It seems there are an awful lot of people who can forgive Aleister Crowley almost anything. The self-styled Great Beast of the Book of Revelation, and the man the tabloids loved to hate as ‘The Wickedest Man in the World’, who died in 1947, is a largely unreconstructed hero to many groups of modern pagans and ritual magicians. And, author Gary Lachman hastens to add, Crowley is also monumentally influential on rock musicians galore.
After all, what better slogan for the whole 1960s/70s counter-culture and musical revolution than Crowley’s (in)famous: ‘Do what thou wilt is the whole of the law’? Though in fact he had followed it immediately with the line: ‘Love under Law, love under Will’, a cursory look at the magus’ own life would suggest he himself had pretty much stuck with the first part.
Lachman should know, if anyone should, about Crowley’s influence on the popular music scene. As a founder member of the band Blondie, and an inductee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he himself was drawn into Crowleyism, though as this book makes abundantly clear, he is no longer part of that scene and sees through the more blatantly unattractive – and, worse perhaps, the more ineffective – aspects of Crowley’s life and ‘magick’.
Essentially this book is topped and tailed by an examination of the Great Beast’s influence on the popular music scene, from his iconic appearance (with hall-mark basilisk stare) on the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper album, to Led Zeppelin III and Jay-Z’s fashion. Lachman’s first-hand experience of Crowley’s contribution to the world of popular culture makes this a very new, and undeniably exciting addition to today’s ever-burgeoning Crowleyanity, though arguably it is his measured, wry and incisive take on the Great Beast’s life and work that steals the limelight from the rockers.
As ever, it’s Crowley himself who strides like the colossus he was (both literally and metaphorically) through counter cultural history. For a man who died a heroin junkie and alcoholic in very reduced circumstances – and in a B&B, however Bohemian it might have been, in Hastings, for Heaven’s sake! – roughly 70 years ago, his power remains palpable and his stock is clearly rising exponentially as we speak.
Crowley was complex, contradictory - and talented. He was a mountaineer of note (in fact Chris Bonnington specifically mentions him as a great hero in this context); he was a prolific, if controversially erratic, poet; he was very possibly a spy (although quite on whose side remains debatable) – and of course he shook western esotericism to its core with his ritual magick, largely based on his revelatory writings, such as The Book of the Law. All of that seems, put all too briefly and aridly, to describe someone who could have been Crowley, but without his staggeringly grim and gross aspects. And there were plenty of those.
Indeed, there’s a sort of NIMBYism that goes with being a modern Crowley fan. But instead of the liberal-minded approving of, say, wind farms in principle, as long as they’re Not In My Back Yard, here it’s perhaps more a case of NOMBCism – Not On My Best Carpet. One can’t help thinking that even today’s most devoted fans would balk at having him defecate on their best shag in full view of their other guests, or greet complete strangers – usually women – with his infamous ‘serpent’s kiss’, involving a specially sharpened tooth that often cut their mouths quite badly.
As a direct result of growing up in a strict household of Plymouth Brethren – where he was firmly believed to be the Great Beast of the Book of Revelation, a landmark moment for the future Beastly magus - Crowley set out to shock, as much to shock himself perhaps as to unsettle and disgust others. All his life he sought wild, rough and largely loveless sex in a conscious effort to leave behind the Brethren’s repressive puritanism. ‘Love,’ announced the undergraduate Crowley with obvious satisfaction, ‘was a challenge to Christianity.’ As Lachman notes wryly, it is odd that he had to keep trying to challenge it quite so hard.
And his self-conscious ‘satanizing’ can be both sadistic and puerile in the extreme, as when he tortured and crucified a frog in an effort to dispel a sort of spiritual ennui. One must assume it succeeded.
The violent urge to wound and debase often applied to himself. Like a toddler, Crowley was seemingly obsessed with poo, but unlike the average toddler he grew up into a man who was said to make it into ‘love cakes’ that he offered to visitors, who were oblivious to his secret ingredient – at least until they took their first bite. Presumably they didn’t take a second. At a later stage in his life he sought to explain that physical degradation was an intrinsic part of the breaking down of the ego that was involved in the most profound magickal processes. His penchant for sex magick that involved him being the submissive partner in sodomy was included in this physical and mystical practice. (As Lachman points out, the bisexual Crowley was generally sadistic in his relations with women – most of his ‘Scarlet women’ ended up alcoholic and/or in mental institutions - and masochistic in his homosexual couplings.)
When presiding over up his magickal commune at the Abbey of Thelema in Sicily, almost certainly he had congress with a goat. And, if one is to read between the lines with a hard modern stare, according to at least one former guest, he abused a little boy. Neither of those acts, if true, should endear him to 21st-century seekers, but somehow Crowley is becoming untouchable, rising above such accusations and undeniable squalor. (The Abbey of Thelema had no toilet facilities so the house and gardens were used: visitors remarked on the all-pervasive stench. One wonders why it was beyond the community at least to dig army-style latrines in the grounds, but perhaps drugs, drink, sex and magick took up all their time and energy.)
Of course characters as colourful as that, and as addicted to causing commotions – besides being addicted to more usual substances - would go out of their way to encourage pretty much any kind of wild story about themselves. Crowley lived most of his life as if he believed the adage about all publicity being good publicity. But for him, it really wasn’t always.
Part of his vendetta-strewn life was due to his inability to take the blame for anything. And there was a great deal to take the blame for. Even in the racist days of the early 20th century, his treatment of the coolies during his Chinese wanderings was startlingly violent. He whipped them to reinforce his ‘moral superiority’, and then took delight in cheating them out of money due. And later, when engaged in intense sex magick with Victor Neuburg, he sank to even lower levels, basically because he could. Crowley would slash away at Neuburg’s bare flesh with stinging nettles, berating him for his Jewishness.
Neuburg wrote: ‘My Guru is unnecessarily rude and brutal, merely to amuse himself and pass the time away… It seems to me that unnecessary and brutal rudeness is the prerogative of a cad of the lowest type. It is the very limit of meanness to grouse at a man because of his race…’ ‘Meanness’ somehow doesn’t seem to cover it.
His desire to sink to ever lower depths – for whatever reason – would include the ritual slaughter of a cat, while at his Abbey of Thelema in Sicily. Crowley’s acolyte Raoul Loveday was made to drink its blood, and died shortly afterwards from acute gastroenteritis, probably contracted from contaminated water. But it is easy to see why accusations that it was due to the cat’s blood stuck. This was Aleister Crowley, after all, a man bent on satanizing as outrageously as he could, often at a terrible cost to others.
It was after the tragedy in Sicily, with Crowley hounded out, that the British press described him as ‘The King of Depravity’; ‘A Man We’d Like to Hang’ and, of course, ‘The Wickedest Man in the World’. It goes without saying that Crowley did his best to live up to the last one.
Clearly it is hard even for someone reasonably familiar with Crowley’s life – but not blinded by his perverse stardust – to see beyond the viciousness, squalor and even the grotesque over-the-top image, apparently lipstick and all. But even to 21st-century admirers of celebrities who are just famous for being celebrities, Crowley has much more to offer than that.
While never shrinking from describing, and analysing the myriad of examples of Crowley’s arguably insane vileness, Lachman carefully and objectively presents the man’s desperate quest for the ultimate magickal prize – to know himself, through the medium of conversation with his Holy Guardian Angel (HGA). Did Crowley succeed? Certainly something almost literally mind-blowing happened in desert rituals with the appearance of Crowley’s HGA, Aiwass. Had Crowley succeeded in crossing the Abyss, in literally facing his demons? Certainly Aiwass’ legacy was of enormous significance to the western esoteric tradition.
Over the following years Crowley had set down – sometimes in a sort of revelatory automatic writing – works of astonishing magickal depth. His Book Four (1912), termed by Lachman ‘Crowley’s most articulate exposition of his ideas about magick’ concerns techniques for using the ultimate magickal tool – the human mind. But once again, the magus ‘didn’t get the hint’: ‘he often grabs hold of an important insight, but drops it and falls back into “satanizing” and rebellion that he knows is unnecessary.’
With Crowley, theory and practice could be worlds apart – usually very much to his own detriment. Here, while admitting that solitude and contemplation were the most necessary tools of the magus, as Lachman points out: ‘He was practically always surrounded by people, and example, perhaps, of his following the small part of himself rather than the great.’ And though Crowley knew that true, successful magick, did not depend on robes or secret sigils, he continued to use them, while also admitting most magicians suffered from the delusion that they were essential. ‘But he also knew that success in magick “depends upon one’s ability to awaken the creative genius which is the unalienable heirloom of every son of man.” The “creative genius” was one of Crowley’s phrases for the unconscious.’
It is perhaps Crowley’s naked earnestness, his desperation to understand the potentially limitless forces of the psyche, even coupled with his sometimes sincere admissions of incomprehension or failure, which edge him into greatness. Despite all the bombast and the grotesquerie, his occasionally fearful explorations of the unconscious through the medium of magickal ritual are gripping and thought-provoking. In a sense, this was both philosophy and psychology in action. His Book of the Law and Magick in Theory and Practice are astonishing achievements – the ultimate daring thought experiments.
Known for his line ‘every man and woman is a star’, Crowley announced that the universe was ‘Nothingness with twinkles!’ Lachman explains that this encompassed his concept of the unity of all things: space being occupied by infinite numbers of bright points, though space itself became ablaze… the points became stars, ‘linked to ideas, souls, everything, in fact, as well as to each other.’ And since to Crowley, ‘everything is one, there is no reason to do one thing rather than another’… ‘The idea “flea”, he believed, is “just as full and interesting as the idea “Ulysses”, and so, ultimately, one should make no distinction between them, something Aiwass told him long ago’. To Crowley ‘the line of least resistance’ is to do one’s own Will – should one ever discover what it is – even though ‘nothing can happen. Nothing is All…’ But as Lachman points out, this soon got him tied in logical knots. As he believed ‘all the solutions turn out to be no solutions’, ‘it is difficult to see how he or anyone else could make anything better, or worse, for that matter.’
Unlike other philosophers and mystics, however, Crowley took the perceived ‘cosmic futility’ as carte blanche to ‘do what he wilt’.
After an astonishingly turbulent life lived on several continents and possibly more than one dimension, Crowley notoriously ended his days poverty-stricken, a junkie alcoholic in a B&B in Hastings. All of that is undoubtedly true, but there were still gems among the squalor. For example, he told one distinguished visitor: 'Magic is something we do to ourselves’, though ‘it is more convenient to assume the objective existence of an Angel who gives us new knowledge than to allege that our invocation has awakened a supernatural power in ourselves.’ But as Lachman says, this flatly contradicts what he had always said was his key discovery – the reality of ‘discarnate intelligence’. Contradictory, controversial, and ultimately exciting, to the last.
Twenty years after his death in Hastings, ‘Crowley was without a doubt back’. His anti-Establishment stance, his ‘do what thou wilt’ imprimatur, was made for the rock stars and counter-culture movers and shakers, such as the Rolling Stones and film-maker Kenneth Anger. It was Satanism for all, though then as now there were arguments about whether Crowley was technically a Satanist. (According to his own declaration, he was.) Lachman points out that ‘do what thou wilt’ resonates perfectly with the modern stance of ‘just do it’.
Part of Crowley’s continuing appeal has to be his sometimes impish humour, which this book features to great effect, such as the story of him letting the Germans – during the First World War – know the precise address of his aunt in Croydon so they could drop bombs on it. But as ever with Crowley, little was uncomplicated. Amusing though this anecdote is, it barely plastered over the real point at issue, namely the fact he was in communication with the enemy during hostilities.
Significantly, Crowley believed that a new Epoch was upon us – or very nearly: The Age of Horus, or of the Child. And certainly his own behaviour was that of a particularly attention-seeking, spoilt little boy, flouncing around in colourful costumes, such as Sheikhs’ or Highland Lairds’, and affecting bogus titles to match. If that was all, of course, it would merely make him just another English eccentric, but as we have seen, that was very much not all – sometimes for the better but very often for the worse.
Lachman addresses the idea of the coming Age of the Child at the very end of the book: ‘But if Crowley was right, and this is the era of the “crowned and conquering child”, I can only hope that he grows up soon.’
Inevitably any review can only touch on certain elements of a book, but with a Crowley biography a review is truly the tiniest iceberg tip – a barely discernible ice floe. What about his vexed membership of magical orders, such as the Golden Dawn, or the OTO that continues in his name? Well, quite.
Of course the only way to compensate for the gaps is to read the book for oneself. And in this case that is an excellent idea. -- Lynn Picknett