Triptych image: Aleister Crowley, Golden Dawn, 1910
GROWING UP AN ONLY CHILD in Los Angeles in the 1980s, I was certain everyone else was privy to information withheld from me — they must have been. How else could they bag on one another, pursue their crushes, and rebel against parents so freely? How could they live with such apparent confidence, if not in accord with the dictates of some reassuring how-to-live manual — hidden under their pillows when I visited, but always readily available for their consultation on matters of common sense?
In my classmates’ demonstration of the life tactics I lacked — their social ease, say, ability to land a kickflip, tie a tie, or stand up to bullies — I saw a pattern, and sensed conspiracy. In my insecurity I embellished this disparity to superhuman extremes. Everyone, including my parents, was obviously a robot, or an alien, or, at the very least, part of a clandestine society that acknowledged one another with a handshake and met in secret to exchange notes on my development, talk behind my back, and make jokes at my expense. They were all in on it.
And, as someone acutely aware of being left out of the party, I wanted nothing more than to be let in. Looking for my invitation, and the handshake, I went to used and rare bookstores, yoga classes and universities — lots of universities — without ever going to the actual parties, of course. Maybe the library stacks held snippets of the manual, I thought, and so I burrowed into their pages. Hoping professors would give me guidance I wandered around the country to sit at the feet of the best and brightest. In my philosophy classes I scanned the deepest recesses of incomprehensible texts for coded messages and, in literature, luxuriated in Borges’s secret planes of knowledge. Churches had nothing for me and so, following the gaze of my literary heroes — from Kerouac to Suzuki, from Jim Harrison to Dogen, and from Camus, improbably, to Chuang Tzu — I turned east, looking, in Zen and the Tao, for the magical solution. But sitting zazen in a darkened room and meditating on the unanswerable questions of the universe did not make me any more prepared to change a tire. Nor did it bring me any closer to belonging.
The idea of the Masons appealed to me — brotherhood, hierarchy, structure — but the lodges on Wilshire, Olympic and Vermont were so shabby, so elementary-school–looking that I couldn’t imagine any real powerful fraternity would inhabit them. My great uncle Harry Truman had been a 33rd degree Mason, though, and he was the 33rd president of the United States, so, I thought, perhaps they were on to something. But I was never good at joining anything and so I fogged up the windows from the outsides of such secret orders, looking closely for any signs of wisdom within.
My feeling of lack must have come off me like a scent and because of my deference I was utterly prone to charismatic alphas. Like Kerouac with his constant crushes on a new Cassady, I was always under the spell of some magnetic know-it-all or another. When the spell broke — and it always did — and I realized these yahoos were mere charlatans, I was devastated, but no closer to enlightenment. And still I scanned the firmament for superiors, romancing the idea of a cabal of unknown, invisible others who make the world go ‘round and could teach me the secret.
I resolved myself to joining a secret society — a good one. Something like the 36 Decans of Cabalist tradition, each of who support the sky above his principality, Atlas-style, and selects an heir to his seat before he passes on. I grew to fetishize the Borgesian idea of a secret order who would welcome me into their number, to sit in their club chairs before a gothic mantle, smoking cigars while they instructed me in the ways of magic as handed down to them from the cult of Isis.
When, in 2003, I found myself, like some dopey protagonist of an unmade Billy Wilder movie, insolvent, writing screenplays, and working as a factotum for a British filmmaker researching black magic, I’d all but given up on the secret. But still I read my texts as if in preparation for a greater calling. Indeed, I shouldn’t have been surprised if, at any point, my boss’ voice dropped a register and he announced that the movie prep was a charade, that the reading was really my training for initiation. (Which, in a way, it was, albeit unto filmmaking, not witchcraft, alas.)
The director was developing a screenplay about the legendary black magus, sadist, and drug fiend Aleister Crowley. Having secured the initial funding on the strength of the pitch, “a Merchant-Ivory movie with cocaine and anal sex,” he holed up in a guest house in Laurel Canyon, the locus of much Angeleno occultism, to pen the first draft. And, though the movie never came to be, it was in the stories we collected that summer that I discovered the ultimate truth, the path to wisdom promised to us by Prometheus and the prophets.
I learned the secret.
In the beginning there was thought; a mental impulse willed matter into being. Bang. Almost immediately, this pure expression of divinity — the Aleph in Cabalistic tradition, gods and angels in the heroic histories of creation — began to decay. Faster than a new Bimmer driving off a lot in Beverly Hills, the One degraded, from Forms to forms, from gods to men, from metaphor to banality.
As we’ve regressed over time we have lost touch with the Source, with the recipes of alchemy, the portals to ecstasy and supernatural powers. But, as surely as that connection to the spiritual umbilicus has dissolved, there have always been men or groups of men who have sought to gather and protect the hermetic knowledge of the gods and pass it down by initiation to the elect. Such is the belief in the so-called esotericist tradition, the lore of comic books, organized religions, and bestsellers.
And what could be more attractive, more valuable, than a hand-bound user’s manual to the sentient being? Isn’t this the actual Holy Grail, or at least the “one thing” Curly alluded to in City Slickers? The ultimate mystery, the most secret secret. According to The Secret History of the World, a kind of nonfiction The Da Vinci Code you’d find in the spinner rack at an airport stall, those in possession of this secret are “guardians of ancient streams of underground spirituality that may have something important to say to us […] the way the supernatural works in the world.”
Where better to find such a guardian than in my hometown? Los Angeles has always been a hotbed for both gurus and the seekers who love them. As far back as the turn into the 20th century, before there even was a film industry, the swami Vivekananda, among the first Indian sages to bring his teachings to the West, was set up in a cottage by a couple of sisters in South Pasadena. Jiddu Krishnamurti first came to the hills north of the city in the early 1920s and later dazzled the German and English intellectuals who flocked to the coast at the mid-century. For years he famously tied the minds of Christopher Isherwood, Aldous Huxley, and the like into knots the way Bikram Choudhury now does sweaty Angelenos’ bodies, in search of what Krishnamurti called a psychological revolution unto enlightenment. And still the saints and sinners, the magi and the Mansons, move to LA.
It is a supply and demand issue, really: out here at the edge of the world, the West is still Wild; outcasts show up every day in search of a dream, a new life, a new self. And outlaws, riding off into the sunset as far as it will take them, come to fill the void, to make a movie or a fast buck.
Cinema itself is, with its roots in illusionism, a kind of hustle, and modern filmmakers are, just as were their ancestors, the mesmerists of their day. We have the term “movie magic” to describe the inexplicable process by which a back lot in Burbank can become a Roman battlefield, and an actor simulating emotion in period attire can rend us to tears. And it is a kind of magic — that mote-thick flicker casting a spell to which we all happily submit. Our relationship to movies, and their makers, is akin to that of the initiate toward his master. We depend on them to transport us, to show us a reflection of ourselves, or to allow us to escape entirely.
And if the viewer should become an initiate, seeking entrée into the secrets of cinema, he travels behind the theater’s curtain so to speak, and everyone in this Oz is a wizard. In the absence of any rationale or set of data that can accurately predict success in the gray market of Hollywood — since, as William Goldman famously wrote about the industry, “nobody knows anything” — a swarm of these imposters descends, claiming to hold the secret to selling a screenplay, and offer it to all at a price. What they are really selling, like the Landmark Forum, the Self-Realization Fellowship, and the Scientologists along Sunset, is no less than the magical elixir, the philosopher’s stone, the secret code to the game of life.
And they are never short of clientele here, as the Greyhound stations well up every hour on the hour with a new batch of misfits and wanderers arriving in search of meaning in their lives. Among the know-nothings these newbies know the least, and know not even that there is nothing to know. In the Sartrean sense, these seekers have come to create value in their lives, forging that meaning from scratch. Like the aspirant Utopia in which they find themselves they are perpetually under construction, always becoming. Being from nothingness. They are constructing identities by way of their wants, tastes and actions. In other words, they are, like proper existentialists, looking to the world around to define them.
For a self-under-construction, movies are the greatest gift. Film study is like a simulation tank for life, an endless shelf of case studies to consider on the human condition. Why did this character act this way rather than that? Why did the actor perform it this way rather than another? All of it is heavy with meaning if you want it to be, and I wanted it to be. I hoped I might learn “how to be”’ by watching the great ones do it.
As with any isolate, the idea of mastery appealed to me, and movies seemed the ideal medium for this expertise. If I was rigorous enough in my post-graduate film studies, if I could master the arcane semiotics of film, I felt, I might become an insider, might never again be entirely an outsider. Movies would make me understand. Mastery of movies could make me belong.
Fellow Angeleno Paul Thomas Anderson (well, Studio City-ite), also made this appeal to movies, projecting onto their projections a kind of gospel. He went looking to define himself with what he saw on the screen, but was let down. “I was raised on movies,” he wrote, around the time of his Roma of the Valley, Magnolia:
And there come these times in life where you just get to a spot when you feel like movies are betraying you […] those moments that are foreign to you because, in a way, they haven’t been shown to you in a movie before. The part where, say, you’re going to the funeral and you’re faced with the little realities of things like, “where am I going to park my car?”
It is those subtle betrayals, those lacunae, that the creative impulse seeks to fill. No film buff, no real, obsessive cineaste is without his own aims to make movies some day, to participate in a conversation with his heroes, to make the characters and actors behave the right way, the way he sees it. If one could properly master the form, the thinking goes, one might then begin to express oneself — graduating from understanding to being understood. And so, in my 20s, I aspired to filmmaking. After writing a few scripts and making a few shorts of my own I met the director working on his Crowley project. We bonded over a mutual appreciation for Fellini, a man whose intimates even called him “il Maestro,” and I hoped to settle down to an apprenticeship.
In an early scene in Anderson’s The Master, Philip Seymour Hoffman declares, to his initiate and our stand-in played by Joaquin Phoenix, “I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher, but above all I am a man. A hopelessly inquisitive man, just like you.” And like his initiate, we want to believe him, want to see such a polymath manifest in our midst — a Renaissance man in the mold of Leonardo, or the caliber of Socrates, both of who were, in the time they lived, everything a man could be — physicists and philosophers who literally knew everything that was then known.
During my readings on the Crowley project I devoured the stories of such supermen, tracing a lineage back to the beginning of human history. Homer is of course littered with such maestros, and every religious text, no matter the distinction, relates the supernatural skills of our ancestors. It was said of Pythagoras that he could be in two places at once, could heal with music and poetry, recall his own past lives and indeed the entire history of the world. Similarly, the Comte de St. Germain, like an Enlightenment era Zelig, popped up in the diaries of the demi-monde, including those of his buddies Voltaire and Casanova, from the early 18th century well into the 19th without appearing to age a day. He spoke a dozen languages, painted, played the violin and, like the immortal Tibetan saint Milarepa, was a gifted telepath and yogi who could project himself across both the centuries and the globe. Maybe, if one studied enough, or sat long enough in a Himalayan cave, the secret would present itself. Though Crowley’s regimen of amphetamine injections and sex rituals seemed rather less pious.
No mere synthesist, Crowley claimed, as any self-respecting oracle must, to receive his teachings straight from his own private deity. Egypt seems as good a place for prophecy as any, striking just the right balance between ancient and apotheotic, worshiping man-gods as they did. It was while visiting the nation on the Nile in 1904 that Crowley received his teachings. In a trance-state lasting three days in April, Crowley involuntarily downloaded what he later termed The Book of Law as dictated by Aiwass, a minister for Horus, or the Holy Guardian Angel, depending on when you asked him. The Book of Law became the core of Crowleyanity, what he called Thelema, a mishmash of Magick, mysticism and cabala. Boiled down to its central tenet, Crowley described his philosophy thus: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.” Beneath all the gnarled occultisms, Thelema was a call to action, a celebration of the will. If you can do something, do it, whatever you can get away with. Game on.
Nietzsche had of course already postulated a “master morality,” the belief in a natural nobility — generally held by those who feel themselves among the elect — who exist outside of good and bad, right and wrong, but set their own standard by the force of their will. Just like Hollywood’s auteurs, Nietzsche’s “masters” are world-builders, directing the action of their lives according to their personal vision. But it would take a few years and a man far more cynical than Nietzsche to declare, as Crowley did, that all bets were off; that, along with god, morality, and law were gone too. Crowley imagined us in a kind of existential Deadwood. And in his death-match teleology when the cat of kindness is away, the tricksters, sociopaths, and nihilists will play. Enter cynicism and the countless gurus who, like acting coaches in Los Angeles, prey on the most vulnerable among us, promising secret channels to success, serenity and whatever flavor of paradise is in vogue — all for the low, low price of indentured servitude and an E-Z pass to your pink parts.
Along with my director boss I fell down the rabbit hole of Crowleyanity and started to see “the wickedest man” as some Mansonian Mabuse, the hinge on which all the madness of the 20th century relied. Indeed, if one is only as good as his enemies, Crowley was a titan. H.L. Menken described him as “surrounded by a group of idiots who regarded him as inspired and almost, indeed a god.” The patron John Quinn dubbed Crowley “a third- or fourth-rate poet.” For many years he was a member of The Order of the Golden Dawn, a hermetic lodge of practicing “magicians,” and one of his colleagues there, W.B. Yeats, might have been thinking about Crowley when he wrote, in The Second Coming, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.” (A shame that the irony of this line was lost on the Nobel Laureate and passionate poet, who was perpetually under the spell of one charlatan or another — including Madame Blavatsky, author of The Secret Doctrine, creator of Theosophical Society and a fraudulent medium.)
When, in the early 1940s, Crowley began to fashion himself as a leader and to construct an order of disciples, he began to recede from his own story, becoming a mysterious, dictatorial, if marginal, character in the lives of his apostles. And he had such remarkable apostles. His most ardent, Jack Parsons, was a young rocket scientist who later founded Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Just after the war, Parsons bought a white mansion at 1003 Orange Grove Avenue — on “Millionaire’s Row” — in his hometown of Pasadena and converted it into a lodge of Crowley’s Ordo Templi Orientis. Once established there Parson began to seek out his followers and, in January 1946, found Lieutenant L. Ron Hubbard, a science fiction writer of some acclaim, who then joined the O.T.O. and moved in with the bohemian community at 1003, charming or repelling his roommates in equal measures.
Like the Masons and Illuminati, the group Hubbard set up a few years later is also organized as a hierarchy through which inductees ascend toward an ultimate insight. And for this privilege, Scientologists pay to play. Like aspirants in Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Transcendental Meditation, who are charged fees substantial enough to convince them of the value of the teaching, initiates become customers. And gurus become salesmen. Just as the huckster in the commercial who offers to teach you how to make millions for the onetime fee of $49.95 — one that actually has discovered the secret to riches — the prophet, the guru, the cult leader is in possession of this secret. It simply isn’t the secret we bargained for.
Legend has it that when the secular priest Jacob Lanz was struck down by lightning in 1785, Bavarian authorities found among his belongings the secret plans of a new brotherhood created by Adam Weishaupt within the then-popular Freemasons. Weishaupt called his crew the Illuminati, and among Lanz’s papers was discovered the secret they were protecting, that all hermetic societies protect, have been protecting throughout the millennia. Quoth The Secret History:
The seized writings revealed that the ancient wisdom and secret supernatural powers promulgated within the Illuminati had always been a cynical invention and a fraud. An aspirant progressed through grades only to discover that the spiritual elements were a smokescreen. In this way he was inducted into a nihilistic and anarchistic philosophy that appealed to the candidate’s worst instincts. Weishaupt gleefully anticipated tearing down, destroying civilization, not to set people free but for the pleasure of imposing his will upon others.
Finally it was whispered into the candidate’s ear that the ultimate secret is that there is no secret.
At the end of The Master, the wastrel vet played by Joaquin Phoenix throws himself under a random bar wench the way another, similarly flailing man might under a bus. Their congress is in every sense anticlimactic, as he drunkenly attempts to recreate with her the first charged connection he experienced with a Hoffman’s domineering Dodd. He coaches his presumptive dominatrix through the same dialectic with which his self-appointed guru was formerly able to provide him with release — from alcohol, from anger, from himself — to no end. It is the masochist’s judo move, to wrap oneself around another, wraith-like, and roll beneath an oppressor in aggressive submission. He is chasing the devotee’s dragon. Having been betrayed by his master, he is left on his own to find his fulfillment, and is unable to do so.
It was during my year of research into Crowley for the director, in hot pursuit of mentors to show me the way and a world in which I might belong, that I discovered the secret about there not being a secret, discovered that there isn’t any up-up-down-down-A-B-A-B cheat to life, and that no one knows what they are doing. In the light of this new knowledge, its own psychological revolution, our “great men” theories and our hero worship rings hollow. We are left, like Phoenix (the mythic, and the movie star), reborn without a master, left to find our way home alone. We are once again fresh off the bus, unattended, wandering in the hills looking to rebuild our dream houses, our dream selves, without a blueprint. But in this freedom we can, like Anderson did, fill in the void of what we were not taught with an act of our own creation. We can make the movie we want to see, write lines for the hero we need.
Or else we can go west, out to the edge of the world, as far as we can ride into the sunset, to recreate ourselves as we want to be, from scratch. It could be our own little secret.