What’s more interesting than this expected display of bad form, however, is the way that some occult types reacted to it, specifically their criticism of certain interpretations of Liber AL, revealing not only the flaws of some interpretations but the drawbacks of their own hermeneutics.
In this post, I critique both the detractors and defenders of Kraig, concentrating on misreadings of The Book of the Law.
Read on for more.
Evidently, this “drama,” as the kids say, began when Paul Rovelli (who is a high-up in one A.’.A.’. group or another) posted a message on Facebook criticizing Kraig when the latter was on his deathbed. There was a post at the “Watchers of the Dawn” blog attacking Rovelli, but that seems to be missing now (incidentally, I can’t read that and not think of “Watchers on the Wall,” a Game of Thrones episode from two weeks ago, which was way more entertaining and even more informative than these posts). A response to the now-missing post is here at luxnox by a character calling himself “Surgo,” and a response to both criticisms of Kraig can be read here at Nick Farrell’s blog.
Ho hum. Is everyone bored yet with the silly wizard wars? And now for something with substance….
First of all, let me say that I didn’t have a problem with DMK. I didn’t know him very well – our interactions were confined to a few emails and that lengthy public debate we had two years ago – but he was pleasant enough when he wasn’t disrespecting me. Sure, if you read my public debate with him, it’s obvious that I think he had deluded himself, but he was no more self-deluded than the average smart-person-who-talks-himself-into-believing-wacky-stuff, and in some ways he seemed less self-deluded. At least he could write well. And he was one of the first authors I read when I set foot on my, er, “magical path.”
Second of all, let me also say that I have no moral objections whatsoever to speaking ill of the dead. If you didn’t like somebody and he dies, feel free to criticize away. But also be warned that other people will feel free to criticize *you* in kind. It’s only fair.
When Jerry Falwell died, I made all sorts of mean comments about him, ditto when Fred Phelps kicked the bucket. This is because I thought they were demonstrably harmful demagogues who increased the amount of unnecessary suffering in the world. [By the way, it’s worth watching this amazing video of Christopher Hitchens on Fox News speaking very ill of Falwell]
But third of all, the criticisms made of Kraig have been mostly pretty stupid.
For example, Rovelli wrote the following, which was quoted in one of the above blogs: “In terms of creativity, [Kraig is] a parasite and never produced any original work and never contributed to the Gnosis.”
This accusation that someone has produced “no new gnosis!” is sometimes presented as one of the worst things that could be said about someone – indeed, it’s often leveled at the OTO (“their upper-degree members have produced no new gnosis, so the organization is magically dead!!!” etc.). But what exactly does this phrase mean?
“New gnosis” apparently means writing crappy free verse poetry and making believe that it comes from supernatural intelligences. Grady McMurtry summed up this position in his preface to The Holy Books of Thelema: "Inspired writings are a spontaneous by-product of the spiritual attainments they reflect, not ends in themselves [...] But [...] directly-inspired writings have been received in the past -- Blake's reception of Jerusalem is the classic Western precursor -- and Crowley clearly expected more to be produced in the future" (xxv).
The problem is that this means, in practice, people read enough of Crowley and start to ape his style when they trance out, producing all sorts of execrable excuses for “hidden fourth chapters of Liber AL” and the like.
Take, for example, this post on the often unintentionally hilarious Typhonian Forums ("The Primal Grimoire"). This one guy just can’t resist posting his “transmissions” so that he can get pats on the back and feel like a special snowflake. Here are some of his “Communications from the Architects”:
In this timeless moment specific elements are rendered visible to accomplish the supreme result of matter.
Externalized to a precise position the preparation of meaning is received and spoken.
Our greatest disadvantage is found within our movement.
Out of this helpless condition we extend the height and depth beneath the senses of a physical existence.
The uninitiated will not remember.
The Logos has released another procedure to both confuse and restore the light to the environment of the sixth sphere.
Difficult and arbitrary as this may be, we come away enriched by the ordinary and only separated by the recognition of standard circumstances.
It just goes on and on and on (and on).
If this is the sort of “new gnosis” that some people have in mind, they can keep it, and let’s all thank the memory of Don Kraig for never subjecting us to that kind of bullshit.
Anyway, I guess the big criticism of Kraig is that he never inflicted awful poetry on us. Instead, he just wrote a bunch of accessible beginner books that got a lot of people into magick. The horror. If anything, I think there are grounds to criticize Kraig for getting tons of flaky people into magick and feeding their supernatural delusions, but my interest here is not really in criticizing him. Maybe that’s a post for another day.
I guess these same detractors would say that I, too, am not “advancing the current” or “contributing to the gnosis” either, since I simply write essays that thoughtfully analyze Thelemic material and since I don’t pretend that my poetry is supernatural. C’est la vie. I’ll leave it to readers to decide whose contribution to Thelema is more valuable.
The other criticism I saw was regarding Kraig’s family soliciting donations to defray the costs of cancer treatments and to make Kraig’s final days more comfortable. The argument seems to be that giving money to a guy who is basically already dead (Kraig had stage 4 pancreatic cancer at the time, which is pretty much a death sentence) is a waste of resources, and that it is better to spend that money on the living and those with a chance at life.
This criticism is actually approaching valid, and it’s certainly a sound reason for the individual making this argument not to donate any money to Kraig. It’s not, however, a compelling reason for other people to avoid donating. On the surface, this argument is perfectly rational – Surgo explicitly says, “There is an entirety of zero good reasons to support Kraig” – but remember that Thelema teaches us that the True Will is not rational. You can’t reason your way to a course of action, and if it is someone’s authentic inclination to give someone else money then so be it. The hell with everyone else and what they think.
Of course, we might also question the likelihood that it might be someone’s True Will to give charity to a stranger, but that is a question beyond the scope of the present discussion.
There are a number of other issues that go along with this, including the question of health care in the United States. Many would argue that a national health care system would greatly reduce instances of controversies like this one. These same people would argue that it’s in society’s best interest to set up these kinds of systems because no individual has unlimited resources, that there is no way of knowing when any given individual (or that individual’s loved ones) might get sick and need more resources, and that a society that is overall healthier (with an emphasis on preventative doctor visits, made more frequent by such a system, and healthier lifestyles in general) would be a more pleasant place to live.
But again, this subject is beyond the scope of the present discussion.
A final, nuttier criticism of Kraig – one made by Rovelli and echoed by a commenter on Nick Farrell’s blog – is that Kraig was somehow “resisting death.” According to the commenter, Kraig was “a man who was meeting and resisting his own death […] Let DMK accomplish his death with bravery and nobility.” He went on to add, “Its crazy how you "occultists" live in such an old paradigm where you fear death and moan about the tough nature of existence rather than rejoicing in it.”
Those are such silly ideas that I barely know what to say. The Book of the Law certainly instructs us to "Thrill with the joy of life & death!" but there's nothing incompatible with getting the best treatment that one can while still "Thrill[ing]" at the whole process. If it’s someone’s Will to get medical treatment – even when the odds look grim – then so be it, and it strikes me as weird to criticize someone for doing so. And who in the world thinks that “bravery and nobility” are incompatible with wanting to avoid unnecessary pain?
There’s not much more to say than to shrug my shoulders at how weird some people are.
Nick Farrell, on his blog, appeals to The Book of the Law to object to Kraig’s detractors. Interestingly, Farrell is not a Thelemite. Even more interestingly, his critique is not that the detractors are unfair or that their criticisms are largely nutty -- which would be valid critiques -- but rather that they are interpreting The Book of the Law in a way that Farrell doesn’t like. As we will see, the fact that he doesn’t call himself a Thelemite is practically irrelevant, since plenty of people who *do* call themselves Thelemites make the same interpretation mistakes.
My main focus is really the point which was posted on the LVX/Nox blog that contains this quote:
“Liber AL clearly instructs Thelemites to display strength and not care for the weak. To try and add a humanistic tint to the second and third chapter of the book is folly, as they are as clear as day to the true meaning.”
In other words, the three people who attacked Don Kraig while on his death bed were doing so because their religion was instructing them not to care for the weak. Somehow caring for the weak means that strength is being shown.
[Note: I think he means to write in that last sentence, “Somehow not caring for the weak means that strength is being shown.” --L]
However, such a creed is anti-evolutionary. It is the philosophy of the wolf-pack where the weak are left to die because they will slow the rest down. Humanity has moved past the point where strength is defined as the primary reason to rule. As a result, we have inventions and technology which have been created by people who would have been left for dead by societies that are more primitive. If this really is Thelema then it is clearly not a modern religion, in fact is on a par with those other Bronze Age religions that it claims to replace. It calls on people not to “waste money” on the Stephen Hawkings of this world when we should be giving it to more healthy football players.
Okay, let’s slow down here. There are mistakes in interpretation being made on all sides. In the first place, Surgo is quite correct to say that “Liber AL clearly instructs Thelemites to display strength and not care for the weak.” I might quibble a bit with the wording: it is probably more accurate to say that Liber AL values strength and tells readers that they have every right not to care for the weak.
Surgo is also correct to say that it’s silly to try to add a “humanistic tint” to the second and third chapters. People try to twist interpretations to *make* these chapters sound nicer, as we will see in a minute, but such interpretations are misguided.
Where he goes wrong, however, is his implication – justifiably inferred from the context – that The Book of the Law therefore instructs us not to give money to dying people in order to make their final days more comfortable. This is incorrect. The Book of the Law instructs no such thing. As individuals, we all might well decide that we don’t want to do that – and the Book would affirm that choice, since it tells us that we have no obligation to the sick apart from that dictated by our Wills – but the Book isn’t commanding us to act in any particular way in any particular situation.
“There is no law beyond Do what thou wilt,” it emphatically states. If it is your Will to help the sick, then go for it. If it’s not, then you are free to “care not” for them, as the Book clearly says.
But now we must turn our objections to Farrell’s own. The following sentences from his post are particularly hilarious: “However, such a creed is anti-evolutionary. It is the philosophy of the wolf-pack where the weak are left to die because they will slow the rest down.”
Apparently, The Book of the Law is so anti-evolutionary that it describes the functioning of behavior produced by evolution! Talk about mysterious….
It ought to be noted that wolves are social creatures, and as such, they have societies with rules of behavior, laws of crime and punishment. For example, wolves that attack young members of the pack are often punished with banishment. These kinds of behaviors – which are primitive versions of the kind of behaviors in humans that we often call “moral behavior” – are perfectly in line with evolution.
By the same token, of course, wolf packs have also been known to abandon sick members who would slow them down. There is, obviously, nothing “anti-evolutionary” about this behavior, either.
But the key to understanding these issues is to grasp that biological evolution is descriptive, not proscriptive. It tells us how we came to be, not how we should or should not act. Evolution – and the brutal law of the jungle that informs it – is simply fact that we have to come to terms with.
The fact is that nature gives creatures the right (that is, the ability) to “stamp down” others (see AL II:21). Them’s the facts, and the more you try to deny the facts or wish that the facts were other than they are, the more difficult life is going to be.
But since these facts are descriptive (not proscriptive), they don’t have to become laws that dictate our actions. Indeed, if we are to carry out our True Wills – which cannot be identified with our bodies or our minds – we cannot simply operate out of what we might call “instinct” (in its most simplistic sense).
In fact, our ability to grasp the brutal and unfair nature of reality (to our way of thinking) might even serve as our impetus for setting up systems that counteract that brutality and unfairness. Civilization is precisely such a system. Recognizing that the “law of the jungle” is so brutal is exactly what makes most of us not want to live in a state of nature. Back in that state, a creature’s life is taken up almost entirely by trying to survive (locating food and water, fighting off or fleeing from predators, hunting, seeking shelter, breeding, defending one’s offspring, etc.). Living in a cooperative society provides innumerable boons, and frees up vast amounts of free time with which to explore other pursuits. It is this free time that makes the whole idea of “True Will” possible.
Of course, the mere fact that one benefits from society does not mean that one must slavishly follow every last one of society’s dictates or that one absolutely must avoid being a jerk.
From here on out, Farrell’s argument gets extremely shaky:
This idea of being strong while others are weak, of forcing your ideas onto others at the expense of common decency is the hallmark of the fundamentalist Christian. Westboro Baptist Church considers itself presenting its truth even when common decency suggests they should shut up. What is the difference between picketing a funeral because dead soldiers “are faggots” and defaming someone while they are on their deathbed. Both acts are ennobled in the minds of their perpetrators based on their own interpretation of scripture.
In the case of Christianity there is a reason for its evolutionary backwardness – at its fundamental level it was drawn up 2000 years ago and re-interpreted several times to make it fit into the politics of the time. Thelema lacks that excuse -- it is a new religion; free from politics, a pope, or anything external to itself which can cause anti-evolutionary behaviour. So why then has it generated followers whose attitude would be welcome in the ranks of Westboro Baptist Church? That something Thelemites need to worry about.
This is both a false equivalency and an appeal to emotions. Its argument can be boiled down to the following: “You don’t like fundamentalist Christians, do you?? They’re mean!! And I can make a super tenuous link between the attitudes of some fundamentalist Christians and the attitude of these detractors!! So therefore, no one should act like these detractors…unless you want to be like fundamentalist Christians, which we already established that you don’t!!”
Unfortunately, Farrell is just another in a long series of interpreters who start with a particular set of values and then insist that this set of values be used to interpret AL.
There’s, of course, a huge problem with starting with a set of values and twisting the “bad” verses in Liber AL to fit those values: it renders Liber AL completely useless. If that’s what one is going to do, why bother with AL in the first place? Just cut out the middle man and adhere to one’s original values.
Like it or not, one of the Book’s messages is that the world is not a nice place and that nobody has any obligation to be nice. Perhaps that fact encourages some people to work with others to build a world in which cooperation and kindness are valued. Perhaps some other people are “just jerks” (as a great moment from The Simpsons reminds us).