Nearly six decades since his passing, the famed occultist Aleister Crowley continues to fascinate. Prompted by the publication of two recent biographies, Aleister Crowley: Magick, Rock and Roll, and the Wickedest Man in the World, by Gary Lachman (Tarcher/Penguin) and Aleister Crowley: The Beast in Berlin: Art, Sex, and Magick in the Weimar Republic by Tobias Churton (Inner Traditions), Reality Sandwich invited the two authors to discuss Crowley’s relevance today. The exchange took place by email.
This Monday, Gary Lachman will join some of today’s leading occult scholars – Mitch Horowitz, David Metcalfe, and Pam Grossman – for the live, online video dialog, “Is the Contemporary Occult Different than Occult Era’s Past?” Part of the Visionary Dialogs series, it happens on November 17 at 8:00 p.m. EST.
Tobias Churton: What can we learn from Crowley? We can learn the price of attainment of mystical and magical mastery in the real world. Expect to be vilified by every mediocre critic in the world. Expect that everything you say and do will be twisted by your spiritual enemies.
We can learn that Crowley has nothing to teach anyone who either desires an enviable reputation in the sight of the world, or who is dedicated to the careers conveyer belt that promises so much and really does deliver everything you’d expect and nothing else.
If however, you are crazy enough to wish to pursue an independent course through life, to develop your mind and talents to their highest levels, and to dedicate them to the highest cause you can conceive of, then Aleister has much to teach. First, his life as he lived it is an example of antinomianism in the cause of the liberation of Man; second his technical and theoretical works on magick, mysticism, and precise human observation of character and history, should, in time, with diligence and much common sense, set the sincere seeker on the path of adventure in matters spiritual.
Of course, Crowley’s life also teaches us of the many pitfalls involved in too enthusiastic an early immersion into the magical quest. He made many mistakes, and was, thankfully, ready to admit his follies, which were numerous. We cannot learn without mistakes, and those who think themselves immune to mistakes are not learning anything. Aleister is an appropriate teacher for the appropriate pupil. The first characteristic of which is perhaps the ability to see the wood for the trees where the controversial life and personality of Aleister Crowley is concerned.
Gary Lachman: What can we learn from Crowley today? I’d say there are two things: one is peculiar to Crowley himself, and the other is part of a wider concern.
To take Crowley himself, what we can learn from him is how not to discover your “true will,” whatever that vague phrase means. Crowley had an insight into his own “true will,” but ignored it, and fell back into the “transgressive” persona that, by his early twenties, had become a habit. As I point out in my book, in his Confessions Crowley reflects that his best moments, when he felt truly himself, happened while he was alone in the mountains: not performing “magick,” not taking drugs, not engaged in excessive sex or in drawing constant attention to himself. There, in solitude and amidst nature, all his need to “satanize,” as he calls it, disappeared. His craving for sexual abnormalities faded: “there was no need,” he writes, “to create phantasms of a perverse or unrealizable satisfaction.”
He even lost his urge to write poetry, which suggests to me that, rather than being England’s greatest poet – or one of them at least; he does acknowledge Shakespeare – Crowley wasn’t a poet at all, and only pursued poetry because of the “self-image” he had developed, of the decadent, “transgressive” rebel (his poetic hero was Swinburne, after all), battling against an ignorant, repressive society, which was really a leftover from his childhood rebellion against his priggish parents. Crowley knew that the poète maudit persona he had developed was only that, a self-image, but he was too comfortable with it to change. He was also too dependent on other people and on his need to have an effect on them, a psychological hunger stemming, perhaps, from some early injury to his self-esteem.
His rebel self-image was understandable and useful in his early years – as it is for most of us – but by the time he established himself, he needed to slough it off in order to grow. He didn’t. Crowley is remarkable for absorbing an enormous amount of experience, yet remaining exactly the same after it. From beginning to end, he is exactly the same person: I know of no other similar case of arrested development, and this is why I suspect there was something autistic in his personality. (His bête noire Yeats is the complete opposite, having transformed himself from a sad-eyed Celtic Romantic to the austere stoic of his later poetry.)
Crowley’s weakness was his ego, and he allowed it every whim, indulgence or petty insistence it desired. His adolescent rebellion can be laid at his parents’ door, and his inability to curb his own desires is a result of his being a spoilt rich kid. Sadly, the combination was toxic, and created in Crowley a lifelong obsession with defying “authority” and a belief that whatever he wanted he should have, regardless of the consequences to anyone else. This is also why Crowley is at best a mediocre poet and only occasionally a good one. He had no critical sense about his work, which is a shame, because he can write clear, vigorous prose, but it is too often obscured by his pet delights: making fun of his reader, giving some vague “authority” the finger, or, to my mind the most annoying, alliteration. Again, this is a shame because Crowley was undoubtedly brilliant and had more than a few flashes of genius.
On a broader canvas, Crowley teaches us that the philosophy of total liberation, of the “joy of disobedience,” simply doesn’t work and in the end results not in the kind of spiritual awakening he claims to have pursued, but in boredom and, in Crowley’s case, a wrecked life and the ruins of the other lives destroyed in his wake. What is needed is not to find our “true will,” as if we had mislaid it somewhere, but to develop self-discipline, self-control, and to teach our petty egos how to mature. (We don’t, I believe, “find” ourselves, we make them.) The surest road to ruin is to give yourself everything you want: it’s the spiritual equivalent of eating sweets all the time.
Again, the “rebel ethic” was useful and necessary at a certain point in our cultural development, but we have long since exhausted its usefulness and by now it is only a pose. Many of its exponents are still considered cultural heroes, people like De Sade, Rimbaud, the Beats, Henry Miller, Georges Bataille and any number of rock stars. In my early years I saw them as exemplars and role models too. But we need to outgrow the romantic idea of the “satanic rebel,” and the best Romantics did, people like Goethe and Nietzsche. Nietzsche even said that “many lost what was best in themselves when they lost their chains,” meaning that it isn’t enough to be free from something – your parents, teachers, the boss at work. We must be free for something in order for our freedom to be useful and productive, and not merely license and a waste. Crowley’s freedom is only “freedom from.”
He and the other “liberationists” know what they don’t want, but they are less clear on what they do want, and usually answer these troubling concerns with vague ideas about how wonderful everything will be when we no longer have anyone telling us what to do. It is essentially a child’s view of life and it is no surprise that Crowley saw his coming new aeon as that of “the crowned and conquering child.”
Tobias Churton: Mr Lachman writes as a stern moralist, burdened, it seems to me not only with a sense of disappointment regarding rock stars and “radical chic” culture heroes, but also an inability to sort out the wheat from the chaff, or distinguish the wood from the trees. There is also the sense of bifurcation of loyalties still unresolved. At one moment, Crowley is a “mediocre” poet, “spoilt rich kid”, the next “occasionally a good” poet, while remaining “undoubtedly brilliant” and (how generous!) the recipient of “more than a few flashes of genius.”
Crowley’s status as a poet has been asserted by established poet Nancy Cunard, and, to me personally, by the great and well established poet and founder of the Temenos Academy, Kathleen Raine CBE (in preference I might add, to WB Yeats, in whose work she specialised). But perhaps these are only “opinions”. However, Mr Lachman’s beef is not really centred on the merits of Crowley as a poet. The meat appears to be that Crowley was a naughty boy and remained so, failing to mature, as Mr Lachman would have liked. Mr Lachman wags his finger like a good nanny: “The surest road to ruin is to give yourself everything you want”. How very, very true. Gosh! Crowley should be denied his sweets for at least a week until he has learnt how to jump, hop and skip as “authority” commands and beg and plead like good boys should. Well, clearly Mr Lachman has learnt some life-lessons he wishes to impart to his other charges: us.
How many times must it be repeated, Crowley’s “word” (or Rabelais’s or St Augustine’s, if you prefer) was “Do what thou wilt”, not Do as thou wilt. Satis.
We are all entitled to hold opinions, but how may we measure their worth? “That’s your opinion” is the cry of every teenager who doesn’t like being contradicted. The first port of call must be the record, followed by the testimonies of those personally acquainted with the subject. I see few signs that Mr Lachman has acquainted himself fully with matters of record: an easy thing to deny, of course. This is understandable; the labour required is immense. However, a number, including myself, have undertaken the scholarly spadework so that opinions may be better informed. I wondered why I had bothered after reading Mr Lachman’s assessment, something that could have been written at any time between the publication of John Symonds’s 1951 biography of AC and, say the 1970s. But I may be misinformed here: I go on the evidence of the assessment.
It is hardly the error of Crowley that a number of his most well known “influences” have been figures from British and US pop culture. He might have been flattered, but I rather doubt it, though each case is different. Crowley was not an “automatic rebel”. He did not relish a permanent state of anti-authoritarianism; this is a gross misjudgment. I can offer copious evidence for his highly disciplined manner of working. He worked in a scientific spirit: postulates and beliefs must be tested. Other than his heroin addiction (we know the story of his Harley St doctor – Dr Batty-Shaw – prescribing smack for asthma), his work with entheogens was experimental, not hedonistic.
His frustration, as with all teachers, lay in the willful and anarchistic tendencies of his pupils; to these he was often kindly, considerate and indulgent. Some of his teaching methods look questionable in retrospect. However, those who followed the path he set out generally gained benefit (Jane Wolfe, Wilfrid Smith, Frank Bennett, Louis Wilkinson, Andre Pigne, Karl Germer, Israel Regardie, Robert Cecil, Jacintha Buddicom, for example); there are of course exceptions and sundry failures (do we blame Jesus for Judas?)
Most of his following has been misrepresented to an extreme degree in the very many poor attempts at biographical treatments; this is still a feature of journalistic references. I found that the trail of ruined lives, allegedly left in the wake of knowing the Beast, was not even so much as a trickle, when the individual stories were analysed. People left the Beast; he never tried to make anyone stay against their will. He has been maligned to an extraordinary degree.
Mr Lachman’s comments about “finding” (as if lost) the True Will show I’m afraid a great unwillingness to grasp the evidence that the discovery of the dynamic core of being (or whatever you wish to call “it”) was the deadly serious axle of his teaching vehicle. “The most complete collection of attainments and abilities is utterly wasted in the absence of will.” How true. The corresponding axiom of will, was love (agape) not carelessness.
We all know the words from the Paternoster: “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. Crowley recognized this injunction as one that could be expressed as a scientific code of ethics. But the authority must come from within, not without; though we take a teaching path on trust, to begin with. Much of Crowley’s teaching on the subject has since been culturally assimilated to the degree that it passes now as proverbial wisdom, even of the streets, viz: “do your thing”.
That Crowley’s “freedom” was “freedom from” not “freedom to” is contradicted by innumerable statements to the contrary. Go to your average careers teacher and find out how much “freedom to” is offered in the global jobs-market! Conformity has its drawbacks. Mr Lachman’s comments about the inappropriateness of the psychology of the child would apply to much modern psychology, of which AC was an exponent, respecting Freud, Jung and Adler, who have all worked in a faith that children begin with something that is unconscious, and therefore easily lost. AC taught some methods to find what was lost.
As for the appropriateness of the Child, I should say western authority is actually built on the principle established by the prophet Isaiah some eight centuries before the “common era”: “And a little child shall lead them”: a view followed by many 2nd century Gnostic teachers also. Mr Lachman disagrees with them. Isaiah envisioned a world safe for children to grow up in. Do we have such a world? And where we do, does it not have something to do with respect for individual centred child psychology? This is indeed the Aeon of the Child, figuratively speaking. That does not mean an embrace of infantilism and detestable pseudo-“innocence”.
As for Mr Lachman’s disappointment with counter-cultural singer-songwriters, one should never expect more from musicians than music. Crowley had little interest in music, unless it was of the rousing, humorous kind. Unlike John Lennon, he rather liked the spirit of “Onward Christian soldiers”. I fear Mr Lachman has not yet encountered the authentic Aleister Crowley, only his image. That is not surprising, given a century of invective aimed against him, first I believe by the Cambridge University Inter-Collegiate Christian Union: now there’s the place to go to establish correct opinion!
Gary Lachman: Tobias, many thanks for this. You raise a great many points and of course I can’t address them all. I’d like to try to keep my remarks focused on the original question of what we can learn from Crowley, so my response will more or less center on that.
You say I write as a moralist. Although I don’t see what’s wrong with being one – God knows we could use some in the spiritual and ethical vacuum in which we live – I don’t believe I do. I criticize Crowley on a purely practical level. I am not saying he is bad or evil, and in my book I make a point of showing that the tabloid exposés about him were often inaccurate and exaggerated, as was much other hysterical bad press.
But even without these dubious reports, I believe he was still more times than not a nasty piece of work. But that is not the real issue. The important point is that his philosophy is muddle-headed. I repeat what I wrote earlier: his ideas simply don’t work and I would even say they work against his ostensible aim. Ultimately they don’t work because of fundamental flaw in Crowley’s metaphysics. I will get to that, but let me clear a few other things out of the way first.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but you seem to suggest that my criticism of Crowley is based on an out-dated view of him, and if I had based my analysis on more recent findings my outlook would be different, would, perhaps, be more like yours. Well, I have been reading and re-reading books by or about Crowley since 1975, when my interest in him first started, and if I had them all here they would form a sizable library and I would have to get a bigger flat. It would be tedious of me to list them.
More to the point, in 1977 I joined the O.T.O. and A.A. and devoted myself with zeal to doing what I wilt and to gaining the knowledge and conversation of my Holy Guardian Angel. By 1980 however I began to feel claustrophobic in Crowley’s presence. His enormous ubiquitous ego was inescapable. It was everywhere, and Crowley himself never escaped it – except, as I wrote in my earlier statement, while in the mountains.
And while I am well aware of the “real” meaning of “do what thou wilt” – that it doesn’t mean “do what you like” – sadly in practice it is very difficult to differentiate between the two, and most of the Crowleyans I knew “did what they liked,” and used the handy “do what thou wilt” rhetoric as a convenient rationale. Crowley did too I’m sorry to say and that was one of reasons why it became clear to me that his approach was a dead end. (Even today Nike has cottoned on and advises us to “Just Do It,” not vastly different I don’t think.) So in 1980 I put Crowley aside and turned to other things.
Since becoming a full time writer in the early ‘90s, I have written about Crowley in several different contexts and have taken part in quite a few Crowleyan events, such as hosting the 2009 Occulture Festival, speaking at a thelemic seminar on “Knowledge and Delight,” performing an improvised ambient soundtrack to Rex Ingram’s silent film The Magician, which has a villain (!) based on Crowley, interviewing and writing about the filmmaker Kenneth Anger, and lecturing on Crowley in film in London and Trondheim, Norway. I also saw that in recent times, several new biographies of him had appeared, among them your own, and that there seemed to be a sea-change in how Crowley was perceived.
His portrait even hangs in London’s National Portrait Gallery along with other famous Brits, which, you must admit, is remarkable; as I say in my book, it is almost as if they hung a portrait of Jack the Ripper, such was the attitude toward Crowley in his time. Crowley is much more acceptable now than ever before and he is even listed in books about English eccentrics, an unmistakable sign of acceptance. So the idea that he is some scary, threatening figure is absurd; even the Jonas Brothers are into him.
More seriously, I saw that even academia was looking at him differently (a friend of mine, Marco Pasi, from the University of Amsterdam, has written extensively on him); there were even “Crowley studies” and Oxford University Press published a collection of scholarly articles on him. Although I kept up my reading, my feeling about Crowley remained the same, but I did wonder if I was missing something. So I checked out all the newer material, spoke with devotees, researched at the Warburg Institute and re-read all the classics – Regardie, Symonds, King, Grant, Cammell, and, of course, Crowley himself. So, if I do say so myself, I feel confident that the material on which I base my analysis is up to speed.
This is what’s difficult for some Crowley supporters. They can dismiss an outsider’s criticisms as being ignorant, misinformed, and prejudiced. But I’m not an outsider. I am criticizing Crowley from within the milieus, both the magical and the rock n’ roll world (suffice it to say, I was a professional rocker for a good ten years). I criticize Crowley not because I am ignorant about him, but precisely because I know him very well. And that is precisely the kind of criticism he warrants. So I am not some prudish Mrs. Grundy, wagging my finger and tut-tutting at the nasty old Beastie. I’m giving Crowley the best endorsement any worthwhile critic can: I’m taking him seriously.
You also say in support of Crowley that we can learn from him how not to conform, how to go beyond conventional ideas about life, and how to do our own thing, which, incidentally, I think derives from the Upanishads, not Crowley (“Do your own work however humble, rather than another’s however exalted,” or something like that.) This is true, we can, although to be sure, there was an awful lot of conformity among the hippies doing their own thing: you had to wear the same clothes, have the same long hair, listen to the same music, and take the same drugs to belong to the clan. But never mind that.
Crowley I believe had an instinctual sense that human beings sell themselves short and that we could all be so much more. He’s right, we do and we can. How he went about actualizing that more is, I think, questionable. Sadly we can only say so much in this exchange, but I wouldn’t like readers to think I am absolutely “down on” Crowley. As I say, I believe he had a strong sense that we limit our own potential. His mistake, I think, was in making some outside “authority” the culprit here.
This is the standard romantic view, that someone is preventing us from being fully ourselves, and if only they’d go away we would be transformed. It’s a lovely idea but unfortunately the only way to transform your self is through hard work and self-discipline, but let’s leave that for now. (Crowley I know worked hard at yoga and mountaineering, but I don’t think he ever developed self-discipline.)
My favourite bit of Crowley is his early “Scientific Illuminism” phase, when he was much more focused on consciousness – my own central interest – and less so on magick. Much of him from this time can be read with great profit; he writes clearly, vigorously, and more times than not to the point. But all the rebel stuff can be learned from other writers and thinkers, without all the collateral damage that accompanies Crowley. Anything on that point that we can learn from Crowley I believe we can learn from, say, Blake – who, as you know, said “do what thou wilt” a century or so earlier. But Blake, as all good self-transformers do, knew his limits: “You never know what is enough until you know what is more than enough,” and more apt “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”
For Crowley there was no “enough” and I don’t think his road of excess – his “cult of excess in all directions,” as his friend Louis Wilkinson phrased it – took him to that palace. Indeed, association with Crowley did prove profitable for some people, but these were mostly inhibited, self-conscious, “up tight” individuals who needed to “let it all hang out.” It was salutary for them to do so and supersized Crowley attracted many of them: Regardie, Neuberg, Gerald Yorke, Raoul Loveday, Cecil Maitland, Frank Bennett. But for anyone who had already matured past this point, his “go for it” philosophy was nothing new. And the serenity and contentment that Jane Wolfe discovered following Crowley’s demand that she spend several weeks sequestered in a lean-to was one of his clear unalloyed successes – but then Crowley himself forgot this when he needed it most, in the dark days after Mussolini booted him out of the Abbey of Thelema and he was cooling his heels and trying to quit smack in Tunis.
My third point is really the central one: the fundamental flaw in Crowley’s vision. During Crowley’s magical retreat on Lake Pasquaney, when he crucified an unfortunate amphibian out of an oppressive sense of purposelessness, he also took ether, anhalonium (peyote), and other drugs – or entheogens – and had what he called the “Star Sponge Vision.” I give a fuller account of this in my book, but the essence of his vision, the insight he took from it, was the standard mystical revelation that “all is one.” It was a vision of the unity of all things. Crowley came back to this vision often for the rest of his life; he says it was “of cardinal importance in my interior life.”
Crowley had a logical mind and as he mused on the notion that all really is one, he came to some conclusions. If it is so that all is one, then, he thought, the “idea flea is just as full and interesting as the idea Ulysses.” This led to the reflection that one should not discriminate or make distinctions between anything and anything else, something Aiwass had told him long before: “Let there be no difference made among you between any one thing & any other thing; for thereby cometh hurt,” as The Book of the Law tells us. In the Confessions he writes that to “emphasize positive or negative by labelling things ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is of course to depart further from the Tao,” as in the Tao every statement is evened out by its contrary so that in the end “nothing then matters.” “Nothing can be otherwise than it is…nothing has happened, nothing can happen. Nothing is All…” So ultimately there is no reason to do one thing rather than another: left is right, up is down, back is front, and good is evil.
Crowley encountered logical knots, though, when he wanted to square this enlightened nihilism with his desire to be an “ameliorist” – that is, someone who works to make things better, as he clearly wanted to by showing people how to find their true will. But if doing one thing is just the same as doing its opposite – if, as his vision showed him, all is one in the Tao – then how could he possibly make things better, or worse for that matter? Nothing could ever be better or worse for such concepts dissolve within the vision of the Star Sponge. Ultimately Crowley ignored this logical difficulty and concluded that “all solutions turn out to be no solution,” and carried on as usual. If nothing matters and if turning left is just the same as turning right – ultimately – I may as well do what I want. So he did. If Ulysses is the same as a flea, then crucifying a frog is the same as making toast. Ultimately.
Other equally insightful entheogenic explorers also recognized that “all is one,” but rather than embrace the liberating nihilism that comes with this, they recognized its dangers. During his nitrous oxide experiment (recorded in “On Some Hegelisms”) William James saw that “unbroken continuity is the essence of being” and that we exist “literally in the midst of an infinite,” much as Crowley saw in his Star Sponge experience. But James also recognized that such a vision of unity is ultimately pessimistic. It revealed “depth within depth of impotence and indifference” with “reason and silliness united, not in a higher synthesis, but in the fact that whatever way you choose it is all one.” James concluded that “indifferentism is the true outcome of every view of the world which makes infinity and continuity to be its essence.” Unlike Crowley, James – pragmatism incarnate – did not take this vision of cosmic futility as carte blanche to do as he wilt. As I write “he withdrew from it for precisely the same reason that it attracted Crowley: it made him ineffective in the world – it disabled his ability to make decisions, in other words to act.”
Another entheogenic explorer came to the same conclusion. Aldous Huxley said that if everyone took mescaline (peyote again) there would be no wars, but there would be no civilization either, because no one would bother to create it. While under the drug he looked at a sink full of dirty dishes and felt they were too beautiful to bother about. Huxley recognized that under mescaline – and other entheogens – “the will suffers a profound change for the worse” and that “the mescaline taker sees no reason for doing anything in particular.” (These remarks are from The Doors of Perception.) Huxley and James saw the same thing: that drugs or entheogens inhibit the will, they do not release it.
That is precisely how they work. You can’t find your true will this way because this way you have no will to find – which is not to say it is not a pleasant experience. This is not an argument against drugs, merely a recognition that the “everything is everything” vision they can provide is an absolute non-starter for any effective philosophy of life. This is not to say the vision is not “true,” just that you can’t use it as a foundation for the difficult business of living.
Unfortunately Crowley tried to do precisely this. But it was lucky for him that most of the people around him didn’t, otherwise he wouldn’t have been able to. All you need do is apply Kant’s categorical imperative to Crowley’s non-ethic to see that if everyone acted as he did, there would soon be chaos. We owe Crowley a round of applause, I think, for making this unmistakably clear.
Tobias Churton: Gary, many thanks for your considered reply. Really, I have very little to take issue with in what you have communicated about your reservations regarding Crowley’s philosophy and its application. You have written from your experience and that is to be respected.
My own experience has obviously informed my approach to Crowley’s life and work. When people have asked me at sundry times “when did you start to see the spiritual dimension of life?”, I’m always slightly at a loss for words, because if I flog my memory, I cannot honestly recall a time when I did not see life from the spiritual perspective. I can remember the times when I lost conscious contact with that theatre of vision, and its tenor has changed as I have changed, but I think I’ve always seen life as being spiritual in essence.
My first memory of a conscious vision of “eternal life” was when I was five years old, so when I was growing up, the religious material that came my way through schools or films or picture Bibles seemed perfectly congenial, in the main: the rainbow promise at the end of the story of the Ark; the starkness of the crucified Christ; the temptation of the “prince of this world”; the love for all things that live and shed beauty through the veil of the world. It was only when I encountered the sectarian mentalities of various churches vying for custom, and the all too frequently unspiritual character of the much better organized religions that I began to wonder where spiritual fellowship might be found, other than in nature and in art, for I was a born romantic.
Aged 17, I was awarded an exhibition granted to prospective ordinands in the Church of England and went up to Oxford with great hopes. It was at the Oxford Mountaineering Club dinner that I first encountered the name of Crowley, whereafter my good friend George (a philosopher) lent me a copy of Crowley’s “Confessions” from the Wolverhampton Public Library. I found Crowley’s style, observations and philosophical and spiritual substance amusing, trenchant and congenial. He obviously enjoyed spiritual experience and had the intellect to apply it to problems in general. This was most unusual, since orthodox theology was drenched in fourth and fifth century encratism. It was obvious that Crowley was a latterday Gnostic in the Blakean tradition, but with the added bonus of adventure, realism, and humour. The “Do what thou wilt” thing obviously meant to discover the divine essence of life and live accordingly; it seemed to me, as to many others before and since, common sense.
Anyhow, in due course I read John Symonds’s biography, The Great Beast. That’s when I got the vision of the “demon Crowley”. What had seemed like solid intellectual company suddenly appeared threatening and dangerous. A dichotomy had entered my appraisal of AC. I entered an attitude to Crowley very much like your own, based on what I knew and, being young and inexperienced, was only too open to projection of repressed fears. I was given a number of warnings from acquaintances that Crowley would mess one up in all kinds of ways, as if being young was not itself sufficient to obscure the best path!
I don’t like being double-minded. I like to get to the bottom – or rather the top – of things, so necessarily the entire contra mundum aspect of the Gnostic point of view threatened my ambitions to do something great with my life – for I felt divided by them, and a divided house cannot stand. Orthodoxy and conformity hovered over the questions of life with the reassurance of 2000 years’ experience. Why not trust the “faith”?
More experience of orthodox Catholicism, Anglicanism and Protestantism, as actually administered, reminded me of childhood’s suspicions that not all in “God’s house” was rosy; there was yet a road less travelled. “Love, and do what thou wilt” is Saint Augustine’s resigned capitulation of practical ethics. St Paul declared the one who loved God and his neighbour was a “law unto himself”.
Crowley made his attempt to tread that road in his own sweet way; what you gain from that depends on where you are as an individual at any given time.
However, my motive for studying the facts about Crowley’s life and work was the realization that this man had been so grossly vilified in his lifetime and ever since, that simple fairness and justice demanded that his voice, as I had found it, be heard; for I found much in his voice that was good in the straightforward wholesome, Platonic sense of that lovely word “good”: like good bread, good wine, or a good friend and atmosphere.
It seemed to me that he needed a friend, even in death. “Veil not your vices in virtuous words” says Liber Legis, and Crowley did not; He knew it was Jesus’s teaching also: better be an honest sinner than a hypocrite, though Jesus would insist on repentance while proud Crowley could seldom confront his faults (who does?). He knew his limitations as a human personality; we all know he could be a bit of a yob, horribly selfish, a poseur, outrageously arrogant and often blind to his own subterfuges. His deep engagement with remote Hindu, Buddhist and traditional Chinese philosophies often alienates us from his eclectic point of view. Israel Regardie has drawn some fine sketches of Crowley’s psychological problems. But there was an aggregate of great writing, insight, challenge and observation that makes Crowley a man whose work we ought to attend to, with palpable benefits, from time to time: not be obsessed with.
I liked your statements about the problems of the “All is One” consciousness, and you express properly certain moral questions that stem from too quick an apprehension of that great truth. There is a fulcrum point in every philosophy when we reach an “either/or” crisis. Crowley’s general recommendation was “transcend the opposites”: rise to a fresh synthesis. You could argue that AC did not “practice what he preached” and often I think he would agree with you. As Gerald Yorke observed, Crowley did not enjoy his transgressions and excesses; he aimed to get on top of his fears, master them, so as, as Kipling advocated: to “treat these two imposters [“Triumph and Disaster”] the same”. This was the antinomian path laid out by Carpocrates in the 2nd century and described by Irenaeus in a hostile manner in Adversus Haereses (circa 180 CE).
We live in the terrifying face of the utter, crushing immensity of the ocular, perceptible cosmos. It is a Goliath beyond reasonable comprehension, and we are armed with a sling and a stone. Crowley’s “Vision of Jupiter” experience (while in America) was, even more than the “Star Sponge Vision”, so overwhelming that he could not bring himself to express what it had revealed to his stunned mind. It left him feeling bereft. The benefits of science have furnished us with considerably more frightening material to dwell on than the hopes and fears of the apocalyptist. The Book of Revelation definitely has more to offer a remnant of the human species than an asteroid the size of Manchester, or what seems to me the bizarre, misplaced optimism propounded through TV’s daily pulpit by Prof. Brian Cox and his positivist ilk.
Man, if he sees himself as truly alone in the universe, is truly alone, and subject to immediate extinction with utter indifference, at any given second. In this context, we are in the position of the man who knows he must die in a week; why not borrow a million, knowing that he cannot afford to – nor need – repay it? To do one thing is as irrelevant in the cosmic perspective as to do another. It is only when one has fully realized the absurdity of the human moral dilemma that the spiritual nature of ethics can emerge. Do what thou wilt is not a creed for pleasing the “man of the world” but a creed for the high adept, and what a high adept may do, and why he or she is doing it, may be incomprehensible to those who are not themselves aware that they are gods, imbued with a “spark of the divine fire”. You are what you eat – or are prepared to swallow.
Before we run away with the idea that the vision of Heraclitus or Anaximander or the pre-Socratics that “Hen To Pan” (The One is All) is a license for licence, we must bear in mind that it was the motto of Elias Ashmole (1617-1692) – in the form Ex Uno Omnia (From the One, All), and while it enabled him to gain access to the path of the Adept, Ashmole did not waste his time making a habit of exhibitionist excess or evil activities, though there is always someone who thinks what you’re doing is wicked, especially if it is wise.
In the face of the cosmos, there is no difference between the flea and Ulysses. The source of our truest values is our truest conception of ourselves. What value we give to either depends on our relationship to these phenomena on the path. If I ran a flea circus, I should find the flea infinitely more valuable and useful than Ulysses who would be insulted if asked him to pull a flea’s cart as one of his twelve labours.
We should beware of taking our sense of what is important as being absolute. There is something of this wisdom in the Old Testament where Isaiah, speaking for Jahveh, condemns His followers with bons mots such as “Your righteousness is as filthy rags” (paraphrase Isaiah 64:6) while St Paul echoes the psalmist’s “None is righteous; no, not one” (Romans 3:10). On occasion, Crowley was acquainted with the God’s-eye perspective, and he knew that it was generally “too much” for ordinary humanity, his ordinary social self (“AC”) included. “Judge not, lest ye be judged”.
I think your comments on the attack on the “will to will” stimulated by certain iatrochemical agents is absolutely sound and I dare say AC would respect your findings, as well as those of Huxley you mention. Crowley did not make a habit of “bingeing” on mescaline. His experiments were far more careful in matters of dosage than the average “space tripper” tasting forbidden fruit in modern universities and high schools.
I think Crowley at various times through his life had to fight that great debilitation that so many suffer from today, whether they take drugs or not: the feeling that life is not worthwhile; that one has no purpose being alive compelling enough to warrant extraordinary effort. There are so many who echo Keats’s aching sense of “youth, half in love with easeful death”. You know that Crowley’s step on the path of adeptship began with a heavy dosage of the “Trance of Sorrow”, that Buddhist lament for the pointlessness of life; the vanity of human effort. Why do one thing and not another? Why not just get stoned and stay in a bubble of narcissistic inconsequence for as long as possible. “Drop out” as the late Dr Timothy Leary so foolishly advocated for those who had “surrendered to the void” (cf: John Lennon: another near victim of the Trance that stops you dancing). But Crowley battled with Buddha, concluding: “The universal sorrow was cured when he went out for a drink with the Universal Joke.” You see, you have to see both sides. The futility of life in the face of the universe makes our worries laughable, and the laughter releases one from the sorrow. The axiom is clear: DO what thou wilt. The sandal strap, the ankh of life: to go, to advance, to climb. Don’t ask why – and expect the “answer”. Just do it! That’s how we get our relative answers. Don’t punish yourself or others; cock a snook at the universe; She can take it! So can you. For She is in you as you are in Her. And you have an advantage: you know it.
I think if you wish to find the greatest practical fault in AC; it was that he could not make money: no great sin, as I understand it. But boy, did he know how to spend it!
“Never dull where Crowley is”.
This Monday, Gary Lachman will join some of today’s leading occult scholars – Mitch Horowitz, David Metcalfe, and Pam Grossman – for the live, online video dialog, “Is the Contemporary Occult Different than Occult Era’s Past?” Part of the Visionary Dialogs series, it happens on November 17 at 8:00 p.m. EST.