Aleister Crowley gets a bad rap. As a fabulist, he’s got a boundless imagination that is like quicksilver and lightning in a bottle. Yeah, I know, that verges on nonsensical, but whatever it is, it must be in constant motion, right? Violating all sorts of scientific principles of time and space. His writings on magick are the same way: mercurial, playful, serious, and completely incomprehensible to those who don’t devoted a good portion of their lives to deciphering them. Is he insane, or is he laughing at us? That’s a good question, and one that taunts me a great deal.
Crowley is a nocturnal satyr who crouches on the end of your bed—not the footboard, the actual bed, so that you feel this odd weight on the mattress with you—and what wakes you up is this insistent tapping against the heel of your foot with his long fingernail. When you’re good and awake, he leaps off the bed, rips out all the plastic eyeballs from your childhood stuffed animals, grinds them into powder, snorts this line of your fractured childhood, defecates on the torn corpses, and then leaps out the window. “Follow me, Darling!” he cries, warbling like a night bird. “Follow me!”
And you jump out the window after him, praying to whatever tri-horned, insectoid-headed, Egyptian-knockoff of a deity that you can dream that you will grow wings before you hit the ground. He’s the opium smoker’s Peter Pan, and the joke he’s in on is that you can never be sure if he really knows the secret histories of the world or if he’s just smoked more poppy than you.
It is a distinction between Knowing and Not Knowing, in that upper case sense, ala The Good Book and Milton via Paradise Lost. A distinction that I’m mulling over in Heartland, the sequel to The Book Which Is Not Yet Out. It’s a distinction that fuels much of the heretical Gnostic thought that sprang up in the wake of the West’s Favorite Martyred Son, and is the underlying question that propelled alchemy, and later, chemistry, and so on, into the land of quantum physics today. What do we Know? And how do we know that we Know?
I took an online course on Crowley’s The Book of Lies once. The assignment the first week was to read the first two pages and consider the metaphor of the Hunchback and the Soldier. I spent most of that week, trying to figure out what everyone was talking about in the forum. I was sure I had a bum copy of the book or the edition I had, which was different than the one recommended for the class, was radically different than everyone else’s. My copy started on page 10, and the first entry was “0,” and it nothing more than a series of Zen koan like riddles. (“The Ante Primal-Triad which is Not-God. Nothing is. Nothing becomes. Nothing is not.”)
Turns out what everyone was talking about was the first panel, which is nothing more than a “?” and the second panel, which is a “!.” Get it? Hunchback. Soldier. The more you think about it, the more it does, actually, unpack into an interesting metaphor for language and comprehension. One is a seeker; one is a follower.
This was the first week. It got weirder from there.
Crowley’s great mantra—that he gets much maligned for—is: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.” Sure, on the surface, it seems to be an anarchistic platitude, one in keeping with the Satanic reputation that history has endowed Crowley (and, to be honest, he certainly welcomed that public perception). But what gets glossed over is the second part of his Thelemic mantra: “Love Under Will.” Put them together, and you get a rather pure expression of compassion and harmony with the world around you.
I saw the The Secret DVD a few months back, and noticed that you could replace a lot of the quotes they use to buttress their argument with sentiments from people like Crowley, Eliphas Levi, or Austin Osman Spare and the argument would remain the same: Love under Will. But everyone would be up in arms about the fact that you’ve just included Heretical Occultists in the same breath as the historically recognized Good Guys, and the message would be lost.
The argument I’d like to offer is that Crowley is the true spiritual godfather of modern urban fantasy. It’s not Bram Stoker, or Mary Shelley, or Lovecraft, or any other horror writer. While their aims were similar—elucidating the Unknown, or at least, staring it in the face and losing their sanity—they relied more on monsters as the metaphor for the mysterious. Crowley simply believed in magic and in the possibility that we could Know the Universe and thereby understand what the great secret to existence was.
On Friday, I’ll wrap this up with how it all ties in with secret histories, so do drop by for the final piece of this rolling discussion. Tomorrow, I have a treat—well, a favor to ask, but it is masquerading as a treat—so drop by between courses if you’re enjoying that glutinous of American celebrations. I’ll leave you today with one of my favorite quotes. This is from Crowley’s The Book of Thoth, his whirlwind summation of every symbol ever conceived for each of the tarot cards. From his description of the Moon, one of the Major Arcana cards:
This is the threshold of life; this is the threshold of death. All is doubtful, all is mysterious, all is intoxicating. Not the benign, solar intoxication of Dionysius, but the dreadful madness of pernicious drugs; this is a drunkenness of sense, after the mind has been abolished by the venom of this Moon. This is that which is written of Abraham in the Book of the Beginning: ‘An horror of great darkness came upon him.’ One is reminded of the mental echo of subconscious realization, of that supreme iniquity whcih mystics have constantly celebrated in their account of the Dark Night of the Soul. But the best men, the true men, do not consider the matter in such terms at all. Whatever horrors may afflict the soul, whatever abominations may excite the loathing of the heart, whatever terror may assail the mind, the answer is the same at every stage: ‘How splendid is the Adventure!’