by James Horrox
The Literary Encyclopedia. Vol. 1.2.1.08
First published 13 July 2011
Occultist, poet, playwright, social critic, chess-player, habitual drug user, ceremonial magician and one of the leading mountaineers of his generation, Aleister Crowley ranks among the most controversial figures of 20th century English literary history. Known for his philosophy of personal freedom, but perhaps more for the reputation he acquired at the hands of the British tabloid press during the 1920s and 30s, Crowley was a prolific writer, diarist and epistolarian whose literary output ranged in subject matter from mysticism and magic to politics, social criticism, culture and philosophy. He remains an influential figure in Western esoterica and, thanks to his appropriation by a new generation of adherents in the 1960s, an enduring presence in popular subculture.
Edward Alexander Crowley was born into a wealthy religious family in Royal Leamington Spa on October 12th 1875. His parents belonged to the Plymouth Brethren, a fundamentalist Christian sect in which his father, Edward Crowley, heir to a family fortune from the brewery industry, was a pamphleteer and itinerant evangelist. Crowley’s early childhood was by all accounts idyllic, but in March 1887 this idyll was shattered by the sudden death of his father. The young Crowley’s admiration for his father was matched only by the virulence of his hatred of his mother, Emily, a pious disciplinarian who rigidly enforced the puritanical Brethren doctrine in the Crowley household, and throughout his adolescence he applied himself unflinchingly to the business of rebellion against her. He went through a succession of schools, including Malvern College and Tonbridge school, and a series of private tutors employed by his uncle, Tom Bond Bishop, to whose London home he and his mother moved shortly after his father’s death.
Academically he progressed well, but although by his late teens he had a fluent knowledge of the English literary canon and of the Bible, he was developing a fervent hostility towards Christianity. Drawn increasingly to the Book of Revelation he came to identify ever more strongly, he would later claim, with “those who were the enemies of Heaven”. Having been introduced to the sins of the flesh (among others) by a rogue tutor, one Archibald Douglas, whose efforts to induct his young ward into the vices denied him by his Christian upbringing made him the only one of his hired mentors for whom Crowley had any real respect, his rebellion against the strictures of his upbringing increasingly took the form of sexual transgressions, and in his late teens he sated his prodigious sexual appetite through regular visits to prostitutes. He also developed passions for chess and rock-climbing, and he quickly demonstrated himself gifted at both: at Eastbourne College he commandeered the local Chess Club and edited a chess column in the Eastbourne Gazette, and as well as undertaking regular climbing tours of Scotland, the Lake District and, later, the Alps, he spent much of his late teens completing ascents of the chalk cliffs at Beachy Head. In 1894 his record of climbing accomplishments led to his admission into the Scottish Mountaineering Club.
When in October 1895 Crowley went up to Trinity College Cambridge, whereupon he began using the name ‘Aleister’ for the first time, the freedom of university life allowed him to indulge more effusively the various passions he had pursued to the best of his abilities during his adolescence – in particular, sex, the subject of a significant portion of his by then abundant literary endeavours. As he had previously, at Cambridge he largely eschewed emotional attachments in favour of indulging his various sexual proclivities with local prostitutes. His one significant relationship per se from this period was with one Herbert Pollitt, a close friend of Aubrey Beardsley. Mindful of the recent tribulations of the latter’s co-conspirator Oscar Wilde, whose aptitude épater le bourgeois made him, along with P.B. Shelley and Charles Algernon Swinburne, among the few writers the young Crowley seems to have admired, while his sexual promiscuity with both sexes became the stuff of legend among his peers Crowley was wary of becoming known for his homosexual liaisons. In his final term at Cambridge he published his lyrical poem Aceldama, A Place to Bury Strangers In (1898), under the by-line ‘a gentleman of the University of Cambridge’. The irreverent content and subtitular Shelley allusion failed to elicit the desired response from the university authorities, and Crowley retaliated by publishing a collection of pornographic verse entitled White Stains. The latter was promptly banned and pulped.
Since around the end of 1896, when, on a trip to Stockholm, he had had what he interpreted as his first ‘mystical’ experience, Crowley had taken a quiet interest in the occult. During his student days this curiosity on the whole remained subaltern to his self-mythologisation as decadent poet, but by the time he left Cambridge in 1898, unencumbered by a degree and having largely failed in his attempts to rile the university authorities, his fascination with the esoteric was such that his life now had a clear direction. In 1898, through an acquaintance with the alchemist George Cecil Jones he became involved in the esoteric society the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Led by Samuel Liddell Mathers, the latter counted among its membership the likes of William Butler Yeats, Maud Gonne, Constance Wilde, Arthur Machen, Moina Bergson, Arthur Edward Waite, Florence Farr, Algernon Blackwood and other luminaries of the Edwardian literary and artistic world, and on November 18th 1898 Crowley was initiated into the Order. He rose rapidly through the grades, and by the following May, by which time he was referring to himself as ‘The Beast 666”, he had attained the grade of Philosophus. In the spring of 1899 he moved into lodgings at 67-69 Chancery Lane, where he shared rooms with Allan Bennett, a respected member of the Golden Dawn, under whose tutelage he began experimenting with ceremonial magic above and beyond the formal grades of the Golden Dawn. Rumours of improprieties at the Chancery Lane rooms, including Crowley’s use in magic ritual of hashish, opium and cocaine, and more seriously his alleged dalliances with black magic, gradually filtered back to the Golden Dawn, impeding his aspirations of progression to the Second Order.
Disillusioned with the Golden Dawn and derisive of its membership, notably Yeats and Waite, his altercations with whom were numerous and frequent, in late 1899 Crowley began preparations for the ritual described in the Medieval grimoire The Book of the Sacred Magick of Abra-Melin the Mage, recently reintroduced into esoteric circles by Mathers’ 1897 translation. For this purpose, in November 1899 he purchased Boleskine House, an imposing 18th century mansion on the shore of Loch Ness. Declaring himself ‘Laird of Boleskine’, much to the bemusement of the locals, he took on the persona of the Scottish nobleman, frequently visiting London adorned in full highland dress. The Abra-melin operation, however, was to remain unfinished. In June 1900, after the disintegration of the Golden Dawn following a mutiny precipitated by Mathers’ controversial initiation of Crowley into the Second Order, he left England for New York, beginning a three year circumnavigation of the globe. From New York he travelled to Mexico, where he Obtained 33* (33rd and last degree of Scottish Rite Freemasonry) and, with his old climbing mentor Oscar Eckenstein, completed ascents of Iztaccíhuatl and Popocatepetl. In May 1901 he sailed from San Francisco to Hawaii and from there to Japan, Shanghai and Ceylon. Following a sojourn in Ceylon with Allan Bennett, with whom he spent some months meditating and learning Yoga, and an abortive attempt the following year to conquer K2 in the Himalayas, in May 1903 Crowley returned to Boleskine where he spent the next few months winding up the locals, experimenting with magic and writing poetry.
Having been publishing copiously since he left Cambridge, Crowley’s literary oeuvre by now included scores of poems, plays and philosophical essays, which from 1905 he would begin to collate in his Collected Works. In addition to White Stains, which biographer Lawrence Sutin suggests “deserves a place in any wide-ranging anthology of gay poetry” (2000, 46), notable among these early works were his poems “The Tale of Archais” (1898) and “Songs of the Spirit” (1898) and the plays Jephtah (1899), The Fatal Force (1899), The Mother’s Tragedy (1899) and Tanhäuser (1902). Few of these early works make reference to magic or seek to replicate the vulgarities of White Stains, but attest rather to Crowley’s extensive knowledge of religion and classical mythology. After Songs of the Spirit his poetry begins to reconnect with the familiar nexus of sexual promiscuity and rebellion against God. In 1903 he composed, among other things, his poem “Snowdrops from a Curate’s Garden” (1904), in which he excelled himself not only in obscenity but also in lèse majesté, including a graphic lyrical rendering of a tale concerning Queen Victoria, the Horse Guards and their horses.
In the summer of 1903 Crowley was visited at Boleskine by Gerald Kelly, a close friend since his final year at Cambridge, and Kelly’s sister Rose. On August 12th Crowley and Rose married, shortly afterwards embarking on a honeymoon that was to augur a liminal moment in Crowley’s life. In Cairo in April 1904 he composed what he came to see as his most singularly important esoteric work. Oracularly delivered by a ‘praeter-human intelligence’ going by the name of Aiwass, Liber AL vel Legis, or The Book of the Law, proclaimed the dawn of a new aeon for mankind – the ‘Aeon of Horus’ – and affirmed Crowley as its prophet. Drawing on literary precedents spanning the Judaeo-Christian apocalyptic writings, Gnosticism, Zoharic Cabala and the Enochian writings of Dee and Kelly through to Tantra, Taoism and the stentorian antiauthoritarianism of Rabelais, Stirner and Nietzsche, The Book of the Law was to be Crowley’s central preoccupation for the rest of his life. Its message of individual liberty became the cornerstone of the philosophical-religious system he developed and which he believed would be the ethical foundation of this new Aeon – ‘Thelema’ – founded in the Rabelaisian dictum ‘Do What Thou Wilt shall be the whole of The Law’.
Over the next few years Crowley revised many of the teachings of the Golden Dawn in line with the precepts of The Book of the Law, and in 1907, along with George Cecil Jones, he established a magical order of his own, the Argentium Astrum, or A∴A∴. In 1909 he began publishing a journal, The Equinox, as the mouthpiece of the Order. The journal in toto would become influential in esoteric circles, a number of specific issues – “The Blue Equinox”, “The Equinox of the Gods”, “Eight Lectures on Yoga”, “The Book of Thoth” and “Liber Aleph” – attaining lasting renown. He wrote extensively on Thelemic mysticism, infusing the principles of the Book of the Law with ideas from Yoga and both Eastern and Western mysticism, in particular the Qabalah, and between 1907 and 1911 he produced a series of oracularly-delivered tomes collectively termed the Holy Books of Thelema. That decade as a whole would be a productive period for Crowley; in addition to his 1904 version of The Goetia: The Lesser Key of Solomon the King, between 1905 and 1907 he produced three volumes of his Collected Works, published as a single volume in 1907, and in 1909 a Cabbalistic dictionary, Liber 777, which again has achieved lasting repute. The latter years of the decade gave rise to a poetry collection, Clouds without Water (1909), followed in 1912 by a treatise on mysticism entitled The Book of Lies, and the first two parts of his magnum opus, Magick: Book IV – the first of Crowley’s works to contain the archaic spelling ‘magick’, which he famously appropriated thereafter to differentiate his own esoteric writings from those he dismissed as dilettantes and charlatans.
In 1912 Crowley became interested in the German secret society the Ordo Templi Orientis, into which he was initiated that year, taking the name ‘Baphomet’, and within a year he had become head of the organisation in Great Britain and Ireland. After spending the Great War in the United States, in 1920, with his new mistress Leah Hirsig and a group of acolytes he established a commune in Cefalù, Sicily. The Abbey of Thelema, its name taken from Rabelais’s satire Gargantua, was to be a venue in which students would liberate themselves from the shackles of bourgeois morality and devote themselves to discovering and developing their own True Wills.
The programme was broadly consistent with A∴A∴ practice and included daily adorations to the sun, study of Crowley’s works, regular yoga and sex magick rituals performed under the influence of hashish, opium and cocaine. The practice of combining sadistic sex acts with magic ritual was something at which Crowley would become infamously adept; having initially been prescribed heroin for asthma and bronchitis he was by now a habitual drug user, meticulously chronicling his experiences with laudanum, opium, cocaine, hashish, alcohol, ether, mescaline and heroin. In part as a result of his increasing drug use, his experiences with which informed his 1922 book Diary of a Drug Fiend, things gradually began to deteriorate at the Cefalù commune. The final blow to the project came in 1923 when one of the community’s members, Raoul Loveday, who had come to Sicily with his wife, fell ill and died after allegedly drinking the blood of a ritually-sacrificed cat. Loveday’s wife left Sicily and went straight to the British press.
The international scandal that ensued led to Crowley’s expulsion from Italy in 1923. Over the following years he wandered from country to country, mostly virtually insolvent and surviving off donations sent to him from devotees around the world. By the time he returned to England in 1930 he had added to his oeuvres an autobiography – The Confessions of Aleister Crowley (1929) – and numerous plays and novels, but any recognition his writings may have warranted was by then overshadowed by the reputation he had acquired at the hands of the press.
Crowley’s first real taste of media notoriety had come some years previously in the wake of his successful appeal against a legal injunction brought about by Mathers prior to the release of the third volume of The Equinox. A scathing article in Looking Glass following his production of the Rites of Eleusis in 1910 prefaced a series of reports on the “unmentionable immoralities” in which he and his associates supposedly indulged. Rumours of the depravities unfolding in the Cefalù commune from 1920 only exacerbated a brewing media storm – led thereafter by the London Sunday Express and the tabloid magazine John Bull – that was to follow Crowley throughout that decade, and which would famously see him cast as, among other things, “The wickedest Man in the World”.
After initial success in suing for defamation, a series of court cases left Crowley with decreasing numbers of allies and dwindling funds, and he was finally bankrupted by a failed libel case in 1934. The tabloid hysterics that ensured his permanence in the public eye throughout the 1920s were doubtless put into some perspective by events in Europe during the following decades. Media interest in him waned and he descended into relative obscurity. The last years of his life were spent in poverty, moving from one set of temporary lodgings to another, before finally he ended up in a boarding house in Hastings where, on December 1st 1947, suffering from a respiratory infection and chronic heroin addiction, he died.
In the decades since, supporters of Crowley’s perception of himself as the greatest English poet of the 20th century have been scarce. His notoriety and calignosity of character, however, have continued to intrigue. As early as his Cambridge days Crowley was providing fecund ground for writers of fiction, featuring in barely-disguised form in the works of at least ten novelists and authors of short stories. It has been suggested that M.R. James used him as a basis for the alchemist Karswell in his story ‘Casting the Runes’, in the collection More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1911). He provided inspiration for the lascivious Oliver Haddo in W. Somerset Maugham’s second novel The Magician (1908), and by the 1930s he was featuring in the works of Dennis Wheatley, Warwick Deeping, H.R. Wakefield, Dion Fortune and others. More recent Crowley literary reincarnations include the characters Dr Trelawney and Scorpio Murtlock in Anthony Powell’s epic A Dance to the Music of Time (1951-75).
His appearance on the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967 brought Crowley a new generation of followers for whom his philosophy of personal freedom made him an apt figurehead. Among his more illustrious devotees was Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page who in the 1970s bought Boleskine House, and still owns a sizable archive of Crowley’s possessions. Page’s appraisal of Crowley as “a misunderstood genius of the 20th Century” is one with which many concur, and the resurgence in interest in the occult since the 1960s has seen a corresponding renewal of interest in him and his magickal writings, which remain a major influence on Western esoterica. As a climber Crowley still holds several notable records, though press accounts of his behaviour during a disastrous attempt on Kanchenjunga in 1905, in which four of his party were killed, left his reputation as a climber during his own lifetime in tatters. Whether madman, messiah, or, as Page and many others have argued, simply misunderstood, as Crowley’s executor and biographer John Symonds puts it – in an appraisal with which the Great Beast himself would no doubt have been more than satisfied – Crowley was not “in the narrow, Victorian sense of the word ‘a gentleman’”.
Crowley, Aleister (1929/1979), The Confessions of Aleister Crowley: An
Autohagiography, Symonds, J. and Grant, K. (eds.). London, Routledge & Kegan Paul
Hutchinson, Roger (2006) Aleister Crowley: The Beast Demystified. Edinburgh and
Symonds, John (1997) The Beast 666: The Life of Aleister Crowley. London, Pindar