Wednesday, 2 January 2008

Scarlet Women, Feminism, and Aleister Crowley

For reasons even I don't know (that probably include surfing Wikipedia a little too much) I found myself reading a book on thelema last night. As far as I can tell, it's your usual mishmash of Nietzsche and occultism and plenty of taboo sex.

Not particularly interesting, considering one could just read Nietzsche or Sade and it would be better written and easier to understand. But I happened to notice a comment on women that got me thinking about the ways in which even traditions and groups that encouraged women to explore sexuality often did so on men's terms. The book I read, Liber AL vel Legis, is no exception:
III.43. Let the Scarlet Woman beware! If pity and compassion and tenderness visit her heart; if she leave my work to toy with old sweetnesses; then shall my vengeance be known. I will slay me her child: I will alienate her heart: I will cast her out from men: as a shrinking and despised harlot shall she crawl through dusk wet streets, and die cold and an-hungered.

44. But let her raise herself in pride! Let her follow me in my way! Let her work the work of wickedness! Let her kill her heart! Let her be loud and adulterous! Let her be covered with jewels, and rich garments, and let her be shameless before all men!

45. Then will I lift her to pinnacles of power: then will I breed from her a child mightier than all the kings of the earth. I will fill her with joy: with my force shall she see & strike at the worship of Nu: she shall achieve Hadit.
Here women are not just told to be sexual and shameless, but told that if they're not they will be punished with a bad reputation, cast out from everything. They're not encouraged to be libertines, they're ordered to be. It's presumed that they will have great difficulty letting go of old modesty, and they're castigated for it. I don't see such attitudes towards men. To the men I just see exhortations to be libertine and wanton.

This reminds me of two things. First, I think of certain feminist critiques of "sexual liberation" or "the sexual revolution". These critiques say that encouragement for women to be sexual rather than to be gatekeepers still happens on men's terms. The idea is that providing women with sexual freedom is really providing men with sexual freedom to use women's bodies. And that is what I see here.

But the thing that fascinates me about that is that many feminists who notice this don't actually divorce themselves from this context at all. Instead of answering the critique with a thoughtful exploration of what it would mean to be a sexual woman on your own terms, they simply leave it at this idea that sexual desire drives men. They leave it at the idea that the libertine woman is a man's creation, so there is no way for a woman to be sexual on her own terms.

And that worries me, because that's the same exact thinking as the men they criticize. That's not replacing a masculinist idea of the scarlet woman with a woman-centered idea of desire and need. And unless we have that, I don't see how we have a feminist environment that's truly safe for women. I suppose we could have one is truly safe for celibate women, or asexual women, but I don't think that's most women.

And I suppose it could be said that such a world would be truly safe for lesbians, if by the word lesbians we mean a certain kind of political lesbian. But that kind of lesbian is only one small subset of lesbians, and some lesbians who are not political lesbians think political lesbians are appropriating their experience anyway.

So while I don't think we get far at all if we just take on images of female libertines that were created without women in mind, I don't think we get much further if we don't then work to transform the meaning and understanding of what a sexual woman is. I think that's an integral part of the work we have to do, and we neglect to do it at our own peril.

28 comments:

Elizabeth said...

But the thing that fascinates me about that is that many feminists who notice this don't actually divorce themselves from this context at all. Instead of answering the critique with a thoughtful exploration of what it would mean to be a sexual woman on your own terms, they simply leave it at this idea that sexual desire drives men. They leave it at the idea that the libertine woman is a man's creation, so there is no way for a woman to be sexual on her own terms.

God yes. WTF? Srsly!

(Not the most intelligent response you'll get to this but you know, God yes.)

Mister Mephisto said...

Though I agree with the overall gist of your post (the fact that the ideal of the "sexual woman" has been absconded with by males and twisted to their own ends, and that women should address this issue), I'm hesitant of your choice of an illustrating example.

The Liber AL vel Legis (better known as the Book of the Law) is not intended to be a book on philosophy. It is more a manifesto of the occultist ideal of "the New Age" (a.k.a. The Golden Dawn, the Age of Aquarius, etc.) supposedly delivered via channeling. Much of what is stated within is occult hyperbole, allegory, and metaphor meant to illustrate that ideal (and much of it is really only comprehensible to those that recognize those symbols). To take any part of it out of context (which is what is happening here) is no different than a Christian taking half a sentence from their own Bible out of context in order to justify hate or atrocity.

You also do the work and yourself a disservice by trying to write it off as a "usual mishmash of Nietzsche and occultism and plenty of taboo sex." Especially since there is absolutely none of the latter in it.

In the Book of the Law, the Scarlet Woman mentioned is not an embodiment of "women" in the general sense, but of BABALON specifically(more commonly known in lay tongue as Babylon), who is seen as a metaphoric stand-in for every person's higher self or true will. The speaker is enlisting the aid of the true will in the coming age (enlightenment), asking that it know no shame of its virtue, with the caveat that, if his true will should betray him by abandoning him when he needs it most, "then shall [his] vengeance be known."

In other words, if the follower on the path should betray herself/himself, then this seeker shall be outcast from the coming enlightenment by dint of that betrayal of self. Being true to one's self (being "shameless") is the "moral" of this "fable".

As you can see, the Scarlet Woman is not an indication of "what women are expected to be" in Thelemic thought, but of what every person's true will should be in relation to self.

I would like to reiterate one last line from the Book of the Law that seems particularly apt on this occasion:

Book III.63. "The fool readeth this Book of the Law, and its comment; & he understandeth it not."

I do not seek to offend, only to illuminate.

Trinity said...

Mister Mephisto:

Thanks for dropping by and offering your take on this.

"In the Book of the Law, the Scarlet Woman mentioned is not an embodiment of "women" in the general sense, but of BABALON specifically(more commonly known in lay tongue as Babylon), who is seen as a metaphoric stand-in for every person's higher self or true will."

Can you give a citation here? I don't mean your interpretation doesn't make sense, but not having seen much other than various Wikis at this point, I've not seen reference to BABALON as a manifestation of true will. I'd actually be quite interested to see how and why a female/feminine symbol is being used as a representation of the true self.

Mister Mephisto said...

Crowley was very enamored of the Book of Revelations. He had long seen himself as "The Great Beast" and re-interpreted Revelations to not mean a coming apocalypse but the dawning of a new age that would seem an apocalypse to those that feared human freedom (i.e. national governments, institutionalized religions, and anyone that would dare to tell others what they could and could not do).

In Western Hermetic thought there is the ideal of the Holy Guardian Angel, a tie to the divine that every being has (often seen as the Gatekeeper to divine knowledge). Many consider the HGA to be the divine aspect of the self. Crowley specifically refined this archetype (with the help of the philosophy of Nietzsche and the psychology of Jung) to a finer point: the Holy Guardian Angel as the personification of True Will. Either way, it is seen as one's "divine higher half", and the uniting of this half with one's "lower self" is seen as a metaphorical and mystical marriage that results in balance between this world and the higher worlds, between the carnal and the spiritual, between the masculine and the feminine.

This latter dualism results in the Holy Guardian Angel being embodied in occult metaphor as the opposite sex from that of the seeker (hence Crowley's embodiment of the principle as a feminine figure, in spite of his own bisexuality). And as Crowley saw himself as "The Great Beast" of Revelation, he therefore idealized the Scarlet Woman (long identified with fallen Babylon) as his Holy Guardian Angel... his True Will given mythic form.

Regarding actual citations... I would direct you to the works of Lon Milo Duquette (the best example might be The Magick of Aleister Crowley: A Handbook of the Rituals of Thelema) or the more coherent philosophical discussions by Crowley himself (such as Commentaries on the Holy Books and Other Papers and The Vision & the Voice), not to mention the bulk of Western Hermetic Metaphilosophy.

But the single best example is probably Crowley's Liber Samekh, which is the ritual actually used to contact one's HGA, wherein BABALON is such as central figure because she is an embodiment of Crowley's own HGA.

Of course, by expounding upon all of this, I am guilty of two Thelemic "sins" (for want of a better word):

1) Oversimplifying the very complex metaphilosophical tapestry that is Western Hermeticism in general and Thelema in specific; and

2) Breaking one of the central rules of the Book of the Law as discussed in "The Comment" found at the text's end:

"Those who discuss the contents of this Book are to be shunned by all, as centres of pestilence.

All questions of the Law are to be decided only by appeal to my writings, each for himself."

In other words, no woman nor man has the right to tell you what these things actually mean, because they may mean something entirely different to you (a sort of metaphysical deconstructionism, if you will).

But I think Crowley and Ra-Hoor-Khuit may forgive me this once, given that the text had already been quoted out of context to begin with (itself a Thelemic "sin").

Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.

Trinity said...

MM: Thanks for that welter of information. :) That does make sense. (Though I tend to think we need to choose our dualisms carefully.)

Mister Mephisto said...

I am certainly glad to be of service.

And I certainly agree about the careful choosing of "dualisms." In fact, dualism may not have been the best of word choices on my behalf, loaded as it is in Western philosophy/thought with mutually exclusive pairings (such as Good and Evil). My intention was more towards the Eastern understanding of the term wherein the two halves are complimentary and non-exclusive and balance/harmony is the desired goal.

Trinity said...

MM:

Makes sense to me. :)

Mighty Fast Pig said...

As with Christianity, there's what the book and the founders say, and there's what adherents actually do.

This sounds like a lot of counter-cultures, which preach liberation for men but can end up being even more restrictive and controlling for women.

Trinity said...

mfp: yeah, that's what I mean, which is why I compared it to Sade... there's the paradigm libertine woman there, but when you look deeper at her, she's often very much about patriarchal interests.

Which doesn't mean I don't also find some of her story, as Sade tells it, inspiring and interesting. It's just that, well, feminists were, I think, right -- many of the men who preached a certain kind of sexual liberation-and-epicureanism were often not looking much further than their own noses.

If MM is right, there's less of that than I assumed in Thelema, but I do see a pattern. And really, the reason I criticize some of that stuff is that I have (to a point) a certain fondness for (parts of) it.

Mister Mephisto said...

MFP: "As with Christianity, there's what the book and the founders say, and there's what adherents actually do."

Which is a valid criticism of almost the whole of civilization. But we have no evidence of this being the case with Thelemic philosophy or practitioners specifically. In fact, the current Ordo Templi Orientis (legally recognized as the most legitimate claimant to the version of the O.T.O. that Crowley himself created and the largest organized practitioner of Thelemic mysticism) does not exclude women from their ranks. Which is far more than can be said for the better-known but purely male mystical orders of the Freemasons (unless you count Co-Freemasonry, which most Masons do not).

I do readily admit, though, that Trinity's initial reading and dislike of the metaphor is not unreasonable, because the very fact that she interpreted the metaphor in a negative light suggests that there may be a shared conception of the Scarlet Woman that may not jive with the feminist ideal of the female libertine. And it does raise a valid point concerning the position of the female libertine in the minds of men versus the minds of women.

Many men see this ideal through their own lens of desire: promiscuous, wanton, and, most importantly, her libido constantly outside of her control (while still falling slave to the man's willingness). But this is nothing more than the sexual objectification of the feminist (and, in fact, an undermining of what could be a powerful female archetype).

Women, specifically the more feminist- and pro-sex- minded, (and please, Trinity, correct me if I am mistaken on this) would rather the female libertine be conceived as being comfortable with and unembarassed by her own sexuality and desires ("shameless" in the Thelemic sense), but, contrary to the male ideal, very much in control of her own libido.

And this, I believe, is where the disconnect between the sexes lies when it comes to the ideal.

belledame222 said...

"After the Revolution you will all eat strawberries and cream, and you will like strawberries and cream!"

...yeah, maybe not s'much.

you've read Angela Carter on de Sade, right?

whatsername said...

What a fabulous post!

Poison Creeper said...

this is a great great subject and a great way to explain things :))

Love is the Law
Love under Will
fraternally,
93.93/93!

S.

Generic Viagra said...

I'm agree with some thoughts that feminist women have but I'm disagree when they are so aggressive with men and they try to hurt them because as there are bad men there are another that are good.

Irish Order of Thelema said...

'To us a woman is Herself, absolute, original, independent, free, self-justified, exactly as a man is. ' ~ Crowley in his Commentary to the Book of the Law

There is a summary of some of Crowleys thoughts on Women and the implications of the New Aeon on womanhood here;

http://irishorderofthelema.com/the-book-of-the-law-is-the-charter-of-woman/

they address some of the issues raised in your post.

also of relevance is a summary of some of his thoughts on sexual freedom here;

http://irishorderofthelema.com/also-take-your-fill-and-will-of-love-as-ye-will-when-where-and-with-whom-ye-will-but-always-unto-me/

Hopefully they will be of interest to you and your readers.

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