<><><><>This article was published in 1994 in Chaos International Issue No. 17 (BM Sorcery London WC1N 3XX)
ALEISTER CROWLEY AS GURU
John S Moore
culture does not take Aleister Crowley at all seriously these days, but the issues
he arouses, and the things he writes about, are often very similar to others
which are taken very seriously indeed. Take for example the writings of one of
the most revered of modern philosophers, Ludwig Wittgenstein. In his book,
'Culture and Value', translated by Peter Winch, Wittgenstein appears as guru,
with views and observations on all manner of subjects over and above the
strictly philosophical ones which made his reputation. If it is acceptable to
study this sort of thing, Aleister Crowley offers comparable intellectual meat
to chew on, fascinating, creative and original speculations, normally censored
out of the English scholarly tradition. Why pay attention to one set of ideas
rather than to another? This is the question of authority. Why Wittgenstein
rather than Marx, Freud, Heidegger, or even
He did aspire to a popular following, partly for energy, partly as the most obvious possibility of effecting change. He made use of existing occultist movements to refine them and to exercise his will to power. Though 'against the people', the individual who can lead a mass movement acquires freedom of action, and the dominant forces of the day no longer obstruct and oppose him. With the inertia of the mass behind him, he has support for whatever he wants to do. Even a rational ideal could do with a popular base, especially if it is expected to make any serious difference to society.
In 1911 he was
advertising his publications Equinox and 777, textbook of the
Crowleyan Kabbala, in the Occult Review. These were the waters in which
he fished, as Lenin and Mao in those of revolutionary tradition, and
Wittgenstein among philosophy students.
Preoccupation with images may suggest corruption of feeling, or at best triviality, like an excessive concern with clothing. The world of images promises the excitement of the superficial, with immediate opportunities for emotional stimulation and satisfaction. This is the world of Hitler as fuhrer, and that of American advertising and propaganda. The subject includes the emotional power of archetypes and stereotypes, sexual adornment and attraction, kings, queens, gods, goddesses, demons, vampires, maenads, angels, nymphs.
Actors apply their skills to see other people in terms of images; studying image manipulation, they may live out their own lives in such a world. Image contrasts with reality, for example the image of a philosopher versus the reality of a philosopher. Image manipulation appears as a form of play. One takes pleasure in the promotion of a certain image or reputation, and responding to the images projected by others as the the truly real as if this is the true game of life, its real meaning. Focussing on the emotional impact of a stereotype, all the charge associated with it, the aspiring magus aims to be more than human in embodying some attractive image.
have significantly influenced this intersection between thought and image. In
the early years of the century, the influence of Dostoyevsky was strong in
Where the objective
is power and overcoming, it is not enough to be seen as embodying some image or
other, as if life were some form of stage play or masquerade. Jacques, in 'As
You Like It' says that 'All the world's a stage', but his is the viewpoint of a
gloomy misanthrope. Life as masquerade is a limiting perspective. The person
who desires power will only value it from the point of view of what he can get
out of it.
According to the rules of ordinary life, success follows according to a given procedure. To raise the question of what rule we ought to follow introduces complication. If you seek to question the rule you will have nearly all those who have prospered by it against you.
John Symonds's book
'The Great Beast', reached a generation of readers in the post 1945 age of mass
culture. It effect was to contribute to a reaction against that culture, but it
was also a product of it.
There is seeming
justification in the nature of his following. Despite his enormous intellectual
power, his initial attraction, to any one, does not lie in the answers he gives
to intellectual problems. People are attracted to
stretches among ordinary working people, as he said he wanted in Magick in
Theory and Practice. His admirers have included hippies, punk rockers, readers
of science fiction, football fans. A bookcase full of Crowleyana, is a sight
occasionally to be seen in the most unexpected places. He is not without appeal
in the suburbs, among middle class women, interested in magic and the occult,
people that might normally be thought of as thoroughly bourgeois.
Symonds wrote:- 'The sphinx with the face of Aleister Crowley propounds this riddle. 'Why did I drive away my friends and followers? Why did I behave so vilely?. Other people have no ego and are just weak, but Crowley made a religion out of his weakness, out of being egoless'.
weakness and 'vile' behaviour, especially if we want to avoid reproaching
His ruthlessness would perhaps be of the same order as Lenin's. Nothing could be allowed to stand in the way of the proclamation of the law of thelema. Weakness may be included in this. One would like to do good as the expression of strength; however, one has weakness, that is to say a certain quality of self indulgence, and self denial is unrealistic. It may be 'normal' to overcome this in unthelemic ways. Some people practise self denial by putting moral restraints on themselves, for altruistic motives. Rejecting such solutions, vile behaviour may express integrity without suggesting immediate strength.
Women who claimed to understand him better than he understood himself, occasionally said there was something in him which was fundamentally not likeable. Alostrael asserted that there was weakness in him, something he did not normally want to think about, and that he normally preferred to deny.
He affirmed himself in his weakness. Weakness usually suggests constraint, prison, the opposite of a holiday. Acts of weakness are acts of constraint, and are therefore not admired. What excites admiration is courage, the power to act according to an idea, the saint, the martyr, not self glorification in one's weakness. 'Admire me, follow me, but I cannot protect you. I claim to be a magus, but I do not have everything under control. I am not entirely to be trusted, not because of my perverseness, but because of my weakness (Dalinian softness)'. What is normal human strength that is respected? Dependability, loyalty etc.
misunderstood if he is seen primarily as the teacher of a new path to
liberation, his sexual yoga and the abbey as a means of imparting this, with
the theory behind it boiled down to the crude schematism of paths to
enlightenment. He was part of a greater, far more intelligible tradition.
Thelema itself is a rationally intelligible ideal that goes back to Rabelais,
via Sir Francis Dashwood.
change, what remains constant is the will to power. Generally the thelemite
rebels against the prevailing mores. In one age asceticism is appropriate, in
Sensual desire can overthrow the judgement. Begin believing that total sensual satisfaction is the ideal and one is as if hooked on a drug, one feels forced to respect and admire those one wants to despise. It is wisdom that is really the ideal, but it is easy to confuse wisdom with its outer husk or shell, the manifestation it takes in some particular era.
The superman in the
form of Sanine*, or the Master Therion, is someone above all the normal
problems of life, powerful, resourceful and superabundantly healthy.
There is a paradox in the superman persona. He is the serpent in lion's clothing. The serpent was the subtlest beast of the field. The lion, as king of beasts, represents conventional moral strength. It does not admit to weakness or resentment as elements in its character. The later Goethe projected a leonine image. However the lion is too stupid to become the superman. The superman has grown outside conventional values, and this is how he has mastered them. He has grown outside them because he has rejected them, and he has done this because he has suffered from them. In the process of overcoming this oppression, he has broken the code most thoroughly and comprehensively. Nothing has stood in his way, neither justice, loyalty, nor common decency. If he now dons the mantle of superior virtue, this is because he is able to rationalise the path he has taken in terms of duty to God, or some other externalisation.
In contrast to Symonds, Susan Roberts's biography of Crowley, 'The Magician of the Golden Dawn', is a presentation of the superman persona. In a way, to take that persona at face value diminishes it, reduces to the leonine, cuts him down to size. But it does give a useful perspective. Dali's egomania took a different form. Roberts's biography paradoxically brings Crowley down to earth, it makes him seem less incommensurable with other people. Much of this apparent superiority is due to this presenting as manifestations of mere Saninian strength what was far more likely to be the manifestation of a violent reaction against weakness. The manifestation, be it strength or weakness, has itself the power and mystery of art. There is no art apart from profound discontent with conventional values. The great artist is not some kind of Olympian superadult, giving people superior toys to play with, from his position of serene mature wisdom and insight. He is one trying hard to enjoy himself. It is not that he has surpassed conventional happiness, not that he is so abundant in it that he creates more of it. His strength is not superhuman. He is driven by his discontent, his dissatisfaction with conventional values, ordinary roads to fulfilment and happiness, to remould them, to remake them so they can serve his purposes properly.
The yellow press was of great help to Crowley in promoting a superman image. The building up of a devil figure can produce an object of admiration and identification for those who despise the values of those who create it. The devil is a hate object compounded of insecurities. Symonds's expressed opposition to Crowley is apparently quite fundamental, it seems to be of someone belonging to an opposite camp, like an ideological enemy. The effect, however, is that Symonds with his moralising is like the straight man of a pair of comedians. Conventional newspaper morality sets off Crowley's eccentricity very well. Crowley makes us laugh, and this can be built on. It is a form of illumination.
The reality of people like Crowley is that they react as they do by sheer reflex action. In the process of reacting they are creative. For those who are on his side, he is a solace and an encouragement, his superhuman legend more than his reality. All his actions take on a special heroic quality, as if they are messages, as if everything he does is part of a deliberately created work of art. Usually they just spring from the necessity of his position. Moves of desperation seem like acts of great evil and perversity.
Hero worship of Crowley involves the constant assumption of his superior wisdom, as if all of his interests had some profounder significance. Always there is his assumption of esoteric, initiated knowledge, guruhood. There is special value in having instruction from a guru. In the study of secret wisdom one needs to be led through the profoundest paradox, keeping trust unswerving. A guru may be living or dead. Crowley of course is dead. Are not the works of the sages, in Chuang Tsu's phrase 'the lees and the scum of bygone men'? But books these days can preserve more than that. We can even hear his voice, see his portrait.
Rather than that Crowley was dishonest in he way he presented himself, it is more likely that he expected his intelligent readers to be able to read between the lines. The devil image is really far more attractive than the lion. The lion image is less a source of wonder because it is more transparent. As for Crowley's family life, that is hardly so bizarre as it once seemed, as many of us discover from our own experience. Much of his outrageousness is fairly ordinary if we take a broad perspective, and cease to think only of the respectable middle classes.
There are many possible attitudes towards moral rules. Where a moral code provides a standard by which the success or otherwise of a course of action is to be judged, change the standard and you read an entirely different story. The moral code, or the standard, is entirely a question of interpretation, it does not have to be consciously in the minds of any of the actors in the drama. Thus your actions may very easily have more significance than you understand at the time. At the time, for example, you may feel very insecure about your code of values. You may feel shame and guilt, which is dissipated in retrospect, as you understand that you could not have done otherwise than as you did.
The roots of the creative personality lie in the great mass of disorderly material from childhood onwards. His task is the imposition of order upon disorderly material. Much of this is to be found in the writings of Aleister Crowley. His genius lives on, resisting judgement, through the power of will. Judgement (Geburah on the Tree of Life), until you have won its favour, is a kind of death. A claim to greatness is not an appeal to judgement.
In presenting oneself as capable now, one must acknowledge that once one was incapable. That is one's true history, and resulted in a certain amount of abnormality. Only in the light of this admission can the reality become intelligible or admirable. In applying the law of Do What Thou Wilt, it must be understood what phantoms one fought and is still fighting, in what exactly one's strength should consist. In a general sense, it consists in not submitting to alien judgements and never having done so. Crowley emphasises some of the vices in his own character, to the point where they make us laugh, and seem an expression of freedom.
His alleged crimes and weaknesses include letting Mudd and Leah starve. But I am not my brother's keeper. Why should he have accepted the responsibility of supporting them as if they were his family? They were not his children. He had to consider his own survival first, and that was at times difficult. He is accused of self indulgence. He was not able to support, materially, all the various weaklings who crossed his path. Did he ever imply, misleadingly, that he could? Unlike Bhagwan, or the Scientologists, his organisation offered no security to its members. Unfortunately, the law of Do What Thou Wilt did not work well for some people. Too many came to bad ends, seeming damnation. Crowley appeared to be preaching a philosophy of dangerous bohemianism. Why did his personality appear to drive women mad? He never went to prison, though he came close to it once. He has been reproached for his behaviour on the mountain, for an incompletely cut ice step, and for not going out to search for the missing people. Was that funk? He may have been guilty of trying to justify himself after the event, of self justification in the face of crimes and weakness.
Crowley the Beast made a morality out of immorality. It is shocking that madness and suicide should so follow in his wake. It shows how far he was from being the King Lamus figure he sometimes projected. But this shockingness also seems to express some teaching, perhaps a mystical message worth meditating upon. Crowley lived out his Beast role. As to the Beast, one is not called to an Imitatio Crowleyi. Not having that historical role to play, one does not have to be utterly callous and selfish to all one's friends and lovers. One can be inspired by it, without feeling any need to imitate it.
fascination for Crowley is an essentially statistical phenomenon. A proportion
of young people who read "The Great Beast" would feel a close
identification with him. Because they feel as they do they also feel a sense of
superiority, of being in possession of some superior insight. Not that, at
their age, their insight could be any greater than the man chosen by Crowley himself
to be his biographer. The Crowley discovered at age 14, can continue to have
profound value and significance throughout life. His appeal is far more than
something merely adolescent. Crowley was a deliverer from weltschmerz, he
represented affirmation in a strong form. In the war against Ialdabaoth, as in
all wars, sometimes extreme measures are necessary. Oppression by the zeitgeist
continues, whether we feel it as Christianity, grundyism, capitalism,
socialism, materialism, democracy, or whatever. It is all too easy to pick on
one of these, identifying most strongly with its enemies, fervently denouncing
it as the heart and essence of an evil that really runs much deeper.
eponyomous hero of a novel by Arstibashyev, a Russian portrayal of a
Nietzschean superman from a largely sexual angle.
* Recently published book*
(Placing the Beast in his cultural background)
(If you don’t want to buy it please order from your local library)