A Magick Life A Biography Of Aleister Crowley

Mail on Sunday/August 6, 2000

Between the two world wars, before the rise of Hitler or a proper knowledge of what Lenin and Stalin were up to in Russia, the most popular choice of the purest embodiment of evil would have been an Englishman, Aleister Crowley. To the tabloid papers he was The King Of Depravity and The Wickedest Man In The World. To the poet W. B. Yeats he was 'an unspeakable degenerate' and to the novelist Somerset Maugham, one of the most evil men he had ever met.

Today the only people likely to regard Crowley as evil incarnate are the fundamentalist Christians he so despised. Only they believe in the devil, whom Crowley purported to serve. To other people, Crowley is likely to come across as merely an eccentric and at times a buffoon. He liked to dress as a Highland chieftain, even when in London, and always travelled with the robes and regalia of a pagan priest. He registered at hotels under false names with grand titles and invented a pedigree claiming descent from the Breton nobility.

In fact, Crowley came from a long line of Croydon brewers. Both his parents were members of a fundamentalist Protestant sect, the Plymouth Brethren. The Bible was the only book Crowley was permitted to read as a child. From the age of eight he was sent to strict Evangelical boarding schools where he was bullied and beaten at his second school by 'a sexually ambiguous sadomasochist' headmaster.

In time, the young Crowley rebelled against the bigoted atmosphere in his home. His mother began to call him 'the beast' and came to believe that her son was in fact 'the Beast of the Apocalypse, the Antichrist of the Book of Revelation'. It was an identity that the young Crowley happily accepted and it set the course for the rest of his life. He did not simply lose his Christian faith; he changed sides. His first gesture of defiance was to masturbate, a grave sin for Christians in Victorian times. He later wrote that 'I applied myself with characteristic vigour to its practice' and awarded himself 'a diabolical VC'.

In 1895, Crowley went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, and a year later, at the age of 21, came into a substantial inheritance left in trust by his father. His private means enabled him to indulge his lifelong passions for chess, reading, travel, mountaineering and sex. He was bisexual and misogynistic: his contempt for his mother extended to women in general. Though he was capable of romantic attachments, he saw sex as 'a degradation and damnation'.

The young Crowley wrote poetry and fiction and gained a slight reputation as a man of letters: a volume of his poetry was favourably reviewed by G.K. Chesterton in the Daily News. He was intelligent, witty and a fine conversationalist. But his literary reputation was soon eclipsed by his engagement with the occult.

While in Stockholm during a university vacation, Crowley decided to devote his life to the forces of evil: 'The forces of good were those which had constantly oppressed me. I saw them daily destroying the happiness of my fellow men. Since, therefore, it was my business to explore the spiritual world, my first step must be to get into personal communication with the devil.' In London, Crowley got in touch with the most influential of the occult societies operating in Britain at the time, the Hermetic Order Of The Golden Dawn which, like other masonic orders, claimed to possess arcane truths handed down from ancient Egypt via the Cathars, the Knights Templar and the Rosic-rucians.

Occult orders and secret societies of this kind were enormously popular in the decades leading up to the First World War a reaction, perhaps, to both the Christian zeal and the scientific determinism of the Victorian era. They also provided a fanciful justification for throwing over the traces. Forming his own order, Crowley who had by now filed his canine teeth to points staged supposed pagan rituals with his acolytes, designed to bring evil spirits into their midst. The Ten Commandments were replaced by Crowley with just one: 'Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.' Aided by the liberal use of narcotics, the liturgies of Crowley's invention included ritual acts of sex.

The Sunday Express, which exposed Crowley's 'obscene orgies' in 1923, considered 'the facts too unutterably filthy to be detailed in a newspaper'. In this new biography of Crowley, Martin Booth does not shy away from the grim details of Crowley's depraved sex life, both heterosexual and homosexual.

Crowley indulged in 'sexual magic rituals' supposedly directed by his guiding spirits, the Secret Chiefs at the community he founded at Cefalu in Sicily, the Abbey of Thelema. For one ritual, the Secret Chiefs told Crowley to mate a goat with one of his lovers, Leah Hirsig. Crowley was to cut the goat's throat at the moment of its orgasm, but the animal refused to co-operate and so was strangled.

Until he was brought down by his addiction to drugs, Crowley's sexual energy was phenomenal. Besides his lovers of both sexes, Crowley slept with Arab boys in Algeria and prostitutes in every city he passed through. Even when bald and fat and with breath that 'reeked so strongly of ether it was said that you could smell him before he entered the room', women succumbed to his advances.

'They would live with him, cosset him, offer themselves to him,' Booth tells us, 'bear his children...succour him and give him money', only to be abandoned by him without compunction, often stranded in destitution abroad. Towards the end of his life, Crowley ran out of money. He was declared bankrupt and had to scrounge a living from occasional journalism and handouts from his devotees. He remained addicted to heroin and he died in a boarding house in Hastings among, as he put it, 'the most appalling crowd of alleged human beings that have ever been got together in one place'.

Was Crowley evil or no more than eccentric? What are we to make of him today? Booth seems undecided: A Magick Life is filled with detail but it has no clear point of view. Booth does not commit himself on Crowley's claims to magical powers (for example, his ability to make himself invisible in a crowd), or on the reality of the spiritual apparitions or the Secret Chiefs. Booth does think some of Crowley's poetry is worthy of respect, and he finds his writing on drugs prophetic.

He regards Crowley's Diary Of A Drug Fiend as a forerunner of works such as William Burroughs's Junkie and Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting; and he describes Crowley's The Psychology Of Hashish as 'a seminal document on the subject until well into the Sixties'.

Crowley was, Booth suggests, prophet of the sex-and-drug culture of the Sixties: his face appears on the album cover of the Beatles' Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and Crowley memorabilia are collected by celebrated rock musicians.

More significantly, to my mind, the American sexologist Alfred Kinsey visited the deserted Abbey of Thelema in Sicily in 1955, an acknowledgement, perhaps, of Crowley as father of the permissive society.

Crowley taught that 'each individual has an absolute right to satisfy his sexual instinct as is physiologically proper to him'. There can be little doubt that this philosophy, stripped of its cabalistic mumbo-jumbo, is alive and well in Britain today.

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