Monday, June 06, 2005

Censorship and Bad Magic

This is a long-winded ramble based on one of Covington's posts about "dangerous books."

In June of 1952, while working in his garage/lab in Pasadena, Jack Parsons, chemist for the Caltech Rocket Propulsion program, mixed cordite and fulminate of mercury. The resulting explosion killed him and tore apart his house. Initially investigators had a hard time believing an experienced chemist would make such a careless mistake.

The most convincing explanation that anyone ever came up for his death was that Parsons had been reading the works of Aleister Crowley and attempted to create the "homunculus," a tiny man/demon that granted magical powers. Crowley's homunculus recipe called for a cordite/mercury mix and apparently Parsons followed it without thinking. (This is only one theory about Parsons' death--others believe he committed suicide or that an enemy planted a bomb in his home.)

Crowley had died five years earlier so there was no way of questioning him about the matter (unless you followed one of his other spells). Crowley was an educated man so it's unlikely that the mix of chemicals was just by chance. I've read that all of Crowley's writings were booby-trapped but considering some of his critics, I don't know how much can be believed. In his defense, I believe that Crowley once wrote that all his books were lies so it's debatable if he ever wanted anyone to literally follow his directions.

Centuries before Crowley, other magicians had written formulas for homunculus (alluded to in one of Robert Anton Wilson's novels) that called for the spell caster to ejaculate into his own feces. This might have caused rubes to masturbate into their own shit but at least it wouldn't kill them. Crowley might have wanted to one up the old masters.

I don't think this will ever get wrapped up for everyone's satisfaction but it makes me wonder about the ethics of publishing Crowley's work. Should an editor include a disclaimer under the homunculus spell that "performing this rite at home may lead to immediate death"? Should an editor even block out the ingredients?

Going along these lines, if someone wrote a cookbook that included a recipe with cyanide, should a publisher remove it or include a warning? This goes beyond the standard arguments for censorship—it's one thing to express unpopular ideas but another to intentionally trick readers without warning.

Years ago at American Legal Publishing, I wrote a joke article for the company newsletter that gave directions for finding explicit pictures of one of the salesmen and Marge Schott. The last line of the directions was "Type ‘Format c:'" At the last minute I chickened out and changed it to the inoperable "Type ‘Format hard drive.'" If I hadn't and some moron actually formatted his computer, would I have been responsible? I'm sure I would have been fired but I don't know if this legitimizes censorship or is the equivalent of yelling fire in a crowed theater.

Imagine if magic actually worked and a Crowley-equivalent published a book of death spells. In real life in U.S. v. The Progressive (1979), U.S. courts denied a magazine the right to publish instructions to build a hydrogen bomb. Again were they right to do so or was this unwarranted censorship? For the answers to this and all other questions, simply type "format c:" and press enter.

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