John Crowley’s novels are hard to describe. His best one, Little, Big (1981), is probably something you might call ‘fantasy’. It contains talking trout, and little people, and witches in New York, and an attempt by the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa to rule the world again, which is thwarted by a family who possess a magic deck of cards. What makes it not quite fantasy, or perhaps fantasy askew, or impure fantasy, is that its magic is invariably seen only out of the corner of the eye, as a flicker in the undergrowth; most of its characters aren’t quite sure they believe in what they think they might have seen. I haven’t read a book quite like it. It flirts with a slightly donnish whimsy and yet persuades you that a possible way of seeing the world is to believe that there are alternative worlds inside or alongside what we think of as the world. A lot of Crowley hallmarks were first seen in Little, Big: an interest in hermetic knowledge, a fascination with Giordano Bruno’s elaborate mnemotechnic schemes, and a belief that our world sometimes shifts its shape, even though hardly anyone notices it doing so. It all sounds unbelievably tiresome, but it is saved by its own wishful uncertainty as to whether any of it is true.
All the same interests run through Crowley’s magnum opus of the past twenty years, the Aegypt tetralogy (bigger in scale than Little, Big, though not as successful). The first novel, originally published as Aegypt in 1987, has been brought out now as The Solitudes, to coincide with the appearance of the final volume, Endless Things. The series takes its readers through a certain amount of hippy-dippy New Age camel-shit, but – and this is what makes it interesting – this material is represented as only one possible, and possibly aberrant and historically irrelevant, way of perceiving things. Because Aegypt is also a meditation on history, and alchemy, and hermetic wisdom through the ages, it makes you reach for epithets of cagey admiration like ‘ambitious’, which are probably not quite fair to its finely pitched generic and intellectual neither-one-thing-nor-the-otherness. Some of its preoccupations carry straight over from Little, Big, like the enthusiastic expositions of Bruno’s view of the universe, during which the girlfriend on whom they are being inflicted has to ask a question or say ‘Ah yes’ to remind us that she is still there. And, like Little, Big, the Aegypt series is founded on the belief that Europe in the 1580s underwent a transformation not only in how the world was perceived, but in how the world was, and that this transformation makes the period not unlike the new age of the 1960s.
Crowley is not primarily a storyteller, since he thinks that the same stories are retold and refashioned in different ages, as climaxes in world history echo one another, and as versions of different stories are transformed, alchemically, into others. But if there is a story to Aegypt, it is that of a failed academic called Pierce Moffett, who loses his job as a history professor and goes into a pastoral retreat (literally: one of his friends is a shepherd) in the Faraway Hills in upstate New York. He sets out to write a book about the history of magic, which was to have argued that in ages which believed in magic, magic happened, and that intellectual revolutions change not only how the world is perceived but how it functions: ‘if our consciousness contributes to making the world, then our consciousness can alter it.’ He also thinks that somewhere there might be a grail or a philosopher’s stone that retains the magical powers of a previous age. Along the way Pierce buys a car called a Steed, to remind you that he’s a bit of a Perceval, converses with a Fisher King called Boney Rasmussen, and meets an unfeasible number of women called Rose (Rosalinds are part of the landscape in woodland pastoral excursions). He also finds a manuscript by a writer of historical fiction called Fellowes Kraft. ‘They were popular once,’ a local librarian says (Crowley has a thing about unfashionable books, including those he’s made up himself). Cunning old Kraft has effectively already written the book that Pierce is wanting to write, and with a slightly weary self-referentiality the prefatory matter of his unfinished book is almost exactly the same as the ‘author’s note’ to The Solitudes, which begins: ‘More even than most books are, this is a book made out of other books.’
Kraft’s works – and those of Crowley, which they closely resemble and into which they are embedded – take us into the world of Renaissance hermeticism, or rather into Renaissance hermeticism as it was represented by Frances Yates and her followers. Pierce is fascinated by Aegypt, which is not the place that we call Egypt, but ‘a land that never existed. Where Hermes was king, where magic worked.’ This was Egypt as perceived by a number of Renaissance thinkers, including Marsilio Ficino and Giordano Bruno, who believed that the writings of Hermes Trismegistus recorded the wisdom of the ancient Egyptians, which foreshadowed and perhaps even transcended the truths of Christianity. By 1614 the philologist Isaac Casaubon ended the party by showing that substantial parts of the ‘hermetic’ writings dated from the fourth century AD (although there may be strata of pharaonic material buried in them).
The big problem for Crowley’s tetralogy is that over the twenty years of its making several of the books from which it is made have begun to look a touch barmy. Frances Yates thought that what we call the Renaissance, and indeed the emergence of modern science, were driven by hermetic knowledge, by alchemists and mystics and maguses like Bruno and John Dee. Hardly anyone, except a few crackpots, still thinks of Dee primarily as a magus, and the Yates thesis that modern science takes off from Bruno and a band of Rosicrucian loons has been given so many poundings that true Yatesians can now be counted on the fingers of one hieroglyph. Dee was a curious figure: he was persuaded that his ‘scryer’ or medium, Edward Kelley (alias Talbot), could see angels in a seeing stone, and could have conversations with them. These ‘conversations’ were eventually published, with no friendly intent, by Méric Casaubon (the son of the anti-hermetic Isaac), and they record the angels saying things like ‘The Mountains of the world shall lie flat; but the Spirit of God shall never be confounded,’ or, at their less lucid moments: ‘Larzed dox ner habzilb adnor.’ Dee was also a significant mathematician, and regularly advised adventurers such as Sir Humphrey Gilbert on problems of navigation, as well as presiding over what may well have been the biggest private library in England in his house in Mortlake (his diary records regular visits from Queen Elizabeth, as well as promises of money from her). We tend now to see him not as the magus who turns base metals into gold in the course of Crowley’s tetralogy, but as a kind of knowledge broker who sold his learning to aid historical research and pragmatic ventures at sea.
Crowley feeds the death of the Yates Renaissance back into the plot of his tetralogy, acknowledging with a comic cameo appearance from Dame Frances herself in Endless Things that the Renaissance may not have been quite as she thought it was. The decay of the hermetic Renaissance is used to affirm his vision of history as a discontinuum, in which changes in how the world is thought to be alter how it actually was, and in which the past changes with its representations. Dee drops out of Endless Things (having possessed a young girl in Pierce’s present in the third volume of the series, and having created gold for the Emperor Rudolph II at the end of the second); and Bruno (with a bow and a hee-haw to Apuleius) is metamorphosed into an ass in order to escape being burned by the Inquisition. Yatesism doesn’t quite die, since Bruno the talking ass tours with a group of Rosicrucian players and does his bit to start off the Thirty Years War. (As I said, the novels are hard to describe.) But by 2007 the scepticism with which Crowley always mingles his fantasy has extended to Aegypt. Even the old way of seeing the past is past.
There are moments (especially in The Solitudes) when 1967 as viewed in 1987 as read about in 2007 seems a very long time ago, and when Crowley’s own statement that ‘books disintegrate; their fires go out, which burned the senses of readers once, and leave only cinders: hard to see how they could ever have been read with reverent ardour’ seems like a sad truth. The Solitudes is, in a pejorative sense, ‘ambitious’, aspiring to a metaphysical fixity which it can’t deliver, and backing off from that aspiration in ways that lose sight of the drift of circumstance and the particularity of its people. Emblematic of the way it can aspire just too high to see anything is the moment when the scryer Talbot/Kelley describes to John Dee his dream vision from above a line that links Upton-on-Severn to Glastonbury: ‘Figures that lay upon the earth, made of the earth, made of the rise and fold of hills, the creases of sunken roads, the lines of ancient walls, of rivers and streams: a circle of great beings, man, animal, thing, with forests for their hair and glittering outcrops of rock their eyes and teeth; a circle linked, touching, every figure facing west.’ Early Crowley goes in too much for appositional phrases, and he also shows the danger of what might be called appositional narrative, in which one event is like another event which is like another, all of which correspond with one another, and all of which, viewed from a height, form a single outline.
The larger-scale problem with the tetralogy is the problem of telling a story of the longue durée, and with patterns that interconnect individual events: ‘A secret story had been going on for centuries, for all time, and it could be known; here was its outline, or part of it.’ The casual, appositional slip from ‘centuries’ to ‘all time’ is a symptom of the imaginative damage that can result from a belief in arcane and archetypical patternings in world history. It allows Crowley to defocus attention, as lines of resemblance between ages replace sharp-edged particularities. If a thing is like another thing, it must still be itself (to adapt Bishop Butler), but believers in large-scale historical resemblances are too willing to zoom out to the analogue, while anxiously confessing that even then they can only see ‘part of’ a larger pattern that necessarily eludes human perception. Pierce becomes just another type of the seeker after truths living through a new age – Dee and Bruno and Kraft have done the same before him – and, in a befuddled Parsifalian way, he loses sight of the grail in a mess of erotic encounters with seemingly transposable women as he drives around in his Steed.
But the later volumes loosen, mercifully, their desire to enfold everything within one thing, and gradually harden up on detail. Bruno’s metamorphosis to an ass in Endless Things is a fine bit of disturbingly comic writing, while a short passage in which Pierce finds himself lost in Rome, and finds himself lost in his quest for archetypes, exactly captures what it’s like to be crippled by not having a sense of direction, as the larger picture provided by the aerial view of a map dissolves into bewildering particularities: ‘After a time he stopped again, with a choice of ways to make. The street was named Vietato l’affisione (it said so on the corner building’s side, where as he well knew Roman street names are posted, but the crossing street seemed to be named the same, Vietato l’affisione, Old Affliction Street?).’ There are no appliqué meanings here or efforts to soar above the landscape to find its larger significance, just human bewilderment abroad, where a failure to know the Italian for ‘No Bill Posters’ makes you think that every street is the same. The later volumes in the series are easier, funnier, less prone to use the word ‘machicolated’ twice in under a hundred pages, less tied to the archetypical. What they risk, and what Crowley’s fiction perhaps always risks, is a kind of what-the-hell scepticism, in which anyone might as well believe anything, and in which, even if you don’t find the grail, or finish the book on the history of magic which you’re supposed to be writing, or marry the right Rose, you’re still OK because you can keep on reimagining history. At not quite the end of Endless Things the fictional novelist Fellowes Kraft realises that the philosopher’s stone is not a physical artefact at all, but is something like the capacity to reinvent the world in historical fictions: ‘Give me the base stuff of the world, sadness and nightmare and things tortured in the black smithy of history, and I will turn it all to gold, sophic, wonderful, gold that can’t be spent.’ That is Crowley’s peculiar kind of fantasy: a conscious substitute for the magic in which you don’t quite believe any more.