Times Literary Supplement review of biographies
The prestigious Times Literary Supplement has published a review by Phil Baker of the biographies of AC by Kaczynski and Churton:
Beastly Aleister Crowley
The life of Aleister Crowley – the definitive biography of the founder of modern magick
The biography: Spiritual revolutionary, romantic explorer, occult master – and spy
When he found himself notorious after the publication of Naked Lunch in 1959, William Burroughs wrote to calm his mother and say “I hope I am not ludicrously miscast as the wickedest man alive, a title vacated by the late Aleister Crowley”. Crowley, who liked to be known as The Beast 666 after the monster in the Book of Revelation, seems fated to be a touchstone of wickedness – particularly after his vilification by the Beaverbrook press in the 1920s, under headlines such as “King of Depravity” and “A Man We’d Like to Hang” – but inevitably this has been part of his popular appeal.
The main focus of Crowley’s immense energy was magick (as he liked to spell it, distinguishing it from conjuring) and it is also the central focus of these two biographies. Magick was a synthesis and reinvention of the occult tradition, making a sacramental use of sex, and taking as its springboard the nineteenth-century occult revival in general and the Order of the Golden Dawn, in particular. W. B. Yeats was another prominent member of the Golden Dawn, and his disagreements with Crowley led to its break-up, but Crowley went beyond the Golden Dawn. Where the Golden Dawn stood for the Western esoteric tradition, and Theosophy borrowed from Eastern religions, Crowley fused the whole field, studying Buddhism, Hinduism and Sufism as well as practising the Enochian magic of the Elizabethan magus Dr Dee and the Holy Guardian Angel system from the Book of Abra-Melin. His results seemed to bring a new objectivity to voyaging through occult states of consciousness, with what he called “The Method of Science, the Aim of Religion”. The sheer eclecticism of Crowley’s work becomes a drawback, and it is probably one of the reasons why he is more renowned in popular culture than he is as a spiritual teacher. But Crowley saw himself as the founder of a new world religion, Thelema (from the Greek for will), which would have its 2,000-year innings after the demise of Christianity, and whose dictum “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law” was ultimately an injunction to find one’s “True Will” and place in the order of things.
The major event in Crowley’s career occurred in 1904, on honeymoon in Egypt, when he found himself taking dictation, like the automatic writing that was so much in vogue at the time, from an entity named Aiwass: his Guardian Angel. “We have nothing with the outcast and the unfit” said Aiwass, “let them die in their misery ... stamp down the wretched and the weak: this is the law of the strong: this is our law and the joy of the world ... kill and torture ...” – and so on, in a book-length Nietzschean torrent that became Thelema’s central document: The Book of the Law. Crowley believed that the publication of this book unleashed wars, crediting successive editions with the Balkan War, the Great War and the Munich Crisis.
“The Beast may be considered as his own worst enemy”, wrote Crowley’s former disciple Charles Stansfeld Jones, “but Aiwass is quite evidently the enemy of mankind, and should be recognized as such.” Another disciple, the unfortunate Norman Mudd, believed at one point that he was the only person who could understand The Book of the Law. Mudd came from humble origins in the North of England, won a scholarship to Cambridge, and became a Professor of Mathematics in South Africa, only to chuck it all in to follow Crowley, become homeless, and finally walk into the sea weighted with stones. Having regarded Mudd as a “hoglike abortion” and chastized him for being a “religious fanatic”, Crowley commented: “I feel sure he must have left a long, elaborate mathematical proof as to why he had to do this”. The appalling way in which Crowley treated friends and associates is matched only by his endless protestations of innocence and goodwill, but his apparent callousness is of a piece with a manic vision of existence as endless joy. Having broken completely with Buddhism, Crowley came to feel there was no sadness in the world if the world were properly understood: even a dying man was like a clown jumping through a hoop.
There have been numerous books on Crowley already – John Symonds’s early and sceptical biography The Great Beast (1951) remains a classic, and is perhaps the only one with literary value in its own right – but the present pair are among the most reverent, considering Crowley as a spiritual leader ushering in a new aeon for humanity: as Tobias Churton puts it, without irony, “Crowley wanted to help us”. The outlines of Crowley’s life are well known, but Richard Kaczynski’s monumental Perdurabo – substantially revised and expanded from its first publication in 2002 – fills in endless details. It has long been obvious that Crowley was reacting against his Plymouth Brethren upbringing – it was his mother who first called him the Beast 666, when he was naughty – but Kaczynski has now traced his religious forebears back for five generations. Kaczynski also has new and admirably clear material on the origins of the Order of the Temple of the Orient, the magical group associated with Crowley, from which it is evident that their ideas about sexual magick come less from Oriental tantrism than from nineteenth-century America, with Thomas Lake Harris and Paschal Beverly Randolph.
Kaczynski follows Crowley’s magical progress up the eleven Golden Dawn-style grades of the Great White Brotherhood, beginning with his initiation in 1898 as a neophyte at Mark Mason’s Hall, Covent Garden, and later progressing to the status of Magister Templi, in which he had to interpret every event as the dealing of God with his soul; then to Magus, which brought him to the level of Christ or Muhammad as the world’s eighth and latest religious leader; and (since there was still further to go) finally to the rank of Ipsissimus, a grade Crowley assumed in 1921, incomprehensible to ordinary mortals.
Anything Kaczynski’s book might lack in style and cultural nuance it makes up for in research, and as an accumulation of largely reliable data it is the major biography to date. Churton, in contrast, writes with a hubristic verve but is less comprehensive, and more concerned to champion Crowley as “a major thinker, as significant as Freud or Jung”. His book is also indebted to Richard Spence’s speculative Secret Agent 666 (2005), and has a running thread about Crowley’s alleged career with British Intelligence.
Anthony Powell has suggested that Crowley is significant “as what might be called a ‘post-decadent’, representing the curious residue of the nineties that lived on into Edwardian days”, and there is something irreducibly interesting about him, if not at face value as the guru some people take him for. Given his belief in channelling spirits, it might be appropriate to say that something spoke through him; not a bad angel, perhaps, but the darker genius of Victorian and Edwardian Britain, and its cultural and sexual discontents.
Phil Baker’s most recent book is Austin Osman Spare: The life and legend of London’s lost artist, published this year.
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