The Confessions of Aleister Crowley, an Autobiography, New York, Bantam Books, 1971, 1058 pages, 32 pages of photographs, $1.95 (also in hardcover, Hill and Wang edition.)
When Aleister Crowley died in 1947, the London Press printed an unusual obituary. Hardly a eulogy, they referred to the departed, elderly man as “the wickedest man in Britain” mentioning his “Black Masses and human sacrifices.” Some years before, the press had called him “the greatest poet, philosopher, blackguard, mountaineer, magician, degenerate, and saint of all time.”
In the prelude to his book, Crowley mentions that it would be easy for him to choose any one of fifty meanings for his life, and to arrange his book accordingly. Instead, he proposes to state the incidents of his life as fully as possible, asserting the theory that destiny is the supreme artist. And so he does, for 1058 pages of fine print.
Clearly, Crowley was a man of many contradictions. The question seems to be, were the contradictions in the man, or in the way that history interpreted his life? Contrast the account of Crowley pulling a pistol on a recalcitrant companion on K2, and the press reports that he lived for more than two months on the Baltoro Glacier by killing and eating his porters, with what he writes in later life, “When a newspaper prints three columns, identifying me with Jack the Ripper, it never occurs to me that anyone in his senses would believe such rubbish. I imagine that my integrity is universally patent as sunrise; I can’t realize that I shall suffer in the estimation of anyone.”
Disregarding the present trends of Telegraph Avenue, it was rather unusual in the Victorian era to proclaim to be the “Beast 666” and to travel through foreign lands in strange dress with an entourage of followers reminiscent of Jesus Christ, Ken Kesey, or Charles Manson. Those who knew Crowley said that he possessed a powerful charismawhich was a major factor in the success of his witchcraft and black magic. He was always a member of the leisure class, beginning at one end of the social scale with a Cambridge education and a large endowment, and in later life reaching the other end. He squandered his fortune, publishers were afraid to print him, but he remained uncompromising in his personal philosophy.
One does not have to read very far before finding that Crowley was a deeply sensitive human being. Not sensitive in the motherly-love-of- all-fellow-men-on-Sunday style of his strict Christian upbringing, but sensitive in the searching, acrid, prescient way of a Robinson Jeffers. Crowley’s prose is sometimes caustic, sometimes tender; sometimes allegorical, sometimes alliterative, but always delightfully unpredictable. He was one of those rare individuals who not only experienced life, but observed every facet with a carefully detached eye as it was actually happening. It is this quality of removing himself from the present that enabled him to project the future with uncanny accuracy. Witness the following quotations written more than fifty years ago.
On progress: “Civilization has become a hysterical scramble for monetary material advantage … Such is the price of what we call progress. We cannot assign a meaning to the word; because no one has any idea where we are going.”
On science: (1922) “… if it were desired to have an element of atomic weight six times that of uranium, that element could be produced.”
On mountain medicine: (in 1902 on K2) “Pfannil was suffering from oedema of both lungs and his mind was gone.”
On U.S. politics: “My faith in the future of the States is fixed on some rational reconstruction after revolution.”
On population: “To the eye of a god, mankind must appear as a species of bacteria which multiply and become progressively virulent whenever they find themselves in a congenial culture, and whose activity diminishes until they disappear completely.…”
On mind-expanding experiences: “I am proud … of having saved the successful (of his pupils) from the devastating delusion that the intellectual image of their experience is an universal truth.”
On climbing: “Climbing itself is being very much spoilt by the attitude of the Alpine Club in insisting that the achievement, not the enjoyment, is the important thing.… This is the American Spirit, to count and compare instead of being content with spiritual satisfaction.”
On New York: “A mountain skyline is nearly always noble and beautiful, being the result of natural forces acting uniformly and in conformity with law. Thus, though it is not designed, it is the embodiment of the principles which are inherent in design. New York, on the other hand, has been thrown up by a series of disconnected accidents.” Besides participating in two Himalayan expeditions, Crowley walked across China, climbed the Mexican volcanoes in record time and was a confidant of Rodin and W. S. Maugham. The latter plagiarized someof Crowley’s writings and was verbally admonished in 1908, “I almost wish,” Crowley said, “that you were an important writer.”
Beginning climbing during the era when Alpine Club gentlemen usually climbed with guides, Crowley was an upstart. He often climbed solo and described one of his other efforts as follows. “I was still obsessed by the idea that it was suicidal to cross snow-covered glaciers without a rope. So I took a porter … The man couldn’t stand on a snow slope. I was constantly having to misuse valuable time in saving his worthless life.”
He spoke of his own life rather more fondly, “yet my mind … can never rest for more than an albatross’s glide upon the slopes of the past. Today, writing my memories, I feel as if I were playing a sort of practical joke upon myself. I am hot on the trail of the future. I can imagine myself on my death bed, spent utterly with lust to touch the next world, like a boy asking for his first kiss from a woman … It is one of the most frightful consequences of increasing age that one finds fewer and fewer of one’s contemporaries worth talking to.”
Before the age of thirty, mountaineering played a major role in Crowley’s life. Some of his comments seem unchanged today.
On guidebooks: “I failed to realize that the one book was as full of grotesque blunders and inaccuracies as the other.”
On the advantages of small parties: “Another point is that it is at least twice as hard to find two competent companions as it is one.”
On reputations: “Jones obtained the reputation of being the most brilliant rock-climber of his time by persistent self-advertisement. He was never a first-rate climber.”
His opinions were often unspeakably bold: “In March 1922, I heard of the composition and projects of the Everest expedition. I wrote an article predicting failure and disaster, giving my reasons and showing how to avoid the smash. No one would print it.… What I had foretold came to pass precisely as I had predicted it.
The Beast 666 metamorphosed from a Plymouth Brethren family, members of a sect that believed they were the only true Christians. Young Aleister reasoned that on the hypothesis of his faith, evil was just as real as good, and that reality made the devil equal to God. “My first step,” he said, “must be to get into personal communication with the devil.”
Later in life he was to formulate his own faith, based on the premise that “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.” He wrote many books, articles, and poems on magic and occultism, and is best known today as a mystic. The publishers of the recent paperback edition of the book sensationalized the front cover with the following: “The profane and uninhibited memoirs of the most notorious magician, satanist, and drug cultist of the 20th century.”
Personally, I have found Crowley’s magical writings hard to accept. The mystical significance of written symbols, Secret Chiefs, and the mathematical relationships of numbers, such as Crowley’s own “666”seem to escape me. But a very strange thing happened while typing a draft of this review. My finger slipped for a moment as I was underlining between quotations. Instead of a line, for three spaces I typed what was the lower case of that key: 666. I stared in disbelief. I told my mind that it was merely an accident, but my brain responded by surfacing further yet another Crowley quotation: “Experience has taught me that imponderables are all-important; when science declares that it can concern itself only with that which can be measured, it classes itself with the child that counts on its fingers and brands Shakespeare and Shelley as Charlatans.”
GALEN A. ROWELL