Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law
People who find Crowley’s allusive prose confusing should try W. B. Yeats’ A Vision to find out just how tough magically tinged writing can really be.. Like Robert Graves’ book The White Goddess that appeared a generation later, A Vision is offered not so much an ‘occult’ text as a basis for formulating exalted poetry. Graves described his book as “a historical grammar of poetic myth,” and ever since it appeared in 1948, it has been criticised for being historically inaccurate – obviously by critics who have no sense of what poetry (like magick, its second-cousin), let along poetic myth, is all about.
Yeats’ difficult text, which he explained in strange and clunky prose, is a favourite subject for PhD theses. Some of these, in edited form are available online. (Try http://www.yeatsvision.com as a sample). Despite the obscurity, it gave Yeats the basis for a remarkable late-life surge of creativity, helping to guarantee his winning the Nobel Prize for literature in 1923.
The point of this post is not to praise Yeats, though no serious magician need accept Crowley’s dismissive attitude to him, and there are constant echoes and counterpoints to each other’s ideas on spirituality and sexuality in their writings. The intent today is to borrow one of the core concepts of A Vision, which is that of intersecting and counter-acting ‘gyres’ (pronounced with a ‘j’ sound to rhyme with ‘spires’), or spiral cones. Yeats’ text elaborates the idea well beyond what I write here, but there are visual depictions included in both editions (1925 and 1937) that shows a pair of such gyres intersecting so that the tip of one spiral cone is touching the circular base of the other, to form an hourglass shape. These gyres are to be seen as representing the dark and the full Moon, as well as other pairs of opposites in dualistic systems, such as the pillars of any Hermetic temple.
This image has fascinated me for years, along with Yeats’ descriptions of the character of each day of the lunar cycle. While almost nobody can or should swallow A Vision holus bolus, it has some intriguing things to say about the gyres as the opposing principles of human life. The image comes close to a three-dimensional hexagram, and hints that decades after his earliest Golden Dawn, Yeats was still influenced by the system of symbols he had learned from McGregor and Moina Mathers. For it also represents the methodology that any GD-style mystery school employs with its students.
One of the things that often frustrate or disappoints new initiates of such schools is the fact that the First Order work, up through the sephiroth of Hod and Netzach, isn’t much about magical practice. Daily exercises are set, and students must learn a bunch of information, but in a Thelemic school, with the singular exception of Liber Resh, nobody initially says, ‘Here, invoke this and see what you get.” It all seems mildly mystical or psychological more than strictly ‘occult.’
There is, of course, method in what the schools are doing. The aim in a Temple such as ours is not to bring people to Knowledge and Conversation (that’s either the work of A.’.A.’. or of advanced Second Order tasks) but about bringing people to the threshold of that condition. We want students to Know – to have Gnosis – so they can see where they’re headed, and in broad terms, see what they still need to learn and know. The Conversation is then truly under way.
And, as in A.’.A.’., the process involves two complementary gyres – the mystical process of discovering the One, and the magical process of learning to employ this discovery in transforming the conditions of one’s life.
Mysticism is about is moving from the diverse, the multiple and the ephemeral, to the unified and the transcendent. It’s about reducing the many to the one or None – or, in practical terms, reducing the mind and the everyday back into their Source. That’s why the Orders do all this self-examination stuff, psychological projection work, and so on. We’re looking for the Invisible Actor in the scene.
Magick could be described as reverse mysticism. It is a controlled system, or series of systems, moving from the unified and eternal (more or less – we’re not Masters of the Temple here!) and regulating the diverse, the multiple and the ephemeral. We banish and purify and consecrate back to the One, and work forward from that to invoke.
In practice, the two things are clearly complementary. We all do our most effective magick when we are centred first in our own Silence, and we experience our most affecting mystical states when we have control – that is, when we exercise magical skill – over our mind and body.
Crowley rightly slammed A. E. Waite’s notion for his Holy Order of the Golden Dawn, of dropping magick in favour of pure mysticism, because it leads easily to boredom (for most people) and uselessness (for everyone else). We have bodies and active minds because we’re supposed to be doing stuff, and the magical side of it all aims at making us able to do more stuff, and more effectively. No magick = stasis. That said, mysticism is absolutely part of our method and curriculum.
It’s possible to get lost in the fog with a mystical approach, or to take immense amounts of time to subdivide or cancel out every aspect of life until we finally get to a stillness we feel is satisfactory. The magical basics people learn in the First Order accelerate this process greatly, and help point out the route through the fog.
We can’t really go seriously off our own track with mystical work, even if we stall; whereas, people who set out to be magicians right away, without clearing away the mental mess first, do go off-track, and regularly. The ego inflation cuts in, they become intoxicated with their own ability to shift states of consciousness, and it’s only when it all begins to pall after a few years that they realise something is wrong. They usually just don’t know what, because all along they’ve been doing the magick from ‘the wrong place’ and it’s left them stranded in the spiritual equivalent of suburban Sudbury.
We converge on the mystical goal of Tiphereth throughout the First Order, and in Second Order we practice increasingly intense magick. At the same time, we learn magical means increasingly in First Order, and make deeper mystical experience our aim in Second Order.
This likely wasn’t what Yeats felt he was indicating with his gyres. But the imagery he produced working with his wife Georgina inevitably points toward this double goal of the mystery schools; as well as reminding us, perhaps, that whatever we think Knowledge and Conversation might be, its purpose and character for any one individual should never be directly identified with that of any other aspirant.
Love is the law, love under will,