Aleister Crowley: The Biography
You know something?
It’s odd, very odd.
Aleister Crowley died six decades ago, ignored and forgotten, a figure almost studiously overlooked, almost wilfully disregarded. These days it is often said that by 1947, Crowley was a bogey man, a demonologist dusted off to scare the kiddies at Halloween, a fallen figure of fun, a dishevelled magus in a rumpled robe. But that’s simply not true. By the time of his passing, The Beast was entirely ‘absent’, irrelevant to the world; a shadow no taller than his soul.
What’s so odd, then?
Well, despite this ‘absence’, since his passing there has been in the region of a dozen or so biographies of this supernaturally-inclined has-been. One might have predicted that things would pan out biographically just as they actually started to in those early years: entertaining trash (Mannix), vindictive and bitchy journalism (Symonds’ first stab at Crowley) and frankly over protective memoir (Cammell). And that’s where it might have stopped. But the biographies just kept coming and they continue to arrive with no obvious sign of slowing down. Some of them – no, make that most of them – are serious books with a genuine desire to get to grips with the man behind the fancy dress postures, the drugs and sleazy sexual antics in broken Sicilian farm buildings.
Up until a few years ago you could choose from some very well-researched volumes looking at Therion from a variety of perspectives: Reichian, Jungian or Christian, admiring or hateful. There were more interpretations than you could shake a stick at, enough opinions to cover all eventualities and – in the case of Symonds’ increasingly detailed editions – way, way more information about the subject’s toilet habits than was healthy to know.
And things began to change with the arrival of biographies by Booth and Sutin. The authors no longer felt the obligation to have an ‘angle’: a biographer had to know ‘stuff’, not ‘believe’ things or interpret actions. It was more important all of a sudden to research the facts and present them in a realistic way than it was to psychoanalyse, proselytise or decipher. This was, most definitely, a ‘good thing’ and reflected a general trend in biography, if not hagiography.
In 2002, along came Kaczynski’s ‘Perdurabo’, a biography of enormous erudition, its extraordinarily high standards of research combining with real understanding of both subject and subjects. It was followed, eight years later, with a new edition, significantly expanded and proudly boasting on its cover, ‘the definitive biography.’
Scholar, TV presenter, author, authority on Rosicrucianism and Gnosticism and a faculty lecturer in western esotericism, Tobias Churton was commissioned after publication of the first edition of ‘Perdurabo’ to write ‘the’ biography of Crowley. He did just that, delivering the typescript only to see the second ‘Perdurabo’ edition appear while his book sat on shelves awaiting publication. It’s unavoidable but ultimately unfair, therefore, that Churton’s volume is compared with the current Kaczynski edition. So, how does it compare, as all biographies have to be contrasted with the best of the ones preceding them?
Published by the world-famous Watkins this year (2011), the book runs to 475 pages. It’s nicely bound, surviving the multiple re-reads inflicted on it by this reviewer, and although the paper on which it’s printed is relatively cheap, the volume does have the feel of something that will survive for decades.
Physically, there’s little to choose between this and ‘Perdurabo’, which is a shame as they are destined to share bookshop shelf-space. The dust-jackets are unimaginative: Kaczysnki’s biography is declared to be ‘definitive’, whereas Churton’s is equally grandly ‘the biography’. Both are substantial hardcovers, both have illustrations of varying quality and scarcity, both have all the academic editorial paraphernalia you’d expect from serious books, and, significantly, both mention at some length the gratitude of the author for the assistance provided by one William Breeze.
I mention this acknowledgement for two reasons. First, for the impartial among us who continue to study Crowley’s life and works, it is a reassuring statement. Given the appearance of some frankly ludicrous genre books in recent years, it’s refreshing to see that these have been at least assisted or overseen by an acknowledged subject expert, a real scholar in a very specific field. Regardless of one’s opinion of the OTO, William Breeze’s involvement in this book counts for something. On the other hand, of course, Churton will inevitably find himself on the sharp end of accusations of some sort of bizarre organisational favouritism. Secondly, there is a reassurance that the author has been permitted access to legitimate sources, to ‘original notes made at the time’, to the finest Crowley archives outside private collections.
The book opens with a pair of family trees, showing with absolute clarity Crowley’s genealogy, with both paternal and maternal ancestry. I wish previous biographies had done the same: it would have saved me a lot of effort and, with Crowley’s endless talk of aunts, uncles and cousins, it would have prevented much head-scratching.
The book’s foreword is by Dr Christopher McIntosh, who will need no introduction to serious students here. Dr McIntosh is the erudite and charming author of one of my favourite genre texts: ‘The Rosy Cross Unveiled’. I am given to understand that he assisted substantially in the research behind Churton’s book. He immediately raises the causes célèbres of Thelema, The Beatles and Jimmy Page. He also brings the history of Crowley biographies full circle almost with his mention of Richard Spence’s intriguing ‘Secret Agent 666’. It’s a delightful foreword that rewards re-reading.
Churton starts the book proper very much as you might expect, with the 2002 BBC poll of the Top 100 Greatest Britons, counterpointing this piece of journalistic drivel with a stunningly beautiful poem written by Crowley in 1943 when he was ‘pondering the competing Pooh-sticks of his reputation.’
We see almost immediately the gentle sense of humour that runs through this rather extraordinary biography: it’s a sharply focused wit that is frequently to the fore and it lightens what could otherwise be a sobering account of wealth wasted, opportunity squandered and friends deserted. Take for example this: ‘new ageism, witchcraft, hippies, paganism, sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll: it’s all his fault.’ Marvellous stuff!
Churton’s account of Crowley’s relationship with his parents is among the best, the most intelligent accounts that I’ve read. He speaks – as so often in this book – as if he sees things from Crowley’s perspective, so he doesn’t go for the easy Freudian or Reichian approach. It is far too easy to leap to obvious but ill-founded conclusions or indeed to take Crowley at his own word and to regurgitate the ‘brainless bigot’ line. Rather, Churton understands Crowley’s ambivalent feelings towards his mother, noting that he ‘never, as far as we know, wished her dead; he only wished she was more alive.’ Perfect! And, in a finely turned sentence, Churton has cut through the fanciful amateur psychoanalysis that infects several of the post-sixties biographies to reach the very heart of Crowley: he may have been foolish and spiteful and dismissive, he may have lacked empathy and respect, but at the root of it all, he wanted to make things ‘better’, to make people more of what they had the means to become.
An area in which this book shines is a description of Crowley’s family, more detail of which is provided than I ever recall reading in any previous biography. Glib remarks in previous books about Crowley’s father having been a brewer are dismissed, for example. The brewer remark survives as a result of the reference to the invention by a family member of a ‘beer engine’, a hand pump, but ‘Aleister Crowley was not a brewer’s son; he was a noted brewer’s second cousin.’ If there’s a value in biographical reiterations it’s in the righting of errors, the uncovering of facts previously unknown or unlinked.
There is much in this account of Crowley’s early life that leads us to agree with Churton that Crowley grew up the way he did not chiefly because of some confused relationship with his mother or even his despair at the loss of his father. Churton makes clear that Crowley’s obsessions were always, at heart, those of the standard English Tory of the time: aristocracy allied with an almost spiritual kinship. Just as an aside, Churton notes that in her will, Crowley’s mother left The Beast ‘two items of furniture.’
Something fairly widely overlooked in last year’s publication of ‘The Drug’ by Cowley, a collection of short stories, was the revelation that Crowley and mountaineer Oscar Eckenstein had been lovers. Turton’s biography is, I believe, the first to discuss this and its implications.
In common with other recent books about Crowley, one is taken time and again by the curious censorship inflicted on ‘The Confessions’ as published by Grant and Symonds. I have been taken to task in the past, even having been called a conspiracy buff, for suspecting the motives of those who selected which parts of ‘The Confessions’ to excise. Perhaps all I need mention here is that Churton reveals yet more curious deletions – it’s extraordinary that these excisions so frequently are the ones that show Crowley in a nobler light, especially in respect of his intelligence work. We obviously can’t be sure until the unexpurgated edition is published, but it seems that there is a story to tell…
Churton writes sensibly about Crowley’s drug use – pretty much as sensibly as Crowley himself! He notes that Crowley was fully aware that drus could be an aid to magick but that they needed to be approached with caution and taken ‘not just for kicks.’
It’s in his account and analysis of Crowley’s writing of ‘The Book Of The Law’, the so-called ‘Cairo Working’, that this book is at its best. There are many surprises here, facts linked, coincidences re-examined, and it’s tempting to repeat the most important of them in this review. In respect of the author, though, I shall maintain his confidence and recommend that you, dear reader, buy the book, or at least read the relevant chapter while standing in the bookshop. What I would note here is that Churton refers to the first appearance of the dramatis personae of the Working in his poetry compilation, ‘Carmen Saeculare’, four years earlier:
“Only I see the century as a child […]
Hail! Hail to Thee, Lord of us, Horus!
All hail to the warrior name…”
And so on. Likewise, in Mexico Crowley wrote ‘Tannhauser’, concluding a passage by Isis:
“Return to me –
The echoes are obvious to most that read this review, I suspect, and there’s much more of this here, right up to the startling similarity in descriptions of the physical appearance of Aiwass and… But no, I’ve said enough and must refer the reader to Churton. Suffice to say that Churton has identified some interesting ‘new’ facts – mostly from published works by Crowley. I covered many of them – but by no means all – in my ‘Crowley’s Egypt’ talks at Treadwells and for AMeTh Lodge and will detail them and others in a book to be published next year. Churton has noted – again independently of my work – that in Crowley’s ‘Book Of Results’ there is reference to the ritual being ‘of sex’ (it’s actually from an entry dated 23 March), an extraordinary statement that doesn’t seem to have been picked up on by many students. By the way, Churton publishes for the first time a letter written to Kelly by Crowley in October 1902 from Shepheards Hotel. It includes an intriguing sentence: ‘Cairo is a filthy little place with no beauty at all, unless you go to the Nile.’
Churton describes Mr and Mrs Crowley’s honeymoon night spent in the King’s Chamber of the Great Pyramid in November 1903 and makes very clear the significance of this event. Again, more later in a future work by the present writer. Churton doesn’t get it all right – he takes Crowley at face value about the Boulaq Museum, for example – and overlooks some important matters but he has done more than any other biographer to push forward the boundaries of what is known about this most important event in Crowley’s life.
‘Crowley and Rose did more in Cairo than receive strange messages – they had fun as well.’
Churton’s account of the years at Cefalu is surprisingly lacking in detail, especially given that it is a period of time that is remarkably well documented elsewhere, with the diaries of Crowley, Frank Bennett, Jane Wolfe and Leah Hirsig all being widely available. As such – in skipping over such matters as the infamous ‘goat sacrifice’ and in not mentioning the implied sexual assault of children – Churton follows a path already trod by other biographers. Some things subvert the narrative arc too much and are simply too shocking to maintain Crowley as a sympathetic character. There are two ways of viewing this, of course: one is that Crowley was indeed a generally sympathetic character and such descriptions are perhaps malicious libels or maybe drug-addled ramblings; the other is that, for several years, Crowley was enthusiastically involved in activities that most of us would consider beyond the pail, and that the facts should be aired. Who’s to say which approach is right? Would a book detailing the further reaches of depravity that Crowley explored in that Sicilian hovel find a respectable publisher?
So, what’s to be said in summary about the book?
Well, there’s real erudition, real scholarship and real humour here: ‘When holy Crowley was not the Messiah, he could be a very naughty boy.’ Throughout the book there is a lightness of touch that really does impress, together with a real understanding of the back-story, the ‘occult’ obsessions of history from which Crowley liberally drank.
Reading through this substantial tome, one is often met by a turn of phrase, a sharp riposte or note, that really does make you sit up and think twice. For example: ‘When most in his Edwardian heyday believed the world was progressing nicely to a cosy democracy, Crowley envisioned a future of force and fire — the Aeon of Horus characterised by child psychology. The old era’s catastrophe would be marked by titanic war, unless, he believed, people paid heed to a message he was himself often unwilling to deliver. He was a reluctant prophet.’ It takes years of study of Crowley’s writings to witness this truth: to see the logos behind the demon, the sage behind the beast.
Churton starts the book with a list of what he calls Crowley’s five ‘principal achievements’, ones that are subsequently referred to obliquely but often: the list is an excellent and fair summary of the achievements of a life lived fully, if not especially well. Briefly summarised, they include the unification of Western and Eastern spiritual and esoteric traditions; the introduction of science and psychology into mysticism and magic; establishing an empirical basis for spiritual attainment independent of an organised religion; introducing relativity into magic and mysticism; and, finally, pioneering liberated ‘sex teaching’, effectively restoring, while doing so, sexual alchemy to the Rosicrucian tradition.
Churton ‘gets’ Crowley, ‘gets’ him better than any previous biographer. He understands what drove the Beast and he has an empathy for Crowley that leads the reader into a real sense of communion with the subject. Kaczysnki’s book is more detailed, though: if you want to know what AC was doing on a particular day, it’s ‘Perdurabo’ you will refer to. I understand that Churton’s book was heavily edited and it does show some signs of having been over-enthusiastically cut to length. As such, then — and it’s the reviewer’s unwanted task to compare two first class books — ‘Perdurabo’ remains the ‘definitive’ biography of Crowley but you’d be a fool not to own both of these wonderful volumes.