Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.
Recent months have offered not so much an opportunity for introspection as an unrelenting insistence on it. For many of us, there isn’t a lot more to look in upon. A recent essay by M.M. Owen on Hermann Hesse on the Aeon website takes a useful and intelligent look at one of the great literary introspectives of the 20th Century.
Enthusiasm for Hermann Hesse’s novels was probably at its height in the 1970s, though I still come across recent reprints on bookstore shelves. But there was a time when you just weren’t part of the in-crowd if there wasn’t a well-thumbed paperback of Demian or Steppenwolf on your shelf and, if you wanted to look like you were seriously into the man’s world, Siddhartha or The Glass Bead Game had to be there next to them.
Owen’s article provides a glimpse into the almost desperate questing in the German-speaking world prior to Hitler’s arrival, and thus to some extent offers hints on why that man came to power. For, any sensible reading of German history between the world wars shows conventional politics was only the froth on top of a seething spiritual and existential unrest. And Hesse, who lived from 1877 to 1962, was working in the middle of all that.
Looking at the curriculum for our Temple’s First Order, and some of my past public talks, I realise it can seem to be more about Hesse-style introspection than actual magick. Occasional references to Jung tend to reinforce the idea we’re advocating endless navel-gazing, when the intent is to loosen the grip our own ‘interiority’ has on most of us. Look – observe the tides ebbing and flowing there, then look beyond – is the requirement. Once, magicians used astrology to guide their actions, as many do today. Equally, conventional psychological tropes might be the substitute.
Astrology, of course has the benefit that in theory, it directs our attention out to the heavens, rather than inward to our complexes, fixations or resentment of past and present authority figures. Whether it actually works like that depends on the magician, but the aim of the art has traditionally been to look beyond ourselves.
But ‘looking beyond’ is something we can only learn for ourselves, unaided except by the often-unsuspected promptings of the HGA. The early years of magical training can therefore appear to focus on the psychic interior, even if the aim is rather different.
Hesse had a psychological break during World War I, and his doctor was a Jungian analyst, Josef Lang. Later, he came to know Jung himself. But better than Hesse did, Jung came to grasp that “inner truth” is a very fluctuating and unsteady concept. His own life shows immense growth and expansion of understanding, as he came to see that the Self, his rough equivalent to the notion of the HGA, ‘makes sense’ only in relation to our connections with the greater world. It is only fully realised through expression, via the will, not through endless introspection.
(Jay Sherry’s book, Carl Jung: Avant-Garde Conservative, is excellent on deconstructing Jung’s flirtation with Nazism as one way the man dealt with the early 20th Century’s crisis, and the blind spots in his own nature that led him there).
I’ve read most of Hesse’s books over the years, some of them more than twice, and while there’s something unsatisfactory in each of them, they also touch on the same ‘big’ themes our aspirations reach towards in Thelemic work. But the flaw Owen identifies always bothered me, even if (in Siddhartha and Narziss and Goldmund, at least) his main characters explore the possibilities of life in the world around them.
“All of Hesse’s protagonists are, in their creator’s image, spectacularly self-absorbed,” he writes. “The years during which I most enjoyed Hesse were the years during which I was at my most spectacularly self-absorbed.” At the end of the essay, he adds, “In this life, the inward gaze will take you only halfway.”
The topic can be debated endlessly, and there is much in magick and Thelemic mysticism that could be construed as high-end navel-gazing. But the intention is always to neutralise or at least still the demands of selfhood and self-absorbed urges, and to include the HGA as comprising or including all of life. “At some point, the self-development has to be a means, not an end,” Owen states of his subject’s life.
True Will functions most effectively, most usefully, through a mind made clear of its darker veils and turbid churnings. To attain this end, serious self-inspection is vital. But a Thelemic life is about action in the world: about awareness, relationships, and “producing change in conformity with will.”
Physical constraints on safe movement and socialising have left me thoroughly fed up recently – I feel stuck in “True Can’t,” and want to move on. I also don’t believe in all-too-convenient theories that the pandemic is a hoax, or over-hyped, or that safe distancing is irrelevant, so I’ll have to wait and see what I can get out of introspection for now.
But if there’s one thing I’m re-learning, it’s that “me” fast becomes a very boring topic. The HGA needs “the world” as its perpetual classroom, and shunning it for some putative inner wisdom or inner truth, is not the route to peace and wholeness.