Thelema, New York, and Esoteric Publishing: A Quick Review of “In the Center of the Fire”


James Wasserman, In the Center of the Fire: A Memoir of the Occult 1966–1989 (Lake Worth, Fla.: Ibis Press, 2012).

(In the cover photo, Wasserman is in back and his business and magickal partner Bill Breeze in the foreground.)

Before I found my first Wiccan coven, a friend connected me with (an) Abby of Thelema, a little group of 20-something magicians living in a run-down old house in a run-down neighborhood of Colorado Springs. Three or four other members lived elsewhere but came over for study and ritual. 1)They did have a lot of Crowley’s books, and if I had been more attuned and had had some extra money, I could have bought them all from the member who ended up with them, held them a while, and re-sold them at a profit. But I didn’t. I just wanted to move on. There was a certain amount of drug use and not always enough food, but someone was the “imperator.”

I learned some things there, but the combination of high-flown titles, material poverty, and self-delusion was pretty strange. The “abby” hit the rocks before long, and I moved on to a more compatible path.

But yes, Thelema. Here, pre-O.T.O., is our protagonist at (the old) Antioch College in Ohio: “This [academic] quarter was particularly laced with drugs, women, and spiritual seeking. School was simply off the radar.” The first quarter of the book, in fact, is a classic Seventies melange of road trips, dope, spiritual teachers, sexual relationships, and more road trips. (Wasserman and I could have passed on the street in Portland — or maybe in Taos.)

Finally Wasserman is in New York City, working at Weiser’s, a pre-eminent metaphysical store, and meeting other esotericists with whom he shares memorable experiences: “How many mornings we later spent on the pier on Hudson River across from my Greenwich Street loft, greeting the dawn with a hit of speed.” After a time, he shifts to the book-publishing side of the business, where he finds a home.

Aleister Crowley’s magickal heirs are deeply involved with texts — and some of the best tales of this memoir involve books, manuscripts, correspondence, and libraries, complete with international court battles over rights, burglaries of occult libraries, leadership struggles within the O.T.O., and Wasserman’s own adventures in magickal pubishing and with heroin. Some times I wonder if you can have Thelemic magic without heroin; Crowley himself certainly could not.

Wasserman’s recounting of his highs and lows through the Seventies and Eighties are brutally honest. A lot of what he tried, e.g. open marriage and the heavy drinking, simple did not work. They usually do not work long-term. Maybe what carried him through so many destructive periods was the magick — and yet, I have seen others on the same path sink to the depths and never rise. He sank, but he rose. In the Center of the Fire is an honest book, and it stands in contrast to many occult memoirs I have read where I felt the author was hiding all the unpleasant stuff and making his or her life look like a sequence of triumphs.

It should interest anyone interested in the late-20th century history of the O.T.O. (including how more of a place was made for women than Crowley had anticipated) in the American esoteric publishing and bookselling scene, and in the bohemian life in New York in the late Seventies and Eighties. You could put in the same shelf as Bull of Heaven: The Mythic Life of Eddie Buczynski and the Rise of the New York Pagan or even with Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids (Smith makes a brief appearance in Wasserman’s book.)

Maybe witches, magicians, and esotericists of the future will look at 1980s New York the way that would-be Hemingways and Fitzgeralds regard the Paris of the “Lost Generation.”.

Notes   [ + ]

1. They did have a lot of Crowley’s books, and if I had been more attuned and had had some extra money, I could have bought them all from the member who ended up with them, held them a while, and re-sold them at a profit. But I didn’t. I just wanted to move on.

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