It's the curse of our culture stream, now flowing so much faster and thicker due to relatively recent developments such as the internet you currently read this on, that great men and women often do not receive the credit they deserve. Perhaps the most unappreciated man in human history is… well, we could probably name a vast amount of gentlemen here with varying degrees of truth, couldn't we? Mallanaga Vātsyāyana. Heraclitus. Averroes. The true authors of the Iliad and the Mahabharata. Whom ever first sat down and thought 'Gilgamesh is a really cool name.' Undoubtedly one of their number, though, is the late mystic, the man known variously during his time as 'The Beast' and the more specific 'Wickedest Man in the World,' the unmistakable, inimitable, often unapproachable Aleister Crowley.
It is not my intention, however, to merely popularise already famous names, but to defend them against the charges that the court of culture has lain at their door. This essay is the first in a series intended to cut through the misinformation or misconceptions about some of my heroes, and along the way we might get into the nitty gritty of some of my favourite ideologies. But for now, why do I think Crowley deserves a pat on the metaphorical back?
Crowley is at least as unpopular now as he was in his time. It could be said that a lot of the reaction against him is, ironically, superstitious, a general feeling among Christians that this man transgressed where man was not meant to transgress and even saying is name is to invoke the same tainted actions upon ones own soul. Another, equally ironic, is a rationalist reaction, that Crowley was a fool, someone who wasted his time dressing up and chanting silly things, holding beliefs that are contrary to Science and Reason.
Crowley himself did not do his reputation any favours. Aside from his deliberate, wonton immorality (and I define morality as being what is acceptable in one's time and place, defined not by ethics but consensus) he was also insufferably self-important, incredibly arrogant, vapidly narcissistic; a bully, a sexist, at times a racist, an intolerant irritant, a vicious and unapologetic critic of almost everyone else's life view. His prose style is entreacled with so much jargon it is impenetrable to the untrained mind, and even many modern magicians prefer those who followed and reinterpreted Crowley - Phil Hine, perhaps, or Peter J. Carroll; or perhaps even Crowley's contemporaries, his enemy Gurdjieff who was blessed with a more direct pragmatic style or the equally unappreciated and unread Austin Osman Spare, who received quite a boost in popularity among the chaos magicians.
However, Crowley stands above even these great names in both his goals and his eventual influence, and it would be silly to get bogged down in his personality 'defects' when many of them were deliberately challenging to the critics of the day. The aforementioned Christian critics were and are right to fear him, at least those of them that cling to the smashed corpse of Theism against which Crowley swung his axe.
Theism, an outgrowth of Idealism given philosophical legitimacy by Thomas Aquinas, had already been defeated as a cosmological model by the likes of Isaac Newton, but it was Crowley's unmistakably anthropological mind that saw through its sociological rather than metaphysical impositions. By looking at Crowley's ritualistic magic, a world of signifiers, semiotics and the Self, we are shown the cogs by which organised religion keeps ticking. We are also shown that religion is not alone in its reliance upon rituals, nor are its gods, demons and monsters physical beings as much as they are ideas.
Richard Dawkins might call Crowley's area of expertise and practice the memetic plane. The relatively lunatic-fringe Rupert Sheldrake termed it a "morphogenetic field." We find Yeats, in both The Second Coming and A Vision, his own magical writing, named it the Spiritus Mundi. Those of us more familiar with theosophy might prefer 'Akashic Records.' In short, we are talking about the realm of ideas, of emotions, of human imagination. Not an Ideal, static realm of forms, as Plato would have it, but a fluid technology of the soul composed of the language we use to think and communicate in. It's the theoretical physicist Robert L. DeMilo who is our intellectual patron here, he who postulated whether the world of imagination, no less than a Neo-Spinozan godbrain that is recreated as it is reinterpreted, might be subject to the same Einsteinian laws as the atomic universe. Could we mentally fold the laws back upon themselves, even if we can't do it physically?
Yes, says Crowley. It is he who formulates the relationship between Will and Change, long before the quantum physicists discovered that, at the subatomic level, the engine room of creation, an object observed is an object altered. What Crowley did was rediscover and reinvent new apparatus in which to take ultimate responsibility for one's own life, calling forward the demons that plague what Jung, another who owes a debt to Crowley, later called the collective consciousness and making them our subordinates. For instance, while it was not he, but his one time compatriot Samuel Mathers, who translated the Abramelin operation, a technique in occultism for mastering demons, it was Crowley who repopularised it after hundreds of years of obscurity by incorporating it into his philosophical and magical discipline, Thelema.
The gift Crowley gives us, then, by showing us the impact, control and potential oppression that rituals have on our lives, is allowing us to step outside the cage, to recognise the McDonald's 'M' logo for what it is (a sigil to evoke change), to re-evaluate why we chant in church or in meditation, why we cross ourselves before an athletics event, why we touch wood for luck. He reminds us of the difference between eso- and exoteric. He implies the potential damage organised religions can have on us, throws open the Catholic doctrine of pain and redemption for further analysis, decimates forever the idea of One True Religion as being nothing more than a marketing technique.
Crowley's law of 'Do what thou Wilt' is perhaps his most misrepresented and misunderstood statement: it is not, as it first appears, an avocation of sociopathic behaviour, but a command to seek out, through prayer or meditation or any other spiritual or intellectual procedure, one's true purpose or True Will, personified anthropomorphically in Thelema as the Holy Guardian Angel, and to follow it.
Crowley is, then, the first deconstructionist. Well trained in Eastern esoteric traditions as well as Western ones, it is he who is our link in the chain between the Tao, Buddhism and Derrida that also runs by way of Heraclitus, Jewish linguistic traditions and the Vedic seers. It is also difficult to imagine yoga of any technique or discipline being so popular in the modern West had it not been for Crowley's unrelenting desire to look for true gnosis in every corner of the globe. The anthropologists Claude Levi Strauss and Mary Douglas owe much of their revelations about religion as a tool of social cohesion to his groundbreaking thought processes, hypotheses and experiments. Another anthropologist, the more psychoanalytic Geza Roheim, later studied magic as a kind of social neurosis, before realising that neurosis is a kind of magic in itself. His neurotic subjects were constructing new rituals on the subconscious level to break the abuses they themselves had suffered.
The difference between a maniac and Crowley, the man himself always maintained, is that he knew what he was doing. We all do magic to some extent. It's simply that a true magician of Thelema, someone who has seen what is happening and what is to be done about it, would never mistake a magical gesture for the real thing.
Our sacred rituals, once we have read Crowley or Douglas or Derrida, are now empty vessels that did no more than carry us here. Daniel Dennett describes organised religion as being a nurse crop, a stage we had to go through. It was Crowley who showed us why, and the materials it was made from. Once the hygiene laws of the Torah or the Old Testament are seen as being no more than attempts at defining the tribe, they lose their spiritual potency.
How we conduct ourselves in the hedonistic 21st Century is another matter all together. One feels, though, that Crowley will have had a hand in it somewhere along the way. The list of people he has influenced is long and impressive. Yeats post-Crowley is a different proposition to the concerned dreamer he was earlier in his career, no longer motivated by the fairies at the bottom of the garden but spurred by burning visions of the apocalypse and majestic civilisations of the mind and spirit. L. Ron Hubbard initially conceived Scientology as a Crowleyian prank designed to bring organised religion into disrepute, and it would take a brave contrarian to claim it isn't working. William S. Burroughs' attempts to map Hell through literature mark him as the Hieronymus Bosch of the 20th century, but it's difficult to imagine him moving past his Junky period without the narrative technologies bequeathed to his generation by Crowley. We can, then, trace the zeitgeist of the 1960s and everything that came with it – the music, the drug experimentation, and the anarchic, esoteric and hedonistic folk-philosophies of peace and love – back through the Beatles and the beatniks and the Beats to the Beast himself.
Not to mention the Babalon Working. Jack Parsons, Anton LaVey, Robert Anton Wilson, Terrence McKenna, Timothy Leary, John Zorn, Throbbing Gristle, Bill Laswell, Albert Ayler and Led Zeppelin all bear the mark of the Beast, faintly or otherwise, somewhere on their bodies. It doesn't seem so contentious now to imagine Crowley, in his animal mask and billowing robes and blowing terrifying tunes through bagpipes, as the midwife of the 20th Century at least, an eccentric paramedic called in by fate to announce to the Victorians that their stifling, oppressive contractions were that and no more.
Having made my fair share of generalisations and pseudo-intellectual points, I will finish with a bit of knock-around horseplay. It seems unarguable that 20th century folk, whether it be in the shape of music, culture or reactionary Tolkienistic nostalgia for a pre-Industrial age, is in some way a continuation of or response to Crowley's great leaps forward. Topic Records, EFDSS (English Folk Dance and Song Society) and CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) are all inextricably linked in their origins, and it was Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, two devoted followers of Crowley, who gave their folk sympathies pop legitimacy.
So, the next time you're drinking a genuine regional stout rather than a manufactured American lager, listening to an album produced by an indie label, reading a comic by Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman or Warren Ellis, or even musing about whether Richard Dawkins might have a point, remember good old Uncle Aleister and raise your glass a touch higher.