Official culture does not take Aleister Crowley at all seriously these days, but the issues he arouses, and the things he writes about, are often very similar to others which are taken very seriously indeed. Take for example the writings of one of the most revered of modern philosophers, Ludwig Wittgenstein. In his book, ‘Culture and Value’, translated by Peter Winch, Wittgenstein appears as guru, with views and observations on all manner of subjects over and above the strictly philosophical ones which made his reputation. If it is acceptable to study this sort of thing, Aleister Crowley offers comparable intellectual meat to chew on, fascinating, creative and original speculations, normally censored out of the English scholarly tradition. Why pay attention to one set of ideas rather than to another? This is the question of authority. Why Wittgenstein rather than Marx, Freud, Heidegger, or even Crowley?
Crowley shared with Wittgenstein the urge to submerge others in his own will, to overcome their alienness by dominating and influencing them. Both sought and found fanatical followers among brilliant, unstable undergraduates from Oxford and Cambridge. Through these was hope of influencing the cultural mainstream. However, just as Wittgenstein rejected the idea that his influence should be restricted to academics, so Crowley repudiates any suggestion that he is speaking to some class restricted in scope. As much as to the fortunate members of society he addresses himself to paupers and to prisoners. He is concerned to influence individual minds through unofficial channels, bringing creative thinking to those normally felt to have no right to it.
He did aspire to a popular following, partly for energy, partly as the most obvious possibility of effecting change. He made use of existing occultist movements to refine them and to exercise his will to power. Though ‘against the people’, the individual who can lead a mass movement acquires freedom of action, and the dominant forces of the day no longer obstruct and oppose him. With the inertia of the mass behind him, he has support for whatever he wants to do. Even a rational ideal could do with a popular base, especially if it is expected to make any serious difference to society.
In 1911 he was advertising his publications Equinox and 777, textbook of the Crowleyan Kabbala, in the Occult Review. These were the waters in which he fished, as Lenin and Mao in those of revolutionary tradition, and Wittgenstein among philosophy students. Crowley showed little interest in politics. From his viewpoint political interests may be thought of as a kind of vice, constricting into immediate place and time. By contrast he invites into some very exotic traditions, exploring the wisdom and experience of civilisations very remote from his own. His literary style has an oriental, very knowing, quality. Little is argued, or attempted to be argued. He writes from a position of assumed enlightenment, though he is far from narrow or dogmatic. Also he was a master of image manipulation, a subject of ever increasing importance in the modern world. A large part of his message actually consisted in the creation of his image. For a seeker after power who was also a serious intellectual, the field of people looking for esoteric wisdom had something promising to it. The world of the philosopher and the world of images might seem to be very different, but if the philosopher desires influence he may have to take account of this other world.
Preoccupation with images may suggest corruption of feeling, or at best triviality, like an excessive concern with clothing. The world of images promises the excitement of the superficial, with immediate opportunities for emotional stimulation and satisfaction. This is the world of Hitler as fuhrer, and that of American advertising and propaganda. The subject includes the emotional power of archetypes and stereotypes, sexual adornment and attraction, kings, queens, gods, goddesses, demons, vampires, maenads, angels, nymphs.
Actors apply their skills to see other people in terms of images; studying image manipulation, they may live out their own lives in such a world. Image contrasts with reality, for example the image of a philosopher versus the reality of a philosopher. Image manipulation appears as a form of play. One takes pleasure in the promotion of a certain image or reputation, and responding to the images projected by others as the truly real as if this is the true game of life, its real meaning. Focussing on the emotional impact of a stereotype, all the charge associated with it, the aspiring magus aims to be more than human in embodying some attractive image.
Certain writers have significantly influenced this intersection between thought and image. In the early years of the century, the influence of Dostoyevsky was strong in Germany, as well as in Russia. Dostoyevsky stimulated a will to believe in the exciting personal relationships, and daemonic influences that he described. This created a demand, which came to be met, ultimately giving rise to such charismatic beings as Rasputin and Hitler. Crowley thrived in a similarly motivated atmosphere among susceptible circles in England and elsewhere.
Where the objective is power and overcoming, it is not enough to be seen as embodying some image or other, as if life were some form of stage play or masquerade. Jacques, in ‘As You Like It’ says that ‘All the world’s a stage’, but his is the viewpoint of a gloomy misanthrope. Life as masquerade is a limiting perspective. The person who desires power will only value it from the point of view of what he can get out of it. Crowley’s first object was to get people to listen to what he had to say. The ideal of the masquerade depends on mutual courtesy and respect, which is to say a general propping up of illusions. A politician or philosopher who wants to exert an original influence will want to spoil other people’s games.
According to the rules of ordinary life, success follows according to a given procedure. To raise the question of what rule we ought to follow introduces complication. If you seek to question the rule you will have nearly all those who have prospered by it against you.
John Symonds’s book ‘The Great Beast’, reached a generation of readers in the post 1945 age of mass culture. It effect was to contribute to a reaction against that culture, but it was also a product of it. Crowley’s influence was initially transmitted largely through that book. Reflecting on what he achieved suggests what else might be done. Thinking of modern culture and the normal ways in which it is transmitted, mass media, music industry, universities, art schools, political parties, publishing houses, Aleister Crowley is not supposed to count for very much.
There is seeming justification in the nature of his following. Despite his enormous intellectual power, his initial attraction, to any one, does not lie in the answers he gives to intellectual problems. People are attracted to Crowley for reasons other than an appreciation of the sublime poetry of the Book of the Law, the intricacies of the Crowleyan Kabbala, or the other profound and fascinating ideas to be found in his writings. Whatever it is that attracts, attracts all kinds of people. This may appear to his intellectual discredit. There is an interesting question in the relation of his guru image to the quality of his message. The same applies to Wittgenstein. The message on all levels springs from a strong, conscious drive for power, and is in no way weakened or invalidated by that.
Crowley’s admirers in modern society are from many walks of life, from the insane and the incarcerated, through the respectable working and middle classes, to the aristocracy and the intelligentsia. Among his proclaimed followers are some with disagreeable forms of mental disturbance. Some like to inspire fear, if they can, the sadistic and pathologically aggressive. There are the self consciously malevolent and the criminals. They usually lack Crowley’s sense of humour and his wit. His own hostility was meant as a way to repel fools. People pursue their ways of life usually unaware of the rationale that lies behind them. Hence the value of devils like Crowley to disturb.
His influence stretches among ordinary working people, as he said he wanted in Magick in Theory and Practice. His admirers have included hippies, punk rockers, readers of science fiction, football fans. A bookcase full of Crowleyana, is a sight occasionally to be seen in the most unexpected places. He is not without appeal in the suburbs, among middle class women, interested in magic and the occult, people that might normally be thought of as thoroughly bourgeois. Crowley as a hobby for the respectable may sound odd. Isn’t he a revolutionary, doesn’t he appeal to the discontented? But when we talk about bourgeois values we are talking about something fundamental. What could anyone put in their place? There is a poetry of the suburbs, with its cranks and cults, and housewives. Though one may feel that thelemism is really revolutionary, one cannot object to its existence on that level. After all, what use do the intellectuals make of it?
Crowley created a persona for himself of omnipotent ego, the actualisation of ‘Do What Thou Wilt’. Living in a way that was outrageous to the people of his day, he crops up as one of the most striking bridges between the old culture and the new, one whose place is not fully recognised in the life of his own generation, yet whose influence is long reaching, out of the heyday of the imperial era into modern mass society, the post imperial pop age. Few bridge that gap; Dali is another who does. Dali & Crowley were two of a kind, monstrous egos, they have been called. Neither will win the complete approbation of the conventional, Crowley in particular because of his comprehensive flouting of moral taboos. There is a great discordance between his portrayal of himself as the wise and virtuous King Lamus, and his real untrustworthiness. This very untrustworthiness is part of his message to the world, and does much to prove his seriousness. To maintain a positive personal image by continuously observing some code, even if only one of honour and decency, is an easy way out for anyone. The path of dishonour is the way to search out the deeper questions of value and the worth of life, it is that of the religious reformer. The Christ chose dishonour, and was prepared to sacrifice millions of people in the name of God, which was his name for his mission. The Crowley’s dishonourable acts were not meannesses, they are witnesses to his sense of destiny.
Symonds wrote:- ‘The sphinx with the face of Aleister Crowley propounds this riddle. ‘Why did I drive away my friends and followers? Why did I behave so vilely?. Other people have no ego and are just weak, but Crowley made a religion out of his weakness, out of being egoless’.
This alleged weakness and ‘vile’ behaviour, especially if we want to avoid reproaching Crowley for it, poses an interesting problem. To call someone weak rather than bad may normally be thought a charitable view. But in Crowley’s case, of possible motives for his actions, even sadism seems a more creditable motive than mere weakness. On an ordinary understanding, weakness would completely undermine his guru image. It must be wrong to see it as weakness pure and simple. We might rather see him as sticking to his guns, to a principle of absolute egoism, on which it would be impossible for him to compromise. From this viewpoint what Symonds would understand as strength is a kind of inhibition. He writes that Crowley lacked integration and was in the grip of unconscious forces. What is integration? Moral unification and control?
His ruthlessness would perhaps be of the same order as Lenin’s. Nothing could be allowed to stand in the way of the proclamation of the law of thelema. Weakness may be included in this. One would like to do good as the expression of strength; however, one has weakness, that is to say a certain quality of self indulgence, and self denial is unrealistic. It may be ‘normal’ to overcome this in unthelemic ways. Some people practise self denial by putting moral restraints on themselves, for altruistic motives. Rejecting such solutions, vile behaviour may express integrity without suggesting immediate strength.
Crowley’s alleged weakness included difficulty in earning a living. He survived by a series of shifts. Some things that come easily to the normal human, like steady, regular work, are just impossible for such types, putting it one way they are too weak to do it. What are regarded as elementary duties, if they clash with immediate self interest, will be experienced as impossible. They cannot do anything for the sake of duty, they cannot sacrifice themselves for anything other than perceived self interest.
Women who claimed to understand him better than he understood himself, occasionally said there was something in him which was fundamentally not likeable. Alostrael asserted that there was weakness in him, something he did not normally want to think about, and that he normally preferred to deny.
He affirmed himself in his weakness. Weakness usually suggests constraint, prison, the opposite of a holiday. Acts of weakness are acts of constraint, and are therefore not admired. What excites admiration is courage, the power to act according to an idea, the saint, the martyr, not self glorification in one’s weakness. ‘Admire me, follow me, but I cannot protect you. I claim to be a magus, but I do not have everything under control. I am not entirely to be trusted, not because of my perverseness, but because of my weakness (Dalinian softness)’. What is normal human strength that is respected? Dependability, loyalty etc.
Crowley is misunderstood if he is seen primarily as the teacher of a new path to liberation, his sexual yoga and the abbey as a means of imparting this, with the theory behind it boiled down to the crude schematism of paths to enlightenment. He was part of a greater, far more intelligible tradition. Thelema itself is a rationally intelligible ideal that goes back to Rabelais, via Sir Francis Dashwood. Crowley gave this distinguished western tradition a new degree of development. The doctrine serves the man, not the man the doctrine. Not every practitioner of sex magic is a true disciple of Aleister Crowley.
Crowley resembles a Sufi master in the mystery and ambiguity of his image. In one aspect, his life is a fantasy indulgence. Many of the most explicit doctrines are only to be understood in the light of the conditions to which they are a response. The entire occult tradition is something complex like this. Magick is the satisfaction of desire, that is its whole concern, and desires vary from person to person. A magus combines knowledge with personal development, specific techniques that may be taught have greater or lesser value, take them or leave them, dependant on the individual. A magus will explore and understand different systems of attainment which will be suitable to different people at different times and places. No one of these is to be seen as his central message unless he is a social, religious, or cultural reformer, which he might well be, but we trivialise Crowley if we see him primarily thus.
Social mores change, what remains constant is the will to power. Generally the thelemite rebels against the prevailing mores. In one age asceticism is appropriate, in another lechery. Crowley’s sensual extravagance is admirable from his viewpoint, but to expect it to become socially acceptable is unreasonable. Prejudice against it is not irrational, it springs from honest self interest. Who can feel pride in himself if an ideal is held up for his admiration which seems to overthrow all the fixed standards by which he finds his feet, an ideal that can easily be copied by people he may not want to admire, violent criminals, effeminate homosexuals and hopeless drug addicts?
Sensual desire can overthrow the judgement. Begin believing that total sensual satisfaction is the ideal and one is as if hooked on a drug, one feels forced to respect and admire those one wants to despise. It is wisdom that is really the ideal, but it is easy to confuse wisdom with its outer husk or shell, the manifestation it takes in some particular era.
The superman in the form of Sanine*, or the Master Therion, is someone above all the normal problems of life, powerful, resourceful and superabundantly healthy. Crowley often chose to present himself thus. His life conflicts are described in a context of the noblest idealism. He has no hangups, no bitterness, envy or hatred. This is presumably why Symonds says he was surprisingly unintrospective. His nobility, his supermanhood, is preserved by the externalisation of all his problems. He presents himself as a practical and efficient man of action.
There is a paradox in the superman persona. He is the serpent in lion’s clothing. The serpent was the subtlest beast of the field. The lion, as king of beasts, represents conventional moral strength. It does not admit to weakness or resentment as elements in its character. The later Goethe projected a leonine image. However the lion is too stupid to become the superman. The superman has grown outside conventional values, and this is how he has mastered them. He has grown outside them because he has rejected them, and he has done this because he has suffered from them. In the process of overcoming this oppression, he has broken the code most thoroughly and comprehensively. Nothing has stood in his way, neither justice, loyalty, nor common decency. If he now dons the mantle of superior virtue, this is because he is able to rationalise the path he has taken in terms of duty to God, or some other externalisation.
In contrast to Symonds, Susan Roberts’s biography of Crowley, ‘The Magician of the Golden Dawn’, is a presentation of the superman persona. In a way, to take that persona at face value diminishes it, reduces to the leonine, cuts him down to size. But it does give a useful perspective. Dali’s egomania took a different form. Roberts’s biography paradoxically brings Crowley down to earth, it makes him seem less incommensurable with other people. Much of this apparent superiority is due to this presenting as manifestations of mere Saninian strength what was far more likely to be the manifestation of a violent reaction against weakness. The manifestation, be it strength or weakness, has itself the power and mystery of art. There is no art apart from profound discontent with conventional values. The great artist is not some kind of Olympian superadult, giving people superior toys to play with, from his position of serene mature wisdom and insight. He is one trying hard to enjoy himself. It is not that he has surpassed conventional happiness, not that he is so abundant in it that he creates more of it. His strength is not superhuman. He is driven by his discontent, his dissatisfaction with conventional values, ordinary roads to fulfilment and happiness, to remould them, to remake them so they can serve his purposes properly.
The yellow press was of great help to Crowley in promoting a superman image. The building up of a devil figure can produce an object of admiration and identification for those who despise the values of those who create it. The devil is a hate object compounded of insecurities. Symonds’s expressed opposition to Crowley is apparently quite fundamental, it seems to be of someone belonging to an opposite camp, like an ideological enemy. The effect, however, is that Symonds with his moralising is like the straight man of a pair of comedians. Conventional newspaper morality sets off Crowley’s eccentricity very well. Crowley makes us laugh, and this can be built on. It is a form of illumination.
The reality of people like Crowley is that they react as they do by sheer reflex action. In the process of reacting they are creative. For those who are on his side, he is a solace and an encouragement, his superhuman legend more than his reality. All his actions take on a special heroic quality, as if they are messages, as if everything he does is part of a deliberately created work of art. Usually they just spring from the necessity of his position. Moves of desperation seem like acts of great evil and perversity.
Hero worship of Crowley involves the constant assumption of his superior wisdom, as if all of his interests had some profounder significance. Always there is his assumption of esoteric, initiated knowledge, guruhood. There is special value in having instruction from a guru. In the study of secret wisdom one needs to be led through the profoundest paradox, keeping trust unswerving. A guru may be living or dead. Crowley of course is dead. Are not the works of the sages, in Chuang Tsu’s phrase ‘the lees and the scum of bygone men’? But books these days can preserve more than that. We can even hear his voice, see his portrait.
Rather than that Crowley was dishonest in he way he presented himself, it is more likely that he expected his intelligent readers to be able to read between the lines. The devil image is really far more attractive than the lion. The lion image is less a source of wonder because it is more transparent. As for Crowley’s family life, that is hardly so bizarre as it once seemed, as many of us discover from our own experience. Much of his outrageousness is fairly ordinary if we take a broad perspective, and cease to think only of the respectable middle classes.
There are many possible attitudes towards moral rules. Where a moral code provides a standard by which the success or otherwise of a course of action is to be judged, change the standard and you read an entirely different story. The moral code, or the standard, is entirely a question of interpretation, it does not have to be consciously in the minds of any of the actors in the drama. Thus your actions may very easily have more significance than you understand at the time. At the time, for example, you may feel very insecure about your code of values. You may feel shame and guilt, which is dissipated in retrospect, as you understand that you could not have done otherwise than as you did.
The roots of the creative personality lie in the great mass of disorderly material from childhood onwards. His task is the imposition of order upon disorderly material. Much of this is to be found in the writings of Aleister Crowley. His genius lives on, resisting judgement, through the power of will. Judgement (Geburah on the Tree of Life), until you have won its favour, is a kind of death. A claim to greatness is not an appeal to judgement.
In presenting oneself as capable now, one must acknowledge that once one was incapable. That is one’s true history, and resulted in a certain amount of abnormality. Only in the light of this admission can the reality become intelligible or admirable. In applying the law of Do What Thou Wilt, it must be understood what phantoms one fought and is still fighting, in what exactly one’s strength should consist. In a general sense, it consists in not submitting to alien judgements and never having done so. Crowley emphasises some of the vices in his own character, to the point where they make us laugh, and seem an expression of freedom.
His alleged crimes and weaknesses include letting Mudd and Leah starve. But I am not my brother’s keeper. Why should he have accepted the responsibility of supporting them as if they were his family? They were not his children. He had to consider his own survival first, and that was at times difficult. He is accused of self indulgence. He was not able to support, materially, all the various weaklings who crossed his path. Did he ever imply, misleadingly, that he could? Unlike Bhagwan, or the Scientologists, his organisation offered no security to its members. Unfortunately, the law of Do What Thou Wilt did not work well for some people. Too many came to bad ends, seeming damnation. Crowley appeared to be preaching a philosophy of dangerous bohemianism. Why did his personality appear to drive women mad? He never went to prison, though he came close to it once. He has been reproached for his behaviour on the mountain, for an incompletely cut ice step, and for not going out to search for the missing people. Was that funk? He may have been guilty of trying to justify himself after the event, of self justification in the face of crimes and weakness.
Crowley the Beast made a morality out of immorality. It is shocking that madness and suicide should so follow in his wake. It shows how far he was from being the King Lamus figure he sometimes projected. But this shockingness also seems to express some teaching, perhaps a mystical message worth meditating upon. Crowley lived out his Beast role. As to the Beast, one is not called to an Imitatio Crowleyi. Not having that historical role to play, one does not have to be utterly callous and selfish to all one’s friends and lovers. One can be inspired by it, without feeling any need to imitate it.
Youthful fascination for Crowley is an essentially statistical phenomenon. A proportion of young people who read “The Great Beast” would feel a close identification with him. Because they feel as they do they also feel a sense of superiority, of being in possession of some superior insight. Not that, at their age, their insight could be any greater than the man chosen by Crowley himself to be his biographer. The Crowley discovered at age 14, can continue to have profound value and significance throughout life. His appeal is far more than something merely adolescent. Crowley was a deliverer from weltschmerz, he represented affirmation in a strong form. In the war against Ialdabaoth, as in all wars, sometimes extreme measures are necessary. Oppression by the zeitgeist continues, whether we feel it as Christianity, grundyism, capitalism, socialism, materialism, democracy, or whatever. It is all too easy to pick on one of these, identifying most strongly with its enemies, fervently denouncing it as the heart and essence of an evil that really runs much deeper.
*Sanine:- eponyomous hero of a novel by Arstibashyev, a Russian portrayal of a Nietzschean superman from a largely sexual angle.
* Recently published book*
�(Placing the Beast in his cultural background)
(If you� don’t want to buy it please order from your local library)