THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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3 posts categorized "Humanities"

15 January 2018

It’s a kinda magick: Aleister Crowley

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A guest blog by Rachel Brett, Humanities Reference Specialist

For those who believe in magic it’s reasonable to accept it can form in monochrome shades. Potentially the most infamous practitioner of the darker variety was Aleister Crowley (pictured below). Emerging from the Fin de siècle moment when, along with philosophers and psychoanalysists alike, he became interested in mysticism and the occult. Rebelling against his evangelical Christian upbringing causing his mother to dub him ‘The Beast’ a moniker amongst many he would adopt throughout his life as a magician.

ACrowleyCrowley began his magical apprentice training with the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, other probationers included W.B.Yeats. Crowley however, developed an interest in goetia- the evocation of demons and would later believe Yeats was casting spells on him because he was jealous of his poetry… The clandestine life style Crowley was beginning to indulge in encompassing drug taking and sexual experiments cast a cloud over his progress with that magical order prompting him to seek wider magical landscapes.

He travelled extensively and studied a myriad amount of ancient eastern traditions from yoga, meditation to kabbalah. He married and shortly after in telepathic communication with his new wife made contact with the Egyptian god Aiwass, which resulted in him producing The Book of the Law which would serve as the basis for the magic system he dedicated his life to. The premises of his belief system was ‘Do What thy Will, Love is the Law’. Analogous to Nietzsche before him he believed that individuals held the power to be free and live according to their own desires, despite the effect of those desires. Having achieved top level magus status Crowley became head of Ordo Templi Orientis (O.T.O.) he added a ‘k’ to the spelling of magic and set about establishing the religion of Thelema that would guide in the new Aeon.

One vital element to Crowley’s practice was the attainment of a magic diary. He had a strong interest in science and felt that magic should use the ‘method of science with the aim of religion’. In the age of enlightenment knowledge received by reason could be scientifically calculated. The practice of magic for Crowley had to be studied in the same manner; collect data and look for repeatable patterns and repetitions. The diary was key to this procedure.

He kept a diary from his initiation into the Golden Dawn and expected all his students to do likewise. The process of keeping a diary was to record and reflect on experiences and effective exercises. The recording allowed theories and methods to be tested but also a tool to aid his most profound motto; know thy self and ones limits.

He chronicled everything in his diary, from Astrological charts, concentration exercises, dreams, daily observations to what he ate and when. The resolution was to show life as a spell that is willed for a purpose. Evocations were his way of confronting obstacles to the self. By recording all his thoughts, feelings and activities and the reflecting upon these illuminated his perceptions. The practice of keeping the diary was a disciplined aspect of training for the aspirant. The diary would be maintained for a year then reflected upon by the teacher before a pupil could become adept. The principle was for the magician to record their past, where they came from and how they were brought to the gateway of magic. The diary would function as the writer’s conscience that could be used for further experiments. The recording of all activities meant that the mind could not forget or falsely remember.

Sometimes coded cipher might be used, and grammar was banished. There would be no full stops, or use of the word failure Crowley writes in The Book:

“This full stop may never be written anywhere else; for the writing of the Book goes on eternally; there is no way of closing the record until the goal of all has been attained.”

Aleister_Crowley_as_OsirisPicture showing Aleister Crowley as Osiris

For Crowley the maintenance of a magical diary was so vital to attainment that he wrote a novel based upon his own experiences. ‘The Diary of a Drug Fiend’ is a fictional account premised on his own experiences.

Magicians diaries rarely survive least of all become published, the full set are still waiting publications. John Dee who was the astrologer of Elizabeth 1 also kept a magical diary. Some of his original manuscript form part of the British Library collections.

Aleister Crowley had many faces, an iconoclast, a poet, a mountaineer, a mystic and popular culture icon. His cultural influence began as early as 1908 when Somerset Maugham wrote The Magician a novel caricaturing Crowley. During the revolutionary 1960’s Crowley would posthumously become an alternative inspiration for the new generation from magicians to pop stars. It seems that the subterranean world of the magician is an enduring mystery that looks set to remain in our popular consciousness for a long time to come. Just remember magic isn’t just one colour…  

References books on magic can be located on the open shelves in Humanities one reading room.

17 March 2016

How deep is the ocean, how high is the sky?

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By Christina Hardyment, complier of 'Pleasures of Nature: A Literary Anthology' now available from British Library Publishing.

Having enjoyed compiling literary anthologies about gardens (Pleasures of the Garden) and food (Pleasures of the Table), I turned to a much more challenging subject: Pleasures of Nature. Where to start and where to stop? I decided that a challenging way of classifying literary mentions of natural things would be to consider them in the context of the four elements: Earth, Air, Fire and Water. Earth’s ‘sweet interchange of hill and valley, rivers, woods and plains’ are mournfully recalled by the exiled Satan in Paradise Lost, a tranquil scene quite unlike the ‘mighty polypus mouth … chewing and digesting its food in its throat and belly’ of the earthquake described by Sabine Baring-Gould in his tempestuous romantic novel Winefred. Trees are firmly rooted in earth, particularly such ancient giants as the Borrowdale yews apostrophized by Wordsworth, and the hunched beech and juniper of the ancient combe found in the Marlborough Downs by Edward Thomas. And then there are particularly earthbound creatures: D H Lawrence’s ‘little Titan’ of a tortoise and Richard Braithwaite’s hedgehog, ‘a whole fort in himself’.

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‘View of the Source of the Arveyron, by Belanger and Vanlerberghe, engraved by Malgo’, 1829. British Library Maps K.Top.76.84.b.

Writers conjure air up in rainbows, winds and mists, the ‘tremendous voice’ of James Thomson’s thunder, and the ‘livid flame’ of his lightning. Leonardo da Vinci analysed the varying blues of atmosphere: smoky grey, azure, profoundly dark. Coleridge made startlingly vivid notes on sunsets and moonsets, observed while upturning his chamber pot out of the window of his Keswick residence, Greta Hall. It’s also the domain of Tennyson’s eagle, falling like a thunderbolt, Dorothy Wordsworth’s tremulously fluttering swallows, and Emerson’s ‘burly, dozing humble-bee.’

T00035-06

Plate from The Beauty of the Heavens by Charles F. Blunt, 1840. British Library 717.g.4*

Fiery phenomena invade all the elements of course, be they volcanoes (observed at Pompeii by Pliny, and at Krakatoa by R M Ballantyne), ‘phosphorescent billows’ as whales’ tails lash the sea in Moby-Dick, or Robert Service’s ‘wild and weird and wan’ Northern Lights dancing in the polar sky. Thomas Hardy likened the great bonfire lit on the heath in The Return of the Native to ancient funeral pyres and Bartholomew Anglicus’s phoenix crawled into a nest ‘of right sweet-smelling sticks’, which is set on fire by the sun.

C04275-06

Plate from Campi Phlegraei: Observations on the Volcanoes of the Two Sicilies by William Hamilton, Ambassador to the Court of Naples, 1776. British Library TAB.435.a.15, volume 1.

Water includes the sound of rain and what Henry Beston called the ‘awesome, beautiful, and varied’ voice of the ocean; the ‘fleecy fall’ of Hardy’s snow, Gerard Manley Hopkins’s ‘darksome burn, horseback brown’. It too has its creatures: Grey Owl’s beaver people, Henry Williamson’s otters and Graeme Stones’s  ‘storm-orphaned seal pup’.

But time and again I came across passages that escaped my quartet of categories. So I added two more. One was Surprise, in honour of Terry Pratchett, who once jokingly defined it as a fifth element, which I could fill with fun in the form of Lewis Carroll’s Bread-and-Butter-Fly, Jean Fabré’s macabre account of the courting habits of the grasshopper, and Aldous Huxley’s jokey skit on Darwinism, ‘Jonah and the Apes’. Finally, I found a home for the most arresting passages and poems under Deep Thinking. God recurs: as a ‘vast Chain of Being’ for Alexander Pope, in the changing seasons for Henry Vaughan, in the form of Space for Coleridge, jokingly in Rupert Brooke’s piscine ‘Heaven’. The Japanese poet Bashö reads Buddhist poems under the moon, Robert Louis Stevenson wanders the bird-enchanted highlands in ‘a trance of silence’. The pioneer environmentalist Aldo Leopold reminds us that ‘in wildness is the salvation of the world’, and the physicist Chet Raymo gazes at the stars from a dark hillside, listening and watching ‘for the tingle in the spine’.

I found much to comfort, but also much to dread during my reading. We are taming and tidying our world too thoroughly. In our gardens, birds, bees and hedgehogs disappear in the face of pesticides. The rockpools on our beaches are all but deserted. In South America, Africa and Asia, forests shrink unimaginably quickly, and round the globe the oceans are being ruthlessly harvested and polluted. As we reach greedily for the stars, let’s stop a while and remember Gilbert White’s tortoise, digging himself into the ground with a movement that ‘little exceeded the hour hand of a clock’, and the tall old shepherd in the Lakeland Hills who, Harriet Martineau tells us, ‘has trod upon rainbows’.

26 October 2015

Artist Portraits: John Berger's latest book launch at the British Library

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by Tom Overton, editor of Portraits: John Berger on Artists by John Berger, 2015

 

On the 18th September, John Berger and Ali Smith came to the British Library to launch a book I’ve been editing, Portraits: John Berger on Artists.

Portraits-Berger

Image courtesy of Verso Books

Ali Smith gave a short speech explaining why she loved Berger’s work; it was wonderful, and can be read in the New Statesman here. As you’ll understand from reading it, I was very glad that I’d been on stage already, and my stint explaining the origins of the book didn’t have to follow that.

 

Between 2010 and 2013 I had the pleasure and the privilege of cataloguing the archive John Berger donated to the British Library while I was writing my PhD. This turned into an exhibition at Somerset House, connecting the archive to works of art, and a conference and free school celebrating the anniversary of to of his most famous works, Ways of Seeing and G. Then, while I was a Research Fellow at the Henry Moore Institute, Verso to ask me to put together a collection of Berger’s writing about art.

 

The original proposal turned into two books, the second of which, Landscapes, will be published next year. In some ways the discipline of focusing on Berger’s writing on art was a relief – the scope of his achievement in writing alone is enormous, and books like A Seventh Man, on migrants in Europe, seem particularly timely today. These achievements are also ongoing; among other things there’s this piece addressed to Rosa Luxemburg in the New Statesman.

 

I had to go away and think about what I loved about Berger’s writing on art, and what I thought was important about it. I haven’t got time to do justice to that, so instead, I’ll try and lay out three of the considerations I had in mind. The first was the sheer scope of material in two, historical senses: Berger trained as a painter here in London in the 1940s, and has been writing about art ever since. But he’s written about everything, from all periods, from the very earliest to the most contemporary. That was one of the reasons I was so pleased that Ali Smith agreed to come, because I think – particularly in a book like How to Be Both she and Berger share this wonderfully free, freeing approach to history, existing in what Berger calls ‘the company of the past.’

 

The second consideration is that, like Smith, Berger has little sense of being constrained by literary form. It seems appropriate that we’re launching this book on the anniversary of the death of another radical writer and painter, William Hazlitt, because Berger is rightly known as one of the great innovators in the essay. But he’s also much more than that. In The Success and Failure of Picasso, Berger quotes Picasso writing to his dealer in 1923, to explain the vast formal variety of his work. He says ‘whenever I have had something to say, I have said it in the manner in which I felt it ought to be said.’ This seems to me to be true of Berger’s work too: he’s responded to the experience of looking at art through fiction, drama, poetry, films, collaborations with Nella Bielski, Mike Dibb and Simon McBurney and things which don’t fit into any category at all. There’s a kind of elegy in the book for the sculptor Juan Muñoz, for example, structured as a sequence of letters to the dead Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet.

 

The third consideration also seems to be a unique aspect to Berger’s work. Like Monet with his cathedrals, Berger submits himself to the discipline of returning to the same stimulus, over and over again, and bringing a new insight out of it each time, about the work, and he world around us. The archetypal example of this is the way he went to see Grünewald’s Isenheim altarpiece either side of the revolutionary hopes and failures of 1968. It’s also in writing about Henry Moore and Francis Bacon in a very different way in the 1950s, the 1980s, and the 21st century, each time with a scrupulous honesty and complete commitment.

 

So a straightforward essay collection wouldn’t have worked. The structure I settled on was a timeline, arranged around the dates of birth of the artists John had written about, from the Chauvet Cave painters and Fayum portraitists to many of the artists who are in the audience today – Michael Broughton, Yvonne Barlow, Rostia Kunovsky, Peter Kennard. Within the chapters there’s space for these sequences of responses to emerge where they do.

  BergerEvent

Image courtesy of Verso Books

Re-imagining all this writing in this way reminded me of the moment at the beginning of Ways of Seeing, the book and series with Mike Dibb and others which you can still see on YouTube. Berger walks up to what looks like Botticelli’s Venus and Mars, gets out a Stanley knife, chops out Venus’s head, and announces ‘an allegorical painting becomes a portrait of a girl’. I hope Berger can forgive me for the similar violence I’ve sometimes used in taking pieces of response out of their original context and putting them in this book; but he gave me the idea.

 

You can read it like this, in segments when you see something in a gallery, or on a screen – with Berger’s piece on Rosa Luxemburg and birds in mind, I want to call that bird-like. Or you can be very proper and read it from cover to cover. When I did that in making the book, a lot of unexpected connections emerged – even within the pieces themselves, Berger is always pointing out simultaneities. What it isn’t is what he has called ‘a relay-race of individual geniuses’; it’s an art history which is about collaboration, rather than competition, and this quality of what I called the company of the past.

 

Portraits is dedicated to Gareth Evans, who has long been a really vital advocate of Berger’s work, and the work of many other important, committed artists – I exhort you to follow everything he does very closely. But it’s also dedicated to Berger’s wife Beverly, who passed away in 2013, and who gave the archive at the British Library its shape, and its great richness of content. So as I’ve explained, this book, like many others, couldn’t have happened without her. I hope you enjoy it.