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"The Beast 666" by John Symonds [Pindar Press, London: 1997)


jamie barter
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“The Beast 666” by John Symonds [Pindar Press, London: 1997; £25.00 (hdbck); 608pp & x].

Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.

The Beast 666 is the final enlargement of Symonds’ original The Great Beast, an earlier and similar sorry sort of effort to interpret him, which in 1951 became the first Crowley biography amongst many to subsequently appear.  The poet W.H. Auden’s observations on the Griswold-Poe connection can also be applied exactly to that of Symonds-Crowley:

That one man should dislike another and speak maliciously of him after his death would be natural enough, but to take so much trouble, to blacken a reputation so subtly, presupposes a sustained hatred which is always fascinating because the capacity for sustaining emotion of any kind is rare…

A remarkable parallel exists between Aleister Crowley and another “king of the shadow realm” – as Symonds pithily phrased it – Edgar Allan Poe.  As Poe did with Rufus Griswold, Crowley selected a literary executor (although “literary executioner” might be the more accurate term) who would turn out to be his most invidious posthumous enemy.  For John Symonds, like Griswold, has gone to extraordinary lengths to present the deceased Crowley in a manner which (as Daniel Hoffman, another of Poe’s biographers, remarks) is

designed to make his name a household word for the dissolute, immoral, and recklessly debauched. […] Whatever the envy and malice with which he blackened his reputation, it is a fact that a vast public was both able and willing to believe him [Crowley/ Poe] a fiend, a lunatic, a debauchee, a soul in damnation.

The historical and biographical facts are, more often than not, largely correct and accurate.  The same cannot be said about Symonds’ interpretation of them, however.  His witlessness and almost formidable lack of real perception is evident in the Preface for the new edition.  As anybody knows who takes the trouble to study his actual writings for him or her self, Crowley’s philosophy, “as generally understood”, did not “invite one to ‘do one’s own thing’” – unless one equates that thing with true will.  Likewise, only an empty-headed Athenian would confuse Crowleyanity with Thelema.  Symonds’ pathology can only be guessed at, when he (nevertheless rather poetically) writes of the unconscious as: “the dark chaos of the mind, all those seamy and disgusting aspects of life which arise from that bubbling cauldron”.  According to him, “He was totally unintegrated. There was no love or kindness in Aleister Crowley. […] His aim was not to improve mankind, for which he had only contempt, but to bend mankind to his demonic will. (pp. viii, x)”.  But you, Mr Symonds!  Where might your loving kindness be?  For this vile biography thinks nothing of speaking ill of the dead, most notably when Symonds carves a hypothetical epitaph to the tombstone of his subject with: “He delivered the psychotic goods.”  Why, poor old Crowley doesn’t even get a R.I.P.!

I have had the misfortune to compare and contrast the earlier and later volumes of this execrable volume, and the gulf of almost fifty years – nigh on half a century – inbetween them shows that during the interim Symonds has managed to learn nothing.  Indeed, in his autumn years, he seems even less aware in 1997 than he was back in 1951 – no little achievement.  His Preface must stand as an almost unparalleled example of psychological projection and uncompassionate viciousness.  Since each paragraph reveals several mistakes, it would be a futile exercise to try to set the record straight in any respect, either concerning the Preface or the actual contents of the book itself.  (Talk about being snow-blind, and not knowing where to begin!)  To do it justice would take a book almost as long again, and deprive readers of the chance to exercise their own powers of intelligence and discrimination.  Rather like reading the “Sunday Sport” or watching television documentary “reconstructions” – either you know how to take these interpretations of events with an extremely liberal pinch of salt, or else you gullibly lap them up!

It is hard to see exactly why Symonds has brought out a fatter (not to mention more fatheaded) version of his book in any case.  It couldn’t be that he needed the money, and Crowley’s bones had just enough meat on them left for one more picking, could it?  His excuse was that the recently deceased Gerald Yorke’s large collection of Crowleiana had prompted the latest editions.  But since the bulk of the new material comes from the last two decades of Crowley’s life (decades with which Symonds snappily accords the phrase “The Dreadful Years”) and consists of diary entries and letters taken out of context to suit Symonds’ schema, it is difficult to see the gain for either casual reader or Crowleian scholar in such an enterprise.  A far more useful exercise for Mr Symonds as executor might have been to have brought out more of Crowley’s or even Leah Hirsig’s hitherto unpublished diaries in full (pace his earlier [1972] The Magical Record of the Beast 666 along with Kenneth Grant), though without the need for any superfluous commentary.

Daniel Hoffman reached the conclusion that for Poe’s work to have won its present high regard, it was “necessary” that he be so badly abused by Griswold’s poisonous pen.  The same is undoubtedly true for Crowley, since if it were not for The Great Beast, it remains questionable whether his direct teachings would today be enjoying such epidemic numbers of appreciative readers. [N.B., Postscript in 2014: This is no longer the case, now that the present copyright holders the ©.O.T.O. have dramatically limited their (re)publication programme for previously published and unpublished Crowleian texts.]  In this respect, Symonds has become rather hoist by his own petard.  There are several hints throughout The Beast 666 that Symonds is a practising Christian, a religion which is absolutely at odds with Crowley’s religio-philosophical system of Thelema.  Two examples are as follows:

Secretly he felt himself to be a sinner.  The Vision and the Voice, which he wrote during 1909, reveals in clear passages among the verbiage that he knew he was guilty.  [Crowley] was so stuck in opposition to everything that was normal, that he refused to confess and take the consequences.  Not for him the Christian view of confession, penitence and redemption.” (p. ix)

and

It was rumoured that [Leah Hirsig] became a Roman Catholic, and in that great Communion found at last her peace.” (p. 409)

It is reasonable to assume that, being a shrewd observer of human nature, Crowley was well aware of his young friend’s latent or closet Christianity; and that he knew exactly what he was doing in putting Symonds, of all people, in charge of his affairs.

There are now a large number of biographies and assessments of Crowley in print which would offer the prospective reader a more educational and accurate appraisal than any of Symonds’ life-long efforts.  There is Francis King’s flawed but readable and [at the time] full of fresh information The Magical World of Aleister Crowley.  P.R. Stephensen’s The Legend of Aleister Crowley is still an extremely good read for all those who wish to consider why the media in general has such a bad image of A.C.  Israel Regardie’s The Eye in the Triangle is an excellent biography up to 1914, after which point he appears to lose interest in his subject somewhat.  J.F.C. Fuller’s hagiographical The Star in the West is a bit much for most stomachs to handle, while C.R.Cammell’s luridly re-entitled Aleister Crowley: The Black Magician is an amusing book which is told from almost as uncomprehending an authorial viewpoint as Symonds’ The Great Beast itself.  The Magician of the Golden Dawn by Susan Roberts is commended particularly because of its original “docudramatic” style and favourable feminine perspective given to Crowley, who is often dismissed as being a raving chauvinist (often by raving feminists).  Gerald Suster’s The Legacy of The Beast is a lucid and groundbreaking endeavour to put the ideas and teachings of Crowley in a variety of magickal and mystical fields into a concise present-day overview.  Colin Wilson’s The Nature of The Beast however is inaccurate, biased towards the Symonds school of deprecation, and unfortunately a generally unworthy effort by the author of The Outsider.

By a strange coincidence, Colin Wilson also reviewed Symonds’ previous incarnation of Crowley’s biography The King of the Shadow Realm as being “almost gruesomely readable… a kind of appalling classic.”  But I will not be so coy.  I say: this book is, in fact, gruesomely readable; and now and again in its 608 pages, there is a wry example of stylish word play, like the sun coming out from behind a bank of sodden rain clouds.  But the fact that it could ever be considered a “classic”? – why, that really is appalling!

Love is the law, love under will.

Free from copyright: Norma N Joy Conquest.

(This review could also cater for King of the Shadow Realm as well, with only slight modification.
An earlier unauthorisedly edited version also originally appeared in the London Talking Stick Magazine.)


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jamie barter
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As is nearly always the case, when one tries to present something with as few mistakes in as possible, one or two will then inevitably sneak past the barricades and get in.  The appearance of the arch-nemesis Griswold suddenly may have come as a surprise; this was because the order of the first few paragraphs became slightly out of sync.  Their correct order should be:

The Beast 666 is the final enlargement of Symonds’ original The Great Beast, an earlier and similar sorry sort of effort to interpret him, which in 1951 became the first Crowley biography amongst many to subsequently appear.  A remarkable parallel exists between Aleister Crowley and another “king of the shadow realm” – as Symonds pithily phrased it – Edgar Allan Poe.  As Poe did with Rufus Griswold, Crowley selected a literary executor (although “literary executioner” might be the more accurate term) who would turn out to be his most invidious posthumous enemy.  For John Symonds, like Griswold, has gone to extraordinary lengths to present the deceased Crowley in a manner which (as Daniel Hoffman, another of Poe’s biographers, remarks) is

designed to make his name a household word for the dissolute, immoral, and recklessly debauched. […] Whatever the envy and malice with which he blackened his reputation, it is a fact that a vast public was both able and willing to believe him [Crowley/ Poe] a fiend, a lunatic, a debauchee, a soul in damnation.

The poet W.H. Auden’s observations on the Griswold-Poe connection can also be applied exactly to that of Symonds-Crowley:

That one man should dislike another and speak maliciously of him after his death would be natural enough, but to take so much trouble, to blacken a reputation so subtly, presupposes a sustained hatred which is always fascinating because the capacity for sustaining emotion of any kind is rare…

The historical and biographical facts are, more often than not, largely correct and accurate.  The same cannot be said about Symonds’ interpretation of them, however.  His witlessness and almost formidable lack of real perception is evident in the Preface for the new edition.  As anybody knows who takes the trouble to study his actual writings for him or her self, Crowley’s philosophy, “as generally understood”, did not “invite one to ‘do one’s own thing’” – unless one equates that thing with true will.  Likewise, only an empty-headed Athenian would confuse Crowleyanity with Thelema.  Symonds’ pathology can only be guessed at, when he (nevertheless rather poetically) writes of the unconscious as: “the dark chaos of the mind, all those seamy and disgusting aspects of life which arise from that bubbling cauldron”.  According to him, “He was totally unintegrated. There was no love or kindness in Aleister Crowley. […] His aim was not to improve mankind, for which he had only contempt, but to bend mankind to his demonic will. (pp. viii, x)”.  But you, Mr Symonds!  Where might your loving kindness be?  For this vile biography thinks nothing of speaking ill of the dead, most notably when Symonds carves a hypothetical epitaph to the tombstone of his subject with: “He delivered the psychotic goods.”  Why, poor old Crowley doesn’t even get a R.I.P.!  [Etc. as before]

Not that it is of vast importance, but I like to be clear if possible.
N Joy


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michaelclarke18
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I still like it though, and [still] consider it one of the best books about AC.


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Michael Staley
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"Jamie Barter" wrote:
A far more useful exercise for Mr Symonds as executor might have been to have brought out more of Crowley’s or even Leah Hirsig’s hitherto unpublished diaries in full (pace his earlier [1972] The Magical Record of the Beast 666 along with Kenneth Grant), though without the need for any superfluous commentary.

As a matter of fact, Jamie, a second volume was planned, covering the remainder of the Cefalu diary and the the Tunis period that followed. Indeed, there was a reference to it in a footnote in Kenneth Grant's Cults of the Shadow. The second volume never came to fruition, unfortunately, perhaps due to the lack of a publisher.

If you considered the footnotes in the published volume of The Magical Record of the Beast 666 superfluous, you could always simply ignore them. Some, perhaps lacking your familiarity with Crowley's life and work, find them useful.


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michaelclarke18
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As a matter of fact, Jamie, a second volume was planned, covering the remainder of the Cefalu diary and the the Tunis period that followed. Indeed, there was a reference to it in a footnote in Kenneth Grant's Cults of the Shadow. The second volume never came to fruition, unfortunately, perhaps due to the lack of a publisher.

Interesting; I wonder if a manuscript exists somewhere. Although, perhaps without a publisher, the work was never begun?


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Michael Staley
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"michaelclarke18" wrote:

As a matter of fact, Jamie, a second volume was planned, covering the remainder of the Cefalu diary and the the Tunis period that followed. Indeed, there was a reference to it in a footnote in Kenneth Grant's Cults of the Shadow. The second volume never came to fruition, unfortunately, perhaps due to the lack of a publisher.

Interesting; I wonder if a manuscript exists somewhere. Although, perhaps without a publisher, the work was never begun?

There's no surviving typescript that I've come across. Michael; simply an indication of the period and diaries covered. All the same, it must have been a firm enough plan for KG to mention Vol II in a footnote.


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jamie barter
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"Michael Staley" wrote:
"Jamie Barter" wrote:
A far more useful exercise for Mr Symonds as executor might have been to have brought out more of Crowley’s or even Leah Hirsig’s hitherto unpublished diaries in full (pace his earlier [1972] The Magical Record of the Beast 666 along with Kenneth Grant), though without the need for any superfluous commentary.

As a matter of fact, Jamie, a second volume was planned, covering the remainder of the Cefalu diary and the the Tunis period that followed. Indeed, there was a reference to it in a footnote in Kenneth Grant's Cults of the Shadow. The second volume never came to fruition, unfortunately, perhaps due to the lack of a publisher.

Yes, that is unfortunate if it would have been produced to the same high standard as the first one.  Also, so far as I am aware too I don’t think this period is available anywhere else.

"Michael Staley" wrote:
If you considered the footnotes in the published volume of The Magical Record of the Beast 666 superfluous, you could always simply ignore them. Some, perhaps lacking your familiarity with Crowley's life and work, find them useful.

Some of the footnotes there were very valuable and useful.  And I am hardly in a position to complain as a prodigious footnoter myself (as anyone who looks at my Thelema & Chaos Magic comparison Will & The Wisp can aver, as well as my piece on “The O.T.O. - Its Relevance Today” which is in the Blog section of this website.)  So on the whole, I favour having footnotes rather than not, although viewing any of them as “superfluous” must of necessity be a subjective undertaking.  However seeing the same sort of entry explain that e.g. “Die [Moon symbol]” meant "Monday" each time grew a bit repetitive, also another one (maybe an obvious favourite?!) where the editor goes into what “per vas nefandum” meant on page after page (if anyone doesn't know, look it up!!)...  For these sort of things, it would have been better to have had something like a Glossary at the beginning to deal with the bulk of them.

N Joy


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Michael Staley
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"jamie barter" wrote:
Also, so far as I am aware too I don’t think this period is available anywhere else.

The Magical Diaries of Aleister Crowley brought out by Stephen Skinner (Neville Spearman, 1979) covers the Tunis period following the expulsion from Sicily, and is interesting. But the latter part of the Cefalu diary, following on from The Magical Record of the Beast 666, remains unpublished to date I think.

"jamie barter" wrote:
. . . it would have been better to have had something like a Glossary at the beginning to deal with the bulk of them.

Yes, a Glossary would have been useful.


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