Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.
For the past couple of weeks I’ve been watching, and occasionally joining, a discussion on the HeruRaHa forum about the origins of the Book of the Law. The rancorous debate there centres around a theory about the riddle in Cap II, v. 76, and whether the Book was in fact a conscious fabrication in cipher, created by Crowley.
I remain unconvinced, and continue to believe that Aleister Crowley received the Book as it was dictated to him by Aiwass. That is, his conscious mind registered sense impressions of sounds or apparent sounds that were the words he wrote down on paper, and that we read today. Then, after initially rejecting the Book and its message, when he was ready he began to study it intensely, and spent four decades analysing, expounding and evangelising its message.
The key issue for me has never been so much whether Aiwass was a ‘real’ being, but rather what to make of the content. Either it stands up to prolonged scrutiny, or it’s a bunch of horrendous imprecations hurled from the depths of an overwrought psyche that has little meaning apart from compensating for the pain of an abusive childhood. Israel Regardie tended toward the latter, writing a long final chapter in The Eye in the Triangle about how Crowley’s personal psyche, not some impersonal, praeterhuman intelligence, produced the Book.
Intellectually, I realised years ago that I reject much of the content as obscure, ambiguous, or mean-spirited. I also realised it doesn’t function on an intellectual level at all, but works on an entirely different plane. Or to put it another way, I had – have – a similar reaction to Crowley, but this doesn’t seem to be relevant. This bizarre, terse, riddling text has perpetuated itself through the century since its first publication, and continues to fascinate more people every year.
It won’t, unfortunately or otherwise, go away.
Since my current efforts with the Book, partly stirred by the HeruRaHa debate, were producing a confused study, I wondered what might put them in a different perspective. And I pulled out a book I’d not opened in 20 years – Fawn Brodie’s biography of the Mormon prophet, Joseph Smith.
For years, Joseph has been a hero of mine. I first ran into two earnest young Utah Mormons in England, when I was 17 or 18 and the whole schtick fascinated me. From the late 1980s on, I explored most of the historical sites associated with Joseph and his early church.
The Book of Mormon in every way conforms to Mark Twain’s description of “chloroform in print,” and its story of migrants from Palestine to the Americas, and their epic wars, is contradicted by archaeology, genetics, and the host of anachronisms and bloopers in Joseph’s text. He even got Jesus’ birthplace wrong. Yet his Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints remains one of the fastest-growing sects on the planet.
So, how did Joseph become a hero to me? Several reasons. First, he was brave, and clearly a dynamic leader. He started with a mere half-dozen converts (even his wife wouldn’t join at first, and this was long before polygamy came into the picture), yet by his martyrdom in June 1844, he had thousands of followers. He was no raving revivalist, foaming at the mouth about hell and damnation, but a man of reasonable mien and calmly persuasive speech. He started three idealistic communities, and built fascinating churches: his original Temple in Kirtland, Ohio, is one of the most intriguing religious structures I’ve ever visited. One reason why I wrote approvingly of Harold Bloom two posts ago is that Bloom ‘gets’ Joseph as a poet of the Spirit.
Today’s Church is far from the man’s own conception, though it’s the logical outcome of his teaching on patriarchy and social order. Because it was built upon inspired revelations, what passed for progressive in the 1830s has become irreversibly regressive in the 2010s. I still find it less repellent than many sects built on narrower foundations; but it’s always been Joseph’s own life, not what passed after it, that captivated my imagination.
His own story is that on the night of autumnal Equinox in 1823, he was prompted by an angel to unearth golden plates buried near his home in New York State. These plates told a story of ancient times, of unknown wars and of Christ appearing in glory to the people of North America. Joseph was forbidden to take the plates for four years, but went back to check on them once a year, always at Equinox, until 1827. In that year, he was permitted to retain them, and set about translating them with the Biblical Urim and Thummim, which he claimed he found with the plates.
To abbreviate the story, his ‘translation’ was often done with the plates nowhere around, as he used his peep-stone, a smooth rock he had found, probably crystalline, which he put inside his hat, that he then placed over his face. Nobody else ever actually saw the plates physically, though his family and close associates were granted a vision of them, held by an angel. The ‘Urim and Thummim’ were reportedly examined by physical hands and eyes, but their whereabouts today is unknown.
If Brodie, an ex-Mormon herself, is to be believed (and she cites extensive documentary evidence in a credible narrative) Joseph had been spinning tales like those in his Book of Mormon for years. He fabricated his quarter-million words of text, and then went on to establish his church.
And yet ….
How do you do it? How do you keep a very human face, and a sense of humour that often alienated converts who wanted a much more serious prophet? How do you spin all those youthful tales, embarrassingly recorded for posterity by your own mother, then nearly get killed a few times and finally get yourself and your elder brother martyred, and along the way convince many clearly intelligent, worldly men and women that you have private access to God?
There’s more. Brodie observes (pg. 74) that Joseph at an early age had “what only the most gifted revivalist preachers could boast of – the talent for making men see visions.” This I find her weakest argument, since I don’t know how you do that. Or rather, I do – you dim the lights, get everyone into robes, start the incense smouldering, banish ceremonially, then perform the most solemn invocations in sonorous tones until, with everyone’s willing cooperation, the spirit invoked (hopefully) appears. It’s no easy trick.
In a less electric atmosphere, it’s also possible – easy, even – to conjure simple word-pictures that help people envisage things they’ve not seen or thought of before. But Joseph did the full deal with straightforward prayers in an open field in broad daylight with his family and friends, or in a brightly lit church. Many times. There are credible accounts that he publicly cured a woman of an arm crippled by rheumatism. Many followers died for his cause, or endured years of hardship.
To accuse him of merely working a con is too easy, too shallow. The person who became most convinced of Joseph’s calling was Joseph himself, and he held to it until his assassination at the small jailhouse in Carthage, Illinois, in the summer of 1844. By then, it was too late to stop what he had begun, and under Brigham Young, his church moved westwards en masse, to start a theocratic kingdom in Utah.
And yet it was based on a fake. There were no Nephites or Lamanites duelling for supremacy in the long-ago fields of New York State. The elaborate additions to the faith that came after the Book was published were fed by Joseph’s exposure to Freemasonry and, later Kabbalah, by meeting Alexander Neibaur, a Jew from Alsace-Lorraine. Many of Joseph’s Revelations, which are still the official bedrock of Church doctrine, were false prophecies, or anodyne blessings.
But it worked. And it worked because Joseph believed in it. His Book of Mormon was no consciously created deception, even if at some points in its production he must have thought so himself. Its narrative all eventually connects, and a multi-layered structure informs it.
It’s conceivable that Joseph was able to think it all up as a conscious creation. But his early private letters betray a roughly educated man, albeit an intelligent and perceptive one. And the fact that he, too, came to believe in his Book indicates he felt the process of its writing was inspired, not deceptive.
Joseph’s Book calls seekers to prove its veracity through an act of faith. The Book of the Law promises certainty, not faith. Joseph created a theology that in many ways flatly contradicts precepts in the Book of Mormon, and Crowley spent many years elaborating a practical system to implement what he saw in Liber AL. Both men emphasised the necessity of reason. Joseph practised necromancy as a young man but gave it up, Crowley made magick his watch-word. They both had multiple sexual partners, one under the Word of the Lord, and one under the Law of Liberty. Joseph believed the End Times were at hand, Crowley said a new Aeon had already begun. The similarities and differences pile up endlessly, because prophets are bound to prophesy on certain eternal themes, yet live as mortal human beings.
In the end, both men did what they did because they each became convinced they were onto something of immense scope and significance. The inspired writings they produced expanded the initial visions and dispensations, and transformed and matured them both in turn.
To do what you will, so that it’s truly the whole of the law of your life, is to ride the tiger: you can’t easily get off. Prophets are often consumed by their own visions, and without them, they become husks, or mere shells.
None of this confirms or disproves the Book of the Law, which remains a perpetual challenge. It can be accepted or rejected, it can baffle or be understood, it can seem like a vision of hell, or open the windows of heaven, but it cannot be addressed empirically. It offers no such comfort.
But each effort to crack its mystery provides clues, indications, glimmerings. Its bizarre genius as a text comes clearer when other texts are studied as well. Reading the career of another prophet with another Book provides instructive contrast and private perspective. An Aleister Crowley can, to some extent, be measured against a Joseph Smith. Nor does he come off badly in the match.
Those polite young men in white shirts and black name-tags will still be knocking at our doors years into the future. Reason, or archaeology, will not faze them.
And Liber AL vel Legis? It’s going to be causing online flame-wars, scaring the faithful of mainstream creeds, and inspiring those with none, for a while yet. It is the text of our time, in all its baffling obtuseness, and will remain so until “another prophet shall arise, And bring fresh fever from the skies.”
Love is the law, love under will.