Here is an excerpt from my new book, Aleister Crowley: Magick, Rock and Roll, and The Wickedest Man in the World (Tarcher/Penguin). In it I ask why Crowley became a rock and roll mainstay, unlike Jung, Madame Blavatsky, and other esoteric figures embraced by the 1960s counter culture, and what his philosophy of "do what thou wilt" can mean for us today. Here's the opening to Chapter One, "The Unforgivable Sin."
In recent years visitors to London’s National Portrait Gallery may have wondered about a painting that was added to its collection in 2003. There amid portraits of Winston Churchill, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Fredrick Delius, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Ernest Shackleton, Ernest Rutherford, and other important British figures is a striking canvas whose bright colors and unusual subject jump out at the viewer. The portrait shows its subject in a yogic pose, the fingers of both hands curled in a chin mudra, a meditative gesture designed to aid in pranayama, a breathing technique to gather the vital force, or prana, in the body. A bright red robe drapes over the figure, his dark hair and eyebrows contrasting strongly with the golden- yellow backdrop, and a single black forelock offers a faint suggestion of a horn. Not much is known about the artist, Leon Engers Kennedy, but like his subject he was interested in mysticism, magic, and the stranger side of life. The portrait was done in New York in 1917, during the subject’s difficult years in America, and a look at the biographical note tells us that he was a writer, mountaineer, and occultist. He also had a taste for adopting names, at different times calling himself the Master Therion, the Great Beast 666, and Baphomet.
The portrait is of Aleister Crowley although the curators, no doubt sticklers for accuracy, have him down as “Edward Alexander (‘Aleister’) Crowley,” a name that on some occasions, usually legal ones, he did in fact use. When I visited the gallery not too long ago for the first time in some years and came upon Crowley’s image, the same one used as the frontispiece for Vol. III No. I of his magical magazine The Equinox (the “blue Equinox” as it is called), I was surprised that it was there, and at first couldn’t believe it. The National Portrait Gallery was established in 1856 with the idea of collecting portraits of “famous British men and women.” But surely Crowley wasn’t just famous. He was infamous. A black magician, drug addict, sexual pervert, traitor, and all-around troublemaker— Crowley famous? That the curators of a gallery designed to house Britain’s best and brightest should include the “wickedest man in the world” struck me as odd, almost aberrant. It was as if they had discovered a portrait of Jack the Ripper and decided to hang that, too.
Crowley was no Ripper, although there is more than a little suspicion that he was responsible for some deaths, and Crowley himself went out of his way to suggest this. Yet during the height of Crowley’s infamy, in the 1920s and ’30s, the idea that his portrait could hang in the same room as the painter Roger Fry, the socialite Lady Ottoline Morrell, and the biologist Julian Huxley (brother of Aldous Huxley) as an example of a famous Briton would have been unthinkable. He was indeed “a Man We’d Like to Hang,” as an article in the newspaper John Bull, which had a peculiar hatred of Crowley, called him, but certainly not in that way. More likely Crowley’s portrait would have found a place on Scotland Yard’s “most wanted” list, if John Bull and the other scandal sheets that “exposed” his exploits had it their way. Nevertheless, I had to chuckle. Although Crowley did practically everything he could to disgust and infuriate the British society he loathed with an often tedious obstinacy, he also always wanted its acceptance, and to be taken for what he never quite was: an English gentleman. I wondered, assuming he still existed in some sentient form in the cosmos— he was a great believer in reincarnation and claimed quite a few prestigious names for his past lives— musn’t he must be chuckling too, seeing that he had finally been accepted into the club that for the longest time wouldn’t have him as a member?
If we have any doubt that the Great Beast is finding a new place for himself in British history, we have only to look at the 2002 BBC Poll of the Top 100 Britons. Crowley came in at number 73, beating out J.R .R . Tolkien, Johnny Rotten, Chaucer, and Sir Walter Raleigh, among others. Crowley is in danger of becoming just another English eccentric, which is how the British public usually neutralizes some challenge to its complacency. When I mentioned this to a friend, he added that the next step is to be deemed a national treasure. With Crowley’s image hanging among the portraits of many other national treasures, it looks like he is indeed on his way.
That Crowley was an egotist and mistreated the people in his life - was, indeed, wicked - are not the most important aspects of his career. Other less interesting characters have done the same without having Crowley’s flashes of genius, although, to be sure, Crowley’s ignominy was considerable. Yet for all his inexcusable behavior, Crowley was not “evil,” in the sense that, say, Sherlock Holmes’ adversary, Professor Moriarity was, or the black magicians of the many occult horror films that Crowley inspired were. Crowley was not evil, only insensitive, selfish, and driven by a hunger he seemed unable to satisfy and an incorrigible need to be distracted. He seems an embodiment of the religious thinker Blaise Pascal’s remark that “All human evil comes from a single cause, man’s inability to sit still in a room.” Crowley never sat still in a room, or anywhere else. One of the most telling remarks Crowley ever made was in a letter he wrote in 1905 to his then friend and soon to be brother-in-law, the artist Gerald Kelly. In the midst of a complaint about wasting the last five years of his life on “weakness, miscalled politeness, tact, discretion, care for the feeling of others”—a mistake he would not make again— and a rejection of Christianity, Rationalism, Buddhism, and “all the lumber of the centuries,” Crowley speaks of a “positive and primeval fact, Magic”—he had not yet added the k—with which he will build “a new Heaven and a new Earth.” “I want none of your faint approval or faint dispraise,” he told Kelly. “I want blasphemy, murder, rape, revolution, anything good or bad, but strong.” Crowley needed “strong” things. Nothing could touch him unless it was “strong.” Crowley had to have a lot of sex and it had to be wild; the women he had it with had to be seething with “forbidden lust” of the kind associated with the Marquis de Sade or the poet Baudelaire, and the men he had it with had to humiliate him and bend him to their will. He had to have a lot of drugs; famously, by the end of his life he was taking enough heroin to kill a room full of nonusers. He had to have a lot of drink; he was known to hold an eye- watering amount of liquor. And he had to have a lot of experiences. Crowley’s life was one long hunt for “experiences.” As his biographer and critic John Symonds remarked, Crowley “needed some strong or horrific experience to get ‘turned on’.” Most people, as Symonds remarks, are “turned on”— become interested in something— by sitting at home, reading a book, listening to music, or watching a film. That is, most people embody some form of Pascal’s “sitting still in a room.” Crowley’s need for constant “strong” stimulation suggests that he lacked imagination and that his mind, formidable as it was, was curiously literal. Crowley seems, I think, to have suffered from a kind of autism. I don’t necessarily mean in some pathological sense, but he seemed to lack the kind of nuanced, “tacit knowing” that most of us enjoy and which allows us to grasp the essence or meaning of some idea or experience, without having to go to extremes or into precise detail in order to “get it.” Crowley only got it by going to extremes. In fact, as his friend Louis Wilkinson, who shared with Crowley some of his worst traits, remarked, Crowley’s “cult, his mania, one might say, was for excess in all directions.” Crowley was not evil, but his need for excess, for “strong” things, more times than not, was a source of suffering for those around him.
It may be this characteristic that leads some of Crowley’s recent biographers to remark that his credo of “Do what thou wilt,” “so redolent, seemingly, of license and anarchy, dark deeds and darker dreams, terrifies on first impact, as does Crowley the man,” and that one must feel “terror, a sense of evil, creepiness or disgust” at the mention of his name. This seems a bit extreme itself. With the possible exception of some fundamentalist Christians, I can’t think of anyone who is afraid of Crowley anymore, let alone terrified, or who is so conventional or repressed that they will “experience visceral disgust at the thought of sexual emissions as sacred components of worship,” as Crowley and those who practice his sex-magick thought of them. We live in an “anything goes” society, whose central maxim, “Just Do It,” has been embraced by some contemporary Crowleyans. A great deal of what Crowley got up to is today par for the course, and the extreme behavior he indulged in is, more or less, commonplace. But the important question is: does one have to be frightened of thelema, the name of Crowley’s religion of excess, in order to question it? It strikes me that in order to portray Crowley as some liberator of an uptight mankind— as some of his champions do— our “fear” of the shocking truths he was sent to reveal must be puffed up, and a kind of straw Mr. Conventional must be erected, who trembles at the thought of anyone doing their “true will.” Such imaginary Mrs. Grundys are in fact necessary for a philosophy of “transgression.” They are the windmills against which such radical behavior tilts. It needs them to rebel against; without them, it collapses, its “acts of liberation” deflating to mere personal predilections, its “transgressions” indicating little more than that the people engaging in them have a taste for such things. But no such persons exist, only people who wonder if the kind of life Crowley led is really worth living. I have never been afraid of my or anyone else’s “true will,” and I have lived in both the magical and rock and roll milieus that provide fertile soil for those who are pursuing theirs. This is why I can be critical of Crowley and the liberationist philosophy he embodied— thelema is only one expression of it; it is not a distinctive new creed—and not be dismissed as someone terrified of it. I have been there, done it, and seen it from the inside. I am not a thelemaphobe, to coin a word. I merely find it wrongheaded.
But “excess in all directions?” Sounds like a good album title. No wonder Crowley found a place in rock and roll.