“Read a Damn Book – 091: Aleister Crowley – The Biography”

Anyone interested in magic and occultism (even us skeptics—perhaps ESPECIALLY us skeptics) eventually has to reckon with one figure, the man who called himself “The Beast 666,” called by some the wickedest man in the world, Aleister Crowley…

aleister crowley (2011) - (peg)

Tobias Churton – Aleister Crowley – The Biography (2010)

Tobias Churton is an expert on Freemasonry, Rosicrucianism, and Gnosticism (according to the back of this book), and he was given access to previously unpublished and mostly unseen materials while researching this project, and his biography of Crowley is INCREDIBLY detailed and built out of a huge variety of sources, including Crowley’s journals and diaries, letters to and from and about Crowley, as well as Crowley’s published poetry and other literary works, newspaper articles, government documents, and interviews and remembrances about The Beast. And what do we get from such a detailed treatment of “the demon?” Quite a lot, actually.

Churton is clearly an admirer of Crowley, and if I’m reading the tone correctly, he’s also a believer in the reality of magic. Knowing these things, however, doesn’t diminish Churton’s skill as a researcher or writer. In fact, Churton does an excellent job of painting Crowley not as a demon or the wickedest man in the world, but as a human being, with hopes and dreams (and flaws, for certain.) According to Churton, Crowley was maligned by the press, who sensationalized much of what he was up to, and Crowley, being a bit egotistical and more than a bit of a prankster, ALLOWED this sensationalism to go on for too long—until it was too late, and his reputation was destroyed in the eyes of a conservative culture unprepared for a liberated fellow like Crowley. (In fact, if he were alive today, he’d be considered a bit stiff by the modern, Hollywood or New York standards of excess… Compare him to Michael Alig or Charlie Sheen…)

Churton argues that Crowley should be remembered not for his excesses but as an artist, a poet, and a philosopher, who believed that he’d discovered a path that would lead to a better world, if only he could get more people to listen. Make no mistake, Crowley could be heartless and cold, and he often put his GREAT WORK above the individuals who were helping him to accomplish it, but he sincerely believed he could make the world a happier place.

Crowley believed in magic, and he felt that sex magic was the most powerful type of magic. He was a bit of a lady-killer (although women were not his only partners,) and he was apparently still attractive enough to win hearts and “get lucky” well into his 60s. He often experimented with drugs during his magical rituals, as well, primarily hashish and mescaline. He was also, later in life, addicted to heroin, although to be fair, he was PRESCRIBED heroin by his doctor when he was in his forties as a treatment for chronic asthma! (Not uncommon at the turn of the twentieth century.) He was, at one time or another, a member of a number of different “occult societies,” including the Golden Dawn (along with the poet William Butler Yeats, with whom he famously did NOT get along), various Freemasonic lodges, the O.T.O. (Ordo Templi Orientis), and his own A.A., as well as other groups. Crowley was SEARCHING for something, traveled the world gathering esoteric knowledge, and he believed he was on the path towards a “scientific” method for attaining a higher spiritual truth. We would disagree with his definition of “scientific” today, but for the time in which he lived, he DID attempt “controlled” experiments, rigorously took notes on his magical findings, and then tried to share his discoveries with others, so that they could repeat his experiments. It was faulty methodology at its core, relying exclusively on personal experience and “feelings,” but he was TRYING to be rigorous, in his own way.

Two things that I DIDN’T know about Crowley: he was a world class mountaineer, who climbed some of the toughest and most perilous mountains in the world; and this book also makes a compelling case for the possibility that Crowley was a secret agent working for British Intelligence. Whether it’s true or not may be lost to time, but the evidence presented by Churton is pretty interesting.

And that pretty much categorizes the entire book. There’s a ton of information, much of it from personal reminiscences and journal entries, which aren’t IRON CLAD proof of anything, aside from the minds and dispositions of the writers. But it’s clear that Crowley BELIEVED he was doing magic, although even he had moments where he questioned if it was possibly all in his head. If you ask me, considering how often he was penniless and homeless and sick, he doesn’t seem to have been a powerful magician controlling Satanic forces—just a human with a drug habit, a catalog of excellent (if underappreciated) poetry, a string of unhappy ex-lovers and neglected children, and a dream of societal fulfillment that still hasn’t come to true.

Although Churton is a solid writer and a MASTER researcher, the book is almost TOO full of detail for its own good. I’m used to reading dense texts, and this was still a bit of work to get through. You’d think a book full of sex, drugs, magic, and espionage would be a real page turner, but the massive amount of detail is too much to keep straight. Names, dates, locations, magical orders, secret names, and so on, fill these pages to the brim (and the final 80 pages of the book are taken up with notes and citations!!!) Churton is thorough, unbelievably so, but like I said, I think most readers will have a hard time making it through all the minutia, despite the fact that Crowley himself was a fascinating guy.

I should also warn readers (if it isn’t obvious) that this book does NOT pull any punches when it comes to talking about sex or ritual magic, nor does it hold back on profanity. (Crowley had a mouth that would put a sailor to shame.) In addition, there are UNDOUBTEDLY people who are going to be offended by the very nature of Crowley’s belief system, although Churton does a good job of defending Crowley’s reputation against the tabloid accusations and character assassination of Britain’s repressive cultural perspective. He humanizes The Beast, and he points us towards the poet, the philosopher, the prankster instead of the demon. For some, this book will probably be scary. Personally, I found it entertaining and enlightening—especially since I’ve actually read very little about Crowley himself. All in all, it’s an incredible book, shocking and sad and fascinating, but NOT for the casual reader. This book takes dedication to get through, and will probably require rereading, with a couple of history texts in tow, for the reader to really get EVERYTHING that Churton throws at you. Beware!

—Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Supreme Bunny Lord of The P.E.W.)

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About richardfyates

Compulsive creator of the bizarre and absurd. (Artist, writer, poet, provocateur...)
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