Sybarite Among The Shadows

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by R C McNeff
from International Times, July, 1977

Reproduced by kind permission of the author. Copyright 1977 R C McNeff – all rights reserved.
Click here for a scan of the original publication

ALEISTER CROWLEY (1875-1947) self-styled prophet of the New Eon, The Great Beast 666, was amongst the first to experiment scientifically with psychedelic drugs. Crowley devoted his life to the exploration of and, for the first time in the West, the linking together of sex, magic, yoga and drugs, writing about his experiences before the last vestiges of the Victorian era had been swept away.

Crowley‘s essays on hashish (1909-11), cocaine and mescalin still rank among the most incisive ever written. His works on magic arc classics and his mark on the twentieth century as a prophet who strayed – “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law” – began to make itself felt in the mid-‘sixties and has yet to be fully unfolded.
Chess master, mountain climber, poet and explorer were but a few of the facets of the man whom the papers labelled “The Wickedest Man In The World”.

VICTOR NEUBURG (1883-1940), a small, wiry man resembling a faun or an elf, was a familiar figure in the poetry circles between the two wars. He discovered and nurtured many poets including Dylan Thomas, often at the expense of his own genius in that field. Few of the poets around him knew that he had been one of the main pupils of the notorious Aleister Crowley, who had once paraded him through North Africa naked, shaved, and at the end of a chain, altogether terrifying the local populace who thought that Crowley had subjugated a djinn. They broke in 1914 when Crowley roundly cursed Neuburg after having worked together on everything ranging from Enochian magic in the Sahara to homosexual magic in Paris.

ALDOUS HUXLEY (1894-1963), the distinguished novelist and socialist who in Spring 1953 dosed himself with mescalin and opened “The Doors Of Perception” and “Heaven And Hell” both for himself and the rest of the world. Reality had become for Huxley only one of the 99 names by which God is known and mescalin the key that opened it. Following Crowley‘s lead, Huxley wrote a book of essays entitled “Do What You Will”, which forecast a nihilist revolution, the fruit of boredom, which in part paralleled Crowley‘s vision of a new age which drew its inspiration from Rabelais.

BERLIN 1938: the yellow stars daubed on shop windows in the old quarter, overshadowed by the monstrous towers the Nazis called architecture, museums of the thousand year Reich. Such a millenarian atmosphere naturally suited Crowley fresh, if that is the word, from the Paris workings. He doted, like a gratified parent, on the German crusade as he called it. The authorities tolerated his existence. In some places names he had been uttering for years, were on the lips of high-ranking SS officers: Ahriman, Horus, Moloch… many deities were abroad that summer. Besides, he was well connected with the Nazis stretched back to the early days of the party’s formation. However, they didn‘t like the relationship to be too defined. Already they were a hidden doctrine, a religion of intrigue and the esoteric. Worshippers of the left hand, the perverted spirit but in secret only. To the ostensible world they presented themselves as the final cultists of the emperical. Crowley to them was something of a buffoon; an actor in the shadow theatre of rich widows and cocaine, someone who shared their language but not their intent. Crowley himself did not dislike this arrangement; he loved outrage and the extravagant, while for them the purpose was enough.

Crowley first met Huxley in a bar in Landulfstrasse, Huxley was in Berlin as an observer of the strange monster Germany was becoming. Like many observers. both repulsed and fascinated by the dark rhythms that beat in the pulse of that nation. To describe their relationship as friendship would he to miss the point. Crowley was doubtless fascinating: notorious as the great beast in his own country and much of Europe; cosmopolitan; a brilliant conversationalist and something of an enigma. Whereas Huxley was a myopic creature of the intellect. Yet Crowley attracted him, just as a few years before, he had attracted the dry, peevish Maugham in Paris. He almost existed for the straying eyes of the novelist, who longed for those chapters of exhibition life did not often afford. Yet now Crowley fades; his rotundity, absurb and menacing, is blurred. A glaring headline of Edwardian sin:

“Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.
Love is the law, love under will.”

So I utter his law in my own defence. That simplification that only he, the pettiest of profaners, could sprout. Dictated in the mirage of a Cairo night by his guardian angel, Aiwass. I think of him shortly after the war sitting in that seedy Hastings boarding house sated with the law. A figure of pathos in his shambling dressing-gown nursing his habits and remorse. An aged centaur; sybarite among the shadows. In the fading of his aeon more like the fool than Prospero. A wrinkled soul.

Already in the late ‘thirties Huxley was fascinated by the psychotropics. Hoffman had yet to fall off his bicycle, but there existed an abundance of literature on the subject. Havelock Ellis‘s experiments with mescaline or William James‘s with psilocibin. And Berlin, at that time, was the centre of drug abuse in Europe. Both Hitler and Goering used cocaine, and the SS administered many narcotics in their higher initiation ceremonies, particularly in the ritual of the stifling air, which closely resembled the black mass. Indeed, it is my own expressed opinion that the origin of both the Nazi Party and the Second World War, lies in the combined diet of methedrine and Nietschze (Also Sprach Zarathrustra) fed to the German soldiers in the trenches, twenty years or so before. An oversimplification perhaps, yet the first chemical psychohistory or our epoch remains to be written.

Thus it was that Huxley came to Crowley for his first taste of mescaline. The latter took the drug irregularly without pretensions, purely as an exercise in that hedonistic spirituality he practised. Huxley, on the other hand, nourished a genuine, mystical longing that could come only from someone as deeply rooted in reason as himself. There was, therefore, a confusion of aims, a perennial ambiguity about their enterprise. And I, Victor Neuberg, sodomite and poet, accomplice of the Paris workings. was the arbiter, They had spent the afternoon in my somewhat less than opulent quarters, discussing Karma. Crowley was talking: “To me it exists solely as a paradox. It is true, I have seen retribution in many things, discerning a balance that is continually maintained. But this process is unending. It acts in everything and thus to allow it any acknowledgement is absurd.”

“But we reap what we sow Aleister,” Huxley exclaimed. “Not in a moral sense. At least, only incidentally moral, more or less by accident. Nemesis is something like gravitation, indifferent. For example. if you sow self-stultification by an excessive interest in money, you reap a grotesque humiliation. But…”

“In what sense?” interrupted Crowley, “How can you possibly accuse the rich of humiliation? Surely they‘re the last people to fall victim to that particular vice?” 

“I was coming to that.” Huxley resumed. “By self-stultification I don‘t just mean money. I mean anything that clouds the spirit. Over-indulgence in alcohol, food or promiscuity are more examples of things that wreck our purpose. But because these things reduce you to a sub-human condition, you will not be aware that the humiliation is humiliation. There‘s your explanation why Nemesis sometimes seems to reward. What she brings is a humiliation only in the absolute sense, for the ideal and complete human being, or at any rate, for the nearly complete. For the sub-human it may seem a triumph, a consummation, a fulfilment of the heart‘s desire.”

“Moral – ” concluded Crowley, “live sub-humanly and nemesis may bring you happiness. Well, if you‘ll excuse me, my dear Aldous, I will proceed to self-stultify. Victor, if you don‘t mind, Pandora‘s box.”

I rose and went to the cabinet and took out his medicine, Four phials lay in the ivory box. I selected the one containing the Burmese heroin and another containing Bolivian cocaine. Carefully I mixed the powders on a silver tray, crushing the dirty, khaki-coloured heroin and adding about five times as much cocaine. I passed Crowley a silver spoon that, with surprising dexterity, he used to scoop up some of the powder, which he then deftly inhaled, first through the right and then the left nostril. I did the same.

“Won‘t you join us for cocktails,” Crowley invited, “an excellent combination”.

 Huxley shook his head, disapproval deeply etched on his thin, drawn face. Observing this Crowley commented:
“I‘m afraid that if you keep the devil‘s company you must see his works. Or imagine you‘re with an old Falstaff, You know, gentlemen of the shade, minions of the moon.”

“Yes,” Huxley said, “but it‘s such a waste. The ultimate form of selfstultification. And what‘s more, I‘m sure it‘s a conscious assault on the soul, an intense dereliction.”

“It depends.” Crowley replied. “Drugs are magic and have always been used as such. The soma of the Vedas, the lotus of Homer all point to the fact, as do the henbane and belladonna of the witches. And I‘m sure for the normal man, who I happily call the sub-man, they are inevitably detrimental. But in no way do I consider myself ordinary. To me drugs are the litmus test of capacity. I know the wraith-like effects of cocaine, that long corridor of shadows where the soul is wasted and profaned. Or heroin, the cushioned daze of the opiated night. But it is because I have supped large on both the joys and sorrows that I consider myself more than human.”

“But the waste Crowley! The waste! Have you read the Intimate Journal of Baudelaire? Isherwood, who‘s staying near here, has just translated them. I‘ve never seen such desperation, such regret over a lifetime spent addicted to false ideals. Those being hashish and the whole series of indulgences loved by the decadents.”

“But that is it exactly!” Crowley exclaimed. “Baudelaire loved it. Gloried in his fall, his personal damnation. And besides, didn‘t he write some damn fine stuff, and wasn‘t that born precisely out of those feelings of failure, or hysteria, which he cultivated in his drug taking, his negresses, his remorse? You see Huxley, as long as we act we are saved. All energy is external delight as long as we use it. To me, to take a drug is to permit a daimon to enter the sanctum of thought and action. And if we give voice to this captured spirit then we enforce, rather than profane. We create new channels, and these then lead to our exorcism.”

He got up and went over to the sideboard. It was growing dark outside and his obesity threw a giant shadow on the wall. I suppose, in tribute to the spirit of the times, I should comment on the stamp of stormtroopers’ boots in the street below. But in truth, I heard only the growl of traffic and the occasional voice. Crowley came back and gave Huxley a piece of paper.

“Read this,” he said.

I have that paper in front of me now. In the last three decades it has become brittle and yellowed round the edges. It is one of many of his papers that I keep still. Bills and incantations, the occasional poem or letter. Existing, like me, in obscurity, unknown to both his followers and biographers. It is divided into two parts and I shall transcribe it here:
“From the tower enchantment and the sweet hypnosis of lost time. My dreamseed spill their valediction across known worlds. I tell the cartographers, who call my map invisible, that space is frozen in the habit of their fiction. Their cities are my seed; their houses, wives and toil are fantastic shadows of solidity. I see only waves, brilliant, aural cartoons containing but one centimetre of gross matter. Let the radiant language now spill forth. I sing the chisel and the blade; the hammer and the scales, tong and measure, and all melodies of craft. The work ferments inside my battery of celIs. My voltage is a million watts.

“Alchemy is patient. It sits in stillness. Like Tao it recognises the divinity of hazard, the vigour of the useless, the occident is merely the collision of two meanings. So in me the dross solidifies. I have stopped asking if I have a story as there are no stories now, only decipherable collisions. In me the opaque furniture of the random is condensed and drained into rich ore. My veins are heavy wilh dark coal, nurturing diamonds. l am the redking, the bronzed phoenix reborn upon the wheel of flame. I have traversed the river of ordeal and was crowned wilh elementals. Now shall the paradox of prism blaze onto papyrus my heart‘s bold voice.”

“Airbome visions tingle. Coming from rich flight the dreamer‘s wingspan. Almost prosaic this wirlwind. Lost continents, contours, cartographers. And me, my maiden voyage is crystals and a glass, my arbour and my veil. Truly the scheming polarity of vision this placing on a glass, a pane that mirrors to the heart‘s dereliction, the soul’s migration. I sweep the city. This is the holy liquid of metropolis, fashioned in the image of its metal bowels. This is the fall of Ushers, the corruption of sense. Neon flashes. Tell me the sex of electricity, of coils, sockets, plugs. Before the planet gave the deity of gender to the thunder in the hills. Only man creates the sexless. My mind is snow vapour, airwaves flow freely, like the magic carpet on Sinbad‘s voyage. You see, I am standing in Mexico. I have the stature of the ancients, the children of Lilith, twenty feet tall. I strut the sunflower Van Gough sand, eaten by cacti, while the arcane sun explodes above. We eat the sun, my starry brethren. We are portions of his seed, the great spurting, in us forever. In the fever of mirage, in hallucinations I seek to touch the brimming fare of yellow: Peyotl, datura, mescal. Behind needles sharpened by white light, fantastic buds map shades of an oasis.”

Huxley read the piece carefully but was unimpressed, His exact words I cannot recall, only that they were polite and vague. I myself, am somewhat fond of the two passages. They represent, I think, one of the few occasions when Crowley had something to say. When he was actually touched by vision. Doubtless, to Huxley, they were another aspect of the man‘s inescapable lunacy, along wilh the whole pantheon of dark forgotten gods and familiars that sprang so glibly to his tongue.

“Well”, he said, “When the wind of the wings of madness comes I hope you are prepared.”

His purpose in coming to us that evening was to take mescaline, They had discussed the substance at length – Huxley referring to Havelock Ellis and Crowley to the Vedas, for he believed the divine soma of the Indians was none other than the mushroom.

“Come then,” said Crowley about six o‘clock. And it was then we began. First we smoked hashish from the big hookah, its effect lightening the atmosphere considerably. Huxley lost most of the caustic self-possession that clung to him, like a limpet clings to a rock. He was almost merry. My mind and Crowley‘s still maintained the intense clarity that cocaine induces and which alcohol or hashish, only partially subdue. So we teased him as if he were a mischievous child. His intellect was running wild. He talked scathingly of England and the English, expressing opinions that delighted Crowley. They discussed Gurdjieff, Buddhism, Yeats and his vision and this time it was Crowley‘s turn to be scathing. Huxley even launched into a lecture about Tao exercises, which Crowley brought to an abrupt halt hy asking if one hand clasp wasn‘t a form of masturbationary syphilis. We all laughed uproariously, like school boys over a dirty joke. Meanwhile I had administered the mescaline.

“You know Hitler has taken this stuff.” Crowley observed. “I heard it from a reliable friend in the OTO.”

“OTO?” inquired Huxley.

“Yes, the Ordo Templi Orientis. My local branch you might say. And their connections with the Nazis are nobody‘s business. They almost founded the party, or at least subverted it. Do you know that two of their chief men personally trained Hitler. Before, he was a stuttering Austrian oaf, a shoddy Bohemian and a pervert to boot. They taught him oratory, rhetoric and under the influence of this drug that will shortly, my dear Aldous, set your eyes on fire, gave him his daimon.”

There was, in Crowley‘s words, a certain malice. A hint from the prince, to our novelist, our absolute realist, of the irrational and dark forces he might encounter.

“Then,” Huxley said, “all the disparate romanticism that, in its waning, found expression in the irrational, in secret cults, in magic, has made its kingdom here. Fascism is, after all, the triumph of decadence, the final madness of Bohemia.”

“So that the carnage of Ahriman may be complete, precisely,” Crowley replied.

Later, a vast smile spread across Huxley‘s formerly dry features, now radiant, illuminated, his eyes tinged with fire. In what region of enchantment he walked I do not know. Whether beneath the icy domes of Kubla Khan or in some long vanished field of his childhood, fragrant with wood smoke, haunted by summer‘s breath, he did not say. And what music flowed inside him, whether the Abyssinian maid soothed him with her dulcimer or some stellar symphony caressed his ears, was also his secret. Whatever is discovered at such moments belongs inviolably to the inner life of the individual. And even should he wish to communicate, he would probably find the few words that pertain to this province of experience unforthcoming. We have no maps for the mescal voyage of the psyche.

For me it was a night of colours: yellow spectres emanating from the gaslamps: dancing lights of rain falling on the window-sill; deep cobalt of the sky, an airless back-drop to the unflinching stars; violet gauze of cloud over a white moon and all the world‘s allure gathered in a rainbow.

At one point Crowley produced his Tarot deck, the pack of Thoth. The figures seemed to move; the lovers entwining themselves on the matrix; the empress smiling her impenetrable smile while the prince of wands tightened the reins of the chimera he rode upon. All these vital creatures through our intent, in the steely point of time we called Berlin, living in the correspondence of their ageless dance. Like some pharaoh of long ago, we glimpsed the highest octaves, the peerless mathematics of the stars.

At another point, Crowley quoted from the Book of Law:

“I am the snake that giveth knowledge and delight and bright glory, and stir the hearts of men with drunkenness. To worship me take wine and strange drugs, whereof I will tell my prophet and be drunk thereof! They shall not harm ye at all.”

“A trifle dangerous, don‘t you think,” Huxley murmured blearily.

“Of course,” Crowley agreed, always lucid at such moments. “If you read it carelessly and act on it rashly, it might well lead to trouble. But – the words ‘to worship me’ are all important. They mean that things like cocaine, mescaline and alcohol may be, and should be used for the purpose of worshipping. That is, entering into communion with the snake, which is the genius that lies at the core of every star. And every man and woman is a star. The taking of a drug should be a carefully thought out and religious act. Experience alone can teach you the right conditions in which the act is legitimate, that is, when it assists you to do your will.”

Huxley left shortly after. Walking through a Berlin he had never seen before. Where cylinders of fire in the cold, dawn air dazzled his sense, and the splashing rain became cartwheels of light, fire flies mating with the pavement. He had entered a hitherto unknown continent and now, like an illuminated Columbus, was intent on discovery. I remained with the good master Therion. His bulk shifting in a reverie on the Turkish couch.

Thirty-eight years stretch between then and now. Long ago my two protagonists were dust, fallen to the bottom of the hour-glass. Huxley on his death bed; two hundred micrograms of LSD-25, the vapid grin of his chemical exit. Crowley in that dirty, Hastings boarding-house; a vast spider with a heroin itch, regurgitating the entrapments of the past. Thirty-eight years: a war, the accelerated madness of an epoch, the dawning of the age of Thelema. To me long, slow years of remorse, when I turned from the gender he had so skilfully taught me, and from the vision that witnessed me abandoned in the desert: the pallid brows, stiff horns, the foul rupture that attends that angel, to be in league with him, through time and eternity.
His sub-contractors.

For further information about the book inspired by the story see this page

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