The Command to Look

The Command to Look (Book Cover)
The cover to the Feral House edition.

Stephen E. Flowers, Ph.D., V° Temple of Set
Reprinted from Runes #IV-3, Order of the Trapezoid, 1986

In the Charter of the Order of the Trapezoid, I read that one of Anton LaVey’s primal source works for the principles underlying the Law of the Trapezoid and hence the Order itself, was a book by William Mortensen: The Command to Look. I had never seen nor heard of this book before, so I set out to find it. I was on the track of the Trapezoid, which is sometimes an elusive trail. As I began looking, I soon discovered that The Command to Look was no arcane Black Book, but appeared in the University of Texas card catalog as a book on photographic techniques. My interest waned slightly. Besides, the only copy was in the Humanities Research Center, which is also home to much of Aleister Crowley’s personal library. That always means red tape. I put off my quest for a few weeks.

Weeks turned into months before I moved myself to take up the trail again. After finding the right collection on the right floor, and after sitting through the required slide show on how to handle rare items in the collection. After the librarian asked “Are you sure you want to do this?”, I knew I was on to something.

I was shown to a private reading room where I finally got the book - presumably dug out of some unseen vault. It was laid before me in a plexiglass “cradle”, which is to prevent damage to the tome. What did I see? There on the cover of a small book, I was confronted by the face of a baby looking like a refugee from a Norman Rockwell painting. The librarian sarcastically remarked, “Looks real interesting !”

Since I had gone that far, I opened the book, I did not now expect much. But I was very much surprised. The Command to Look is indeed a treasure trove of the Black Art, and the ideas contained in it should be made available to the Order not only on historical grounds, but also on the basis of their practical magical value.


Mortensen insists that the main premise of the Command to Look (CTL) is closer to pure showmanship than anything else. The formula is threefold:

  1. The picture must, by its mere arrangement, make you look at it (impact)
  2. and, having looked, see! (subject interest)
  3. and, having seen, enjoy! (participation)

All three of these elements must be fully activated before the artist - or magician - can be said to have successfully “commanded to look”. All three, however, work in such rapid succession that it is almost always effected unconsciously with regard to the viewer. Therefore the artist must carefully formulate his images to work efficiently in all three elements.

The first element - impact - is psychically coercive. Its function is entirely one of the shapes or patterns the viewer sees. It forces the viewer to pay attention to the image. This initial force, which Mortensen calls “the pictorial imperative”, is the force necessary to overcome the natural inertia of attention which holds most humans in a more or less constant grip.

According to Mortensen, impact is purely biological in effect. It is primarily dependent on shapes or patterns that serve as stimuli signaling danger. These fear-arousing patterns must have their psychic models stored in the forms within the “racial memory” or, to use the Jungian term, “collective unconscious” of humanity.

Mortensen identifies four basic types of pictorial patterns that have the ability to cause this reaction:

  1. The diagonal, e.g. the lightning bolt = something that moves swiftly with determination
  2. The S-curve, e.g. the snake (something that approaches in a slithering fashion) or the curves of the body (especially female = “the line of beauty”)
  3. Triangle combinations, e.g. a blade, sharp points, or teeth (= the threat of sharpness)
  4. Compact dominant mass, e.g. large animal or trapezoid (= massive block in one’s path)

Again it can not be overemphasized that these patterns are purely formal and have nothing to do with the dominant themes of the images. For example, if one drew the outlines of the basic contrasts in a black and white photograph and examined them in a purely geometrical way, the “pictorial pattern” would be obvious. More than one category of pictorial patterning can be present in any given representation as well.

The second element - subject interest - must now be able to “deliver” what the successful application of the pictorial imperative has promised. Many images, or magicians, may command to look, and then be quite unable to hold the attention they have attracted.

This is done through the actual subject of the image, moving from the external form to the internal essence of the thing. According to Mortensen, in order to hold the attention - in order to make the viewer see - he or she must at once be able to recognize something basically and essentially compelling about the subject.

For all practical purposes, this recognition must occur simultaneously with the impact. Therefore the types of subject interests must have as broad an emotional appeal as possible.

Mortensen cites the great showman, Cecil B. De Mille, as saying that the formula for box office success is to have a film dealing with sex, sentiment, religion, and sport. Mortensen reduces this somewhat to three subject themes: sex, sentiment, and wonder. It is Mortensen’s contention that their compelling nature make them the most effective imagematic themes in the CTL.

The sex-theme seems to dominate; it certainly does in Mortensen’s own work. In commenting on the gender of the subject of the sex-theme image, Mortensen says: “It is interesting to note that women are just as much attracted to the theme of sex when presented in the form of the female nude as men are. Their attraction in this case is vicarious, rather than direct. Their pleasure comes in imagining themselves placed in a situation where they would receive the same admiration that goes out to the theme of the picture.” (p. 37)

The sentiment-theme is usually effected through the softer aspects of sex, children, hardships of humble life, domestic life, animals, landscapes, national pride, glamour of the past, etc.

The wonder-theme is quite broad and covers the areas of unknown, uncertain, mysterious things, as well as themes of the supernatural, the macabre, etc.

Themes can, of course, be effectively mixed. Some permutations, such as “sex + wonder”, might be more immediately effective than “sex + sentiment”, but as with all forms of communication, it would seem that knowledge of one’s potential “target audience” is the essential variable.

It should be obvious that the effective use of the CTL is largely dependent upon the æsthetic compatibility of the nature of the impact pattern and subject matter. Interesting mixtures are also possible here.

The third element of the CTL-formula is participation, the element that causes the looker to experience - and thereby enjoy - what he or she is seeing. This is done, according to Mortensen, by drawing the viewer’s attention into the image by means of lines - geometrical alignments - that cause a movement of those attention patterns in accordance with the impact and subject matter of the image.

Mortensen comments that the eye of the looker will naturally move along contours and outlines, and that such geometrical guides should be provided by the image-maker in ways compatible with the impact lines and the subject matter. This is what he would call “confirming forms”.

The image-maker must, with this third element, confirm the promised subject matter after having “commanded to look” in the first place with an almost pure “shock element”.


There are at least three ways to apply the principles of the CTL (1) in the creation of graphic or spatial images (e.g. photographs, drawings, paintings, rooms, chambers, etc.), (2) in Lesser Black Magic, and (3) in Greater Black Magic.

The first application is obvious and primarily what Mortensen had in mind. The work of Edward T. Hall, e.g. The Hidden Dimension, is a valuable supplement to the CTL in this regard. Of course the design of a Trapezoidal Working Chamber could not ignore these principles either.

In reading Mortensen’s book the Black Magician probably could not escape the feeling that these principles could be applied outside the context of the graphic or spatial arts.

If indeed these principles are “biological” or part of the “racial memory”, could they not be employed when the Black Magician considers how to present himself or herself when working Lesser Black Magic? It seems that the CTL contains a comprehensive theory on how to get - and hold - the attention of someone on an unconscious level. What, then, the Black Magician does with that attention is another matter. When one looks around, however, it is clear that the CTL is being employed by a variety of individuals, both consciously and unconsciously, all the time.

Finally the CTL can be used in Greater Black Magic. The Black Magician can use its principles to impress more effective images within the subjective universe and thereby have a greater or deeper effect in the objective universe. Also any objective manifestation of this process - in an objective image constructed according to CTL principles - will be a more powerful tool in effecting Greater Black Magic.

This is where the Law of the Trapezoid comes in. If we analyze the Seal of the Order, we will see a (Grand) Masterful application of CTL principles: the “swiftly moving diagonal” at its center (the head of the tcham-scepter), the “threat of sharpness” throughout (note especially the interlockings of the numerals with the angles of the pentagram and the “W” at its nether point), and the “dominant mass” implicit in the trapezoid itself.

The Black Magical applications of the CTL seem virtually boundless, and it is to the credit of Anton Szandor LaVey, first Grand Master of the Order of the Trapezoid, and perhaps the greatest magical genius of this century, that he was first able to extract the practical magical applications from Mortensen’s æsthetic theories.

NX note: This was pulled from the “Satanic Bible Underground Edition”, p 134-136. This states that it was pulled from the journal Runes#IV-3, with a footnote indicating that Dr. Flowers included it with the work Black Runa (“This essay is also contained in Black Runa, a collection of Dr. Flowers’ writings for the Order of the Trapezoid, published by Runa-Raven Press, P.O. Box 557, Smithville, Texas 78957.”)

Added: Sol 17° Gemini : Luna 8° Capricorn : Sol: Vvi AL