Kenneth Grant: 1924-2011
So Kenneth Grant is dead. He will be remembered for bringing both Crowley and – perhaps more importantly – Austin Osman Spare into the light of attention. What follows is a bit of personal reflection on how Grant’s work has impacted on my own ideas.
The tributes and obituaries are starting to pop up here and there – The Wild Hunt for example – although my favourite so far remains Mike Magee’s warm and irreverent memories. It’s set me thinking just how much of an influence Grant’s work has been for me. I usually fix the moment when I became interested in the occult on a day of idle browsing in the sixth-form library when, leafing through a copy of Man, Myth and Magic (in search of nude pictures of witches) I came across a full-colour reproduction of one of Austin Osman Spare’s avatistic paintings. Of course, in retrospect, this was due to Grant being an advisor to the publishers. I didn’t encounter his actual writings until a few years later, thanks to Dr. Shirley McIver, who was doing a Ph.D at Huddersfield Poly on ufology, but was one of the first occult practitioners I actually met. She very kindly lent me Images and Oracles of Austin Osman Spare which I spent some weeks poring over, fascinated, but I daresay, not understanding much. Some time later, I picked up a copy of Nightside of Eden in a remaindered books bin at WH Smith & Sons, and gradually acquired the rest of his books, mostly via Chris Bray’s shop in Leeds 6, The Sorceror’s Apprentice. At that time (the early 1980s) Kenneth Grant’s work made occultism interesting – exciting even, in a kind of Dennis Wheatley way, which for the most part, it wasn’t, at least for me. Not when I think about some of the other books I had my head stuck into at the time – such as Gareth Knight’s two volumes on “Practical Qabalistic Symbolism” or Regardie’s brick-like “Golden Dawn”. By comparison, Grant’s work was much more alluring, although I doubt that I really took much of it in at the time – although that didn’t seem to matter. Grant should be honoured at least, for bringing under his wing and introducing to a wider audience some of the weirder strains of occult activity rattling around at the time – such as the Ma’at Current, the work of Nema, Michael Bertiaux, and so forth. Grant was writing about what people were actually doing in his roundabout way, and before too long, I began to meet people who were involved in the Ma’at Current or doing Bertiaux’s courses, were actual members of the Typhoo-nian OTO or Cthulhu-fanciers.
Then of course, I began to meet the Grant “collectors” – some of whom had two copies of all his books – one set to actually read and the other set to preserve against the ages (and it was to a person of this ilk that I sold my bargain bin edition of Nightside). I began to read more “serious” (sirius?) magazines, in which it was not unusual to see articles consisting of three or four large chunks of Grant, interspersed with the odd line or two of the author’s actual thought. The Typhonian OTO’s newsletter Khabs (inevitably, “Crabs”) began to be passed around. Each issue having at least one explusion notice about so-and-so no longer being a member of the “sovereign sanctuary”. Grant’s work, if nothing else, gave Leeds occultists something to argue about at parties.
When, in the mid-1980s, there was a surge of people doing things with “fiction” – using HG Wells or Star Wars themes as a basis for pathworkings, for example, or “creating temporary entities” out of cobbled-together masks and blankets, there was a round of tut-tutting that “this sort of thing” wasn’t “real” magic (actually it rather reminded me of the reaction of traditional – that is, “serious” – historical wargamers to the D&D generation turning up at clubs with boxes of elves and dragons). of course, Grant’s shadowy tentacles (what else?) were already well into this particular pie, via his attempts to throw Lovecraft into the mix, and the way his writing wove a kind of dreamscape. Increasingly, I began to think that it actually didn’t matter too much “what” Grant wrote – it was the way he wrote it. That one wasn’t actually supposed to take it literally, much less take it too seriously.
Here’s some thoughts on Grant’s work I posted on a thread in Barbelith back in 2005:
“One thing that struck me a few years ago regarding the ‘difference’ between the ‘dayside/nightside tree’ is that they could represent two modes of thought processing. After all the ‘dayside’ tree is linear – structured associations mapped & colour-coded, into which anything and everything can be (and has been) fitted – what might be termed the ‘cartographic approach’ to ideational processes (familiar to magicians as the tendency to try and join the dots between disparate concepts ad infinitum). The “nightside” however, with it’s images of frothing, twisting tunnels collapsing into each other, reminds me of non-linear processes – something that we’re less able to conceptualise (and structure) but are no less familiar with on a daily bais. Intuition, dream, vision, intrusive experiences. The magic of the sudden break with linearity.
A prolonged reading of Grant’s work (some years ago, admittedly) left me with the distinct impression that his books, particularly Nightside of Eden, are not really aimed at being read literally but aim, rather, to foster a particular ambience in the reader. As Grant himself admits, there is a huge gulf between “magical theory” and an actual magical event, and to some extent one could view “Nightside” for example, as an early, hugely successful hypersigil. Again, it struck me that Grant’s exhaustive use of associations (dodgy gematria; dubious ‘initiated’ accounts of history; idiomatic language) could be read as an attempt to overload the readers’ cartographic thought processes until it is exhausted (rather like a reversed zen koan). That Grant privileges non-linear modes of experience – dream, automatic writing/drawing, and Dali’s “Paranoiac-Critical” method, is a good clue.
It’s as though KG, probably all too aware of the obsessive tendency which occults are prone to, deliberately set out to foster obsessive ideations in the minds of his readers, knowing that obsessions can be very creative, providing one doesn’t become lost entirely within the labyrinth. Grant has also admitted (albeit not very openly) that there’s a big difference between the perceived ‘rules’ of magic (what Thomas Kuhn called the ‘disciplinary matrix’) and yer actual practice.”
Grant was – at his time – one of the few occult authors who grasped what Wolfgang Iser later referred to as The Significance of Fictionalizing.
My favourite of Grant’s books is Remembering Aleister Crowley (published by Skoob Books) – more autobiographical than his other works, it really carried across for me a sense of what it must have been like for Grant, as a young man, to have met and studied under Crowley, and how massive an impact on him that must have been.
Alan Moore’s article Beyond Our Ken