The release of Blackstar and its videos has generated speculation (again) on Bowie’s interest in the occult. Yes, there are allusions to so-called occult symbols, as there are to Christianity, as well, and to Bowie’s own ouevre. That the allusions to the occult are so obvious means that the occult isn’t any longer — hidden, that is. The Cabbalah, alchemy, numerology, astral projection, auras, telepathy, Tarot, astrology — all of these ideas, systems, philosophies, practices that deal with forces unseen could be called occult. The imagery is rich and studying one branch leads to another and another, and so would be fascinating to a creative intellect.
So why had the occult been a secretive system of thought? Magic.
Whatever his intentions were in drawing attention to himself and his sex life and drug use, and publishing widely that which had been held secret, Aleister Crowley posthumously achieved his aim of being the most notorious magician in the world.
He achieved this by making the rituals of ceremonial magic widely known. There are those who use magic to accomplish positive change. But the temptation of the dark arts are great, particularly to those who feel they have scores to settle or a ruthless will to power.
Crowley seems at the center of it all because he launched his own bid for recognition as the age’s greatest magician by violating the trust of magical societies, such as the Order of the Golden Dawn, which were structured on a hierarchy of orders and degrees attained by initiates through study and practice and kept secret, incorporating these secrets into his new religion of Thelema, over which he reigned absolutely.
The rituals of Thelema featured drug use for altering states of consciousness and pan-sexual encounters within its practice. No wonder then that he became a cult figure in the late 60s and early 70s. Many who talked about him had likely never read his books, but they would have known the law of Thelema: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law,” and possibly the response to this command: “Love is the law, love under will.”
It seemed a declaration of freedom from convention, but the ramifications of such a law were far from simple — especially when a malevolent magician decided what he wilt was your torment.
Peter-R Konig’s site The Laughing Gnome, which he began in 1996 and is still adding to, and Steele Savage’s David Bowie, Outside, Aleister Crowley, and the Holy Grail, suggest that Crowley’s works greatly influenced Bowie. These two sites are devoted to Bowie. In his farther reaching blog, The Secret Sun, Christopher Knowles frequently finds himself returning to Bowie, who he believes was a magician.
In 1997, Bowie told NME:
“I always thought Crowley was a charlatan. But there was a guy called [Arthur]Edward Waite who was terribly important to me at the time. And another called Dion Fortune who wrote a book called Psychic Self–Defence.”
A.E. Waite (of the Rider-Waite tarot deck) was Crowley’s most vocal detractor. By aligning himself with Waite, Bowie distances himself from Crowley, but not from the Mysteries.
I think it safe to say that Bowie believed in magic and didn’t always think Crowley a charlatan. Bowie came to fear magic, and you don’t typically fear what you don’t believe is possible.
The 1997 interview above is the first I’ve found where he repudiated Crowley. Did it take 20 years for him feel safe enough to do so? If I believed in magic, I wouldn’t want to raise the ire of a Crowley-ite.
I don’t know whether he was the victim of a magical attack or if he was experimenting with performing ceremonial magic and got in over his head or both, or paranoid about being attacked, but after he’d quit cocaine, Bowie would say of his time in L.A. that he was “totally washed up emotionally and psychically,” [TimeOut interview 1983] and told interviewer Peter White: “It took the first two years in Berlin to really cleanse my system. Especially psychically and emotionally” [ Musician 1983]. In 1997 he recalled that during the Station to Station era, he was “psychically damaged.” Search “psychically damaged” + Bowie and you’ll get about 8400 results.
It’s the use of psychically rather than psychologically to describe the nature of his damage that brings us to Bowie’s abiding respect for Dion Fortune’s Psychic Self-Defense (1930).
Dion Fortune (1890-1946) was a psychic and practitioner of benevolent magic, trained as a psychologist, and a scholar of the Cabbala. She was 15 years younger than Crowley (1875-1947) but both were active during the same era. Fortune was highly respected in her day, but she wasn’t a sensation. The work she describes in Psychic Self-Defense suggests that a lot of her time was spent undoing the harm that Crowley and would-be Crowleys had caused.
I believe that at some point Bowie realized as he read Psychic Self-Defense that he could be the poster child for those who must not mess with magic.
But more on that next time.