“Thelema Beyond Crowley” Conference

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“Thelema Beyond Crowley” – A Conference Review Tickets for the “Thelema Beyond Crowley” Conference were sold at £20 and £25, the price of a good rock concert. The venue was filled with several hundred Thelemites and the book stalls – including Starfire Books, organisers of the event – appeared to be doing a roaring trade. With significant revenues such as this, it is not unreasonable to expect a good range of speakers and a high degree of professionalism. The quality of the talks was at best variable and there was none of the technology one expects at such events: no projection facilities, no multimedia, no workshops. Just lectures and a handful of book stalls. Doors of Conway Hall opened at 0930, giving time to early arrivals to view the wares on sale. Fulgur Books had an interesting range, including copies of Images And Oracles Of Austin Spare at a tenner each. Starfire had its full range of Kenneth Grant books and some other material. Atlantis Books had a small selection, including a handful of 1970s reprints of Crowley material – an interesting choice for a “Thelema Beyond Crowley” conference, but that’s a theme I shall return to several times in this review. Proceedings started at 1000 with a beautiful recitation by Jean Williams to a silent audience of the first chapter of Liber AL vel Legis. It was very impressive, with lovely, authoritative delivery. Michael Staley of the Typhonian OTO then formally opened proceedings with his talk on The Letter Killeth, But The Spirit Giveth Life. This Biblical quotation, that so inspired William Blake, provided the ideal opportunity to define terms and to examine the precedents of Thelema, to establish its context. Unfortunately, this opportunity was not taken, although Michael’s nervous lecturing style proved witty and considered. Kenneth Grant had chosen not to attend; Michael explained that Kenneth was growing increasingly reclusive in his advancing years. Given Mary Hedger’s wildly inappropriate comments later in the day (see below), it’s just as well that he stayed away… Caroline Wise read a statement by Kenneth, focusing on the yugas, and this was net with polite and respectful applause. Michael Staley looked forward to a time when Thelema would “throw away the trappings of Crowley” without suggesting why that would be necessary or even appropriate. Again, the absence of defined terms obscured the context of Crowley within Thelema. Michael’s talk was constructive, although he dismissed the Tunis Comment – itself, like Liber AL, a Class A, or “inspired” text – as being just Crowley’s attempt to silence Norman Nudd’s constant questions. Informed Thelemites would recognise this dismissal to be risible. Next up, unfortunately without introduction, was Christina Harrington whose presentation was on “The Will To Power And The Aristocracy Of Dionysus”. This scholarly-sounding title failed to produce anything of great profundity, with Ms Harrington choosing to use three readers to present extracts from work by and about Nietzsche, Liber AL, and Crowley’s “Golden Twigs” short stories. Although she began by declining to make points, but rather to “point the way”, Ms Harrington’s point, such as it was, was made in the first five minutes. That she went on, banging her drum literally as well as figuratively, for a further forty minutes was unnecessary and dull. “Thelema Beyond Crowley” for Ms Harrington appears to be “Thelema With Nietzsche” – not necessarily a fair swap – or “Dyonisiac Thelema”. In passing, I have to say that the readings were highly professional and evocative – just way, way too long. Next up, after a much-needed break, was the excellent Lionel Snell. His description of “continua” of qualities as lines leading from the individual to the Body of Nuit was both beautiful and inspirational, as were his analyses of the mathematical puzzles in Liber AL. He focused also on the introduction of digitisation post-AL, resulting in fascinating possibilities in respect of “every man and every woman is a star – each number is infinite”. His engaging, intelligent and thought-provoking talk was a definite high point of the day. Margaret Ingalls – Soror Nema to most Thelemites – then spoke on “The Evolution Of Maat Magick”. I’m not qualified to comment on her belief-system, although some parts – the mental projection of sigils to summon help and the attempts to meet “astrally on the visible surface of the moon”, for example – seemed a little “out there”. Having said that, her presentation was obviously heart-felt and Ms Ingalls is clearly a woman of great sincerity. She, at least, looked to an alternative future for Thelema, resolutely without “male chauvinist pig”, Aleister Crowley. Lunch involved a much-needed visit to The Dolphin public house. Suitably refreshed, I returned to the conference for the reading of the second chapter of Liber AL vel Legis. This, too, was a professional presentation. Martin Starr then spoke on “A Hundred Years Hence: Visions Of A Thelemic Future”. Martin, as befits an internationally-renowned Thelemic historian and publisher, gave probably the finest lecture of the day. Witty and authoritative, he was well-informed and thought-provoking, including in his talk many intriguing anecdotes, especially surrounding Crowley’s involvement with J F C Fuller. The audience was very quiet throughout, unfortunately unresponsive to what was a very effective lecture. Martin’s remarkable piece was followed by what I can only describe as the most bizarre and most incongruous talk I have ever witnessed at any event, Thelemic or otherwise. Andrew Collins, “Psychic Quester”, gave a lengthy lecture consisting of a tall-tale of New Age nonsense, appealing only to the lowest common denominator of ill-informed Thelemites in the audience, who were expected to take on trust a daft story involving the psychic channelling of Aleister Crowley (always bald, always “obnoxious”, of course). Crowley himself would have been gob-smacked to hear this sort of ridiculous nonsense spouted without the slightest hint of any evidence, to an audience of presumably intelligent individuals. Effectively a long advertisement for a forthcoming book, this was a story of buried manuscripts, chalices, hidden keys, statues of Baphomet in caves at Hastings, monks chanting in midnight graveyards in darkest Oxfordshire and rituals in pub gardens and the “Chapel of Abominations”. This all culminated in the discovery of “the” Holy Grail – as a physical relic – about which he could tell us nothing as it was “personal”. It is offensive to pay money to hear someone so poorly-informed about Crowley, describing attempts to seek guidance from his spirit – all at a conference debating “Thelema Beyond Crowley”. With the exception of an assumed intention to sell books, I’ve no idea why Collins was there. His later, bizarre, contributions about Babalon (apparently a “goddess” suitable as a role model to women, along the lines of Venus and Aphrodite) and Liber AL (apparently written as a guide by Crowley, and from which committed Thelemites could pick and choose the bits they like) showed his lack of knowledge and his feeble attempts to play to the crowd. It’s no surprise that at the question-and-answer section at the end of the day, his fellow-lecturers appeared to be as bemused by his contributions as the audience. Like a breath of fresh air, the next speaker was Mogg Morgan of Mandrake Of Oxford. Always entertaining, Mogg is highly regarded and he gave a fascinating talk on “Sex Magick Since Crowley”. He was witty and engaging, highly critical of the (Caliphate) OTO and gave very explicit details of the mechanics of sex magick. His self-deprecatory sense of humour included an impassioned plea for the replacement of “sexual” with “sensual”, and for the responsible use of safe sex. An especially interesting diversion compared Liber AL’s mention of the Cakes of Light with similar texts from the Old Testament and Ancient Egypt. Another high point of the day. Mary Hedger read two very lengthy extracts from her new novel – available, of course, from the book stalls at the back of the Hall. Focusing on Crowley at Cefalu, this sort of stuff has been done before and been done better by the likes of Susan Roberts and Snoo Wilson. Again, why was this sort of stuff included in a conference about “Thelema Beyond Crowley”, unless to increase sales? At the end of her reading, Ms Hedger bizarrely shouted an expletive, apparently as a misguided attempt at achieveing comic effect. One has to assume it was for the same reason that she made some staggeringly disrespectful and indiscreet remarks to the whole audience regarding Kenneth Grant and the contents of some letters sent by him to her. Her explicit and ill-advised remarks about Grant, combined with her enthusiasm for talking about her own past as a Greenham Common “Peace” Woman and supporter of “Psychic Questing”, cheapened what was already a deeply unimpressive presentation. Final speaker was Carl Abrahamsson who spoke about “Thelema And Politics”. His lecture was carefully argued, impressive and bold, envisioning a future where the “slaves” really would serve and thus questioning whether Thelema could ever become a populist movement. Carl’s subsequent contributions to the question and answer section confirmed the impression of an intelligent and thoughtful speaker, comfortable in the presence of genuine believers in many faiths and confident that only those who found Thelema attractive should bother with it. One comment was an effective summary of the day: when a speaker from the floor suggested that many women avoided Thelema because they could not get past the apparently repellent personality of Crowley, Carl noted that they should just “get over it” or stay away. The question and answer period was deeply uninspiring. Zachary Cox – disappointingly un-introduced to the audience – spoke convincingly about clashes of monotheistic (“Jehovallah” based) cultures, Mogg Morgan called for the emphasis to shift towards “Love under will”, and Ms Hedge spoke more about herself. Best comment from the floor was by Rodney Orpheus – when someone described Thelemites as a contrary bunch he shouted, “No we’re not!” To conclude, then… Michael Staley suggested that there would be more “Thelema Beyond Crowley” conferences without once arguing persuasively that we need a “Thelema without Crowley”. If this conference was anything to go by, I’d be far happier to see lectures on “Thelema With More Crowley”, if only for the much-needed introduction of some real rock-n-roll Thelema! The positive parts of the day – the talks by Martin Starr, Mogg Morgan and Lionel Snell, the opportunity to make new contacts and renew old ones – were over-shadowed by the amateurishness of some of the presentations, the strange selection of speakers and subjects, and the sheer length of the lectures themselves. Too many questions remained not only unanswered, but also unasked. Why remove Crowley from Thelema? Why no mention of the other Holy Books? And so on…

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