6 February 1999

Do what thou wilt

What was the appeal of Aleister Crowley?

Aleister Crowley: The Beast Demystified
by Roger Hutchinson

If Aleister Crowley was indeed the Antichrist, then the planet got off lightly. For forty-two months, the Beast in the Book of Revelation has power “over all kindreds, and tongues, and nations”. While for a time Crowley was notorious for his bivalent lust, ravenous necking of hallucinogens and exquisitely bad poetry — “the universe swings / Poised on the stealth of ineffable wings” — this sub-Wildean épateur never achieved power even in the literary world, let alone in the real one.

The fiendish reputation rests on slight foundations. While living in Scotland as “the Laird of Boleskine”, Crowley scribbled a spell on his butcher’s bill; shortly the butcher chopped through his own femoral artery and died. In Sicily, presiding over a hedonist “abbey”, Crowley supposedly sacrificed a feline (“or eerily slew cat” — a phrase which my own esoteric lucubrations have confirmed is an anagram of Aleister Crowley’s name, so there might be something to that one). At the same place, an acolyte named Raoul Loveday died, allegedly as a result of Crowley’s curse but probably of gastroenteritis. And, for a time, Crowley was a member (along with WB Yeats, who called him “a person of unspeakable life”) of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, who held that the world was run by “Secret Chiefs” perched high in the Himalayas.

The moral fable at the centre of this book is that Crowley’s flagitious fame was constructed solely by the gutter papers (especially John Bull magazine and the Sunday Express), who antichristened him “The Wickedest Man In The World”, “The Man We’d Most Like To Hang”, and “The Beast 666”. Hutchinson is very good on this acidulously orchestrated hate campaign, noting that the major assault came when Crowley was already a “slightly pathetic” 44-year-old, who had spent most of his inheritance and who was permanently addicted to the heroin he had been prescribed for his asthma.

To explain Crowley, disappointingly, there’s no need to invoke Lucifer or Azazel. He was just uncommonly selfish and attention-seeking. He was an excellent climber, for instance: in 1902 he got further up K2 than anyone had before. Yet on a 1905 Himalayan expedition, he refused to help four of his party who had been buried in an avalanche, and — unforgivably — abandoned his team, descending alone. In 1914 he went to America, claimed to be an Irish Republican, and spent the war writing febrile pro-German propaganda.

The myriad poses of this impish solipsist had a common root: rebellion. Born plain Edward Alexander in 1875 to a pious alehouse tycoon, the sickly and overweight child Crowley endured a childhood of itinerant public schooling and private tutoring. His father Edward was a pamphleteering member of the Plymouth Brethren, a fundamentalist Christian order who took the Bible as their sole means of instruction.

Having been inducted into the carnal mysteries at the age of 15 by an actress in Plymouth (Hutchinson calls it a “seminal trip”, for which phrase one would congratulate him if he didn’t persist thereafter in using the word “seminal” for anything that seems vaguely important), Crowley arrived at Trinity College, Cambridge to read Moral Sciences in 1895. We learn that he had a lot of sex, played chess for the Blues, went on climbing holidays and wrote poetry.

Yet his latest biographer, amazingly, gives no details of Crowley’s wrestling with the Moral Sciences tripos. One would be intrigued to know, for instance, whether Crowley met Bertrand Russell, who was there contemporaneously. And Hutchinson’s sarcastic dismissals of Crowley’s “philosophy” never attempt to root the work in Crowley’s studies. Crowley’s 1903 manifesto, Liber Legis, for instance, is based on a concept of thelema, the Greek for “will” — “Love is the law, love under will. Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law”. It sounds in part very like banalised Schopenhauer, who was read in England from the 1860s and almost certainly would have been right under Crowley’s nose at Cambridge.

There is thus a yawning intellectual vacuum in this book, which also eschews notes, a bibliography, and even a proper index. Hutchinson mistranslates Crowley’s Latin codename in The Golden Dawn; he refers to “le bourgeoisie”; and he invents a puzzlingly dangerous new form of tennis when he speaks of the Foreign Office continuing “to bat the matter about like a hot coal”. Nor can Hutchinson keep up for long his mask of unshockability. Crowley, he sneers at one point, “was rooting around in tireless search of somebody — male or female — with whom to enjoy his favoured sexual sacraments of buggery and the subsequent drinking of ‘elixir’ (the resultant mixed semen).” One can, it seems, become bizarrely confused about physiology after exposure to too much filth.

Yet there is, after all, a sulphurous mystery here. Crowley was witty and unusual enough to be immortalised in stories by Yeats, Somerset Maugham, MR James and others. But why exactly was he so damnably attractive? Charisma is a hard beast to trap between the margins. Near the end, a penniless and desiccated Crowley acquires another bride. What did she see in him? “Nothing other than his indefinable fascination to women and to susceptible men,” Hutchinson answers, with glorious pointlessness. Perhaps the final, devilish lesson is that people will generally take you at your word. Say you are the world’s finest living poet and the prophet of a new religion, and they will sleep with you. So why the hell not?