8 March 2014


Henrik Bogdan and Martin P. Starr (editors). Aleister Crowley and Western Esotericism. Oxford University Press, 2012. Review by Clive Prince

Aleister Crowley and Western Esotericism bills itself as ‘The first collection devoted to critical studies of Aleister Crowley.’ It consists of fourteen essays that examine Crowley’s thought, work and influence from different scholarly perspectives, with an introduction by the editors and a context-setting foreword by Wouter J. Hanegraaff (one of the best concise introductions to the Western esoteric tradition I’ve read).
The essays, most of which were commissioned for this volume (five have appeared previously, some as far back as the mid-1990s) are mainly devoted to the examination of the development of Crowley’s ideas – the influences he drew on and how he synthesised them into an original philosophy and system of magic – and the influence he in turn had on esotericism and new religious movements. The contributors include several eminent names in their field, and there are essays by independent researchers as well as those from academic institutions (although all are at least graduates).

Several essays seek to place Crowley in the context of his time, and examine how his thinking on the theory and practice of magic, and indeed his personality, were shaped by profound social changes – new ideas of individuality and identity, scientific advances and so on - that were shaking up the West in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

This is brought out, for example, in Richard Kaczinsky’s study of Crowley’s major influences, an exercise that ‘underscores his contribution as a synthesist of these ideas into an innovative and original system of spiritual practice.’ As well as the expected influences - the writings and rituals of Madame Blavatsky and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and above all the books of the explorer Richard Burton – Kaczinsky identifies another significant factor in nineteenth-century theories about sex. As he points out, ‘Contrary to common misconceptions of the Victorian era as sexually repressive, critical historical studies reveal that it was actually an unprecedented period of open discourse on all matters sexual.’ Kaczinsky concludes that ‘In this context, Crowley’s practice of sex magick was not a dramatic departure from tradition but a product of the times in which he and his predecessors lived.’

In ‘The Sorcerer and His Apprentice: Aleister Crowley and the Magical Exploration of Edwardian Subjectivity’ Alex Owen, professor of history and gender studies at Northwestern University, explores a similar angle through the example of the ‘Crossing the Abyss’ sex magic rituals that Crowley performed with Victor Neuburg in the Algerian desert in 1909. She sees this as an expression of the ‘fin de siècle formulation of new sexual identities and a contemporary preoccupation with the riddle of human identity and consciousness as manifested in competing ideas of the self,’ which was largely generated by new psychological theories that posed a ‘challenge to the notion of a unified self as the single source of identity.’ She argues that the burgeoning interest in ritual magic was itself part of this preoccupation (‘a particular and self-conscious engagement with selfhood, an engagement that exposed the limitations of a unified sense of self upon which experiential gendered identity depends’).

Owen highlights Crowley’s understanding and use of the new theories of psychoanalysis, which for him confirmed, in a modern, scientific way, traditional magic’s view of the human personality; Freud ‘was simply articulating what magicians had known for centuries.’ Crowley’s Abyss ritual, intended to dissolve the self in order to access and control the powerful forces of the unconscious, can therefore either be seen as a magical (objective) or psychological (subjective) exercise but, as Owen points out, the end result is the same.

Crowley’s attempt to ‘renew and reinterpret the meaning of occult practices in a modern framework’ is also examined by Marco Pasi, professor of Hermetic Philosophy at the University of Amsterdam: ‘The desire to find commonalities between different spiritual traditions was certainly not new in esotericism. What was perhaps new was the idea of doing it by using new psychological and scientific theories, rather than mystical insight or traditional wisdom.’

Pasi examines Crowley’s attitude to the paranormal generally, for example psychical research and Spiritualist mediumship – about both of which he was, perhaps surprisingly, sceptical - before focusing on his interpretation of magic and Yoga, which he saw as two paths to the same goal. He also looks at Crowley’s pioneering role in the use of psychoactives, such as peyote and mescaline, to reach that goal – expanding consciousness to produce a state of ‘religious genius’ – which made him a forerunner of, and a hero to, the 1960s counterculture.

While Pasi and Owen see Crowley’s formulation of his ideas and theories as bold, original and ground-breaking, they take the view that his egotism and libertinism got the better of him. Owen writes that ‘Crowley’s subsequent behavior suggests… that he had not made a successful crossing of the Abyss – that he was caught in the grip of unconscious forces that he was unable to filter, monitor, or control.’ Similarly, for Pasi, Crowley’s conviction that he was the prophet of the new religion of Thelema produced a ‘cognitive obstacle’ to an understanding of his own insights, derailing him from the track on which he had set himself and leading him to the excesses that earned him notoriety.

It is a near-universal perception of Crowley – a brilliant mind, even a genius, whose immense intellect and erudition brought him to profound spiritual insights but whose ego and disregard for social convention led him to misuse his talents, his ideas becoming a justification for addictions to drugs and sex that made a mockery of the emphasis he placed on self-mastery in his writings. One inevitably thinks of his Cefalù period, the Thelemic ‘commune’ in Sicily that looks like a simple excuse for all manner of excess and debauchery. However, the essay by Gordon Djurdjevic, ‘The Great Beast as Tantric Hero’ – for me the most thought-provoking in the collection - gives a new perspective on these apparent contradictions in Crowley’s life.

Djurdjevic argues that Crowley’s lifestyle was not only fully consistent with his occult philosophy, but an integral part of it, the key being the place of Tantra in his system: ‘My argument is simple: not only is Crowley important for the fusion of Eastern and Western esoteric traditions, but also his own practice of magick becomes clearer if aspects of it are understood against the background of Yoga and Tantra.’

Crowley, he argues, understood an aspect of Tantra that had escaped most, if not all, of its Western advocates: its deliberate challenge to and subversion of social norms (in its original setting, those of the Brahmanic priesthood). Djurdjevic quotes the pithy definition of Tantra by Jeffrey J. Kripal, the American professor of philosophy and religion, as ‘a “dirty path” to ontological truths that are as terrifying as they are profound’ that ‘consciously uses decadence as a spiritual technique.’

Similarly, Crowley (who was already temperamentally inclined that way because of his rejection of his Plymouth Brethren upbringing) set out to subvert the norms of Western, Christian society: ‘In a similar vein [to Tantrism], Crowley’s spiritual path may be conceptualized as an intentional use of “decadence, strangeness, seediness, and sex” as spiritual techniques with the aim of conquering inner limitations and psychological barriers.’ Djurdjevic quotes Crowley’s follower Gerald Yorke: ‘Crowley didn’t enjoy his perversions! He performed them in order to overcome his horror of them.’

A theme that emerges in the essays about the development of Crowley’s thinking is his blurring of the line between the subjective and objective, often turning the transcendental into the literal.

For example, Matthew D. Rogers, a graduate in religious studies, looks at Crowley’s reinterpretation of Plato’s furores or ‘frenzies’ – mystical states induced by the gods - which formed an important part of Western esoteric thinking from the Renaissance onwards. Rogers shows how Crowley modified the classical furores, trimming them to three under the auspices of Apollo, Dionysus and Aphrodite, and then transforming ‘the prophetic, mantic, and erotic frenzies into the musical, pharmaceutical, and sexual methods’ which he then employed, in various combinations, in his rites and workings, turning what were originally ‘divine phenomena’ into ‘human practices.’ As Rogers points out, Crowley’s use of these three methods make it small wonder he became a hero to the generation of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll.

Similarly, co-editor Henrik Bogdan’s ‘Envisioning the Birth of a New Aeon: Dispensationalism and Millenarianism in the Thelemic Tradition,’ which examines the influence of Christian apocalyptic thinking on Crowley’s Book of the Law, shows how he changed his interpretation of that book as a result of the upheavals of the First World War, from a symbolic to a literal description of the coming age.

Fellow editor Martin Starr gives us a study of Crowley’s involvement in Freemasonry ‘with the express purpose of separating the myths from the masonic realities, a task never previously attempted.’ Starr shows that while Crowley was contemptuous of Freemasonry he recognised the value of affiliation with it for the promotion of his magical orders. However, although initiated into several irregular Masonic rites (i.e. not recognised by the Grand Lodge of England), his attempts to gain acceptance by the Masonic authorities in England and the USA were consistently rebuffed.

R.A. Gilbert explores the question of why Crowley devoted so much space to ‘hysterical and almost paranoid’ attacks on A.E. Waite, the best-known British occultist of the time, concluding, while acknowledging that it has to remain conjecture, that it was due to Crowley’s envy of Waite’s status as a scholar of the occult, a status that Crowley himself craved but never attained.

Tobias Churton of Exeter University’s Centre for the Study of Western Esotericism, and author of an excellent recent biography of Crowley, examines his claim, made some sixteen years after writing The Book of the Law, that its revelator Aiwass bore the ‘true most ancient name of the God of the Yezidis.’ Churton teases out from this brief reference that Crowley had in mind the Yezidi’s ‘Peacock Angel’, Melek Tawus, ‘the stern benefactor of humankind, set by God to govern the destiny of the human race’ who ‘offers human beings both knowledge and freedom.’ He also demonstrates common features between The Book of the Law and the Yezidi text, the Jelwe, which presents the revelation of Melek Tawus. Churton concludes that Crowley intuitively saw the link with Yezidi belief (‘In matters magical, his intuition was unique’) and that ‘Scholarship, to a degree, supports his intuition.’

In ‘The Beast and the Prophet’ Massimo Introvigne, the Italian specialist in new religious movements, looks at Crowley’s (apparent) fascination with Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism. This was, for me, the least relevant contribution, since it is based on a rather slender premise. While Introvigne writes that Crowley ‘was fascinated throughout his life by Joseph Smith,’ he cites in support only two brief examples from the whole of Crowley’s voluminous writings: in his autobiography he included Smith in a list of ‘men of the highest genius’ and he has one of the characters in his novel Moonchild have a vision of the Mormon Prophet. In fairness, the essay – which was first published in 1994 - wasn’t intended to give an insight into Crowley, but is an analysis of the difference between religious and magical revelation, using as examples of each Smith’s (alleged) visitations by the angel Moroni and Crowley’s by Aiwass. This isn’t to say that Introvigne’s essay is without interest – he provides some fascinating observations on the relationship between religion and magic – but it seems a little off-topic in this collection. (Introvigne has the most negative view of Crowley of all the contributors, summing him up tersely as ‘a magical genius, although a bizarre and depraved one.’)

Then there is Crowley’s legacy, the subject of another set of essays, which Bogdan and Starr have selected in order to concentrate not on his influence within the occult world, but rather on new religious movements, albeit religions with a strong component of ritual magic. Only one essay, by history graduate Keith Richmond, looks at Crowley’s influence on an explicitly occult figure, the Australian artist Rosaleen Norton (1917-79), and even here the connection is rather tenuous. Norton is not herself particularly influential – she had no wish to be, always stressing that she didn’t want followers, still less to start a movement – and neither was Crowley a particular influence on her, as while she respected his thought she disagreed with him about the most fundamental aspects of magic.

Ronald Hutton reviews the thorny question of Crowley’s influence on Wicca, through his influence, direct or indirect, on its founder Gerald Gardner, while Norwegian professor of religious history Asbjørn Dyrendal examines his influence on the modern Satanist organisations founded by Anton LaVey (Church of Satan) and Michael Aquino (Temple of Set). In all three cases, while Crowley’s writings were a key formative influence, when it came to creating their own movements Gardner, LaVey and Aquino took what they considered useful and added a great deal of their own devising. Nevertheless his influence is there, particularly in Wicca, in which, as Hutton shows, Crowley was ‘the most single identifiable influence… next to Gerald Gardner himself.’ Hutton points out the irony that Wicca is today a far bigger religious movement than the one, Thelema, that Crowley wanted to create, and that his ‘true place in religious history… may be as the godfather of Wicca rather than as the father of Thelema.’

It is a balanced collection of well-selected essays
 by scholars and researchers who know their subjects, all of which are stimulating, and which succeed in showing why Crowley should be taken seriously

Perhaps the bravest contribution is that by Hugh B. Urban, professor of religious studies at Ohio State University, on the connections between Crowley’s magical system and the Church of Scientology – not an organisation to get on the wrong side of, and one that has consistently denied the connection (perhaps the reason that the title of his essay, ‘The Occult Roots of Scientology?,’ sports a question mark).

Urban shows that Scientology’s founder L. Ron Hubbard ‘clearly had some direct involvement in Crowley’s OTO rituals just a few years before he founded the Church of Scientology’ – even the Church admits this, but explains it as part of Hubbard’s infiltration of the OTO on behalf of US intelligence (a claim for which, Urban points out, nobody has ever provided evidence). There is also strong evidence that around this time Hubbard used Crowley’s rituals designed to contact one’s Holy Guardian Angel, and in lectures in the early 1950s ‘Hubbard makes it clear… that he sees a direct continuity between Crowley’s magical ritual and the techniques of Scientology.’

Urban also demonstrates that several of Scientology’s key concepts, such as that of the Thetan within (Crowley placed great magical emphasis on the Greek letter theta) and the process of exteriorisation of the Thetan (‘almost identical to Crowley’s account of projecting the Body of Light’), as well as the ultimate goal of Scientology – ‘to realize the infinite power of the self and to use that power to manipulate, transform, and at last utterly transcend the limits of the physical universe’ – is that of Crowley’s system expressed in the language of science rather than magic.

However, despite showing how central Crowley’s occultism was to Hubbard’s formulation of Scientology, Urban hastens to add (perhaps not entirely convincingly) that the elements in ‘Hubbard’s religious bricolage’ drawn from Crowley were ‘neither more nor less important than the many other elements drawn from pop psychology, Eastern religions, science fiction, and a host of other goods available in the 1950s spiritual marketplace.’

All in all, Aleister Crowley and Western Esotericism achieves what it sets out to. It is a balanced collection of well-selected essays by scholars and researchers who know their subjects, all of which are stimulating, and which succeed in showing why Crowley should be taken seriously. The books reveals much about Crowley, the contemporary esoteric subculture and, indeed, modern culture in general.

Although aimed at an academic audience, and having an obvious appeal to those in the occult world, it is by no means a niche work. With a couple of exceptions, the essays are written without off-putting academic jargon, and readers with a more general interest in Crowley and the esotericism will find it accessible and informative. It would even serve as a good introduction to the man and his works.

As Wouter Hanegraaff points out in his foreword, by demonstrating that Crowley should be taken seriously, Aleister Crowley and Western Esotericism ‘might be much more profoundly subversive in its implications than Crowley’s own strategies of provocation.’

Not just recommended, but essential reading!

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