More on Webb
What follows are some quotes from a memoir written by a woman who knew James Webb but who had
zero insight into the nature of his medical predicament and who, unwittingly contributed to the ugly conspiracy
theory of his death–something resentful Fourth Way types have been too eager to buy into.
I interpolated quotations from a recently published memoir by a woman who has a more severe form of bipolar so that
one can compare and contrast. The big difference is Marya Hornbacher has had the benefit of modern medical progress in
treatment of the condition. And…fortunately for her, she does not hang around with conspiracy theorists. But she
demonstrates that in manic phase one can have persecution terror about anything and it all depends on what your personal
context is. She was afraid people in bars and on the bus looked at her and hated her; James Webb, immersed in scholarship
concerning Western esotericism became convinced that resentful esotericists were after him. If he had been a car mechanic
his anxieties would have taken a different direction. (IMO and I stand by this)
I have his three books in hand and his output was prodigious.
The Occult Underground is his first book, published 1974.
The Occult Establishment is his second book, published 1976 and is more detailed than the first. Among many other things it has — has material on Rudolf Steiner and Anthroposophy that I have never seen before.
His final and most complex book is The Harmonious Circle, published 1978. In the introduction, Webb noted that he had
traveled all the way from the UK, to the US, and to various parts of Europe to interview key persons and work in archives. That
he wrote, researched and published these three books in less than a decade is staggering.
First, we must see how this was a very well planned strategy. Webb was able to select an area, began with a relatively broad survey, his second book had a slightly narrower focus, went more deeply, and his final book Harmonious Circle rose high
above this foundation like a well engineered skyscraper.
In article ,
rst…@prgone.com (Robert Stout) wrote:
> “James Webb, author of *The Harmonious Circle*, a history of the
> movement after Gurdjieff, was obstructed by the Gurdjieff hierarchy
> from publishing his material. Though not devotional, his book was
> certainly not antipathetic. Eventually reason prevailed and the book
> appeared in print. Webb’s suicide soon thereafter remains an enigma.”
> Kathleen Riordan Speeth, The Gurdjieff Work, pg. 106
As for the conspiracy theory that James Webb brought early death upon himself, much of this may come from
Joyce Colin-Smith, a student of Ouspensky’s, became friends with James Webb and loved him as a son. She tended
towards magical thinking and was convinced that he may have triggered resentment by proposing to research French
occultists and that this had something to do with his death. Webb was tormented by obsessions that centered on material
he was researching and this fed into Colin-Smith’s take that Webb was some sort of victim of his material.
Colin-Smith, in her memoir Call No Man Master wrote this about James Webb. Her hunches contributed to the conspiracy
theories that Webb had brought his fate upon himself. To me, as I re-read her account, he may well have had a physical predisposition to bipolar. It is not unusual for persons with this diathesis to try to find something in art or spiritual work to validate
the remarkable experiences they have, starting when very young.
Colin Smith mentioned Webb telling her his childhood mythology. What is remarkable is for an adult to remember it with such precision.
Marya Hornbacher, as a small child, already showed signs of bipolar. She had simpler mythologies of goatmen pursuing her at night. Later, still a teen, she partly controlled the moods with eating disorders and drugs and alcohol. In her teens her imagry was influenced by poets such as Lowell, Plath, Patchen. But in Britain, thirty years before, Webb was getting a classical education
at Harrow so his fund of templates was more elaborate. When bipolar energy surged (my interpretation) he and Hornbacher tried to use the cultural templates available.
Hornbacher tell us of how one feels in adult hood when the biochemical storms go gale force: ‘I can hear my thoughts zipping and whistling through my head, and see them snap and sizzle in streaking red lines on a complex grid that was designed by God and given to me personally; I am a millionaire high society lady and should be treated with the utmost respect due my superior station; my car can fly. Thse and other ideas flash through my head, as quickly as they arrive. What causes them? I am guilty of every precipating factor you can think of–no sleep, gallons of boose, not enough effort to stick to my medication, a complete
inability to graspt the seriousness of my diagnosis–and it turns out, I have disorder that has gone untreated for far too long.
(Hornbacher, Madness, page 74-75)
“He wrote of his boyhood, of precognitive dreams when he was a teenager, and added that he had always had a private mythology: “that we are most of us participants in something with is a cross between a great adventure and a grand primeval tragedy. My myth puts it in science fictional terms – the crew of a splendid space ship which crash-landed on an alien planet. Immediately they were enslaved by the local inhabitants, and now have forgotten who they were or whence they came. But occasionally something jogs their memories and they remember the times when they flew through the galaxy on high adventures, or something plucks their heartstrings and they recognise, only for a moment, their trapped comrades. Coupled with this is an indescribable happy-sad feeling. Something is calling. And in their hearts is an aching memory of home. And permeating everything is the impression of infinitely long periods of time. The tragedy is infinitely far distant the adventure infinitely long. And we are ageless, simply ageless”
” Before his breakdown, Jamie had been dabbling in various fields of esoteric knowledge held by guardians of ancient cults – and there is power among those who have higher knowledge and want to protect it from the merely inquisitive. I thought often of his fear of the French Freemasons, and his statement: “They have got it in for me.”
Traditionally the Freemasons, although innocuous perhaps in Britain, are among the various holders of the secrets of the Sangraal, the Holy Grail, and the knowledge of a bloodline descending from a union of Jesus and the Magdelene. It has been said it is dangerous to get close to those who know, and mysterious deaths seem to litter the trail where there have been attempts to bring out into the open knowledge that has been treasured by the few.
Later I can across another enquirer in this line who seemed to have been damaged by his own curiosity. But this is mere speculation, based on my experiences of the Maharishi’s power to destroy, and Eliphas Levi’s warning of the perils of poking a nose into matters of which you understand too little: “There are some men whom one offends at one’s people”, he wrote.
Eventually I came to think that the short life span – he was only thirty-four – was possibly completed. He had effectively ceased to live creatively some time before his body died, for as Mary said, the man she married “died two years before he shot himself”. ”
Jamie’s life was so tragically short that it is remarkable he made so much impact on the literary world, and in particular on those who study esotericism. He published Flight from Reason (Macdonald), The Occult Establishment, and his magnum opus, The Harmonious Circle (Thames and Hudson and Putnam USA). He contributed to Encounter, to Man. Myth and Magic, and The Encyclopaedia of the Unexplained, as well as doing a television series on the occult.
At first the two of them had a happy time and Webb himself was newly married and happy. He interviewed Joyce Colin-Smith for information about Ouspensky while researching Harmonious Circle.
Then, a few years later, Colin-Smith reported
At about the same time, soon after our move, James Webb telephoned, asking me to check up details from my own sources, for a chapter of The Harmonious Circle. He sounded unlike himself, rather low and glum. He and Mary had only recently returned
from an extended honeymoon in the Middle and Far East. He had sent postcards from the Orient.
“When can we meet?” he asked. “May I come down and see you?”
“Not just now”, I told him. “Derry’s far from well and things are difficult”.
“Will you lunch with me in London soon?”
“I’ll give you a ring”, I promised.
I had already noticed that Jamie’s astrological chart, though fiery and vigorous and tenacious like my own, had an inbuilt depressive tendency and the look of a character that might become progressively turned in upon himself as he became older. Already he had difficulty in finding friends who could keep up with him. He had accumulated an enormous library. He worked at his desk for very long hours, sometimes even falling asleep there from exhaustion. I had warned him affectionately of the tendencies I saw, but he didn’t take my comments very seriously.
(Colin-Smith tended to see everything in magical/astrological terms)
In a week or so he phoned again, saying he was being ‘persecuted’ by his publishers and adding wildly that the French Freemasons had got it in for him. I had a dose of flu, and speaking from bed I told him not to be silly. He didn’t ring again, and to my great grief later, I didn’t find the time to do anything about it. He had always come and gone as he pleased and I had no reason to think he would not just turn up on my doorstep again, if I didn’t go to London and get in touch. But because I was no longer moving in our old circles I didn’t hear of it. Quite a long passed before he wrote again.
(Marya Hornbacher, diagnosed with Rapid Cycling Bipolar I, describes this predicament in more prosaic terms. She is stepping onto a bus. “I climb onto the bus with the rest of them and take a window seat. I settle in to enjoy the ride. Everyone is being very quiet on this bus. I look around. Everyone is being quiet because they are all looking at me..I look around, trying not to be so obvious. A very old woman, the size and substance of a feather is hanging on to her grocery bag with both arms and glaring at me. I have done nothing to her. Why does she glare? There is a gaggle of horrible teenagers with black fingernails and green eyeshadow and teased pink and blue hair. They represent my adolescence and terrify me. They are talking, their heads bent together, gesturing subtly in my direction.’ (page Marya Hornbacher, Madness page136)
Earlier, in London, when Hornbacher’s first book had come out and she was there giving readings, she was in an untreated manic state and had this same horror of persecution. ‘I am sitting at a table in a hotel bar in London, wrapped in a black wool thing. I am watching my hand in fascination, as it sits on the the table and trembles like a paper napkin in the breeze…They are watching me. Especially the barmaid–she hates me. (page 85)
So…the young American woman feels persecuted by the bus passengers and the barmaid. The man who studied Western esotericism felt obsessed and persecuted by French Freemasons. Both of them had bipolar. And unlike Marya Hornbacher, James Webb didnt have the benefit of modern medical care and too few of his friends had a medical understanding of his situation. Joyce Colin Smith did not. She continues:
“My life has just emerged from a nightmare”, he said when he was again in reasonable command of himself and able to correspond. “I had a full scale nervous breakdown, with hallucinations, visions and a fine repertoire of subjectively supernatural experiences. Hoist with my own petard, some would say. Despite the undoubtedly hallucinatory nature of many of my experiences, a residue remains which I simply have to take seriously. I can’t fit all the altered states of consciousness into one system. Gnosticism and some of the Indian systems seem to provide the best framework. Now all I am interested in is philosophy and religion.”
Jamie was writing from Durisdeer in Dumfrieshire, where he and Mary had converted an old kirk into a residence. He had completely fallen out of the lively London circles in which he had previously been such a popular figure. I replied at once, telling him of my own experiences of breakdown, to comfort him. He wrote at great length by return. To my dismay I found he thought I had rebuffed him in his hour of need, just as he was collapsing. He had been in the hands of various psychiatrists and hospitals and was on tranquilizing drugs. He had only escaped E.C.T. by the skin of his teeth, since Mary had rightly refused to sanction it.
(This was in the 1970s. Modern medications for bipolar were not yet available and they may not have yet understood the importance of safeguarding sleep and ensuring one gets 7 to 8 hours of high quality sleep. Avoidance of alcohol and street drugs is mandatory)
“I feel like an engineer whose hands have been cut off”, he wrote. He could not work when the central nervous system was dulled by drugs. Without them, his ability to reason normally quickly left him. In the next four or five months we exchanged somewhere near 20,000 words in constant correspondence. Two or three times a week long typewritten screeds would plop through my letterbox, and I would answer quickly because of the seeming urgency of the request for my ideas on his new states of mind, and for understanding and support.
He spoke of: “a shattering vision of the wheel of life, the sight of my previous incarnations set up like a giant silver millwheel”. He had become convinced that there is in the human being “a principle of consciousness which is not merely the result of a congerie of experience”. He had imagined his own “individualized consciousness” using “poor old Brother Ass (who got well nigh disintegrated two years ago), to manoeuvre around in this rather soupy environment of which Brother Ass is a part. It is rather like being in a deep water submarine and using pincers, grabs, television cameras and artificial light to make contact with the strange world of the seabed.”
For some days, he said, he had apparently “seen molecules”. He was altogether too familiar with the idea “that nature is a Heraclitean flux”, quoting from Gerald Manley Hopkins. It was clear to me that he had experienced exactly the same terrifying phenomena of continual change, no stability anywhere, that had driven me almost to the point of suicide fifteen years before.
He agreed with me that, as he put it: “There is no reason to think that the pilgrims of the pit have knowledge which is in essence any different from the riders in the Chariot of the Spirit”, and wondered if his breakdown, terrifying and chaotic as it was, might not be a positive, almost evolutionary step in his progress. He had suddenly been “catapulted into a larger universe”. But he was preoccupied with “the sheer horror of discovering one is imprisoned in the coils of cyclical time. I’m convinced there is a way out”, he wrote “but we probably only find it in death. I think Rodney Collin was quite right about the importance of dying properly, and I have revised my opinion about the manner of Ouspensky’s death.”
I tried to give him some ideas about holding the mind steady in a moment of time, as I had learnt to do myself, and to turn him away from his continual preoccupation with the idea of
It was clear to me that he was going through a long drawn out and quite terrifying self-induced initiatory process. He needed whatever help one could possibly give.
“It’s lovely to know I’m no longer alone in the wilderness”, he wrote.
Meanwhile Mary, tired of having him mooching about at home unable to be happy or sociable and no longer able to sit in his study and write, began to drive him to take a job, any sort of job, to get him out and about in the world again. To my horror, I found that at her instigation he had taken a part-time job copywriting for a firm of advertising agents in Edinburgh. I thought this quite appalling for a man of his calibre. She appeared not to realise that it was not strictly necessary for him to earn at all. He resources were more than adequate, but he always liked to live modestly and he had not divulged the extent of his means.
Jamie’s letters to me became suddenly extremely stressful and agitated, and his statements increasingly irrational and wild. Having delved into the background of esoteric movements in his own part of the world, he had been attempting to research for a book to be called Flodden: The Renaissance in Scotland. But he said: “I can’t get the pattern of it any more.”
This was all so terribly familiar as a result of my own experiences that I became more and more concerned about what might be happening to his mind. I decided to go and visit him as he had written several times that he so much wanted to see me but couldn’t get down because of the copywriting job. However my husband and I would in any case be up in Argyll shortly for our summer holiday, so ultimately I decided to defer it for a few weeks and go over to Durisdeer then instead of making an extra journey. Meanwhile I suggested that it might be a good idea to reduce this enormous correspondence which seemed to be getting out of hand in length and frequency. I thought it might be doing more harm than good.
(What Colin-Smith could not understand was that her friend had a medical condition that made it impossible for him to stablise his mind and that his verbal output was not making him ill, it was a symptom that he *was* ill–that his own body chemistry was out of control.)
I can tell you based on my reading of more prosaic publications on bipolar, that persons suffering untreated bipolar
obsess about anything. I recently finished reading a memoir written by a woman who has severe, rapid cycling bipolar 1
and she described how, when she began to go into a manic phase, she would music in colors.
‘We go to concerts and plays, and never once do I let on that sometimes the music turns colors in my mind, veering toward
me, making me flinch. I laugh at the funny parts, and clap when everyone else claps, even if I’m confused, disoriented, scared.’
(page 55 Madness by Marya Hornbacher)
This is a description of what Hornbacher sees when she is in the hospital.
‘I hear the rapid chatter of some patients, and the slow, slurred speech of others. The voices come near my door, a body
flashes or shuffles past, and then the voices fade away. I see the sound in the waves, and put my hand out before me, tracing the waves in the air.’ (page 79)
Later, Hornbacher described returning to school during an untreated manic phase. ‘If there is one thing mania is good for, its school…I can bury myself in centuries of poetry and philosophy, I can write hundreds of papers, do research, pour out poetry, I can argue and debate and critique. Given the fact that Ive been in college for about a hundred years, I’m taking all graduate
classes, and they hire me to teach a few undergraduate classes…’ (page 103)