10. Dion Fortune – Psychic Self-Defence (1930)
Burroughs read a lot of occult books, but it was always to Dion Fortune that he directed young readers and acolytes.
Burroughs’ “magical thinking” has been thoroughly discussed by the critics. Matthew Stevens’ Magical Universe of William Burroughs is the most exhaustive guide, but both Barry Miles and Ted Morgan’s biographies contain substantial insights as well.
Burroughs appears to have picked up the magical habit from a series of childhood nannies, and retained the magical mode of thinking his entire life; spending his final years as a practitioner of Chaos Magik and acolyte of a Thanatos cult.
So why did he direct young wannabe magicians to Fortune’s book?
Well, firstly, it’s a useful overview. It covers hauntings, how psychic powers work, the astral plane, occult’s relationship to religion, and some handy practical tips on avoiding or countering psychic attack.
These include drawing sigils and magic circles in holy water for protection. To focus on images rather than text to communicate feelings (feelings belonging to the pre-linguistic areas of the brain). And to always empty your bowels before magic, as “the accumulation of effete matter” puts one “at a great disadvantage”.
Fortune’s prose also contains all the hucksterish phrases that (as David Wills shows) hooked in Burroughs every time.
When she’s not promising that “this book will tell all”, or promising “a practical step-by-step guide”, she’s adding caveats along the lines of; “I’ve know this is true because I’ve seen it first-hand”, “this technique will only work with practice”, and “only closed-minded scientists would deny this”.
These tells, also present in Hubbard, Korzybski and Reich, should act as red flags for the average reader, but for Burroughs they were like catnip.
To be fair to Fortune, her writing is highly concise and practical. It contains digressions, but doesn’t get bogged down in arcana in the way that occult writings often do. I can see why a practical man like Burroughs would consider it a good primer.
Of perhaps most interest is the insights it provides into the metaphysical models of psychic and occult practitioners.
A lot of not-quite-current scientific jargon is appropriated to explain psychic phenomena: hypnotism is a type of “magnetism”, rituals are “charged with psychic electricity”, and a curse can transfer through touch “like germs”.
Writing in the 1920s, Fortune and her fellow psychics are working on an 1890s model of science. The quantum theory of the time would take forty years to make its way into crank philosophy.
As for the “astral plane”, it is only one of many:
“Behind the physical plane lies the astral plane, and behind the astral plane lies the mental plane, and behind the mental plane lies the spiritual plane, each plane acting as a plane of causation to the plane above it.”
The layered model perhaps reveals the limits of occultism’s imagination. It is, after all, merely a borrowing from Dante’s spiritual system. Burroughs own psychic system is far more sophisticated, amalgamating these “planes” with the continuous-path model of the Egyptians and complex time concepts (part-Mayan, part-Ishmaelite and part-Serialist).
More on all those later.
The most intriguing part of the book comes right at the end. In describing the many forces and groupings you might encounter in the astral plane, Fortune describes a purely astral force known as the Occult Police.
Unlike the Hunting Lodges – good psykers who patrol the astral plane looking for bad psykers – the Occult Police have no physical counterparts. They exist only astrally, and yet, by providing instructions to humans visiting the astral plane, they can arrange coincidental meetings within the real world. The G-men of the astral world.
These must surely be the model for Burroughs’ Nova Police? The only difference being that, where the Occult Police move through planes of existence, the Nova Police move through time as well.
Fortune’s attitude to the Occult Police might also indicate why Burroughs always, when recommending Psychic Self-Defence, gave the caveat: “it’s a bit old fashioned”. Fortune, after all, sees the Occult Police as an entirely good force, and the dark magicians of the Left-Hand Path as entirely malign.
Burroughs, as we know, would not go in for such moral certainties. His Nova Police are insidious, dangerous, corrupt, and although they are preferable to the Nova Mob, it’s often hard to tell them apart.
There’s also, as Stevens points out, no mention of sex magic in Fortune’s work. She is adamantly against using drugs to induce psychic visions too. None of these taboos worried Burroughs, with works like The Book of Breeeething explicitly drawing on both.
As far as introductions to occultism go though, Burroughs was not wrong. Fortune’s book is thorough, well-written and moves along at a good pace. He might have had crazy ideas, but Burroughs always knew good writing.