I think that I am seeing the next trend in Pagan and/or Magickal publishing here: the Magickal Memoir. James Wasserman is a prolific producer of esoteric books, associated with famed Weiser Books; a devotee of the teachings of Aleister Crowley; and a member of Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), as well as the founder of one of the Order’s oldest temples, Tahuti Lodge, in New York City. In the Center of the Fire: A Memoir of the Occult (1966-1989) (Ibis Press, 2012) details his years on the Magickal “Scene” of New York during what he calls the “Occult Renaissance” of the ’70s. This is a fascinating period of time, with Wasserman referencing Buddhism and Eastern Philosophies; Harlem Voodoo; the vibrant music and cultural scenes of the city in general; in addition to the developing Wiccan/ Pagan communities. The majority of the book is taken up with his studies in Thelema, however (a charming sub-plot begins with the intrepid Mr. Wasserman crossing the Hudson River in an inflatable boat, looking for an island where Aleister Crowley camped on an expedition in the early 1900s); as well as controversies within the OTO; and especially the setting-up of Tahuti Lodge (which remains familiar to participants on the NYC Scene today).
Mr. Wasserman’s impressions of those early days in the City are notable, and his descriptions of the OTO during a challenging time of reorganization are invaluable. If there is a fault with this book, it is that the volume is derived (so Mr. Wasserman says) from journal entries, in some cases forty years old; the book tends to read like an extended review of someone’s diary. While sections can seize Mr. Wasserman’s imagination (such as descriptions of his publishing projects; psychic visions and impressions; even kind of alarmingly, his decision to purchase a gun), a great deal of In the Center of the Fire sounds like recaps of “I went there, and met So-and-So; then we went to another place, and saw Mike and Betty.” Stuff that seems like it should be very important, is addressed with a fleeting sketch: Samuel Weiser’s Bookstore, for instance, is described as “the largest and most famous English language occult bookstore in the world,” a “crossroads for the world”- and then we move on. A really fascinating individual, Harry Smith, whom Donald Weiser called “the most knowledgable occultist I have ever known,” with whom Wasserman embarks upon a Magickal “thirty hour visit that has transformed [his] life to this day,” an “excursion into the Infinite,” with one whom Wasserman comes to perceive as the “living Flame”- is concluded with in a scant two paragraphs. One is left desiring much more communication about this remarkable man, but this sort of thumbnail treatment is all we get.
Except for Thelema, and the Tahuti Lodge, and the really exceptional amount of drugs that Mr. Wasserman appears to consume (a huge number of chapters seem to start off with, “I was dropping some excellent acid”; this story-line comes to a tragic end when a close-companion in the OTO dies of a heroin overdose), this is a book more recounted than reflected over. Incredibly valuable for its definitiveness in setting the Thelemic stage in New York during the Occult Renaissance of the 1970s, this memoir is by no means the complete picture. For example, a scene about which I have heard stories for two decades- that of The Magickal Childe occult emporium run by Herman Slater- is dispensed with in two paragraphs. Clearly, there is the story of an entire book still to be told there.