I have a spiffy new website at https://www.theresalcrater.com
Hope to see you there!
I have a spiffy new website at https://www.theresalcrater.com
Hope to see you there!
On Winter Solstice, Twin Eagles Publishing released the fourth and final novel written by Dion Fortune under her pen name V.M. Steele. Set in Africa, Beloved of Ishmael follows the adventures of Nina Barnet who, finally swayed by the romance/adventure novels of the day, travels to the West Coast of Africa to marry a man she became engaged to after spending a short time with him in England. She arrives to find him a sodden alcoholic wreck, and faced with the ruin and degradation a marriage to him would entail, Nina jumps ship, so to speak, and escapes with the one man in the settlement who seems to have strength of character and at least some integrity. True to colonial experience, Nina quickly falls in love and marries this man, only to discover that he is the notorious Cassalis, an Englishman who has organized the African and Arab criminal underground.
There’s so much to say about this novel. It is problematic for the 21st-century reader because of the casual racism. Paul Blakey and Richard Brzustowicz both discuss this, and Brzustowicz’s Foreword gives us some esoteric and scientific background on the thinking about race at the time this novel was written. The novel will most likely offend you, but if you are a student of Dion Fortune’s work or simply interested in history, it is worth the read.
What they don’t discuss is the change in how we see male/female relationships that is apparent in all four novels. Each of these books involves a casual acceptance of the potentiality of male violence against the woman in the book, and handling him properly is seen as the responsibility of the female character. If she’s smart and knows her man, she’ll come out all right. If not, well, she should have known seems to be the attitude. Also, written in the 1930s and on, they reflect the reality of women’s possibilities at that time. Women were just entering the work force and still dependent on men to a good degree. True independence is in the future, and perhaps still is.
One aspect of this novel is the coming together of the primal male and female, represented in this case by Nina and Cassalis. Because Cassalis has fallen fully and truly in love with Nina, and because she is a true clergyman’s daughter who has imbibed morality along with her mother’s milk, he realizes he must stop his criminal activities if they are to have a successful marriage. On a more practical level, he knows he cannot live in constant danger of arrest or assassination and raise a family. One interesting point is that Cassalis offers the least amount of violence to Nina. It is only when he thinks she is interested in another man that his jealousy is roused, but he sends it to the appropriate target—his crooked lawyer.
Nina’s reaction to his crimes is rather mild, and Fortune shows us that she has not imbibed the rigid, pompous, class-bound hypocrisy of her English upbringing along with the comparatively healthy morals of Christianity. Male morality is still in the hands of women, however. It takes a strong female presence to reform Cassalis, who has tried to go “straight” by opening a copper mine, but his application was denied by the former governor out of spite. But the new governor sees the potential in Cassalis when he rescues the governor’s wife along with two other women and leads them away from the Arab gangs, parlays with the tribal leaders, and runs the river in the dark. This new couple represent the best of the British aristocracy—clear-eyed, not easily shocked, willing to compromise in the establishment of real order. They stand not on abstract principles, but reality. They will balance Justice and Mercy for the good of the state.
So this tension between the poles of male and female is one esoteric aspect of the novel. The second is the vitality of the African continent which is said to reach out and awaken Nina. Fortune does not show this very well, though. Nina comments that she loves the sunlight on board ship as it progresses south. Then she tells Cassalis, who she knows as Lewis at the time, that even though she is in an extremely difficult situation, she still doesn’t want to go back to England because Africa seems so vital. Cassalis himself confesses to Nina he, too, has felt the strength of Africa and would never return. In fact, it is when she says she has fallen under Africa’s sway that he becomes interested in her.
Cassalis is also involved in the African religion. We see occasional references to earth-based vs. heaven-based religions, paralleling in an interesting way the reality-based new governor against the abstract-principle based old one. But we never see a genuine representation of this, except perhaps for the drums that speak through the night when the new couple escape in the boat. Nina is moved deeply by this. Cassalis does participate in a debased and insulting ritual with the African cult leaders, posing as a Messiah gorilla and eating from a pile of yams that symbolizes going to war to unite the tribes and set them against the Arabs and Europeans.
Which brings us back to the casual racism. It would be one thing to accurately portray the racial prejudice of the characters through their speech and attitudes, but the narrator of the novel, who is closest to Fortune’s own voice, shares in it to an extent. Some of the characters are more vile than others, but the book portrays Africans as childish, Italians and Portuguese as overly passionate, and Arabs as intelligent but devious. They are types—typical of the early 20th century. Here’s where Brzustowicz’s Foreword is interesting. He discusses how the esoteric schools at that time taught that different glands were associated with different chakras, and that different racial types vibrated in harmony with different glands. Science and esoteric teachings have progressed, of course. This novel was published 82 years ago. This is not an excuse. It’s a fact. Both Blakey and Brzustowicz suggest our reaction to this weakness reveals a lot about our own psychological state. This is also why in the Western Metaphysical schools, we are encouraged not to follow teachers blindly. They are human and have faults.
Brzustowicz discusses the current state of affairs in publishing books that take on race as a theme in fiction. Of this, I’ve had recent experience. School of Hard Knocks, just out in November, has received some criticism because I, as a white woman, have written from the point of view of an African-American woman. There is a white character who is too good for the time period according to one reviewer (thus evoking the “good White” narrative), but not good enough according to another. There’s more, but it’s not the point. Brzustowicz discusses this process, and in doing so seems to suggest that as a culture we have still not gotten out of the woods when it comes to dealing with our colonial and racist past. We are still in reaction. We are processing all our emotions about our past, some more successfully than others. He may disagree with my reading of what he says, but here’s the relevant passage:
It is almost inevitable that a reader nowadays will read this book through the filter of the conflicting, even paradoxical, demands of [21st century] cultural contradictions. Modern publishers tend to vet carefully books that touch on issues of race, sexuality, cultural conflict, and so on, even trying them out on focus groups or consulting sensitivity committees before committing to publishing them. (ix)
His next statement is quite interesting: “. . . it may be helpful to remember that it [the novel] was written in a time when the modern complex fabric of anxiety, guilt and hostility was still to be woven, and before people had [started] treating such issues with exquisite delicacy” (ix).
It was the phrase “exquisite delicacy” that really caught my eye. It put me in mind of my teenage year spent in the Rap Room in Winston-Salem, NC, during the civil rights movement and other times working in that movement when frank and sometimes heated exchanges between white and black people were common. People from the African-American community spoke their minds and often told us when we’d made some stupid comment or made a racist mistake. They told us with some heat. We were free to leave or listen, to go into neurotic defense mode or to learn something. It was embarrassing. It was painful. It was interesting, too. And we all survived it. At least the people I knew did.
That’s what’s missing from today’s conversation about race. White people are supposed to have already gotten over all their prejudices, whether they have or not. Mistakes are fatal to careers in some cases, but for black folks, racism is still literally fatal. Talking about it, though, is a minefield. I wrote School of Hard Knocks in this spirit. I just wrote about my own experience, except when I made up a history for a woman who was important to my mother. Perhaps I still can’t see that past as clearly as I should. Opinions differ. Perhaps I’ve contributed a book to the vast history of how Western culture is coming to terms with its global dominance and slave past. That is enough for me, and that is also what Fortune’s book does.
It’s quite early Monday morning in Siem Reap, Cambodia. I’m still adjusting to the time, even with a bit of JetZone homeopathic help, so I woke at 4:00 am and meditated, just like we’re advised to do by many advanced teachers and texts. The hotel staff gave me tea gratis, and I’m enjoying it in the garden as a few early rising mosquitoes are enjoying a bit of breakfast gratis from me.
The hotel is beautiful. There’s a huge Christmas tree in the lobby, which seems oddly incongruous, but all traditions are One. The American popular Christmas tunes are not as enjoyable, but they are a polite nod to the traditions of other lands as well.
The garden has an inner courtyard with an elephant head in each of the four directions, and is built on the same mandala pattern we see in so many places, a four-sided square, like the hotep in Abu Ghurob and Dahshur, and the center altar in the Coricancha in Cusco which I believe is where a spring rises. This is the hotep at Abu Ghurob. I promise Cambodia pictures very soon.
The trip was long and arduous, and even though I slept a lot on the plane in spurts, I think I’m getting too old for 30+ hours of continuous travel. I’ll break it up next time I’m coming to the other side of the globe. Travel, sleep, then travel some more. But I can say that when we landed in Siem Reap in cloud cover that finally broke to show us a green countryside, I felt a deep, deep peace come over me. My focus shifted from the content of the surface world to using that as a means to find the One Awareness beneath all that activity. Each moment is an opportunity to find Home, I was reminded. Something about this place releases me and tears come easily. I’m sure this will pass into a gentle peacefulness.
The tour starts tonight with a meeting and tomorrow we go to Angkor Wat to start our exploration of these ancient temples. Today, my friend and I are going to the local artisan’s market and then to a silk farm.
The sun has won the day as I type and perhaps the mosquitoes have as well. The lights in the restaurant have come on and more people have joined me on the terrace.
May the peace which passes all understanding be with you always.
School of Hard Knocks is finally out on all platforms and ready for you to read. This one is different. It’s a historical. It’s Southern Fiction. It would be called Women’s Fiction in the NYC publishing world. It has a touch of mysticism in it, because I wrote it after all. Here’s what it’s about:
“The segregation lines are clear in 1950s North Carolina, but the bloodlines—not so much. The past and present intertwine when Maggie Winters risks a friendship with Lily and rescues her daughter and Lily from abuse by the same family that tormented Maggie as a young girl in the 1890s.
Raised on a decaying plantation in 1890s North Carolina, Maggie Winters sees it all—a woman beaten nearly to death, hidden in the barn, and healed by her African-American mother; a man lynched; and the machinations of a white woman hired to teach her to read but who has become determined to marry Maggie’s widowed white father. When Maggie’s father is forced by his Virginia family to marry someone more appropriate, Maggie and her mother are left without protection.
In the 1950s, young Caroline Hauser copes with her mother Lily’s descent into madness by reaching out to the spirit world. Caroline’s mother begs Maggie to help save her child from damnation.
Will appeal to readers of The Secret Life of Bees and The Help.”
This book started in journal writing from the 1980s and expanded into more bits and pieces when I took Beverly Donofrio’s workshop at the Moravian Writers’ Conference. I was inspired by her brutal honesty of Astonished, the account of her attack by a serial rapist. Such lyrical beauty and terrifying realism.
I finished a polished draft about a year ago and sent it out to agents since it’s on the literary side and I hoped to land a big contract. But I was disabused of this notion by a literary agency that wanted to buy the book, but they were concerned about a white woman writing one major character who was African American.
But I knew Mamie, who is Maggie in the book. She was my mother’s friend and she did help me and my mother out of a very frightening time. Perhaps today my mother would have been diagnosed with post-partum depression, but she was also struggling with a man whose only role model for being a father had been abusive. He later worked his way out of this, but when I was an infant and toddler, life was tough. And he did have that accident driving home from a bar that landed him in jail. And me being psychic (I inherited some of this from my mother), I reached out to the spirits who were hovering around trying to help me through a terrifying time. We all made it through, in large part thanks to Mamie, so this one’s for her and my mother.
So you can see this book is part fiction, part autobiography. By now, it’s hard to separate the two because when we write about a real event, it tends to take a different shape on the page. And obviously I wasn’t alive in 1890, at least not in this form, so I made up a childhood for Maggie.
I hope you like it, but don’t worry if you prefer my Visionary Fiction. My next book is #3 of the Power Places series. Stay tuned. (And remember, we writers depend on reviews.)
Hunters of Humans was released on the fall equinox. This is the third novel written by Dion Fortune under the pen name V.M. Steele that Twin Eagles Publishing has saved from obscurity.
I have to say the very best part of this one is Fortune’s sharp insight into the human mind. I quite enjoy her rapid portraits of each character, painted up in a few brush strokes that bring the person’s deepest thoughts and feelings to the fore. Her prose rapidly brings us into the situation describing how even readers of crime novels assume a death in the neighborhood is natural. Then we see Ann reading about a death in her neighborhood which she compares to her own family’s history of heart trouble. We meet her, her father, and then the detectives, and within two pages, we’re off. It’s almost dizzying how quickly and skillfully Fortune brings this complex world to life.
The story both a romance and a mystery. Scotland Yard is called in to determine if the death of a local man was natural or a murder. The two detectives, two types aptly described by Fortune, lodge with a young woman, Ann, and her father. The book is a study of how the younger detective, Austen, and Ann find each other through class barriers that are rapidly falling and in spite of the crimes of her drunken father.
Ann is a reader of mysteries and Austen is the new detective, bringing science to solve the crime along with the older detective who is a master of his trade, although not educated in the new public school. But Ann is an aristocrat, a fallen one, but still. We watch post-war England break down social obstacles. We watch Ann gradually realize that not only is her father responsible for this death, but most likely killed her grandmother and mother, and has Ann in his sights as well.
The book is really about Ann and Austen managing each other’s temperaments.
“He had never paid much attention to women, having joined the police when he was only twenty and being extremely keen on his work . . . . Consequently, when the flood-gates went down, the tide carried all away, never having spent its strength in backwaters.” (30)
The older detective fears this baby aristocrat will toy with his young apprentice and he shepherds the two through the dangerous psychological waters of both their budding relationship and the trial of Ann’s father for murder. So you see, I haven’t really given the mystery away, because the story is Ann’s realization and her struggle with familial ties and a new relationship outside the bounds of her class. But she doesn’t view it that way. She doesn’t want to disgrace Austen’s career by marrying her, a murderer’s daughter.
The novel is the least esoteric of the three published so far, but it is fascinating watching the psychologist that Fortune was at work. I enjoyed her deep insights and even the look at gender relationships that have changed a great deal. And yet some of those same forces still run through us, so there is always something to learn from reading Dion Fortune.
Dion Fortune wrote, “The Mystical Qabalah gives the theory, but the novels give the practice.” Penny Billington and Ian Rees have taken Fortune at her word and written a book that explains the spiritual system behind the novels, then offers interesting guided meditations and rituals for the reader to explore on their own.
The Keys to the Temple examines Fortune’s four main esoteric novels in light of the Qabalah and the spiritual journeys undertaken by the protagonists. The book briefly explains the Tree of Life for readers unfamiliar with it, then aligns the four novels with the sephiroth on the central pillar. They match The Goat-Foot God with Malkuth (Earth), The Sea Priestess with Yesod (Moon and the Treasure House of Images), The Winged Bull with Tiphareth (the Sun and home of the sacrificed God), and Moon Magic with Da’ath (fusion of opposites or the Abyss where the personality dissolves into the transcendental elements).
Billington and Rees provide a synopsis for each book, then trace the hero’s experience from his dead-end experience to his meeting with guides and then his magical education through to the transformative ritual that is the culmination of each novel. They point out the ways we share the challenges, disappointments, and restrictions that have so disheartened each hero, thus from the start inviting us to see ourselves in the novels and undertake these transformations ourselves. As the hero progresses, the authors analyze the experiences in the light of the Qabalah and Fortune’s teachings, making parallels between the characters and the spiritual energies inherent in each of the centers on the Tree.
One of the things I found most illuminating was the way the authors described the initial set of centers on the Tree and how this compares to our beginning experiences in our spiritual journey. I started off in a Vedic practice. Eastern philosophy focuses on transcending, on reaching enlightenment. There was no invitation to explore the current personality in my training, and I perked along quite happily for a while, meditating and having some nice experiences, growing quite naturally. Until I’d done enough meditating to start uprooting some of the intense issues seeded by my childhood. Then I hit a road block. My current practice gave me no guidance. Luckily, I found a Zen Buddhist therapist who helped me quite a bit, which was still in the Eastern tradition, but he loved Jung and Reich. Jung was a master of the Western tradition.
The Western path is quite different. Rather than starting with the top as the goal, it works its way through the personality, the more spiritual individuality, and lastly the transcendent. It offers more guidance to the student who runs smack dab into their issues and needs to deal with them before they can go any further. As an aside, I would say I recommend doing both types of meditation, which is a bit of heresy on both sides of this supposed divide, but perhaps that’s a discussion for another blog.
Billington and Rees talk about this process of resolving personality issues in terms of the four bottom centers on the Tree. We are in Malkuth (earth) and in our journey to Yesod, we bounce back and forth between the two centers on the side pillars, Hod (Though/Mind) and Netzach (Feelings/Natural Energy). Once we’re no longer content to accept the conventional world in Malkuth, our hearts and minds are illuminated by the imagery and spiritual potential experienced in Yesod. As we walk our early path, we bounce around in our feelings and thoughts until the constructs in our personality are softened and the issues resolved. Then it is easier for us to go on to Tipareth, the home of Cosmic Consciousness, if we return to the Eastern side of spirituality.
This is only one of the many pleasures and lessons I took from this book. After their more in-depth analysis of the books, the authors discuss how to proceed on our own spiritual paths, examining initial attitudes and practices, such as not going for glitz and how to set up magical space, all the while showing how these issues are faced by the characters in the novels. Then they offer a series of guided meditations using the imagery from the novels. Each section ends with a suggested ritual to cap off the work with that particular sephirah and set of energies.
All in all, a great read for fans of Fortune’s novels and serious spiritual seekers alike. Click to buy.