"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 31 October 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.

This Magick Moment


The 20th century saw great advances in human liberty and great advances in systematized tyranny, a delicate dichotomy that the 21st century will, we can hope, settle in one direction or the other. (Pick your side on election day!) Any figure who could straddle this dichotomy as well as maintain a long-term reputation for ravenous sexual appetite combined with inhuman sexual stamina, making people disappear, climbing mountains no one else could climb, shitting on people's rugs and being wicked cool, deserves more than mere veneration by an aging gaggle of would-be wizards and heavy metal devotees. We speak, of course, of that favorite whipping boy of early 20th-century British tabs, the so-called "wickedest man on Earth," Aleister Crowley.

Crowley's iconhood is being chipped away by time. In the first half of the 20th century he appeared fictionalized in the work of novelists like Somerset Maugham and Anthony Powell. He no longer exercises such quasi-highbrow influence, despite blips like Lawrence Sutin's recently released biography. Sure, Jimmy Page collected Crowleyana and purchased Al's old Scottish home overlooking spooky Loch Ness. But the mystic guitar demon — who has lately been reduced to faking back injuries in order to back out of disastrous tours with walking ghouls The Black Crowes — appears to be suffering from some eerily Crowleyan career curse. Ozzy Osbourne wrote "Mr. Crowley" during his glory days, but has himself become a Disneyesque old figurehead beaming uncomprehendingly over a movement of sub-Sabbath mooks touring as "Ozzfest." (The tour itself was masterminded by Ozzy's wife Sharon, clearly the one wearing the spandex in the family nowadays.) On the cutting edge of metal nowadays are death metal kids, who seem more impressed with miscreants who have actually racked up a significant body count than with merely louche mystic-philosopher types like Crowley, who cloaked his wisdom in cryptic practical jokes and his desire for anal sex in mystic ritual.

To those vaguely familiar with him, Crowley is thought of as a Satanic icon, and one of the more minor of the figures whose books are always stolen from college libraries by wild-eyed freshman intellectuals burning to transgress, usher in a new Aeon of free thought and unfettered liberty, freak out their roommates and impress spooky chicks. We must assert, in the hope of staving off a flood of angry e-curses from mages both Exalted and apprentice, that being into ritual magick (Crowley's peculiar spelling) is not analogous to worshipping Satan. In fact, Satan worship is thin gruel for ritualists of the Crowleyan style, who have to memorize gods, demons, and spirits of the air in dozens of varieties with unique qualities and hard to pronounce names.

For the uninitiated, a quick précis of Al's chequered career: Crowley was born in 1875 into a wealthy British family. Precious young Edward Alexander, who blamed his dissolute ways on being spoiled and never learning the value of a pound (or a pounding), rebelled against Christ and convention. He was a Cambridge dandy who never bothered to finish a degree, a minor chess champion, a dauntless mountain climber who unfortunately never learned how to work or play well with others (blithely refusing to go to the aid of mountaineering compatriots who had fallen to serious injury and, for a few, death).

Growing to manhood in an era when mysticism, especially of the sort that bogusly traced a pedigree as far back as ancient Lemuria or at least early Bob Hope, was a popular gentlemanly fascination, Crowley carefully built a reputation as post-Victorian England's most popular magician. He joined, launched or took over various mystical orders from the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (where he met, and aggravated, W.B. Yeats) to the Ordo Templi Orientis. In his decaying years he'd dissipated his family fortune and lived off the largesse of various mostly youthful followers even though he could probably have managed fine for himself.

Crowley has influenced social movements of some significance. His magick was meant as a self-actualization tool for sharpening the personal will, making him an early saint for the pop psychology of self-actualization. Crowley's marginalization is unfortunate, not just because he's both an often interesting writer and amusing old charlatan (or because he could count Stalinist Pulitzer Prize-winning fake Walter Duranty among his mystical lovers), but because he's a vivid representative of a common, if distressing, trend among artistic and political modernists of all sorts: bold pathbreaking from tradition in the name of individual liberty combined with an admiration for authoritarian fascism. Fascism was in essence the 20th century modernist movement in politics. Not merely because the likes of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot and Wyndham Lewis sympathized or embraced it to varying degrees, but because in the same sense that those authors created innovative forms of writing and expression that defined modernity and influenced all that came after, fascism was an innovative form of 20th century politics that, more than we like to remember, defined modernity. (As for post-modernity, the jury is out, though officious state-worshipping authoritarianism, even if not snazzily dressed in black and shiny boots, is by no means dead.)

While Crowley's central slogan was the hyperlibertarian "do what thou wilt shall be the whole of law" (allegedly dictated to him by an alien high intelligence, though traceable to Rabelais and even St. Augustine), in his dotage he managed to convince himself that the Nazis had been deeply influenced by his work and were trying to carry it out. It all comes down to "will." Crowley ran into that political problem that has caused many a turn toward tyranny even among those who Pharasaically mouth the praises of liberty-subsuming liberty to some instrumental goal that ranked higher. In Crowley's case it was the True Will of the self-actualized, which is what he thought required unfettered liberty, not just any old whim. Self-actualization, it's probably not necessary to add, did not apply to the aspirations or actions of the wrong type of people, which to the class- and race-conscious Crowley was most other people.

The leading modernists were sweet on fascism at least partially as a result of their own anti-Semitism — Lewis's 1939 The Jews: Are They Human? (answer: a qualified yes) is actually one of the less strident of the futuristic gang's pronouncements on that topic. But the their real motivation was contempt for mass democracy, particularly its seeming aimlessness and attenuation of cultural standards. Given the subsequent performance of both democracy and their own works, it seems the moderns were too pessimistic. Somehow, despite their controversial political thought, their work continues to be held in high regard even without the support of art-loving fascist strongmen who could make public readings of The Cantos a national requirement. And despite their revolutionary influence on their art forms, many of the modernists craved a social stability they thought necessary for artistic flourishing that democracies couldn't provide. We've seen cultural standards not so much fall as be shattered. In their place has come a cornucopian space where books by Ezra Pound, books attacking Ezra Pound, and books that show no sign of being aware of the existence of Pound or his aesthetic innovations all coexist with the easy familiarity of apartment neighbors who rarely acknowledge each others' presence. While the modernists' dreams of authoritarians shaping the world to their preferences failed, in a strange way they all got what their True Will required.

Since Crowley wanted to change the world (to start with, into a place where more people did him favors, sexual and otherwise) he would doubtless have been delighted at being featured in the iconography on that magickal document that, according to social historians and mythographers repeating themselves and each other girdling the globe, ushered in the Age of Aquarius, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. But he most likely would have been disappointed in the often feckless, self-absorbed silliness of his latter-day followers. Though his magick was more a self-improvement technique than a force for larger social change, he did see himself as the harbinger and leader of a New Aeon (no less an authority than an alien being's voice speaking through his girlfriend told him so) leading a group of intensely self-actualized ritual anal sex addicts to a world of glorious freedom where the old shibboleths of repressive Christianity had been overturned and we could all go, man, go, as fast and free as the wind would take us! Perhaps, born a bit later, he would have made an appropriate chieftain for a motorcycle gang.

The vexing question of why so many artistic modernists were fascist-symps has a simpler explanation than doctoral theses demand: People too frequently think they know how the world should be, and they don't mind using other people as raw material in constructing that world. And Crowley shows that you can be a really cool radical dude and suffer the same delusion. The ultimate lesson is that, whatever he may have achieved on Physical Graffiti 's unstoppable side three or even on his unforgettable Death Wish 3 soundtrack, Jimmy Page remains an unreliable source for spiritual or worldly wisdom.


courtesy of Eugen von Bohm Bawerk


pictures Terry Colon

Eugen von Bohm Bawerk