Babalon In The Flesh: Jack Parsons, Marjorie Cameron, And Thelema

I remember the day the book arrived because I had been walking across reddish, chalky sand at the foot of small, yet majestic hills. It was a stunningly clear, temperate and crystalline day in Las Vegas. Close by gleamed a military or scientific installation with its ghostly white circular buildings and battered No Trespassing signs. From that remote spot, the Las Vegas Strip looked like a carnival soon to be disintegrated in an onslaught of minerals and wind. I imagined the desert then as a conductor of alien forces, both the cinematic kinds and the more esoteric kinds that Hermeticism, surrealist art, and devotional poetry, among other modes, attempts to describe.

My move to Las Vegas wasn’t inspired by a love of the desert; but after a year and a half it is indeed the desert that I have learned to love. I am stilled by its clarity and calm that evokes an indescribable force nesting in the blue clearness, alkaline winds and the jagged simplicity of the land. It is the desert, too that has coincided with some new intimations about love, and, specifically, about a more Cosmic Eros that animates and catalyzes our mundane existences.

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Detail from an illustration by Marjorie Cameron for Songs of the Witch Woman.

I came home from that particular walk to the book, Songs for the Witch Woman, by John “Jack” Parsons and Marjorie Cameron waiting in my mailbox. A collaborative testament of love, obsession and magic, Songs contains poems written by Jack, inspired by his wife and muse, Marjorie, which she then complemented with pen and ink drawings and watercolors. The book is suffused with their mutual passion for the pagan and the occult, especially as it manifested in their Thelemic practices, but also in the erotic intensity and magnetism of their partnership. The book is imbued too with Cameron’s mourning for Jack after his untimely death. Not long after he died, she retreated into the desert of Lamb Canyon, California where she attempted to gain contact with her Guardian Angel. The book contains the short yet moving diary of this mystical ordeal. Songs, as a whole, is certainly a daimonic book because the magical, erotic and elemental creativity that united Parsons and Cameron, however tempestuously, seethes powerfully in every page. The cover design alone is intensely captivating and worth the price of the book. Fulgur, as usual, has created an enduring, lovely and evocative art object with this book.

Parsons’ and Cameron’s story involves so many powerful currents of culture and myth, it is hard to know where to begin. Jack, a brilliant rocket scientist in the 1940s, was also a devoted occultist and adherent of Aleister Crowley’s system of “magick” and mysticism, Thelema. Tragically, Parsons died at 37 in an explosion that inspired many conspiratorial and paranormal rumors. In his short life, Parsons was able to boldly and, some say, recklessly reconcile his work in rocket science with the mystical and occult practices of Thelema. These were two systems of knowledge, one scientific and the other hermetic that seemed to some to wildly contradict each other. Regardless, he engaged in both pursuits with an antinomian and daredevil flair, which often got him in trouble from all kinds of authority figures.

But Cameron compels me somewhat more than Parsons; the Parsons that intrigues me the most is the one who became soulfully and spiritually enhanced and complicated by Cameron. What fascinates me is the volatile and dynamic nature of the Love that they built together, the Love so poignantly captured in this book.

John “Jack” Parsons and Marjorie Cameron (left), cover for  Songs for the Witch Woman (center) and illustration by Cameron (right)

John “Jack” Parsons and Marjorie Cameron (left), cover for
Songs for the Witch Woman (center) and illustration by Cameron (right)

As William Breeze, in his introduction explains, theirs was a “a literally mythic love affair.” In the mid 1940s, Parsons had suffered reversals, not the least of which was his disastrous involvement with L. Ron Hubbard, as well as the intense governmental scrutiny of Parson’s occult and political eccentricities. So he committed himself to an ambitious and possibly dangerous “magickal” undertaking, “The Babalon Working.” This occult experiment was inspired by his mentor Crowley’s mythopoeic system of magick. Central to this project was the evocation, in human form, of an “elemental” who would embody the Thelemite Goddess, Babalon and help usher in a new age of “love, understanding and Dionysian freedom”. Parsons spent days in the Mojave Desert at work in various forms of invocation and sexual “magick.”  Then, not long after, Marjorie showed up at his house during a party, acting and looking literally like the elemental he had invoked. Parsons was ecstatic and so began their unusual and torrid love affair that was committed to the mysteries of Babalon and the potential “new epoch” she would usher in.

Cameron was an illustrator and artist who had spent time in the Navy before being discharged. In a letter to Aleister Crowley, Parsons describes her in very emphatic terms: “fiery and subtle, determined and obstinate, sincere and perverse, with extraordinary personality, talent and intelligence.” Besides her striking red hair and captivating eyes, Cameron possessed the inner traits that many adventurous, life-loving men or women might be drawn to. Later, after Parson’s death, she performed in occult-inflected movies directed by Kenneth Anger and Curtis Harrington, two bold filmmakers who captured Cameron’s “elemental” intensities in unsettling ways.

Above all, as the introduction to Songs explains, Cameron was a free and volatile spirit, a passionate artist and, to those around her, a true Bohemian. Her interests in the occult were sparse when she met Parsons. Gradually though, she became infected with Parson’s and Crowley’s occult mythos that she herself played such a central role in. The idea that, in some poetic or mythical way, she was not entirely human became an unshakable goad for her imagination. Her artwork, in certain ways became an ongoing exploration of this myth but also, in a deeper way, a larger exploration of love and devotion.

There is much written about the bizarre and fascinating worlds that Parsons and Cameron moved among. Ranging from military intrigue to the occult, underground filmmaking to contemporary art, the two lovers entangled themselves, individually and apart, in many disparate subcultures of mid-century California. Yet, not until recently has the attention that Cameron deserves, as an artist, writer, muse and spiritual explorer, been given. Besides Fulgur’s wonderful publication, the MOCA in Los Angeles is exhibiting Cameron: Songs for the Witch Woman from October 11, 2014 to January 18th, 2015 at MOCA Pacific Design Center and is the “largest survey of Cameron’s work since 1989 and will include approximately 91 artworks and ephemeral artifacts. Alma Ruiz, Senior Curator at MOCA is the coordinating curator.”

The world that Songs so movingly reveals is one of Love as both an elemental undertaking and an ecstatic ordeal; the book is a cautionary tale, an ode to desire’s complexities and a talismanic artifact that other lovers and artists may learn from.  Parsons was both maddened and enchanted by Cameron; the distinction was often blurred. His desire for her rivaled his frustrations with her wanderings, literal and figurative. Her flights abroad left him defenseless against his own insecurities, neuroses and fevers, which are passionately captured in his poems. Parsons was no different than any other lover, of any genders and proclivities who experiences both the “bitter” and the “sweet” of love with equal furor.

Pages from Songs for the Witch Woman, by John “Jack" Parsons and Marjorie Cameron.

Pages from Songs for the Witch Woman, by John “Jack” Parsons and Marjorie Cameron.

At the same time, Parson’s sudden death, on the eve of their departure to Mexico, left Cameron equally vulnerable, driving her into the desert to participate in the occult workings that Parsons had tutored her in. The Love that they embarked on was complex, stormy and involved many volatile forces in its web. One of Parson’s mistakes, I think, was that he initially entered into this Love as an intellective, mythic construct and was not prepared for the volatile unfoldings of such a myth. He didn’t realize that the elemental energy he was invoking was rife with opposing and polar forces that would undermine his attempts at mental and emotional control.

And yet together, tangled in this web of dueling energies, their love became fecund, creative. In the tensions that the two of them embodied for each other, a generative force manifested that was, indeed, elemental in its expressiveness and cosmic in its breadth. The writers William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin refer to such a form of creative, collaborative energy as “the third mind,” a force that they evoked through their mutually-enjoined artistic and occult experiments. Indeed, this “third mind” is a force that any sincere and impassioned collaboration, partnership or love affair must bring into being.

Parson’s poems are rife with moonlight, lycanthropy, demonism, chthonic fragrances, erotic frenzies and otherworldly entities. The intoxication of sex, the rapture of fusion and the atavistic resurgence of obsession is all in abundance. Cameron’s drawings and watercolors preserve the passion and wildness of their love, while tapping into her own personal wellspring of artistic inspiration. While Parsons assiduously tutored Cameron in the spiritual and occult subtleties of Thelema and its chief organization, the O.T.O., Cameron also mentored Parsons through her own highly-individual and untamed energy, irreducible to any scholastic instructions or ornate mythologies.

Pages from Songs for the Witch Woman, by John “Jack" Parsons and Marjorie Cameron.

Pages from Songs for the Witch Woman, by John “Jack” Parsons and Marjorie Cameron.

It seems that in every epoch certain explorers rediscover the primacy of Love, as both the primordial force of Eros and as the only pragmatic path towards individual and collective redemption. Yet every epoch seems to forget or forgo these lessons, as well. Fear and insecurity rush in, and Eros and Love, once more, become either naïve myths or dangerous commitments that only fools or mystics undertake. They are no longer seen as primordial energies that can transform our terrestrial conditions.

Indeed, Crowley’s system of Thelema becomes partially concentrated in the tenet, “Love is the Law, Love Under Will.” Ideally, Christian theology also revolves around Love but of a more selfless, charitable form. Love’s range is boundless, as Hesiod knew when he granted prestige to the “Cosmogonic Eros” as the generative force of creation. This Eros, of course, exceeds any straightforward, rational or convenient ideas we might have about it, which might be why its potential healing powers are often forsaken or neglected. For Eros implies a certain relation with Chaos that seems inconvenient and frightening but is also exemplified by the world as it is, in the process of its perpetual becoming. Poets and artists like Walt Whitman and Austin Spare have hinted at such a Cosmic Eros. Thinkers like Ludwig Klages have been quite explicit about its power. More contemporary philosophers like Gilles Deleuze, bell hooks, and Alain Badiou have explored in depth new ways of thinking about love, Eros and desire that entail a more cosmic outlook. Finally, the poet Robert Duncan has written quite persuasively about Eros in its cosmic implications, especially as it reflects in the poet Hilda Doolittle’s work.

While considering the examples of Parsons and Cameron, and while also immersed in these other investigations, I came upon a notion of Eros as a way of working, practically and spiritually with Chaos and with the volatile energies that it entails. This suggests a form of Love that is ecological in its thinking, which is to say, a Love that considers the myriad relations and inter-workings between entities and energies on all planes of existence. Such a love is, of course, “hard work,” necessitating risk, failure and blindness, among other pitfalls, but also insuring potential union with “others” in ways that conventional ideas of love may not encourage. This more cosmic love stands in direct relation to an unknown, which is both fearful and catalyzing. It also interrogates the possessiveness, materialism and codependence – in a word, the fear – rampant in certain ideas of romantic love.

The doctrine, especially in Western culture, of “love” as a tortured search for ideal and mythic completion through another person must be questioned. I find Parsons and Cameron’s love moving because it entered into this myth intimately and painfully, but attempted as well to go beyond it into a larger vision for humanity. Did they succeed? Certainly, the creative energy they generated is one mark of success, as is their lasting influence on artists, scientists, occultists and freethinkers of all types. But the creative energy they realized was Love in a more cosmic form, a generative Eros that went beyond the furor of their individual love for each other.

In this light, Songs also brings to mind some powerful advice a spiritual teacher gave me on the eve of my move to Las Vegas. After I told him some of my own anxieties and concerns, he said, “The mind in its workings is crazy, the world in its workings is crazy. So the more you build up an indestructible sanctuary inside your soul, the more you can work with the crazy.” His suggestion for me was to cultivate “structure and devotion,” two ways to fortify this sanctuary on a daily basis. Much of his own work comes out of Sufi spirituality, Tibetan Buddhism and the Advaita Vedanta teachings of Shankara. When I consider his advice now, I think of how Parsons tried to use the magical and the occult to construct his own sanctuary. Cameron too used magic and art as devotional practices. Both knew how indispensable it is to build this sanctuary inside of oneself, even if neither necessarily succeeded. Or even if one, in a single lifetime, may never fully succeed in this ongoing process of “soul-making,” as John Keats called it.

This conversation with my teacher was one of the most revelatory in my life because of its jewel-like simplicity. Of course, its lessons have been difficult to uphold and yet they are always there as beacons in the darkness. Later, in the desert, I realized that the unifying force of this sanctuary, the energy that fuses structure and devotion into committed reverential practice is Eros. This Eros is the love for the world in all its crazy manifestations but also a harder, more esoteric love that works with contradictions and complexities without trying to always resolve them. The world, of course, tries, at every turn to dissuade us of this Love and this, too is an integral challenge of the path. Tantric practice echoes this labor in a similar fashion. According to Agehananda Bharati in The Tantric Tradition: “Reality is one, but it is to be grasped through a process of conceptual and intuitive polarization. The poles are activity and passivity, and the universe ‘works’ through their interaction.” Thus, “self-love” becomes akin to the cultivating of a soul that is agile and generous enough to work with these polar energies. Instead of always seeking what is “similar,” the soul learns to move among differences with fortitude, open-mindedness and, potentially, joy.

Songs for the Witch Woman is evidence of the numerous manifestations that love assumes. For me, the book holds additional charm as the place where I began again to consider a vision of Eros as not just the range of ecstasies and agonies of romantic and sexual love but as a larger, more generous enchantment with the complex forces of the world. At the same time, the book boldly suggests how romantic, erotic love can be a spiritual undertaking that releases creative and elemental energy, or constructs a “third mind” as Burroughs and Gysin call it. In this case, then, love is never “ideal,” but instead is an imaginative leap into “real” energies that can seem alien and disorienting.  This love can, in the words of a professor of mine, expand one’s “available reality.”

My current reflections on Eros suggests an “empirical romanticism,” where Love for the world doesn’t hinge on some blissed-out inertia ormonastic escapism but demands instead a hard, yet generous engagement with real complexity and actual uncertainty. Certain schools of Gnosticism and Tantra teach ways to cultivate this grounded, Eros-centered and soul-based spiritual practice. Contemporary philosophers, as well, pursue strikingly similar projects. This path of Eros has wide-ranging ethical entailments as well. The contemporary philosopher and ecologist, Jane Bennet says as much in her book, The Enchantment of Modern Life: “The wager is that, to some small but irreducible extent, one must be enamored with existence and occasionally even enchanted in the face of it in order to be capable of donating some of one’s scarce mortal resources to the service of others.”

This enchantment lives in a moving way in this collaborative book of love by Jack Parsons and Marjorie Cameron.  Their failures, as well as their conquests are so densely woven together that what emerges is a form of Love more vivid and imaginative than most. I think we can enter into this book as into a field of subtle and oblique energies that will challenge and deepen our notions of Love and Eros, for our own enrichment and for that of others.

michael-bergerMichael Berger is a writer and teacher living in Las Vegas, Nevada. He is the editor of the
art and writing magazine, The Salted Lash which comes out irregularly in paper form. A lot of his other work can be found at The Rumpus.