Aleister Crowley and the Temptation of Politics
Translated by Ariel Godwin
Durham, UK: Acumen Publishing, 2013
Well, no sooner had I completed a rather lukewarm review of one book on Aleister Crowley, another, far more simpatico one pops up.
More recently still, I was expatiating on the warm, gemütlich atmos’ of old time humanistic research, where monographs fall from the crowded desks of lonely but amiable old men. Pasi is an academic, like Spence, but Crowley Studies is only now becoming a respectable academic interest, and Pasi’s book (a revision of a monograph produced for his doctoral studies in 1993) is one of its key, founding documents.
Although written over twenty years ago, Pasi’s study has not only been translated out of the original Italian but updated to take account of the other works that have been gradually building up an actual discipline of Crowley Studies (my term, not his), rather than the endless rehashes, pro and con, or the same biographical, auto-hagiographical, or apocryphal factoids.
One of these is Spence’s book, and I’m glad to see that Pasi is equally let down by the gap between promise and performance:
It seems to me however that he is rarely able to find the “smoking gun” of Crowley’s work as a “secret agent” and is mostly obliged to recur to hypotheses and speculations, which sometimes become thin to the point of implausibility.
The picture one gets is that Crowley, on several occasions in his life, acted as an informant to British intelligence services. . . . But being a voluntary informant is of course not the same thing as being an agent employed on a permanent basis by a secret service.
In general, Pasi deplores what he calls “the politically monotonous Crowley,
stubbornly, naïvely consistent in his patriotic faith during all his life, despite all the sacrifices and the suffering that this entailed.”
This does not fit either with the evidence we have, based on Crowley’s youth writings, nor more generally with Crowley’s personality as I have come to understand it.
The idea of a Crowley permanently and consistently inspired by candid patriotism is simply untenable.
Spence tries to argue that whenever Crowley was involved in secret intelligence operations — which seems to be all the time — he was just serving England. . . . All can be interpreted as a skillful game of deception and simulation played for the better interest of his home country.
In its place, Pasi offers us a more subtle, indeed, a more dialectical or even “Chaotic” (not his word) Crowley.
His life in fact appears to have been divided into two distinct phases. The first consisted of a striving for mystical and initiatory achievement: a more individualistic phase, characterized by what we might call a “search for the absolute.” The second phase consisted of his complete identification with his religious “call”. It was the mission he felt invested with as a prophet: the propagation of the religion of Thelema.
As for politics,
In the first phase he conceived his interest in politics in an essentially romantic fashion, in the second phase he became a pragmatist, ready to sympathize with any political movement that might, in his view, help him to propagate the religion of Thelema.
In my aforementioned review of Spence, I suggested that Crowley’s jingoistic outbursts and shifting, double-agent-like activities could be seen as examples of what Colin Wilson calls “frameworks,” provisional structures useful to provide support for ones magical activities and discarded when their use is outlived, rather like the “Chaos Magickians” operating under Crowley’s inspiration today.
Pasi offers what might be called a more biographically, or historically, anchored position. Crowley’s urge to be taken for a “gentleman,” his patriotism, even his “racism” and “anti-Christianity,” are all relativized to his upbringing as a typical product of the late Victorian educational system. This itself is far from simple, and comprises at least two elements or phases, one romantic — leading to supporting the Jacobite or Fifth Kingdom movements, for example — and the other rationalistic, or more particularly, anti-Christian.
Pasi is particularly interesting as he explains how esotericism, Theosophy, the Golden Dawn, the Celtic Revival, Traditionalism, etc., served as a kind of romantic station from which Christianity could be overcome or simply despised. But for Crowley, at least, the Good Book at least remained, as we suggested, a useful framework:
He still remained always connected to the legacy of images and symbols in the Old and New Testaments, showing a predilection for the prophetic texts.
Crowley’s quest for personal enlightenment reached its fulfillment (at least in his own mind) fairly early, around the time the Book of the Law was (supposedly) revealed to him in Egypt, and certainly after various auto- and dream-initiations assured him (if no one else) that he had attained the degree of Magus.
Pasi, who writes as neither a credulous believer nor an amused skeptic, provides some interesting details:
It is worth noting that even after Crowley left the Golden Dawn, and throughout his Buddhist period, he still continued to work with the system of symbols and degrees that he had learned from the Order, and continued his initiatory ascent still following the Order’s scheme. This is a highly important point.
The Augoeides was a lengthy, imaginary initiation ritual. While riding across China, Crowley imagined himself being in a temple and carrying out ritual gestures, the ultimate goal being initiation into a higher degree.
This fits in well with what I’ve been writing about recently, the American spiritual movement from around the same time, New Thought. As Mad Men’s Bert Cooper said, “A man is, whatever room he is in.”
Then Crowley’s interests shifted from sometime patriot to fulltime prophet, and various movements and nations were approached and discarded — from Fascism to National Socialism to even Salazarism (another Fifth Kingdom movement) — as possible vehicles for the establishment of his Thelematic society.
“His esoteric knowledge had become like any other type of knowledge: a tool to be used for reaching a particular goal”; in sum, as Pasi nicely words it, “Politics came not before but after metaphysics.”
[T]here was indeed a strong radical component in Crowley’s thought, but . . . he was hardly interested in political activism per se, and that he was quite ready to move along a broad spectrum of political ideologies in order to affirm his own religious message.
In general, Pasi is happy to find and emphasis these “pragmatic” and “historical” elements to Crowley’s activities, since it helps to make him more acceptable to today’s PC crowd:
One of the conclusions this study does not reach, and against which the reader must be warned, is the idea that Crowley’s doctrine was inherently linked to an extreme right-wing or pro-Nazi political ideology.
He notes, correctly, that
The Book of the Law is an inspired text that, like any other religious text, allows for multiple interpretations. No criteria exist for attributing pre-eminence to one hermeneutic choice over another.
[E]ven if it is not too difficult to find sexist or racist statements in Crowley’s writings, there does not seem to be an intrinsic anti-Semitic or racist component in Thelema [hey, what happened to the ‘sexist” part?] . . . his personal interpretation of Thelema should be considered as just one among others: certainly the most authoritative, but not necessarily the only one.
When even sola scriptura Protestants can’t agree on the interpretation of the New Testament after over 2000 years, I think Chaos Magicians can be allowed a little leeway in their views.
As Crowley tries on and discards various political currents, Counter-Currents readers will find several names of interest; Pasi devotes a whole chapter to Major General J. F. C. Fuller, “who would then also become active in the British Union of Fascists (the party founded by Sir Oswald Mosley in the 1930s), and would be invited to Adolf Hitler’s fiftieth birthday celebration in 1939,” and we even encounter Dimitrije Mitrinovic, Alan Watts’s original “rascal guru,” and his social-credit style movement, New Britain.
Of even greater interest to Counter-Currents readers are the appendices, which are substantial. To start with the second, we are presented with certain “key documents” including the “Crowley Alistair Edward A.” file compiled by the Italian intelligence service during Crowley’s Abbey of Thelema period up to his expulsion from Sicily.
Crowley . . . sought to present himself as the victim of a repressive and freedom-killing regime. But as we have seen, he had not been so shocked, at least initially, by fascist methods and ideas. This naturally makes his sudden anti-fascist enthusiasm less than convincing.
Crowley’s Order was therefore given quite some importance in the context of worldwide subversion. It was there that Crowley and his organization took on political importance in the eyes of the Italian police and, in all probability, of the German police as well.
Here, then, in a semi-official Italian police document from that period, we find the same arguments, based on the existence of phantom “High Lodges”, that had been developed over the years in the RISS and in other conspiracist publications.
[T]he key for understanding the interest taken in Crowley by the RISS and by conspiracy theorists in general [is that they] claimed that behind “normal” Freemasonry, there were High Sects (Hautes Sectes) or High Lodges (Hautes Loges), which in turn were governed by obscure and diabolical forces. The conspiracy therefore did not make direct use of regular Freemasons, but acted through secret lodges, which in their turn governed all regular international Freemasonry and coordinated its movements.
It would be pointless to insist on the inanity and captiousness of this reasoning, which deals with the phenomenon of Freemasonry using categories of Catholic theology that are wholly foreign to it.
Interestingly, this is the same charge brought against Crowley by Guénon:
From Guénon’s point of view, the lack of “initiatory regularity” condemned the activities of occultists from the outset.
Guénon, despite possibly belonging to the same lodge as Crowley, regarded Crowley as an agent of both political revolution and, more deeply, counter-initiatory action. This leads us back to the first appendix, a translation (from the German edition of the book) of an article by H. Thomas Hakl on Crowley and Baron Evola. Since Evola was “much more of a ‘conspiracy theorist’ — in the true sense of the term — than Guénon,”
One would therefore guess that his evaluation of Crowley would be even more negative than Guénon’s. And yet, as we will see, this was not the case.
Guénon tended to see [Crowleyites] predominantly as “sinister” and dangerous figures . . . while Evola attributed a certain value to their teachings.
This difference in views also pertained to magical practices in general, which Guénon considered rather unfavourably, while Evola attributed positive value to them.
Also included in the first Appendix is Crowley’s correspondence with the Portuguese poet, mystic and political activist, Fernando Pessoa; Pasi devotes a whole chapter to their interactions. I must confess Pessoa was entirely unknown to me, despite, as we learn from a quick Amazon search, the fact that he has lots of books translated in Penguins and New Directions, with the usual blurbs about “the greatest poet of the twentieth century” or whatever.
With his anti-bourgeois attitude, his anti-materialism, his messianic vision of the history of Portugal and his idea of a mystical regeneration not only of the individual but also of the entire nation and race, Pessoa expressed ideas that fall within the paradigm of the “illuminate thought”.
Pessoa, for all that he had never held a particular sympathy for democracy, was never a proponent of totalitarianism. . . . He defined himself as a “conservative of the English style, that is, liberal within conservatism, and absolutely anti-reactionary.”
We also learn of his comrade, Raul Leal, who,
In 1923 . . . was at the centre of a scandal caused by his pamphlet Sodoma Divinizada, in which he presented his theories relative to esoteric and spiritual homosexuality.
As I can find no English translation, I may have to learn Portuguese.
Pasi, even in translation, writes well: clearly and interestingly without being superficial, popularizing or scandal-mongering. It’s no slight to him if I say that the appendices alone make this a must-have, or at least a must-read.
It’s unfortunate that even the Kindle is rather pricey; Pasi’s publishers seem to think it will find a home in the no-expense-spared “scholarly” market. But although Pasi, like Spence, is as sign of the increasing “normalization” of Crowley studies into an accepted branch of academic work, the general reader will find much of value here, whether he belongs to the “regular” or “counter” initiation.
1. See ““The Name is Crowley . . . Aleister Crowley”: Reflections on Enlightenment & Espionage,” my review of Secret Agent 666: Aleister Crowley, British Intelligence and the Occult by Richard B. Spence, here.
2. See my review of The Grail — Two Studies by Alexander Jacob and Leopold von Schroeder, here.
3. As distinct from “Crowleyanity,”a term, as Pasi notes, coined by Crowley’s sometime disciple J. F. C. Fuller, of whom more anon.
4. The publishers tell us that “Marco Pasi is Professor in History of Hermetic philosophy and related currents. He holds an MA in Philosophy from the University of Milan, and a PhD in Religious studies from the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes (Sorbonne, Paris). He has focused his research mainly on the relationship between modern esotericism and politics, on the history of the idea of magic, and on methodological issues related to the study of Western esotericism. He is a member of the editorial board of Aries: Journal for the Study of Western Esotericism and Politica Hermetica.”
5. Crowley’s own frank term for his “autobiography.”
6. See, most recently, “How I Write — and You Can Too!,” here. Imagination is a key term for Neville Goddard, and it’s no surprise that Crowley’s former secretary, Israel Regardie, writing about Goddard in 1947, said that his was “of all the New Thought teachings the most magical.” See the chapter on Goddard printed as the Introduction to The Nevil Goddard Treasury (New York: Tarcher/Penguin, 2015).
7. Here again, Evola can be a useful point of comparison; see my review of Spence, op. cit., and the literature cited there.
8. After all, Christians don’t seem to care what Jesus said the sin of Sodom was.
9. See “Major General J. F. C. Fuller (1878–1966),” here.
10. See Greg Johnson, “Remembering Alan Watts,” here.
11. “Crowley was actually a fellow brother, having been initiated into a lodge of the Grand Lodge of France in 1904 — the same obedience into which Guénon himself had been initiated in his youth!”
12. Crowley, for his part, contented himself with typically childish gibes based on the fact that “in French, “guenon” (without the accent on the “e,” as in “Guénon”) means female monkey,” as an Amazon search for “guenon” shows.