Reviews of Books You’ve Never Heard of: Moonchild

What’s this, then?:
Moonchild is a novel by famed British occultist Aleister Crowley in 1917.  I suppose the question that leaves is “what kind of a novel does an occultist write?”  The answer is a strange little novel.  If I had to call it one thing or another, I’d say it’s a novel of ideas, the kind of book where the characters sit around and debate philosophy with each other.  Except the philosophy here all has to do with Crowley’s views of magic (and a very Flatland-ish examination of the concept of a fourth spatial dimension — which then gets pointed towards spiritual-magical ends).  Sound kind of boring?  Well it is for the first 5 or 6 chapters.  Then shit starts to go down, when amidst a discussion (about The Way of the Tao, if I recall correctly), a monster appears in the garden and is soundly defeated by Simon Iff, an idealized Crowley stand-in.  Iff and his magical retinue are performing the Great Work to try to bring a child into the world with the spirit of the moon so that –well so good stuff happens, I suppose, I was never quite clear on that.  There is a rival group of magicians, the Black Lodge, who want to control the moonchild for their own ends (again unclear).  The book reads something like a spy novel with glimpses being shown of both camps machinating against one another.

Well, is it any good?:
I’ll say that I enjoyed reading it.  There was a point, after the first few very talky chapters when I was ready to put the book down and not pick it back up.  But once the two camps begin manuevering, there’s more sense of a directed plot.  The actions of the Black Lodge are drastic enough to inject enough action to make the book worth continuing (for example they cause an engine driver to go mad and derail a train).  The talky bits have two saving graces.  First, if you have any interest in occultism, then you get some of Crowley’s ideas laid out in plain English in the mouths of his characters.  Interestingly, for a figure who spent so long railing against Christianity, Crowley espouses the sublimation of the ego to a higher spiritual power (three dimensional persons are the surfaces of a four dimensional group-soul).  The mistake of black magicians is to try to sublimate higher power to the ego.  Even if you’re not interested in Crowley’s philosophy or already know all about it for some reason, then the book is at least funny.  The white magicians make constant defenses of the spiritualism and seances prevalent in the era, while acknowledging the tricks that allowed spiritualists to dupe the public.  I can’t help but imagine that they are “taking the piss.”  The humor is so deadpan that I was never thoroughly convinced it was there, but I think it seems like Crowley to want to snark at the foppish psuedo-magic (as he likely saw it) of his Victorian and Edwardian contemporaries.  The novel has certain Roman a Clef elements, with characters representing other notable occultists.  A magician of the Black Lodge, Arthwaite, is a thinly veiled stand in for Arthur Edward Waite.  Waite, as creator of the most famous Tarot deck in the English-speaking world, might have been something of a rival for Crowley.  Which makes it somewhat amusing (though darkly) when Arthwaite is accused of robbing graves in order to practice divination by conjuring demons into the bodies of the dead.  This is the most broad humor in the book, though, and is admittedly only funny if you know a little occult history.  I wouldn’t go out of the way to read this book if you don’t have at least a passing interest in the occult, but if you do, this is a fine way to get to know Crowley a little better through an entertaining-enough adventure story.

What’s the best bit?:
Roughly two thirds of the way through the novel Lisa la Giuffria has a dream vision where a number of huge deific figures are paraded before her.  These included a figure protected by an angel with a flaming book, a figure birthing a vast number of humans out of his head, and one leading a parade of ever-changing skeletal animals, among about 10 others.  Although I tried to connect them to mythological deities or zodiacal signs or something appropriately mystical, a series of footnotes informed me that they were Joseph Smith, Leo Tolstoy, and Thomas Huxley, respectively.  The other “gods” included Blake, Swinburne, Chopin, Byron, Keats — something of a Romantic canon.  This section was easily the most vivid in a book so preoccupied with monologue, was trippy as hell, and was an interesting although oblique look into Crowley’s view of creativity as a magical act.  In fact, I think its obliqueness was a large part of its charm, with its contrast to the rest of the book.

Any closing remarks?:
I’ve yet to mention the strangest part of the book [Spoilers ahead].  By the end of the novel, the white magicians have failed and World War I has begun.  There is a suggestion that these two items are related.  One of the white magicians and the other, younger Crowley stand-in, Cyrill Grey is reenlisted in the British Intelligence service.  As mentioned before the book has some Roman a Clef elements, and it has been suggested that Crowley might have been an Intelligence officer.  I don’t mean to suggest that a magical conflict started World War I, but I am curious how much Crowley expects us to believe that and what secrets, historical or metaphysical, he’s trying to communicate.  As I said, this is a strange little novel.

Published in: on June 21, 2011 at 5:23 pm  Comments (1)  

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. A nice review of a book I’ve not read.

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