Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.

Friday, June 17, 2011

You Will Respect My Author-it-tay!

There are a number of people who call themselves “Thelemites” who seem to have a love for the concept of what we might call “spiritual authority.” We can witness this affection for authority in the interminable arguments that constantly arise between members of different organizations over which group is “legitimate” or has a “link” back to some figure like Crowley.

This idea of authority, however, is completely and totally ass-backwards. It’s as if the worth of a group should be determined solely by the question of whether its leaders studied with people who studied with people who studied with Crowley. The idea underlying many of these love affairs with the concept of authority is a dumb supernatural one: the idea that there is some kind of magical “current” that is transferred from teacher to student, that there is an ooky-spooky force that Crowley transmitted to his students (along with anything else he may have transmitted to them….) and that aspiring students in the modern day can be, er, infected with that force…if they find the right teacher who has the correct “lineage.”
This idea is so utterly stupid and gives rise to such an enormous waste of time (trying to figure out who has the right “spiritual pedigree” and such) that it barely warrants a mention at all.
But this entire phenomenon of loving the concept of authority is directly related to the subject of this post: the authority to say what Thelema is.
On a thread at, I got into a discussion about whether or not a Thelemite is required to support a particular political point of view over another. Naturally, since “There is no law beyond Do what thou wilt,” I argued that no such requirements exist.
It is instructive to observe what happened next. Rather than critique my interpretation of The Book of the Law, and rather than offer a competing interpretation of Thelema rooted in its source material, another poster on the site instead offered a critique of my authority to interpret The Book of the Law at all. He writes:
As I pointed out, if Crowley was right and AL was dictated to him by a Praeterhuman Intelligence, something that you have declared as being highly unlikely and leaning more towards fraud, then Crowley as being in contact with him would be the best authoriative source as to the meaning of the words (an argument he himself put forth in the Equinox of the Gods and which additionally has as I pointed out above basis in the text of AL itself as Crowley interpreted it).
If however he was engaging, as you have suggested, in fraud, or for that matter he was delusional (ie he believed erroneously that he was in communication with this Praeterhuman Intelligences that controlled the spiritual destinies of the world and was capable of creating world wars), then he would still be the best authoriative source as to the meaning of the words of AL.
If however it is merely an inspirational text, then anyone's reading of the Book is as good as the other one for themselves, since then there would be no actual meaning inherent in the text but rather something we put in there ourselves.
What is interesting about this passage is the dichotomy it sets up: by its logic, either 1) a text has an “actual meaning” decided by its author or declared by a representative of its author (and Crowley is presumably one of those two) or – 2) if we treat the Book as an “inspirational text,” like a poem -- we have to say that the text has “no actual meaning."
The claim that an “inspirational text” can have no “actual meaning” is highly, highly questionable. As I later point out in that thread, a poem like Paradise Lost – which is an “inspirational” work of poetry that deals in symbols that require interpretation – clearly has a discernable meaning and structure (and, although I didn’t mention it on the thread, it should go without saying that lyric poems similarly have discernable meanings and structure, even though they don’t have plot, like narrative works do). While interpreters naturally disagree about some of the ways to read some of the finer details of works like these, 1) there are vast amounts of agreement when it comes to the basic content of the work, and 2) arguments about ways to interpret the details are arguments about what the “actual meaning” of those details is. These arguments are always grounded in evidence, such as close-readings of what the text actually says, historical information, biographical information, and a host of other elements that aid in interpretation.
[And let me add, as a digression after my last post, even a text like Finnegans Wake can be said to have a discernable meaning. While there is some considerable critical disagreement over parts of the text – such as, for example, whether one character is a representative of Shem or Shaun – it would be impossible to have critical disagreement if there were no “actual meaning” at all in the text. There is a clear structure to the book, as well as a clear pattern of themes and refrains. We might say, of course, that the Wake is a special case in which the text is constructed with such a bizarre usage of language that it contains an overabundance of “actual meanings,” such that the very concept of “meaning” is overdetermined and imploded by the language of the novel itself. Luckily, for the purposes of this post, these kinds of observations only apply to texts written in bizarre “basically English,” like Finnegans Wake. Texts written in English that are explicit on a number of points – like Liber AL – can be said to have definite meanings, as this post goes on to explain.]
When I pointed this out, the other poster said that he was drawing this idea from “modern hermeneutical analysis of literature,” presumably referring to the essential idea behind Roland Barthes’ famous “Death of the Author” theory (incidentally, literary studies has largely moved towards a new historical perspective and away from strictly post-structuralist or New Critical outlooks, but I digress).
Barthes’ essay “The Death of the Author” makes for an interesting starting point for considering the question of interpretation.
This particular essay proposes a literary theory. Now, unlike scientific theories, literary theories aren’t falsifiable models that explain facts; they are more like frameworks through which critics can conceptualize ways that meaning is produced in texts. “The Death of the Author” was written as a response to the critical tendency to attempt to discern the authorial intent of works of art. In contrast to this tendency, Barthes argues that it is impossible to know the intent of the author and that, indeed, it is not the function of the critic to discern this intent. Rather than conceptualizing meaning as something encoded into a text by an author, Barthes’ theory conceives of meaning as the product of a text meeting the minds of its readers – to put it simply, Barthes’ argument holds that a single text is capable of having multiple meanings, not all of them intended by its author. This being the case, critics need not be bound strictly by the intention of the author and are free to explore multiple meanings suggested by the text in question.
However, it’s important to note that Death of the Author theory in no way states that any and all interpretations of a text are equally valid, nor does it hold that the interpretative range is unlimited. For example, someone might argue that Paradise Lost subtly critiques Cromwell through the character of Satan, while someone else might argue that the text critiques an entirely different political position. There is room for legitimate disagreement there, and both sides might present an interesting case. But if someone comes along and decides to present a reading of the text in which Paradise Lost is an allegorical instruction in the art of circus performance, that interpreter is going to find it pretty much impossible to make a convincing case by means of evidence.
Further, if we utilize the Death of the Author theory, we must apply it necessarily to all texts, including texts supposedly authored by praeterhuman intelligences. Even if one thinks that The Book of the Law was authored by a praeterhuman intelligence, if one additionally accepts Death of the Author theory, one must admit that the text can have meanings not intended by its author and that its meaning is not limited by the intentions of such a being.
To make a long story short, the “intention” of the author – and indeed, even the identity of the author – of The Book of the Law is largely irrelevant to an interpreter of the text. The text says what it says, and its “meaning” is the product of those words encountering the minds of readers, who bring the con-text of their own understanding to bear on it. And while there is room for divergence of opinion among some of the details of the text, there is not an infinite amount of room for vastly different readings, nor can there really be much disagreement on points where the text is explicit and emphatic, as we shall shortly see that The Book of the Law is.
In other words, although “The death of the author means the birth of the reader” – that is to say, although adopting this literary theory frees us from treating every text as nothing more than a delivery system for authorial intent – the reader is still limited by the actual words of the text itself. No reader is at liberty to make up any old random nonsense and still consider it a valid “reading” of a text to which the “reading” bears no relation.
In short, it is false to say that either we must be bound by authorial intention OR we are left with no meaning at all. The situation we find ourselves in, as interpreters, is always face-to-face with a text and a need to properly understand or explain what it is that the text is saying and how the text can legitimately be read, which is not always necessarily what the author intended the text to mean.
With this observation in mind, let’s turn to the question of interpreting The Book of the Law. A question immediately arises: who has the “authority” to interpret such a text?
Those who insist on treating the Book as a religious text or as a revelation from a supernatural being are likely to want to know the intention of its magical author. This is because if one treats the text as one of “revelation,” then clearly what is important about it is the message that its author is trying to reveal, and what’s important is not the text itself, but the intention of whoever wrote it. Crowley, in his construction of his character as “prophet” of Thelema – and thus, conveniently for him, its sole interpreter – put this position in this way:
I lay claim to be the sole authority competent to decide disputed points with regard to the Book of the Law, seeing that its Author, Aiwaz, is none other than mine own Holy Guardian Angel, to Whose Knowledge and Conversation I have attained, so that I have exclusive access to Him. I have duly referred every difficulty to Him directly, and received His answer; my award is therefore absolute without appeal.
However, a number of points should be obvious:
1)    Crowley is here trying to beef up his stature as Mr. Spiritual Authority and World Teacher and “Messiah,” so we should be very wary of accepting the claim that only he can interpret The Book of the Law.
2)    There is no reason to think that praeterhuman intelligences exist, much less to think that one authored the Book in question.
3)     Even if we could be reasonably sure that the author of the Book was a praeterhuman intelligence, the intention of that being is largely irrelevant to us as interpreters. The Book can have meanings not intended by its author, and the final “authority” on the matter is the words of the text itself.
On the basis of these observations, we can conclude that any person who has the ability to read can claim “authority” to interpret the Book of the Law. But this authority needs to be demonstrated through cogent and convincing explication of what the text is saying.
Now it’s certainly true that Crowley created Thelema in the sense that he developed its core concepts from his reading of the text of The Book of the Law. And indeed, any interpretation of Thelema that differs markedly from the core concepts laid out by Crowey – which mainly consists of the model of the self I illustrated in the post "Skeptical of the True Will?" – isn’t deserving of the name Thelema.
But this is not to say that Crowley has absolute authority on every last point of Thelema and that his reading of The Book of the Law is infallibly correct on every point.
We might say that Crowley is an “authority” on Thelema in the same way that Darwin is an authority on evolutionary theory: Darwin came up with the broad outline of evolutionary theory, and laid out all of the basics, but we’ve learned quite a bit about the subject since then, and on several points, modern understanding of evolution differs quite significantly from that of Darwin.
This is expected to be the case in virtually any subject where there is growth and development.
So we might say that while Crowley is an authority on Thelema, we are not bound by his interpretations and can disagree with him when and where a better reading of the foundational text is available, a reading that more satisfactorily explains the text in a coherent manner and coincides with what we know of reality.
To cite an obvious example, Crowley’s idea of the true will includes the idea that no two true wills could conflict with one another: that is to say, if ever conflict were to arise, we would know that at least one of the parties in the conflict was not doing his or her true will (and we can judge this by observing who loses the conflict). This view – which has no support in the text of Liber AL nor in reality itself – can and should be thoroughly questioned, as Erwin Hessle does in his essay on The Ethics of Thelema

To use another example, this time from the thread that inspired this post, I presented a case that The Book of the Law is both explicit and emphatic on the point that the only requirement for a Thelemite is to do his or her will. In support of this, I cited AL: “There is no law beyond Do what thou wilt.”
Had I been actually challenged to further support my case, I could have easily done so by noting the striking consistency with which the Book emphasizes only one requirement and the frequency and extent to which it urges complete and utter disregard for anything other than that requirement:
Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.
So with thy all; thou hast no right but to do thy will.
Do that and no other shall say nay.
For these fools and their woes care not thou at all!
A King may choose his garment as he will: there is no certain test: but a beggar cannot hide his poverty.
Beware therefore! Love all, lest perchance is a King concealed! Say you so? Fool! If he be a King, thou canst not hurt him.
Therefore strike hard & low, and to hell with them, master!
There is no law beyond Do what thou wilt.
A study of the Book of the Law makes it obvious that the entirety of the Law of Thelema is the discovery and fulfillment of the individual’s will. Other considerations – including the wills of others and their ideas about how one “should” be acting and what may or may not be “best” for society – are utterly irrelevant.
There are some Thelemites who apparently think that the Law of Thelema requires one to adopt a particular political position, and while some of these Thelemites are liberal, namby-pamby hippy-wannabes or libertarian fruitcakes, a good number of them seem to be conservative wackaloos. And a number of this latter category just might be pseudo-fascist and/or racist wackaloos, to boot. These people are the kinds of dumbasses who go around saying that we should take Crowley’s casual racism and misogyny “seriously,” although they never say clearly what they mean by that.
One begins to suspect – although it is, admittedly, just a suspicion – that people of this sort are simply interested in justifying their own stupid ideas on the grounds of their misunderstanding of Thelema’s insistence on the uniqueness of all individuals.
One person who seems to be associated with the conservative camp popped up on this same discussion thread to remark that one could tell how “sincere” a Thelemite is by observing how well he observes a particular code of conduct. Readers of this blog will be aware that this idea that a Thelemite must necessarily behave in a particular way is utterly antithetical to Thelema:
We may immediately measure how sincere people are in their "Thelemic beliefs" by noting how willing they are to shoot at contemporary liberal society's "sacred cows." Until they show us they are willing to make liberals and "nice middle class people" very unhappy, we can conclude they aren't very sincere.
So, according to this poster, a Thelemite – oh, excuse me: a sincere Thelemite – can be judged by the degree to which that individual makes liberals and the middle class unhappy. The poster followed up this loopy conclusion by offering a condemnation of all things liberal and progressive:
Given Crowley's remarkable prescience in this [a passage he quoted], can we then safely suggest that, were he alive today, he would be a True Liberal, that he would advocate for "drug free zones" and "safe sex" and Affirmative Action and the rigorous enforcement of ADA laws; that he would love home, NPR, and egalitarianism; that he would believe in environmentalism, "Green consumerism" (and that he would conscientiously drive a hybrid), believe in socially conscious investing, "National Service" legislation, The New York Times, progress, and therapy, and that he would dote on Maya Angelou, democracy, and multiculturalism, that he would demand adherence to the Patriot Act, Civil Rights legislation, and stricter gun control laws; that he would bend his head to all authorities, his back to labour (and labour unions), etc.?
This quote makes clearer what this poster likely means by “liberal society’s sacred cows,” so, by applying it to the previous quote, we can rightly infer that he thinks that we can tell “sincere” Thelemites from the “insincere” ones because the “sincere” ones would never dream of supporting such dastardly things as Civil Rights legislation (or, at least, “sincere” Thelemites should be willing to attack “sacred cows” like these).
Another poster on the thread makes the point even more explicit by saying that “Thelema does logically lead to certain political ideas”:
But if we believe "Do what thou wilt", then wouldn't that lead us to a belief in the supremacy of the individual Will? If so, then wouldn't that lead us away from any political beliefs that demand the subordination of the individual to the group? Wouldn't that then preclude egalitarianism?
Of course, I pointed out on the thread that Thelema doesn’t say “Thou shalt oppose liberal policies everywhere.” It says, “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.”
Let’s say, for example, that there is a Thelemite who belongs to a race that would qualify him, under some piece of liberal and egalitarian legislation, for government assistance in obtaining education. Further, let’s say that this individual wants to care for an elderly family member and that, under a new liberal, egalitarian healthcare proposal, this family member would qualify for a great deal of assistance and support from the government.
Our Thelemite decides that both of these pieces of legislation would make it vastly, vastly easier for him to do his will. The former would make it more likely that he will get a level of education that will make it more likely that he will obtain the job that he wants to do, and the latter would make it more likely that he will be able to care successfully for his elderly family member while also not going broke (so that he can pursue other interests with his money).
Under this scenario, according to Thelema, this individual has full sanction to support those pieces of legislation that he thinks will make it easier for him to accomplish his will and simply not care about what anyone else thinks of it.
But wait, I hear some people saying. Isn’t this a big, bad liberal program? Doesn’t this make citizens dependent on big brother government? Doesn’t legislation like this stand against “liberty” and make society weak?  What about all of those people who might be adversely affected by this legislation, who might be qualified to attend a school yet be rejected from it so that more minorities can be let in, or who might receive diminished healthcare coverage? What about all of the people who might be harmed by these programs?
Thelema has a very clear response to these questions: fuck those people.
According to the Book of the Law, a Thelemite has only one requirement: to do his or her will. Thelemites are completely freed from the burden of having to care about what anyone else thinks or whose precious feelings – and  even whose will – is hampered in the process. If there’s a piece of legislation that’s going to help me accomplish my will, I’m going to support it, and I don’t give two shits whether someone thinks I’m being a “bad Thelemite” for doing so.
To transform Thelema into a political orientation is to do nothing more than to convert it into another form of morality. Once you start acting out of a sense of what you “should be doing” to make society live up to your ideal because your ideal is “better” than what society is now, you’re no longer acting out of the will.
Now, the question of whether any of those liberal policies is actually “harmful” to society – and whether or not different policies might be more “harmful” – is a different question, outside of the scope of this blog post, and ultimately dependent on the scale that we decide to use to measure harm.
The important point for this post is that my “authority” as an interpreter of Thelema leads me to conclude – based on my (correct) interpretation of The Book of the Law – that a Thelemite has one and only one duty: obedience to his or her will, and that no one else has the “authority” to impose any other ultimate requirements.


  1. About "The Death of the Author":

    Crowley himself has written an excellent piece illustrating personal text interpretation, one that predates Barthes' essay by decades: his "Interlude" in Book 4, where he extracts kabbalistic secrets from Mother Goose nursery rhymes.

  2. Yes well, Los, "As brothers, fight ye!" comes to mind, for some reason. I think the mistake some of these Thelemites make is that they want to coerce Thelema to support a political agenda (liberal, left, right, anarchy or whatever), as you say, and start to adapt and interpret its tents to justify their propaganda in some kind of what can only be described as 'moral' way. If your Will is politics (by definition, then, your aim would be to influence the Will of others), I would think it most unwise to actually start to believe ones own propaganda! Propaganda isn't meant to be honest, it's meant to be effective in influencing the thoughts of others to bend them to your will.

    Great post, my thinking clarifes more and more the more I read you!