Every Man and Woman is a Star

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!’

Comments

  1. says

    Though I have a lot of Crowley’s stuff in the must-have-for-reference section of my library, I’ve only read his Absinthe essay. Interesting stuff, and I find him a fascinating figure as probably the last in a line of Occult folk before others made it all parlor games and bestsellers (I’ll keep my rant about The Secret to myself until I can rant with a pint in my hand). One of the last Agrippa-types, what actually knew a little math.

    Also, I read the “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…” bit to my girlfriend, who, without missing a beat, replied “So he’s Bailey (our year-old chocolate lab.” “Pretty much,” I said….

  2. says

    What a thrill ride! Your rollicking depiction of an Aleister encounter knocked me out.

    As synchronicity would have it, I was reading about Frazer’s The Golden Bough earlier today and it linked me to a Crowley bio, which I scanned briefly, and now, this fascinating piece!
    I’m somewhat familiar with the man’s work and mystique, but I didn’t know about the hunchback and the soldier. That is a great language/symbolism concept!

    You make a good case for Crowley as the godfather of modern urban fantasy.

  3. says

    Aaron: OMG! Bailey is the transmigrated soul of the Great Beast! If you ask nicely, you might be able to have him teach you some good yoga tricks, in exchange for some extra slippers (to chew on).

    Bill: Ah, Frazer. The Golden Bough is dry reading. Very interesting stuff, but lots and lots of examples. There’s a good abridgment out there that hits all the theory and limits examples to two or three, which makes it much more readable. As for Crowley, you should wander through the Metaphysics section next time you’re in a chain bookstore (should you, *ahem*, traffic in such places) and peruse The Book of Lies. Laid out recto/verso, each spread is one verse with commentary on the page opposite. It’s really out there stuff, and I still can’t decide if the commentary (written by Crowley) actually helps or confuses me more. But it just gets in your head and starts moving things around.

  4. says

    nocturnal satyr my ass. aleister crowly is a god damn punk. you can’t do a seance here you can’t do even like a quick card reading without crawly’s disembodied spirit shows up and makes a scene. big glowing bald head and all that eye contact. I AM THE GREAT BEAST! he shouts at you. yes lester you’re the great beast well done but you’re getting ectoplasm on the carpet. DO WHAT THOU WILT! yes thank you i was gonna. i think he just wants attention it’s sad really.

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