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Joachim Koester, Morning of the Magicians
2006, 16 mm film, 5 min. 28

The history of the occult is also a history of the obscure. A history of  ideas shrouded in secrecy seeping through the darkness of centuries, before suddenly resurfacing in the ‘mystic’ 1960s, and settling as a minor but constant presence within mainstream consumer culture. The ‘occult’ hasn’t left many monuments, mostly dusty manuscripts found or ‘rediscovered’ in forgotten boxes in libraries or bookstores, or an occasional alchemical symbol engraved in a church or on a building, which surprisingly survived the vigilant eye of the Inquisition. Nor are the historical figures of this ‘occult’ easy to trace. Real identities are typically veiled by disguises and pseudonyms making me doubt if these people ever actually existed. Some relatively recent and verifiable sources can be mentioned, however. One is the French socialist and kabbalist, Alphonse Louis Constant (1810 – 1857) better known as Eliphas Levi, who in his book The History of Magic (1861), brought together several different strands of esoteric thought – in effect, inventing occultism – and influenced artists like Arthur Rimbaud, J.K. Huysmans, André Breton and Erik Satie. Another is The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, an early twentieth century esoteric society in London, and its renegade member, Aleister Crowley (1875-1947). Crowley’s portrait was included on the cover of The Beatles’s Sergeant Pepper album, and his imagery finds its way into the songs of John Lennon and David Bowie among others revealing Crowley’s position as a  progenitor and avatar of the occult’s thriving within the counter-culture.

On March 1, 1920, Aleister Crowley and a group of devotees, arrived in Cefalu, Sicily, and moved into a small house at the outskirts of town. The house, formerly called Villa Santa Barbara, was renamed The Abbey of Thelema, inspired by the French writer Rabelais, who in the concluding chapters of his book Gargantua (1534), describes an ideal community named ‘Theleme’, which had the governing maxim “Do what you will.” Though hedonistic, centered around Crowley’s own version of magick – kabbalah and yoga, with a particular empasis on tantric practices, hetero-and homosexual rituals, and the use of drugs to heighten intensity – life in the Abbey was often described as bleak. The house had neither gas nor electricity, and no plumbing. General conditions were unsanitary in the extreme, and in the summer the air was thick with flies, gnats and mosquitoes. With Crowley as a drugged, benevolent dictator at his best, and a gruesome, perverted manipulator at his worst, the days at the Abbey could be harsh. On top of that, the magical training was rigorous and unrelenting. Newcomers would spend the night in ‘La Chambre des Churmantes’ – ‘The Room of Nightmares’ – its principle features: three large walls painted in fresco, representing earth, heaven and hell, depicting mostly demons, goblins and graphic sex scenes. Here, the new student of magick would experience ‘The nightside of Eden’ primed by a ‘secret process’ – probably a potent mixture of hashish and opium, administered by Crowley – as the walls came alive. The idea behind the ordeal was to contemplate every possible phantom that can assail the soul, to face the ‘Abyss of Horror’, and thereby gain mastery over the mind. This approach was strikingly similar to what was practiced 43 years later in Timothy Leary’s community, Catalina, founded in a vacant hotel in the sleepy Mexican beach town of Zihuatenjo, where members would sit alone in a  lifeguard tower on the beach, dosed on LSD, summoning the forces of the ‘irrational’, trying to break through to the other side.

With a curriculum of ordeals like nights spent in ‘The Room of Nightmares’, daily evocations in the Temple, and solitary and exhausting ‘magical’ retreats on the nearby cliff, coupled with the Spartan living conditions, it is perhaps evident why the Abbey of Thelema never attracted more than a small group of visitors and benefactors. So much for free love, and “Do what you will.” Crowley was decidedly more lenient with his own sexual excesses than with others and there was a catch to the word “will.” It also didn’t help the cause of Thelema that a number of visitors left with a heroin habit as an unwanted souvenir. But in the end it was not the liberal use of drugs, the inherent contradictions in the teachings, or local prejudice that eventually led to the demise of the Abbey – the Cefalu locals did tolerate the community, though they were frequently shocked by the members’ preference for bathing nude. It was the tragic death of Raoul Loveday – from enteric fever, contracted by drinking water from a mountain spring in the Cefalu countryside – and the ensuing  storm in the British press against Crowley and the Abbey, which prompted headlines like “Orgies in Sicily”, that led Mussolini to order the community closed. The directive came as part of a crackdown to suppress breeding grounds for dissent. If not exactly politically dangerous, Crowley and the others were at best undesirable. On April 22, 1923, the Abbey came to an end. The Italian authorities carefully covered the frescos, the magic circle on the floor and other traces of the previous activities with a coat of whitewash.

According experimental filmmaker Kenneth Anger, the villa subsequently sat abandoned for more than 30 years. Maybe also forgotten – sleeping – until Anger in 1955 re-found the villa and obtained permission to remove the whitewash, which had “turned to stone.” Anger spent three months working on the walls and floors, gradually revealing “all those hyper-psychedelic murals” in ‘The Room of Nightmares’ and on doors and shutters, planning a photo shoot on location, in which the costume of the sorcerer in the dreamy film Children of Paradise (1945) – a blue velvet robe emblazoned with the word “ABRA” – would appear. Whether the shoot actually happened is unclear. Anger’s documentary, made during his stay, was lost by Hulton Television. What still circulates is a series of photographs of the restored Abbey. One of them depicts Anger in conversation with the sexologist Alfred C. Kinsey. On the back wall is Crowley’s portrait and on a door, one of the newly uncovered paintings, a mountainous landscape made in a fantasy-like style. Anger had met Kinsey when the doctor approached him to purchase a print of his first film Fireworks. While Anger was an ardent follower of Crowley’s magic, Kinsey thought that Crowley was “the most prominent fraud that ever lived.”  Kinsey nevertheless saw Crowley as a brilliant homoerotic writer, and was interested in discovering more information about Crowley’s sex magick practices. More than likely it was Kinsey who funded Anger’s stay in Cefalu.  

Today Cefalu  is not the small Sicilian fishing village Anger and Kinsey experienced in the fifties. Situated one hour from Palermo, it’s better described as a booming beachside town, or as a guidebook states: “the premier destination on the Tyrrhenian coast.” The change in size and appearance of the town, and the vague directions I had managed to obtain from an older book, made finding the Abbey a challenge. As I walked through the area, which once was “the southeastern outskirts” of Cefalu, I started to doubt whether the house still existed. This area did not share the characteristics of a place that might accommodate ‘leftover’ or ‘ambiguous’ spaces. Instead of vacant lots I found my way blocked by the barrier of a gated community, or newly built condos with BMWs and Porches crowding the parking lots. It was only after hours of walking in circles, almost by chance and out of the corner of my eye, that I caught a glimpse of a caved-in rooof near the stadium. I realized I had been within meters of the house several times before, standing in the parking lot of the stadium, scanning the sloping hillside without noticing the house right next to me, hidden behind a wall of greenery and palm trees.

The house and garden of the Abbey were completely overgrown in a strangely evocative way. As I walked the faintly visible path to what was once the main entrance, I was so overwhelmed by the scene’s dormant qualities that I had to pause. It seemed to me as if sediments, pieces of leftover narratives and ideas from the individuals that once passed through this place had formed knots, as tangled as the bushes and trees that where now taking over, creating a kind of sleeping presence.

I continued my exploration wondering if the Abbey could be seen as a sort of monument, when the gaping hole in the roof reminded me of Robert Smithson’s site specific sculpture Partially Buried Woodshed. Even though Smithson, in this and other pieces, intentionally worked with a narrow but very deep historical space, the Partially Buried Woodshed was transformed into a political landmark by someone adding the graffiti “May 4 Kent 70”, to commemorate the four students killed by Ohio National Guardsmen during an anti-war protest. The later attempts by Kent University to get rid of the Woodshed were in reality efforts to obscure this particular history, since what Smithson’s ruin symbolized was viewed as an embarrassment. Eventually, the university planted a circle of trees  around the Woodshed so it couldn’t be seen from the road. And so, the monument dissolved and came to an end, discretely hidden by a veil of trees.

Thinking about this I climbed through the only window that was not boarded up, and made my way into ‘The Room of Nightmares’. The walls had traces of vivid green paint and I recognized a few of the frescos from Anger’s photographs, though in a much worse state. The walls were scrawled with graffiti and the rest of the house a mess of tiles, dust and discarded furniture – it felt like being in a hollow place. As I climbed out, and stood in the garden again, I suddenly noticed how close the newly built houses were  just on the other side of the bushes.

Joachim Koester, 2005