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Book Reviews

Personal, Political and Magical?

by LeGrand Cinq-Mars

Mary K. Greer. Women of the Golden Dawn: Rebels and Priestesses. (Park Street Press: Rochester, Vermont: 1995). ISBN 0-89281-516-7. $29.95

It would be possible, though perhaps not completely accurate, to observe that with this book Mary K. Greer very nearly does for the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn what Marian Zimmer Bradley did for the court of King Arthur.

No prizes are awarded for recognizing that this is an equivocal remark. It captures, I think, the kind of polarization of opinion with which this book is likely to be received — a polarization that is reflected in the ambivalence of my own response to it.

The book has weaknesses, and it has strengths, but because I think the strengths outbalance the weaknesses, I intend to talk about the weaknesses first. {34}

Its central flaw is an anachronistic and intrusive interpretive apparatus that, among other things, obscures precisely what it claims to be making salient — the experience of women of the Golden Dawn as women: in particular, as the women they actually were, of the time and place and social contexts within which they in fact lived.

This in turn is reflected in the author’s project of remedying the omission of women from the histories of the Golden Dawn, as though there had been in some way an excision of women from the history of the Order. But this “omission” is, to some extent, an artefact of the author’s interpretive scheme, which takes the exclusion of women from history as one of its basic investigative assumptions.

There was in fact an excision: but it was magic and esotericism that were its objects. As far as academic histories went, it was only in the 1950s that anything like a history of the Golden Dawn was written, and only because of the subject could not be avoided when dealing with W. B. Yeats. Since it was impossible to ignore Yeats, it was therefore impossible (though for many, like Auden, excruciatingly embarrassing) to ignore the central themes of his thought and writing. Yeats forced the issue by ensuring that his papers would be in public institutions. The papers of others, male and female, were not so readily available, and not so generally interesting; much of what was not destroyed was (and still is) in the hands of private collectors, or family members, or private organizations. As these materials have gradually become more accessible, studies of figures who did not associate themselves in public with magic have become more possible.

Many of the women who were in the Golden Dawn can certainly not be understood without understanding what it as like to be a woman in different situations in the English, French, and American worlds of the time — and without understanding the ways in which women (and men) made sense out of the conflicts about what women were, should be, and might be. This is especially true for the Golden Dawn, which affiliated itself with certain feminist currents in the world of nineteenth century esotericism, in particular, those embodied in movements founded by Helena Blavatsky and Anna Kingsford. But one does not come any closer to the experience of those women by reading it in terms of the concerns of a late twentieth century Californian feminist Jungianism. To do so is to give up doing history, or biography, and to take up packaging. It is adding insult to injury to see people like Maude Gonne, Annie Horniman, Florence Farr or Dion Fortune as predecessors to some of the contemporary purveyors of pabulum with whom Greer links them. It’s a bit like interpreting Hildegard of Bingen as a pioneer whose work led to Amy Grant’s.

In the last few centuries of esoteric and magical movements in the Western world, women have {35} been (like Jane Ward Leade) visionary founding figures, have been involved in institutional issues (like the controversies over Adoptive Masonry), and have been major figures in complex and influential movements (as, in the nineteenth century, Alice Bunter Stockham, Emma Hardinge Britten, or the critical investigator Hannah Whitall Smith). Greer does not begin to engage the real issues of the history of women in esoteric spirituality, and shows few signs of knowing what they might be. (Some of these were the delicate relationships between purity, spirituality, sexuality, and legitimacy (which itself had an ambiguous relationship with conventionality), and the general pressures that brought it about that successful public movements were generally led and defined by women, but often closely supported by men, with implications that are far from obvious.)

A more restricted weakness, also tinged with anachronism, is her constant recourse to astrological analysis. Greer is an astrologer, and it makes as much sense no doubt to indulge one’s belief in astrology when doing biography is it does to indulge one’s belief in psychoanalysis or dialectical materialism. Unfortunately, Greer is in the position of a Freudian biographer of figures steeped in Jungian ideas who does not realize that the two approaches differ..

The Golden Dawn taught a very specific form of astrological practice, one with definite divergences from standard astrology. It makes very good sense to take astrology into account when writing about the specifics of the magical practice of members of the Golden Dawn, and how these practices affected their activities and relationships. But in doing so one should examine their actual practices. Greer, instead, opines (on page xiii), “Although they left little commentary on their own astrological work, the essential principles have not changed in the intervening hundred years …. ” This is simply not true. The Golden Dawn teachings were quite clear about the differences between “true” (Golden Dawn) and “false” (publicly practiced) astrology. Greer mingles charts and interpretations drawn up by Golden Dawn members indiscriminately with those done by other methods, without making any allusion to the differences between the methods (or any remark about whether members were in fact using the methods of the Order). This creates the suggestion that she has not noticed that there is a difference.

The book, however, is quite valuable despite these flaws. The worst of the interpretive apparatus afflicts only the first twenty and last eleven pages, and the astrologizing can be largely taken as the author’s method for describing character traits, garnished with characterizations of the effects of key events in terms of returns, progressions, and so on. The real meat, which is fortunately far from lost within this sandwich, is the detailed chronological narrative that follows the key figures through their lives both in the world of magic and in the world of outward pursuits.

Although some readers may find the writing jarring in its journalistically perky {36} over-familiarity (the central female characters — Moina Bergson, Annie Horniman, Florence Farr, Maude Gonne, are generally referred to by their first names, and W. B. Yeats as “Willie”), it is precisely this blithe indifference to the older fashion of reserve that is the basis of one of the book’s best points — its thorough, unabashed plain-spokenness about the specifics of the personal and magical lives of the members of the Golden Dawn.

Greer has shown a commendable tenacity in ransacking the published and unpublished record to compile this account. She has tracked down and interviewed (or corresponded with) surviving family members, and made extensive use of the Yorke collection at the Warburg Institute. At the very least, her notes and references provide an excellent beginning for anyone wanting to learn more about the Golden Dawn and its members.

Furthermore, she has made the results come alive, by entering imaginatively into the lives of her main characters. While at times this may lead to a certain over-confident willingness to recreate certain scenes as they must have happened, it gives life, energy and organization to a mass of material that could easily have become dull in its profusion. While she may occasionally miss some gems in favor of some paste, she never turns gold into lead, as academic writers so often do.

Again, Greer shows how the magical practices learned in the Golden Dawn were pursued in various ways, long after the Order had broken apart, by former members who had long broken with it. For them, the Golden Dawn did not become irrelevant: its practices and teachings remained as a resource throughout their lives.

Perhaps Greer’s greatest achievement, though she does not quite recognize it, is her elucidation of the connections between Golden Dawn magic and the older and broader traditions of the magical and spiritual aspects of eros and sexuality. That these elements were present in the Golden Dawn material has been clear to anyone familiar with the larger tradition. It was proclaimed loudly by C. M. Stoddart, a former chief of the Stella Matutina, in her denunciations of the Golden Dawn, in terms so eccentric that her claims have been generally ignored ever since. It is one thing, however, to see the implications of symbol and ritual, and quite another to have documentation of what people were actually doing, and how other people were reacting to it.

These issues are discussed in the context of the dispute that arose over the teachings of Thomas Lake Harris. (Greer claims that Harris developed and taught Karezza. He did not. In by making this claim, Greer has excised from history the actual developer of Karezza, Alice Bunter Stockham, one of the first women M.D.s in the US, who wrote a book on obstetrics, and who visited India to investigate Tantric sexual practices, and herself developed and promoted Karezza.) It is not {37} easy to say how far, or in what way, or for whom, Harris’ teaching involved genital sexual activity. There were, however, complaints from women members of the Golden Dawn that at least one follower of Harris had made himself a thorough nuisance by attempting to practice either Harris’ teachings or, perhaps, mere banal lechery.

Members of the Golden Dawn, of all sexual and spiritual persuasions (from the celibate magicians Samuel and Moina Mathers to the progenitive Christian mystic Waite, and all varieties between), were both aware of, and interested in, the symbolic and practical issues involved in these matters. Many of them wrote about it, some publicly, some only privately. The rituals of the Golden Dawn included extensive, specific, pointed references to Zoharic sexual symbolism, and the training methods were clearly linked with aspects of this symbolism. Nevertheless, the connections were not made explicit, perhaps in accord with a fraternalist desire not to bring up divisive issues, or perhaps (as Joscelyn Godwin suggests in The Theosophical Enlightenment) out of a desire to avoid being associated with the Brotherhood of Luxor, which had taught sexual magic fairly openly in the period just before the Golden Dawn was founded. (The promised definitive work on the Brotherhood of Luxor should be appearing in the summer of this year.)

Greer does not explore either the intellectual or the social contexts of the issue of the place of sex in the magic of the Golden Dawn. This is not altogether inappropriate, since it is not clear that most of the members had much acquaintance with these broader issues. Her focus is on the documents, and on the individual, personal reactions. This provides not only a fascinating piece of soap opera, but an instructive demonstration of the difference between magical and psychological sophistication.

That theme has been explored, from quite different points of view, by John Symonds in King of the Shadow Realms (his latest redaction of his biography of Aleister Crowley), and by Israel Regardie in The Eye in the Triangle. Lois Lang-Sims broods on the subject in her account of her relationship with Charles Williams (in A Time to be Born). The biographies of saints are similarly suggestive. Neither sanctity nor adeptship seem to have any necessary connection with psychological health, in any of its conventional senses, or with each other. Although Greer’s basic interpretive scheme (in which the magical is the psychological is the political, and magic is regarded as valid because it leads to “empowerment”) does not make this salient, her close focus on the personal lives of her subjects makes it unavoidably clear.

While it may not be absolutely true that one is forced to choose between “perfection of the life and of the work”, there is no guarantee whatever that if one chooses one the other will be added unto it. Although the conjunction of {38} psychological sophistication with esotericism (and with seminary training in more mundane circles) has led to various attempts to produce an accommodation between the sacred and the profane sides of life, the most common result has been a cozy reduction of the spiritual to the psychological, which in the United States is in turn often equated with the socially effective.

But there are no guarantees, and no deals that can be made. It is just as possible that the magician may be left at the pinnacle of achievement saying, with Cabell’s artists, “What a lot of ruined living it takes to make a little art.” In the fable of the four who entered the Garden, it is said that one died, one went mad, and one lost his faith: only one entered in peace and left in peace. Would they have done better if they had all got counseling, found good jobs, and stayed home?

 

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Table of Contents | Ars Memorativa | Concerning the True System | A Light in Darkness | On the Trail of Hermes | Personal, Political and Magical? | Ground Exceeding Small

 

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