Part I: Autobiographies
1. In The Center of the Fire by James Wasserman
Original Publication Date: June 15, 2012
In this daring exposé by a survivor of a unique era in the New York occult scene, James Wasserman, a longtime proponent of the teachings of Aleister Crowley, brings us into a world of candlelit temples, burning incense, and sonorous invocations. The author also shares an intimate look at the New York Underground of the 1970s and introduces us to the company of such avant-garde luminaries as Alejandro Jodorowsky, Harry Smith, and Angus MacLise. A stone’s throw away from the Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol’s Factory, William Burroughs’ “bunker,” and the legendary Chelsea Hotel was a scene far more esoteric than perhaps even they could have imagined.
When James Wasserman joined the O.T.O. in 1976, there were fewer than a dozen members. Today the Order numbers over 4,000 members in 50 countries and has been responsible for a series of ground-breaking publications of Crowley’s works.
The author founded New York City’s TAHUTI Lodge in 1979. He chronicles its early history and provides a window into the heyday of the Manhattan esoteric community. He also breaks his decades of silence concerning one of the most seminal events in the development of the modern Thelemic movement — detailing his role in the 1976 magical battle between Marcelo Motta and Grady McMurtry. Long slandered for his effort to heal the temporary breach between the Orders of A.’.A.’. and O.T.O., James Wasserman sets the record straight. And, he meticulously chronicles the copyright contest over the Crowley literary estate–of which he was an important participant.
This is also a saga with a very human tableau filled with tender romance, passionate friendships, an abiding spiritual hunger, danger, passion, and ecstasy. It also explores several hidden magical byways including the rituals of Voodoo, Tibetan Buddhism, and Sufism. Finally we are given a bird’s eye view of the 1960s hippie culture and its excesses of sex and drugs, and rock n roll–along with the personal transformations and penalties such a lifestyle brought forth.
Reconstructed from personal memories, magical diaries, multiple interviews, court transcripts, witness depositions, trial evidence, and extensive correspondence, this book elucidates a hitherto misreported and ill-understood nexus of modern magical history. It also shares tales of a mythical moment in American life as seen through the eyes of an enthusiastic participant in the hip culture of the day.
Why Counterculture Conservatives Should Read It:
James Wasserman’s memoir accomplishes an elegant feat by juggling three narrative threads: A) his own personal transformation from socialist hippie drug addict in the late ’60s to gun-toting, libertarian family man and influential elder statesman of a new religion, B) the legal and personal battles surrounding Aleister Crowley’s copyrights and the leadership of the Ordo Templi Orientis – the same emotional intensity that inspires one to build religious movements also pushs others to tear them apart C) the professional transformation from clerk at Weiser’s Book Store to acclaimed book designer, author, and talking head in Discovery and History channel documentaries. These three threads of course connect with our three CounterCon movements.
In describing the ideological and biographical aspect of Wasserman’s memoir, a good comparison is to PJ Columnist Ron Radosh and his memoir Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left. Radosh and Wasserman played comparable roles in their respective movements of the New Left and Thelema, each acting as movement historian and subtle observer of behind-the-scenes events and the larger-than-life, legendary personalities.
And both made their journey from left to right one step at a time over the course of many decades. For Wasserman disillusionment from the organized left came in the late ’60s while working in Washington D.C. on civil rights and antiwar issues. (He realized that the leaders of the movement admitted they didn’t care if the communists won in Vietnam — or that communism was even a bad thing.) But this just knocked him into more than a decade of wandering around the 1970s New York occult scene. It wouldn’t be until decades later when several life events would deliver the rightward kicks needed for him to eventually come out vocally as an advocate of political liberty. The one that I’ll emphasize here: during the mid-’80s Wasserman decided to purchase a gun to protect himself from some of the crazier individuals in the darker corners of the Occult underground. He realized that he bore the responsibility to protect his family and that he could not rely on anyone else.
It’s one thing to live a happy little counterculture existence prancing around in a circle, casting spells and dropping LSD. But the reality is there are evil people out there who don’t want us to have this freedom. If we want to live as counterculturalists then conserving our liberty means having a bigger gun than the other guy, the skill to hit him when we fire, and the courage to pull the trigger before he does. And of course this same principle applies whether the bully is a thug wanting your wallet or a despot enriching uranium.
Why Tea Party Occultists Should Read It:
Aleister Crowley — the founder of Wasserman’s religion of Thelema and the most influential occultist of the 20th century — has a really bad reputation. Much of this is his own fault but his enemies did a smear job on him that makes today’s mainstream media look as benign as internet comment trolls. Even still today most of the time when mentioning Crowley’s name in an article someone will show up in the comments to insist that he was a child molester and Satanist who drank blood and performed human sacrifice. (Roger L. Simon mentioned the connection between Crowley and Walter Duranty in his speech opening the Duranty awards — subjects to be explored in more depth in future editions of this list as I do more research.)
This has its benefits for a young religion; it’s much better if the founder is a jerk who’s very difficult to like. That way the ideas and spiritual teachings have to fall or stand on their own and you’re less likely to idolize the founder and emulate his life.
“Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law” remains the most well known tenet of Crowley’s system of Thelema and most widely misinterpreted. Those who just “dabble” in Occultism as a kind of revolt against the “establishment” Judeo-Christian tradition think that it means “Do whatever you want is the only law you have to live by because you’re a superman better than everyone else. So you can cheat and party and live the life of a hedonist.” (That certainly sounds to be the Duranty reading of it.) People just assume that because Crowley lived as a libertine for periods of his life that sexual promiscuity, drug abuse, racism, Satanism, and anti-Christian rhetoric were natural outgrowths of the religion he founded.
But that’s not the case. And you see it in the lives of people like Wasserman who find God and make themselves better people through nontraditional religious practices. Thelema isn’t a license to be an evil person. The operative word most misinterpreted is “WILL” and it translates the command more like this: “Find your True Will and then pursue performing it with all of your being.” How does one find his True Will? What does that even mean?
The answer is more mundane than those with the Crowley “Great Beast” caricature in their head may suspect. Crowley wrote in Magick Without Tears:
It should never be forgotten for a single moment that the central and essential work of the Magician is the attainment of the Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel. Once he has achieved this he must of course be left entirely in the hands of that Angel, who can be invariably and inevitably relied upon to lead him to the further great step—crossing of the Abyss and the attainment of the grade of Master of the Temple.
True Will = The Will of God, or God’s plan for you on this earth, which we can find out through invoking angels to tell us and then transform us into the people God wants us to be.
Those thinking that the world of the occult is an escape from the Judeo-Christian tradition are in for a shock should they delve deeper. The reality is that Crowley-influenced occultism relies heavily on Jewish and Christian traditions. Don’t believe me? Wasserman’s previous book, The Temple of Solomon: From Ancient Israel to Secret Societies, featured later on the list, spends almost 400 pages making the argument.
What this means is that it’s time for occultists and those of “alternative” spirituality to recognize that they too are a part of America’s Judeo-Christian heritage — and have a responsibility to participate in defending it from the genocidal antisemites who want to conquer us all. We’re all Jews. Anyone who regards the Bible as a net positive for humanity, worth defending — regardless of their specific beliefs about the meaning of the words written in it — counts as a Jew. And everyone who struggles with God is Israel.
Why Capitalist Wizards Should Read It:
Also tucked into Wasserman’s memoir the reader finds the inspiring story of his multifaceted career in book designing, publishing, writing, and editing. Wasserman played a vital role in the publication of much of Crowley’s work today, perhaps of most importance being Crowley’s Thoth Tarot deck in 1977, for which he also wrote the instructions. (This is my favorite Tarot deck.) Wasserman also produced a stunning edition of The Egyptian Book of the Dead: The Book of Going Forth by Day. The books he design have an elegant, authoritative quality to them. Spring for the hardback of In the Center of the Fire instead of the Kindle edition.
The important piece to grasp here is the role of writing as it relates to Wasserman’s spirituality and politics. When he founded a new OTO lodge in New York City the name he selected was TAHUTI. Likewise his memoir today is published by Ibis Press. TAHUTI, also known by his Greek name Thoth, was the Egyptian god of the scribes, the inventor of magic, writing, science, peacemaking, and a central figure among the Western Occult tradition:
When we spend our entire lives breathing air how often do we stop and think about the atmosphere we’re stuffing into our lungs? Do we even remember that there’s stuff called air surrounding us? And having always lived in text-based, book-based societies, can we comprehend what it would be like to live in a world without the written word as the common bridge between minds?
Writing is both a technology and a process for analyzing the world; and upon it sits in delicate balance Western Civilization’s liberty-based religious culture, political system, and wealth-generating economic engine. Now with his memoir Wasserman can look back and see the truth of this occult theory as he manifested it over the course of his own life: Through the acts of writing and publishing the world can be transformed. Cast a spell and you can shape the world as you Will.
Through the memoir of another counterculture conservative publisher, lost too soon, we see a concrete example of how to implement this principle to address our dire political situation today…