Copyright (c) 2001 First Things 111 (March 2001): 53-56.
Daemonomania. By John Crowley. Bantam. 451 pp. $24.
Reviewed by John J. Reilly
This book is the third of the projected four in John Crowley’s major novelistic treatment of gnosticism and hermeticism. As in the two prior books, Aegypt (1987) and Love and Sleep (1994), Daemonomania is held together, rather loosely, through the character of Pierce Moffet, a young historian in the 1970s living on a publisher’s advance. We meet him in the first book as he settles down in the Upstate New York town of Blackbury Jambs to write a hermetic interpretation of history (the working title of the manuscript is also “Aegypt”). Through Moffet’s friends and lovers, we are introduced to a local mystery that, in this third volume, builds to a climax of universal significance. His researches link this mystery to a parallel story that encompasses Dr. John Dee (the favorite magus of Queen Elizabeth I), Giordano Bruno, and the uncanny Prague of Emperor Rudolph II. The series makes use of the latest research about werewolves and witchhunts, ancient and modern, and readers interested in the academic study of the occult love it, especially since the author is generous with bibliographical information.
Daemonomania has the distinction of being one of the few books in which the world ends twice, once in 1588 and again in 1979. The author’s notion of apocalypse works like this:
When the world ends, it ends somewhat differently for each soul then alive to see it; the end doesn’t come all at once but passes and repasses over the world like the shivers that pass over a horse’s skin. The coming of the end might at first lift and shake just one county, one neighborhood, and not the others around it; might feelably ripple beneath the feet of these churchgoers and not of those tavern–goers down the street, shatter only the peace of this street, this family, this child of this family who at that moment lifts her eyes from the Sunday comics and knows for certain that nothing will ever be the same again.
A recurring theme is that “there is more than one history of the world.” Each new age looks forward to a different future and remembers a different past. The “Aegypt” of hermetic wisdom that was known to the scholars of the Renaissance has only a few points of contact with the “Egypt” of modern archeology. Modern archeologists would say that’s because they have more and better information, but Crowley suggests that each discovered a different past consistent with their distinct conceptual universes. This way of looking at history is familiar to us from, for instance, Thomas Kuhn’s notion of successive scientific paradigms, and from Michel Foucault’s proposal that different “epistemes” governed different regions of the past. It is not novel to suggest that what seems to us to be a continuous history of ideas is really divided into “dispensations” in which people have quite different conceptions about what is reasonable and possible. At least for the purposes of this series, however, the author goes beyond intellectual history to propose that not just the sense of the possible, but the possible itself may change as one age fades into another.
The Aegypt series is about an archetypical story enacted during such transitions. In seventeenth–century Prague, the Emperor Rudolph, who hoped to begin a new golden age by acquiring the power to make gold, subsidized a cottage industry of alchemists, one of whom, in Daemonomania, succeeds. In twentieth–century New York State, a wealthy old man named Boney Rasmussen, who was terrified of death, subsidized a writer named Fellowes Kraft to ferret out the emperor’s secret, which is also the secret of immortality. Crowley’s hero Moffet takes up their work after Rasmussen and Kraft become literal but unobtrusive ghosts. The closest we come to a resolution of the story so far is this explanation:
“‘Well you know the basic idea . . . Kraft’s idea . . . [t]hat the world—you know, reality, all this—goes through changes. Every now and then it enters a sort of period of indeterminism, anything is possible; and it stays in that passage time until, well, until . . . a certain thing is found. A certain thing that only exists, or comes to be, in that time. It’s the stone, or the elixir, or the thing that Boney wanted found. If it’s not found the world stops changing, or never stops changing, and dies. But it’s always found so far.”
In the twentieth–century part of the series, the myth takes the form of the rescue of a little girl with the ability to see dead people (recapitulating the gnostic myth about the rescue of the Divine Sophia from the world of matter). The people the little girl needs to be rescued from belong to a Christian cult called “The Powerhouse,” which specializes in therapy through exorcism.
The whole Aegypt series is anti–Christian, but anti–Christian in a way that I have never seen in fiction before. Consider this remarkable passage from Love and Sleep:
“Where was it . . . said . . . that in the religious history of the West the old gods are always turning into devils, cast from their thrones into dark undergrounds, to be lords over the dead and the wicked? It had happened to . . . the Northern gods . . . who became horned devils for Christians to fear. . . . And now look, the wheel turns, Jehovah becomes the devil. Old Nobadaddy, liver–spotted greasy–bearded jealous God, spread over his hoard of blessings like the Dragon, surrounded by his sycophants singing praises, never enough though.”
In a way, this is an argument from process theology: Christianity may have been true in the past, or at least effective. However, it will not be so in the coming age.
That insight is far from Crowley’s final statement. Although Daemonomania is so relentlessly postmodern that it is hard to know what to take as a joke, as metaphor, or as the author’s considered opinion, it is fairly clear that the author does take seriously the gnostic hypothesis that the world is a hoax. We come from beyond the world, but are trapped in it by a succession of frauds perpetrated by powers that do not have our best interest at heart:
O the traps the gods have prepared for us, their worshipers; how long and well they’ve worked. We are older than they, far older than the oldest of them; we have come from farther away, way back beyond where they were born: but we don’t know that, we have forgotten it—and they know we have forgotten it. And that’s why they can do with us what they like most of the time, especially when we think we have escaped them. That’s why, in other words, the world has lasted so long, and why we are still here.
Despite the commercials for the Old Time Gnosis, however, the Aegypt series is not primarily an indictment of Christianity or an exercise in cosmic paranoia. The Moffet character, a ferociously lapsed Catholic, is suspicious of Christianity in general. However, Crowley uses what he depicts as the provincialism and self–regard of the Powerhouse chiefly as a way to indict Moffet’s own pride and sense of spiritual superiority. Moffet knows that the Powerhouse is right about the nature of magic, because he is a magician himself, in his own small way (he uses it chiefly on his girlfriend). When his magic leads to disaster, he realizes that “the greater error was the one that had tempted Pierce himself, to believe that we ourselves are the authors of the tales we live within. That’s the ultimate arrogance of power, the arrogance of the gods: for all gods believe themselves self–created, and believe themselves to be issuing their own strong stories, news to us.”
There are some self–referential gimmicks in the series that are more ingenious than entertaining. We have seen, for instance, that the Aegypt series is nominally about the writing of a book called “Aegypt.” Crowley even allows himself this authorial soliloquy, put in the mouth of the would–be producer of a failed amateur production of Faust:
“I so much wanted to knit . . . past and present, then and now. The story of the thing lost, and how it was found. More than anything I wanted it to resolve. And all it does is ramify.”
Indeed it does, so much so that it is not obvious that anything remains to be said after this third volume. The world has already ended twice, after all. Nonetheless, the publisher assures us that a fourth book is planned. Some hints in Daemonomania suggest that a further book might deal with the near future, as did Crowley’s novella, Beasts (1976).
Despite these criticisms, Crowley’s blend of magic, blasphemy, and postmodernism works very well as fiction. He can create uncanny affect better than anyone since Arthur Machen. Unlike Machen, he also has the sense to confine most manifestations of the supernatural to dreams and coincidences. The hermetic twilight has rarely been made to seem so plausible. Will the series persuade many people to its view of the world? Probably not, but that may be the measure of its success. The merit of these books is that they express the indeterminacy of a time of transition. The nature of twilight, however, is to resolve into either day or night.
John J. Reilly is the author of Apocalypse and Future: Notes on the Cultural
History of the 21st Century (Xlibris).