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Saturday, March 1st, 2008

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6:10p
Remarkable ...
There have been a number of books coming out over the past decade or so dealing with the fascinating figure of Jack Parsons, but this is the only thing that I know of by him. Freedom is a Two-Edged Sword and Other Essays - Oriflamme 1 by "John Whiteside Parsons" is a collection of his essays, centered around the title piece which was published as what was intended to be a new series (ala Crowley's The Equinox), called The Oriflamme.

If you are unfamiliar with Jack Parsons, he was a self-taught chemistry prodigy who came from a once-wealthy family in southern California that had been financially crippled by the depression. He never attended college, but was instrumental in developing the U.S. rocket program, being a founder of the Jet Propulsion Lab and The Aerojet company (which makes the solid-fuel boosters used to launch the space shuttle) ... he was also a leading student of Aleister Crowley late in "The Great Beast"'s life, and one of his closest associates was L. Ron Hubbard, who later went on to create Scientology. Parsons died in an explosion in his personal laboratory June 17, 1952. I will cover more of these details in my next review (of George Pendel's Strange Angel), so will try to stay to the text in this, but I wanted to note why so little of Parson's writing is available (having largely been destroyed in the explosion).

Frankly, I didn't know what to expect with this ... and the book (as a whole) is quite uneven, primarily due to the fragmentary nature of much of the material. About half of the book consists of the title essay, which was originally written in 1946. This is a remarkable bit of exposition, which elicits comparisons to Thomas Paine in some aspects and a more mundane (albeit mythology-soaked) Crowley in others. The merging of these voices, however, creates a truly gripping statement, where "freedom", both political and spiritual, is being extolled. When I finished reading this, I was truly saddened that this was a voice that was silenced (at age 38), just when it seemed to be finding its muse.

The rest of the book, although fragmentary, is fascinating in its own accord. In this it becomes clear that Parsons was attempting to found some new religion, one he termed "The Witchcraft". I was floored by this, because I was very familiar with the work of Allen H. Greenfield who has traced modern Wicca back to Aleister Crowley via Gerald Gardner. If you tell most Wiccans that their religion was cooked up behind the scenes by Crowley, you are likely to have your eyes scratched out, yet Parson's book seems to be a smoking gun confirming the more circumstantial threads linking Gardner to Crowley. After all, Gardner didn't publish his seminal Witchcraft Today until two years after Parson's death, yet here, the better part of a decade earlier, is a Crowley protégé evangelizing for "The Witchcraft".

Two essays here seem to be reasonably complete, "On Magic" and "Basic Magic", with others in various states of completeness, ranging from one page "broadsides" to rambling "outlines" of works never to be fleshed out. In most of these, the themes so prevalent in modern "women's spirituality" are recognizably sketched out (as though Maria Gimbutas had cribbed half her "ancient origins" material from it!). It is quite an eye-opener to read these bits and pieces and reflect on just how much a hand Crowley has had in changing the religious landscape (via Wicca, and perhaps even Scientology), although not in the way that he had hoped (via Thelema).

Obviously, I have read quite a bit in areas closely related to Freedom is a Two-Edged Sword, so this is a puzzle piece that links many things together for me. If you've not delved into this particular genre, it might just seem a muddle ... however, Parsons was a great fan of Frazer's The Golden Bough, so there is a good deal of interesting mythological material woven in with the occultism and politics, and if this melange sounds appealing to you, it might be an interesting read even without the wider mystical context.

The publishing history of this is also a bit convoluted, having been (in this edition) put out by New Falcon Publications, another press that was laid low by the same distributors that did in my own Eschaton Books, and (judging from the date) this must have come out right in the middle of that nightmare. Another group, Thelemic Media, appears to have obtained all the stock of the 1989/2001 edition, and simply slapped on stickers with the new ISBN and put it back on the market. This is a good thing as copies of the book listed under the old ISBN are showing up for over $100 on the used market, while the "new" version is going for its cover price of $12.95 on Amazon!

Again, there is a lot to recommend this book, but those with a familiarity with the author's spiritual/occult history are likely to "get" it more than those coming to it cold. As noted above, after reading the title essay, I really wish I'd been able to read more (much more) of Parson's writings, but so much of that material was lost in the blast that also took his life. Here at least is one small window into the mind and spirit of the very complicated Mr. Parsons.


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