Tracey Rollin. Santa Muerte. The History, Rituals and Magic of Our Lady of Holy Death. Weiser Books,  2017.

How-to-do-it books on magic, almost unobtainable a generation ago, are a growth industry. Those in English, at least, are rooted in the practices of the Golden Dawn and Wicca, even when some quite different slant is ostensibly given to them, such as ‘Practical Egyptian Magic’.

The present volume is a fusion of this modern British magic with Latin American practice. The popularity of saints in Catholic countries is partly due to their accessibility: during a Catholic upbringing, for instance, one may see “their statues, their prayer cards, and their sacred medals every day”, whereas God has no image, or only one of “an old man wearing a snowy white robe”. Now, it is a curious fact that though the Catholic Church recognises a huge number of saints, there are numerous others, known as ‘folk saints’ whom they do not condone. Some of these are nevertheless very popular. Santa Muerte, “Holy Death”, typically depicted as “a female skeleton wearing an elaborate black silk wedding dress”, is actually condemned by them.

This mistrust is not only due to the fact that she is a reminder of mortality, and the suspicion that she may be a crypto-survival of the Aztec Goddess Mictecuahuatl, but because she is a popular object of veneration among drug traffickers on the US-Mexican border. While raiding a cartel compound in New Mexico, “agents found an entire room turned into a temple dedicated to the worship of Santa Muerte”. The FBI terms her a “narco-saint”, and “blames her cults for shocking acts of violence and ritual slayings”.

Rollin, you may be relieved to learn, does not advocate such things. She gives detailed instructions on how to prepare an altar to Santa Muerte and make offerings to her – the saint particularly likes Florida Water, which is not a brand name, but a scent formula first produced in 1808 – and the application of traditional Catholic items of worship, such as candles and rosaries, combined with Golden Dawn practices such as the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram.

Santa Muerte is one of those saints whom you can petition for almost anything. She has seven aspects related to colours, Nina Blanca, ‘White Girl’, Nina Violeta, ‘Purple Girl’, and those of Blue, Golden, Red, Green, and Black. Though Rollin does not mention it, these are also the seven tinctures of heraldry, and are astrologically associated with the planets, in that same order. Thus, Nina Roja, the Red Girl, who is thereby linked to Mars, is “fiery and passionate”. Interestingly, “A common folk spell to ensure that a husband remains faithful is to soak a white cord in the couple’s combined sexual fluids and then to wrap it around the base of a red Santa Muerte statue.” Nina Verde, Green Girl, governs legal matters, and is accordingly called upon by criminals and police officers alike. Nina Negra, the Black Girl, who would correspond to Saturn, and is called ‘The Mother of Tears’, unlike the others has the aspects you would expect of a Death figure.

The only problem for anyone wishing to join the ranks of her worshippers is that images of her, readily available in grocery stores in New Mexico, may be hard to come by in Britain, or elsewhere. – Gareth J. Medway.



Antony Clayton, Gary Lachman, Andy Sharp and David Tibet. Netherwood - Last Resort of Aleister Crowley. Accumulator Press, 2017 (Revised hardback edition)

Seventy years ago, at 11 am on Monday 1st December 1947, Aleister Crowley died in his bed in room 13 at 'Netherwood', the Hastings boarding house where he had spent the last three years of his life. Crowley was the most famous, or some might say infamous, resident of this grand Victorian mansion set in four acres of grounds and gardens on a ridge approximately 500ft above sea level and just over two miles from the centre of Hastings.

It had been bought by Vernon Symonds, an actor, and his wife 'Johnnie', an ex-teacher and an excellent cook, both with left-leaning socialist tendencies. Their purpose was to run an 'intellectual guest-house' that would attract great thinkers and characters. So they were not at all put out by the prospect of having the 'wickedest man in the world' (as the sensationalist press had once dubbed him) coming to stay. This book tells the interesting history of the house and its various owners, but its main subject is Crowley himself, his daily life and the great variety of visitors who came to see him.

The main author is Antony Clayton under the epithet of 'A Gentleman of Hastings', with contributions from 'Frater Amor Fati' (Gary Lachman), 'Anok Pe' (David Tibet) and 'The English Heretic' (Andy Sharp). It is meticulously researched, very well written and beautifully presented with period-style endpapers and many fine illustrations, some in colour. The previous edition of 2012 had evidently become a sought-after collectors item, so there was clearly a considerable demand for this new edition with some revisions and added material.

To my knowledge there is no other book available that so thoroughly covers all of Crowley's life, especially the details of his last three years which are generally perceived to have been a wasteful slow heroin-addicted demise. Nothing could be further from the truth, and the overall tone of the book is a sympathetic portrayal of the magus who had mellowed and grown frail with advancing old age and poor health.

Hastings, "where a magus must go to ascend", is known as a magical town, so it is appropriate that Crowley should have ended his days there. Interestingly, he also spent part of his childhood there, attending the White Rock School as a boarder at the age of eight. It is reported that after a harsh punishment he willed the death of the headmaster, which occurred within a few weeks and caused not the slightest bit of remorse to young Edward Alexander Crowley, as he was then known. By the way, the pronunciation of Crowley is most definitely given as rhyming with 'holy', whereas it is still quite commonly and incorrectly pronounced the other way.

At age 19 he climbed the Beachy Head cliffs along the coast near Eastbourne, an act that was described as 'insensate folly' by the Eastbourne Gazette. He went on to become a great mountaineer, but tarnished his reputation for ever when he abandoned some fellow climbers after they had fallen on an expedition in the Himalayas. His opinion was that 'it served them right'. Gary Lachman's excellent condensed biographical section of 'Netherwood' thoroughly nails what it was about Crowley that enabled him to be cruel, sadistic, masochistic and lacking in human feeling and empathy through most of his life. His upbringing by two stern parents steeped in the extreme Plymouth Brethren religion was a major factor.

Lachman identifies Crowley's three main 'motors' as: obsession with sex; adolescent need to shock; and scientific curiosity, which found expression in mountain climbing, drug taking, and 'magick'. (He added the 'k' to distinguish the practice from mere tricks of illusion and entertainment). He was fond of calling himself the 'Beast - 666', which represented his rebellion against the stifling puritanical rectitude forced on him in childhood. Evidently it was his mother who first called him a 'beast', probably when she caught him in the act of masturbation. It seems that all through his life he needed acts of wilful degradation and transgression to excite him.

'Magick' for Crowley meant training the will and imagination to achieve desired results, but sadly he all too easily used his powers for selfish purposes no matter what harm they might cause to others. He left the Golden Dawn when he perceived all of its members, with the exception of his friend Allan Bennet, as 'weaklings'. From Bennett he learned Buddhism, meditation and yoga. But, unfortunately, he also learned how to use heroin to treat asthma and to 'get high', which led to his life-long addiction. His famous dictum of the new Aeon of Thelema: ‘Do What Thou Wilt’ had a noble motive of finding one's calling or vocation, but in practice could mean justifying or rationalising any desires or appetites.

In Lachman's fine analysis, which very much resonates with my own conclusions, Crowley saw himself as a messiah or prophet, which meant that he needed followers. I agree with Lachman that the most important and formative event of Crowley's life was the strange encounter in Cairo with the entity Aiwass. The channelled information and text, which became the Book of the Law was his bible, holy writ and scripture. This totally convinced him of his mission and changed his life for ever. Lachman's sober insight is that it was his own continuing adolescent rebellion: "Most of us pass through this phase and with any luck mature into responsible adults. Crowley never did."

For those who have never read about the goings-on in Crowley's occult order the OTO and its branch in California, the Agape Lodge Pasadena, there is some hilarious and salutary information about what can happen in such groups. Jack Parsons, the great rocket scientist who eventually went mad and met a violent death, and L Ron Hubbard, who went on to found his own religion of Scientology, joined forces in a series of magical workings to create a human manifestation of the divine feminine called Babalon. The project was based on Crowley's ideas and a similar project described in his novel Moonchild. Needless to say, it all got quite messy and Crowley tried to keep some order on proceedings to no avail. He had to keep some order because he depended on a regular stipend from the lodge's members which helped to keep him going during his time at Netherwood.

On the question of whether or not Crowley was actually evil, Lachman says this: "Crowley wasn't evil - all talk of black magic and Satanism aside. Merely insensitive, selfish and oblivious to the fact that doing his will usually meant trampling on that of others. But then, given that he already had several incarnations, perhaps next time around he will have a chance to work that out." A very fair and balanced assessment in my opinion.

The bulk of Netherwood is made up of three chapters devoted to the years 1945, 1946 and 1947. Antony Clayton has done a great job of collating information from many sources, including Crowley's own diaries, to provide a very readable and fascinating overview of Crowley's daily life and circumstances. What emerges is a very human man facing up to the trials of fading health and approaching mortality. There are several photos of him in the house or gardens, smoking his pipe with a thoughtful, quizzical look on his face. He is hardly recognisable as the bulky menacing figure from earlier years.

I found myself quite endeared to the old Aleister and would have loved to meet him for long conversations in those days. But this book is the next best thing, with a surprising amount of detail that Clayton has unearthed about Crowley's daily activities, conversations with visitors and other residents, and the whole post-war atmosphere of England in a time of rationing and austerity.

An amusing anecdote concerns Crowley's telegram advising his arrival on 1st February 1945. He travelled by ambulance from his previous accommodation at the Bell Inn in Aston Clinton, Buckinghamshire, and advised the Symonds that a consignment of 'frozen meat' would be arriving. They were puzzled as no delivery of meat was expected. Furthermore, because of strict rationing, the Post Office sent a copy of the telegram to the Ministry of Food for investigation. The joke was explained when Crowley himself turned out to be the consignment.

When he arrived, aged 69, he gave the impression of someone much older, eccentric and vulnerable. Gaunt and slightly bent, there was nothing sinister in his appearance to alarm his new hosts. His three years of residence at Netherwood appear to have been rather more comfortable than the lives of many other citizens living with the privations of rationing. It seems that he had a sweet tooth, taking five or six teaspoons of sugar in his cup of tea, and he loved sweets and chocolate. His favourite snack was sardines sprinkled with curry powder, and he often had only a boiled egg for lunch. He was a great connoisseur of types of tobacco for his pipe and the best quality cigars. Fine brandy and whisky were his favourite tipples, not beer, which had, ironically, provided his fortune from his father's brewery business.

Chess remained one of his favourite hobbies and he enjoyed many visits to the Hastings Chess Club. Heroin remained his addiction and he obtained as much as possible from a local doctor and more from London. He had serious dental problems which entailed several extractions and finally a dental plate which hurt his gums and made speaking difficult.

The wealth of material so admirably collated and presented by Antony Clayton gives a 'warts and all' portrait of the Great Beast in decline, often through the eyes of visitors. Some were admirers and truth-seekers, such as Kenneth Grant, who had heard about Crowley at the Atlantis Bookshop and became his amanuensis for a time at Netherwood. Others were merely curious. Madame Wellington Koo, the wife of the Chinese ambassador, reported after her visit to Crowley that she "found only a dirty old man wallowing in drunkenness." He had presented her with a copy of his precious Book of the Law, and she returned it to him with a note saying "instead of destroying it, I venture to return it in case you might be short of copies".

Professor E.M. Butler interviewed Crowley for several hours during a visit in 1946 as part of her research for her book The Myth of the Magus and was shocked by his appearance. "He seemed to be disintegrating and to be surrounded by an aura of physical corruption ... he was more repulsive than I had expected and his voice was the ugliest thing about him, fretful, scratchy - a pedantic voice and a pretentious manner."

There are several versions of his last moments when he died on 1st December 1947, ranging from anxiety and fearfulness to a peaceful passing with a sudden gust of wind blowing in the curtains and a clap of thunder. The Hastings and St Leonards Gazette carried a brief death notice. It referred to him as a writer and poet who was interested in magic. Then, inexplicably, it stated that although many people came to see him from all parts of the country "his interest in magic seemed to have waned and he seldom even mentioned the subject". At least it goes to show that some newspaper reports of those days were no more reliable than they are today.

Aleister Crowley continues to be a source of fascination and inspiration to those who read his own books and those written about him, his life and his work. Netherwood is an important and very valuable addition to the library. -- Kevin Murphy



Colin Dickey. Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places. Penguin, 2017.

For Colin Dickey ghosts and hauntings are not about the dead but the living, he is not concerned with the question as to whether ghosts exist or not, but what such stories tell us about places, their history and our reaction to them. He selects a number of places and locations around which ghost stories have accrued and uses these as springboards for discussions of the history of that place and the wider narrative that such places tell about the USA. In the process the reader learns about a number of often obscure topics such as the rise and fall of the insane asylum, the transition from churchyard to cemetery, the development of memorialisation of the dead of the Civil War, the decline of the city, and even the place of the brothel in American history.

For Dickey the essence of haunting is what Freud called the unheimlich, usually translated as ‘uncanny’ but more literally as ‘unhomely’. He uses this in connection with a number of houses he and his wife visited when looking for a new home, places that seemed somehow wrong and disquieting, often because of their, to say the least, eccentric architecture as previous owners had adapted and expanded in various ad hoc ways.

The ultimate expression of such ad hoc architecture may well be the so-called Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California, the home of Sarah Pardee Winchester, the widow of William Wirt Winchester, the inventor of the Winchester repeating rifle. With its 160 rooms and sprawling architecture, Dickey suggests that the house had simply morphed into a perpetual project, with Sara constantly experimenting and changing her mind.

Popular folklore had a different idea. In the folk stories Sarah built the house on the advice of a medium named as Adam Coons (there is no evidence any such person ever existed) in expiation of the lives lost to the Winchester rifle, the victims of which were haunting her. In the myth it is a building of dead end staircases, trapdoors, false rooms, labyrinthine corridors and the like, in an exaggerated version of the real place. Dickey notes that although the true story is readily available, the myth is constantly repeated. This is perhaps because myths can be ‘truer than true’, for the mad, blind futile haunted house is an entirely apposite symbol of the madness, chaos and futility of war. The endless task is part of a long folk tradition of the endless Sisyphean task, such as emptying a bottomless pool with a cockle shell.

Of the dark, disturbing and unhomely places that Dickey takes us to, arguably the worst is the Devils Half Acre in Shockoe Bottom, Richmond, Virginia. This was the place of the slave auctions and the notorious Lumpkin’s Jail where ‘recalcitrant’ slaves were beaten and tortured. Surely a place for ghosts, yet Dickey noted that in the popular accounts of Richmond’s ghosts all the ghosts are white! Perhaps there are horrors too great for ghost stories to deal with; they can handle small domestic tragedies, but death and terror on an industrial scale is beyond comprehension. Or the ghosts are sanitised for commercial exploitation in books, ghost tours and ever more competitive TV ghost hunts.

But perhaps the image from this book that will remain with many readers is that of the corpse of the woman left to rot in the streets of New Orleans after Katrina, who the authorities did not think was a priority, but was unwilling to allow anyone else to move her.

This is an interesting and haunting book, and obviously of chief interest to US residents and visitors, however many of the insights will apply to the UK and other places. Dickey borrows terms from the Kiswahili culture, that divides the dead between those who remembered as living people by the currently living, the sasha; and those where the last person who remembered them as a person has died, the zamani, the deep ancestors. We in Britain have plenty of ghost stories of the latter reduced to heritage industry cliches. The ghosts come when it becomes seemly to talk of them. -- Peter Rogerson.



David E. H. Jones. Why Are We Conscious? A Scientist’s Take on Consciousness and Extrasensory Perception.  Pan Stanford, 2017.

David E H Jones who died last July aged 79 was for many years the 'Daedalus' of the New Scientist and Nature. Daedalus was described in his Fortean Times obituary as “the court jester in the palace of science” and he himself described  it as “a region of scientific humour whose appeal lay in its closeness to reality”. (FT 359 p28)

Though he retired as Daedalus in 2002, this book, his swansong, had all the hallmarks of an extended Daedalus column. Starting with the “hard problem of consciousness”, Jones argues that consciousness must depend on the unconscious mind of Freud and Jung, and that might give access to another world, the unknown world, from which information might leak in the form of ESP. This unknown world might be colder than ours, it should have three dimensions like ours, there are discussions of the size and velocity of entities in the unknown world, whether any “matter” in it would be atomic or continuous etc.

Jones then goes on to describe how the concept of the unknown might explain various paranormal phenomena. There are some interesting asides, there should for example be about 100 billion ghosts in the world, there calculations as to how much space a ghost can haunt. We should be careful about stories of materialisations and denaturisation because hardly anyone reports the explosions caused by the air thus displaced. The use of the unknown world for space travel at transoptical velocities or for recovering information from lost historical documents are among suggestions Jones makes. Jones, however, has missed another possibility here, of the unknown world could react across the “many worlds” of Hugh Everett it should be possible to recover documents that do not exist in our reality such as the Necronomicon or Magonia 100, and its annual successor Visions and Beliefs.

Getting information form this unknown world from psychics and the like is not ideal and so Jones speculates that it might be detected using computers, powerful decryption techniques and anomalies in the behaviour of liquids.

Behind the humour it is clear that Jones took a serious interest in parapsychology and psychical research and the humour allows him to raise questions that otherwise could not be publicly aired by a scientist and it is important to note that he is not laughing at these topics but rather using humour to encourage open minded speculation. -- Peter Rogerson



Gary Lachman. Lost Knowledge of the Imagination. Floris Books, 2017.

“That is the job of the left brain…Its business is to ‘unpack’ what the right brain ‘presents’ to ‘spell it out’ as it were, to focus on the individual trees that make up the forest given it by the right brain – and eventually to focus on the individual leaves of a given tree with ‘meaning perception’ while the left is concerned with ‘immediacy perception.’ We could also say that the left brain knows through Aquinas ‘active search’ for knowledge while the right has the ‘intuitive possession’ of it.”

“What this has resulted in, McGilchrist argues, is an increasingly fragmented picture of the world, with less and less awareness of the intuitive glue, needed to hold things together.”

“Two souls, alas, live in my breast.” He may have got his anatomy wrong, but the insight is clear. Yet Goethe might have added: And they don’t get along.”

I’ve prefaced my review of Lost Knowledge of The Imagination with these quotes as being appropriate for Gary Lachman’s argument to urgently recover our ‘poetic’ imagination, where we once instinctively understood nature “at a glance” without a prior need to analyse it to destruction. According to Lachman this tension between our inner and outer perception of the world started with the revolutions of the 17th century when science throw out the old shibboleths of superstition and questioned God’s authority. Unfortunately this resulted in a mechanistic view of ourselves and our place in the world. Our intuitive faculties were suppressed when they could have helped guide us through our over-rational material and technological progress.

I don’t think that Lachman considers this to be a new or novel insight into the way our 'impoverished’ minds (outside of the artist, poet and philosopher) function. Many previous writers have attempted such a cultural overview of the imbalance created by a skewed perception of creativity, imagination and rational thought. Reach back to 1976 and you’ll find similar ideas propounded by Erich Fromm in his book To Have or To Be. He neatly stated that if coming across a beautiful wild flower in a wood, do you pick it up to examine its petals (murder to dissect) or leave it in its natural habitat and just let your eyes take in its beauty from a distance? Swop Fromm’s flower for Lachman’s tree in the wood and you have the same dilemma about greed, exploitation and possession versus sustainability, letting go and the contemplation of nature.

Gary Lachman has done an impressive amount of research. His thesis is very carefully laid out and his conclusions are sensible and attractive. Owen Barfield, Kathleen Raine (A fine and unfairly neglected poet) Carl Jung, Goethe, Husserl, Henry Corbin and cultural critic Erich Heller plus many others are sensitively drawn on. All have fascinating things to say about the lack of creative dialogue between “the requirements of positivism” and as Lachman says quoting Goethe “the harmony of the hidden law in the world within the hidden law within ourselves.”

Unfortunately Lachman’s writing is a bit pedestrian and repetitive. The evidence of a dangerous split in modern consciousness is all there but does he add anything insightful to help us move on? Not really. After six chapters Lachman quietly ends with uncertainty about our state of flux over the continual mental fragmentation of society. We must be vigilant in this phenomenal world: engaging with more subtlety and (To employ Owen Barfield’s lovely word) finesse.

If only Lost Knowledge of The Imagination had had the energy and drive of its penultimate chapter, The Learning of The Imagination. Here Lachman sounds really engaged and makes incisive connections between Kathleen Raine (As William Blake scholar), the S.T. Coleridge of “primary imagination”, W.B.Yeats and Thomas Taylor (19th century writer and associate of John Flaxman – the artist friend of Blake). Such a strong and convincing chapter could (with a summary of Lachman’s basic argument) be published as a separate pamphlet. Here the case is effectively made for poetry (read as imagination containing the ‘soul’ part of the brain) and science (read as transformed political reality) to be in a Blakean contrary state of interdependence of each another: still relevantly connected but not at war.

I’ve enjoyed previous books by Gary Lachman (Especially his Turn of Your mind: The Mystic Sixties and The Dark Side of The Age of Aquarius) but this is not one of his best. That’s not to say that his thesis doesn’t matter. It does, very much. We do need a mental re-balancing of our psyche. But it’s a long haul and I do wish Lachman could have been more inspiring and directive: supplied some suggestions as to how his “intuitive glue” (A great term, that) could cement the cracks. – Alan Price



Ronald Hutton. The Witch: A History of Fear From Ancient Times to the Present. Yale University Press, 2017.

In this book the noted historian and folklorist Ronald Hutton examines the various themes and motifs which coalesced into the great European witchcraft fear of the early modern period and its expression in the United Kingdom especially. It is not an account of those trials themselves but of the beliefs that led up to them and the conflicting views of scholars over the last 200 years or so as to their origin and nature.

The book develops through a process of narrowing from the most general to the most specific. Therefore the first chapter is a cross cultural study of witchcraft beliefs across a range of traditional societies and of the persistence of those beliefs into the modern world. In the course of this Hutton notes that how in the past Western Christian missionaries had opposed witchcraft beliefs as “pagan superstition”, they are now active in promoting belief systems that actually encourage witchcraft accusations.

Hutton then examines witchcraft beliefs in classical Egypt, Greece and Rome, essentially arguing that it is Rome where such beliefs tend to develop. He next studies the claims that witchcraft beliefs arose out of shamanic practices, an idea associated with the Italian scholar Carlo Ginzburg and in the UK with Emma Wilby.

In the second part of the book Hutton examines “continental perspectives” including the role of ceremonial magic, with its alleged Egyptian origins, in elite culture. In this section he next examines the various ‘hosts of the night’ from the wild hunt, the dead riders, the female followers of a mysterious woman sometimes called Diana and other times Herodius, and how these might merge together. He then examines how concepts of the witch evolved through the middle ages and into the early modern period.

In the final section ‘British perspectives’, Hutton examines the role of fairy beliefs, the status of witchcraft in the Celtic countries of Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and the role of the animal familiar in British witchcraft trials.

Throughout Hutton argues with exquisite attention to historical detail and overturns many popular misconceptions, while providing a balanced overview of the many conflicting opinions of other scholars. One interesting theme which recurs is how much of what is regarded as popular belief has actually first arisen in elite culture, only to trickled down into mass culture, to be rediscovered by later generations of the elite as ‘popular lore’.

Hutton examines the manner in which the polarities of opinion generated by the Egyptologist Margaret Murray, who argued that witches were members of a surviving pre-Christian religion, and the reaction against that view which tended to see witchcraft beliefs as ideas that were imposed from above by religious elites, still can influence debate. On a more general level these might be seen as part of the wider division between 'cultural source' and 'personal experience' models of folklore.

This is a deeply scholarly work requiring close attention and is not a light read, or for those wanting gory accounts of witch trials, but should be essential reading not only for those studying the historiography of witchcraft, but a wider range of social and cultural historians, folklorists, students of theology, the history of ideas, anthropologists and for the lay reader willing to give the time and patience this work requires. – Peter Rogerson



David Benatar. The Human Predicament. A Candid Guide to Life’s Biggest Questions. Oxford University Press 2017

Please note the book title: it’s not the human condition or the human problem but The Human Predicament. To have a condition or a problem suggests a coming to terms with things, an answer and even an optimistic outcome. Predicament infers something more difficult, final, unanswerable and pessimistic. There’s certainly no escape from the gaunt facts of our existence as laid out by Professor David Benatar of The University of Cape Town. Life is too short, badly compromised and that’s all there is.

In this beautifully written, persuasive (almost) and lucid work the search for meaning exuding from those many, half-read sometimes spurious, self-help books on how to affirm your life is pulped into an uncaring void by Benatar’s elegant reasoning. I am on the side of affirmation (from art, music, philosophy and good friends) but rarely from the text book bestseller. Yet the unflinching pessimism of Benatar’s counter-arguments, in relation to life’s big questions, although not reassuring, isn’t a position resulting in absolute despair.

“My own view is that a deep pessimism about the meaning of life is entirely appropriate, but this should not be confused with total nihilism about meaning in life.”

“Life’s big questions are big in the sense that they are momentous. However, contrary to appearances, they are not big in the sense of being unanswerable. It is only that the answers are generally unpalatable. There is no great mystery but there is plenty of horror.”

For that “plenty of horror” I immediately think of Marlon Brando, as the monstrous Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, exhibiting his sweaty bald head and muttering, “The horror…the horror!” Yet whereas that was cinematic rhetoric amplified from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, David Benator is for real and true in a profound, salutary and philosophical sense. For though I often rejected his stark conclusions they have a thoughtful honesty that’s impressive and moving.

The Human Predicament consists of an introduction on life’s big questions, and what they mean for us from an optimistic or pessimistic viewpoint. Chapters 2 and 3 concentrate on meaning and meaninglessness. 4 covers the quality of life. 5 brings us up front with death (Asking the intriguing question, Is Death Bad?). No. 6 questions ideas about immortality. 7 examines suicide – for and against. Finally the concluding chapter 8 attempts to sum up the human predicament.

In the chapter on the quality of life is a section called Why is there more Bad than Good. Here Benatar lists all the physical and mental pain we might endure and the discomfort of simply getting through everyday life (The horror of trivia covers whether we are too hot, too cold or after eating and drinking we can have distended bladders or bowels, did feel like a rational exaggeration of the low quality of being).

If there is a daily imbalance towards the negative over the positive, then I think a constant shift of perspective is a necessary to get through things and not go under, though that may not be possible for all of us if we are chronically ill.

On death, Benatar says, “We want long lives, but the longer we live, the more reason we have to fear that less life remains.” A quandary that can only be tolerated by living life fully, in good health, mentally and physically, whilst coming to terms with the ageing process? That’s my half-way house solution, not Benatar’s, but I am a cautious optimist by nature.

Perhaps Benatar’s most impressive chapter is on suicide. I have always recoiled at the idea of taking your life – for it’s not simply an end to your mortality but an act of irresponsibility – what of the consequences for those closest to you after your death? Yet when you introduce the thought of being in a vegetative state or terminally ill, and in great pain, can suicide, involuntarily or not, be justified? Is it right and more importantly is it rational?

“Suicide is not an effective means to every end. However, it should be equally clear that suicide may also often be entirely rational under the ends-means conception of rationality. If one’s end is to avoid those of life’s burden’s that can only be avoided by the cessation of one’s life, then suicide is rational.”

This doesn’t make me believe in suicide but Benatar’s case is powerfully made for suicide not be morally condemned, allowing us, despite our overwhelming urge to hang onto life, still resist the visceral shock of the act from clouding our judgement.

The Human Predicament is an uncomfortable book. It doesn’t give you any kind of workable solace or applicable hope. Yet in its confrontational way there is much valuable insight here and finally compassion. David Benatar is a pessimist yet more importantly he’s a probing and deeply caring writer.

Nietzsche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra bears the sub-title, “A book for everyone and no one.” The Human Predicament is more accessible than Zarathustra though probably another work that’s not for all but definitely for the few whom, in Benatar’s words, “…might describe this book as a work of unpopular philosophy”. It is and ought to be explored. – Alan Price



Nadia Choucha, Surrealism and the Occult: Shamanism, Magic, Alchemy and the Birth of an Artistic Movement. Mandrake of Oxford. 2nd rev. edition, 2016.

John Bramble, Modernism and the Occult. Palgrave MacMillan. 2015

Although similarly titled and published near-simultaneously, these books aren’t two of a series (although Bramble’s is part of one on modernism). While there’s some common ground – Choucha’s study being of a subset of the wider subject covered by Bramble – they are very different in style and approach (and approachability).

Surrealism and the Occult is a re-issue from 1991. In it, art historian Nadia Choucha sets out, in her words, to ‘demonstrate that surrealism was the twentieth-century development of a nineteenth-century tradition in art and poetry that was heavily indebted to the occult revival of the period.’ She succeeds admirably.

Choucha opens with outlines of the origins and development of surrealism and its forerunner symbolism, and of the basic principles of occult thought, that are models of clear exposition of such arcane (in both senses) subjects.

She then relates the story of their intertwined relationship, beginning with the Parisian occult revival of the late nineteenth century and its influence on symbolist art, literature and poetry, examining such fascinating figures as J.K. Huysmans, Gustav Moreau, the illustrator Félicien Rops, and groups and movements such as Peladan’s Salon de la Rose+Croix, the peculiarly French tradition of Catholic occultism, and the late-nineteenth century upsurge in Satanism as ‘a means of protest of society, especially the taboos of sex, death, and religion’.

The development of symbolism into surrealism, and the influence of occult theories on surrealists, is then traced. Choucha explains how the desire to resolve dreams and reality into an ‘absolute reality’, begun by the Dadaists just before the First World War, was the result of an ‘impulse towards the inner subjective experience, combined with the search for the “marvelous” in the external world and a disregard for conventional thought, behavior, and appearances [that] led the surrealists, inevitably, to the occult tradition.’ Beginning with experimentation with automatism in the early 1920s, by the ’40s it was using overt imagery from the Tarot, Tantra, shamanism, and so on.

Among her examples of the direct inspiration of occult ideas on artists are Mondrian and Kandinsky - followers of Blavatsky who attempted to express Theosophical spirituality in their abstract paintings – the poet Apollinaire, coiner of the word ‘surrealism’, who ‘believed magic was still a relevant proposition in the twentieth century despite intellectual sophistication and technological progress’, and Picasso, who in the words of critic Jacques Rivière ‘strayed into occult researches where it is impossible to follow him’.

André Breton, author of the Surrealist Manifestos of the 1920s that defined the movement, was another key figure with a deep interest in the occult, as was Marcel Duchamp who, although remaining ‘slightly aloof’ from Dada and surrealism, drew heavily on occult concepts, particularly from alchemy. Choucha describes Duchamp as a ‘modern alchemist’ and his The Bride Stripped Bare (derived from an alchemical term) as his Great Work.

Another artist she examines is Austin Osman Spare who, unlike the others discussed, who were artists who drew on occult ideas for inspiration, was an occultist who used art as part of his magical practices.

There’s a two-chapter break in the chronological narrative to examine the parallels, in concepts and objectives, between surrealism and occult systems. There is, for example, the similarity of Breton’s ‘point of the mind’ at which apparent opposites are ‘not perceived as contradictions’ to the Cabala’s Kether, as well as alchemical concepts.

An important part of this interlude is a discussion of the female principle in surrealism. Choucha makes the intriguing argument that it was the place of the feminine in esoteric systems, primarily Tantra and alchemy, that was behind the surrealists’ characteristic veneration of women revolutionaries, rather than, as usually thought, political arguments about female subjugation advanced by the likes of Engels.

This leads on to the chapter ‘The Androgyne, the Surrealist Woman, and the Magical Tradition’, which explores the importance of androgyny in surrealism, again as in Tantra and alchemy, in all three representing the union of opposites. However, Choucha observes that ‘There is plenty of evidence to suggest what may have been a “perfect union” for the male surrealist was not necessarily as perfect for women.’

Female surrealists, such as Frida Kahlo and Leonora Carrington, ‘tended to be on the periphery of the group and disinterested in theory’: ‘Faced with no strong female roles to emulate, many of the women turned to occultism, which held an attraction because of the powerful female archetypes and mythological goddesses in these systems.’

Another of Choucha’s themes is the surrealists’ view of eroticism as a ‘subversive force’, which led to an interest in Tantra and Western systems derived from it, such as that of the OTO.

The historical narrative is resumed with the dispersal of the surrealists by the Second World War, which led to ‘a maturing of surrealism, with stronger and more obvious occult leanings.’ A chapter is devoted to a detailed analysis of the paintings of Max Ernst and his lover Leonora Carrington, to demonstrate not only how they applied occult concepts in their work but also in their personal lives.

Choucha ends with an analysis of why the occult attracts artists and poets, concluding that it is because of occultism’s ‘opposition and challenge to the establishment, academism, and accepted values, conditions, and standards.’ A particularly incisive point is that ‘The surrealists adopted occult theories, not so much as a challenge to the facts of science and logic, but as a challenge to the values attached to those facts.’

All in all, Surrealism and the Occult is a superb, fascinating and illuminating study by a scholar with a thorough knowledge of both fields and who has a gift for explaining complex ideas, making the book accessible to readers with every degree of familiarity with the artistic and occult worlds.

John Bramble’s Modernism and the Occult isn’t. In fact, it’s about as far from Choucha as it’s possible to get: abstruse, opaque, self-consciously academic – Bramble is a classicist at Corpus Christi College, Oxford - and written for a specialist audience.

Admittedly I was prejudiced from the start, as I have a problem with the term ‘modernism’. It’s so broad and all-embracing as to be virtually meaningless: after all, a ‘movement’ that manages to accommodate Nietzsche and the Beatles is hardly narrowly defined. Sweeping up all manner of schools and movements – artistic, literary, musical, architectural, philosophical, even religious – and declaring them all products of the same cultural and historical impulses seems to me to be imposing a pattern that exists more in the eye of the beholder. As Bramble himself puts it, ‘Where does modernism and the early twentieth-century vernacular begin? Given their shared exotico-occult, high-imperial background and histrionic flare, that question is not easily answered.’ Indeed.

The concept of modernism seems primarily designed to create work for those who study it, as they debate what should and shouldn’t be included. I was alarmed to read in the preface by the series editor, fellow Oxfordian Roger Griffin, that this book is part of a ‘radical extension of the term modernism to embrace cultural phenomena that lie beyond the aesthetic in the narrow sense of the term.’ Please, enough already!

My other beef with modernism, or rather modernist scholarship, is it’s use of overblown, self-important and downright posey language – inventing unwieldy portmanteau terms on a whim – that obscures rather than illuminates, an academic-speak designed to keep discussion to a select inner circle, and make it all sound much more definite and impressive than it really. That’s very much the case here, making Modernism and the Occult, in the widest sense, an esoteric work in its own right.

In all-too-typical phrases, Bramble writes of ‘the anomistic deliquescence which… new nomo-seeking modernists tried to overcome’, ‘gesturalist encodings of the rhetoric of unmediated perception’, ‘anti-heroic, anegoic or objectivist alternatives to the “unshaven” vitalist/gesturalist ethos’ and the ‘transition towards a new, energetic-cosmogenetic, post-onieric-visionary zone’. Prétentieux, lui?

Another obstacle to comprehension is the level of background knowledge that Bramble assumes. Names of individuals, schools and movements in both the arts and occult – the Swedenborgian doctrine of correspondences, Eranos, the Golden Dawn, Schopenhauer’s philosophy, the Oriental monochromaticists - are dropped in without any introduction or definition, the reader clearly expected to know all about them already. All this is in great contrast to Choucha’s clarity and accessibility.

So, having got that off my chest (and don’t even get me started on postmodernism), what’s the book about? The back cover explains (or rather ‘explains’) that it ‘tracks the specifically modernist, not the occult revivalist or proto-New Age, manifestations of the occult-syncretic-exotic conglomerate.’ So that’s clear then.

Bramble gives his aim as being to demonstrate ‘the range and magnitude of modernism’s complicity with the occult’, while admitting that ‘the exact extent and nature of modernism’s indebtedness to practising occultists and non-art-world Theosophists remains unclear.’

My main difficulty with the book (well, apart from understanding what it’s talking about half the time) is that Bramble has adopted a definition of ‘occult’ that, in typical modernist-studies fashion, is too broad. He identifies three ‘initiatives’ of the nineteenth century that helped shape modernism, or rather movements that are considered part of modernism: the occultist, from Western traditions such as Hermeticism, alchemy and the Cabala; the vitalist, from Mesmerism and the like; and the Orientalist, from Eastern spiritual philosophies and disciplines such as yoga, Hinduism and Buddhism. Of these, Bramble gives priority to the last, assigning it a more important role than the others. Moreover, although aspects of Eastern spirituality clearly did influence esoteric schools and groups such as Theosophy and the OTO, Bramble brings it in its entirety into his definition of ‘the occult’, which is questionable to say the least.

Consequently, much of the book is given over to tracing the inspiration of the East throughout the history of modernism, from the ‘quasi-Buddhist grand démolisseur’ Schopenhauer to the American abstract artists, much of which isn’t occult in the strictest – or for that matter loosest – sense. For example, there’s a section on the modern dance pioneer Ruth St Denis [left], on the grounds that she was influenced by Eastern dance (and was, apparently, interested in Theosophy); hardly an example of ‘the occult’s’ influence on modernism.

The same goes for the chapter on Zen, included because ‘Zen stands in a similar relationship to late modernism as Theosophy to early modernism.’ In it, Bramble makes much of visits to the Orient by post-war Americans such as Jackson Pollock, Morris Graves and John Cage, and Graves’ frequenting of a Buddhist temple in Seattle. Fine, but what’s all this got to do with the occult?

This redefinition of ‘occult’ to make it mean what Bramble wants it to mean made much of the book redundant for me.

Where it comes to occultism proper, Bramble drops tantalising asides before ploughing on along his Orientalist trail. For example, in a discussion of post-war Californian surrealism, he mentions that the poet Robert Duncan was ‘acquainted with Golden Dawn magic since childhood’, and writes in respect of novelist Malcolm Lowry, ‘Present by virtue of an encounter with the Crowleyite “Frater Achad” (Charles Stansfeld Jones), Lowry’s interests in Golden Dawn Cabala, later shared with Kenneth Anger, show how Symbolism-era occultism, if not its “orders”, continued to flourish’ – before going off on the ‘Hindu occupations’ of John Cage. As with a casual aside about French artists Yves Klein’s and Arman’s 1948 initiation into the Rose+Croix, I wanted to know more, as it seemed more relevant than Buddhism or Hinduism.

Part of the reason for this emphasis on the East is that Bramble considers that groups and schools which more obviously merit the label ‘occult’, such as the Golden Dawn and the Parisian occult revivalist societies, had ‘little impact on modernism’. This conflicts directly with Choucha, who demonstrates that, when it comes to surrealism – a central part of modernism – traditional occultism and occultists had a very direct and significant impact. (Given the relevance of Choucha’s book to Bramble’s theme, I was surprised not to find it in his bibliography.)

Despite the authority with which Bramble writes, he makes some distinctly dubious statements. Discussing Nazism’s alleged occult roots, he states that the term ‘Third Reich’ was derived from the mystic Joachim of Fiore’s Third Kingdom of the Holy Spirit, whereas the conventional explanation, that it signified the third in succession to the Holy Roman Empire and the German Empire of 1871-1918, is certainly correct – after all, it’s what the person who coined it, Arthur Moeller van den Bruck, said.

Discussing the surrealist poet Louis Aragon’s 1925 call for an uprising in the East, Bramble notes it includes the words ‘Let distant America’s white buildings crumble’, which he calls an ‘uncanny premonition’ of 9/11 – which is pushing it bit.

I wasn’t convinced that Bramble knows as much about Western occultism as he makes out. Oddly, he consistently lumps the Golden Dawn in with the Parisian occult groups, even including them in a contrast with their ‘Anglophile, Germanic and Russian coevals’.

More significantly, at one point he argues (or rather, in typical fashion, airily states) that the objective of magic is the liberation of the individual, and that its modern proponents, such as the Theosophists and Aldous Huxley (in his Perennial Philosophy), ‘strayed’ by assuming it was rather about ‘cosmological know-how’. I’d argue that, where the Western occult philosophy is concerned, they were correct, and that it’s Bramble’s interpretation that’s the modern one (perhaps because of his extended definition of the occult to include Eastern philosophies, which are more about personal liberation).

I kept getting the sneaking suspicion that Bramble’s redefinition of the occult is to make it include the things he knows most about, adjusting the subject to fit his knowledge rather than the other way round.

Bramble ends by arguing that ‘modernist occultism’ has been overlooked in modernist studies, likening it to the neglect of the influence of occultism on the Renaissance before Frances Yates’ works. That’s if there is such a thing as ‘modernist occultism’, according to Bramble’s expanded definition. But that’s modernism for you. At least it gives them something else to debate.

It’s rather Nadia Choucha who, without the high-flown language and playing fast and loose with terminology, demonstrates the very real, but neglected, contribution of occultism to nineteenth- and twentieth-century art and culture. -- Clive Prince