Thursday, December 27, 2012

In the Center of the Fire : a Memoir of the Occult (Book Review)

The 1960s esoteric/occult revival, particularly as it took place in New York city, is gradually becoming an area of scholarly interest. The movement is an intense confluence of many different currents and questions of interest to both the sociologist and religion scholar. In the 1960s, religious or esoteric ideas that had declined in popularity during the previous 20 or 30 years (if not longer) suddenly reemerge, an occurrence all the more interesting due to the absence of any credibly organized religious body perpetuating the texts and mythologies. The occult revival occurs during an era of open rebellion towards government, established culture, sexual mores, the birth and boom of the American drug culture and, as people would find out twenty years or so later, the earliest years of HIV/AIDS. All of these make an appearance in James Wasserman's autobiographical account. Wasserman was born into a Jewish family, became involved with various social justice and marxist movements when in college, developed a taste for the 60s drug culture and the circulation of alternative religious ideas during the period and then, eventually, settled into Aleister Crowley's (or the Crowley inspired, depending on one's point of view) Ordo Templi Orientis, O.T.O.

Wasserman is candid about his battle with both alcoholism and drug addiction. He prefeces these accounts by stating that he does not wish to glorify them, an aim which he achieves with mixed results. He demonstrates a certain euphoria with earlier drug episodes, although pains of regret, remorse and desperation become fully demonstrable by the later episodes. The author doesn't hide from the truth that drugs, and HIV transmitted through shared needles, eventually hit horribly close to home and had a hand in waking him up. As much as Wasserman attests to his belief in the O.T.O. and often provides detailed accounts of his participation in its practices, his witness to the transformative power of Alcoholics Anonymous is perhaps more passionate and therefore more convincing. Despite openly disagreeing with Crowley's advocacy for open marriage (Wasserman states practicing such never did anything but cause trouble), Wasserman tells a tale replete with accounts of casually and gradually cultivating romantic relationships with "other women", usually becoming "magically infatuated" with a woman's spiritual energy while involved with the previous partner. Wasserman's life was at the time, truly, a product of his age of American culture. In this case, a casual attitude towards relationship taboos influenced by spirituality - all in search for someone with whom he could reach what we could call some sense of the transcendent. It seems, if I've read the book correctly, Wasserman eventually settled down in the 90s, though it seems he tries to make some narrative sense of his past relationships, including his own casual attitude towards engaging in romantic relationships while with someone else, in the larger account of his life and how he came to be where he is presently.

The chronological development is perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the book, from the scholar's perspective. As mentioned above, the author engaged ins social justice and quasi-marxist movements before delving into large spiritual stew of the 1960s. The author plainly states his involvement in the 60s estoeric and occult circles developed from a conviction that the social justice solution was too materialist in the manner in which addressed the human condition - it only addressed, it seems, half of the problem. The author then presents us with a larger inquiry to make of 60s occult revival: was there a direct correlation between disengagement of established religion and culture, engagement with social justice movements and eventual engagement with occultism/alternative spiritualities? Wasserman does note, often times passively, the various expressions of gender and racial equality that ran through many of the religious/spiritual groups he became involved with during this time. It is, then, tempting to interpret the 1960s occult revival as a rejection of both post-enlightenment materialism and perceived social inequalities as much as it was part of the general rejection of the political and moral values of another generation.

The book provides an first hand account of the transition from the euphoria of the 60s, to the increasing doldrums of the 70s, to the sober awakening in the 80s in the life cycle of one esoteric group. Day jobs and stable careers come into the narrative as does the poignant account of recognizing that the permissive attitude towards sex and drugs of the 60s and 70s had begun causing problems in 80s. Aside from providing an account of his own battle with addiction, Wasserman also provides a record of his group's gradual pressure upon members to get clean. Also of interest is Wasserman's account of the trials surrounding the O.T.O.'s legal status. There were many esoteric and occult groups in the 60s. A few made it out of the decade. Fewer still are operating today. The ruling given in a court of law that the O.T.O. was the rightful possessor of Crowley's organization provided the group with a form of institutional coherence required for transition, the organization became more solid and acquired operational procedures that could perpetuate the group's ideas after this generation passes.

In the Center of Fire provides the scholar and theologian (the two types I assume will read this blog and be interested in this book) with additional perspective on what was, undoubtedly, an important era in the history of religion in the United States. Indeed, it is impossible for the scholar or the theologian to make any adequate diagnosis of the religious, theological, and spiritual mood of western culture without understanding the many currents that flowed in the flower power decade. We are still living in the wake of the baby boomers' spiritual  and cultural experimentation. For the scholar, it is important to know why these ideas exploded and how groups inspired by these ideas either perpetuated themselves or declined. For the Theologian, it is important to know how these ideas have transformed since their original inception and what influence they have exerted on official or popular theology.