Scifi, Rocketry and Occult Silliness

Jack Parsons (1914-52) was a rocketry pioneer, a science fiction fan and a deeply committed occult follower of the aged Aleister Crowley. I recently read the 2004 edition of John Carter's biography of the man, Sex and Rockets. The Occult World of Jack Parsons.

Despite such promising material, it's not a very engaging or well-written book. It's largely about rocketry and occultism, but neither field is contextualised very well. There's lots of detail but not much in the way of a bigger picture. And Carter equivocates in his attitude to occultism. Sometimes he seems to believe in it, sometimes he makes fun of it, but he misses no opportunity to reproduce swaths of ceremonial babblings dreamed up by Crowley and Parsons. I'm not interested in what spells they chanted or whom they buggered (“strictly for magical reasons, my dear, I promise”). I want to know what they thought it would accomplish and what other people thought about them for it.

Occultism is exceptionally silly. Picture a robed Jack Parsons chanting Crowleyan invocations and masturbating onto a piece of parchment for several days while L. Ron Hubbard (as occult secretary) watches, takes notes and occasionally fakes cryptic messages From Beyond.

Hubbard was a con man. Eight months into his acquaintance with Parsons, the future founder of Scientology tired of humouring Parsons's supernatural beliefs and disappeared with his host's considerable savings and young girlfriend, the future Mrs. Hubbard.

This phrase from Parsons's account of a vision he had in 1948 shows that he'd been reading Lovecraft: ”... went into the sunset … and into the night past accursed and desolate places and cyclopean ruins, and so came at last to the City of Chorazin. And there a great tower of Black Basalt was raised, that was part of a castle whose further battlements ruled over the gulf of stars.”

All in all Parsons comes across as a sad figure who bloomed early as a brilliant engineer and then got mired in occult confusion and deception.

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Not unique. Even Newton had one leg left behind in pre-modern belief structures.
I think Alan Moore, one of the pioneers of graphic novels is also deep into occultism. And don't get me started on the fundie wankers that wield so much power in the Republican party that evolution is a dirty word.
Since I lack knowldge of the neurological correlate to consciousness and cognitive dissonance I am unable to offer a solution.
( Jasper Fforde might suggest we need these doofuses to consume the Stupidity Surplus!)

By Birger Johansson (not verified) on 21 Oct 2012 #permalink

No excess of intelligence here.

By Bob Carter (not verified) on 22 Oct 2012 #permalink

Whether or not Mr. Parsons was a silly man I cannot say. I can state unequivocally that Occultism, or styled more properly 'Western Esotericism,' is not silly in the least. Many prestigious universities -- the Sorbonne, the University of Exeter, the University of Amsterdam, etc. -- offer degrees in the subject up to PhD. There are many outstanding academics involved in the study of occultism and related subjects, notably the historians Ronald Hutton (Oxford, Cambridge) and Carlo Ginzburg (Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa). Let's not let our opinion of one person affect our opinion of an entire subject.

By Robert Mitchell (not verified) on 22 Oct 2012 #permalink

Non sequitur. I'm not arguing that the academic study of occultism is silly. I think the practice of and/or belief in it is silly.

You are an educated man Martin, but I wonder if you're acquainted with what occultism really is. I think Andre Nataf's definition is my favorite: "“Occultism holds that humanity is only revealed to itself by transcendence…religious feeling is a necessary part of humanity, with the important provision that this religious feeling is the ‘raw material’ on which the initiate works in order to experience glimpses of the sacred, borne within him and all mankind. This transmutation of the religious into the sacred is the very object of the occult sciences and, especially of initiation." I can accept that some of the things that some occultists do and believe are silly, but I can't accept that Occultism or its practice is silly.

By Robert Mitchell (not verified) on 23 Oct 2012 #permalink

From my perspective, transcendence is a meaningless word, religious feeling is not necessary, nothing is sacred, and initation means "being let in on a person's or organisation's secrets". Belief in the supernatural is delusion. I walk a material planet, thinking about what I see with a material brain. You and me, baby, we ain't nothing but mammals.

If you experienced nothing transcendent? Never felt any initiatory wonder? Weddings and graduations are very powerful forms of initiation. It is a very sterile world you inhabit.

By Robert Mitchell (not verified) on 23 Oct 2012 #permalink

My word is fecund with the joys of discovery and friendship. Thank you for your concern.

Love, friendship, and discovery are all experiences. To me it seems silly to say that some experiences are vaild and some not. But I'm willing to admit, as Socrates did, that I know nothing for sure. Please forgive my sins against Pure Reason, for a small sin that inspires humility is greater than a good deed that inspires hubris.

By Robert Mitchell (not verified) on 23 Oct 2012 #permalink

Being a brilliant engineer is not necessarily a recommendation, unfortunately. I say that as an engineer. You might expect engineers to be the most rational material-world dwellers of all, but it doesn't necessarily follow - in America (for which there are hard data) the majority of engineers are conservative and religious, while the majority of scientists are liberal and irreligious (or areligious, as my scientist daughter would insist). It's had me head-scratching for quite a while, and I am at a loss to explain it - I see nothing in an engineering education that would turn someone weird, if they were not a little that way inclined to begin with, and it is not unusual for engineers to admire the scientists whose science they apply. I mean, we don't sit around in design classes discussing using black magic to treat sewage or discovering how to design high rise buildings by transcendence, let alone black towers.

I just hope he checked the unconfined compressive strength of that basalt.

By John Massey (not verified) on 23 Oct 2012 #permalink

I don't think engineering school turns anyone to religion. I think religious people avoid scientific research because it demands that they question a lot of dogma. Whereas the Bible has nothing to say about whether the Lord wants you to build helicopters and develop new plastics. So engineering is OK.

Yeah. One explanation I saw was that people who aspire to become engineers are comfortable with complying with lots of rules. Modern engineering is increasingly complex and of necessity requires standards and codes of practice - if you try to design everything from first principles (a) it will take forever, and (b) a lot more things will fall down. Of course, the standards and codes of practice are written from the collective insight of lots of engineers, so it's a bit of a circular argument. The last person you want as an engineer is one who just unthinkingly applies the rules without understanding their basis in science. Advice to any young engineering graduate - if your supervisor/mentor responds to the question "Why?" with "Because that's the way it's done" or "Because the government says so", ditch him/her.

By John Massey (not verified) on 23 Oct 2012 #permalink

Sex looks pretty silly to an uninvolved onlooker too. I sometimes wonder, too, what my cat thinks when it watches me reading a book ("what the hell is he doing, sitting absolutely still looking at that thing with squiggles?) :)

By P. George Stewart (not verified) on 30 Oct 2012 #permalink

Yes, and the leap from my level of understanding up to the average occultist's is roughly the same as that between your cat's and yours!

But I must admit. The combination of occutism and pencil moustache is rather adorable.

I couldn't resist using this picture even though it was in all likelihood taken a few years before Parsons discovered occultism.

Exceptionally silly. How tantalizingly objective.

Careful, everyone, no one Bring up NEWTON!