Mishkan ha-Echad

Sunday, 24 August 2008

Book Review: Revelations of the Golden Dawn

The history of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn has been dealt with in a number of books, not least of all Ellic Howe’s Magicians of the Golden Dawn. However, as each new scholar approaches the subject or old scholars publish a new book more and more papers, photographs, documents, and letters are published. Revelations of the Golden Dawn, by R. A. Gilbert (a republication of The Golden Dawn Scrapbook) is just one of these examples, giving a brief look at the history of the Order, replete with some interesting source material.

The book itself is 200 pages, with seven chapters, an introduction, and a small index and bibliography. The history itself is not extensive, and only deals with some of the more pivotal moments, but Gilbert himself admits this, stating "it is not intended to be a documentary history of the Order … This book is intended simply to provide an overview of the Order, and to tell its story through the lives and actions (or inactions) of its members." Thus, this book is mainly for those inquisitive for more details regarding certain aspects (primarily the matters of scandal, schism, and intrigue) of the Order’s history (because, despite what Gilbert says, it deals with the history, not the practice, of the Order). It is of little value to the non historically-inclined magician, as Gilbert also expresses: “it is not designed to be a manual or practical instruction”, but there is much of value here, primarily in the printing of letters and scans of Order documents, including by-laws, temple summons, notices, circulars, warrants, pledges, extracts from ritual journals, and even a few scans of Westcott’s Tarot designs. All of these give us a better idea of how the original Order operated, and allows modern Golden Dawn magicians to correct any errors that have crept into their own material (via the mistakes in Regardie’s book and other earlier sources).

However, there is an issue with R.A. Gilbert himself, and I’m not entirely sure how I feel about him, because I’m not entirely sure how he feels about the Golden Dawn system and magicians in general. I know that it would be naïve to assume that a historian would be interested in magic, and it is perhaps good that he is not, to ensure a more unbiased view. However, it seems that Gilbert is sympathetic at times and rather dismissive at others. In his introduction he states that "there are adepts, possessed of the necessary dedication and integrity to revive the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and restore it to the role intended by its Victorian founders: that of a teaching body that unfolds the psycho-spiritual nature of the Self by the way of ceremonial practices based on the symbolism of the Western Mystery Tradition."

But this is met with contradictory sentiments, such as at the end of the book, where he states: "I can only echo Regardie’s sentiments as he expressed them to me in a letter written many years ago: 'I sometimes wish in moments of reverie, that Crowley, the O.T.O., Waite and the Golden Dawn would all gently blow away in a cloud and disappear and never be heard from again'. Amen to that." This is rather disingenuous of Gilbert, given his career is partially founded upon research into the Golden Dawn. Indeed, if he wishes to say "Amen" to the idea of the Golden Dawn blowing away and never being heard of, then why has he dedicated so much time and effort into publishing books on the subject, thereby extending its life and influence?

The matter is confused again when we see Gilbert’s praise of the Ciceros, who run a modern incarnation of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (founded with the aid of Regardie). Gilbert says: "Just as Israel Regardie rescued the Golden Dawn from oblivion, so have the Ciceros, with their unrivalled grasp of magical practice, maintained it as a living tradition available to all … They are, indeed, true magicians of the Golden Dawn." This seems like high praise, and I don’t necessarily disagree with his sentiments here.

But again, this is contradicted elsewhere, most recent of which was his announcement of his finishing with the Golden Dawn: "I am finally done with the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which has dominated my literary life for far too long. My private collection, of ritual and other manuscripts, association copies, printed ephemera, printed rituals and my personal files, is going to a new home in an English institutional library where it will, in time, be integrated with the more famous 'Private Collection'. Future researchers will thus have an easier task as they seek to find answers to the all too many questions that still remain in connection with the Order. The remainder is here, for my work is done and I can now turn to other and equally rewarding fields of research. Such of those who follow me who are honourable I salute, but I can only shudder at the prospect of the others, most of them would-be magicians, who seek to keep alive the corpse of the Order." The last line here seems to be rather disparaging of modern Golden Dawn magicians. I can’t quite understand why Gilbert jumps back and forth across the fence, praising and insulting in various leaps. While I value his work, as I do all Golden Dawn historians, I can’t help but question his integrity on the matter expressed above.

Revelations of the Golden Dawn, by R.A. Gilbert; Quantum (Foulsham Imprint), 1997

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