My plan for today’s Note was to write about “a surreal web of connections that links Aleister Crowley with science fiction icon Robert Heinlein.” And I’ll talk below about that web, which was spun by eccentric rocket scientist Jack Parsons.
But first—because it’s so impressive!—I’ll share the story of Norwegian performance artist Peter Horneland, who spent seven days sewing together halves of Tarot cards to create new images.
The work, titled “Modulo Rotat,” served as Horneland’s final presentation for the completion of a Bachelor’s degree from the Academy of Fine Arts Oslo, in 2017. His description of the project:
Tarot cards from either the RWS deck (painted by Pamela Colman Smith) or the Thoth deck (painted by Frieda, Lady Harris) are drawn randomly, torn in two along the middle and sewn together with another half-card. In this way, unpredictable but potentially extremely meaningful new sets of symbols are created. The remix as creative method, fundamental principles behind traditional divination techniques, and the inadequacy of our traditional maps to meet the needs of a new century.
I’ll take a further look at conceptual Tarot and contemporary European approaches in the forthcoming Time Capsule series—which will include some examples from K. Frank Jensen’s legendary Mail Art Tarot.
But for now: You may be wondering how Horneland’s Tarot “remix” came up in connection with Crowley and Heinlein. The serendipity path in this case was simple: Horneland’s web page for “Modulo Rotat” begins with this quote from Jack Parsons:
Remember that the Tarot is a great and sacred arcanum - its abuse is an obscenity in the inner and a folly in the outer.
I had never heard of Jack Parsons until recently, and at first I was just captivated by the idea that a pioneering “rocket scientist” had been interested in Tarot. Parsons was (basically) co-founder of a California research group that would eventually become the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)—a key component of American’s space program.
At the same time, however, Parsons was also heading up the California branch of Aleister Crowley’s Church of Thelema; practicing occult rituals; socializing with a group of science fiction writers who met periodically at Robert A. Heinlein’s home; and engaging in a round-robin of sexual liaisons. Many commentators see Parson’s informal commune—known as “The Parsonage”—as a model (or at least a substantial influence) for Heinlein’s counterculture novel, Stranger in a Strange Land.
But that’s just the barest outline of a story I couldn’t begin to summarize.
If you’re intrigued, you can read all about it in Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons by George Pendle. And/or watch a television adaptation of the story that ran for two seasons, and is available now on Paramount+.
The House of Rumour is a fictional take on Parsons’s crazed story . . . but its ambitions are even wider, offering a vastly complex alternative history in which Parsons and his SoCal circle of mystics, tech nerds, and pulp aficionados come to represent the twinned utopian and dystopian impulses that have inspired and deformed the postwar world. . . . The twenty-one chapters enact incidents loosely linked to the trump cards in Crowley’s Thoth tarot deck, with these major arcana providing an array of potent images that shadow and thematically amplify the plot.
In fact—the chapters of the book are named for the Tarot trumps, but mostly using traditional forms rather than Thoth forms (e.g., Magician, not Magus). And based on a quick scan, there are plenty of Tarot references included, along with various divination scenes. For good measure, one of the characters is writing his own Tarot-themed novel: The Quantum Arcana of Arnold Jakubowski.
In the end, Parsons was stripped of his security clearances, ostracized by the scientific establishment, and excluded from most historical accounts of the rocket program because his occult activities (and political sympathies) became publicly known. He fell out with Crowley, was viciously fleeced by L. Ron Hubbard, and in 1952, died in an explosion at his home laboratory. Parsons was 37.
Over the next few decades, Parsons achieved almost mythic status among some occultists—and toward the end of the 20th century, his scientific contributions became more widely recognized. Both aspects of this unusual life were included in a 2008 web comic series that became a graphic novel.
I’m not sure what to make of the Jack Parsons story—except to say that the history and influence of Tarot is a much more complex topic than we casually suppose. Perhaps also that occult studies and scientific inquiry often seem to have the same sort of appeal for highly imaginative personalities. Parsons, it seems, saw conquering space and conquering magic as equally absorbing challenges.
Thanks for reading! C