James Webb, the brilliant young historian of ideas, died by his own hand at the age of 34. His books 'Flight From Reason', 'The Occult Establishment' and 'The Harmonious Circle' are well known....He was a close friend to me.
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An Appreciation of James Webb
by Joyce Collin-Smith
It is a reflection on the curious nature of the human mind that the immediate reaction to a tragic event can often be an upsurge of apparent trivia, the significance of which is not always seen at the time. When his wife telephoned me in Scotland with the very distressing news of James Webb's sudden death at the age of 34, I had been expecting to see him in a few days at our loch side cottage. I thought, now I shall never tell him the story of the Sacred Bird of Tir-nan-Og which I had held in readiness, to echo an idea of his about the Hebrides.
The reaction brought up with it from the depth of memory the visual image of a tall, spare young figure eight years back, red hair flaring in the sea wind across the skerries to the rocky shore of Harris, face raised to the isolated church on the headland of Rodel as a mysterious and solitary cuckoo called in that improbable bare landscape. Always thinking of himself in those days as a "rationalist" Jamie was drawn to the strange, the illogical and the apparently magical like the moth to the proverbial candle. The cuckoo at Rodel remained in his mind as though it had some significance for him.
James Webb was born in Edinburgh at 6.30 p.m. on 13th January, 1946. His father, who had a distinguished wartime career, died in a tragic way before he was born. His mother re-married, giving him two devoted half-sisters.
A highly intelligent, very lively boy, he was educated at Harrow and Trinity College, Cambridge. His interest was mainly in the development of ideas underlying the outward trends of life. After graduating, he began to write about the occult and the mysterious, seeking to find the reason behind the semi-esoteric movements that sprouted in Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries. He returned to Cambridge, bought a small house in Portugal Place and a modest boat on the River Cam, was given a research grant, and settled down to write professionally.
His first important book was FLIGHT FROM REASON, (MacDonald 1972). In this he described the whole body of occult and mystical thought as "rejected knowledge," (p.182). He suggested that throughout the 19th century there was a "discernible opting for rejected knowledge, especially on the part of the artistic, literary and articulate worlds. . . It means a rejection of the Establishment. . . It springs from an inability to accept the bleak findings of the scientific method about man's place in the universe. . . The flight to the Secret Traditions represents an escape from insignificance. . . The whole burden of Traditional thought. . . is that man is divine, capable of divinity. . . a re-assertion of man's cosmic relevance. . . Men of action could mobilize. . . political parties, the occultists by virtue of their peculiar temperament, could manufacture nations out of dreams. . ."
He then published THE OCCULT ESTABLISHMENT, (1976), and began to contribute to the Scotsman and Encounter. His work was also used in Man, Myth and Magic, the Encyclopaedia of the Unexplained, and by B.B.C. Radio.
His magnum Opus, THE HARMONIOUS CIRCLE, (Putnam U.S.A., and Thames and Hudson), was nearly eight years in the making and was in the London bookshops, and on particular display in Watkins, at the time of his death in May 1980. This enormous volume is .the most learned, scholarly, deeply considered analysis of the work of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky and their followers that has yet appeared. It covers in great detail the entire field of outer activity and inner development of the movement known as "The Work," from Gurdjieff's mysterious beginnings and his Caucasian boyhood in the 1880s, through to the death of my brother-in-law Rodney Collin in 1956. It will probably remain for many years the definitive history of one of the most interesting and extraordinary experiments to try to raise Man's consciousness, to help him to understand his own situation and control his own destiny, that have ever taken place. The rag, tag and bobtail of the Work is still to be found in splinter groups and sects all over Europe and America. James Webb searched them all out painstakingly, charmed his way into getting access to a great deal of unpublished material, made many friends, and then set to to analyse what he had acquired in the way of knowledge.
His diligence, his width of learning and his deepening interest gradually narrowed down towards an intense absorption with what Gurdjieff called "The Ideas." The outward life faded, the mind began to delve into its own core; the hours of self-driving, disciplined work became longer and more unrelenting. And with horrific inexorability, the shadows began to close in on Jamie's mind. By late 1977 he was in a state of complete nervous and mental breakdown, apparently through sheer overwork.
No Price Too High
It appears to me that there was a great similarity between both the inner purposes and the outer life of James Webb and Rodney Collin, whose main book THE THEORY OF CELESTIAL INFLUENCE is his only true monument. Both belonged to that stream of men who want knowledge so deeply and so desperately that in the end no price seems too high to pay for it. Both drove themselves to the limit of endurance in steady application to their self-imposed tasks of writing what they knew, or understood, of the nature of life. Both ultimately entered states of complete exhaustion during which there were experiences of altered states of consciousness. And after the main work was done, both seemed to run down as towards an inevitable end. Life was terminated in both cases by choice, before a normal span of time had been completed. Rodney fell from a cathedral tower in Peru. Jamie loaded his sporting gun, at his home in Dumfriesshire, on the afternoon of 9th May 1980, and placed it to his head.
The grief of his death in this manner hit me with all the greater sense of shock because we had been in close correspondence for some months. To my added distress, letters to me were found crumpled in his waste paper basket after his death. He had not posted them because, feeling that his enormously long and frequent screeds were growing too intense, I had gently discouraged him. In April I had suggested the need to quieten his mind in more peaceful contemplation of the world about him. I felt it to be enough that we were to see him in Scotland soon. I imagined walking the Highlands in the natural friendship that had existed between us for eight or nine years. He had said he longed to discuss his ideas, and apart from his developing philosophical thoughts and theories, I expected to hear about the books he was planning: one on Flodden and the Renaissance in Scotland, for Thames and Hudson and, three others in embryonic state.
I failed entirely to see that the increasing urgency of his requests for help sprang from a genuine agony, a travail of the spirit, that needed a much more immediate response. His last writings intended for me were not entirely rational. He spoke of "explosions in my head," said "the paranoia is coming back." And in between working or writing the letters, he would weep with exhaustion.
A Mundane Job
Because he had earned little from his books, and his private resources were running out, in March 1980 he took a dull and soul-destroying job copywriting in Newcastle. His wife Mary felt this was an excellent thing, for it got him out of the house and into the world again after a long period of breakdown and resultant depression. But it involved a drive of nearly 200 miles twice a week, for the three-day job, and clearly he had not yet got much stamina or reserves of energy. He seemed reasonably philosophical about the need to do mundane work that would earn money. But he had to do what he called his "real work.; in his spare time. He came back each week from three days of putting commercial ideas into slick words for his employers, to the much deeper job of putting serious ideas in order for his next book. There were also other demands on his time, of a social and domestic nature. "If it were left to me... he wrote, "I would have liked to get back into an academic life. But I have responsibilities now." The stress gradually mounted again to a level that could not be sustained for long. He began to play with thoughts of impending death.
I first set up Jamie's chart for him in 1972 at a time when things were going very well. He was confident and cheerful. He was interested in everything and came to a number of lectures at the Astrological Association conference at St. John's College, Cambridge as my guest. He knew one or two other members of the Association already and in his sociable way had parties at his house a short distance away.
"Bring lots of lovely astrologers!" he said one evening. He was a good cook, quite a gourmet, and in his bachelor establishment prepared some sumptuous meals. I rather expected a successful-looking horoscope, for he had enormous alert intelligence and ambition. He was also very likable, with a disarmingly shy and diffident manner until he got to know you, and a delightful sense of humour.
A Stressful Chart
He first introduced himself to me when he came to hear me talk to the Association about Rodney Collin in 1971. Our friendship knew no "generation gap" - though he was a good deal younger than my own offspring. He often visited us, and the two of us talked our heads off and, laughed a lot. Both with Leo rising and Suns within two degrees of each other in Capricorn, the contact was always harmonious.
But his chart, when I had set it up in detail, caused very obvious disquiet. I prevaricated in my analysis, in the way one does, not to discourage the aspiring soul. The T-squares. with Jupiter so badly afflicted, and those unpleasant-looking oppositions from 6th to 12th looked ominous health wise, and especially mental health wise, I thought. Not that there was the slightest sign of mental instability then.
Where in that chart was the worldly success, so dearly desired at that time? The Capricorn Sun conjunct Venus certainly drove him on, and the cheerful Leonian Ascendant showed up happily in the thick reddish hair, the large handwriting, the boisterous still slightly undergraduate-ish wit. But the impediments, the stresses and the strains seemed rather great. Mars, Saturn and Pluto all in the 12th, indicated his preoccupation with the inner things of the mind, and indeed, a little later on, with death itself. Saturn as Sun ruler in detriment, afflicted and afflicting on the Capricorn/Cancer axis, gave me a sense of foreboding. Moon quincunx a badly-aspected Venus made me wonder about his coming marriage - though in fact it took place under reasonably good transits and with Sun progressed into the 7th house. Both luminaries comparatively aftlicted, the Sun being the ruler, with just the one trine, Moon to Neptune, to lighten the load and deepen the emotional content- though possibly in a rather self delusive way. Mercury, so important to the professional writer, placed where one likes to see it in the 5th, but aspected only by a square to deceptive Neptune. Those little sextiles from Pluto in the 12th to Uranus in Gemini and Neptune in Libra: would they help or hinder the artistic and creative side of him? Five planets were natally retrograde, including the whole grouping in the 12th. Of course I did not look then for early death - there was no reason to think of it. But in the light of events, one notes the Part of Fortune at 26° Sagittarius, one of Charles Carter's pointers for suicide.
My analysis written in September 1972, advised him guardedly of the problems of this subtle, complex and difficult chart, while adding that people who make a mark in life usually have difficult rather than "all clear" charts. I mentioned rather cautiously the possibility of the 12th being "the house of self-undoing," and suggested that his preoccupation with the occult, with the unconscious, with the inner and spiritual life was very strongly indicated, while the outer life, social contacts and friendships of a material or worldly kind seemed rather under stressed. "The inner life is so much more powerful. I should have thought you to be sociable, but the chart suggests, not much. Fairly solitary inwardly, anyway. You may need to try to counteract and balance this, because although you seem to be reasonably light-hearted, the indications are that you could get progressively more intense. I think you could make yourself unnecessarily unhappy as a result."
He read it all seriously. "Hmmm," he said, not really accepting it. Then: "Not much success or recognition, then?"
"Oh, I should think so -- later,'" I told him hopefully. "With Capricornians the second half of life is often best. " "Oh, damn, damn! " he answered, "I want everything now!" Neither of us suspected for one moment that for him there was only "now" in which to live. . .
After Jamie married, he and his wife, whose interests and ideas were of quite a different kind, went off on extended travels in which his researches into the origins of the Work played some part. He wrote good letters, then sent postcards from various romantic-sounding places, but eventually the correspondence faded. On his return he telephoned once or twice, wanting to check facts or references for HARMONIOUS CIRCLE, and sounding rather despondent. "Things are not going well. I suppose you know that?" he said crossly. "Its sure to be all in my horoscope, I suppose." I answered with the consultant astrologer's customary dose of soothing syrup, tempering the wind to the shorn Iamb. "Well, Saturn is transiting over its radical degree area. It happens to everyone at about your age." He was not much comforted. After that there was silence, lasting for over two years, and I thought he had left my life for good.
Two Years of Nightmare
When he wrote in January 1980, it was to say that THE HARMONIOUS CIRCLE was at long last coming out and where should he send my copy, as I had moved? He added: "My own life has just emerged from two years of nightmare. 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. " He described certain experiences in detail and I was able to answer that I recognised them, having had a bit of a crack-up myself many years ago.
My letter of sympathy drew an immediate long response, based on his hunger to communicate thoughts that doctors, psychiatrists and his immediate circle could not easily grasp or help him with. In the next four or five months we exchanged somewhere near 20,000 words in constant correspondence. We discussed all the forms of religious or philosophical thought that either of us had touched upon and produced a mass of mutually acceptable ideas. He was much more learned and scholarly than I, but my greater span of years gave me much more experience to draw upon. I think it would be true to say that in intelligence we were equals though I would argue with no-one who thought him to be my superior.
He spoke of "a shattering vision of the Wheel of Life the sight of my previous incarnations set up like a great silver mill wheel." 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 imagined his "individualized consciousness" using "poor old Brother Ass (who got well nigh disintegrated two years ago) to manoeuvre around in this very soupy environment of which Brother Ass is 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."
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." He wondered if his breakdown, "terrifying and chaotic as it was," might not be a positive almost evolutionary step in his progress? He felt he had been a rationalist all his life and had suddenly been catapulted into a larger universe.
The Principle of Consciousness
"I like your idea that God might be Consciousness," he wrote. " At least two people over the past three years have said to me 'God is the life force.' How little they can have looked about them! Nature red in tooth and claw, energy prone as you say to become either love or war, the brute nature of mere impulse for survival- how can this life force be God? It may bear some relation to the Old Unprintable of the Old Testament, that 'savage God' who as Zaehner says, 'raves within each of us,' but it is unacceptable to our consciousness. I think that in certain people the principle of consciousness is in revolt against the conditions of existence (determined by the life force) from a very early age. . . I think you are probably right in thinking that consciousness exists in its own right, independent of any human carrier. "
Next time he wrote: 'Over the past four or five months I have been changing positions so rapidly that I haven't known whether I was on my head or my heels. I would go to bed a Manichee and rise from it a Buddhist. The day after I would be convinced by Cabala or Gnostic Christianity. The symbol of the Celtic Cross has come to mean a great deal to me - the circle of reincarnation transformed by the symbol of redemption."
He thought he had enclosed his thoughts about different religious and philosophical systems in a lot of small boxes and didn't know what to do with them. He could not find any system or way that really suited him. Only bits and pieces fitted. I made a tentative suggestion. He answered: "Your idea that the various boxes of thought are in some sense a 'Way' of their own had occurred to me too. It certainly seems purposive at times. "
But intellectually what Gurdjieff called the Terror of the Situation remained with him. He was still much preoccupied with the "sheer horror of discovering one is imprisoned in the coils of cyclical time. " He said: "I am convinced there is a way out, but we probably only find it at death. I think Rodney Collin was quite right about the importance of dying properly, and I have revised my opinions about the manner of Ouspensky's death." He wrote that he did not think it possible to contract out by committing suicide. He returned more than once to this theme, as though a yearning towards death was coming more and more to the forefront of his thoughts. Mary told me that around this time, March or April, he said to a friend who owned the estate adjoining their Scottish home: "May I be buried on your land?"
At the end of April he wrote to me: " Are there any astrological indications of accident proneness? " I thought, not in his chart, with Mars held in check by Saturn and that mild-looking Uranus. (His mother has since said that she regarded him as both clumsy and accident prone at home, howeever, so perhaps inattention and absentmindedness played their part.) I formed the impression he might think he had not long to live, and would die an apparently "accidental death", perhaps on that long road along the Roman wall, returning very tired from Newcastle. I warned him to take care.
A Private Mythology
One day he wrote: "I have my private mythology, that we are most of us participants in something which 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 an instant, 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 . . . "
He followed with: "I accepted the world completely until I was about sixteen, then a series of pre-cognitive dreams and an isolated religious experience began waking me up. At Cambridge I wrote poems replete with esoteric symbolism. I knew nothing of esotericism and didn't know what the poems meant until recently - they were just a nice noise. One's unconscious is often a good guide."
During all this correspondence I had no reason to doubt Jamie's mental state. He had a fine mind, of which his books give public evidence, and his letters a more private testimony. He was essentially good. But he was clearly struggling deeply with his ideas, and had been in some lonely areas of thought. "Its lovely to know I'm no longer alone in the wilderness," he wrote to me.
Soon after he began the to-ing and fro-ing connected with the three-day a week job, I noticed an agitated and stressful tone creeping in. He changed his tack. "God is not Consciousness, God is Meaning," he said, echoing his own words in HARMONIOUS CIRCLE (p.33) that "meaning is the fuel without which life itself flickers out." Fatigue, renewed inner distress and uncertainty, were at the base of the now enormously long attempts to analyse a series of new speculations about the nature of life. "But is this progression or regression? " he asked.
He discussed Jung's Septem Sermones written semi-automatically after his own breakdown and commented: "I have never seen why magicians and others wanted to be possessed by the powers. You lose your humanity that way. . . My own criterion has come to be - 'that which tends towards the Integer. ' "
It was here that I suggested he needed to rest his mind more, not write so much just now, but to try to be at peace when he came home from work. There is time for everything I thought. To give a quiet form of contemplation of the Godhead I quoted for him:
"In the Field of the square foot,*
In the House of the square inch,
In the Temple of jade,
Dwells the God of utmost Emptiness
The letters written and never sent were heart-rending cries of despair. I quote only: - "I have no-one to whom I can talk about these things. . . Your last wise letter. . . You are probably right in thinking too much talk is not necessarily a good thing at this stage. . .but it has been immensely helpful to have your reassurance and support when I needed it. . . Your magnificent quotation about the 'field of the square foot.' Where do the lines come from? I keep pondering them. Apart from their intrinsic beauty I am sure they contain a profound truth. . . So few people will talk about the really important things, and those who will are usually peddling a proprietary brand of solution not applicable to everyone."
He wrote and posted a final letter to me on 5th May, saying he would telephone on Friday about the holiday arrangements. It was as though there were two versions of himself existing in those last weeks - the one still planning the future, and the other knowing the days were running out.
The Death Chart
When Jamie died, on Friday, 9th May, 1980 at approximately 3 p.m. his Moon had progressed conjunct to Pluto in the 12th.
The transits showed that the Moon itself was passing through Pisces in the 8th, and came quincunx to Pluto in the 12th at the supposed exact time of suicide. Mercury was semi-sextile Uranus; Venus was conjunct the North Node: Mars was exactly square the Moon: Jupiter was also applying to a square to the Moon though this was not exact until the 24th of the month.
Saturn, the Sun ruler, was well aspected with successive contacts from March to May: sextile Mars 17th March, trine Sun 20th March, sextile Saturn 25th April. This covered the period when both the English and American editions of THE HARMONIOUS CIRCLE were published.
Uranus, not natally strong anyway, made no aspects during this period. Neptune had been quincunx Saturn exact on 12th January, ' stationary retrograde 25th March, applying again in May and exact in fact on 11th June. Pluto was within the orb of a square to Saturn and a square to Venus, (these being natally part of the double axis of a Cardinal T -square, of course), throughout the period under review, (the first six months of the year).
The lunar and Plutonian contacts seem the most indicative of the situation that developed, and it is noteworthy that similar, (though not the same), aspects occurred in Rodney Collin's chart at the time of death, (see my article, Beloved Icarus, on the website). The actual transit of the Moon pinpoints the exact time in both cases.
When my husband and I visited Mary shortly after the tragedy, we found that she had made great efforts to protect and help Jamie during his months of breakdown. In recent months she had felt he would be better if encouraged to get out and about, dig the garden, go shopping, help with domestic affairs, resume a normal social life and persevere with the copywriting job, "although he hated it." She did not care to see him reading philosophy and "considering the state of his soul," as she put it. "He couldn't talk to me about things like that," she said. Her sturdy common sense suggested it would be best to divert his attention to more mundane matters, and she tried with determination to wean him away from mysticism.
In his scholarly, book-lined study Mary and I gazed bleakly at each other, each conscious of a separate, private grief, of helplessness and loss. Between us stood the big box of copies of THE HARMONIUS CIRCLE, once so eagerly awaited. He had not even found the time and energy to dispatch them to his friends. It was as though he had accomplished his life's work in that enormous project, and once it had appeared, his interests in this world gradually completely faded out. Perhaps the secondary progressions give an indication that the work was indeed done. The Sun was trine to Jupiter this year, and Mercury and Venus together made their sextile with the Mid-heaven of the chart.
Because he had died a few days before our planned meeting, I never saw the face exhausted and ravaged by illness and suffering that was his family's last sad memory. I knew his mind and heart, but not his latter-day countenance.
To me, he wears always the alert and eager visage of the young Scotsman who once strode the Highlands and the Isles. Who wore the Lindsay kilt as though descended from Ivar the Jarl of the Uplanders, Norse founder of that clan: who lay in the heather on a hilltop in Skye all one Summer night, and whose heart leapt with joy at a ship in full sail in the Sound of Raasay on a misty morning. His letters tell of all these things: and of the moment when the cuckoo called at Rodel.
It is the cuckoo that is the Sacred Bird of Tir-nan-Og, says the Hebridean legend. Its call heralds the coming of The Shining One along the old stone avenue at Callanish at sunrise on midsummer morning. And it leads the souls of the blessed home to the Celtic paradise, the Land of Eternal Youth, far out in the Western Sea.