Thursday, June 28, 2012

In the Center of the Fire

In the Center of the Fire, subtitled, A Memoir of the Occult 1966-1989 by James Wasserman is an extremely fascinating book that I couldn't put down.  Wasserman is more of a book designer than author by trade, yet his writing style is highly engaging, direct, candid and brutally honest.  He has been called one of the "founding fathers" of the modern O.T.O. The Ordo Templi Orientis, or the Order of the Temple of the East to put it in English,  is one of the two organizations Aleister Crowley entrusted to carry out and propagate his vision.  The motto you see to the right below on this page, The method of science; the aim of religion is a motto Crowley wrote for the O.T.O. when he was the O.H.O., the Outer Head of the Order which reads in full:


We place no reliance
On virgin or pigeeon
Our method is science
Our aim is religion

I have never been a member but am sympathetic to their aims and ideals and very grateful for the service they provide.  In the Center of the Fire is essentially a concise autobiography of Wasserman's life with emphasis placed on his spiritual work and studies during those years. In this way, it reminds me a little of Robert Anton Wilson's Cosmic Trigger Vol I. It seems Wilson had some influence on Wasserman's development for he makes a point to mention on page 83 that he read the Illuminatus trilogy by Wilson and Shea. Much later in the book he mentions hosting an event with Wilson then bringing him back to their group temple where RAW admired the temple paintings then regaled the group with tales for some time.  The magical link may have been formed when Wasserman attended Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio in 1966.  RAW rented a cabin from the same college and lived nearby just a few years earlier.  For both of them, that locale formed the setting for the initial stages of their psychedelic experimentation albeit a few years apart.

One of the more interesting subplots in this text is the battle for the American copyrights of Crowley's legacy and the pivotal role it played in establishing the modern O.T.O. I had only heard vague and often highly opinionated rumours of this story from a Crowley website forum I used to participate in. This insider's account brings it all out into the light of day. Also informative is Wasserman's portrayals of the key figures involved such as Marcelo Motta, Grady McMurtry, and Donald Weiser. Motta, in particular was a substantial Thelemic force I heard vague stories about both pro and con but didn't know enough to decide whether he was a charlatan, a black magician, or a misunderstood adept. The author was Motta's student, editor, and his representative during the beginning of the controversy over who should take possession of Karl Germer's ( the O.H.O. of the O.T.O. after Crowley's death) library which had been inherited from Crowley. Wasserman reveals both Motta's strengths and his numerous foibles and ends up characterizing him as a kind of Holy Adversary who through his opposition forced the O.T.O. into getting its act together in some respects.

 One quote by Motta really hit home for me, a quote that Wasserman put on the back of a Motta book he was designing, The Commentaries of AL, ie commentaries on The Book of the Law.The quote is Motta's comment on the verses from chapter 3:  

25. This burn: of this make cakes & eat unto me. This hath also another use; let it be laid before me, and kept thick with perfumes of your orison: it shall become full of beetles as it were and creeping things sacred unto me. 

26. These slay, naming your enemies; & they shall fall before you.

 To paraphrase, Motta writes that a profane slew a beetle before Ra-Hoor-Kuit (Horus) naming an enemy and soon after the profane went mad. An Initiate slew a beetle before RHK naming an enemy and the enemy fell. An exempt adept slew a beetle before RHK naming his worst enemy, himself, and became a Master of the Temple. As mentioned in the previous post, "in the bardo you have no enemies, you have yourself."

I gained much more respect for Grady McMurtry, the role he played, the trust Crowley put in him, and his genuine magical ability from reading this book.  Though I had read and enjoyed Jerry Cornelius' excellent biography on McMurtry, Wasserman filled in some crucial details from his perspective.

Part of the fascination this book holds for me is the congruencies with my spiritual quest.  Wasserman writes of many intimate encounters with people I've greatly admired some of whom I've been fortunate to work with, if only briefly at times.  People such as Lon Milo Duquette, Ira Cohen, Herman Slater, Alejandro Jodorosky,  Kenneth Grant, and the previously mentioned Robert Anton Wilson.  Others I've never met, but have received significant influence through their works include Allan Miller (aka Christopher Hyatt), Israel Regardie, Harry Smith, and Hymenaeus Beta (aka Bill Breeze).  Some very interesting characters like Angus MacLise and Simon, the author of the infamous Necronomicon,  I met for the first time in these pages

Wasserman got his start in the book business at the fabled Weiser's bookstore when it was located on Broadway in New York.  Weiser's was like Mecca for me when I first traveled to New York in 1982.  It was very difficult, nearly impossible to get Crowley books where I lived at that time in Western Canada. Weiser's not only carried a good selection, they published many of them!  I stocked up on that visit to my great and everlasting delight.  Some years later, after I moved to New York, and Weiser's had moved to its final retail location on Lexington and 24th St., I would visit regularly.  One day I was overjoyed to find three Robert Anton Wilson books I hadn't yet read, two of them from the Historical Illuminatus series.

Wasserman writes of a strong synchronicity involving a hawk when reading a particular edition of the Book of the Law for the first time -  I can't  give it away.  After invoking  Horus in a hotel room in Switzerland for the first time, I turned on the television to find a documentary on Horus being broadcast.  Wasserman's synchronicity is even more startling!

As noted, this book is very candid.  Wasserman drops some useful magical hints from time to time, relays some of his visions and their effects, but also doesn't shy away from detailing the dangers involved which, from what I can tell, consist mainly of unchecked ego inflation on the part of some, and drug misuse.  He doesn't hold back describing his own drug and alcohol experiences.  Some of the stories are quite confessional in nature.  It seems that it took the death of one of their prominent members before the O.T.O. got it together in that regard. 

In the Center of the Fire is well illustrated with photos of the players involved, and contains an excellent glossary. My favorite photo appears on the front cover showing a young James Wasserman and a young Bill Breeze on a fire escape in New York. Seeing Breeze in that photo is, for me, like seeing the fellow behind the curtain playing the part of the Wizard of Oz.  I had long appreciated his Introduction, footnotes and overall editorial work in the classic "blue brick" edition of the book Magick, Liber IV among other things, but had only known him as the mysterious Hymenaeus Beta, the successor as the O.H.O. to Hymenaeus Alpha, Grady McMurtry.  It was only a few years ago that I discovered his conventional name.  The honest portrayal of that photo underscores the honesty in the book. 

The Appendices contain some interesting material as well.  One of them clearly and undeniably shows Crowley's prescience regarding the 1960's, the era in which his ideology really took off.

I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in this path.  I also found it very inspiring for trying to write my own story.  Autobiographical writing seems an excellent approach to gnothi seauton, a prerequisite to any kind of serious magical work or bardo training.  Much appreciation and gratitude to Mr. Wasserman and all the powers that be for making this material available.  This book has a website which I've yet to peruse but will do so:
www.inthecenterof thefire.com

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