Do what thou wil shall be the whole of the Law.
Karl Germer is finally getting his due, more than a half-century after his death. Selected letters of Aleister Crowley’s German-born successor, who was the designated head of both the O.’.T.’.O.’. and A.’.A.’. after the Beast’s death, have been published by the International College of Thelema. Since I’m affiliated with the College, teaching its Toronto campus, the following is hardly an objective review; but since I had nothing to do with the book’s production, I came to it as curious as anyone else.
To those who know of him, Germer – Frater Saturnus – can seem an odd duck. An early follower of Crowley, but who was decorated twice while fighting on the German side in WWI, he was briefly at the Abbey of Thelema in Cefalu, on the north coast of Sicily. With a couple of gaps, he remained remarkably loyal to Thelema and to Crowley personally through to the founding Prophet’s death in 1947, and beyond.
Yet to some people he is the man who let things lapse, and failed to initiate people into either of the orders he served. It’s an odd fact that he was never formally initiated himself into either of the orders he eventually led. He seems to have been one of those naturally gifted occultists who are able to connect with the illuminatory current without being ‘kick-started,’ and in 1927 he attained to Knowledge and Conversation. By 1935, his associations put him in trouble with the Nazi regime, and he spent two terms in concentration camps, fortunately before extermination programs came into being.
It was while undergoing this persecution, persisting in a state of heightened attention on the Holy Books of Thelema and reciting them constantly, that he crossed the Abyss and attained to Master of the Temple. Crowley himself verified these attainments.
The man was no slacker.
However, having done this without benefit of initiation or formal attainment of successive grades, he came to believe such things could be obstructive rather than helpful. In several letters, he cautions against students being over concerned about the precise point of their growth. This is fine for those who can work this way, just as it’s disconcerting and adds an extra level of uncertainty for people who can’t. I put myself in the latter category, and know I’d probably not have prospered under Frater Saturnus.
In the latter stages of the work, especially once K&C becomes an achievable prospect, the primary guidance is all internal. But at the beginning, as the student is trying to grasp what these sephiroth and Hebrew terms and sigils and colour schemes are all about, a structured approach is well worth following.
The fascinating thing about the book, though, is the portraits that emerge of the early generation of Californian Thelemites, since the letters are those sent to Germer as well as sent by him. There is a lot about Wilfred T. Smith, in whom Crowley initially placed strong confidence, yet who seemingly became too power-hungry, presenting himself as a guru. For years, going by these letters, Germer was deeply suspicious of the man. The members of Agape Lodge, the O.’.T.’.O.’. body in the Los Angeles area, hung out with him anyway, clearly enjoying his sense of certainty.
Jane Wolfe, the most senior Thelemite in California for many years, and who had studied at Cefalu for much of the time it functioned, also emerges clearly through her extensive exchanges with Germer. Yet her indecisiveness comes out, as she decides on one course of action then is persuaded to another. Her decades of absolute dedication emerge also, even if she often found the Agape crowd too much to handle.
There is Jack Parsons: charming, volatile, and always up to something. He bounces back from being fleeced of his cash by L. Ron Hubbard, and keeps trying all kinds of magical processes. There is his wife Marjorie Cameron; Roy and Rhea Leffingwell; the Burlinghames; and Kenneth Anger. Germer, living in New York and too broke to travel much, looked on at this parade of people, often with intense wariness and concern, and had little good to say about many of them. He even caustically described Paul Foster Case as a poseur informed by a “dark small sinister soul.” (pp. 227-28), and suspected him of plagiarising The Book of Thoth.
For me, however, the clearest person to emerge is Phyllis Seckler. Both of my primary teachers in Thelema were her students, yet I never met her, nor formed a clear impression of her from her more formal writings. In her letters, though, she comes across vividly as being unafraid to challenge the boys’ club. One of them (pg. 353) throws a remarkable light on the role of women in both myth and occultism. She declares herself “very tired of the old Aeon ideas concerning the feminine half of the world which I encounter at very turn. They are so deeply entrenched because of the fact that the last aeon was paternal and it may take a few hundred years to get over them. Meanwhile I shall strike a blow or two for liberty.”
Sounds like a 1970s feminist? Sure: yet she wrote this in 1956, well before Friedan, Greer, or Steinem published a word on the topic. She thought for herself.
I still encounter old-school Thelemites who disdain Seckler and all her works. After Germer’s death, she was the only active, recognised Adeptus Minor of A.’.A.’. in the US, yet she was – and still is – often scorned as a teacher. A key reason is that she spoke up for the third verse of The Book of the Law, “Every man and every woman is a star,” and wouldn’t qualify it to suit the men around her.
Jane Wolfe, her own initial teacher, pulled back from a lot of the politics. Phyllis did not. If she had been better respected, we might have a better gender balance in Thelema today. As it is, her students are still having to work on that one.
Overall, this collection reveals not just the colourful activities of people attempting to transcend the limits of mundane perspectives. It also shows the real physical difficulty of maintaining an order, with Germer constantly soliciting funds, or thanking people who’d sent them. Additionally, there was significant concern about printing Crowley’s writings so they would not be lost. Jane and Phyllis did as much typing of masters for duplicating as they did meditating or invoking.
A reader begins to grasp just how limited was the knowledge on psychology and world spirituality available to the Thelemites of seventy years ago, compared to how easy it is for us now to go online to learn in depth about Dzogchen and Sufism, projection and archetypes, mindfulness and Zen.
A tremendous amount of work was done by Germer and his circle in training people to understand what Thelema is, and what it must become. Yet, through not building a more solid organisation out of O.’.T.’.O.’. or A.’.A.’., he nearly let the movement falter, even as he did all he could, by his own lights, to extend it. Like many of us pursuing our True Wills, he was contradictory, dedicated, often excessively suspicious of people, and (a key point he makes about Crowley, but which applies to himself) often lonely.
The flaws that emerge from this collection of letters are clear. Yet the passion and the warmth he brought to his task outshone the flaws.
Love is the law, love under will,
Do what thou wil shall be the whole of the Law.