The Garden of Forking Paths

EQMM Borges Issue

‘I thought of a labyrinth of labyrinths, one of sinuous spreading paths that would encompass the past and the future and in some way involve the stars’

Jorges Borges.

What could possibly link P K Dick with a Vedic scholar and Gnostic heresies, with Jack Parsons and the OTO and Malcolm Lowry‘s novel ‘Under the Volcano’ and the Cabbalah?

British author Malcolm Lowry’s ‘Under the Volcano’ published in 1947 concerns a day in the life and death of a British expatriate in Mexico, which takes place during the Mexican festival of the Day of the Dead, the celebration of which takes place over November 1st and 2nd. ‘Under the Volcano’ was published in 1947, but conceived following the author’s sojourn in Mexico during 1936-37 and Lowry sought publication of an earlier draft in 1940.

At the same time that I had been reading about Malcom Lowry, I had recently finished reading Anthony Boucher’s pulp detective novel ‘Rocket to the Morgue’ published in 1942, which curiously also takes place over the Halloween period as the action commences on Thursday October 30th and finishes on Saturday November 8th, which dates place the action in the year 1940. I doubt many novels are so specific about the dates during which the action takes place.

Actually my contemporaneous interest in these two novels was not entirely coincidental, as they are connected in more ways than the calendar dates of their action and the fact that they were conceived and written in the early days the Second World War. Both novels contain strong autobiographical elements and two of their characters, based on actual individuals – one from each novel – are connected by a third living person, the Thelemic magician Charles Stansfeld Jones.

Boucher’s book, the pulp thriller ‘Rocket to the Morgue’, is set amongst the early Southern Californian SF writing community of the 1940s, with pseudonymous characters taking part in the action representing real people from that community, such as Robert Heinlein. Amongst them is Hugo Chantrelle who is drawn from the real life personage of Jack Parsons the rocket scientist and occultist, well known to those interested in the history of Thelemic occultism, as he became the leader of the Los Angeles lodge of the Ordo Templi Orientis under Aleister Crowley’s direction. The OTO lodge in Los Angeles was Agape Lodge 2 and Agape Lodge 1 was in Vancouver Canada, set up under the aegis of Charles Stansfeld Jones, again under Crowley’s direction, and Jones initiated one Wilfred T Smith who came down from Vancouver to set up Agape lodge No 2 in Los Angeles.

Malcolm Lowry was deported from Mexico in 1937 under mysterious circumstances, probably due to his alcohol driven misbehaviours, but according to his own account he was accused of being a spy. This is quite possible as Mexico was a hotbed of espionage leading up to and during the Second World War. Lowry arrived in Los Angeles in 1937 and stayed until he was obliged to move to Vancouver in 1938, due to a mixture of his erratic behaviour and nationality issues and he remained in Vancouver until 1945 rewriting ‘Under the Volcano’. I have found no record of Lowry having contact with the OTO in Los Angeles, but in 1941 Lowry had a supposedly chance meeting with Charles Stansfeld Jones, who was working in Vancouver as a census taker. Lowry and Jones became friends and Lowry a student of Cabbala under Jones’s tutelage. So Geoffrey Firmin the alcoholic ex-Consul of ’Under the Volcano’ as Lowry, and Hugo Chantrelle of ‘Rocket to the Morgue’ as Jack Parsons, are united by their association with Wilfred T Smith and Charles Stansfeld Jones the sometime heads of Agape Lodges No 1 and No 2.

Lowry incorporated Kabbalistic themes and references into his semi-autobiographical novel ’Under the Volcano’ which records the alcohol inspired descent into the Abyss of one Geoffrey Firmin, a British Consul. Perle Epstein has written a book-length Cabbalistic exegesis of Lowry’s ‘Under the Volcano’. By all accounts both Jack Parsons and Charles Stansfeld Jones had their own descents into the Abyss as part of their occult endeavours. Lowry relates how a senior British officer, possibly Major-General John Frederick Charles Fuller, told him that Hitler’s determination to exterminate the Jews was to prevent their use of Cabbalistic magic against him.

As one might imagine there are more curiosities associated with this tale and Anthony Boucher, author the of ‘Rocket to the Morgue’, is a nom de plume of one William Anthony Parker White, a Science Fiction and pulp fiction writer and editor, hereafter mostly referred to as Boucher. Boucher with its sinister resonance of ‘butcher’ was just one of White’s pseudonyms, another being H H Holmes a very blackly humorous reference to a 19th century serial killer, as well as to the famous Sherlock Holmes of Boucher’s beloved Conan Doyle. In fact H H Holmes was itself a pseudonym of the killer Herman Webster Mudgett, under which name White also published.

White in the guise of Boucher was actually no mere pulp hack, but a highly educated man who obtained his Master’s Degree from University of California, Berkley, and thereby hangs another tale. Boucher’s novel ‘The Case of the Seven of Calvary’ features a central character called John Ashwin Ph. D. Professor of Sanskrit who is based on White’s own Sanskrit tutor Professor Arthur William Ryder. Ashwin’s name is a reference to the Ashvins, divinities of the ancient Hindu scripture the Rig Veda, whose title means ‘rider’, hence Boucher’s pun on his tutor’s surname Ryder with a first name of Ashwin. The Ashvins are the dispensers of heavenly medicaments and are closely associated with the Vedic elixir of immortality, Soma.

Returning to Lowry and the Consul’s descent into the Abyss in ‘Under the Volcano’, amongst the Consul’s occult library is the Rig Veda and in one moment of delirium he soliloquises on “the soma, Amrita, the nectar of the gods praised in one whole book of the Rig Veda – bhang, which was, perhaps, much the same thing as mescal itself”. Mescal liquor is the Mexican spirit, distilled from the Agave plant, which is the alcoholic Consul’s chosen tipple. Lowry observed to his publisher in a letter that he may well have confused mescal with the mescaline cactus Peyote. Stansfeld Jones was at least familiar with Peyote, if not an actual participant in Aleister Crowley’s Magickal experiments with Anhalonium, an extract of Peyote. It appears that Jones was involved with the Amalantrah working where a female pharmacist and Crowley’s chosen medium of that period, Roddie Minor, worked under the influence Anhalonium. Jack Parsons celebrated the power of Peyote in a fragment of poetry drafted in the spirit of ‘Under the Volcano’:

I height Don Quixote, I live on peyote,

Marihuana, morphine and cocaine,

I never no sadness, but only madness

That burns at the heart and the brain.

A short story of Boucher’s, ‘The Case of the Seven of Calvary’ (1937), contains as plot device a medieval Gnostic heresy supposedly surviving into the current era and associated with the still enduring Mandaeans, followers of John the Baptist. Lady Drower had only published her The Mandaeans of Iraq and Iran: their cults, customs, magic, legends, and folklore in 1937, from which I imagine Boucher drew his references. Boucher/White was by all accounts a committed Catholic, but clearly had esoteric interests. His Catholicism must have been pretty liberal judging some of the broad humour in his novels and a clearly liberal attitude to abortion expressed in ‘The Case of the Seven of Calvary’.

Boucher, who was fluent in several languages, made a number of translations, which included an early translation of a Jorges Borges story into English. Borge’s short story ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ was the first work of Borges to appear in English and has as its theme labyrinths and features an ancient Chinese novel conceived of as a labyrinth in which the characters perpetually live out their lives in countless permutations, sometimes as friends, sometimes as enemies . The translation by Anthony Boucher appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine of August 1948. Boucher, as a science fiction author and editor, was a mentor to Philip K Dick. Boucher’s story ‘The Seven of Calvary’ uses the device of an ancient heretical Gnostic group, enduring into modern times as a secret society, as an element in his detective story, so his relations with P K Dick are interesting as P K Dick is identified as introducing Gnostic streams of thought into contemporary science fiction, as well as being influenced by his experience of psychedelics.





The Star of The Unborn

Franz Werfel - Alma Mahler-Werfel

“If it is the concern of politicians and rhetoricians to interpret the intrigues of everyday life, it is the business of poets and story-tellers to visit the creatures of myth and fable on their islands, the dead in Hades, and unborn on their star.” Diodorus the Travel Writer, in his book Famous Burial Places, ca. 350 B.C.”

This intriguing motto is to be found on the opening page of Franz Werfel’s novel ‘Star of the Unborn’, first published following the author’s death in 1945. ‘Franz who?’ you may well say, but he was an important German Jewish writer, married to the widow of Gustav Mahler and a member of the 1940s and 50s Californian émigré set of intellectual and artistic exiles from Nazism, such as playwright Bertolt Brecht, author Thomas Mann, and composer Arnold Schoenberg. Jewish by birth but with eclectic religious interests, Werfel is probably best known as the author of the novel the ‘The Song of Bernadette’ (1941,) later filmed (1943), concerning the visions of a “beautiful lady” at Lourdes experienced by a young Catholic girl, on the basis of which Lourdes has become a site of international pilgrimage. This was a novel that Werfel promised to write after receiving help from the residents of the area of Lourdes, while he was on the run from the Nazis in occupied France. Werfel was the author of ‘The Forty Days of Musa Dagh’ (1933), also filmed, concerning the heroic resistance of ethnic Armenians under the threat of genocide in 1930s Turkey.

‘Star of the Unborn’, that I’ve only dipped into, is a science fiction novel, but only in the sense that David Lindsay’s ‘Voyage to Arcturus’ or the ‘science fiction’ of C S Lewis is science fiction. Really it is a novel of ideas, philosophical, theological and maybe esoterically inspired. In it the author is transported into the distant future and is introduced to a spiritually advanced race. This makes the book sound ponderously didactic, but it is filled with flashes of humour. It was as science fiction that it was reprinted in a mass market paperback by Bantam in 1976 as a ‘rediscovered masterpiece’, during a period of when publishers were republishing early science fiction and fantasy for a ready market whose appetite was inspired, at least in part, by psychedelics.

Star of the Unborn
Werfel, was born in Prague in 1890 and was a resident of Vienna in the 1920s and 30s. In 1919 the philosopher Martin Buber, who drew inspiration from the Jewish mystical tradition, wrote in appreciation of the young Werfel’s poetry. ‘Since I was first moved by his poems, I have opened (knowing well, I should say, it’s a problem) the gates of my invisible garden [i.e., an imaginarium] to him, and now he can do nothing for all eternity that would bring me to banish him from it.’ The literary set he mixed with in Vienna would have included the author Leo Perutz. Perutz’s mysteriously predictive novel ‘St Peter’s Snow’ concerns the isolation of a hallucinogenic drug from an ergot type fungus, for the purpose of instigating a religious revival. However, it was published in 1933, five years before Albert Hofmann first isolated LSD and ten years before Hofmann accidentally discovered the hallucinogenic properties of LSD, in 1943.

My paper concerning Perutz’s possible sources for his strangely predictive novel and for also his identification of ergot as the secret sacrament of ancient gnosis, forty years before the publication of ‘The Road to Eleusis’ by Albert Hofmann, Carl Ruck and Gordon Wasson, is featured in the July edition of the journal Time & Mind.

Werfel by Van Vechten

This photo of an older Werfel in  the US is by Carl Van Vechten, for whom see my piece on Van Vechten’s novel ‘Peter Whiffle: His Life and Works’ below

I Have Dabbled in Drugs

Carl Van V

Carl Van Vechten (1880 – 1964)

“I have dabbled in drugs, for you know that the old Greek priests, the modern seers, and the mediaeval pythonesses, all have resorted to drugs to assist them to see visions. The narcotic or anaesthetic fumes, rising from the tripods, lulled the old Greek hierophants and soothsayers into a sympathetic frame of mind.

My third experiment was made with Peyote beans, whose properties are extolled by the American Indians. After eating these beans, the red men, who use them in the mysteries of their worship, suffer, I have been informed, from an excruciating nausea, the duration of which is prolonged. After the nausea has passed its course, a series of visions is vouchsafed the experimenter, these visions extending in a series, on various planes, to the mystic number of seven. Under the spell of these visions, the adepts vaticinate[1] future events.

I have wondered sometimes if it were not possible that the ancient Egyptians were familiar with the properties of these beans, that William Blake was under their influence when he drew his mystic plates. Be that as it may, I swallowed one bean, which I had been informed would be sufficient to give me the desired effect, and without interval, I was carried at once on to the plane of the visions, which concentrated themselves into one gigantic phantasm. Have you ever seen Jacques Callot’s copperplate engraving of The Temptation of Saint Anthony?

The hideous collection of teratological[2] monsters, half-insect, half-microbe, of gigantic size, exposed in that picture, swarmed about me, menacing me with their horrid beaks, their talons and claws, their evil antennas. Further cohorts of malignant monstrosities without bones lounged about the room and sprawled against my body, rubbing their flabby, slimy, oozing folds against my legs. After a few more stercoraceous[3] manoeuvres, some of which I should hesitate to describe, even to you, the monsters began to breathe forth liquid fire, and the pain resulting from the touch of these tongues of flame finally awoke me.

I was violently ill, and my illness developed in the seven stages traditionally allotted to the visions. First, extreme nausea, which lasted for two days, second, a raging fever, third, a procession of green eruptions on my legs, fourth, terrific pains in the region of my abdomen, fifth, dizziness, sixth, inability to command any of my muscles, and seventh, a prolonged period of sleep, which lasted for forty-eight hours. Nevertheless, I came nearer to success in this experiment than in any other.”

From Carl Van Vechten, ‘Peter Whiffle: His Life and Works’, (1922).

Society photographer, writer, supporter of the Harlem Renaissance and member of the Greenwich Village interwar bohemian scene, Carl van Vechten is said to have frequented the transvestite floor shows, sex circuses, and marijuana parlors along 140th street and his lavish parties were said to resemble a speakeasy deluxe, peopled by literary figures, stage and screen celebrities, prizefighters, dancers, elegant homosexuals and Lorelei Lee gold diggers. This description is taken from Jervis Anderson ‘This was Harlem’ in Gloria T Hull, ‘Color, Sex and Poetry’. Van Vechten’s novel ‘Peter Whiffle: His Life and Works’ depicts the cross continental adventures of a 1920s bohemian adventurer who explores every variety of political, artistic and occult endeavor portrayed in a humorous and satirical vein, but which is based on his own experiences in the demi-monde of that period with pastiches of real acquaintances of his such as Mabel Dodge, famous for holding a somewhat disastrous peyote party. He appears to confuse peyote with the Native American use of the “mescal bean” which is the Red Bean of Sophora secondiflora, more of an ordeal poison that a hallucinogen. The principal active alkaloid in peyote was named mescaline due to an early confusion between the Native American use of the ‘mescal bean’ and dried peyote referred to as ‘mescal buttons’. Van Vechten probably intends to refer to dried peyote ‘buttons’.

[1]  Prophesy. [2]  Mutant. [3]  Excretory.

Champagne Wine Nerve Tonic

IMG_20140315_092756Mary ButtsIMG_20140315_092701

Mary Butts, Frank Baker and Nathanael Sylvester – The Beast 666

I recently finished reading ‘Talk of the Devil’ (1956) by Frank Baker (1908–1982). It is set in an artist’s colony in rural Cornwall in the late 1950s, with references to beatniks and the campaign for nuclear disarmament, but atmospherically it is actually redolent of the bohemian culture of the 1920s and 30s, of which the author was a part. The contemporary setting and the dramatic title were probably requirements of the publisher. Curiously, I don’t recall that the Devil is ever mentioned in the book and certainly he doesn’t play a central role. However, it does feature one Nathanael Sylvester, considered the wickedest man in the world, whose self-chosen title is ‘The Beast 666’ and who is clearly Aleister Crowley. More importantly for me and the reason I acquired a reading copy was that it contained references to Mary Butts (1890-1937), a little known author who died aged 46, some of whose own novels were set among the interwar ‘lost generation’ of dislocated bohemian youth. Mary Butts was credited, under the name Soror Rhodon, as a contributor to the creation of Crowley’s ‘Magick Book 4’ and she spent time at Crowley’s Cefalu colony in Sicily.

Among Mary Butts friends, who included many other authors and artists of the era, was Jean Cocteau with whom she shared a love of opium and the portrait I’ve uploaded is by Cocteau. Frank Baker, the author of  ‘Talk of the Devil’, knew Mary Butts in her later years and provides an account of her influence on him in one of his autobiographical sketches of friends that comprise his book ‘I Follow But Myself’, which reveals that elements of ‘Talk of the Devil’ are probably loosely autobiographical and it provides an insight into the cultural world of which Frank Baker and Mary Butts were a part. Anyone expecting sensational devil worshippers in will be disappointed  as ‘Talk of the Devil’  is really a murder mystery set against a background bohemian culture with a taste for Magick, with a John Buchan style element of spy thriller tacked on at the end. I wish I’d kept a tally of cases in point, but Mary Butts, like a surprising number of other occultists, turned to Catholicism at the end of her life. Not so surprising perhaps as Catholicism is deeply esoteric in character and it seems that in the world of Mary Butts High Church mysteries could co-exist with others of a more occult nature. After all the Catholic Church is a Graeco-Roman mystery cult, a fact of which Mary Butts was probably very conscious, due to her interests in and knowledge of the Classical world.

Frank Baker recalls how Mary had discovered that a ‘new kick, very cheap, very efficacious’ was available through a local herbalist, a dingy Dickensian Shoppe in Cornwall.  It was a pale yellow liquid stored in a jar on the counter labelled ‘Champagne Wine Nerve Tonic’. Having procured some, according to Baker ‘it soon became apparent that it had a potency one could not have expected in a place so woebegone. I cannot remember the taste. I only remember that, at some period in the evening, I was swinging from the gas bracket like chimpanzee.’ Mary Butts moved in circles that included the artistic Trevelyan dynasty and in the early years of the First World War her husband at that time, John Rodker, hid out in a cottage with fellow pacifist Robert Trevelyan. Robert’s son, the artist Julian Trevelyan participated in mescaline experiments conducted with artists at Maudsley Hospital in the 1936[1] and by reputation some guests took mescaline at parties hosted by the Trevelyans in that era.[2]

[1] Philip Trevelyan, Julian Trevelyan: Picture Language, Lund Humphries, 2013. Susan Hogan, Healing Arts: The History of Art Therapy, Jessica Kingsley, 2001.

[2] Mary V. Dearborn, Mistress of Modernism: The Life of Peggy Guggenheim, Houghton Mifflin, 2004.


Welcome to my blog!

Finding myself tempted to post blog style pieces to Facebook I’ve decided to start a blog for sketches of and updates on various research projects, some as yet not started, some stalled and some in progress.