Everybody Wants Some: Sexual Energy and the American Avant-garde

Robert W. Jones II

Despite the ideals of freedom espoused by Americans a prudish attitude toward sex and sexuality pervades public discourse. From victim blaming to  slut shaming, America is simultaneously enthralled and enraged by sex. This complex attitude has been one of the driving forces of avant-garde thought throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. This paper examines the ways in which members of avant-garde movements engaged with and popularised sexual and pseudo-sexual religious practices and argues that these practices became deeply embedded in avant-garde work.

190184209_96ec97e8f0_bThe American cultural relationship with sexuality is an incredibly complex matter, with both strict conservative moralities and liberal openness co-existing tenuously in the same arena.

[Image by Bradley Fulton under a CC BY NC ND license]

I explore two artists that were influenced by thinkers such as Aleister Crowley, and Alexandra David-Neel and connect parts of their philosophies with two counter-culture figures in twentieth-century America – Kenneth Anger and Lenore Kandel. These influences come from a rejection of normative western religious ideas and an emphasis on the body and sexual practices in order to expand the mind and focus the creative energies of the practitioner. I analyse several texts that demonstrate the intersection of ritualised sexual practices with the arts which mirror (and sometimes distort) the messages of the religions they espouse. It’s not about sex exclusively for the sake of pleasure, but rather ritualised sex as a driving force in artistic production.

Kenneth Anger is most famous for his books of Hollywood gossip (Hollywood Babylon I & II). However, it is his work as a filmmaker that is of particular interest to this study. His film Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954) is based on a party (with the theme ‘Come as Your Madness’) attended by Anger and various actors (full film available on youtube). This film demonstrates principles and beliefs that are primarily derived from Crowley’s Thelemite philosophy (‘Thelema’ is the Greek for ‘will’) and the maxim ‘Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law’ (Crowley, 7). On close inspection, Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome emulates or imitates the very essence of Crowley’s sex magick philosophy. My analysis demonstrates how deeply ingrained ritualised sexual practices are in Anger’s work and creative process. In the opening title sequence, a character rises from a stupor (note the antique opium pipe on the bedside table as a clear nod to Crowley’s legendary drug usage) and begins putting on rings. At first the motion is tentative, but as more rings are placed on his fingers the action gains vigour. It is tempting to think that the rings are providing some level of power to the wearer and here this is probably true. However, if we consider that the very act of placing a ring on a finger carries the subtle (or not so subtle) suggestion of penetration and magical union this act connotes the power in sexual energy.  Also, we see that after he completes the cycle of penetration he plays with a necklace that is made of white stones, which he consumes before arising. He is symbolically consuming male essence as a way of reabsorbing any male energy that was previously expelled. This is analogous to many of the sacred religious practices that Crowley drew inspiration from in that, often, men were not supposed to ejaculate during the rite as their power would be diminished, almost as if it were consumed by their partner or consort.

One character of particular interest is the red headed woman on the movie poster – another homage to Crowley, the role of the Scarlet Woman/Kali.The title of Scarlet Woman was an honorific that Crowley bestowed on some of his most trusted magical partners. The actress portraying the Scarlet Woman, Marjorie Cameron, was herself a Thelemite and the wife of rocket scientist and magician Jack Parsons. Parsons and his friend, fellow Crowley disciple and founder of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard felt that Cameron was an emanation of the goddess Babalon (the divine female archetype) that they had called forth from the essence of the cosmos via Babalon Working, a ritual Parsons created based on Crowley’s sex magick. Of the invocation ritual Parsons writes ‘Invocation of wand with material basis on talisman,’ the ‘material basis’ of which is the ‘Marrow of the Wand,’ the Wand, of course, representing the phallus of the magician, while the Marrow is the semen or male energy (Carter, 211). Cameron was a talented author and artist who held salons in Venice Beach and inspired many members of the Beat movement in the 1950s. Her presence increased the sphere of influence that Crowley and his ideas had.


Untitled “Peyote Vision,” 1955. Ink, paint on paper. Cameron’s art shows the relationship between sex and hallucinogenic drugs that pervade much of her contemporaries’ work.

[Image used with permission of the Cameron Parsons Foundation, Santa Monica.]

Avant-garde author and diarist Anaïs Nin plays the role of Astarte (or Ishtar) in the film an embodiment of feminine energy, fertility and war. Nin’s interests were not in the occult and she seemed frightened by the presence of Cameron: ‘[Cameron] was the dark spirit of the group. Her paintings were ghostly creatures of nightmares. In connection with her, this was the first time I heard about Aleister Crowley. There is an aura of evil around her.’ (Nin, 131). Keeping with the theme of sexual energy and ruitual magic, I turn to Nin’s first appearance on screen. First we see the Birdcage around her head, which dissolves into a crescent moon (a visual representation of fertility and female energy); she is then unwrapped and the cage is removed after which she performs a series of movements that would seem to ‘draw down the moon’, referring to the ritual of the same name, written by Gerald Gardner and Aleister Crowley. As a student of Crowley’s, Anger would no doubt be familiar with this foundational ritual. The rite is an invocation in which the supplicant asks the Goddess (as symbolised by the moon) to enter her body. When the moon is presented to the central figure (the sleep walker) he consumes it and the ritual pace becomes faster, suggesting that through the act of consuming and commingling feminine energy the ritual gains potency thus drawing together the strings of sexual energy in this invocation. Additionally, this provides a symbolic frame – in the beginning he consumed male energy and now he is consuming female energy thus creating a union within. This idea is backed up by noted scholar and historian Robert Hans Van Gulik who states, ‘the sexual act was to strengthen the man’s vitality by making him absorb the woman’s yin essence held to be an invigorating power’ (Gulick and Goldin, 46). And Since ‘a man’s semen [where his yang force is concentrated] is […] the source not only of his health but of his very life; every emission of semen will diminish this vital force, unless compensated by the acquiring of an equivalent amount of yin essence from the woman’ (Gulik and Goldin, 47; Shusterman, 272). Thus when considering this film it is clear that we need to consider the blending of avant-garde filmmaking, camp aesthetics and the occult knowledge and practices of many of those involved

In literature, specifically Beat Literature, we encounter Alexandra David-Neel author of thirty-seven books on Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism. She is described by her primary biographers as ‘French by birth, English by Education and American by temperament’ and was the figure most responsible for kindling the Beat Generation’s (and especially Allen Ginsberg’s) interest in Tibetan Buddhism (Foster and Foster, ix). Ginsberg had always been spiritually inclined; in 1960 while travelling in South America he had a disturbing ayahuasca experience. Despite the feeling that he confronting death via his spirit quest he returned to New York with a gallon of ayahuasca and experimented with his partner Peter Orlovsky; the black hallucinations, as he described them, continued. This caused him to ‘read all he could find about the experience, including Robert De Ropp’s Drugs and the Mind, W. Y. Evans-Wentz’s translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, and Alexandra David-Neel’s various books on Tibet’ (Miles, 274).

David-Neel’s interest in Tibet drew Ginsberg, Kerouac and other Beats to engage with her books. During the early twentieth-century she travelled throughout Tibet disguised as a Tibetan (and at times as a man) and this journey is most famously documented in two books My Journey to Lhasa (1927) and Magic and Mystery in Tibet (1929).  In both books she details the different tantric practices that are a part of Tibetan Buddhist meditation and these texts were a part of Ginsberg’s reading. Hence when he began to write about sex and religion and to explore Tibetan Buddhism it was her work that was deeply influential.


Aleister Crowley – Cambridge-educated occultist and inventor of the religion of Thelema – has had a widespread influence on the countercultural turns of the 20th century.

[Image by Felix Nine under a CC BY NC license]

To say that Ginsberg and the Beats had a serious and vocal interest in eastern religions and especially Buddhism is nothing new, in fact Carole Tomkinson’s 1995 text Big Sky Mind: Buddhism and the Beat Generation does an excellent job of plotting the trajectory of Buddhism’s interactions with members of the Beat Generation and makes a limited case around the connection of sexual rites in Vajrayana Buddhism to the craft of writing. Among a later generation of Beat authors is poet Lenore Kandel, best known from her appearance in Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur, where he describes her as ‘a big Rumanian monster beauty of some kind I mean with big purple eyes and very tall and big (but Mae West big), but also intelligent, well read, writes poetry, is a Zen student, knows everything’ (Kerouac, 14). Carolyn Cassady describes her as a ‘Fertility Goddess’ (Knight, 123).

Ronna C. Johnson reads Kandel’s poetry as, ‘a defense of sexist gender codes’ (103). Although when reading the first poem in the collection ‘God/Love Poem’ there are no clearly defined gender roles beyond the mention of ‘your cock’ (Kandel, 1). The fact that this cock ‘rises and throbs’ in the speaker’s hands certainly suggests the image of a flesh and blood penis, leaving the identity of the speaker in question. There are suggestions of femininity ‘pink-nailed long finger’ and ‘Aphrodite’ being the most direct but neither directly indicates a female speaker (Kandel, 1).

Kandel’s interest in melding the erotic with the religious in her poetry culminates with her text The Love Book. Published in 1966, this book was confiscated and put on trial for obscenity, much Like Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems a decade earlier. Kandel herself described the book as ‘the culmination of her lifelong quest for expressing the sacredness of love, dubbing her work text ‘holy erotica’. She describes the book as ‘a twenty-three year search for an appropriate way to worship’, expressing her belief that ‘sexual acts between loving persons are religious acts’ (Lawlor, 169). Here is a brief excerpt from one of the poems in this collection, ‘To Fuck With Love Phase III’:

I kiss your shoulder and it reeks of lust

the lust of erotic angels fucking the stars

and shouting their insatiable joy over heaven

the lust of comets colliding in celestial hysteria

the lust of hermaphroditic deities doing

inconceivable things to each other and

SCREAMING DELIGHT over the entire universe

and beyond

and we lie together, our bodies wet and burning, and

we WEEP we WEEP we WEEP the incredible tears

that saints and holy men shed in the presence

of their own incandescent gods (Kandel 5-6)

Kandel deftly conflates religious imagery with images of a sexual nature; the ideas of tantric union (yab yum or consort practices) are at the forefront of the imagery on display. This is also true when we consider the visuals that accompanied Kandel’s text.

kandel love book

The cover of Kandel’s The Love Book makes visual the tantric connection so widely discussed in her work.

[Image used under fair dealings provisions]

If we return to the cover image on Kandel’s book, there is what appears to be a representation of the Primordial Buddha Samanthabhadra (the inside cover indicates that this is the ‘Adi Buddha’) and although the colour is technically incorrect he appears to be in tantric union with Samantabhadri. Continuing on to the back cover is a representation of Chemchog Heruka and his consort Namshyalma, the wrathful aspect of the Buddhas on the front cover. This text is explicit in its author’s view of the important role of sex as a form a practice both in the bedroom and on the page. According to Shusterman’s somaesthetic view on various ars erotica ‘the religious significance of the sexual union […] adds further richness of symbolic meaning to the erotic arts and encourages their ritualized aestheticization even in contexts that are not explicitly religious’(281). In this way Kandel’s work can be understood as a ritual on the page which seeks to show the beauty of sex while firmly attaching ritual significance to the act.

When we look at the intersection of art and ritual with regards to sexual practices in twentieth-century America we can see how knowledge of these arts (and the practice of these rituals) influenced some of the various avant-garde movements. By closely examining texts that explicitly blend erotic symbolism with religious ritual, I have shown how deeply connected occult sexual practices are to the practice and production of certain literary and visual arts.

CITATION: Robert W. Jones II, “Everybody Wants Some: Sexual Energy and the Avant-garde,” Alluvium, Vol. 4, No. 5 (2015): n.pag. Web. 30 October 2015, http://dx.doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v4.5.03

Robert W. Jones II is a third year PhD student at the University of Leicester. He has written book reviews for the Journal of American Studies and is an occasional contributor to The Poetry Show on KUSP NPR Santa Cruz.

Works Cited:

Carter, John. Sex And Rockets. Venice, Calif.: Feral House, 1999. Print.

Crowley, Aleister. The Book Of The Law, Liber Al Vel Legis, With A Facsimile Of The Manuscript As Received By Aleister And Rose Edith Crowley On April 8,9,10, 1904 E.V. York Beach, ME: Red Wheel/Weiser, 2004. Print.

Foster, Barbara M, and Michael Foster. The Secret Lives Of Alexandra David-Neel. Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, 1998. Print.

Gulik, Robert Hans van, and Paul Rakita Goldin. Sexual Life In Ancient China. Leiden: Brill, 2003. Print.

Hermetic Library. ‘The Book Of Babalon – Jack Parsons At Hermetic.Com‘. N.pag., 2015. Web. 17 Mar. 2015.

Inauguration Of The Pleasure Dome. United States: Kenneth Anger, 1954. film.

Johnson, Ronna. ‘Lenore Kandel’s The Love Book: Psychedelic Poetics, Cosmic Erotica, And Sexual Politics In Mid-Sixties Counterculture’. Reconstructing The Beats. Jennie Skerl. 1st ed. New York: Palsgrave Macmillan, 2004. 89-104. Print.

Kandel, Lenore. The Love Book. San Francisco: Stolen Paper Review, 1966. Print.

Knight, Brenda. Wild Women And Books. York Beach, ME: Conari Press, 2006. Print.

Lawlor, William T. Beat Culture. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2005. Print.

Miles, Barry. Ginsberg. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989. Print.

Nin, Anaïs. The Diary Of Anaïs Nin Vol 5. San Diego, Calif.: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975. Print.

Shusterman, Richard. Thinking Through The Body. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Print.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.