Who the Hell was Aleister Crowley?

The BBC recently devoted a lot of time and energy into a straw poll of the public as to who was the 'Greatest Briton' of all time. On the whole, one might argue, a pretty pointless exercise. However in a year that has seen the British public voting on just about anything that moved, but little that matters, it was not the worst of all sins. Ultimately the winner was Winston Churchill, narrowly beating Isambard Kingdom Brunel, despite the best efforts of Jeremy Clarkson to persuade us otherwise. But lurking in there at number 73, ahead of Geoffrey Chaucer, Richard III, Sir Walter Raleigh and even Robbie Williams, and barely given a minute of valuable television time by Anne Robinson, was 'The Wickedest Man in the World', 'The man we'd most like to hang'; 'The Great Beast' himself, Aleister Crowley.

He was born Edward Alexander Crowley into a fundamentalist Christian family in 1875. After a 'boyhood in hell' he attended Cambridge to study Chemistry, and write the poetry inherited wealth allowed him to publish privately. Eventually he joined 'The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn', (A Rosicrucian/Masonic society that taught ritual magic, and whose members included W.B.Yeats, A.E. Waite and Arthur Machen). He travelled widely and produced a magickal periodical, 'The Equinox', and ultimately his own 'bible', 'The Book of the Law' (whose tenet 'Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law' and its response 'Love is the law, love under will' have been much misinterpreted as 'do what you want'). He founded his own Magickal Society and headed others including the OTO: the Ordo Templi Orientis. Throughout his life he was vilified as a rogue, a pornographer, drug addict, misogynist, con man, and Satanist. At times he was anti-semitic, at others anti-anything! He arguably wrote pro-German anti-British, propaganda in America during the First World War; yet was approached by Naval Intelligence (a certain Ian Fleming) to help infiltrate Nazi occult circles during the Second. His political expediency was borne not from beliefs held particularly deeply, but rather from a slightly infantile way of getting back at the Britain which refused to appreciate him.

In truth, he was pretty much all those things. But he was also a brilliant mind; at times incredibly generous, and a superb host. His poetry, could be inspired, his prose witty, often hilarious, and conversely pertinent and cynical. He was an astute social commentator, novelist, cook, mountaineer and, in the best tradition of Sir Richard Burton (one of Crowley's heroes), a great traveller. He was also probably the most influential of all modern occultists, as an expert on almost any aspect of the occult and including being almost solely responsible for introducing Yoga to the west. He developed his own system of Magick, called Thelema, 'The Will' and devoted with complete conviction, his life to its promulgation. .

There lies the problem. Someone who devotes his or her life to yachting, or needlework, or chicken farming, or mountaineering is seen as in someway constructive. The results of their labours are tangible and can be quantified and measured. They are, however single-mindedly, working to the 'common good', and are perceived as acceptable. Magick is to the average person a bit weird. It's unquantifiable, non-tangible and, in the end, what good is it? There will always be a suspicion of anyone involved in occult sciences. A man with as many talents and abilities as Crowley, choosing to make Magick his life's work when he could have done anything, is seen as somehow perverse. One thing Crowley was not, was evil, an ambiguous excuse for a word. At a time when real dark forces were manifesting themselves in Europe, dark forces that would plunge the world into a hideous war, the popular press of Lord Beaverbrook and Horatio Bottomley decided to pay more attention to a flamboyant attention seeker who led a lifestyle they could not remotely comprehend. What has changed?

Well, very little! When state organised evil needs a nebbech to divert attention away from the truth, what better way of doing it than providing the press with a suitable candidate? These days we have reality TV shows and soaps to help channel our attention from that which matters. In the twenties and thirties they had Crowley. The thing is time has not dimmed the preconception most people have of the man. They respond to the populist version because it is easy and non-challenging. But something that manages to escape most commentators on Crowley, is the innate irony and wit inherent in much of his writings. To understand Crowley you have to look at the whole man instead of the one resurrected each time 'Black Magic' enters the public consciousness. But Crowley doesn't help us! He did little to alter the public perception of his evil persona. Take for example this comment; "The forces of good were those which had constantly oppressed me. I saw them daily destroying the happiness of my fellow-men. Since, therefore, it was my business to explore the spiritual world; my first step must be to get into personal communication with the devil." Or in a less subtle way, "I may be a Black Magician, but I'm a bloody great one!" As Colin Wilson says in the foreword of Sandy Robertson's 'The Aleister Crowley Scrapbook', Crowley was "…in the grip of a ravenous, unsatisfied appetite for recognition." Bizarrely, he needed some kind of affirmation, and would do anything to achieve that. For a while he revelled in the attention being the world's wickedest man brought, but that ultimately meant that he would never be taken seriously. This, for a writer who commented on all aspects of society and was busy preaching a new 'word' to enlighten the world, was anathema. For Crowley this was the Amfortas wound, the wound that would not heal. Crowley was a man with an almost infinite number of faces, and to respective people he would reveal a different persona. This inevitably made him hard to interpret, as ultimately a result of this would be that no two people would have the same experience of the man.

To Louis Marlow Wilkinson, probably Crowley's closest and most enduring friend, he was a close and valued companion; a teller of wonderful stories, a player of practical jokes and a wit extraordinaire. To Arthur Calder Marshall, the writer and broadcaster, he was a sinister fraud and a failure that would ultimately let you down. To Charles Cammell he was an erudite, learned and articulate scholar, who wrote somewhat cloyingly of him; '…he was a poet, and a poet of a lyric genius so prodigious in range and volume, so splendid in its sweep of eloquence, imagery and witching music, as to command attention.' John Symonds, his biographer and joint literary executor was not convinced by Crowley's magick, Thelema, but saw him as an original and surprisingly incisive thinker. Israel Regardie, Crowley's secretary in the late twenties and a well respected and much published occultist himself, was the butt of some of Crowleys cruellest racial slurs, for which there is little excuse. But even he forgave these bizarre outbursts and saw past them to the intellect underneath, realising that the schoolboy in Crowley would resort to ridiculously immature behaviour when wanting to insult and humiliate. It is clear that all who knew the man developed strong opinions of him either one way or the other.

Somerset Maugham met Crowley when he was living in Paris in 1903, soaking up the artistic ambience of the city and associating with people such as Auguste Rodin. Maugham later wrote that he "…took an immediate dislike to him." However it is clear that they spent time together at a café favoured by the artistic ex-pats living in Paris at the time; Le Chat Blanc'. "He was a great talker and he talked uncommonly well… He was a fake, but not entirely a fake… he was a liar and unbecomingly boastful, but the odd thing was that he had actually done some of the things he boasted of."

In 1907 Maugham wrote 'The Magician', a novel set around a fictional café based on 'Le Chat Blanc'. He modelled the central villain on Crowley, and called him Oliver Haddo, admitting that he made Haddo far more sinister than Crowley was in reality. Crowley was publicly indignant that his life had been plundered for fictional purposes, but privately he was not wholly upset and used the name Oliver Haddo as one of his pseudonyms, also recommending the book as suitable for initiates of his Magickal Order.

Calder-Marshall's perspective on Crowley was an interesting one. He had been an undergraduate at Oxford in the 1920s, and prior to that a friend of Victor Neuburg; who had in turn once been a follower and lover of Crowley's. Neuburg and Crowley had parted acrimoniously (nothing unusual in that!), but they had previously together explored some of the darkest aspects of Magick in the Sahara in 1909. Here they had used the Enochian Magic of John Dee (Elizabeth the 1st court Astrologer) and Edward Kelley to summon up Choronzon, viewed by some as 'The Devil', but essentially the demon of dispersion and decay. It is said all Mages must summon and overcome Choronzon to ascend (sort of a magic version of 'come and have a go if you think you're hard enough'), but to many the events of the Sahara ritual (recounted in 'The Vision and the Voice') with Neuburg were where Crowley started to lose the plot.

Calder-Marshall had been fascinated by magic and through Neuburg had flirted with ritual, experimenting when up at Oxford. From his biography 'The Magic of my Youth' it is clear Crowley had intrigued him and would constantly question Neuburg about him. He wanted to meet him. Calder Marshall says the reason was: "…In a world where blacks and whites were breaking up so fast into shades of grey, The Beast was the last of the graven images, an obsidian monolith of evil, a simple and reassuring devil". In 1930, when Calder-Marshall was secretary of the Poetry Society at Oxford he approached Crowley to lecture. He agreed and chose the subject of Gilles de Rais (the child killer and black magician who fought the English alongside Joan of Arc and was burnt at the stake in 1440), a suitably inflammatory subject for Crowley. The proctors of the University, concerned over Crowley's reputation, took an almost inevitable recourse, and banned the lecture. Crowley was suitably outraged demanding a private printing to be sold on the streets of Oxford. Calder-Marshall arranged this and it sold just fifty copies. Not surprising really, as the lecture is far from Crowley's best and is actually rather innocuous. The proctors would have had little to concern them. The result being however, that the lecture received far more attention than if it had just been allowed to go ahead, and more than it actually deserved.

As a result of this Calder-Marshall was invited to stay with Crowley in the Country where he dutifully went with his then girlfriend. The meeting was not pleasant. Calder Marshall was under the distinct impression that Crowley wanted to seduce him, and the presence of his girlfriend was therefore most unwelcome. Calder-Marshall resisted the advances and the couple left. It is pretty clear from Calder-Marshall's account of the meeting that they were both as rude as each other during the visit, but what is also clear is that Calder-Marshall had expected a lot more from Crowley. He had taken on a mythical status in his imagination, and so ultimately he was disappointed in the very human person The Beast turned out to be.

In 1932 Nina Hamnett, the bohemian painter and fringe member of the Bloomsbury Set published her autobiography, 'Laughing Torso'. The book is an entertaining account of life in and around London and Paris during the 1920s. She met Crowley on a number of occasions, and it is apparent from her tales that she liked The Beast and enjoyed his company. She talks of his humour and comments on his abilities as an artist. Of course Crowley, anxious for recruits, asked her to join him in Cefalu at The Abbey of Thelema (Crowley's temple in Sicily that led to the negative reports in the British press). Although she joined his magickal order, the A.A. (Argentum Astrum), she turned him down saying in her biography '…I did not care for the type of person who clung round Crowley. They seemed so very inferior to him and so dull and boring that I could never understand how he could put up with them.'

This is an interesting observation. Crowley did indeed seem to attract people searching for something in their lives, often vulnerable people but also those searching for a mirror in which to see themselves, and where they could find affirmation. But of course Crowley was doing the same thing. His acolytes were his way of finding succour, and because his character was all the stronger it absorbed whoever came within its influence. For good or bad! But in the end what better way of shining than to attract 'dull and boring people'? People who were essentially sycophantic or needy in some way and would hang on every word and action. It is also ironic, considering that Crowley's abilities could easily stand alone. This of course has been the main criticism of Crowley; that he used people and cast them aside when he finished with them. Louis Wilkinson had a perspective on this: "To some people he was certainly dangerous, even fatal. But I doubt very much if he ever 'disintegrated' anyone's 'personality' unless that personality was well on the way towards disintegration".

However, there were some associates of Crowley who were inspired to imitation rather than absorption by Crowleyanity (so Christened by JFC Fuller, a one time friend and disciple of Crowley). L. Ron Hubbard, the creator of Scientology, was a member of 'The Agape Lodge' of the OTO in California during 1945. He claimed to be working on behalf of the FBI to undermine Occult organisations across America. But that is pretty unlikely. Such evidence that exists is merely the word of Hubbard, and it seems he was a rather particularly enthusiastic member of the OTO, attempting with the then head of the Agape Lodge, the rocket scientist, Jack Parsons, to create a 'Moonchild' (the physical incarnation of an elemental). A piece of behaviour that appalled Crowley, trapped by old age and penury in England! In fact he refers to 'the idiocy of these louts'.

It is clear Crowley's legacy can also be felt in the works of such figures as Gerald Gardner, the 'creator' of modern witchcraft and Anton Szander LaVey (Howard Stanton Levey), who founded 'The Church of Satan'. Gardner was an initiate of the OTO, and was chartered to create a chapter of the organisation, but never did so. He visited Crowley during The Beast's final year, and as a result of his association there has been much debate as to Crowley's direct influence on modern Witchcraft. Some believe that Crowley actually wrote much of Gardner's 'Book of Shadows', and there are indeed similarities to this and Thelema, particularly Crowley's 'Magick in Theory and Practice'. But, it is highly unlikely that Crowley embarked upon such a task as his health was failing fast, being just six months from death. Gardener was however advised that too close an association with Crowley would hamper the revival of Witchcraft. As a result he removed as much 'Crowleyanity' as possible.

The flamboyant fledgling Satanist LaVey visited the Berkeley Lodge of the OTO in 1951, four years after Crowley's death, and was disappointed in what he found there. A bunch of 'mystically minded card readers who emphasized the study of Eastern Philosophy, Oriental languages, stars and contemplation… to reach Nirvana'. Crowley is referred to as a 'druggy poseur', but there can be little doubt that LaVey was influenced by him and drew heavily on Enochian Magic when writing 'The Satanic Bible'.

One individual you might have expected to react with strong antipathy to Crowley would have been Montague Summers, the 'Catholic Priest' and author of The History of Witchcraft and Demonology. Summers believed in the literal reality of the Devil and of witches, but when he and Crowley met there is much evidence to indicate they spent many hours in each others company as friends. When asked about his interest in Crowley Summers responded by saying, "…everything concerning Crowley should be preserved, because he is one of the few original and really interesting men of our age."

It is worth noting that Crowley's two most enduring friends, Louis Wilkinson, and Gerald Yorke were either never converted to Thelema or not totally committed in the first place. Yorke met the Beast in 1929 and became the trustee of his financial affairs, and always referred to Crowley as 'The Old Sinner'. He took much from Crowley's teaching and was always grateful for what had been taught him, but was ultimately careful to 'sup with a long spoon' when dealing with Crowley. Experience taught him this, for at a particularly litigious point in The Beast's life he even attempted to sue Yorke over mismanagement of funds, much of which had been Yorke's in the first place. It never got as far as court. Yorke saw that a friendship with him could be rewarding, but there was a good deal of pain to go through to enjoy that friendship. He forgave Crowley and remained a reliable companion to the end of The Great Beast's life. Even Angela Yorke remembered Crowley affectionately, remarking on his charisma; and how she and her husband would have him round for lunch and he would entertain their young son.

It would seem that Crowley would sue even his closest friends if he needed money, but 'somehow' there was never any kind of malicious intent involved. He also attempted to sue Nina Hamnett over a very innocuous passage in her autobiography. He lost, and this ultimately led to his bankruptcy. The thing is, trhat when Crowley needed money, this was a way of getting it; ironic, considering his earlier wealth. Frances Donnelly, in her 1986 Radio 4 biography of Crowley, makes a valid point, despite being a ridiculously one-sided affair. Crowley, in one way or another, had a habit of falling out with nearly all his disciples, a habit particularly idiotic if you wish to build a sound basis for a religion or philosophy. To alienate all your followers leaves you rather bereft, and inevitably your 'word' is not proselytised.

As Crowley neared the end of his life in Netherwood, a large stately boarding house in Hastings, where he died in 1947, Louis Wilkinson spent time looking after him. It was here that a new kind of Aleister Crowley emerged. "I had always felt that there was something of pathos about him but in his last years this element seemed to me much stronger and he was in consequence lovable as I had not known him to be before. He knew then that he had not done what he wanted to do, that he had only done a part of it: he knew that, during his lifetime at least he would have infamy rather than fame."

Crowley was very human and very fallible. Essentially, he never grew up. As a young man, he had the talent, resources and will to be whatever he wanted, and could indulge every fantasy and whim to whatever length he chose. John Symonds says that he 'lacked imagination' mainly because he lived his fantasies. Crowley merely had the means to act out his dreams. In the end he was born before his time, and conversely was very much a part of it; a late Victorian who reacted with petulance to the constrictions and religious dogma of his childhood, but an independent freethinker who attempted to change contemporary mores. He was a typical 'man of the nineties', like Oscar Wilde; of 'fin de siecle' England' and a bohemian avant garde hedonist; an explorer of the senses and experience in all its forms. His persona echoes down through the years because he was portrayed as a caricature of 'evil', and therefore easy to comprehend, if that's what you see.

In the end I'll leave the last word on number 73 in the list of 'Greatest Britons' to Gerald Yorke: "He was suspicious of everyone, though at times he trusted everyone. He frequently misjudged motives, so that one could by no means trust his insight. Then he demanded everything of a disciple…but I remained friendly towards him: his smile of welcome whenever we met I always treasured. I was very fond of him. Finally, what fun he was!"

All my reference is from my book collection.

'Seven Friends', Louis Marlow Wilkinson. (Richards Press 1953)
'King of the Shadow Realm', John Symonds (Duckworth1989)
'The Great Beast', John Symonds. (Rider 1951)
'Laughing Torso', Nina Hamnett. (Long and Smith, New York 1932)
'The Aleister Crowley Scrapbook', Sandy Robertson. ( Foulsham and Co. Ltd. 1988)
'A Magick Life', Martin Booth. (Hodder and Stoughton 2000)
'The Magic of My Youth', Arthur Calder-Marshall. (Rupert Hart-Davis 1951)
'Aleister Crowley: The Man ,The Mage, The Poet', C R Cammell. ( Richards Press, 1951)
'Do What Thou Wilt', Lawrence Sutin. (St Martins Press 2000)
'The Equinox of the Gods', Aleister Crowley. (The OTO 1936)
'The Confessions of Aleister Crowley', (Jonathan Cape 1969)

If anyone wants to find out about Crowley from the Net, just type his name into Google, and spend the next 25 years reading all the responses. Most stuff about Crowley is written by Thelemites, so it's pretty one sided. The Crowley that interests me is the Man and the Poet, not so much the 'Mage', although in the end the two are inseparable. A lot of what Crowley 'preached' is very humanist and deserving of attention, but there is some in there that is quite ambiguous, such as his general attitude to women, his not extreme, but undeniable anti-semitism and a couple of other things.
Some interesting sites are:

But there are a million others...

Images supplied by Alys Cusack

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