“Everything is good when it comes from the hands of the Almighty;
everything degenerates in the hands of man.”
—Jean Jacques Rousseau, Emile
Not the least of the ironies of the modern age is that the more it pretends to rationality, the more it wallows in the irrational. In the last generation, one of the trends in modern intellectual history has been the exposure of the irrationalist roots and affiliations of those periods and movements that boast most loudly of the triumph of their rationalism. The late Frances Yates’ work on the importance of Hermetic and occultist traditions in the Renaissance and James Billington’s exposure of the occultist linkages of the radical Enlightenment and European revolutionary movements are well-known instances. This scholarship shows that what is usually dismissed derisively as the “occult” not only survives in the modern mind but actually permeates it.
The latter half of the 19th century also witnessed an “occult revival” that—though it manifested itself in a number of secret societies modeled more or less along Masonic lines and claiming to possess secret knowledge of a mystical nature as well as, in some cases, the ability to perform magical operations—was actually a resurrection of Gnostic ideologies of antiquity. The occultism of the period was in part a reaction against the industrialization and urbanization of Western society, but it was also a continuation of the Romantic revolt against modernity itself—as well as a bizarre fulfillment of the promises of modernity.
While most of the characters associated with the 19th-century occult revival are now mercifully and deservedly forgotten, by far the most significant of them—the bizarre and often pathetic figure of Aleister Crowlev, who has retained a lurking and unsavory presence in some corners of 20th-century literature and in late 20th-century popular culture—has somehow escaped oblivion. Somerset Maugham wrote a novel about him, a number of writers of popular fiction have based sinister characters on him, and various rock music groups of the 1960’s and 70’s revived him as a kind of idol. Through his own Herculean efforts to cultivate notoriety during his lifetime, he has managed to survive as a supposed Satanist: the “Great Beast of Revelation,” as he liked to be called, or “The Wickedest Man in the World,” as the British tabloid press dubbed him in his heyday. Although Crowley has been a staple of many sensationalist books and occultist tracts, Lawrence Sutin’s thorough biography is the first major and serious study of the Great Beast’s life; if it proves anything, it shows that Crowley was much less the Great Beast than the Great Bore.
Born in 1875 to a wealthy middle-class family of fundamentalist Christian faith, Crowley rebelled against the rigorous religiosity of his upbringing and the Victorian primness of late 19th-century British society. He showed early promise as both a gifted chess player and an alpinist who sealed some of the most difficult mountains in the world; but while still an undergraduate at Cambridge, Crowley began to cultivate an interest in magic and mysticism as well as in poetry (not to mention debauchery in every conceivable form). Unfortunately, Mr. Sutin never offers much of a serious examination of Crowley’s poetic talents and achievements; neither one probably amounted to much. Crowley’s verse seems to have consisted mostly of florid and not very memorable imitations of the Pre-Raphaelite style that ceased to be fashionable during his youth; he despised the modernist poetry that flourished during most of his life in the early 20th century, and no modern poet seems to have paid any attention to him.
Crowley joined up with a secret group calling itself the “Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn,” which has been the subject of far more romance and intrigue than it ever merited. The Golden Dawn did harbor some writers of note, including the young W.B. Yeats, and for a time also sported the actress Florence Farr, the mistress of Bernard Shaw, but mainly it was a sect of middle-class shopkeepers who fascinated themselves with the outlandish rituals and robes they affected. From the Golden Dawn, Crowley moved to a more mature preoccupation with Buddhism, where he might have remained had he not experienced what he took to be a supernatural visitation in Cairo in 1904. Exactly what happened is unclear (it was unclear to Crowley as well), but he claimed that a supernatural being named “Aiwass” had dictated to him a book destined to be the holy text of a new religion for a new era, or the “New Aeon,” as Crowley began to call it. Devout Christians may regard “Aiwass” as a demonic or Satanic figure, while more secular minds would take him to be merely an hallucinatory phantasm of Crowley’s own sex- and drug-besotted mind (next to—and perhaps even more than—magic and poetry, sex and drugs were his favorite obsessions). One way or the other, Crowley devoted much of the rest of his life to evangelizing on behalf of the new faith.
The religion itself he called “Thelema,” after a Greek word for “will,” and the basic commandment of the cult was “Do What Thou Wilt Shall be the Whole of the Law,” both name and law being adapted from Rabelais. There are obvious libertarian and libertine interpretations of this creed, expounded by Crowley in the manuscript dictated by Aiwass and published as The Book of the Law, but there is also supposedly a magical meaning to it, although Mr. Sutin fails to explain this very clearly. (That may represent no failing on his part, however, since there may not be any meaning to it at all.) Crowley, who began affecting a shaven head to make himself look more sinister, did attract a number of followers, mainly lonely and vacuous women and foolish young men, both of whom became the objects of his voracious sexual exploitation. By the 1920’s, virtually driven from England and France by his notoriety, he had established an “Abbey of Thelema” in Sicily where he and his band sodomized and flagellated each other to their heart’s content until Mussolini’s government got wind of them and booted the Great Beast out of the country. By the 1930’s, having exhausted the fortune he had inherited and squandered whatever else he managed to get his hands on, Crowley found himself addicted to heroin and facing both poverty and obscurity as his followers abandoned him, his friends saw through him, and the yellow press tired of him. He finally died in 1947, the New Aeon of which he claimed to be the prophet as yet unnoticed by mankind.
For all the sensation he excited during his lifetime, Crowley’s mind, his writings, and his life offer little interest. His notoriety was based mainly on his outspoken defiance of Victorian sexual and moral norms, which is one of the reasons anyone has paid any attention to him since his death. Yet those normal people who had much contact with Aleister Crowley regarded him as anything but heroic. In 1912, for example, Crowley and one of his female companions were cavorting in a villa outside Naples while his lover’s teenage son lived with them for a summer. The son was the young Preston Sturges, later famous as the director of such film comedies as Sullivan’s Travels and possessed of more real talent than Crowley could imagine. Sturges’s assessment of the Great Beast was more devastating than any curse Crowley’s magic could concoct:
The practitioner and staunch defender of every form of vice historically known to man, generally accepted as one of the most depraved, vicious, and revolting humbugs who ever escaped from a nightmare or a lunatic asylum, universally despised and enthusiastically expelled from every country he ever tried to live in, Mr. Crowley nevertheless was considered by my mother to be not only the epitome of charm and good manners, but also the possessor of one of the very few genius-bathed brains she had been privileged to observe at work during her entire lifetime. Ask me not why!… Reading about some of his subsequent exploits, I realize that my mother and I were lucky to escape with our lives. If I had been a little older, he might not have escaped with his.
Sturges’s characterization of Crowley is somewhat akin to that offered by American arts patron John Quinn, whom Crowley tried to impress. “Frankly,” Quinn wrote to Yeats, “his ‘magic’ and astrology bored me beyond words. Whatever he may be, he has no personality. I am not interested in his morals or lack of morals. He may or may not be a good or profound or crooked student or practitioner of magic. To me, he is only a third- or fourth-rate poet.” Yet another literary figure wrote that, “when you got used to his eccentricities, and so long as you were not impressed by his mystical pretensions, he was apt to become a fearful bore.”
Why then is Aleister Crowley important enough to warrant serious attention at all, let alone a 400-page biography? His significance lies in the fascination he exercised over the entire century in which he flourished, from the mediocre novel that Maugham wrote about him to the attention splattered on him by the Beatles and Led Zeppelin and his adoption by the counterculture of the 1960’s. The reason for that fascination lies not so much in any talents possessed by the tedious Great Beast as in his genuine ability to project and even incarnate some of the most characteristic features of the century itself. Crowley’s New Aeon is nothing more than the illusion of modernity, the “New Age” that the last part of the 20th century and the first part of the current one chatters about so much, an age in which human beings have succeeded in “emancipating” themselves from the moral, religious, social, and political bonds of the old era and now imagine that they—or some of them—are about to become as gods because of their emancipation. Crowley believed human beings could transcend and escape their own nature through his synthesis of magic, sex, and drugs. He was not the last to believe so, though a more typical route to secular perfection has been political action. Yet, whichever path to liberation one chooses, the inevitable result is the same ruin and wreckage at the social level that Crowley inflicted on himself on the personal one. Someone should have explained to the Great Beast that his New Aeon was neither new nor true and that any era for which this pathetic charlatan is as fitting a symbol, as Crowley is of ours, is likely to wind up being as much of a failure, a fraud, and a bore as he himself turned out to be.
[Do What Thou Wilt: A Life of Aleister Crowley, by Lawrence Sutin (New York: St. Martin’s Press) 483 pp., $27.95]