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Teeming Links – September 6, 2013

FireHeadImage courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

To introduce today’s offering of necessary and recommended reading, here’s a description of a trend in academia that represents one of the most ironic of all ironies (as described by the excerpt), and also one of the most welcome and revealing developments of the present age:

It’s odd how many academic disciplines grew out of the study of trance or ecstatic states. . . . Psychology, neurology, sociology and anthropology all began, in the late 19th century, with the study of ecstatic, charismatic, or trance states. They all found naturalistic interpretations for such states. And they were usually pejorative explanations. The academic distinguished himself from the ecstatic individual or crowd by remaining outside the trance, dispassionately analysing it, classifying it. The academic is masculine, European, conscious, rational, self-controlled. The ecstatic individual or group is feminine, unconscious, irrational, uncontrolled, weak-willed, hysterical, childish, primitive, degenerate.

I’d go as far as to say modern academia is founded on the rejection of the supernatural, including the rejection of revelation-through-trance. It’s the foundational principle of so many of its departments — not just the social sciences, but also economics, history, even literary criticism. Academia is a machine for disenchantment.

. . . [V]ery slowly, there are signs that a [William] Jamesian spirit is returning to academia, and the cross-disciplinary study of ‘unusual’ or ‘altered’ states of consciousness is making a come-back. . . . [Various academic and scientific disciplines are] exploring the value of unconscious or altered conscious states, of involuntary experiences like trances and ecstasies. The researchers in the field are by no means committed to belief in some metaphysical ‘beyond’, or God, but they do tend to think that altered or unusual states are not always simply pathological — they can sometimes be positive and life-enhancing.

. . . Academics and non-academics working on this field need to summon up the spirit of William James to take it forward, by cultivating the Jamesian virtues of open-mindedness, interdisciplinarity, humility, sympathetic scepticism, empathy and respect for people’s experience, and above all, a willingness to be thought foolish.

— Jules Evans, “The New Science of Religious Experiences,” Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations, September 6, 2013

* * *

The Future of History (Foreign Affairs)
Francis Fukayama famously announced “the end of history” in 1989, after which all kinds of stunning new history swiftly transpired. Now — or rather, in January 2012, which is when this piece appeared — he’s wondering about a different kind of ending. In this piece (whose full text, alas, resides behind a paywall), he is inspired by the global financial crisis to ask whether liberal democracy, “the default ideology around much of the world today,” can survive the death of the middle class. Thanks go out to David Pecotic for the link.

The sad realisation that you’ve stopped reading books (Daily Life)
“Somewhere between the invention of Facebook, Game of Thrones entering a third season and the 356th Gif ‘listicle’ on Buzzfeed about signs you’re almost 30, I stopped reading books. . . . [I]ncreasingly, it seems the dizzying superabundance of readable and watchable and eminently digestible stuff on the internet is proving a powerful opponent..”

Traveling without seeing (The New York Times)
“I’m half a world from home [in Shanghai], in a city I’ve never explored, with fresh sights and sounds around every corner. And what am I doing? I’m watching exactly the kind of television program I might watch in my Manhattan apartment. . . . [We have an] unprecedented ability to tote around and dwell in a snugly tailored reality of our own creation, a monochromatic gallery of our own curation.”

The Protestant Work Ethic Is Real (Pacific Standard)
Max Weber’s classic early-twentieth-century sociological/economic treatise The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism — which argued that Calvinist insecurity about one’s eternal destiny was the ironic and primary psychological and societal force that created modern capitalism — has always made sense to me personally, even though in recent years it has been fashionable to claim that Weber’s idea was mostly fanciful. Now here’s some news about several recent studies that indicate he really was onto something.

TED talks now routinely censoring scientists who share ideas on consciousness (Natural News)
The tone of this opinion piece is too wildly polemical for my taste (as is the author’s bizarre non sequitur of a tangent about racism), but the subject, the thesis, the supporting evidence, and the writer’s reasoning and conclusion are quite significant: “To really understand the desperation behind TED’s censorship and attempted suppression of ideas from people like [Graham] Hancock and [Rupert] Sheldrake, you first have to understand why the idea of consciousness is so incredibly dangerous to the mythology of modern-day science.” Read this in tandem with the item directly below.

Science vs. Pseudoscience (The Huffington Post)
Read this in tandem with the item directly above. It’s written by computational scientist, emeritus professor of mathematics, and former NASA researcher Dave Pruett, and it explores the epic pro-materialist/anti-consciousness bias of what we call mainstream science, using the Sheldrake and Hancock TED controversy as a starting point: “Sheldrake’s and Graham’s offense: proposing the unorthodox view that consciousness is nonlocal. . . . Nonlocality is now mainstream in physics. Psi phenomena strongly suggest that consciousness is also both nonlocal and collective. Were mainstream science able to relax its rigid orthodoxy, rigorous scientific investigations could help to confirm or refute this hypothesis, to shed light on the numinous qualities of the cosmos, and to probe the full potential of the human being.”

I Dream of Genius (Joseph Epstein for Commentary Magazine)
An excellent, concise history of the very idea of “genius,” including a look at its previous meaning in the form of the Socratic daimon and the Roman genius spirit and the way this was fatefully altered in Western cultural history: “The dividing line for our understanding of genius was the 18th century. In an emerging secular age, Descartes and Voltaire removed the tutelary-angel aspect from the conception. . . . Men were no longer thought to have genius but to be geniuses. . . . Genius, meanwhile, remains the least understood of all kinds of intelligence. The explanation for the existence of geniuses and accounting for their extraordinary powers have thus far eluded all attempts at scientific study. . . . I find it pleasing that science cannot account for genius. I do not myself believe in miracles, but I do have a strong taste for mysteries, and the presence, usually at lengthy intervals, of geniuses is among the great ones.”

Slash on His New Horror Film, Nothing Left to Fear (The Huffington Post)
Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash has co-produced and written the score for a new horror film. Here he talks about the film and his lifelong relationship to the genre, with references to H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, Stanley Kubrick, Orson Welles, Night of the Living Dead, The Twilight Zone, and The Outer Limits. He also comes off as quite reflective and well-spoken. Okay, mind officially blown.

Aleister Crowley and esoteric art open window to the sacred (The Sydney Morning Herald)
“[Crowley’s] landscapes and trance paintings were created as part of his occult practices and influenced by symbolism and expressionism, says curator Robert Buratti. . . . Buratti says esoteric art is usually part of a personal spiritual practice, often of a ritual or magical nature. ‘It fundamentally asks the artist to delve into their own existence, and the artwork functions like a diary of that ordeal or a prompt to delve even further,’ he says. He says esoteric artists such as [Rosaleen] Norton and James Gleeson, the father of Australian Surrealism, use techniques like meditative trance to find a deeper truth.”

Magick, Madness, and Outsider Art: The Lovecraftian Path to Happiness

A Search for the Heroic in Lovecraftian Fiction, Part Four

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NOTE: This is the final part of a four-part series in which Stu Young explores the works and influence of H. P. Lovecraft in an attempt to tease out themes of heroism and optimism among the more familiar themes of horror, gloom, and despair.

Although Robert Anton Wilson claims that Sir John Babcock, the hero of Masks of the Illuminati, is “the typical Lovecraft narrator” and has him muse that “Encounters with death and danger are only adventures to the survivors,” Babcock does on occasion find himself getting a thrill from his exploits. Admittedly, he compares this to the novels of Conan Doyle and H. Rider Haggard rather than anything by Lovecraft, but then, in the year in which the story is set (1914) Lovecraft hadn’t had any tales published yet. (Not that this stops Cthulhu popping up for a quick cameo.) But despite Babcock’s vacillating feelings towards his adventures, Masks of the Illuminati ends happily.

Masks_of_the_Illuminati_by_Robert_Anton_Wilson

Meanwhile, in The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea, a visit to Miskatonic University turns up a John Dee translation of the Necronomicon, and shoggoths make several cameo appearances during the course of the story. Yog-Sothoth also turns up several times in Illuminatus! but is constantly trapped in various types of pentagons and eventually absorbs Hitler into itself, thus condemning old Adolf to eternal torment, which shifts Yog-Sothoth from villain to borderline hero, kind of like the T-rex at the end of Jurassic Park.

(Does anyone else feel weird about Yog-Sothoth being a hero? Even viewing him as an anti-hero seems wrong; it’s so out of character. Maybe he was having a midlife crisis and wanted to try a new direction in life. He probably bought himself a shiny new sports car as well. Just so long as he doesn’t start shagging younger women again, because we know that never ends well.)

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Wilson liked mixing historical figures into his novels, blurring the lines between fact and fiction. Carl Jung, Albert Einstein, James Joyce, and Aleister Crowley, along with many other real people, all turn up at various points. For the purposes of this discussion, the most interesting cameo by a real-life figure come in Illuminatus! when one of the novel’s protagonists pays a visit to none other than Lovecraft himself, who scoffs at the idea that the monsters in his stories might be real. The protagonist then asks why, if Lovecraft doesn’t believe in monsters or magic, did he cut short a quote from Eliphas Levi’s History of Magic in his short novel The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. Lovecraft replies, “One doesn’t have to believe in Yog-Sothoth, the eater of Souls, to realize how people will act who do hold that belief. It is not my intent, in any of my writings, to provide information that will lead even one unbalanced reader to try experiments that will result in the loss of human life.”

Such a response raises the question of how people really do fare when they allow the influence of Lovecraftian fiction to infiltrate real life. With this in mind, let’s take a look at the British ritual magician Kenneth Grant, who blended the Cthulhu Mythos into Typhonian magic. Read the rest of this entry

Jack Parsons: Occultist, sci-fi muse, US space program pioneer

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My documentary “essay” on legendary/notorious space program pioneer and Crowleyan occultist Jack Parsons, composed of carefully chosen quotes and extracts from other writings, is now the featured piece at The Daily Grail:

The Tragic Tale of the Rocket Maker

Many thanks go out to The Daily Grail’s mastermind, Greg Taylor, for expressing an interest in this piece (which was originally published here). As many of you already know, TDG is a venerable and fairly indispensable site devoted to paranormal themes and “exploring the fringes of science and history.” See this great Skeptiko interview with Greg for details about the site’s founding, purpose, and immense popularity. So I’m proud and pleased to have my work — or rather, in this case, my creative mining and remixing of some other people’s work — featured there.

The Tragic Tale of the Rocket Maker

[For best effect, scroll to the bottom, start the YouTube video to playing, turn up your speakers, and then return to the top and read straight through. Then replay the YouTube piece and watch the video.]

When the history of the American space program is finally written, no figure will stand out quite like John Whiteside Parsons.  (Richard Metzger, “John Whiteside Parsons: Anti-Christ Superstar,” April 8, 2003)

He was an unorthodox genius, a poet and rocket scientist who helped give birth to an institution that would become mankind’s window on the universe. He was also a devotee of the black arts, a sci-fi junkie and host of backyard orgies on Pasadena’s stately Millionaires’ Row. (“Life as Satanist Propelled Rocketeer,” Los Angeles Times, March 19, 2000)

He was an acolyte of Aleister Crowley, an employee of Howard Hughes, a victim of L. Ron Hubbard, and an enthusiastic phone buddy to Wernher Von Braun. He was an only child, his adulterous dad booted by his angry mom. In seeking father figures and brotherhood, he became a vital link in two mighty chains in human history: rocketry and ritual magic. His science was built on intuition, and his magic on experiment. (“The Magical Father of American Rocketry,” Reason, May 2005)

[He was] remarkably handsome, dashing and brilliant…Werner von Braun claimed it was the self-taught Parsons, not himself, who was the true father of the American space program for his contribution to the development of solid rocket fuel. (Metzger)

He was a tall handsome Californian, whose early work on highly volatile rocket-motor fuels was regarded highly enough for French scientists of a later generation to name a crater on the moon after him. Parsons introduced into early American rocketry a range of exotic solid and liquid fuels whose later forms were eventually to help drive Apollo 11 to the Moon. He helped create the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, now a major industrial complex. In early colour footage from JPL archives, he looks like a better-fed James Dean in some 1950s road movie. In the manner of many mid-century heroes such as Dean, his life was more a script than a life. (“John Whiteside Parsons,” Fortean Times, March 2000)

You would think all this scientific achievement would be enough for one person in one lifetime, but Parsons had a much loftier set of ambitions. He wanted to tear down the walls of time and space, and he had an entirely non-scientific set of ideas on how to do it. (“Jack Parsons,” Rotten.com)

Many key SF writers could be found gathered at the Parsons household in the early ’40s, including Jack Williamson, A.E. Van Vogt (who would become head of the Los Angeles Dianetics Foundation), Robert Heinlein, Alva Rogers and Forrest J. Ackerman. Ackerman ran the LA SF Society, where Parsons also met Ray Bradbury who professed to being fascinated by “his ideas about the future”. Parsons was particularly fascinated by Williamson’s Darker Than You Think, the tale of an ancient lycanthropic race who seek to regain power amongst men through the birth of a magical child, “The Child of Night”. It has also been suggested that Parsons’ ideas influenced Heinlein in writing Stranger in a Strange Land. (Fortean Times)

[He] gave no early hint of the inner stirrings that propelled him to worship the devil and lead an extraordinary double life: respected scientist by day, dedicated occultist by night. Over a little more than a decade, the tall and vainly handsome Parsons skillfully twinned his two existences as rocketeer and antichrist leader of the occult Ordo Templi Orientis. (Los Angeles Times)

Parsons was certainly ahead of his time in things other than rocketry…[He] was an active member of the California Agape Lodge of the sex magickal group Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), and in letters addressed The Great Beast [i.e., Crowley] as “Most Beloved Father”. Out of the inspirations of fire, dust, and grease came a visionary mystical writing formed out of conflicts with what he saw as an increasingly oppressive society. There are passages in his book Freedom Is A Two-Edged Sword very similar to Timothy Leary’s much later seminal book, The Politics of Ecstasy. His style also predates the “beat” poetry of Gregory Corso and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and the New Age views of Wilhem Reich. (Fortean Times)

In one of the most celebrated feats in magickal history, Parsons and pre-Dianetics L. Ron Hubbard…performed The Babalon Working, a daring attempt to shatter the boundaries of time and space and intended to bring about, in Parsons own words, “love, understanding, and Dionysian freedom…the necessary counterbalance or correspondence to the manifestation of Horus”…Babalon, a Thelemic counterpart of Kali or Isis, was described by Parsons as “black, murderous and horrible, but Her hand is uplifted in blessing and reassurance: the reconciliation of opposites, the apotheosis of the impossible.” The impossible was precisely what Jack Parsons, the scientific sorcerer, had in mind.” (Richard Metzger)

Simultaneous with his more material scientific pursuits, he also tried with painstaking ritual — but apparently failed — to create a “Moon Child,” a magic being conjured via mystic ritual who would usher in a new age of unfettered liberty and signal the end of the Christian era and its outmoded morality. (Reason)

After the war his occult activism attracted the young L. Ron Hubbard into his life and home. The scalawag pulp writer, pre-Dianetics, took off for Florida with Jack’s girl and most of his money, supposedly to buy boats to bring to California and launch a business operation they’d jointly own. Hubbard never came back…As the ’40s wound down Parsons was stripped of his security clearance and almost prosecuted for treason for slipping classified documents from his then-employer, Hughes Aircraft, to the nascent Israeli government, with whom he was negotiating for a rocket guru gig. During his last days Parsons was reduced to working for Hollywood movies, making tiny explosive squibs that mimicked a man being shot. This from a man who once dreamed of blasting man into outer space. (Reason)

Parsons’ security clearance was never reinstated. This, combined with several past investigations into his magical and sexual activities, two other separate charges of having taken classified documents, an investigation into alleged communist activities, and a previous loss of clearance, hastened his sad decline…Reduced to working at a filling station and designing explosive effects for films, he wrote to Germer, Crowley’s successor at the OTO, of his “depressing melancholy stupor”. (Fortean Times)

Parsons died in 1952 in his home laboratory, in an explosion generally characterized as “mysterious.” Various theories suggest that the explosion was the result of old grudges by his enemies, a sinister plot by the FBI, a magical experiment gone bad, the fact that his garage was filled with lots of explosive chemicals, or some combination of the above. (Rotten.com)

His mysterious death in an explosion in 1952 left many wondering whether Parsons was a victim of murder or suicide — or simply of an accident at his own momentarily careless hands.  (Los Angeles Times)

In June 1952, while his wife shopped for groceries for a planned vacation to Mexico, Parsons mixed chemicals from his arsenal of illegal explosives. Police reports say the explosives expert dropped the concoction of fulminate of mercury. A deadly blast that could be felt a mile away ripped through Parsons’ garage lab, blowing off his right arm, breaking his other arm and both legs, and leaving a gaping hole in his jaw. He died 45 minutes later. When his mother heard the news, she joined him in death, gulping down a bottle of sleeping pills. (Los Angeles Times)

Parsons had the kind of hallucinatory head-visions about spirit, magic, and human freedom which were to rocket Californian culture headlong into the 1960s, causing a world-revolution in thinking which, alas, Parsons was never to see.  (Fortean Times)

As for Babalon? Well, the jury is still out on the Apocalypse, but it’s worth noting that within two years of the Babalon workings, which began in 1946, the first Atomic Bomb was detonated, the Roswell crash sparked a rash of UFO sightings that continues to this day, and LSD was invented. In other words, things got a lot weirder, and they’re getting weirder every day. Parsons is legitimately one of the fathers of the space program, after all, which is no small thing. Maybe he knows something we don’t…or maybe, in the end, he was just a sex-crazed maniac. (Rotten.com)

Did the Babalon Working actually work? For the sake of argument, if you believe it to be true, it’s true enough. As a metaphor or a myth to explain the psychic and atmospheric turbulence taking place in the world today, it certainly works for me. What has long been prophesied by the world’s major spiritual traditions is now coming to pass. Turn on CNN for a couple of hours for ample proof: wars, killer viruses, floods, famines, violent crime, earthquakes, Armageddon cults armed with nerve gas, suicide bombers; Heaven’s Gate; the list goes on and on…A whole culture is collapsing and a new one is about to be born. Jack Parsons would be pleased. (Metzger)

Parsons may not have had the discipline to get [to space]. But the men and systems who did could never have done so without his reckless imagination — his belief that even the risk of blowing himself to pieces was worth it to propel humanity to what he saw as the next stage of its physical and spiritual evolution. (Reason)

Just as the rocket scientist Parsons was willing to play dice with heavy explosives, Parsons, the nuclear age warlock was willing to play with fire of a very different sort. Parsons rests firmly in the tradition of the fraternity of Western Magi who include Moses, Solomon, Jesus Christ, John Dee, Adam Weishaupt, Crowley, Gurdjieff and Timothy Leary — great revolutionaries and liberators all. (Metzger)

Parsons opened a door and something flew in. (Kenneth Grant)

Before each test launch, he was in the habit of invoking Aleister Crowley’s Hymn to Pan, the wild horned god of fertility. (Fortean Times)

I read the biography of John Whiteside Parsons and was fascinated by this Aleister Crowley disciple and occultist who was also one of the fathers of space travel. In the 1930’s he invented the first truly successful rocket fuel, although he was basically a self-taught maverick, usually at odds with the government institutions in which he worked. He researched rocket fuel for the government during the day and conducted pagan rituals at night, as head of a Pasedena, California lodge of the Ordo Templi Orientis. The image of Parsons chanting Crowley’s ‘Ode to Pan’ during rocket test flights is the inspiration for this track. Parsons died in an explosion in his garage under mysterious circumstances. A friend of mine said ‘this is an album about people who blew themselves up’, and he has a point.” (Jóhann Jóhannsson, from the commentary on the song “The Rocket Builder (Io Pan!)” on his album Fordlândia)

The muse and the paranormal: Aleister Crowley, Timothy Leary, Robert Anton Wilson

[UPDATE May 2014: The article described here is no longer available online (nor is the Demon Muse blog). A slightly abridged version of it can be found in the book Daimonic Imagination: Uncanny Intelligence, edited by Angela Voss and William Rowlandson (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013). The same version can also be found in Paranthropology, Vol. 3, No. 4 (October 2012).]

Over at Demon Muse, my blog about the psychology of creativity and the experience of the muse/daimon/genius, I’ve published the next installment in my article series about the ontological status of the muse.

“Theology, Psychology, Neurology: Is the Muse Real? (Part Two)” looks at the interlinked experiences of three major figures in the 20th century’s occult and paranormal scene — Aleister Crowley, Timothy Leary, and Robert Anton Wilson — in receiving what they perceived as communication from “higher intelligences.” It also says a bit about Alan Moore and Grant Morrison, two modern-day legends in the comic book scene who are tapped into the same thing.

Here’s an excerpt:

In the opening post of this series, I raised the question of whether the personification of the creative force that we’ve been pursuing here at Demon Muse is “really real.” Is the muse, the daimon, the personal genius — that gravitational center of our creative energy and identity — truly a separate being/force/entity with an independent, autonomous existence? Or are such words and the experience to which they refer simply convenient metaphors for the unconscious mind? The first thing we discover when we truly begin to consider the issue in depth is that arriving at a viable answer will not be, and cannot be, as straightforward a matter as it might first appear. All of our attempts run us into immediate difficulties, because whichever side we try to choose, we find we’re automatically skirting important issues and begging crucial questions. Hence, the value of reviewing some of the various ways in which intelligent individuals have understood the experience of guidance and communication from a muse-like source.

Of all the myriad strands in the cultural conversation about this issue, it would be hard to identify a more pertinent — or fascinating (and entertaining) — one than the line of influence connecting 20th-century occultist Aleister Crowley to psychedelic guru Timothy Leary to counterculture novelist-philosopher and “guerilla ontologist” Robert Anton Wilson. The dividing line between objective and subjective interpretations of the experience of external-seeming communication from an invisible source is highlighted not only in their individual stories but in the plotline that connects them. In particular, Wilson’s final “resting point” in terms of a belief system to encompass the whole thing is helpful and instructive in our search for the muse’s ontological status, and can prove a helpful tonic for dogmatism, because what he ended up with was more of an anti-belief system that highlights and hinges on the irreducible indeterminacy of any possible answer.