My partner has had a copy of Alison Butler’s Victorian Occultism and the Making of Modern Magic: Invoking Tradition lying about the place for a few weeks. I’ve cracked it open and start reading at random; so far, it has always been interesting. Besides thinking that the book would have sounded sexier had the title and subtitle been transposed, it is pretty much all I could ask for from a scholarly book on the matter. It embeds the Golden Dawn in a broader historical horizon and it does so with frequent appeal to biographical detail.
I never knew that Moina Mathers was Henri Bergson’s sister, for example. Henri Bergson, people, only one of the coolest French philosophers of his time. Or that after the Mathers relocated to Paris they were holding entheogen-fueled rites to Isis (okay, the entheogen part is only speculation on my part, but reading the report of an attendee makes it difficult for me to think otherwise).
But that isn’t what I’m going to talk about here. No, today Anna Bonus Kingsford’s story has my attention (pp. 113-22 of our text, for those who brought their books to class). She was a lot like another Annie of her day, Annie Besant. She was part of that broad field of Esoteric Christianity, was very progressive, and spent some time hanging around with Madame Blavatsky and the theosophists (speaking of Isis). Unlike Ms. Besant, though, she cursed vivisectionists to death and spent some time being seduced by demons.
Seriously, she declared a magical war against three vivisectionists, full of righteous fury at the way animals suffered in vivisection. Only one survived. One of those who died, Claude Bernard, died within weeks of the very disease he was subjecting his vivisected animals to. Clearly, you didn’t want to get on Kingsford’s bad side.
The sole survivor? Louis Pasteur who suffered no more than a bout of sickness. Kingsford would die of pneumonia, acquired from having been badly chilled by a rainstorm that occurred while she was en route to Pasteur’s offices.
The demons? Not long before here death, Kingsford decided to deepen her metaphysical studies with some applied magical training. She met a man referred to as “Professor O” and under his tutelage
began to have unsettling visions and dreams in which male demons attempted to seduce her (p. 121 in our text).
She broke with him and put operant work behind her (well, except for the whole cursing people to death bit).
I focus on these two sets of events because she returns to them herself as she is dying. Reflectively, she writes of her ‘karma’ resulting either from
my projections against Pasteur…recoiled upon myself…or…my entry upon a certain occult period (120-21)
While she interprets this recoiling moralistically, I wonder if there might be another way to look at it.
In the case of Pasteur, she failed to grasp the strength of Pasteur’s own destiny when she targeted him for her ‘justice.’ Think an angel standing before Pasteur like Gandalf in Moria. I can even imagine that angel sympathetic to her anger, but unable to tolerate her gross overstepping of her spiritual place.
In the case of Professor O, given the brevity of her study with him and her withdrawal from it, the karma may come not because of the time spent but because of the bond severed. In the occult work she may have found a community of spirits proper to her, could she have seen them as other than demons.
Given her proclivity and facility with ill-wishing, she had kinship with Professor O and his demons, even she wanted to ignore it. Since she could not confront that, though, she became a deadly threat to herself. She might very well have needed those ‘demons’ to teach her the restraint and discipline she could not learn among gentler spirits. It might have been those demons who could have yanked her back from extending herself against Pasteur.
If I am right, though, the fundamental failure was simply that she didn’t know herself.
I may be wrong, but even if I am, the moral of this little tale remains intact through the fiction: self-knowledge forms the foundation for pursuing the gnostic work and shirking that work can be disastrous for our life, if not our soul.