Crowley Oxford Talk

A talk delivered at The 13th International Thelemic Symposium on 26th September 2009 at The Holywell Music Room in Oxford

Back in the 1960s, W H Smith had a monopoly of book and magazine distribution over most of the UK Worried about libel, they refused to stock Private Eye.. Accordingly the magazine regularly used to refer to them as W H Smug and once published a photo of some of the sleazy trash they said they were hypocritically happy to sell. One paperback cover showed a huge fiend rising up for the pit of Hell holding in each hand a writhing naked woman, as well as a couple in his mouth.

"No deed was too hideous, no sin too evil for- the wickedest man in the world". For anyone prepared to pick up such a trashy looking book the cover is rather alluring. Turn over and we read it was about the ‘sinister life of Aleister Crowley’. The wickedest man in the world? Not Stalin, not Hitler, but an Englishman who lived out his three score years and ten and never went to prison? Once could even feel a patriotic pride in this. This was another British record, like climbing Everest or running the four minute mile. And one reads about him and finds he was not really wicked like a murderer, but actually very life enhancing and sympathetic.

The appeal continues on several different levels. We read Crowley’s books and find his ideas are actually very intelligent and fascinating. If we read the books he recommends us to read whole new worlds open up as his own thought becomes ever clearer. In addition to the reading list provided in Magick in Theory and Practice he refers to many books throughout his oeuvre. For further reading we can look into some of the figures included as saints in the Gnostic Mass, an intriguing list which may be fruitfully set against that of the Modern Masters. His intellectual achievement was something hard to classify, coherent as it was. Crowley’s Magick and Thelemism do not easily fit into the usual categories of creative achievement. Yeats for example we judge primarily for his poetry, which for its excellence would be taken to excuse much eccentricity of thought. Jung and Freud claimed to be scientists. Orwell was a novelist and essayist Marshall Mcluhan had what we could call a philosophy, whatever we think of it.

Personally I find the subject of Crowley and the speculations he opens up to be inexhaustible. Looking over what I have written in Aleister Crowley a Modern Master, many new questions and trains of thought rise up in the mind. Rather than just repeating what I say in the book. I shall talk about some of these. In the book I only cover a small fraction of what I might have said and what I might say now if I were starting it afresh. I leave out large chunks of what many might reasonably think to be essential. I did not want to tell a familiar story over again.

Naturally much of what I write will be found contentious. As I say I am rewriting intellectual history. I try to show different ways of looking at things, always, I hope, in a thelemic spirit.
In the introduction I describe how in January 1984 I sent off a proposal to write a book on Crowley for the Fontana Modern Masters series. I felt strongly that his exclusion from this company was very unfair. For all Crowley’s obvious brilliance, and intellectual power, all his wisdom was dismissed out of hand by the official culture. On other levels, however, his influence continued, underground, to use a buzz word from the sixties. From some points of view this is just as it should be, the dialectic between the free spirits and the bourgeois establishment is fertile and creative. And that could prepare for the opportunity of something better, what happens when the free spirits manage to gain the upper hand for a season.
Of course the proposal was rejected. I would have been amazed if it had not been.

So far I have had one review, which turned up yesterday.
Aleister Crowley: A Modern Master
by John Moore
reviewed by Nina Lazarus for the Esoteric Book Review
This book is an attempt to place Crowley in the context of modern ideas and older traditions. That this should be attempted is not surprising when we recall that Crowley was number 73 in the recent poll of the top 100 Britons. The biographical details given for Crowley are supplied to justify or clarify points of view, and as such this work is not, nor does it claim to be, a biography, providing only such piecemeal references.
Unfortunately this has resulted in sections of the book where you forget it is even about Crowley, as his name disappears for eight or ten pages at a time in places whilst the author discusses philosophy. Whilst these discussions are interesting and demonstrate the authors breadth of knowledge, they often seem tangential and not directly relevant to Crowley and his context. From this perspective the absence of Richard Kaczynski’s Perdurabo from the bibliography suggests a worthy source missed, whose treatment could have provided more useful ideas for the author.
This is an interesting work, but more as a background work for someone wishing to expand on their ideas of material that may have influenced Crowley, rather than Crowley the man, the mage or the modern master.

I can’t accept that.
The criteria for inclusion in the canon are not something I spend much time on in the book. Without looking too closely at the idea of modernity or what it actually meant to be a modern master, I got on with the task of setting him in the intellectual life of his time. Placing the Beast in his Cultural Background is my subtitle. That Crowley survives well enough outside his own background, is part of what makes him so interesting and distinctive. The Crowley of legend crosses barriers of culture and religion. He fascinates on several levels of which his most intellectual side is only one. I would maintain that this side of him is not fully comprehensible without the sort of background I try to offer. There is much food for thought in the harmony between the intellectual side and the legend, the fact that they are part of the same being.

Anyone who thinks the most important thing about Crowley is the question whether Magick works are probably missing the point. If magick is the science and art of causing changes to occur in conformity with the will, of course it works. If magick is understood as only about supernatural effects, then it is like the siddhis in yoga, distractions from the main object.

T S Eliot, Freud, Einstein, Heidegger, Jung, Nietzsche, Marx, Lenin, Ezra Pound, Bertrand Russell, George Orwell, Lenin, Wittgenstein, Mahatma Gandhi, W B Yeats, Marshall Mcluhan, Sartre, to name just a few of the earlier subjects in the series, all intersect with Crowley’s concerns at numerous points, and all just came up naturally in my discussion. All feature in my index. There are many points of contact, where Crowley’s own views bear interestingly upon the issues they raised. When we see what these men had to say, at their qualifications for being modern masters, it should be beyond question that Crowley belongs in their company, first on the ground of sheer intellect and secondly on that of influence, something that should be more evident now in a world that has known pop art and postmodernism. His wisdom can match up to the best of them.

Show the picture.
Crowley connects with many of those that have been selected to be Modern Masters at various different points. Lest anyone think the occult has no place in such company. several of them had occult interests that fed into their creative activity. The first in the series alphabetically, Antonin Artaud, wrote a series of prose poems The Death of Satan and other prophetic works that can remind us of Crowley’s Holy Books, and he has survived as one of the precursors of postmodernism.

The books themselves were sometimes very interesting. The idea just petered out. I suppose it was too much a seventies idea, and by the nineteen nineties modernity had been replaced by post modernity, arguably a sillier and more precious idea. Derrida, father of deconstruction, made it into the series. Some Masters were promised but never materialised, like Jules Lacan. In our feminist era there are just Modern Masters, not enough mistresses, except for Melanie Klein the token female.
If we want to move beyond the constraints of modernism I would say Crowley is a much better alternative to Derrida and company. His is the traditional way of the magician and the theosophist, going back to Iamblichus and beyond to ancient Babylonia. The magician pursues what is most attractive in postmodernism, notably the empathic enjoyment of alien cultural values and the exploration of the spiritual treasures of untapped possibility. He seeks all hidden wisdom, strives to transcend the limits of culture and language, to experience the unsayable, to understand every state of mind. He pursues all these riches from an aristocratic, individualist standpoint. That said, there are Postmodernist interpretations of Thelema which reject the traditional way of the magician.

Postmodernists would say that as such he is still constrained by rigid presuppositions, and that they themselves are the freest spirits. They sometimes see themselves as mischievous subversives, overthrowing the fixed, deconstructing patriarchy and the concept of the individual. The traditional motives of the continental left, from Hegel to Sartre, have been joined to an irrationalism derived from the extreme right. Now postmodernism may have had its day too.
It must be allowed that modernism itself as the pioneers like Ezra Pound understood it, liberating in its day was revealed to have its limitations. More than the French intellectuals we can thank American pop artists like Andy Warhol. Some of the factors which excluded Crowley from modernism, are now irrelevant. After Warhol what might have seemed to be the reactionary or corrupt qualities, the mass appeal, the populism, could be understood as progressive features, aesthetically interesting in themselves. Of course there were other factors counting against him, which I shall go into later.
Back in the seventies, it would have been virtually unthinkable to imagine Crowley in the National Portrait Gallery, or even the Dictionary of National Biography. The twentieth century section of the gallery was full of Bloomsbury characters. The snobbish effete Bloomsbury culture disdained Crowley, as it even did Nietzsche.

Now they have one, which was obtained in 2003, painted by Leon Engers Kennedy. Now Crowley also has an entry in the dictionary of National Biography. It would seem unlikely that this original exclusion was an oversight, rather it was the kind of priggish disapproval that was entirely symptomatic of an enormous bias against him.

As much as the best of these modern masters Crowley expressed and developed ideas that have helped to form the world that we live in. His achievement is complex and intellectually rich enough to bear serious examination. He also discussed many of the subjects with which the others built their reputations in an extremely intelligent and illuminating manner.
He was important as representing the underground, the unorthodoxy, in an almost archetypal fashion. In his own day his presence and significance were much greater than most historians allow. The Freethinker a magazine in the 1930s was prepared to accept Crowley as on a level with Joyce and D H Lawrence, two of the modern masters. His biographer Hutchison says this was only because they were unaware of his scandalous personal life.
I shall give a few observations about some of the modern masters, and also their bearing on the question of Crowley’s exclusion.:-

Philosophically the main influence on Crowley was Nietzsche and he couldn’t escape from it however much he tried. Crowley described how in his youth he used to see Nietzsche as a young god. One of Nietzsche main concepts was the transvaluation of all values. With concepts like the Antichrist, the Ubermensch and the will to power he aimed to overthrow nearly two millennia of Christian conditioning. Like Crowley he wanted to restore paganism. He said ‘I consider pagan all that says yes to life’. This was at the heart of Crowley’s own project. Much criticism of Crowley’s ideas involve subjecting him to standards he explicitly rejected and argued against. This is part of the problem with the whole modern masters idea. There is an implicit assumption, a dogmatic prejudice that is very hard to remove. We may call it Christianity.

In writing the Book of the Law, however we imagine it was produced, Crowley picked up on the Zeitgeist, including its warlike character. He claimed to have prophesied the First World War 10 years before it broke out. Ra Hoor Khuit expressed a fierceness that was in one side of Nietzsche and the ways in which he was received.

There are many testimonies to the overwhelming influence of Nietzsche at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century.

As Arthur Symons wrote in 1907:-

“Thought today, wherever it is most individual, owes either force or direction to Nietzsche, and this we see on our topmost tower, the Philistine armed and winged, without the love or fear of God or man in his heart, doing battle in Nietzsche’s name against the ideas of Nietzsche. No one can think and escape Nietzsche.”

Crowley produced a kind of Nietzschean theosophy. He put Nietzscheanism into living practice as well as tapping the spiritual heritage of the entire human race. Nietzsche himself was not altogether enviable as a human being. There was chilling loneliness and a last few years of total insanity. On the face of it he did not live as he said we should live. Crowley succeeded much better in this regard. As he said, one of the three lives he lived was ‘the open sea of romance and adventure’.


Crowley’s experience of cocaine throws light on Freud’s similar responses to the drug. With the comparison light is shown on Freud’s own thought processes. In Crowley the process is clearer, more honest even, and articulate. We might take it as a commentary on the way he was able to generate ideas.

Thornton’s book ‘Freud and Cocaine’ explains how Freud’s thinking process were deeply conditioned by cocaine use. Before cocaine became so popular one used to associate it with Freud and Sherlock Homes. Now that Obama, Boris and Cameron all seem to have indulged its potential contribution to creative genius may be largely obscured.

Understanding the impact of cocaine on him we can understand much of Crowley’s sense of his own destiny, which he got into, his historic mission, the framework of his life, the giving of the word. At times it was a hard destiny, certainly an unusual one, but especially under cocaine a certain one, a full outlet for the will. It becomes no mere arbitrary conception but the truth of a life.

Symonds invoked Freud in speaking of the enigma of Crowley. One might think the solution is really quite straightforward. Basically Crowley was a mystic and an artist of the anti-Christian pagan camp. That is his essence and origin and his primary interest. All the stuff about having no ego is Freudian hogwash. Freud’s system would not explain the man, nor is it responsible for his strength or his oddness. Basically Crowley is on our side, he is not some psychological monstrosity.


Crowley liked to keep up to date with the science of his day and some of his recommended reading, like the speculations of CR Hinton on the fourth dimension are an illuminating background to any of the popular books on relativity that are much read these days.


If we read Heidegger we can see he is more different from Sartre, even from Kierkegaard than may be thought. He does not praise commitment, or leaps of faith. His 'resolution; seems to be more like Crowley's 'true will' than either of those. This might suggest he has his heart in the right place. Heidegger claims to get behind logic in a way that can recall some of Crowley’s kabbalistic speculations.

He presents himself as a sage. On close examination his credentials are no better, if no worse, than those of Crowley. Crowley's thought can fascinate, Heidegger's claim is on the same kind of level, notable for aesthetic, conceptual neatness.

Heidegger's ambition is surely to dogmatise. He seeks the power of being a great authority, to guide culture and society in the direction he would prefer.

W B Yeats

Yeats helped to promote the silly view of Crowley as a wicked black magician, calling him an ‘unspeakable mad person’ whom he suspected of casting spells by sticking pins on dolls. This is a case of motes and beams. It was not Crowley who went on an official invitation to Nazi Germany and expressed his approval of the Nuremberg laws against the Jews.

Yeats of course was a member of the Golden Dawn like Crowley. His own occultist work is justified as a source of great poetry, including the famous couplet which has been taken as reference to you know who:-

What rough Beast his hour come round at last
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born.

Some have seen that as a nod to Crowley. Whether or not this is so, the poem is based on Yeats’ own occult work A Vision, the writing of which was no barrier to his being accepted as one of the leading lights of modernism. Which brings me onto


Orwell attacked Yeats. Yeats is a modern master but there were moves to diss him.
Writing of Yeats he writes of cyclical theories of history.

‘the theory that civilisation moves in recurring cycles is one way out for people who hate the concept of human equality. If it is true that “all this” or something like it “has happened before” then science and the modern world are debunked at one stroke and progress becomes forever impossible’

Obviously Yeats was reactionary, but Orwell seems to be saying more than this, setting up a belief in science progress and modernity as something morally compulsory, antiromantic .

Orwell’s remark gives one clue as to why Crowley has been excluded from modernity. I have given reasons why he should be included, another question is about the reasons for his exclusion. There is something significant here Crowley subverts and opposes. The culture that would exclude him embodies precisely what he is against. Symbolically it is the Judaeo-Christian God, the Ialdabaoth of the Gnostics, that it is the whole business of life to fight against and defeat.
We can see how many of the modern masters themselves are involved in the very dispute that makes them masters, we can refer to them to argue about Crowley’s exclusion. If Crowley stands for Gnostic dissidence, its opposite, orthodox thinking, has a big part to play in society as a whole, usually now detached from the superstitions that comprise Christianity. It is what is identified with the hierarchy, with power and social success, the approval of the establishment..
The dogmas of orthodoxy can prove philosophically challenging, and provide all kinds of ingenious intellectual puzzles. Orwell’s comment shows light on the somewhat ridiculous orthodoxy of not so long ago that dismissed all deviation from certain socialist dogmas as ‘fascism’. The author of one of the few academic studies on Crowley, David Evans feels a need to tell us that Crowley was not a fascist. Of course he was not a fascist, love of liberty comes out of most of what he said.
Tell anecdote.
The Freud, Cuppitt, Jung. Even if orthodoxy has had better defenders, that does not mean its case is better..
Orthodoxy. Cuppitt. Marx and Freud helped to set up new standards of orthodoxy, something like an antignostic movement . Christianity. Church fathers. The general conspiracy Orthodoxy does not have to be explicitly Christian. Other forms of authoritative dogma. Some sort of socialism or psychoanalysis may take its place. The whole concept of the modern masters can take place within the context of massive assumption. With such considerations we think of Crowley as a hero of the counterculture,
In a diary entry he writes that we should not be too hard on the church fathers, they were so soaked in dogma that they wrote all sorts of jolly stuff and called it theology,
It is ridiculous to say that none of his poetry is any good. The Hymn to Pan should appear in anthologies of twentieth century verse. Why doesn’t it?

We can understand why Crowley was disliked and feared by a certain kind of person, particularly by many artists and socialites in the bohemian sets of Hampstead and Chelsea, journalists and others who felt threatened by the manifestation of his contempt. Poseurs. Crowley was possessed of great self confidence, and great psychological insight, he could easily see through people. He was a great destroyer of humbug.

What people had against him essentially. We can put it all down to a bias in favour of orthodoxy.

Some have put the argument that he was some kind of modern day Julian the Apostate. That would be Crowley’s role, which was apparently set many centuries ago as that of restoring paganism, as well as bringing the wisdom of the east to the west. Jung’s attack on gnosticism. Despite poem to Abraxas.

Jung has been compared with Crowley, and there were some points of resemblance. If we compare the philosophical basis of Jung with the philosophical basis of Crowley, Crowley is far more subtle. To accept the whole idea of the collective unconscious would be to base the whole of the pagan revival on some very implausible theory that would have to be elevated into an article of faith. He advocates the study of all philosophy and was far from tying himself down to some easily discreditable speculative theory.

Later Jung associated himself with orthodoxy and repudiated the Gnostic sympathies of his youth.

Jung’s Freudian criticism of Nietzsche is that never having come to terms with the father image he forms a new image in replacement of God which is simply his deified self. The springs of psychic health are in the imitation of the father. The Ubermensch is dismissed as a narcissistic schizophrenic fantasy, ‘the false god of the schizophrenic’. Furthermore it is presumably inadequate father identifications which contain the seeds of perversions.

The Gnostic and the sexual deviant and the schizophrenic, are all linked together all united by their repudiation of established values. To need to repudiate established values a sign of inadequacy.
But the so called narcissistic fantasy of omnipotence’ take the form of a comprehensive scientific understanding of the role of all values established and otherwise.
The hatred of God and the Gnostic aspiration to something higher need not be unhealthy or unhappier than conformity.

For those who are obliged to live without The warm glow of establishment approval the fantasy may have something to commend it. It may succeed. In accordance with the fantasy the values of the father may be judged and found wanting. Ie maybe that fantasy rightly interpreted can provide a measure whereby values can be compared and assessed. It may be a hard path, beset with dangers, but a potentially very rewarding one. There is a sense in which Merlin is more important than the founders of religions.

Jung warned of the danger of magic and Gnostic heresy. these are seen as a retreat from healthy competitiveness into fantasies of egoistic omnipotence. The same criticism was made by soviet authorities of dissidents generally. The dissident derives his alternative values, which he would prefer to see established from within himself. His proposals for an alternative cultures are not necessarily unrealistic. To the extent you do succeed in the attempt to set up new values you are achieving competitive success, success by a deeper set of rules than those governing the established code which you are breaking

In my chapter headings I give the subjects I felt to provide the background.
Crowley and Romanticism,
Here I overcome initial resistance to the idea of magick by explaining its modern roots in the romantic impulse. Some have told me this is the hardest chapter for those unfamiliar with the Beast and his work. He was into the decadent movement, his Cambridge friend Jerome Pollit he left for his pessimism. He gave an affirmative Nietzschean twist to decadence. Symbolism and the decadence. Every decadent and degenerate idea has a potentially enjoyable quality which this movement explores in an experimental fashion. Wagner's dangerous Kundry becomes Crowley's Lady Babalon. Just as Freud's decadent wank becomes transmuted into art by Dali. Crowley's concepts a fascinating and original art form.

Crowley and Protestantism,
Here I argue for Crowley as the flower of English Protestantism, paradoxical as this may seem. I am thinking of sending a copy of my book to the Archbishop of Canterbury. I would like him to read it.

Crowley and Philosophy,
He thought of himself as contributing to philosophy, the path of philosophy was and important part of his life. This chapter is central, to Crowley’s claim to be taken seriously. I show his outlook is basically Nietzschean, though leading us in journey around the whole of philosophy. His admiration for Nietzsche can hardly be underestimated. I explain his attempts to break away from this philosophy his failure and return.
Fuller. Spiritual states like crossing the abyss as
Crowley and Imperialism,

I confront Edward Said’s ideas on orientalism. I defend theosophy against his attacks. Ra Hoor Khuit as an unabashed imperialist.
Crowley’s sexual Stalinism,

Correcting some natural misunderstandings concerning his teaching on sex. Stalin, unlike Trotsky, is not counted as a modern master. Sometimes Crowley’s message maybe do as I say not as I do, in this case it is the other way round.

Aleister Crowley as Guru.
This is the third reprinting of my famous essay ‘musing on various aspects of Crowley's character’ as it is described on one internet site. It first appeared in Chaos International, then I put it on my website, and was invited to include it in Richard Metzger’s Book of Lies

T S Eliot

Some have thought to disparage Liber Legis by saying the philosophy behind it is not really original, just Nietzsche. By the standards of some modernist criticism that could be a strong point in its favour. T.S. Eliot attacks a poet like William Blake for mixing original thought in with his poetry. He criticises Nietzsche too as a stylist for a similar reason. For him Dante is the model of a poet because he adopted complete a ready made philosophy, that of Thomas Aquinas, and wrote within that. Crowley in The Book Of The Law, if we treat it as a poem of his own, took the philosophy of Nietzsche and put it into a form even more poetic than Nietzsche’s own Zarathustra. The Nietzscheanism he expressed was precisely that of the Zeitgeist.

So I had the idea it might not be unreasonable to compare the Book of the Law with a poem like The Wasteland. They have much in common. Both were seminally influenced by Sir James Frazer. One was a few years before the war the other as few years after it. Both say a lot about their own times. Both are pagan, with lots of occult references. Eliot did not become an orthodox Christian till later in life. Both have been accused of plagiarism.

Bertrand Russell

Crowley once recommended that everyone should read Russell’s Principia Mathematica, something very few people could manage. In keeping up to date with philosophy Russell was not to be omitted .

As well as an analytical philosopher, Russell was a pundit, promoting a form of rationalism for the twentieth century. In France he is seen as the English Voltaire. This sort of punditry Crowley could practice with the best of them.

Russell’s fiction reminds me of Crowley’s. Like the Simon Iff stories they are not the most impressive of their genre. They are heavily ironical with elements of self parody. They are free thinking. They move in the world of gentleman’s clubs, schemes for world domination, snobbish conventions of the short story. Major preoccupations of his like Ecclesisastes, get pulled in.


As far as literature was concerned Ezra Pound was the high priest of Modernism and defined, even invented, many of the critical standards. Pound was insistent on rejection of Crowley. He reprimanded the great American critic Mencken for showing an interest in him. Perhaps he thought that Crowley was old fashioned, his verse nineteenth century, too Browningesque. Pound himself though was a great admirer of Browning.

In Pound’s defence it could be said that romantic decadence was what he was trying to get away from, progress as he understood it meant that Crowley needed to be left behind, at least in that aspect of his work.

One radical complaint is that my whole project is misconceived, it is said to be just preposterous to elevate Crowley to the company of people like Marx and Freud, who whatever their faults and limitations have had an obvious and tremendous influence on the modern world. In answer to this, in the first place of course not all the Modern Masters are as historically important as Marx or Freud. For example RD Laing, Marshall Mcluhan, and Norman Mailer are included in the series.

But to stick with Marx and Freud, Crowley could point to the fact that underlying the systems of both these thinkers is a form of Magick. If taken as scientists neither Marx nor Freud really hold up any more. However we can understand and appreciate their systems as Magick, using the framework outlined by Sir James Frazer in The Golden Bough. Whatever his shortcomings and limitations Frazer himself is not open to the same sort of criticism. If his idea of the centrality of the dying god is not altogether sustainable, his ideas of magic are a most valuable conceptual tool. He is not counted as one of the modern masters, though he had a very deep influence on some that are, Freud and TS Eliot for example. The quotes from Frazer at the beginning of Magick in Theory and Practice show how fundamental his influence was on Crowley. In his notes to The Wasteland Eliot wrote:-

“To another work of anthropology I am indebted in general, one which has influenced our generation profoundly: I mean the Golden Bough.”

Frazer is unfairly denigrated on the ground that his central thesis does not hold up. As Eliot said, his influence was profound. He paganised Christianity which suited many but offended a lot of more orthodox people who felt they had to fight back. What Crowley takes from him is his idea of Magick, which he develops and expands.

Huxley in the doors of perception wrote of ‘triggers’. The idea was taken up by Marghanita Laski in a silly book which tried to argue that drugs are incapable of transporting us to a truly ecstatic world. ‘On first reading the Golden Bough’ was one of the triggers to ‘transcendent ecstasy’. In Marghanita Laski’s 1961 book on the subject. That is significant. Frazer invites to a sort of pagan spiritual experience.

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