Magick Life, a Biography of Aleister Crowley
by Martin Booth.
Published by Hodder & Stoughton, ISBN 0 340 71805 6
Reviewed by Colin Low © 2000
I read Crowleys autobiographical Confessions in 1969 when it was published by John Symonds and Kenneth Grant for the first time since Crowleys death. I devoured the book with the hunger of a starving man. It was my introduction to the world of Hermetic mysteries, and it is difficult to forget so compelling and charismatic an introduction.
Over the years I have become less interested in Crowley the magician, and more interested in Crowley the human being, and each time I read his Confessions I am left with many questions about the other people in Crowleys life. The author of the Confessions is charismatic, but he is also superior, arrogant, opinionated, bigoted, and so effortlessly self-righteous about every circumstance of his life that the Confessions cannot possibly represent an unbiased view of events. I welcome the publication of each new biography of Crowley in the hope that some of my questions might be answered.
A Magick Life - a Biography of Aleister Crowley by Martin Booth is a very fair biography. Booth is aware that extreme reactions to Crowley are the norm, and this extremity has also been a flaw in his biographers, so he has taken pains to present the facts of Crowleys life with accuracy and fairness, and with remarkably little comment or analysis. How he achieved this miracle of forbearance I have no idea like Ulysses, I see him lashed to the mast, beeswax in both ears, avoiding the siren calls of justification, rationalisation, or condemnation. From time to time Booth does take a position when the evidence weighs-in against Crowleys version, and for the most controversial incidents he presents the views of both Crowleys supporters and detractors, but for the most part this biography concentrates on the known and documented facts of Crowleys life.
Although this is an excellent biography, it left me little wiser than I was before I read it. It is too phenomenological, and leaves most of my questions unanswered. The reason may be economic this is a 500 hundred page biography, and Crowleys Confessions, which covers his life up to 1923, runs to 1000 pages. The Confessions is an overwhelming document to compete against, and although Booth provides context not present in the Confessions, and has checked its details for factual accuracy, for much of the time it is Crowleys account that prevails. Lets face it the Confessions is hugely entertaining, with its magisterial opinions on every subject under the sun, its didactic diversions, esoteric insights, character assassinations, racial slurs, literary digressions, peripatetic insights into world religions, political incorrectness, effortless arrogance, and supernatural self-righteousness. No author covering the same material is going to hold a candle to Crowley in the literary flesh.
What I have looked for in every biography of Crowley are the things Crowley does not tell us. He was pathologically deficient in his conscious emotional understanding of people, and he treated the people who trusted him with appalling callousness and brutality when they had played their part in his personal mythology, and fallen foul of his self-centred system of values. How did Rose view the situation when, after trekking with a young child through the malarial jungles on the South East Asian border of China, Crowley left her in Rangoon while he went on to travel through America? And what about Victor Neuburg, abandoned in the North African desert after a difference with his guru? Leah Hirsig was the definitive Scarlet Women, and gave herself to Crowley unconditionally for four years through the most extraordinary and difficult circumstances, but her thoughts and aspirations remain a mystery to me. Liela Waddell, one of Crowleys most important Muses and magical collaborators, is an enigma. Norman Mudd, who left his job to study with Crowley at Cefalý and spent much of his time promoting Crowleys interests, was abandoned penniless with Leah, his savings squandered. And I want to know what Crowley got up to on the astral with Elaine Simpson.
Crowley used, screwed and abused half the literary and demi-monde society of London and Paris for decades, and yet no biography really succeeds in breaking free of the Confessions to let us see Crowley outside of his own parameters, as others saw him. There must be bales of contemporary correspondence, and although there is evidence that Booth has viewed a considerable quantity of original source material, the scope of his book leaves little space for exploring the deeper relationships, and is unsatisfactory in this respect. Perhaps the more personal and intimate correspondence has been destroyed by relatives unwilling to see their kin further exposed as accomplices of the Wickedest Man on Earth? There is certainly a missed opportunity, and further work for biographers.
A good thing about this biography is that Booth avoids the pitfall of sitting in moral and magical judgement of Crowleys actions, and, according to the invariant laws of human nature, tempts the reader to fall into the same hole. This is a good thing. Crowleys life was a deliberate and blatant stance against prevailing morality, up to and including a new religious philosophy, and so we should not be shy of making moral judgements. Booths (relative) transparency makes it easier to approach the facts. Given that we should make a judgement, we have to decide by what moral criteria we should evaluate Crowleys life. Crowleys? The people he dumped and dumped on? His apologists? Our own? This is the source of the greatest difficulty, and invites the polar response to Crowley so prevalent in his own lifetime, and which still exists to this day.
Many commentators invite us to assess Crowleys life according to his own values, to see it as a noble and uncompromising attempt to put Thelemic morality into practice, and to serve the Work whatever the price. I have thought about this a great deal over the years, and it seems to me that far from living his life according to an ideal, Crowley extended his innate sociopathic tendencies into universal principles and placed the beast-god Crowley at the centre. Crowleys pathological self-righteousness glares out of every page of the Confessions, and his inability to be perceptively self-critical affected much more than his personal relationships the bulk of his writing saw the light of day because he could afford vanity publishing, and much of it is irredeemably vain, pompous, arrogant, and self-indulgent. In every area of his life relationships, literary, finance, politics, legal there are astounding failures of judgement, and far from learning from his mistakes, Crowleys response is usually to sow blame in every field but his own. This extreme self-righteousness is common in adolescence, but in many people it is ground out by a combination of hard knocks, self-criticism, guilt, and above all, by the slave virtues of compassion and empathy. To be fair to Crowleys prescient self-righteousness, recent studies have shown that feelings of personal blame and guilt have become terra incognito for the most people in Western societies - no-one is culpable, everyone is a victim. In recent decades society as a whole has gone through episodes of individual selfishness and self-absorption Gordon Gekkos "Greed is Good", Margaret Thatchers "There is no society", but the resulting private affluence and public squalor has not been popular. A society of selfish, self-absorbed, self-righteous egomaniacs monitored by a panopticon of computerised surveillance is not a future I relish, and if this represents the era of the crowned and conquering child, then I want something different.
Society has gone through many changes since Crowley received the Book of the Law almost a century ago. We have seen and experienced the light and dark faces of widespread drug use, sexual permissiveness, pupil-centred education, religious decline and many other trends that Crowley might have welcomed. The idea that we should judge Crowley according to his own justifications and rationalisations is, I think, a mistake we should judge him by the consequences of his ideas, and we have a century of experience that he lacked. He was overflowing with ideas and opinions, and not all of them seem like a good idea today.
Even during his lifetime things did not work well. One of the advantages of reading Booths biography in a sitting is that it provides a 30,000 foot view of the topography of Crowleys life, and it appeared to me, circling over the terrain, that there is a high peak and a deep canyon. The high peak was Kanchenjunga, and the canyon (or perhaps a death valley) was Cefalý.
Kanchenjunga appears like a watershed in Crowleys life. Life had been good up to that point: he was genuinely in love, the Secret Chiefs (in the form of Aiwass) had contacted him during the previous year, he was writing some good poems, he was one of the worlds leading mountaineers, and a certain amount of profligacy and debauchery aside, he had done nothing too terrible. Kanchenjunga changed everything. Five men died on Kanchenjunga under Crowleys leadership.
It is clear that Crowleys leadership skills were worse than non-existent:
I had arranged a plan, taking into consideration all sorts of circumstances, the importance of which they did not understand and others of which they did not even know, and they did not realise that to deviate from my instructions in any way might be disastrous. Their disobedience having resulted in things going wrong, they proceeded to blame me.
I did my best to reason with them and quiet them, like the naughty children they were.
Well, its team leadership Jim, but not as we know it. It is unsurprising, given Crowleys autocratic style, impatient and patronising manner, and contempt for some members of his team, that repeated errors in communication occurred and resentment grew. His failure to acknowledge altitude sickness (they were at 22,000 feet) was an important issue, as was his failure to comprehend the superstitious dread of the mountain among the porters. Crowley may have been an exceptional individual climber, but he was unsuited to leading a large party on such a difficult and dangerous expedition, and regardless of who made what mistake, it turned into a fiasco and men died.
I would have been happy if Booth had spent more time digging into the events on the mountain I would have thought a point as simple as whether Crowley helped to recover and bury the bodies could have been resolved. The incident did massive damage to Crowleys reputation, and terminated his climbing career. It may have been the psychosomatic trigger for the asthma that oppressed him for the rest of his life (Crowleys private name for the condition suggests something of the sort). Most people would react to such a massive setback in some way drink, drugs, depression, self-destructive behaviour. Crowley gives no indication of feelings other than self-righteousness, and this raises the question as to whether he repressed feelings of guilt. Kanchenjunga is important because from this point Crowley leaves a wake of broken and dead people behind him. The immediate aftermath was an expedition with his wife Rose and young child through the jungles of South-East Asia, from Burma into China.
Even today many people would think twice about such a journey because of a particularly nasty and often fatal strain of malaria in the region. In the event their child survived the jungle but died of typhoid in Rangoon, after Crowley had left Rose to continue his travels in America. Rose descended into alcoholism, and Crowley divorced her. Six years after the Kanchenjunga debacle he had her committed to an asylum.
A second episode in Crowleys life that stands out and demonstrates his character, is Cefalý. It was an unmitigated disaster. Having two jealous mistresses living together wasnt a brilliant idea, and when Leahs child died, and she miscarried another six days later, there were accusations of magic (apparently well-founded). The death of Raoul Loveday through drinking contaminated water was an unlucky accident, but Crowley made a determined enemy out of Betty May, Lovedays wife, and she played a major part in destroying his reputation in the UK. The episodes with the goat and the cat were, in retrospect, not the best sort of publicity. The events following the dissolution of Cefalý show Crowley in a particularly poor light. Norman Mudd had joined him as a student, but Crowley took his savings, and left Mudd and Leah penniless in Tunis. There then followed a confused period in which the financial situation of Mudd and Leah became more and more desparate, and culminated with Leah having to work as a common prostitute in Paris. Mudd never recovered from events. As Booth describes the situation:
Crowley later thought that the best thing Mudd could do to further the Great Work was to get a highly paid job, take out a hefty life insurance , marry Leah, name her as policy beneficiary, then kill himself.
Mudd appears to have become a down-and-out, and he did eventually kill himself, by "sealing the legs of his trousers with cycle clips, filling them with stones, and walking out to sea".
After Cefalý Crowley seems to have lost the plot with regard to human relationships. He may have become a god at Cefalý, but this is not apparent in his judgement. The list of casualties continued to grow for many years, and probably the most telling criticism one can make against Crowley is that he treated people, particularly women, as a means, not an end. He used them as tools for his own purposes (masquerading as the Great Work), and threw them away.
The distinction between means and ends is not trivial. It is the basis for Kants Categorical Imperative, itself the distillation of the Judeo-Christian tradition that life is sacred, and forms the root foundation of current human rights legislation. Crowleys morality is not futuristic it is a throwback to a time when compassion was considered a weakness, a vice for women and old men.
It is often pointed out that Crowley attracted (or chose) unstable partners for his magical work. This may be so, but, according to the gospels, Jesus threw seven devils out of Mary Magdalene and exalted her. Crowley would draw seven devils into a woman and debase her. He consistently dosed his women on as many drugs as he could lay his hands on, used them as mediums in his rituals, sodomised them, and discarded them when he lost interest or they became irritating. He even had the gall, in some cases, after a glut of alcohol, drugs and sexual magick, to dismiss a discarded woman as a drunk. In too many cases, in a kind of reverse alchemy, he took the gold and left dross behind.
I am aware that what began as a review of a biography has turned into a review of a life. I make no apology for this. Crowley set out to deconstruct and reconstruct society according to his personal preferences, and no matter how prescient he may have been about the bottomless depths of human selfishness and brutality, we have to ask whether this is a road we wish to go down. Should we acquiesce in his belief that in a thousand years the main religion will be Crowleyanity? I recommend Booths biography because he doesnt take sides. The good is there, and the bad is there.
If Crowley is the prophet of a new religious current, and by extension, a new moral framework for human relationships, then we have to ask what he offers us. In his novel Catch 22, Joseph Heller portrays the opposition of actions which are beneficial to the individual versus those which benefit the group, with the question "what would happen if everyone did that?". This is one of the most important social questions we need to solve: how to create a strong and cohesive society that respects individual rights. Crowley offers no answers. He was an economic parasite and an autocrat who did the things he enjoyed doing, and made it sound as if he was serving a higher purpose. He may have begun with the best intentions, and he has penned brilliant and compelling justifications, but wit and intellectual lustre are not enough to offset the bitter taste that remains after reading Booth's biography.
© Colin Low 2000
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