Overweening Generalist

Monday, August 29, 2016

Occultists, Mystics, Artists, and Asthma

Recently, in the group reading of Robert Anton Wilson's Cosmic Trigger Vol 1 over at RAWIllumination.net (see this entry), there is a brief discussion about ceremonial magicians and their problems with asthma. MacGregor Mathers, Allan Bennett, Aleister Crowley, and Israel Regardie are mentioned as occultists who had varyingly lengthy bouts with asthma.

In Regardie's book on Crowley, The Eye In The Triangle: An Interpretation of Aleister Crowley, there is a passage about when Allan Bennett moved in with Crowley and taught him a lot about magick:

Bennett must have also taught him the art of skrying in the spirit vision, traveling clairvoyance, investigating symbols, their meanings known or not, so that their true significance could be divined. He must have given Crowley a good training in Qabalistic processes too. There is an essay or two of his remaining which indicates profundity and depth of insight. It was an invaluable training for Crowley -- one too that is at the bottom of the very real skill he came to have in practical occultism. 

However, there was something else that must have had a far-reaching effect on him. And that was bronchial asthma. I imagine the damp, wretched English climate did nothing to alleviate this condition.

                                           Allan Bennett: taught Crowley a lot, severe 
                                           asthmatic, Buddhist, died in 1923.

Regardie mentions (this period with Bennett was around 1898-1900) that the drugs prescribed for asthma then were opium, morphine, chloroform and cocaine. These worked for a while, but then "narcosis" brought an end to a drug's efficacy. In Lawrence Sutin's biography of Crowley, Do What Thou Wilt, Sutin writes that Bennett's asthma was worse than Crowley's and we get this picture of Bennett from Uncle Al:

Allan Bennett was tall, but his sickness had already produced a stoop. His head, crowned with a shock of wild black hair, was intensely noble; the brows, both wide and lofty, overhung indomitable piercing eyes. 

Crowley believed that due to Bennett's asthma, Bennett, "regarded the pleasures of living (and, above all, those of physical love) as diabolical illusions devised by the enemy of mankind in order to trick souls into accepting the curse of existence." -p.66

Yea, I can see how asthma might contribute to such a worldview. Especially when whatever drugs you were using stopped working. Or made things worse.

Crowley's asthma got worse and worse through the first 15 years of the 20th century, and by 1919, when he came back to England after spending time in Unistat during World War I, a doctor prescribed heroin. He remained hooked for the rest of his life, one of the horrible ironies of Crowley's life, which was overwhelmingly about using the powers of the human Will to overcome anything.

In Wilson's book, asthma is discussed as a "chest disease" which some people catch and some are eventually cured. Because of my lifelong "moderate-severe" asthma, which has long been under good control by allopathic medicine, I dispute this picture of asthma, but acknowledge the wheezy sufferings of others quite readily. For example, Crowley smoked, according to Regardie (who for a while was Aleister's personal secretary), "dark perique tobacco by the continuous pipeful, which could only aggravate the already grossly irritated condition of his bronchi." (Regardie, p.114)

Regardie links asthma to stress, and I think he's probably right, but stress seems to make a flare-up of my own asthma less likely. This is one reason why I subscribe to the psycho-biological idea around asthma as a syndrome. Any asthmatic can tell you of conversations with other asthmatics in which a discussion of what your "triggers" are vary wildly. For instance, Regardie assumes the "wretched English climate" made Bennett's asthma worse, but I do really well during cold, damp rainy weeks. When growing up in the San Gabriel Valley part of Los Angeles, the hot, dry Santa Ana winds were menacing and treacherous to me. (ER at 3AM).

So certain climates, pollens, foods, exercises, pets, etc: there's quite a variance among asthmatics. It does appear to be an autoimmune disease, but read the best, most up-to-date technical literature on what happens with with the immune system and you'll quickly realize it's a pretty complex cascade of events. For some "reason" your body thinks it's being invaded by something dangerous, and over-reacts.

I assume this has something to do with epigenetic effects, early exposure to smoke or smog, the individual's microbiome, and the Hygiene Hypothesis probably has something to do with it too.

Regardie, after getting into a tiff with Crowley and splitting with him in 1932, developed asthma, and relates the time he spent with occultist Dion Fortune and her physician-husband, and Regardie's asthma attack, and how they took care of him. Regardie returned to New York and kept a correspondence with an asthmatic English writer interested in the occult, and this was where Regardie learned of the idea "that somehow asthma is an occupational disease of occultists and mystics!"-p.116

By the mid-1930s ephedrine and epinephrine inhalers were available, and these work better than anything else for asthma attacks, but they stimulate the heart too much. Regardie thought he had a heart attack at one point, eventually received Reichian therapy, pronounced himself "cured" and had little problem with asthma after that. Makes me wonder...

Occultist/magician Andrew D. Chumbley died in 2004. Seems like his asthma was as bad as Bennett's.

Robert Anton Wilson (who got polio at age 4, in 1936, and was "cured" by Sister Kenny's method, pronounced as "quack" medicine by the AMA) gave a long interview with Michael Taft in the final decade of his life. I find this section germane:

Taft: Do you think the early experience of polio had much effect on you?

RAW: Yea, I think it underlines the tone of anxiety and paranoia that you find in all of my novels. Basically, all the characters in my novels come to a point where they're convinced the universe has been organized just to destroy them!

This makes a lungful of sense to me. Not that I think asthma is anywheres near the catastrophe of polio, mind you. I do think being a young person, holed up at home sick, becoming fiendishly bookish and spending a lot of time alone with your own imagination? It can have lifelong effects. And there will be drugs...

[Asthma seems to accompany pronounced problems with anxiety, for reasons to be easily guessed at. And we all desire a feeling of agency, but I suspect childhood-into-adulthood debilitations such as autoimmune diseases (and polio) enlarge and distort this desire, possibly leading to a life of mysticism, art, or magick. A third desire that seems to bubble out of this for sombunall asthmatics: a yearn to escape. Okay, okay Dear Reader, you say you've always been perfectly healthy - if "anxious" -  and yet you desire these same "things"? You're in the club with us! Even when we're not suffering miserably, we love company. Mostbunall?]

Regardie says Crowley's "association with Allan (Bennett-OG) had another very important sequel. I have already indicated that he used drugs to assuage his sufferings from asthma. In doing so, he must have discovered that some of them had a distinct effect on the mind. They expanded consciousness, and produced a simulacrum of the mystical or religious experience." -p. 117

In the 1950s-early 1960s, Asthmador could be bought over-the-counter at drug stores. It had datura in it. It had datura's nightshade cousin, belladonna, in it. These, in sufficient doses, were truly hallucinatory. HERE's a trip report. RAW discusses Asthmador, and other nightshade hallucinogenics, in Sex, Drugs and Magick, pp.84-104.

RAW - one of the great scholars of the occult/mystical/hermetic tradition, said that modern occultism had three main roots: Madame Blavatsky, Crowley, and Gerald Gardner, who revived pagan Wicca, which thrives today. Gardner too had asthma.

I've not seen evidence that Blavatsky was asthmatic.

When I was a kid, I looked for lists of famous athletes who were asthmatic. As I got older, I pay attention when I find out certain people had it: Beethoven (coffee was probably the best remedy he had); Vivaldi, Schoenberg, Alban Berg, Leonard Bernstein; Ambrose Bierce; Orson Welles; Jean Gebser. Etc. There are a LOT of us. Proust...

The best writing I've seen on the nightshade/tropane alkaloids is in Dale Pendell's Pharmako/Gnosis, pp.243-264

Tomatoes, potatoes, and hot peppers are also part of the nightshade family. Kinda makes me wonder.
The best history of asthma I've read was Asthma: The Biography, by Mark Jackson
The best book of a modern personal account of living a life with asthma that I've seen is easily Catching My Breath: An Asthmatic Explores His Illness, by Tim Brookes
Cannabis is a well-known bronchodilator. It works in a pinch, and because of Reagan's War on Pot, our best gardeners went underground, fiddled with the genetics of cannabis indicas and sativas, and now it's so good you hardly have to inhale much vegetable matter...which in the long run can't possibly be good for the bronchii, can it? At any rate, less is more with the Green Goddess.

                                                arte psicodélica por Bob Campbell


Sue Howard said...

Very interesting. If asthma "is" an autoimmune dysfunction/disease it'd interest me to extend this survey to, say, those who have suffered from the onset of any such severe(-ish) symptoms (autoimmune system overreaction, not just asthma) at a certain period in their life. I know of several people, including myself, to whom this has happened. All of them I would put in the category of sort of "sensitive", perhaps "mystically inclined" - and the experience was typically inexplicable, sysmptoms ranging from weird to life-threatening, with doctors shaking their heads and ending up prescribing a ton of steroids over a long period.

"Stress" seems to be the only commonly acknowledged factor, but I find that no more helpful an explanation than steroids as a treatment. I remember reading Regardie on this topic (specifically asthma), and I always found his comments on this whole area (the "psychosomatic") very interesting, particularly the Reichian therapy and breathwork, etc.

Sue Howard said...

Also just found out that Michael Taft (who recorded the RAW interview mentioned in your blog post) is the same guy who wrote 'The Mindful Geek', a very interesting book on meditation.

Eric Wagner said...

Nice piece. I thought Bob listed Gurdjieff not Gardner as the third root of modern occultism. I just reread I, Wabenzi which has me thinking about Gurdjieff.

michael said...


Now I want to check out The Mindful Geek.

Yea, the paradigm for most autoimmune diseases has "inflammation" as a big deal. Inflammation seems bad in every way if it lasts for longer than a "normal" immune response needs to fight off whatever invaded. So: steroids.

What's really weird is the stuff you touched on: a non-lifelong, transient bout with something that looks like the immune system overreacting. I remember one study of people who were allergic to pollen in flowers seeing a picture of a rose and then going into a sneezing attack. My point: there seems some sort of Mind aspect to this...what I call "syndrome."

For me, exercise/yoga helps a lot. For others, aerobic exercise "triggers" their asthma unless they spend a lot of deliberate time warming up. Eating too much can activate my screwed up immune response.

There must be at least five different "types" of asthma, maybe 30. Doctors/Big Pharma use albuterol (the most recent in a long line of "speed" like drugs for asthma), then steroids and things like leukotriene inhibitors. Dinking around with the immunoglobulins has been fat trickier than they first thought.

I've been on inhaled corticosteroids for 20+ years and I cannot stop them; my HPA axis has probably unlearned how to do its exquisite balancing act. But: those drugs have been a miraculous for me: I can have a "normal" healthy life. They're supposed to have no systemic effects outside the lungs, but this can't possibly be true; the corticosteroids must get into my general system, but I have not noted any untoward effects over that long period. I've also not had to increase dosage over 20 years. I feel lucky; I've been in contact with some asthmatics who get the Frankenstein effects of using Prednisone over a 6 month period.

Once you've been to the ER 15 or 20 times, you'll take anything the doctor says will keep your misery symptoms under control.

Well...most of us will go with the Doc. Not all.

michael said...

@Eric: Gads you're right: it was Gurdjieff and not Gardner for RAW. And yet: Gardner is a decent nominee for a 4th spot, don't you think?

I've not seen anything about Gurdjieff and asthma; I seriously doubt he wheezed. There's such an emphasis on breathing in his Thang.

Article from a historian of biology and alternative medicine and the occult tradition on the central role of breathing:

Cat Vincent said...

Not quite accurate on Crowley and his asthma prescription: he was prescribed cocaine and when be became addicted to it, he was prescribed heroin to get him off the cocaine!

Eric Wagner said...

Yes, Gardner seems a good nominee, but I suspect A. O. Spare has more superdegelegates.

michael said...

I suspect of the great many who have Wicca books on their shelves and "delve" into it, a lot have no idea who Gardner is.

Spare seems avant and for the more refined occultists and artists. While he seems less widely known, his influence seems disproportionately large.

I still think it fascinating to contemplate the fluidity of who/what is "occult." There seem to be many definitions, and they're quite personal. An astrology devotee? A very well-informed and imaginative conspiracy theory student? Ardent kabbalists? People who take a religious/scientific take on their sex magick practices? If we are taken with the body of Robert Anton Wilson's work, is this reading in "the occult"?