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This is a decent book, but it suffers the problem that it is about a depressing, unhealthy individual. The book does well in presenting a chronological account of Spare's life, replete with anecdotes and illustrations of his art, but the author simply takes a descriptive, surface view of Spare's art which I feel is too uncritical and unpsychological, and I believe the author could have done more to call into question the value of Magical and artistic "accomplishments" made at the expense of one's physical and mental health. As well, I haven't read anything about Austin Spare written by a woman, and considering the fact that Spare sexually fetishized elderly, ugly women, and that his art features naked women in bleak, empty and tormented landscapes where they seem out of place, it's my view that a feminine perspective on Spare's art is needed.
Austin Osman Spare is viewed by many as an important figure in the history of Magic in modern times, and he did develop techniques involving the use of Sigils in Magical practice, which are important to many today as Sigil Magic has become more widely known and practiced. However, it is difficult to read anything by or about Spare without becoming depressed, and I think the most healthy of us will feel the most repulsion about him.
Spare was a man always in poor health, who suffered from anemia and bronchitis, high blood pressure and gallstones before he died of a burst appendix. In the opinion of the last doctor who attended him, he had neglected himself for some time. He had a grey pallor, which led visitors to think he didn't eat well, and in fact it was said that he ate mostly out of tins, and milk bottles. He took little care about his surroundings, lived in a noisy and damp basement, and slept on piles of newspapers, and used newspapers for plates. He was impoverished for most of his life.
In addition to physical ill health, the ill health of his psyche is evident throughout his artwork and stories about his habits and interests that he shared with acquaintances. He was sexually drawn to ugly, elderly women, even deformed women, and much of his art carries the depressing quality of depicting naked human bodies and genitalia in a bleak, gloomy, empty, restricted atmosphere. Some of his art is intriguing and inspiring -- such as his "Alphabet of Desire", an invented Magical Alphabet, and some of my favorites among his work are the watercolor sketches shown in the book Two Grimoires -- but even the works I like best seem to carry a feeling of archival deadness, as if the creatures represented were only cariacatures of life, and their real existence was only as dusty museum specimens or taxidermist stuffings -- the figures, as stunningly realistic as they are portrayed, lack life in some significant way. This "dead" and dusty quality to the characters he portrays mirrors the grey pallor and neglect found in Spare's own personal life, as well as his apparent inability to experience the emotion of love.
There is a lot about sex -- a sad and unhealthy form of it -- in Spare's art and in his life, but there is no trace of the emotion of love anywhere in his life, nor in this book about his life. As an example...(pg 241) when one of his friends told Spare he was getting married, Spare's response was "an excited masturbatory gesture." This was not when Spare was a teenager, but when he was over the age of 60. Another of the more repulsive stories about Spare and his sexuality is given on page 219. THe author, PHil Baker, presents it as a "distinctive invention" that Spare made up the title "Giving LIfe to the Autistic by Virgin Earthware", as a term for his masturbating into a pottery vessel and burying the results at midnight.
THere are tales in the book about Spare's alleged powers as a Magician, his ability to summon rain from a clear sky, his bringing forth elemental powers...but I think the real Magic shows up in people's lives in their ability to attain physical and/or mental health, integration, love, closeness to the divine, and Spare had little such ability. He was careless and neglectful as to his own physical existence, demonstrating a certain contempt for the earthly life of the body, and its needs, and in light of these facts I could not impute to Spare any ability to honor the chthonic. Spare apparently did sigil work for health, but this also could not extract him from his own bad habits and self-neglect, or from his tormented, repulsive sexual habits and fantasies.
Spare's cryptic and obscurantist treatises on Kia and Zos may, on the surface, call to mind the spiritual truths about emptiness found in Buddhism and Eastern philosophies, but any casual glance at the life of Austin Osman Spare will reveal that his own experience was hardly transcendent and illuminated. When Spare says, (pg 226) "Personally, my experience of 'looking within' has been exactly like looking into an empty bucket.", I don't think we should be imputing a high, spiritual, transcendent experience of "the void" to this empty bucket.