“I think the fault is mine.” ~ Aleister Crowley
Numerous attempts have been made to produce a life of Aleister Crowley, each with their own interpretation of his meaning, intent, and effect. So far, the most objective among them has been Do What Thou Wilt, by Lawrence Sutin (who, incidentally, wrote a very good biography of Philip K. Dick, another controversial spiritual figure). With that and other documents out there, my intention is not to attempt even a short summary of Crowley’s life. Different interpretations, however, always have a place.
Aleister Crowley, like a lot of extreme people, is an ambivalent figure, combining Oscar Wilde, Eliphas Levi, and the Marquis de Sade into a single man. My own view of him was, for many years, quite dark. I could not understand how anybody saw anything redeeming in him. He was a heroin addict, a sex fiend, an abuser of women and children. Then again, I’m a fan of Philip K. Dick, who abused hard drugs, had a few psychotic breaks, was known to treat his wives very badly, and neglected his children. Yet many of those who criticize Crowley are quick to defend PKD, saying that he was a misunderstood visionary, a mortal man who was not strong enough to withstand the force of the revelations forced upon his mind. Neither man makes a good role-model. Both lives serve as warnings to those of us who seek magical and mystical experiences: don’t go deeper than you’re ready to go, and don’t use artificial aids which may push you faster than you can handle. Or, to invoke the old magical warning: Do not call up what you can’t put down.
In a different way, both men serve as inspirations. Neither one let artificial social norms stop him from pursuing the revelations he sought.
An Orthodox Jewish friend of mine is also an ardent ethical vegan. Many other Orthodox Jews give him trouble over this decision, as they read the Bible as divinely mandating meat-eating. Even those who don’t read the Bible in this way still have a point to make: What about when the Temple is rebuilt, and animal sacrifices are reinstated? It will then be the absolute responsibility of every Jew to make those prescribed sacrifices according to Torah. Will my friend, then, defy the laws which he considers to be perfectly binding upon himself and his coreligionists?
By no means, he says. If tefillin must be made with a leather strap and tendon thread, or if his God requires him to take animals to sacrifice to the Temple of Jerusalem (and subsequently eat some of the cooked animal), he will do so even while continuing to eat vegan because Divinity is infinitely larger than veganism. That doesn’t make veganism unimportant, but it does make it unimportant by comparison.
Like Abraham and Isaac, and Kierkegaard’s “divine transgression of morality), the quest for God is a confoundingly large concern. Coming into any sort of contact with Divinity—especially when one is not ready for it, as has been the case not only with PKD, but also with the biblical prophets, Zoroaster, and probably many others—can be harrowing or even shattering. Without proper training (i.e. Yoga, Tantra, ceremonial magic, kabbalistic prophecy tutelage, etc.), the human mind-body complex is simply not capable of channeling the forces involved in anything like a healthy manner. Divinity is, from a human perspective, inherently and disturbingly transgressive. It is for this reason that most methods of preparation for divine communion involve some degree of separation and/or transgression, albeit within a disciplined context. This, among other things, helps to clear away certain psycho-energetic blockages, permitting a clear pathway for a sudden influx of force to flow where it needs to go without causing any damage along the way.
My claim is that many of Crowley’s transgressive acts—from his sometime-homosexuality to his drug experiments, his demonic evocations to his darkly erotic art—were efforts along these lines. The tragedy is that, in the modern West, he did not have a full and living tradition from which to draw for his methods and, thus, he had no safeguards to keep the process from merely uncorking his own lowest instincts. We see this problem again and again with the modern occult “scene”, as well. To paraphrase Bishop Stephen Hoeller, many Gnostics today are not people you would invite to dinner! Crowley was a more extreme example than usual, in part because he had tighter morés against which to act, but mostly because he was much more mentally active than the typical occultist. In short, the higher you go, the farther you have to fall.
Sri Gurudev Mahendranath—long before he had earned that name—knew Aleister Crowley in the days long after the Abbey of Thelema and would visit his flat in London. He made plain that his experiences with Crowley were nowhere near as dark as the common allegations made by those with an axe to grind. That said, Crowley’s successes were also his undoing. When asked about losing communion with his own Holy Guardian Daimon (a term which I prefer to “Angel”, due to the cultural assumptions surrounding that word), Crowley responded with a shake of the head and outstretched palms, and said, “I think the fault is mine.” (Mahendranath 2002, pg 4)
This statement hides a lot of depth, and I think reveals a degree of self-awareness not often attributed to Crowley by his most ardent critics. It is known more widely, thanks to the aforementioned biographies of the man, that in his later years he once responded to a newspaper article referring to him as a black magician, “If I’m a black magician, I’m a bloody good one.” This was not, as some occultists like to think, the quip of a man proud of his legacy; it was the bitter defense of a man who knew his own failures with an intimacy which escapes many of us.
Are Crowley’s books and essays worth the effort of reading them? The man was prolific, whatever else one thinks of him. He left behind him a vast corpus of prose and poesy, mostly on magic but even on mathematics and chess. Much of it is fascinating reading, but none of it is indispensable. Crowley’s writings are rarely innovative, and what innovations he made are only modern presentations of ages-old methods. More than Magick: Book 4 (“the Big Blue Brick”), more than The Book of the Law, and more than The Book of Thoth, Crowley’s single most useful and most insightful book is Magick Without Tears. (Crowley 1991) Many of his earlier works are the result of a powerful mind caught-up by his own arrogance, but Magick Without Tears is the product of that same mind looking back on a lifetime of mistakes and teasing out the lessons from them.
A careful reading of Magick Without Tears reveals Crowley the man. He was not the Prophet of a New Aeon, nor a magical messiah, but neither was he the devil in human form. Aleister Crowley was a deeply flawed man of the very highest ambition. He was a villain not in the comic book sense, but in the literary sense: not purely evil, but so assured of his own cleverness that he fell into many evil habits. Unlike most fictional villains, however, Crowley was able to live long enough to see his mistakes for what they were. In the final analysis, Crowley’s vast intellect and incredible energy were not alone enough to raise him above the condition of humanity, leaving him as the rest of us: a victim of his own karma.
Crowley, Aleister. (1991). Magick without tears. Tempe, Arizona: New Falcon Publications.
Mahendranath, Sri Gurudev. (2002). The londinium temple strain. Available from http://www.mahendranath.org/londinium/londinium.pdf
Sutin, Lawrence. (2002) Do what thou wilt: A life of Aleister Crowley. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin.