A response to the BBC’s Thought for the Day. You don’t have to be a believer to enjoy a day of rest.
Today’s subject is one the most interesting iconoclasts of the 20th century, the Great Beast of the Book of Revelation, whose number is 666 – Aleister Crowley. In an extremely entertaining phase of my journey towards atheism, I spent some time as a member of the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), which Crowley transformed into a vehicle for his own Thelemic beliefs. In the 1904 Book of the Law, they are expressed as the primacy of human will in these two central precepts:
Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.
Love is the law, love under will.
I was living in Seattle at the time. We met every month for Gnostic Mass in a splendidly appointed Masonic Lodge, all plush red velvet and ceremonial furnishings. It was very High Church, with incense, ceremonial regalia, music (Ambient Egypt), prayers, invocations, and responses. The only under-dressed person there was the woman sitting on the altar – she didn’t wear any clothes at all. I must admit to an ulterior motive in revealing these details. Beautiful Railway Bridge has of late attracted a handful of avowedly evangelistic followers. So far they’ve kept quiet, but I must assume they’re praying for my salvation – I just wanted to give them something really meaty to chew on.
What strikes me now about Crowley is that his was an extreme response to an extreme fundamentalist, Plymouth Brethren upbringing. Most intelligent, creative children exposed to milder forms of religious belief tend to embrace life in its fullness without resorting to a 180 degree knee-jerk response. But Crowley started waving his willy at the world as soon as he escaped his stifling family, even inventing a religion to justify the rebellion. That’s more like a 360 degree change under a different name. The irony is that his beliefs now seem so outdated in a world of sexual liberation, which doesn’t need laws to sanctify its behaviour. They’re as embarrassing as old science fiction visions of the world a hundred years in the future.
Crowley was an extraordinary man – mountain climber, poet, novelist, drug addict, mystic, and shameless self-promoter – fully worthy of inclusion on the famous Sgt. Pepper’s album cover. He would have loved the internet. I’ve only read one of his novels, Diary of a Drug Fiend, but was impressed by his total, unapologetic immersion in the character of Pendragon. No weaselly, hypocritical, authorial middle man here. Pendragon marries Lou and they embark on a marriage with full running H & C – heroin and cocaine. It’s a beautiful, brilliant life until one day they see themselves for the gaunt, filthy scarecrows they are. They are saved by the charismatic King Lamus – surely a projection of Crowley himself – and introduced to Thelema, and the Abbey of Thelema in Sicily. On one level the novel is both a wish-fulfillment fantasy and a religious tract, but redeemed by the juicy details.
So let’s hear it for Uncle Aleister. Here is a fascinating documentary about the life of “the wickedest man in the world.” Get it while you can, because the buggers took it down on YouTube and I had to get another one. Don’t know how long this will last.