The Best of Equinox: Dramatic Ritual is a collection of Aleister Crowley’s seven short dramatic pieces titled “The Rites of Eleusis” accompanied by various related materials: essays, photos, music and a small handbook titled “A Treasure-House of Images.” As with the first volume in the series, the title of this volume is somewhat misleading. This is not a how-to book of dramatic ritual, but a collection of short dramatic pieces. Crowley himself frames these Eleusinian rites not strictly as performance pieces but as “methods of invocation,” though given the format, most readers will recognize the stage direction and dialogue as a short plays. That Crowley infuses these plays with the energy of sacred invocation makes explicit the implicit magic of good drama; he is turning (or perhaps returning) the magic of performance to a sacred end, calling upon a specific deity and sharing that energy with a larger group of people than traditional ritual might allow. In doing so, the audience is (hopefully) initiated into the mystery of the conjured divinity.
The Rites are intended to be initiatory experiences. Both Crowley and Lon Milo DuQuette (who selected all of the pieces and introduces each volume in the series) frame the Rites as such, but simply reading these plays in the book is a long way from a transcendental initiation into any mystery. Anyone who’s seen a play knows that reading the script is far less enthralling than seeing it performed. Shakespeare is the best example, and Crowley’s work is no different. The experience of reading these pieces must pale in comparison to experiencing the produced version that contain music, poetry and dance, none of which can be easily reproduced while reading. Further, the original performance of Crowley’s Rites also benefitted from of a “cup of libations,” which according to DuQuette contained “a potent mixture of herbs, alcohol, fruit juice and mescal buttons.” I considered reproducing this aspect for my review, and given the nature of Crowley’s writing it might well have helped.
The Rites themselves are poorly written drama; in fact, there is little drama whatsoever. Crowley’s writing is inescapably symbolic and drama seems a particularly unforgiving place for the symbolism that Crowley attempts to bring to life. His characters parade about the stage making highly cryptic remarks, as in the ‘Rite of Saturn’:
MAGISTER TEMPLI. I. Brother Aquarius, to what end are we assembled?
AQUARIUS. [Rises and whispers in his ear.] Shabbathai.
ALL [aloud]. Shabbathai.
MAGISTER TEMPLI. I. Are the brethren fed?
AQUARIUS. Upon the corpses of their children.
MAGISTER TEMPLI. I. Have they quenched their thirst?
AQUARIUS. Upon poppy-heads infused in blood.
MAGISTER TEMPLI. The raven has croaked.
AQUARIUS. The owl has hooted.
CAPRICORNUS. The bat has flapped its wings.
MAGISTER TEMPLI. Then… Lights!
While I understand that these are meant to be symbolic of something, I don’t understand what they’re meant to be symbolic of, and the author hasn’t prefaced these remarks with anything for me to decode them with. As is so often the case, Crowley has created a textual velvet rope, allowing only those already in the know to fully appreciate his work while those of us unfamiliar with his morbid code are left to puzzle things out for ourselves. While this confusion may be the hallmark of an initiatory experience, it must be considered a failure if the initiates aren’t eventually led to some understanding, and that never came to pass for me in reading this book.Add to this the occasionally awful poetry (“And death’s insufferable perfume/ Beat the black air with golden fans / As Turkis rip a Nubian’s womb / With Damascened yataghans”) and the cryptic series of knocks that precede much of the dialogue (in groups of up to 49 knocks) with no explanation for their significance and the Rites leave much to be desired. Crowley is simply too blunt with his symbolism and leaves those outside the know with little to cling to, dismissing dramatic standards like plot and character development to the wings, assuming instead that the symbolism of his characters will shine through. As a whole, the Rites are neither one thing nor another; they are too symbolic to be good traditional drama, but too traditional to be considered wonderfully surreal.
The second half of the book fares somewhat better. The essays are at least comprehensible, and shed some light on the method behind Crowley’s madness, though his tone is unrelentingly condescending. It is only when he shifts into prophet mode that his vocabulary softens for the effusive adoration of the divine world. His essay “Earth” (under the pseudonym Francis Bendick) is romantic and thick with the sensual and poetic, and the booklet “A Treasure-House of Images” is a psalter of new age verse that echoes the purple prose of the first volume in this series, both in its archaic vocabulary and visual intensity.
On some level the sheer mass of writing that Crowley produces in the “Treasure-House” is admirable. The power and imagination the fills the 14 chapters of the booklet share volume one’s power and inspiration, but also its drawback: the intensity quickly becomes quite numbing and difficult to sustain for a long period as a reader. The quantity of imagery and praise becomes repetitive over the course of the booklet, and Crowley’s poetic methods wear thin and become more formulaic than inspired. Still, Crowley’s dedication to the divine in its myriad forms shines through, and effort to produce this amount of praise is significant in itself.
In its entirety, Volume Two of the Best of the Equinox reminds us that there is no doubt that as a magickian Crowley was world class, but as a writer Crowley hovers uncomfortably in the dilettante range. His language is archaic, his explanations are opaque, and his poetry at times pitiful. With a committed editor (which DuQuette is aspiring to admirably) and a dedication to killing his children (a writerly discipline that would have delighted Crowley), I have no doubt that Crowley would have become one of the premier writers of his day. But Crowley’s obscure style, inattention to detail and seeming dedication to obfuscatory symbolism make it clear that writing was at best his second love, and that his true interest lay in the experience itself, not the recording of it. Writing, his tone makes clear, only explains it for those who are too afraid or stupid to experience it for themselves. Still, Crowley knew that as the prophet of the new age that a record would be required of him, and as such he has left a trail of his scribblings for those of us who follow his circumlocutory ramblings and aspire to the enlightenment he himself was so passionate in attaining.