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

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Three Cheers for...Chastity?

“on my siege of my mighty I was parciful of my subject but in street wauks that are darkest I debelledem superb”
--Finnegans Wake

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to see the new production of Parsifal performed on its opening night at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. The opera is hauntingly beautiful – and this production was interestingly arranged (more on this in a minute) – and it is also notoriously misogynistic.
I won’t bother with a plot summary here, which anyone can google and read up on in the span of a few minutes. Instead, I’ll be spending this post considering the symbolic uses to which Crowley puts the opera in his writing, as an illustration of the principles of Chastity (understood in the Thelemic sense, of course).

I’ll be looking at a way to interpret the opera that makes its message more palatable, but I’ll also be considering Crowley’s own misogyny, and his personal limitations that modern day Thelemites often strive to transcend.

Read on for more.

Crowley reads Parsifal primarily as a parable of maturation and chastity.
Importantly, “chastity” does not mean, for Crowley, what it connotes for most of us. As he puts it in his essay on the subject in Little Essays:

The Chastity whose Magical Energy both protects and urges the aspirant to the Sacred Mysteries is quite contrary in its deepest nature to all vulgar ideas of it; for it is, in the first place, a positive passion; in the second, connected only by obscure magical links with the sexual function; and, in the third, the deadliest enemy of every form of bourgeois morality and sentiment.
So obviously “chastity” means, for Crowley, something other than avoiding sex. What does it mean, then?

Chastity “assert[s] the moral attitude of readiness to resist any assault upon an existing state of Purity.”
And what is meant by “Purity”? The answer is Innocence, of the kind represented by the Fool in the Tarot. It is identifiable with the Wu Wei of Taoism, of acting by not-acting (that is, by resisting the mind’s tendency to urge action and to pursue instead the authentic, natural inclinations that comprise the True Will). It is, in short, the path of the True Will:

The Innocence of the Adept? We are at once reminded of the strong Innocence of Harpocrates, and of His Energy of Silence. […]
Chastity may thus be defined as the strict observance of the Magical Oath; that is, in the Light of the Law of Thelema, absolute and perfected devotion to the Holy Guardian Angel and exclusive pursuit of the Way of the True Will.

And there we are: Chastity is the devotion to one’s own True Self and True Will. And, more than this, even, it is the state of readiness to defend this state of Innocence against anything – any self-imposed mental restriction, such as bourgeois morality – that threatens it.
And here is where Chastity connects to Parsifal: just as Parsifal resists the temptations of Kundry so that he may fulfil his destiny (his True Will) by plunging the lance into the cup, so too must Thelemites resist the siren song of the thoughts, emotions, and bourgeois morality that threatens to lead them astray from the passationate path of the Will, signified by that sign of rapturous lovemaking with reality itself, the lance and cup conjoined. It is through that lovemaking with reality that Innocence is assured, and life is breathed back into the world (as it is on Good Friday in Act III of Parsifal).

Thus, Crowley writes:
A chaste man is thus not merely one who avoids the contagion of impure thoughts and their results, but whose virility is competent to restore Perfection to the world about him. Thus the Parsifal who flees from Kundry and her attendant flower-witches loses his way and must wander long years in the Desert; he is not truly chaste until he is able to redeem her, an act which he performs by the reunion of the Lance and the Sangraal.

The symbolic reading of Parsifal reveals that following the True Will involves both resisting temptation and acting on the Will. In so doing, the aspirant “redeems” those functions that once served to obscure it: the body and mind become tools of the Will, rather than its masters. In this way, the dross of the world is transmuted into gold.
As a slight digression, we might illustrate this idea by appealing to William Blake’s masterful poem Visions of the Daughters of Albion. There, the Innocent Oothoon denounces religion, with its temptations to “modesty” and “morality,” and urges action in its place:

The moment of desire! the moment of desire! The virgin
That pines for man; shall awaken her womb to enormous joys
In the secret shadows of her chamber; the youth shut up from
The lustful joy. shall forget to generate. & create an amorous image
In the shadows of his curtains and in the folds of his silent pillow.
Are not these the places of religion? the rewards of continence?
The self enjoyings of self denial? Why dost thou seek religion?
Is it because acts are not lovely, that thou seekest solitude,
Where the horrible darkness is impressed with reflections of desire.
The bat, the owl, the glowing tyger, and the king of night.
The sea fowl takes the wintry blast. for a cov'ring to her limbs:
And the wild snake, the pestilence to adorn him with gems & gold.
And trees. & birds. & beasts. & men. behold their eternal joy.
Arise you little glancing wings, and sing your infant joy!
Arise and drink your bliss, for every thing that lives is holy!
Throughout her monologue, Oothoon insists that she is pure – despite the fact that she has had sex – decrying the religious perspective that would condemn sexuality.

Similarly, in Crowley’s reading of Parsifal, the conjoining of the lance and grail signifies action and mature sexuality, where Kundry represents the alluring but ultimately unsatisfying masturbatory fantasies that impede the process of maturation.

Elsewhere, Crowley identifies Amfortas with the “Dying God” of Christianity, whom Horus is to replace. Under this interpretation, Parsifal is Horus, come to proclaim the law of Do what thou wilt. By virtue of his Innocence (as the Fool in the Tarot, one who practices Wu Wei), he defends against temptation and establishes his law, ushering in a New Age for the world.
The poem “The Wound of Amfortas” in The Book of Lies speaks to this idea, casting Crowley himself (the “New Christ”) in the role of Parsifal/Horus:

The Self-mastery of Percivale became the Self-masturbatery of the Bourgeois.
Vir-tus has become "virtue".
The qualities which have made a man, a race, a city, a caste, must be thrown off; death is the penalty of failure. As it is written: In the hour of success sacrifice that which is dearest to thee unto the Infernal Gods!
The Englishman lives upon the excrement of his forefathers.
All moral codes are worthless in themselves; yet in every new code there is hope. Provided always that the code is not changed because it is too hard, but because it is fulfilled.

The dead dog floats with the stream; in puritan France the best women are harlots; in vicious England the best women are virgins.
If only the Archbishop of Canterbury were to go naked in the streets and beg for his bread!

The new Christ, like the old, is the friend of publicans and sinners; because his nature is ascetic.
O if everyman did No Matter What, provided that it is the one thing that he will not and cannot do!

In other words – to oversimplify vastly – all old moral codes, including the laws of the Dying God (i.e. the “old Christ”) have become corrupted, collapsing under their own weight and age just as Amfortas was wounded by his own spear: but rather than dying out, these moral codes hobble along like the wounded king, waiting for someone to redeem them.
This new Christ comes not to destroy the old law but to fulfill it, in exactly the same way that Crowley claimed to be restoring the original (Gnostic) interpretation of Christianity through Thelema.

The final line of the above poem is explained by Crowley to mean that “the sublime mystic doctrine that whatever you have must be abandoned.”
This “abandonment” is, of course, not meant as a surrender of worldly pleasures: it is, rather, an abandonment of the idea of possession of any of these worldly pleasures, for it is this limiting idea of attachment that comprises one of the fundamental temptations that taints the purity of Innocence.

Innocence enjoys all things without thinking that they should be different and enjoys them without desiring that they should “belong” to the “self”: self is a very limited and temporary phenomenon that has fashioned a piece of the universe as its plaything. To insist that the self is “mine,” to insist that the world has to conform to any particular idea of how it “should be,” to insist that some things are “wicked” or “pure” or “impure” – these are the temptations that the Chaste individual must resist. Failure to resist these temptations leads the individual headlong into bourgeois morality. On a societal level, this temptation manifests in the belief that sex is “bad,” that we should be teaching “abstinence only” sex education in schools, that one should support “king and country” no matter what, that immigrants are to be hated for despoiling “our country” or “the way things used to be,” etc.
In other words, “The Englishman lives upon the excrement of his forefathers” – and not just the Englishman!

Now, the above reading of Parsifal – and of Crowley – might be considered by some to be incredibly generous. It’s hard to watch the opera and not get the sense that one of its themes is, as the kids today might put it, “bitches be crazy.” One gets the impression that the “moral” might be that women are evil temptresses and that you should really stay clear of all that icky sex stuff so you can hang out in the woods with the all-male celibate Knights of Bromance, who sublimate their repressed sexuality into the creepy worship of a cup and a big stick.
Indeed, Crowley was himself rather misogynistic, so it should come as no surprise that some of the ideas he derived from this opera dovetail with his own conviction that “bitches be crazy.” Most notably, Parsifal provided for him a convenient example of the “Ordeal of the Siren” that supposedly occurs to Neophytes of the A.’.A.’. As he puts it in Liber Aleph:

Concerning the Love of women, o my Son, it is written in "The Book of the Law" that all is Freedom, if it be done unto our Lady Nuit. Yet also there is this Consideration, that for every Parsifal there is a Kundry. Thou mayst eat a thousand Fruits of the Garden; but there is one Tree whose name for thee is Poison. In every great Initiation is an Ordeal, wherein appeareth a Siren or Vampire appointed to destroy the Candidate. I have myself witnessed the Blasting of not less than ten of my own Flowers, that I tended when I was Nemo, and that although I saw the Cankerworm, and knew it, and gave urgent Warning. How then consider deeply in thyself if I were rightly governed in this Action, according to the Tao. For we that are Magicians work without Fear or Haste, being omnipotent in Eternity, and each Star must go his Way; and who am I that should save this People? "Wilt thou smite me as thou smotest the Egyptian yesterday?" Yes, although mine were he Might to save these Ten, I reached not forth mine Arm against Iniquity, I spake and I was silent; and that which was appointed came to pass. As it is written, the Pregnant Goddess hath let down Her Burden upon the Earth.

He explains this idea in The Confessions:

Again and again I have had the most promising pupils give up the great work of their lives for the sake of some wretched woman who could have been duplicated in a Ten Cent Store. It doesn't matter what the work is; if it is worth while doing, it demands one's whole attention, and a woman is only tolerable in one's life if she is trained to help the man in his work without the slightest reference to any other interests soever. The necessary self-abnegation and concentration on his part must be matched by similar qualities on hers. I say matched --- I might say better, surpassed --- for such devotion must be blind. A man can become his work, so that he satisfies himself by satisfying it; but a woman is fundamentally incapable of understanding the nature of work in itself. She must consent to co-operate with him in the dark. Her self-surrender is, therefore, really self-surrender, whereas with him it is rather self-realization. It is true that if a woman persists long enough in the habit, she will ultimately find herself therein. For woman is a creature of habit, that is, of solidified impulses. She has no individuality. Attached to a strong man who is no longer himself by this work, she may become a more or less reliable mood. Otherwise her moods change with her phantasms. But the most dominant mood of woman will always be motherhood. Nature itself, therefore, insures that a man who relies on a woman to help him is bucking the tiger. At any moment, without warning, her interest in him may be swept off its feet and become secondary. Worse --- she will expect her man to abandon the whole interest of his life in order to look after her new toy. A bitch does not lose all her interest in her master just because she has puppies.

For what it’s worth, the “ordeal of the siren” is a real thing, insofar as most people who undertake the Great Work usually quickly discover opportunities to get distracted from the Work, but that has everything to do with the way that the human mind works and nothing to do with oogity-boogity spirits. The temptation is not always a relationship, but it sometimes is.
Anyway, this “ordeal of the siren” business doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of some of the dumbass things Crowley has said about women, including the “tell not the Truth to any woman” stuff. There’s also this hysterical one:

Here therefore is the Limit of Her [i.e. Woman’s] Aspiration in Magick, to abide joyous and obedient beneath the Man that her Instinct shall divine so that by Habit becoming a Temple well-ordered, comely and consecrated, she may in her next Incarnation attract by her Fitness a Man-soul.
There are really no words for how appallingly stupid this kind of stuff is, made even dumber by the presence of completely unsubstantiated wacko supernatural beliefs like reincarnation.

It’s no excuse to try to justify Crowley’s comments, as people often do, by saying, “Oh, well, he was a product of his times. Everyone was a little sexist back then, and Crowley was actually very progressive compared to others…after all, every woman is a star, too!”
But this kind of argument simply doesn’t hold up. Crowley was born well after the birth of feminism – Wollstonecraft’s seminal Vindication of the Rights of Woman was published in 1792 – and a lot of Crowley’s progressive and intelligent contemporaries were advocating for women’s rights and the women’s suffrage movement.

We’re left to conclude that despite Crowley’s clear brilliance, especially when dealing with symbolism, he was a woefully regressive jerk when it came to other issues.
And that brings us back to Parsifal. The particular production I saw at least attempted to ameliorate some of the sexism of the plot. The opera began with the men and women separated on stage, and by the last act the two were integrated again as Parsifal renews the life of the community. Further, the production concluded with Kundry holding the grail as Parsifal plunged the lance into it. Both of these are changes from the way the opera is often performed.

The most substantial change in this production, however, was the odd choice of costuming and set-design: Acts One and Three were minimalist, with no elaborate sets or costumes. The characters were dressed as if they were going to see the opera, suggesting that the action on stage mirrors the audience, playing out an archetypal story that is part of each one of us. It’s an interesting idea, but the result was more off-putting than anything else, as singers wandered around in a bare, almost post-apocalyptically desolate stage. The effect was especially jarring during Act Three, when it was supposed to be spring, Good Friday, the time when life is returning to the world.
Anyway, if there’s a lesson to be learned from all of this, it’s that “chastity” in the Thelemic sense means something specific and that there is great wisdom to be found in Crowley’s writings, as usual, as well as in other art like poetry and opera, so long as we are willing to dig for the gems and cast to the side the distractionary dreck.


  1. nice piece o work - thanks for writing it!

  2. Wagner was a child of his time, the 19th century. All that anti-sexual hysteria evident in Parsifal (and Tannhäuser) is typical for that time and that environment.

    In Wolfram von Eschenbach's medieval epic poem "Parsifal" (one of the major sources for Wagner's "Parsifal"), the attitude towards sexuality is quite different:

    In that medieval tale, when he finally finds his way back to Amfortas to cure him, Parsifal has his wife and his two sons with him.

    That's a far cry from the 19th century Parsifal, who is "pure" because he has not stuck his dick into vile female slime.