An Interview with Tobias Churton

      1 Comment on An Interview with Tobias Churton

LAShTAL.COM: Tobias, my thanks to you for agreeing to this interview about your biography of Aleister Crowley. I’ve read the book twice, now, as is my usual practice before drafting a review. I enjoyed it enormously. I notice that you don’t reference Kaczynski’s ‘Perdurabo’ although you do mention it. Any particular reason?

Churton: My book was commissioned in 2007 and should have been published two years ago. Due to major publishing difficulties, the expected publication date was set aside a frustrating number of times. In the meantime, Richard Kaczynski’s expanded version of his original ‘Perdurabo’ appeared – after, I should stress, my biography had been completed for publication, so naturally it did not appear in the bibliography, not having been consulted as a source for my narrative. Had my book appeared when it was supposed to, the issue of comparison or inclusion would not have arisen in the manner implied by your question.

There have of course been quite a number of attempts to write Crowley’s biography. The examples mentioned in my bibliography were those consulted by me for quite specific reasons in the course of writing my book. You might have asked me why Gerald Suster’s fine book The Legacy of the Beast (1988) did not appear in the bibliography. It did not appear because Gerald’s book was not, for me, related to source material, though I enjoyed reading it around the time I met Gerald in 1991. I did not consult it while writing my book. The last thing I was interested in was writing, as others have done, a biography based on other biographies, or one that compared or even tried to build on previous treatments. The Crowley biographical corpus is littered with secondary, tertiary, distorted and even imaginary sources. I wanted my work to reflect, in a pristine fashion, direct knowledge of primary sources, since it was my intention to offer readers the pleasure of Crowley’s authentic voice, placed accurately in its true historical context. I blazed my own trail, so to speak. I hope the result justifies the method.

It is also worth adding that my first draft was considerably over half as long again as the published text, containing, as it did, an abundance of additional research material. I had to weigh up the desire to be comprehensive to the nth degree against the practical and artistic limitations of a commercially viable, popular, but scholarly and responsible, biographical treatment. I dare say there are people reading this who would have preferred a kind of encyclopaedic, everything-in approach, but the art of writing good biography lies in the choices the writer makes to produce an account of the life of its subject. ‘Definitive’ does not mean the same as ‘all-inclusive’ in the factual sense. A portrait is not considered incomplete because the sitter does not display his or her entire wardrobe – or even body! You cannot reproduce the life itself, even if you wanted to, since, for just one reason, the author is primarily reliant on written records. I do not think I left out anything vital to understanding and illustrating Crowley’s life as he lived it, though there were times I was sorry not to be able to give readers the full weight of interesting (to me) discoveries and fresh scenarios of Crowley’s extraordinarily multifarious and labyrinthine social activities. I might consider some more detailed special studies in the future. But I have no doubt that had I included everything that excited me personally, or indeed everything that I found, most readers would have soon suffered from intellectual indigestion or muscle-ache from trying to support the tome without mechanical assistance!

LAShTAL.COM: When did you first consider writing your own biography?

Churton: Back in 1980, when I was an undergraduate, I knew I wanted to write about Crowley somehow, though I was also thinking of a film. I recall having this shot in mind: the morning after the last Woodstock concert… The wind blows discarded refuse about Max Yasgur’s farm; then we see a little book in the drying mud. Its pages blow in the breeze and we see the words: ‘Love is the Law, Love under Will.’ That was going to be the opener! In the event, I wrote a play, Ipsissimus, in which a Crowley-like character dominated. It was performed at Balliol to a paying audience. The idea of a film hung around the Eighties as I embarked on the Gnostics Channel 4 TV series and related projects, but there always seemed to be someone else about to do something on Crowley – Ken Russell or Snoo Wilson, for example. Then in 1991-92 it looked like there might have been a window at Channel 4 for a really good Crowley documentary, but it was not to be, unfortunately. That was the period when I really knuckled down to detailed research at the Warburg Institute’s Yorke Collection of Crowleyana. There I found a question addressed by Jane Wolfe to Gerald Yorke in a letter of 1950. It struck me mightily: ‘Where was, or is, the biographer?’ she asked. Of course, what the world got was John Symonds’s The Great Beast. Something clicked inside me – a kind of seed-idea that some day I would have to write the definitive work: the one that truly answered Jane Wolfe’s question of 1950. I talked to my agent about it. He reckoned it was a good idea, but for some reason I did not feel I was ready at the time for the whole effort. There were other things I wanted to do as well – and, looking back, it would not have been as good as what I’ve now done, if I may say so. In the event, I turned some of my Warburg Crowley notes into a specially extended chapter of my book Gnostic Philosophy. Perhaps I should have done the Crowley book there and then because Gnostic Philosophy took ten years to come out! There never seems a simple way of getting Crowleyan material to the public! He still excites the most extraordinary reactions – not only in his opponents, but among his devoted fans too.

The idea must still have lingered, however, because years later in a conversation with a senior editor at Random House, the subject came up again. Out of that conversation came the sudden commission, which I must say came as a genuine surprise to me – so much so that I was not convinced it really had happened – or that the book would ever really happen. My doubts, as it turned out, were not without foundation! But here we are – a mere 31 years after the first seed was sown. I wouldn’t mind being 19 again!

LAShTAL.COM: So how did you set about writing the biography?

Churton: When I was commissioned to write the book towards the end of 2007, I was just getting into stride with my history of the Rosicrucians. Having worked like a demon on that throughout the late autumn, New Year and early Spring, I went away to the Costa Brava in May of ’08 to try and work out a fresh ‘angle’ on AC – a distinctive path through the maze. It was hopeless! I couldn’t get to grips with it at all. I knew either too much or too little. Either way, I felt stumped. One had to go through the process of annihilating the Symonds template that was lodged so stubbornly in the brain. It has affected – or infected – every work on AC since 1951 like a virus – something that is almost to its credit! It’s like trying to write a symphony but all you hear is some clapped-out old schlock that’s annoyed you for years!

Anyhow, the last thing I wanted was anybody else’s approach to the subject. It would do no good at all to go back and read again other writers’ work, good, bad or indifferent. I was wary of creative contamination, you might say – the more so if the contaminant turned out to be actually good! I realized I would have to go back to the Warburg and start completely from scratch on primary sources. That turned out to be precisely the right thing to do. Glued to my seat for days and days on end, I worked my way through thousands of pages to the astonishment of the library staff – no breaks for lunch, every spare hour and minute. I went back in time, you might say. I saw. The key was obvious: let Crowley speak! Hear the true voice, then present and elucidate it. Dig out all the references and so on. In other words, do it for the First Time. From that point, everything else slipped into place. Added to all that was the enormous practical assistance offered by William Breeze. He brought to my attention not only his own research and insights, but a fabulously extensive array of rare material not included in the Yorke Collection. Not for a second did I want for fresh material!

LAShTAL.COM: So you returned to the primary sources?

Churton: What the world needs is a good, definitive, accurate account of AC’s life. The primary sources must be the sole basis for that. While I am very conscious indeed of the hard-core interest, and believe those who are unprejudiced will find a very great deal of new and vital material in my book, I am mindful of the new reader, the non-specialist, and so on. However, when it comes to it, there was only one person I really wanted to be satisfied with my effort – and that was the late AC, and those who really knew and cared about him.

LAShTAL.COM: The biography is the first fully-informed one to be written from what could be described as a thoroughly sympathetic point of view. As you mentioned, it uses previously unpublished material by Crowley – it’s the biography he’d have wanted! However, how have you tackled the need to be sympathetic with the requirement for objectivity? On the one hand, you’re willing to note many of the man’s excesses and unpleasantness but on the other do you fear you might have glossed over his worst actions? Do you, in other words, cut Crowley too much slack?

Churton: If I had found legally-binding, properly attested material detailing criminal activity written by people properly informed, and without moral or political bias – not only would I have ‘included it’ in the proper interests of historical, biographical record, but, on reflection, I should never have been remotely interested in writing a bio in the first place! I can only say, along with Gerald Yorke, that if I have been misled, or blinded by emotion or naïvety, then I genuinely believe that this is not the case, and that my interest in this highly unusual man is justified – and will, I believe, be justified historically.

There was excess of drug-taking during the Cefalu period, even by Crowley’s high-tolerance experience. I say ‘excess’ because Crowley himself regretted getting into such a mess with his physical addiction to heroin and his psychological addiction to cocaine – though he tried very hard indeed to overcome his drug problems until his complete breakdown in 1924. I don’t cover this up or underplay it. However, Crowley’s Cefalu diaries were not written for public consumption. Out of context, they have been used to paint a deceptive, misleading picture of the whole of Crowley’s life and work. It was Crowley’s intention to reveal not only physical but psychological symptoms of his experimentation and habitual activities as records of interest for his later self to reflect on, and as a legacy to science. The Cefalu diaries’ peculiar characteristics and setting make them highly circumspect as historical records where actual events, rather than states of mind, are concerned. He was clearly ‘high as a kite’ when writing much of them and obviously got carried far away to the remote extremes of ludicrous and egoistic self-indulgence, self-parody, verbosity, manic alliteration and, on occasion, perverse, self-loathing fantasy, fuelled by a ‘narco-septic’ consciousness. However, the phantasmagoria is so laced with self-consciousness and self-satirizing black humour that it is impossible to be objective about the contents to any useful degree. It is interesting to compare the crazy picture conjured up in some parts of the Cefalu diaries with Jane Wolfe’s memories of Cefalu which I discovered to be of a wholly different character. Crowley appears to have been playing some kind of mad, absurdist and proto-surreal competitive game with Leah Hirsig, who seems to have been ready and more than willing to match the Beast whim for whim. It’s worth noting that Jane Wolfe remembered that she and Leah were both described by Crowley at Cefalu as ‘freaks’. He just wasn’t the kind of man who would automatically back off from that out of a desire for self-preservation. He was fascinated by her ‘awfulness’. He had never met anyone like her, nor she him, of course. Taking her cue, he would take it as far as it would go, as a way of revealing the self to the self. One suspects the infamous ‘goat incident’ stemmed from such a kind of head-game amusement scenario. What really happened, and in whose mind, we shall never know. A lot of Cefalu activity was a kind of what we now know as ‘therapy’. One thinks of Woody Allen’s script to What’s New, Pussycat? (1965) when Dr Fassbender, played by Peter Sellers, encourages ‘patient’ Peter O’Toole to attend one of his anarchic group-therapy sessions: ‘You’ll love it! It’s a real madhouse!’ Hereward Carrington wrote about this strange aspect of Leah and the Beast’s relationship. Crowley came to realize their relations were mutually self-destructive; she was unwilling to let go of her ‘Big Bugger Lion’, whom she had loved, loved then, and, as she wrote in 1919, would always love.

How much can a biographer responsibly build on this material? I should say ‘Very little.’ Crowley’s presence tended to heighten the atmosphere around him. He often referred to people hallucinating involuntarily that he was the ‘demon Crowley’ – a projection perhaps of their own subconscious desires and fears, especially sexual. People also felt liberated in all sorts of ways in his company – and he brought out the subconscious in those who were ready for it – and also in those who were not ready for it, and who blamed him for their own visions. Crowley was/is condemned in absentia by a judge and jury of journalists, political players and writers anxious for a bite. That is to say: seriously biased and uninformed. Should I have written a chapter on the Roman Catholic attitude to heresy &c.?

As for being objective – I’m always objective in the sense of being properly scholarly: fair to weigh the evidence in the light of knowledge. I’ve weighed up all this material over many, many years. I’ve weighed up all the objections many times over. I am not whitewashing the Old Sinner. The sins are plain to see, and they boil down to acute self-insulating selfishness on certain occasions, or excessive enthusiasm, or an unreadiness to forgive. But nothing beyond redemption. And anyhow, who is the Judge? – since the Law finds no fault.

He was a Sinner. He knew it: rotten, often – but not to the core – and generous and kind, often, but not always. The 1924 chapter is plain enough. But the nature of the sin is something to be explored and understood. How would we judge a Theurgist of the third century AD? – and how would he judge us?

‘Veil not your vices in virtuous words.’ He didn’t – but most of us do.

I am not the judge in a trial of morals. AC has already been judged, many times over – clearly, judging from an article in this week’s Daily Express, accusing him of being a criminal, who ‘took drugs’ and set up his own ‘occult society’. Wicked! He is plainly dismissed as a ‘criminal’ – one of the most notorious.

Where’s the charge? Hearsay, second-hand – outraged persons who themselves have never been examined. Just look at the Betty May story – talk about miscarriage of justice!

Far, far from perfect was AC – or as his little poem says at the outset: ‘far from our Exemplar J.C.’ But far from total condemnation too. My experience is that those who have most to lose from Crowley’s acceptance as a serious figure, simply have a lot to lose: we should examine that, too, perhaps.

AC has already been tried. I have written a biography, not a defence. I have included what I think is important to understand the subject.

Do I cut AC too much slack? As I say, having examined the evidence, I see no need to either give or take any slack. The man speaks for himself. The facts speak for themselves. Odd? Yes. A bastard? Yes. Brilliant? Yes. Creative? Yes.

Important? Yes.

Now, enough of all this. Surely these are terribly old and fruitless issues. We are in the position, for the first time in history, to see the Man, warts and all. That’s it.

If nothing else… some of the poetry is as good as anyone has ever written. And he’s given us a great deal to think about. Personally speaking, I know of only three others in the English language in his century in the same league: Winston Churchill, TE Lawrence, and Orson Welles.

Is AC an inspiration? I think he could be, if we see him clearly enough.

LAShTAL.COM: I agree absolutely with all the points you make in that answer and it’s refreshing here – as it is in your book – to present a ‘real’, fully-formed Crowley rather than the tabloid demon or ultimate guru that so many biographies have presented. One of the many joys of reading your biography of AC is the substantial number of ‘I didn’t know that’ moments: aspects and incidents of his life that were entirely new to me, despite three decades of study. For example, your observations of the impact of his father on Crowley’s life, which are far more believable than the usual pop-psychology that’s usually thrown up. And the fact that AC’s mother left him just ‘two items of furniture’ in her will! Most of us haven’t had the opportunity to study the source material in the Warburg’s Yorke Collection: how significant was that as a source for your work and were you given absolute permission to quote from any part of it by the OTO in general as copyright holder and Hymenaeus Beta in particular?

Churton: Gerald Yorke’s collection of Crowleyana was placed at the Warburg so that scholarship in the future would have a secure basis for studying a man who had otherwise only been known either in his relatively few published works or in the writings of journalists out for a good story by fair means or foul.

Gerald Yorke had thoughts about writing AC’s biography himself, but stepped aside when John Symonds asserted his interest as Crowley’s ‘literary executor’.

Obviously, the Yorke Collection was a vital port of call. Through the physical contact with AC’s writings, and the corpus of letters sent to him, as well as diaries of followers, and many assorted documents, one could immediately see that Crowley’s life had been profoundly misrepresented. His writings had simply been combed for statements of a sensationalist kind. What acquaintance with the whole collection offered was the normalcy and untainted sanity of Crowley’s day to day and week to week activities. He ran organizations, supervised magazine material, dealt with membership payments, wrote and received letters from intelligent people. Above all, the collection gives authenticity, reality and intellectual substance to the Crowley story. Yes, this man’s life may appear mythic, but it was not a myth; it was a fact of historic effort. The people were real people, not caricatures.

I offer a small but telling example. To believe the biographies, you might think that Mary Desti was someone who fell out with AC in 1911 after the Ab-ul-Diz workings, but we find her helping out at Crowley’s Equinox office at 124 Victoria St, London, in 1913 with Victor Neuburg and others. This immediately tells us that the idea of every woman Crowley slept with having gone subsequently mad or suicidal is just mythic propaganda. Many of his girlfriends remained friends for many years. Most of them seemed to have enjoyed Crowley’s company and sexual life enormously; though jealousy would break out from time to time. He was adored by many women; women of all classes and looks. As Willie Dixon’s song goes: ‘The men don’t know, but the little girls understand.’

The Warburg Collection helped me to time-travel, but it was not the only resource of course. William Breeze, Head of the OTO, is also the custodian of a wealth of Crowley-related material that was not bought or copied by Gerald Yorke. I was extremely fortunate to be given access to Bill Breeze’s own research, as well as material cared for by the OTO. Much of this material consists of very rare diaries obtained by private collectors over the years. William Breeze has continued Gerald Yorke’s practice of borrowing or obtaining copies of privately owned diary material and getting them transcribed and properly annotated in a scholarly fashion.

There is no doubt that meeting a person tells you so much more inwardly than simply reading about or hearing about a person. Authentic written material gives you a kind of mid-way experience. I’ll never forget the immense sense of scope obtained from holding in my hands letters written by Crowley from some of the greatest of the world’s international hotels before WW1.Immediately, one found oneself in the shape and aroma and colour of a different era – long forgotten and utterly unrepeatable. The world of Edwardian England and British Empire is now more alien than a science fiction civilization – or the landscape of the Silmarillion. AC bridges an impossible gulf – but there is a gulf and people are too quick to judge AC based on perceptions of our own, painfully transient, era.

Permission to quote from the Yorke Collection was granted on the basis of scholarly seriousness and that quotations did not violate copyrights. My work had the support of the OTO’s World Head and of Gerald Yorke’s son, John Yorke. The Yorke Collection is a serious literary collection, held in trust and must be treated with respect lest it is exploited by persons unfit to comprehend or respect its contents.

LAShTAL.COM: At the book launch you skilfully recited ‘La Gitana’ (my favourite of the Beast’s poems) in Crowleyan style. This got me to thinking about AC’s reputation, generally. The mountaineering community seems to have recognised Crowley’s impact on their sport and have restored his reputation accordingly. There seems to little or no evidence of similar changes in any of the other fields – poetry, painting, novels and so on – with the possible exception of his participation in intelligence networks. Do you believe – or, indeed, hope – that your biography will affect this?

Churton: I have not composed a Crowleyan gospel; I have simply tried to relate the facts as I have found them in a palatable form. Now, it has obviously been the case that ‘the powers-that-be in all their manifest forms’ (a phrase of John Lennon’s) can just about tolerate Crowley as a niche interest of people who may be publicly dismissed as cultists, strange folk, eccentrics, reactionaries, witches, fantasists, malevolent dabblers in the occult, fools, hippies, new Age freaks, and so on, but God forbid that Crowley’s philosophy and the truth of his life should enter the mainstream of honest-to-God agnostic liberal-left, materialist, ‘Christian’ civilization – where, as we witness daily, the dead dogs float by unhindered!

The fact that respectable academics have discussed Crowley objectively in learned papers and have recently written responsibly produced books about him does not alter to any great extent Crowley’s public reputation, that is to say, his potential to influence the thinking of the non-specialist demos.

This is all very curious. The usual thing in England is that the enfant terrible eventually becomes a national treasure (after death, usually); the cases of Shelley, Byron and D.H.Lawrence being among the most well known, among many more former ‘devils’ who have since acquired wings and haloes. Crowley seems to have a place specially reserved for the unforgiven, or unforgivable: quite a distinction! One may suspect that Crowley represents something that is anathema fundamentally to some persons in a position to influence public perception. His opponents never seem to reveal themselves by saying precisely what their objection is; instead, they re-tell long-since exploded myths because they feel such stories frighten people away from closer investigation – and they are very often right to think so; people without knowledge of the light-switch are terrified of the dark. I dare say, if this technique fails, new ones will be adopted suited to the established prejudices of the age.

So, the question as to whether I think my biography can alter the situation regarding AC’s reputation in the fields of poetry, painting, literature and so on, really depends on how many mature people read the book without prejudice, and how many ‘opinion-formers’ gain access to it and summon up the courage from the depths of their despair, to announce publicly what has long been suppressed. I expect the book will encounter subtle and not so subtle artificial sullying by Crowley’s ideological opponents or those who feel or who are encouraged to feel threatened by its contents. Weaker persons will be influenced by this, as they have been for a century; stronger minds will, I dare say, take up the challenge, at least for themselves.

My concern is that those who are influenced or even – dare I say it? – enlightened by the biography do not simply get absorbed into sub-groups of social-networkers who agree among themselves, thinking and communicating on the fringes of culture, while the tincture is diverted from flowing into the admittedly rancid waters of the unmentionable, undrinkable, but nonetheless necessary and navigable Mainstream. The purpose of the book, its aim, is to break the dam that has kept the truth about Crowley from the general public. This might be a highly quixotic enterprise, but the windmills arrayed against what Crowley represents to them are real enough, and we may surmise, if they oppose him, they may well oppose that which exists within people to which the real Crowley appealed: namely, in his terms, the Star or True Will. Must we surrender to the mainstream? The true will of this book is to reach the mainstream; it may require some help. No book is an island! It could be a submarine though… although I should prefer a through-deck cruiser!

If the book does come out with sufficient momentum, opinion formers in the world of the arts will in due course take notice and suddenly discover what, of course, they ‘knew all along’, that, yes, Aleister Crowley really was a tremendously agile and entertaining poet, writer and, would you believe it? – quite a philosopher as well! This process should take about a generation to flower really, but I believe that there is a sea-change on the immediate horizon, and I should be content if my book heralds the change in a definitive manner. As for Crowley’s implications for politics, this will necessarily take a lot longer, since trying to express Crowleyan philosophy into a coherent political programme is, as he maintained himself, a gargantuan task, and one that has, to my knowledge, hardly been adequately attempted. It is a challenge for the future. At least, future builders will have the opportunity to erect their structure on a consistent, solid surface: one that I hope my book provides, in conjunction with the numerous other serious works now available to assist. It is not just a question of Crowley’s art, poetry, reputation &c., but of all of the art and science and politics made by all of us of our age and ages to come. Crowley wanted to ‘free the boys and girls of England’ from the cloak of fear; we are still afraid. And I’m sure England was only meant as a starting platform.

Crowley’s own view was that the New Aeon – the ‘Child’s’ – growth was an evolutionary inevitability. This might be a comfort for the Yellow School who are advised by their own to do Nothing in all its Glory very effectively! But I think there are likely to be certain caveats to non-action. In retrospect, for example, one might think that from the standpoint of one looking down at the fall of the Roman Empire, the Renaissance was historically inevitable – but that was not much of a hope for unfortunates suffering Viking raids in the eighth century! The Dark Ages really were dark – though not everywhere. ‘Thou hast no right but to do thy will’ is a dictum of action, as well as reflection.

To sum up, I think the biography shows every sign of marking a watershed, but the process of assimilation will be neither immediate nor neat and tidy, but I think the sea-change has come as regards Aleister Crowley’s reputation. After all, this book was commissioned by a publisher who believed such a sea-change was on its way and that Aleister Crowley would emerge as a determinative thinker – that is to say, in vulgar parlance: ‘Crowley will be BIG’ – for this particular age, and who knows? – for ages to come.

LAShTAL.COM: Thank you, Tobias, for taking the trouble to provide such fascinating and detailed answers. I wish you well with sales of your very impressive book.

© 2011 LAShTAL.COM and Tobias Churton – All Rights Reserved

Related Images:

Notify of
1 Comment
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments