Certain writers have significantly influenced this intersection between thought and image. In the early years of the century, the influence of Dostoyevsky was strong in Germany, as well as in Russia. Dostoyevsky stimulated a will to believe in the exciting personal relationships and daemonic influences that he described. This created a demand, which came to be met, ultimately giving rise to such charismatic beings as Rasputin and Hitler. Crowley thrived in a similarly motivated atmosphere among susceptible circles in England and elsewhere.
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. Crowley’s first object was to get people to listen to what he had to say. The ideal of the masquerade depends on mutual courtesy and respect, which is to say a general propping up of illusions. A politician or philosopher who wants to exert an original influence will want to spoil other people’s games.
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’ book The Great Beast reached a generation of readers in the post-1945 age of mass culture. Its effect was to contribute to a reaction against that culture, but it was also a product of it. Crowley’s influence was initially transmitted largely through that book. Reflecting on what he achieved suggests what else might be done.
Despite his enormous intellectual power, his initial attraction, to anyone, does not lie in the answers he gives to intellectual problems
Thinking of modern culture and the normal ways in which it is transmitted, mass media, music industry, universities, art schools, political parties, publishing houses, Aleister Crowley is not supposed to count for very much.
There is seeming justification in the nature of his following. Despite his
enormous intellectual power, his initial attraction, to anyone, does not lie in the answers he gives to intellectual problems. People are attracted to Crowley for reasons other than an appreciation of the sublime poetry of The Book of the Law, the intricacies of the Crowleyan Qabala, or the other profound and fascinating ideas to be found in his writings. Whatever it is that attracts, attracts all kinds of people. This may appear to his intellectual discredit. There is an interesting question in the relation of his guru image to the quality of his message. The same applies to Wittgenstein. The message on all levels springs from a strong, conscious drive for power, and is in no way weakened or invalidated by that.
Crowley’s admirers in modern society are from many walks of life, from the insane and the incarcerated, through the respectable working and middle classes, to the aristocracy and the intelligentsia. Among his proclaimed followers are some with disagreeable forms of mental disturbance. Some like to inspire fear, if they can, the sadistic and pathologically aggressive. There are the self-consciously malevolent and the criminals. They usually lack Crowley’s sense of humor and his wit. His own hostility was meant as a way to repel fools. People pursue their ways of life usually unaware of the rationale that lies behind them. Hence the value of devils like Crowley to disturb.
His influence 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. Crowley as a hobby for the respectable may sound odd. Isn’t he a revolutionary? Doesn’t he appeal to the discontented? But when we talk about bourgeois values we are talking about something fundamental. What could anyone put in their place? There is a poetry of the suburbs, with its cranks and cults, and housewives. Though one may feel that Thelema is really revolutionary, one cannot object to its existence on that level. After all, what use do the intellectuals make of it?
Crowley created a persona for himself of omnipotent ego, the actualization of “Do What Thou Wilt.” Living in a way that was outrageous to the people of his day, he crops up as one of the most striking bridges between the old
culture and the new, one whose place is not fully recognized
Dali and Crowley were two of a kind, monstrous egos, they have been called.
in the life of his own generation, yet whose influence is long reaching, out of the heyday of the imperial era into modern mass society, the post imperial pop age. Few bridge that gap; Dali is another who does. Dali and Crowley were two of a kind, monstrous egos, they have been called. Neither will win the complete approbation of the conventional, Crowley in particular because of his comprehensive flouting of moral taboos. There is a great discordance between his portrayal of himself as the wise and virtuous King Lamus in his novel Moonchild, and his real untrustworthiness. This very untrustworthiness is part of his message to the world, and does much to prove his seriousness. To maintain a positive personal image by continuously observing some code, even if only one of honor and decency, is an easy way out for anyone. The path of dishonor is the way to search out the deeper questions of value and the worth of life, it is that of the religious reformer. The Christ chose dishonor, and was prepared to sacrifice millions of people in the name of God, which was his name for his mission. The Crowley’s dishonorable acts were not meannesses, they are witnesses to his sense of destiny.
His own hostility was meant as a way to repel fools. People pursue their ways of life usually unaware of the rationale that lies behind them. Hence the value of devils like Crowley to disturb.
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.”
This alleged weakness and “vile” behavior, especially if we want to avoid reproaching Crowley for it, poses an interesting problem. To call someone weak rather than bad may normally be thought a charitable view. But in Crowley’s case, of possible motives for his actions, even sadism seems a more creditable motive than mere weakness. On an ordinary understanding, weakness would completely undermine his guru image. It must be wrong to see it as weakness pure and simple. We might rather see him as sticking to his guns, to a principle of absolute egoism, on which it would be impossible
for him to compromise. From this viewpoint what Symonds would understand as strength is a kind of inhibition. He writes that Crowley lacked integration and was in the grip of unconscious forces. What is integration? Moral unification and control?
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 un-Thelemic ways. Some people practice self-denial by putting moral restraints on themselves, for altruistic motives. Rejecting such solutions, vile behavior may express integrity without suggesting immediate strength.
Crowley’s alleged weakness included difficulty in earning a living. He survived by a series of shifts. Some things that come easily to the normal human, like steady, regular work, are just impossible for such types, putting it one way: they are too weak to do it. What are regarded as elementary duties, if they clash with immediate self-interest, will be experienced as impossible. They cannot do anything for the sake of duty; they cannot sacrifice themselves for anything other than perceived self-interest.
Crowley’s longtime “Scarlet Woman,” Leah Hirsig, asserted that there was weakness in him, something he did not normally want to think about, and that he normally preferred to deny.
Women, who claimed to understand him better than he understood himself, occasionally said there was something in him which was fundamentally not likeable. Crowley’s longtime “Scarlet Woman:” Leah Hirsig, 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.
Crowley is misunderstood if he is seen primarily as the teacher of a new path to liberation, his sexual yoga and his Abbey of Thelema as a means of imparting this, with the theory behind it boiled down to the crude schematas 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. Crowley gave this distinguished western tradition a new degree of development. The doctrine serves the man, not the man the doctrine. Not every practitioner of sex magick is a true disciple of Aleister Crowley.
Crowley resembles a Sufi master in the mystery and ambiguity of his image. In one aspect, his life is a fantasy indulgence. Many of the most explicit doctrines are only to be understood in the light of the conditions to which they are a response. The entire occult tradition is something complex like this. Magick is the satisfaction of desire, that is its whole concern, and desires vary from person to person. A Magus combines knowledge with personal development, specific techniques that may be taught have greater or lesser value, take them or leave them, dependant on the individual. A Magus will explore and understand different systems of attainment which will be suitable to different people at different times and places. No one of these is to be seen as his central message unless he is a social, religious, or cultural reformer, which he might well be, but we trivialize Crowley if we see him primarily thus.
Social mores change, what remains constant is the will to power. Generally the Thelemite rebels against the prevailing mores. In one age asceticism is appropriate, in another lechery. Crowley’s sensual extravagance is admirable from his viewpoint, but to expect it to become socially acceptable is unreasonable. Prejudice against it is not irrational; it springs from honest self- interest. Who can feel pride in himself if an ideal is held up for his admiration which seems to overthrow all the fixed standards by which he finds his feet, an ideal that can easily be copied by people he may not want to admire, violent criminals, effeminate homosexuals and hopeless drug addicts?
Sensual desire can overthrow the judgment. 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.
Magick is the satisfaction of desire, that is its whole concern, and desires vary from person to person.
The superman in the form of Sanine1 or the Master Therion, is someone above all the normal problems of life, powerful, resourceful and superabundantly healthy. Crowley often chose to present himself thus. His life conflicts are described in a context of the noblest idealism. He has no hang-ups, no bitterness, envy or hatred. This is presumably why Symonds says he was surprisingly unintrospective. His nobility, his supermanhood, is preserved by the externalization of all his problems. He presents himself as a practical and efficient man of action.
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 rationalize the path he has taken in terms of duty to God, or some other externalization.
In contrast to Symonds, Susan Roberts’ 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’ 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 fulfillment and happiness, to remold them, to remake them so they can serve his purposes properly.