Wednesday, June 27, 2012

King Over the Water - A Review

A while back I got a review copy of Nick Farrell’s latest book, “King Over the Water,” which I finally read. Yes, I was goaded into reading this tome by the author himself. I admit that I didn’t want to read it because I am loath to read anything that attempts to discredit or somehow lessen the importance of S. L. MacGregor Mathers. I didn’t like Ellic Howe’s book “Magicians of the Golden Dawn” and I also didn’t like R. A. Gilbert’s or Francis King’s accounts of the Golden Dawn saga. I have always preferred Ithel Colquhoun’s book “Sword of Wisdom” because it is factual, balanced and fair. After reading Nick Ferrell’s book, I would have to say that I still favor the “Sword of Wisdom,” since it represents the history of the Golden Dawn and the various personalities who were involved in its formation in a more accurate and detailed manner. I felt that “King Over the Water” was obviously written with a very political agenda in mind, even though Mr. Farrell has protested that his book was not written to either defame Mathers, or any current organization that operates under the moniker “Alpha and Omega.” Of course, despite his protestations, he has clearly written a book that goes to extreme lengths to both defame Mathers and the A+O organization.

This reminds me of the typical situation that occurs during supposedly polite conversation when someone begins their sentence with the words “With all due respect..” or “Not to disparage your work..” and then continues the sentence with something that is highly disrespectful, insulting and disparaging. (Yet they do this with such grace and civility, even smiling graciously while they cut your throat.) In a similar manner, I have found Mr. Farrell’s sincere claims of being balanced and fair to be overblown, characterizing nothing more than the shrill voice of someone who is attempting to hide his guilty conscience.

I find all of this to be quite disturbing because Mr. Farrell is obviously a good writer, and he should know better! His prose is quite accessible and easy to read, but what he presents in his book is more of a fictional cartoon of Moina and MacGregor Mathers than any kind of forensic psychological profiling. Nick claims to have written his book as an insider’s historical narrative, but I found within it a terrible lack of citations and references necessary to corroborate the original source material. The bibliography is obviously missing a large portion of these supposed sources that Nick isolates and quotes, but then doesn’t bother to let the reader know where they came from. We have to trust that Mr. Farrell is correct in the interpretations of all of his mysterious sources and basic assumptions, or else the entire narrative breaks down. I would claim that this kind of literary presentation is not at all an historical analysis - it is more like a gossip column or tabloid journalism. Even Francis King was more factual, sympathetic and accurate in his glib sharing of occult dirt than Nick Farrell has been with his unseemly diatribe against certain founders of the Golden Dawn. I also believe that the overall premise of this book is more self-serving and self-promoting than it is a concise historical analysis.

Let me get to the heart of my real issue with this book. The problem with attempting to psychoanalyze someone who has been dead almost a hundred years is that unless they were famous and had a lot of original source data to judge their inner nature then such a profile is subject to error, and the less data available, the more egregious the error. The amount of credible known facts about S. L. MacGregor Mathers is small, since he was an obscure and relatively unknown person, known only perhaps to the small circles through which he operated. He had a number of enemies, too, namely Crowley, Horniman, Waite, and most of the members of his Order who rebelled against his authority. Perhaps W. B. Yeats was the only individual who wrote about Mathers in an unbiased and sympathetic manner. Most of the disinformation about Mathers was circulated by Crowley or his associates, and it is amazing that a lot of that scurrilous gossip is still being passed off as actual facts.

Still, there is so little information about Mathers that attempting to make a psychological profile out of that scant amount of data would require one to fill in the many blanks with various assumptions and literary fancy. Even less information is available about Moina Mathers, so any post mortem attempt to explore the depths of her personality would be completely fanciful on the part of the author. When an historian attempts to write about an individual in which there are few known facts, then he or she must also investigate the historical context in which they lived. Since Mr. Farrell has generally omitted that kind of analysis, and instead has focused on fictionalized characterizations of his subjects, you can be certain that presenting any kind of history was the farthest thing from the author’s mind. So, it’s quite obvious that this book is not in any way an historical narrative of the inner mechanisms of the lives of the Mathers couple, nor is it an exposition of the times in which they lived. It is not accurate or even a  sympathetic appraisal of their work and legacy.

Since we know next to nothing about what motivated Mathers and his wife after nearly a century after their deaths, we are left only with the legacy of the work which they left behind. Moina eloquently stated in the 1926 preface of her husband’s book “Kabbalah Unveiled” that the real difficulty in writing a biography about an occultist is that his or her mundane life seems nearly irrelevant, and so she said: “To write the consecutive history of an occult Order is a difficult matter, as difficult as [it is] to write [about] the life of an Adept, there being so much of an inner and secret nature necessarily involved in both: so much of the symbolical in the historical, so much of the latter in the symbology.”

Perhaps the most startling premise that Mr. Farrell makes is that Mathers was an emotionally unstable and egotistical man who lived almost entirely in a fantasy world. He began life compensating for not having a father, and then engaged in promoting himself in a fanciful manner to make up for gross personal inadequacies. He is marginally credited with producing the rites of the second order, but his genius was short lived, and that he began a consumptive decline due to excessive drinking and the stresses of living an impoverished life. Nick also states emphatically that Mathers conflated his inner plane contacts with real people, and that his premier inner plane contact was supposedly the Archangel Raphael. He also states that Mathers lost that contact as he engaged with his supposed fascist fantasies of a synarchic new order, with him mooning over being a made a lord of a Scottish principality. Of course, if Mathers lost that contact, the torch was supposedly passed on to others, such as Felkin and his Stella Matutina, and Dion Fortune’s Society of Inner Light.

Farrel’s central premise is that Mathers is something of a nutcase, and because of that, modern occultists should downplay his contribution and instead, pity him. One important thing to consider before passing too harsh a judgment over Mathers is that anyone who is highly creative or exceptional in some manner, and particularly if they happen to be a practicing occultist, will likely be judged to be eccentric and flamboyant. They will fashion themselves a persona through which they will deal with the world, and they will seem to be emotionally volatile, passionate and fanatical, elevated by their genius while simultaneously brought down by their flaws and vices. Whether we are talking about great composers, artists, poets, writers, political or religious visionaries, or occultists, they all seem to uniformly behave in a very unusual or even bizarre manner, at least when compared to the average person. We tolerate their eccentricities because of the greatness of their work, and often times such individuals have left behind not only a legacy of great value, but also a legend of dysfunction, tragedy and sometimes, dissipation.

How many of us really consider how rude and obnoxious Beethoven or Mozart supposedly were while listening to their music today? We judge them based on the merits of their legacy instead of who or what they were when they were alive. I have had this analogous conversation about Aleister Crowley and his occult literature with other Thelemites, where the infamy and notoriety of his historical past doesn’t in any way diminish the importance of his contribution to the art of magick. I would say that Mathers, who was far less controversial than Crowley, should be given the same if not greater merit for his legacy.      

However, I think that anyone with a credible knowledge of the Golden Dawn (and who has no axe to grind or hidden agenda) would agree that these are all just speculations on the part of Mr. Farrell, and that they are rather poor fare when compared to the actual historical records, however sparse. I think that we can pretty much dismiss Mr. Farrell’s psychological analysis of the Mathers as being wholly unsubstantiated by any examination of the facts. Yet how should we judge his claims about the Secret Chiefs and Inner Plane contacts? Do we take him seriously on this matter of importance? If we approach this issue in a superficial manner, it would seem that Nick does make some compelling arguments about the preeminent motivating forces and intelligence behind the formulation of the second order and the development of the Golden Dawn lore. Of course, examining the historical context of the Secret Chiefs, Mahatmas or Masters would show that they often have been conflated with inner plane contacts and endowed with super human powers and abilities. It can be difficult to pull these different and tangled definitions apart, but a bit of common sense and the context of a magical practice can hopefully separate and distinctly define them.

An Inner Plane contact is just what it would seem to be, which is a contact with an entity, egregore, being or spirit that resides wholly within the Inner Planes. Anyone who has made the transition from an initiate to an adept will hopefully develop and acquire various Inner Plane contacts. In fact, claiming to be an adept presupposes that one has made these kinds of connections. These contacts can be very creatively stimulating and profoundly insightful. Over the years, I have created an entire system of magick specifically through these Inner Plane contacts. Without them, I would have been clueless about how to proceed in the building up of my own spiritual and magical path. I also understand that Inner Plane contacts, once achieved, never seem to disappear or dissipate. There might be periods of quiescence or even temporary dormancy, but these contacts are always present and don’t cease until (I am to assume) one passes from this life and world.

Even so, Inner Plane contacts can never replace the strategic insights and the profound impact that one human being acting as a spiritual teacher can have on another. I may have made great progress through the inspiration and insights gained from my Inner Plane contacts, but I was also standing on the shoulders of all of those who had passed before me and left behind important literary corpus, such as S. L. MacGregor Mathers. I also have to give credit to the many remarkable men and women that I have known so far in my life, since they also have taught me many things. Considering that Mathers himself had to create his unique and modern system of magick from the scant resources available at the time, I would propose that his feat is far greater than mine.

However, the issue with the Secret Chiefs, Masters or Mahatmas is much more complicated. We could assume that the Theosophical Society’s concept of the Mahatmas, and later, Masters, is wholly derived from some kind of intimate Inner Plane contact, since Blavatsky seemed to nebulously define them as superhuman or even para-spiritual. She gave these Masters fanciful names and would tell many tales about their supernatural and miraculous actions that she supposedly witnessed. Yet according to K. Paul Johnson in his book “The Masters Revealed,” each of these mysteriously named masters had an actual remarkable person, who Blavatsky had met on her various journeys and personally knew, hidden behind the glamor, myth and legends. She chose fanciful and fictitious names to hide their true identity, and later, they took on an independent life of their own. If the Mahatmas or Masters of the Theosophical Society obscured and hid real individuals, then it could also be quite plausible that Mather’s Secret Chiefs were mortal and physical people.

I believe that MacGregor Mathers began his work as an initiate cultivating Inner Plane contacts, and these allowed him to creatively develop new rituals and lore. Yet I also believe that at some point in his life, he also acquired the assistance and teachings of an actual body of high adepts. To Mathers, this transition from Inner Plane contacts to actual congress with living, mortal High Adepts was one seamless process. He did not differentiate between them because in his mind one had inexorably led to the other. Thus Mathers conflated his experiences that were on one hand, based on the Inner Planes, and on the other, with actual physical human beings. An Inner Plane contact would never trip over a delivery boy when being chased, but a mortal human being could. Because from Mather’s perspective, all of these phenomena were part of his spiritual and magical process, it would have been disingenuous to have made a distinction between them.

Since we, who are distant outsiders, can only catch glimpses of what Mather’s was experiencing, to us it might seem confusing or inconsistent. Some have said that Mathers lost his association with the college of adepts, and that would explain much of what happened regarding the Horos scandal or other unmitigated issues that buffeted the Golden Dawn after the turn of the 20th century. Still, because I believe that Inner Plane contacts are permanent once acquired, Mathers would still have been functioning as a proper head of his Order and still capable of producing quality work, even though it would have been derivative.

When the Golden Dawn shattered into different groups, the blame for this event has been more or less solely attached to Mathers. While Ithell Colquhoun has given us a more reasonable context for this schism (and has found blame for all parties concerned), other writers, including Mr. Farrell, have accused Mathers of causing this breech. He has been depicted as a megalomaniac, a tyrant, and an unreasonable and authoritarian dictator who was unwilling to compromise with the members of his Order. We are also to assume that somehow the flame of Inner Plane contacts were passed on to the rebels, or that perhaps the egregore of the Order followed the majority of dissidents, leaving Mathers will an empty legacy. However, I think that what Ithell Colquhoun has stated about this schism is more reliable and unbiased.

“[H]is students were treating him with pettiness and ingratitude instead of the loyalty and fraternal goodwill he needed and craved; but he is too much involved emotionally to state the facts to best advantage. His pupils found him difficult because, not understanding their limitations until too late, he gave them esoteric knowledge beyond their capacity to receive. His faults were impetuosity and over-enthusiasm, but these were generous faults.” (Sword of Wisdom - p. 90)

Those who had followed Mathers and were members of his organization, even after his death, owed a great debt to him regardless of their own contributions. Where would Aleister Crowley, Dion Fortune, Arthur E. Waite, Paul Foster-Case, or even Israel Regardie be if it were not for the work and legacy of MacGregor Mathers? Some might spend a great deal of time vilifying Mathers and devaluing his contribution to modern occultism and ceremonial magick, but that legacy is still highly relevant even to this day.  Regardie may have been the individual who published the Golden Dawn material and received both accolades and condemnation for his supposed oath breaking, but it was Mathers who developed and produced that lore.

Mr. Farrell has criticized MacGregor Mather’s literary output, even though it is likely that as much as a third of the overall lore of the Golden Dawn and A+O might still be missing. We should also consider all of the articles and letters that Mathers wrote during his lifetime as a part of his literary legacy, although few of that great store of writings has been revealed. Considering that Mathers was responsible for the translation, editing and publication of a number of operational grimoires such as the Key of Solomon, Book of Abramelin, Grimoire Armadel (unpublished until recently), the Lemegeton (of which only the Goetia was published by Crowley), as well as the Kabbalah Unveiled, these represent no small literary legacy. If any of the books that I have managed to write over the years (not to mention the books that Mr. Farrell has written) are still being published and read a hundred years after my time, I would consider that to be remarkable. Compared to Mathers, we are all insignificant people standing on the shoulders of giants and pretending to be highly relevant and remarkable in our own right. I would define that attitude as the hubris of our age.

So for these reasons, I can’t recommend Nick Farrell’s book. If you want to read it, then you are welcome to do so, but keep in mind that he is not an unbiased judge nor is he a qualified historian. These books aren’t history, they are merely political polemics. If you want to read a good book about the history of the Golden Dawn, then I would recommend Ithell Culquhoun’s book “Sword of Wisdom.”

Enemy Of My Enemy

After presenting and dismissing all of the issues brought up by this book, we can now examine the real core of the issue underlying Mr. Farrell’s book “King Over the Water.” There is a logical reason why Nick has engaged himself in writing two consecutive books that seek to devalue and dismiss the legacy that Mathers had established for the Golden Dawn and the A+O. Mr Farrell has also sought to spread the unsubstantiated opinion that the Secret Chiefs that Mathers wrote about were actually Inner Plane contacts (such as Raphael), and there never were any real continental high adepts who aided and supported him. These supposed secret chiefs were merely based on delusion and fantasy inside Mather’s head. If we were to accept what Nick Farrell has written, then we would also have to dismiss anyone who claimed to have made contacts with continental adepts in recent times. If they didn’t exist for Mathers, then they wouldn’t exist today, either - so goes the logic.

Additionally, proposing that the torch of Inner Plane contacts was passed on to individuals such as Felkin and his organization, the Stella Matutina, would truly burnish Mr. Ferrell’s own lineage and organization. So it would seem that this series of books were written to elevate him and his faction of the Golden Dawn at the expense of the other faction, which is the HOGD/A+O organizations headed by David Griffin. To make his literary case, Mr. Farrell’s is basically calling David Griffin a liar and a fraud, even though he has couched this declaration in a very long-winded and convoluted manner to obscure it. He has gone so far, in fact, to ambiguously refer to the current A+O as a cult of personality led by a chief who is either acting or actually believes himself to be the reincarnation of Mathers, in all his autocratic grandeur.

Why has Nick Farrell spent so much time making his case that Mathers was a borderline lunatic and that the secret chiefs were nothing more than a myth? None of the suppositions that he has made in his books can actually be proven unless one already agrees with them. I find myself having to expose the lie that forces Mr. Farrell to emerge from his careful frame of motivational reasoning and fake history and into the sinister domain of propaganda and political talking-points. It’s obvious to any neutral party that Mr. Farrell is really targeting David Griffin and his organization, and he is doing this because of the fact that he is worried about what Mr. Griffin has claimed. If David Griffin’s claim to have reconnected with the body of continental adepts known as the Secret Chiefs is valid, then he would obviously have a far better claim to continuity and legitimate authority than Mr. Farrell and his reconstructed order. Therefore, Nick Farrell is involved in political diatribes to dismiss and destroy the very foundation upon which Mr. Griffin and his claims are based. One would assume that he does this for himself, but it would seem that he is also doing this work for others. He quotes R. A. Gilbert quite often, and has used source materials provided by that same individual. It would be hard to dismiss this as just a coincidence.

Having a common enemy makes for some strange bed partners, and it would seem that the faction that is against Mr. Griffin is wholly allied and uniform in its relentless political war against him. This is because the enemy of my enemy, however repugnant, is my friend. However, knowing something about the Golden Dawn history, I would bet that if Mr. Griffin and his organization didn’t exist that the various factions now united would just as likely be at each other’s throats. The injustice of this movement against Mr. Griffin is even more pernicious if we consider that his claims might be true.

Where is the sense of fraternal and collegial respect that would allow a proper peer review of anyone’s claim to have reconnected with the Secret Chiefs? Of course, the examination of such a claim would have to be performed through the protocols of oath-bound conventions, but such an examination could be conducted by adepts of the Golden Dawn. Yet what we have instead is an unshakable denial by one faction before any evidence is examined, and a program of public disinformation to ensure that any such claims are readily dismissed. So if David Griffin has indeed made contact with the Secret Chiefs, then those who have denounced and vilified him without a proper evaluation have shown themselves to be nakedly motivated by their own petty egotistical sense of self-worth. This altercation is not a war of ideas as much as it is a war of egos, and I think that the overall occult community is poorly served by it.

What I would like to see happen going forward is either a full and open review of David Griffin’s claims, done in a manner that would be transparent but under the guidelines of oath regulated information, or a complete “live and let live” attitude. Unfortunately, I doubt that my wishes will be realized any time soon. As I have pointed out, having Inner Plane contacts is often more than enough to substantiate any occult organization, so there is no need to trifle with David Griffin’s claims if the Secret Chiefs are not an important factor in one’s group. I, for one, am quite happy with my contacts, and I seem to be able to continue to grow, evolve and even promote my methods without having to either defame my predecessors or vilify my fellow magicians.

If someone finds his claim compelling, then a proper and respectful evaluation should occur. I believe that David Griffin has already offered this kind of conclave to initiates of the Golden Dawn regardless of their linage, but some chief adepts have threatened their members with expulsion if they dared to attend. This is not the kind of behavior that I would associate with anyone who claims to be an adept, and I hope that eventually those who find it necessary to pit themselves and their groups against David Griffin and his organization will come to some kind of realization. That this war does more damage to all of the parties than it does good to any one faction. So until that time I will be forced to judge those who are casting aspersions not as proper adepts, but perhaps more like the spoiled adolescents that they seem to be.

Frater Barrabbas      


  1. I originally approached Farrell's book with an open mind, on the grounds that I think the whole idea of having heroes who are placed on pedastals is kind of silly. But after reading a number of reviews of this book I have to say that it's sounding worse by the minute. From your description it reminds me of Regardie's "Eye in the Triangle" in which he tried to psychoanalyze Crowley. This latter work is interesting from the standpoint of getting some insight into what Regardie thought of Crowley after working with him, but otherwise it contributes little to understanding the man.

    Quite simply, modern experimental psychology has shown that psychoanalysis has no scientific basis. Karl Popper noted that the system is impossible to test experimentally because it can explain (and pathologize) all possible observations. He further noted that there was as much scientific evidence for psychoanalysis as the was for psychic powers (meaning none, from his perspective). I would point out that given the results from more recent ganzfeld and quantum diode experiments, there is in fact more scientific evidence for psychic powers than for psychoanalysis.

    Here's an example of what I'm talking about, related to a section of the book that was discussed in another review. Farrell comments that after the death of his father, Mathers "compensated" for his death by taking up an interest in traditionally masculine sports and so forth. "Compensation" is framed as pathological. But let's say that Mathers hadn't done that, and instead pursued other interests. It would be just as easy to say that Mathers had no male role model and therefore failed to "integrate his masculine identity." Damned if you do, damned if you don't - that's pretty much how psychoanalysis works. You can always use it to pathologize anyone, no matter how they behave.

    In that light, psychoanalyzing someone long dead is, as you note, an exercise in futility. I'm also quite disappointed to hear that Farrell does not include many of his sources. Seeing as Mathers is considered a prominent figure by modern magicians, Farrell's argument needs to be treated as an extraordinary claim that requires strong supporting references in order to be taken seriously.

  2. This is an observation that I made after reading Scott Stenwick's comments regarding psychoanalysis.

    This is exactly what may happen to and harm psychoanalysis, when dillitants and sensationalists such as Nick Farrell abuse its theories. As I said in my review, Freud was well aware of this danger and prohibited his own students to engage in such pop-pseudo-analysing as typified by 'King over the Water'.

    It says more about potent tools finding their ways into the wrong hands - professional tools being used by laymen - that about the tools themselves. It simply is dangerous.


  3. I must say that I find the wide ranging opinions based on this alone book to be extremely remarkable. Your review is a very interesting contribution towards understanding it, I believe.