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Hermetic Library discussions
Posted by Nathan W. Bjorge on September 10, 2000 @ 06:29 PM
from the long-way-baby dept.
by Aleister Crowely
Samuel Weiser. 336 pages.
//Moonchild// classes as a good read for a number of reasons. Exoterically, it is a fine fantasy novel. Also, however, hidden within the fictional frame of the tale are the instructions and details for the performance of a very daring and serious magical operation. It is both the quality of the outer work as well as this esoteric or hidden agenda that have earned the novel its deserved reputation.
The outward plot involves the adventures of a Lisa la Giuffria, an aristocratic dilettante who, upon celebrating her birthday in London, meets and falls in love with a mysterious stranger named Cyril Gray. Encountering him again in Paris, she discovers that he is an initiate of an order of white magicians. He introduces her at his apartment to his master, an old man named Simon Iff. Simon Iff, though not the most central character in Moonchild, is the protagonist of a series of detective short stories also written by Crowley: The Scrutinies of Simon Iff sequence and the still unpublished Simon Iff in America collection.
It becomes clear that Cyril and Iff desire Lisa's assistance with some plan of theirs. The three come under magical attack from a rival lodge of black magicians. Iff spoils the spectral assault and whisks them to the safety of a Profess House of the order. There Lisa is initiated into the group and is briefed as to the proposed operation at hand. The intention is to magically incarnate a sort of messiah or super-soul into a child of Cyril's and Lisa's, which will be conceived at a secluded villa belonging to the Order in Naples. Lisa agrees to undertake the working, and leaves for Italy with Cyril.
Meanwhile, the members of the Black Lodge, led by the sinister Douglas, plot to foil the White Lodge's plans. As for the nature of these sorcerers, it is summed up succinctly by Cyril to Lisa. The analogy is comparing the interaction of the soul to matter as a cone passing through a plane surface. The various conic sections formed are an illusionary multiplicity formed by variations of a single substance:
“Ultimately you may call it [the business of the Black Order] selfishness – only that's a dreadful word and will mislead you. We're just as selfish; only we realize that other things beyond our own consciousness are equally ourselves. For instance, I try to unite myself as intimately as I can with every other mind, or body, or idea, that comes in my way. To take that cone simile, I want to be all the different curves I can, so as to have a better chance of realizing the cone. The Black Lodge magician clings to his one curve, tries to make it permanent, to exalt it above all other curves. And of course the moment the cone shifts, out he goes: pop!” [Crowley, pg. 112]
This is a key passage, showing Crowley's Thelemic ethics at work in the book. The 'white' lodge is not at all 'good' in a Sunday school sense. They are, however, entirely moral in a Thelemic manner. For its own part, the Black Lodge is certainly portrayed as criminal in a mundane sense, but Crowley succeeds in also demonstrating their spiritual degradation. The sections of Moonchild involving the activities of the Black Lodge are some of the most engaging of the book, but there is nothing glamorous about these villains. They are little better then a depraved gang of thugs; a very dangerous and well-connected gang of thugs. In few of his writings has Crowley more clearly presented his concepts on the nature of black magic.
Cyril and Lisa proceed to Naples and begin their lengthy magical working. The Black Lodge dispatches a series of operatives to defeat the couple, all of whom fail. Another feature of the book becomes explicit at this point, though it has been in the background throughout. With few exceptions, all of the characters are based on individuals from Crowley's life. The various members of the white lodge are either A.'.A.'. initiates or friends of Crowley. All of the black lodge initiates are parodies of members of the old Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. For example: Douglas is Mathers, Gates is W.B. Yates, the necromancer is Wynn Wescott and Arthwait is an especially clever caricature of A. E. Waite. On the side of the protagonists Lisa is Mary Desti, the Mahathera Phang corresponds to Allen Bennett and Crowley is no less then 3 separate characters. Crowley portrays himself in the form of Simon Iff, Cyril Gray, and as the mysterious head of the white order known only as 'Himself'. Indeed, part of the pleasure of reading Moonchild is figuring out who everybody is.
The actual operation itself undertaken by Lisa and Cyril at their villa the Butterfly Net is carefully detailed by Crowley, detailed enough to be performed in real life. This brings up one of the most intriguing aspects of Moonchild: to what extent is this to be taken seriously as an attemptable method of magical eugenics? Jack Parsons seems to have taken it pretty seriously, basing his famed Babalon working on it. That working came to an inconclusive and ambiguous end. Interestingly, so does Moonchild.
As a personal opinion, I think one of the great difficulties with both Parsons Babalon working and with the working in Moonchild is a lack of clarity with regard to the nature of the forces being summoned. Both Parsons and Cyril at times think of the feminine force that they are incarnating as messianic and diefic. Yet at other times they seem to view the Goddess as a common elemental, and invoke and deal with her as such. I would assert that the former attitude is the proper one, and the adoption of the latter a profane miscalculation.
This leads into a discussion of one of the most obvious features of the text for the modern reader – its overt sexism. Lisa, in some ways the central character, is portrayed as little more then a receptacle for Cyril. She is passive to the whole plot to an extraordinary degree, seems to have no personal volition whatsoever, and never has an intelligent thought; of course she 'betrays' Cyril at the end, creating the final story twist, and so forth. This could be analyzed at great length, but perhaps the essential question for Thelemites lying behind any such inquiry is this: why is it that the creative genius behind a spirituality so open to the feminine can't seem to understand his own insights?
Simon Iff, describing genius to Lisa says, “The only analogy is that of a noble thinker and his stupid, dishonest, and immoral secretary. The dictation is taken down correctly, and given to the world. The last person to be enlightened by it is the secretary himself! So, I take it, is the case with all genius.” [Crowley, pg. 25] Crowley is quite adequately describing himself in this passage.
As already mentioned, Moonchild ends ambiguously. Lisa is spirited away by the Black Lodge and the newly born Moonchild vanishes. Cyril seems strangely unconcerned, hinting to Simon Iff that the entire operation has been a blind for an even more arcane experiment happening elsewhere. He does not elaborate, and so we are left puzzled rather then enlightened.
The First World War breaks out and the next bit of the novel changes tack heavily, as Cyril returns to France working for British intelligence. It might have been re-titled by Crowley “How I Won the War”. While riding his horse along the lines Cyril encounters Douglas' corpse, killed as a spy and dismembered by dogs along the roadside. Stunned, he returns to Paris, only to be confronted by Lisa, who says she is leaving for America, “to search for the Moonchild”. The book ends as Cyril acquiesces and retires to a profess house of his order in a high trance.
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Just a few stray thoughts: it's all a matter of taste, but I've certainly read many fantasy novels that I found much much finer than this one (it is Crowley's best, but that isn't saying much, is it?). The man's name is Yeats, not “Yates”. Finally, my favorite of the “characters based on individuals from Crowley's life” is not mentioned in your review, it's Cremers, based on the real life Vittoria Cremers, who Crowley describes in his Confessions, apparently quite accurately, since he uses her real name for a most degraded character without any fear that she would sue him!
Moonchild is one of my favorite novels. I guess beauty, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder! My favorite “character based on a real person” is Mahathera Phang/Alan Bennet. You can tell from Crowley's “Autohagiography” and from his portrait of Alan as Phang that he was a great influence on Crowley, that Crowley greatly valued Bennet's friendship.
Please do not take this quotation as an insult: “A person with no harmony in his soul could listen to the most beautiful of musics and not be moved” - Franz Hartmann, M.D. “Magic, White and Black” (Chapter on “Harmony”)
The Fine Print: The following comments are owned by whoever posted them.
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