Some Observations Upon The Comment
|Firstly, I would like to
make it quite clear, as one who has a literal respect for
The Comment, that I do not mean to herein dispute any
adherent's right to interpret it for himself or herself.
Though, to be strictly literal, that is not what The
Comment actually says. It asserts the right of each
person to decide all questions of the Law for
"himself". Already, the possible use of that
gender convention begs an interpretation which might well
lead most Thelemites to appeal to their knowledge of the
context, both of the conventions of the English language
and the contents of the Book of the Law, and to then be
less literal in their interpretation than a strict
reading might support. But who am I to reject a literal
reading? Is it not possible to dismiss women, as a class,
as creatures of Misrule and not of Law? Has not the view
of many cultures been that observance of Law has to be
imposed upon many classes of person, including women, by
that elite class of men of honour who do respect the Law?
Alternatively, one might assert that women are naturally
in tune with the universe and have no need of Law to
restrain a rebellious will, and therefore the Law is not
for them. Moreover, The Comment asserts the right of
self-interpretation of the "Law", as opposed to
the Book of the Law, as if the Law is an entity unto
itself. It is not explained whether the Law emanates from
the Book, or the Book merely describes the Law.
Presumably, these are questions which have to be decided
each unto "himself".
Furthermore, while the interpretation of the Law is to be decided each to himself, a dogmatic interpretation of The Comment is only disallowed insomuch as it is interpreted as impinging upon the interpretation of the Law itself. One might well draw the inference that this is to a great degree and that therefore the disallowance of third-party interpretation applies to The Comment itself, but that is itself a matter of interpretation and one might still decide that a dogmatic view of The Comment is allowable, based upon little more than textual analysis, or upon any other basis one decides conforms with the Law. It puts The Comment in a special position as the keystone of interpretation as a loose interpretation of it then allows a loose interpretation of the Law itself regarding interpretation of the Law. The problem begs the question of why, apparently, there is a Book of the Law as a central code, with peripheral "writings" to be used as secondary references. Even there I presume. What it actually says is that all questions of Law are to be decided only by appeal to "my writings". This statement is signed by one Ankh-f-n-khonsu. It does not explain what other writings are his, or even clarify whether The Book of the Law itself is to be considered as one of his writings, or if any one of his writings is to considered as having special status over others regarding the Law. It does have, presently at least, the special status of being, of the writings which are generally accepted as being of the status of received texts, the only one which is actually written in the name of Ankh-f-n-khonsu. It is quite possible, then, to read it as the only statement we have regarding the Law. Other books are written in other persons, some of which are mixed in a highly convoluted and difficult-to-understand style. Others, such as Liber XC, are written in a single voice. That book is written in the name of the Lord of Initiation - but the third-person identification of that person suggests it is actually written by a scribe. One might well take this to be Ankh-f-n-khonsu even if the "Lord of Initiation" is not - or even if he is. All in all, it is a very complex problem, one which throws one back on the mysterious identity of the said Ankh-f-n-khonsu.
The notorious forbidding of the study of the Book further compounds the problem. How is one to decide what is Lawful or not if one cannot seriously study the principal statement of Law? One response to this baffling prohibition is to dismiss The Comment as a guard on the Book of the Law which is meant to be defied, so as to provoke personal responsibility. That possibility is presumed to be anticipated in The Comment itself by the reference to whoever disregards "this" doing so at his own risk and peril. However, even there the reference is not clear as "this" might refer to either the study of the Book of the Law or simply to the destruction of one's copy after one's first reading of it; the latter not being, one might imagine, a particularly onerous task. Nevertheless, the statement that the study of "this Book" (presumably the Book of the Law) is forbidden is apparently categorical. A response to this is to interpret the prohibition as an observation of a fact of the world as it is at present, as opposed to an injunction delivered by Ankh-f-n-khonsu himself. While it might well be discouraged in many quarters, it being actually forbidden is not a universal fact, certainly it was not when The Comment was written; though one might well still make a case for it as being said to be forbidden by an inimical god such as Osiris. One might also say that it strains the language of the text to read it as anything but as an observation on the nature of the Law itself; but that is a minor stylistic point.
The Comment being, as it were, an ex cathedra statement, the central questions are: Who is Ankh-f-n-khonsu?; and what is his authority? The Comment itself provides an answer at least to the latter question. He is said to be the priest of the princes. That is princes, not kings, and therein might lie a clue as to whom The Comment is addressed. Indeed, in the quasi-feudal, mystical, hierarchy which is, apparently, implied by many passages of the generally-accepted texts, the position of that authority, in the context of the greater order, would be the crucial fact. In feudal society, Law is not so much a matter of abstract individual rights but of the authority of individuals in particular offices so one might well presume that a plain reading of The Comment is that it does indeed forbid those under the authority of Ankh-f-n-khonsu from studying the Book of the Law; while this injunction would not apply to those not under his authority, even if the Law itself still applies to the latter group. Ankh-f-n-khonsu is then seen as one officer within a greater Order. Does this then imply that those in the fold of this officer of Law are to remain ignorant and uneducated about the Law? Not at all, as it is only the study of the Book which is forbidden. What possible sense, then, is there in the prohibition on the study of the Book?
Only this afternoon, walking on St. Paul's Terrace in Fortitude Valley, I met an acquaintance who I had not seen for some time. She asked what I had been doing and I discovered she was not aware of my interest in Thelema. Explaining that it has to do with Crowley, she said that that was "creepy!". She proceeded to relate a story of an incident that had occurred eleven years ago in Amsterdam. We had a mutual friend there in those days and both visited him there that year. She had started to read a biography of Crowleys when a creepy black spider crawled across the book. So, she said, she immediately stopped reading the book. She couldn't name the book, but described it as big and thick, so it might have been the autohagiography. I opined that if a spider could stop her reading it, it was probably just as well that she had nothing to do with Thelema. She protested that it was a big and hairy spider! And that it had been really creepy! And she rapidly made an excuse to leave. The question arises as to whether she is nevertheless subject to the Law, even while instinctively avoiding knowledge of the prophet and of the Book of the Law. If one believes that the Law is a vital influence in the lives of all, regardless of one's level of knowledge of it, might it even be wise for such timid individuals to remain ignorant of the existence of the Book of the Law? My view is that it is quite possible that it is, and that this is a judgement made by such persons, in a self-assessment of their relationship with the Law, on a regular basis.
Extrapolating that view somewhat, it might then be said that the prohibition of study also makes sense. To approach the Book of the Law carefully, with respect for the power of the understanding of the workings of the Law, one might well avoid "study" as an overly impatient attitude flawed, in its application to this overarching topic, by lust of result, in favour of a gradual blossoming of understanding nourished by occasional respectful readings. That, of course, relies upon an interpretation of the word "study" which might not find general agreement but it is certainly an allowable reading within the literal meaning of the statement. It is not necessary to defy Ankh-f-n-khonsu as a figure of authority, or to dismiss this particular expression of his authority as something intended to be defied, much less to characterise The Comment as an Erisian joke to be dismissed altogether, merely in order to avoid the problem of interpreting the problem posed by that prohibition. All such dismissals lead to the difficult position, for those who respect the authority of the Book of the Law at least, of having to dismiss part of The Comment while still respecting the general statements the Law contained within it. It is especially absurd to, on the one hand, dismiss the forbidding of study, and the shunning injunction, on the basis of "Do what thou wilt" being the whole of the Law, whilst on the other hand claiming "Do what thou wilt" as received Law. Should not that also be dismissed, it being a statement of the Law delivered in this same short document? Or is it just that The Comment has no standing whatsoever? Or if one does not recognise the authority of Ankh-f-n-khonsu, then what authority can be attributed to any of his statements of Law? It is much more satisfying, in my view, to read The Comment literally, albeit with what subtleties one might see in it, and to respect it as a proclamation emanating from a figure who has a profound respect for truth and for expressing truth, so far as is possible, in the word.
There remains, amongst many questions, that of the position of those who do study the Book of the Law. If one presumes that study, and the instruction to shun those who discuss the contents, are both intrinsic elements of the Law, or of that part of the Law which pertains to those under the authority of Ankh-f-n-khonsu at least, then a coherent view arises. He says that it is wise to destroy the copy after the first reading. In Liber XC, there are two identities described as possible, described as the Angelic and as the Demonic. The wise are said to counsel achieving the identity of the former, in the place ever golden, while the foolish are said to counsel stooping down to the darkly splendid world to achieve the identity of the latter. The question is then whether Thelema is of one of these two doctrines or whether it is a more complex creed involving different levels and various paths of approach to, or of retreat from, both? Certainly The Comment may easily be characterised as counseling wisdom. It is wise, says Ankh-f-n-khonsu, to destroy the copy of the Book after the first reading. This has the immediate practical effect of making study, with the attendant traps of over-intellectualisation and so on, quite difficult. Also, it is, one might say, a symbolic act either of outright obedience to Ankh-f-n-khonsu or of simply taking his advice as a respected figure of authority. Starting as one means to go on is a powerful symbolic device. Having taken the trouble to study the possible meaning and intent and practicality of The Comment, one might find oneself in a much better position to hazard further readings of the Book as one would already be in the habit of giving due respect to this legal authority and of employing due diligence in trying to understand the intent. A good supply of copies, so that one might destroy each after the first reading of each, might also be wise; but Ankh-f-n-khonsu does not, apparently, insist upon any such destruction. He only counsels wisdom in this. If one feels capable of avoiding the risk and peril, presumably one may be less cautious regarding keeping copies of the Book about the house.
Therefore, if one might presume that the strict instructions are also given in this spirit of wisdom, so that one may avoid falling into the identity with the blind creature of slime, how is the shunning of content-discussers to be explained? It fits quite well with the notion that it is wise, and therefore Lawful in the sphere of Ankh-f-n-khonsu's authority, to allow each individual the space for a personal relationship with the Book and for a natural and gradual unfolding of an understanding of it and of the Law itself. It might even be seen as simply polite to not tell aspirants of the contents just as it is considered polite to not reveal the ending of a dramatic film to someone who not yet seen it. Yet, it is also possible to see in the word "contents" a subtlety of multiple intent. The contents might be the words or they might be the doctrines or they might be something further; so whom one shuns would still be a matter requiring personal interpretation in the light of the social context. Whatever one decides, the initial encounter with The Comment, or even each later encounter with The Comment, may be seen as a bifurcatory experience which might set one either on a path of wisdom or of foolishness. So what of those who foolishly defy the prohibitions and disregard the advice? What of those who brush aside The Comment as nonsense, proceed to study the Book of the Law and to wantonly discuss the contents of it? What occurs when one breaks the Law? Presumably, there are consequences. Becoming the blind creature of slime is not always a pleasant experience, but it may well be an instructive one.
Colin S. McLeod