Aleister Crowley: The Biography
(by Tobias Churton)
A very bold title, I admit. This is not the first biography of the great and notorious mage, nor will it be the last. But it is, I believe, the definitive work, and it has been a long time coming.
Back in 1992, I inspected a letter preserved in Gerald Yorke’s collection of Crowleyana entrusted to the Warburg Institute. In March 1950, Crowley’s long-time disciple Jane Wolfe replied to an enquiry from Yorke with another question: ‘Where was, or is, the biographer?‘ A prophetic question. Dismayed by Press venom emitted after Crowley’s death in Hastings a few years earlier, Ms Wolfe felt that ignorance and prejudice could be trounced if a factual biography were published. When, 42 years later, I read Jane’s words, the answer to her question flashed into my mind: ‘Wait no longer. He [the biographer] is here.’ Sadly, she was not; Jane Wolfe died, aged 83, in 1958, but her question outlived her.
Well, I had no intention of writing a biography at the time; I was researching an abortive TV documentary about the ‘old sinner’, as Gerald Yorke referred to his late friend and mystic guide. The idea of a biography must, however, have taken root somewhere, if indeed it had not taken root the day in Michaelmas Term 1978 when I first heard Aleister Crowley’s name at an introductory drinks party given by the Oxford University Mountaineering Club. Chris Bonnington had praised Crowley in a review of inspirational mountaineers. That has always been a funny thing about Crowley: hear about him here; hear about him there – and expect it pretty soon. Even as I was being introduced to Crowley’s name and reputation, my friend George was keeping Crowley’s remarkable ‘autohagiography’ to himself. He finally lent me his library-loaned copy of The Confessions of Aleister Crowley over Christmas: a masterpiece, colourful, witty and wise. Who needed a biography when Crowley told his own life so very well? – parts of his life anyway; the story faded out in the early 1920s, though Crowley would accomplish much more before his death, against all odds.
Though Crowley could be adroitly objective about himself, he well understood the value of a ‘straight’ biography. He asked friends Charles Cammell and Louis Wilkinson to shoulder the task – but it never happened. Perhaps the subject was just too big, too difficult, too controversial. After Crowley’s death, Gerald Yorke considered the idea, having known Crowley since 1927, but Yorke stepped aside when young writer John Symonds expressed interest. Crowley had, in his last years, asked Symonds to assist him in restoring his literary reputation; Crowley was a first-class poet and the world had impolitely ignored the fact. The Beast was kind but Symonds was stand-offish and judgemental. After Crowley’s death, Symonds, hoping to establish a reputation on the back of his work, secured Yorke’s co-operation and access to Crowley contacts. Crowley’s reputation was not, it transpired, uppermost in Symonds’s concern. The Great Beast, appeared in 1951. A clever, well-written, but barbed and hostile biography, Symonds’s work played to the baying crowd and provided the warped template for writers on Crowley for the next 50 years. Although Symonds’s demonisation of Crowley was challenged in books by Charles Cammell and Israel Regardie, neither they, nor more balanced recent biographies have succeeded in halting the hellish tsunami of abuse that first overwhelmed Crowley’s public reputation a century ago.
People want to know the truth about this fascinating man, a man unlike any other of his era, save perhaps Winston Churchill (whom Crowley deeply admired). Aleister Crowley was a brave man who speaks to us today as if he had never left us when he did in the disappointing world of Clement Attlee and post-war austerity. The world still has its disappointments and some degree of post-war austerity (though the war has changed), but Crowley stands tall: a giant in an age of self-righteous Lilliputians. His biblical motto declared that he would endure unto the end: he did and he will.
Crowley was one of the great men of history, a giant of the 20th century whose spiritual and magical, philosophical and scientific viewpoint will be of value for generations to come. He was a man as important to this era as Giordano Bruno, Pico della Mirandola and Marsiglio Ficino were to the Renaissance. We know about Freud and Einstein. Crowley deserves his place up there with them, though he might have found the position personally embarrassing; he was a reluctant prophet and surprisingly shy.
Opposed vehemently by enemies who feared him and everything he stood for, Crowley nevertheless stood for the liberty of Man against oppression of all kinds, especially the oppression of the mind through abuse of natural human sexuality. Crowley’s own bisexuality would prove an Achilles’ Heel in a world that had sentenced Oscar Wilde to humiliating hard labour for having had sex with men. Crowley’s friend Louis Wilkinson had been a friend of Wilde and Crowley knew precisely what was involved for those whose behaviour challenged social norms. Crowley found himself subject to blackmail where a full defence would, by the law of the time, have incriminated him. It should be observed that Crowley was never arrested for a crime in his long life. But he never got the recognition he richly deserved either. He was painted black.
How did I approach the task of writing Crowley’s life?
After a period of hot-under-the-collar preparation and re-reading of everything I could find by or about Aleister Crowley, I immersed myself in the Warburg Institute’s Yorke Collection – and I mean immersed. From the moment I sat down one rainy morning to study again the empire of Crowley’s letters and personal papers, I felt glued to my seat, held fast by fascination; days passed without lunch, drinks or inconvenient resort to conveniences. Had the library stayed open all night, I should have stayed with it. The experience was a timeless eye-opener: thrilling, uplifting, radiant and marvellous. Almost everywhere I looked I found nuggets of pure gold. Many things that I had never seen or noticed before jumped out at me with astonishing clarity. Re-living the past, I was there.
It soon became obvious to me that as far as public knowledge was concerned, Crowley’s life had not been written; it had been written over (I omit from this observation scholarly work on Crowley undertaken by William Breeze, Richard Kaczynski, Richard Spence, Marco Pasi, Henrik Bogdan, Martin Starr, Lawrence Sutin and Martin Booth among others).
While before ‘immersion’ I had wondered what ‘angle’ to take in my approach to presenting the story of Crowley’s life, I was soon aware that the task could be approached more directly. So struck was I by the real Aleister Crowley who emerged from authentic sources, I could encapsulate the biography’s approach in a single desire: I wanted the reader to meet him. The means to do this existed. The biography would set his preserved words in their true historic context and continuity, to generate from the ashes of time a genuine encounter with the man. Why? Because Aleister Crowley is well worth meeting; what a privilege! He has so much that is interesting to say – and he has a wonderfully entertaining way of expressing himself, a unique style. And style is what counts. The biography then is the door to the man. Constructing that door would be a worthwhile, but by no means easy task. Thankfully, I was offered the generous support of William Breeze, World Head of Crowley’s Ordo Templi Orientis, who opened to me an additional literary treasury of rare material, study and insight from outside of the Yorke Collection, without imposing any restraint in interpretation: a rare act of trust in this day and age.
A great deal of authentic material in the biography has never been published before. The result is an altogether fresh, accurate and dramatic presentation of Aleister Crowley. It is The Biography – the one we have all been waiting for. It is not a study of Crowley’s works, nor is it a philosophical treatise; it is Crowley’s life told with the best of materials in as close-up a manner possible within the constraints of a readable book. Given the wealth of material made available to me, I have had, of course, to leave much out and to edit my sources judiciously, but I am sure that nothing essential to the book’s definitiveness has been lost. For most readers of the book, including serious devotees of the Crowley legacy, much of the contents will constitute a protracted revelation. That is certainly what I found for myself in the long process of writing it.
I thought I knew my subject pretty well before I started. Could I find anything essentially new to say that had not come out in some form in one book or another before? Well, fate favours the prepared mind; I was well taken by the hand and shown a new vista. I encountered the man; what more need I say?
When asked recently for a list of bullet-points concerning the biography, I found I had written some seventy points of note – far too many for practical use, but an indication of the book’s scope. Here is a selection:
• The book reveals for the first time the true story of Crowley’s remarkable family background on his mother’s and father’s sides, explaining why he did not reveal the facts. Crowley’s real relations with his own family give the lie to many myths about him. The author has consulted Crowley’s grandson for an authentic picture.
• Crowley’s work as an intelligence asset is clarified. He was probably recruited at Trinity College, Cambridge, by fellow Trinity man, the Hon. Francis Henry Everard Joseph Feilding (1867-1936), intelligence officer, secretary of the Psychical Research Society. Crowley served his country at the cost of his health; he was never a traitor, but had to pose as one as ‘cover’ for intelligence work (1915-1918).
• Based on previously unpublished evidence, Crowley’s spy mission in Berlin 1930-32, reporting to Col. JFC Carter, Head of Special Branch, is detailed. During World War 2, Crowley gave magical training to the Private Secretary of the Head of the SIS. He made an Oath in Crowley’s Order shortly before joining the intelligence interface of SOE and MI6.
• The book contains a detailed analysis of documents describing Crowley’s extraordinary encounter with an angel, ‘Aiwass’, in Cairo in April 1904. Important new information is revealed on the origins of Crowley’s magical system of spiritual attainment, Thelema.
• The facts, including the intelligence angle, behind Mussolini’s expulsion of Crowley from Sicily in 1923, and the French security services’ rescinding of his right to live in Paris in 1929, are revealed.
• Crowley’s extraordinarily revealing link with the Persian printer and designer Samuel Aiwaz Jacobs (c.1891-1971) and with the persecuted Kurdish religion of the Yezidis is explored for the first time.
• We discover what Crowley really believed about sex and sexual energy and what precisely ‘sexual magick’ really is, and how it can be practised. Crowley’s many magical love affairs with women are explored; many women loved him and he enjoyed long and fruitful relations with a number of women. Contrary to the myth, Crowley did not bring misery or disaster to every woman he met. Crowley was an outspoken supporter of female emancipation who practised what he preached.
• Crowley and ‘Higher Masonry’ – his involvement and leadership detailed.
• We discover Crowley the Artist: poet and painter of the Unconscious.
• In 1941, Crowley invented the V-sign as a part of his psychological warfare and British propaganda campaign. The true story to this amazing revelation, and other initiatives of Crowley in WW2 is told in the biography for the first time. His attempt to publicize his invention as being his own work, with an extraordinary occult meaning, was suppressed.
Aleister Crowley believed he would be valued once his enemies lost the power to damn him. He had enemies in Freemasonry, Theosophy, the Roman Catholic Church, British, French, German and Italian fascists, all of whom pursued his activities and published propaganda against him. Crowley’s German representative Karl Germer, was arrested by the Gestapo and sent to Esterwegen concentration camp. It is high time people were able to judge the issues for themselves.
Ultimately, the attraction lies in the fact that the true story of Aleister Crowley is A GREAT STORY, and he comes out of it a great leader of human thought and will; in short: a True Magus.
aleister crowley, issue 28