The foundation is well and truly laid.
Chapter 1: “Lifting the Veil.” Lynne Hume pursues the characteristics of the “emic” approach and along the way examines altered states of consciousness, emotion, imagination, experience, epistemology, etc. The essential irrationality of magic is understood and not dismissed.
Chapter 2: “The Visual and the Numinous.” Dominique Beth Wilson examines the experience of the “mysterium tremendum et fascinans” that is the basis of Pagan (capitalized) and Neopagan practice. The activities of the Applegrove coven in Sydney, Australia, are described in interesting detail.
Chapter 3: “Encountering the Universal Triple Goddess of Wicca” is a discussion by Nikki Bado of Maiden, Mother, and Crone. There is a detailed consideration of the place of dichotomy and of evolving paradigms. What is required is that we “learn to see the shifting play of light and dark, to see dynamic polarities rather than dichotomies.”
Chapter 4: “Away from the Light.” The dark aspects of the goddess have attracted the attention of Marguerite Johnson who examines in some detail Wicca, Neo-paganism, and Witchcraft. I like the discussion of the primal “egregore” which “denotes a collective force that is made manifest by meditation and ritual.”
Chapter 5: “Neo-Shamanism in the United States,” contributed by Andrei A. Znamenski, mentions Mircea Eliade and Carlos Castaneda but concentrates on Michael Harner and Native American shamanism. The idea is floated that “anti-structure” is “an ideal structure for contemporary educated Westerners, who are too skeptical to commit themselves to group values and who, at the same time, long for spiritual experience.” (This is a variation on the theme of “the religion of no religion” with respect to Esalen.)
Chapter 6: “Neo-Shamanism in Europe.” Robert J. Wallis considers the “construct” of the notion of shamanism which has been part of European consciousness for the last two centuries and part of its practice for millennia. One section-heading reads: “Everyone’s a shaman: Decontextualising and universalising shamans.” There is a reference to “entheogen,” “to inspire the god within,” and the psychedelic nature or component of the experience.
Chapter 7: “Seidr Oracles” is the work of Jenny Blain and it refers to North European shamanistic work. Seers and seeresses here are heavily influenced by the Old Norse sagas, and the chapter introduces words and phrases like “Heathenry and Earth Religions.” Of all the chapters, this one is probably the most descriptive and informative for the lay reader.
Chapter 8: “Magical Practices in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn” by Nevill Drury is a one-stop yet quite-thorough history of this most-influential magical order, one that attracted and influenced Aleister Crowley and W.B. Yeats, among other writers. There is much discussion of its Tree of Life, symbolism, correspondences, and visionary practices.
Chapter 9: “The Thelemic Sex Magick of Aleister Crowley” is also by Nevill Drury and it tells the reader all that it is necessary to know about this mage, the Ordo Templi Orientis, and the “elixir” of his “sex magick.” There is more information and theory in these pages than there are details about practice and procedure.
Chapter 10. “The Draconian Tradition” is subtitled “Dragon Rouge and the Left-Hand Path.” Thomas Karlsson discusses the primal forces before creation and by stressing the darker energies holds to the alchemical principle “en to pan” (all is one). Taoism, Tantra, Kundalini, Crazy Wisdom … all these come to mind and to body.
Chapter 11: “Claiming Hellish Hegemony.” James R. Lewis tells – and retells – the story of Anton La Vey, the Church of Satan, and the “Satanic Bible.” Many times has the story been told, but here the retelling distinguishes between the heroic legend and the sordid fact. The hodge-podge construction of the influential “Satanic Bible” is really quite extraordinary.
Chapter 12: “Modern Black Magic” by Don Webb begins, “When I joined the Temple of Set in 1989.” It discusses the syncretistic nature of the cult or sect’s dogma and ritual and ends “with a few recommendations for further reading.” The Temple seems both authentic and eccentric!
Chapter 13: “The Magical Life of Ithell Colquhoun.” Amy Hale looks at the “innovative spirit” of the artist with the memorable name, placing her initially among the Surrealists, latterly among the Celtic-influenced magicians. It is a sympathetic introduction to her art and texts.
Chapter 14: “Two Chthonic Magical Artists.” Nevill Drury’s sympathies go to the British visionary artist Austin Osman Spare whose work is better known than that of the bohemian Australian witch Rosaleen Norton. Text and illustrations are combined to make memorable introductions to their work.
Chapter 15: “Nothing is True, Everything is Permitted” is the title of Dave Evans’s study of “Chaos magics.” Crowley is a key influence here, but so is relativism and deconstruction and the suggestion that there are times “when Chaos becomes the Norm.”
Chapter 16: “The Computer-Mediated Religious Life of Technoshamans and Cybershamans.” This long-winded title introduces Libuše Martínková and her study of how computers and digital technologies are influencing everything from shamanic practice to lucid dreaming. It ends with a consideration of reality in terms of “the issue of virtuality.”
Chapter 17: “The Magic Wonderland of the Senses” is subtitled “Reflections on a Hybridised Tantra Practice.” Phil Hine looks at Tantra and Shakti and Kali through both occult and scholarly eyes, and decides they require no more “Western universalised esoteric schemas” but “the wider cultural formations of India.”
At one point I took a break from reading the heady descriptive and analytic prose that constitutes “Pathways” to reread “The Circular Ruins,” a short, highly imaginative story written by Jorge Luis Borges. First published in 1941 and widely reprinted, this work of fiction includes a passage in which its unnamed narrator, addressing himself, ponders the “enigmas” of the world. His words capture some of the possibilities of philosophical notions that are taken with the utmost seriousness in “Pathways.”
Here is that passage: “He understood that the task of molding the incoherent and dizzying stuff that dreams are made of is the most difficult work a man can undertake, even if he fathom all the enigmas of the higher and lower spheres – much more difficult than weaving a rope of sand or minting coins of the faceless wind. He understood that initial failure was inevitable.”
The story is readily available in the Penguin Book edition of Jorge Luis Borges’s “On Mysticism” (2010) edited and introduced by Maria Kodama. It takes the reader farther – and further – along the “footpaths” of “Pathways in Modern Western Magic.”
John Robert Colombo is an author and anthologist who lives in Toronto and is known as Canada’s “Master Gatherer.” He contributed the Foreword to Eureka Press’s recently published study “Real Worlds of G.I. Gurdjieff” by Paul Beekman Taylor. He has collected the hitherto uncollected short fiction and reminiscences of Sax Rohmer, the creator of Dr. Fu Manchu; the titles of these books are “Pipe Dreams” and “The Crime Magnet.” His website is < http://www.colombo.ca >
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If you liked the above review you may like his Foreword to Eureka Press’s recently published study “Real Worlds of G.I. Gurdjieff” by Paul Beekman Taylor, at http://gurdjieffbooks.wordpress.com/ Gurdjieff’s teaching: for scholars and practitioners an independent site which looks at the teaching of G. I. Gurdjieff and Gurdjieff-related studies with reference to both practitioners and scholars.’ Sophia Wellbeloved.
28 Nov. 2012