British magic after Crowley: review

Although Aleister Crowley has become the icon of modern ritual magic and occultism, magic did not end with his death in 1947. While approximately a dozen books have been devoted to Crowley, surprisingly little has been written about his legacy in contemporary occultism. His impact on later currents such as contemporary witchcraft, Satanism, and various pagan groups has often been mentioned, but vast areas still remain uncharted, from Chaos Magic and cyber paganism to the recent history of the Ordo Templi Orientis, the Golden Dawn, and Crowley’s A\A\. The result is that a relatively broad range of contemporary western esotericism remains essentially unstudied. Below follows my review of Dave Evans’ contribution to this field of study, recently published in Aries 10.2. Hyperlinked for the occasion.

Dave Evans’ History of British Magick after Crowley is a welcome contribution, because it patches some substantial holes in current scholarship. The book is a slightly edited version of Evans’ Ph.D. dissertation in History, prepared at Bristol University under the supervision of the specialist of witchcraft and paganism, Ronald Hutton. No stranger to scholars of modern magic, Evans has previously published a short e-book on Aleister Crowley (Aleister Crowley and the 20th Century Synthesis of Magick, 2001) which has been recently released as a paperback by Hidden Publishing, and may be read as a prequel to the book under discussion here. Evans is also a founding editor of the Journal for the Academic Study of Magic, which was established in Bristol in 2002 and has acquired a wide readership since. (Note however that it has been disbanded since this review was first written, as mentioned previously on this blog).

While the focus of the book may seem at first very broad (many would be surprised how much has happened in the development of modern ritual magic after Crowley’s death), it is actually quite specific. Four main topics are addressed: 1) Kenneth Grant, one of Crowley’s later pupils, head of the “Typhonian” branch of the O.T.O. and a prolific writer in the field of occultism; 2) The imposturous “Amado Crowley”, who has claimed to be the son of Aleister and the leader of a huge following of occult students (who do not seem to exist outside of his books); 3) Aspects of the anarchic “Chaos Magic”, which blossomed in Britain starting in the 1970s; 4) The so-called “Left-Hand Path”.

The book also does much to contextualise modern magic with respect to public discourses on morality and blasphemy in the British post-war era, which is another largely neglected focus in the scholarly literature.

In addition to shedding new light on neglected esoteric currents, which makes for an interesting, rewarding, and sometimes very amusing read, the book also has an ambition to talk about some cornerstone methodological issues in the study of contemporary magic and occultism. This is where it gets more problematic. But even though this reviewer is not convinced by Evans’ approach at all times, it can hardly be denied that he does raise some important questions and make certain valuable points that should be considered. This makes it all the more important to deal with them in some detail.

One important issue which the author is keen to take up is the “insider/outsider problem” and questions of emic and etic approaches. Methodological problems of this variety have been thoroughly debated in departments, journals, and books in religious studies over the last couple of decades, and have also been imported into the scholarly discourse on esotericism. Notably, Wouter Hanegraaff has insisted on a balanced position between “reductionist” and “religionist” approaches under the banner of an “empirical” or “methodologically agnostic” method.

Dave Evans, on the other hand, does not want to deny being both a scholar and a practicing magician. Hence, the discussion on academic reflexivity and the insider/outsider problem reads as an apologetic prologue to the actual research. In addition to mentioning the issue in the preface, acknowledgements, and in various anecdotes scattered throughout the book, the section entitled “Reflexivity: Magician-As-Academic” (pp. 56-60) is specifically devoted to the topic. The author’s argument is that the very notion of scholars “going native” is ‘derogatory’ and rests on presuppositions which are ‘massively racist’; essentially, it is seen as a strategy of exclusion inherited from colonialist biases. In contrast, Evans argues that an insider’s view may provide ‘a nuanced understanding that is simply beyond the outsider’ (p. 60). Evans elaborates further, arguing that a somewhat intimate knowledge of various magical systems and theories can be an indispensable resource to scholarship. Sharing a frame of reference with one’s subjects leads to a feeling of community and trust, which in turn opens up possibilities for the researcher to access sources that would otherwise be out of reach. Specifically, this relates to participant observation, interviews, and other forms of fieldwork.

Evans’ own study proves that this point indeed has merit. The extensive use of primary sources which few have access to, combined with an often detailed and reliable understanding of the magical theories and practices being discussed is one of the major achievements of this book. There has been a tendency in the study of contemporary forms of occultism to give primacy to the written word, even when a quick visit to an online discussion forum would reveal that there is much more going on outside of old books. When researching a contemporary phenomenon, the exclusion of sociological and anthropological methodologies leads to a neglect of important source material. It is likely that much of the research presented in Evans’ book would not have been possible without a good reputation in the occult community.

So far, so good. More problematic is the insinuation that outsider scholars, pursuing the subject matter from an etic perspective, have biases that lead them more easily to misrepresentations of their subjects. This claim can in fact easily be turned around: it frequently happens that the insider is biased in favour of truth claims, arguments, and positions internal to the discourse, and even tends to insulate the subject matter from possible critical analyses, often under an appeal for “respect”. But ‘reverence is a religious and not a scholarly virtue’, as Bruce Lincoln has reminded us. This is a point which has been made time and again, frequently levelled against theologians researching the history of Christianity, or the perceived crypto-theology of much phenomenology of religion.

Most of the time this “insider catch” does not seem to be a problem for Evans, who strives to keep the argument on a purely historical and factual level. However, there are some instances where the “outsider” is inclined to raise an eyebrow. For instance, the author is open about his respect for the occultist Kenneth Grant. We read that ‘Grant’s works are magical in and of themselves’, with the author adding that, ‘on a personal level I have the deepest of respect for what he has achieved.’ (p. 329) Fair enough; as has also been the case with Christian historians of Christianity (and despite Lincoln’s warning), reverence does not by necessity pose a threat to the quality of scholarship. However, this open reverence does make the reader more suspicious of what would seem to be an asymmetry between the treatment of Grant and that of some other characters discussed in the book. In the case of Amado Crowley, nearly sixty pages are spent on an excessively thorough debunking of an endless list of his various claims (pp. 229-283). Although it is noted that Grant, too, has fictionalised parts of his biography, we end up with exclamations of admiration, whereas Amado receives a complete rejection. While Amado is continuously debunked, the author is ready to invoke epistemological relativism to defend some of Grant’s most imaginative ideas about tentacled aliens and telepathic communication. Citing Paul Heelas, ‘the academic study of religion must remain neutral in regard to ultimate truth’; but Evans is prepared to go further when he adds that ‘what may seem ludicrous today may be only awaiting one discovery tomorrow to make it mainstream and accepted fact’ (pp. 322-324). The short sub-chapter entitled ‘Science and Grant’ seems really out of place in the context of a historical, scholarly study, with its insinuations of “scientific evidence” of Grant’s ideas. The association of tentacles and phallic symbols is defended on the basis of some zoological discovery of an octopus with genitalia in its tentacles, while Grant’s idea of ‘transplutonic entities’ is corroborated by appeal to the discovery of trans-Plutonian planets (pp. 342-344).

While these are extreme cases, there are also other instances where the methodology is open for critique. The statement that Chaos Magic cannot really be grasped academically because of the fluctuating nature of its beliefs is one case in point. ‘Since there are no rules in chaos magic,’ Evans contends, ‘the orthodox academic study of it, being rule driven so far as methodology and disciplinary considerations are concerned, is hugely handicapped’ (p. 361). This is clearly a non sequitur. The disordered state of the subject matter does certainly not imply that an ordered study of it is futile. This is what the academic enterprise is all about: trying to put order to things that do not, previously, have one. One is also puzzled by the alternative: would it really be more accurate to approach the chaos with an (anti-)method more in line with Chaos Magic itself, inventing sources and saying whatever one feels like about it, since “nothing is true and everything is permitted” (as the motto of this movement goes)?

A final problem is that the author does not appear sufficiently aware of the scholarly discourse that has recently developed on modern magic and occultism. On this point he is partially excused, since many excellent and relevant studies only appeared recently. Christopher Partridge’s two-volume Re-Enchantment of the West (T&T Clark, 2004/2005) refined the concept of “occulture”, which Evans’ study could have greatly benefited from, and Alex Owen’s Place of Enchantment (University of Chicago Press, 2004; also discussed on this blog) includes valuable commentaries on magic and modernity. Additionally, there is no reference at all to developments in the study of western esotericism, as embodied by the present journal, and the work that has been carried out on Crowley, magic, and modern occultism in that context. If this vast amount of scholarship had been used, Evans’ contribution would have been more valuable to other scholars in the field, especially since the material he deals with seems highly relevant for ongoing discussions on the secularization and modernization of esotericism.

Despite these criticisms, the picture is not all bleak. There are many interesting pieces of information to be found in this book, particularly information the author procured due to his familiarity with the contemporary British occult scene. It is also useful to have a thorough, well researched evaluation and debunking of Amado Crowley published – even though it seems excessive in the context of this book. The analysis of what magicians themselves think about the term “Left-Hand Path” is also pertinent, and deserves further attention (pp. 208-228). The latter is a particularly good reminder for scholars not to draw foregone conclusions based on stereo- or even ideal-typical classifications without actually checking the evidence thoroughly (which means checking not only the bookish evidence). The sections on some major figures in chaos magic, and the self-fashioning and emic understanding of people like Grant are also of value. However, these positive aspects would have been even greater if a more systematic and methodologically robust approach had been followed throughout.

Dave Evans, The History of British Magic After Crowley: Kenneth Grant, Amado Crowley, Chaos Magic, Satanism, Lovecraft, The Left Hand Path, Blasphemy and Magical Morality, n.p.: Hidden Publishing 2007. 435 p. ISBN 978-0955523700.


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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I’ve got that book, but haven’t read the whole thing yet. I’ll read your review when I’ve gotten through it.

  2. What annoys me most about this methodological perspective is the simple fact that as a scholar I feel excluded from the possibility of productive scholarship, which is something I must reject for my own survival.

    Emic perspectives are indeed useful and without them we etic scholars would have nothing to study, but as Lincoln says reverence has little place in academic work, I am all for respect generally but gushing appreciations are just a bit grating.

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