Aleister Crowley
Aleister Crowley; drawing by David Levine

“I find no fault in this man,” said Pontius Pilate on a certain occasion, and I must follow him on the present occasion. I find no fault at all in the book under review; if it was not sent into this world to redeem man it was sent certainly to fill man with hilarity. Moreover, the author agrees with the reviewer as to the faultlessness of his work—and when I say “agrees,” which is the present tense, I say it deliberately. In a previous incarnation, in the period of the Twenty-Sixth Dynasty, Aleister Crowley was a priest named Ankh-f-n-Khonsu and a stele depicting him as such may be seen any day in the Boulak Museum in Cairo (ask the man for “Exhibit No. 666”). So I cannot believe that after his reincarnation in Warwickshire (A.D. 1875) and death in Hastings (A.D. 1947), this excellent time-traveler has merely gone the way of all flesh: it would not be in character. Either he is with us now, or he is enjoying a rest before his next reincarnation: in view of his energetic nature, the first alternative is the more probable.

There is one very small fault to be found, but only in the title of the masterpiece. I worry about the use of the word “Confessions.” We know from our close reading of St. Augustine and Rousseau that authors who write “Confessions” are not noted for their self-confidence. They imagine—for reasons that they set out at great length—that they are lower even than worms; indeed, their whole stature is so dependent on their denying that they have one that it is not safe to trust them very far.

Recently, anthropologists have invented a brilliant descriptive phrase for certain simians, “knuckle-walkers,” and I was told at dinner last night that there is a dispute (of a friendly sort, of course) going on as to whether we descend from knuckle-walkers or dropped directly from the trees in an upright posture. All I know about this is that those who write “Confessions” are always knuckle-walkers, and the innately upright types like Crowley, Casanova, Frank Harris, who have nothing but good to say of themselves, should stick to “Life,” “Memoirs,” or “Recollections.” Perhaps this is a good moment to add that the worst mistake Freud ever made was to suppose that we repress painful memories and recall pleasant ones: the very system of knuckle-walking depends on doing the opposite.

The whole tone of this tome is expressed in one remark of Crowley’s: “Like all great men, I have never lost my humility.” Readers who are too insensitive to appreciate this remark had better hand on the book to someone else.

This is easier said than done. It is extremely heavy. About half a million words are compressed in very small print into nearly 1,000 pages, and the whole work was clearly one of those struggles between greatness and humility in which the latter was obliged at last to make room for the former. Its charm as a book is in the fact that it need not, and should not, be read from start to finish. Like the Old Testament, it can be opened anywhere, and read backwards or forwards there from just as the reader pleases; the same method may be used in following Crowley’s arguments. If I start here with a few remarks about his childhood, it is only because he took this period very seriously himself and believed that without it he might never have been transfigured into the Great Beast of the Apocalypse.

His line was an ancient one. Beginning, as we have seen, with Ankhf-n-Khonsu, it ran on through the family of Charles II’s French mistress, Mme. de Kéroualle, Duchess of Ports-mouth, and ended up in the evangelical sect known as Plymouth Brethren. Crowley’s father was a vigorous preacher and leader of the Brethren, but apparently an amiable and eccentric was despite the glumness of his tenets. Had Crowley Senior lived, his son might have developed almost normally; as it was, he expired prematurely and little Crowley was brought up by his Uncle Tom. That Crowley disliked this man is suggested by the following passages:

To the lachrymal glands of a crocodile he added the bowels of compassion of a cast-iron rhinoceros; with the meanness and cruelty of a eunuch he combined the calculating avarice of a Scotch Jew, without the whisky of the one or the sympathetic imagination of the other…

In feature resembling a shaven ape, in figure a dislocated dachshund, his personal appearance was at first glance unattractive…[my italics]

Of unrivalled cunning, his address was plausible; he concealed his genius under a mask of matchless mediocrity…

An associate of such creatures of an inscrutable Providence as Coote and Torrey, he surpassed the one in sanctimoniousness, the other in bigotry, though he always thought blackmail too risky and slander a tactical error.

Throw in with this a mother who was simply “a brainless bigot” and what hope is left? Nobody, it seems, had so much as noticed that the infant Crowley was born with the “three most important distinguishing marks of a Buddha” already on his body viz., a tied tongue (he soon got over this), “the characteristic membrane” (whatever that is), and “upon the centre of the heart four hairs curling from left to right in the exact form of a Swastika.” “And numerous minor marks,” adds a footnote nonchalantly.


I assess as more major than minor other marks that Crowley noted and described in later years, writing, as great men will, in the third person:

While his masculinity is above the normal…as witnessed by his powerful growth of beard…his limbs [are] as slight and graceful as a girl’s…his breasts developed to a quite abnormal degree. There is thus a sort of hermaphroditism in his physical structure; and this is naturally expressed in his mind…Similar types have no doubt existed previously…

I am reluctant to think so. I am also relieved to read that “apparently masochistic stigmata” that appeared on the body in an attempt to confirm the feminine principle “disappeared entirely at puberty”: I think that by then Crowley’s body had had enough. What’s more, he found puberty a testing time and a challenge to his fast-growing mind. Told that a cat had nine lives, he seized a cat “and having administered a large dose of arsenic I chloroformed it, hanged it above the gas jet, stabbed it, cut its throat, smashed its skull, and, when it had been pretty thoroughly burnt, drowned it and threw it out of the window…”

Crowley tells us that the cat died, and he may be right. My own feeling is that it had never lived. Hairy men with large breasts often dream up episodes of this sort, but only to stress that their hair was also on their chests. Crowley spent most of his life doing this, which is why his book reads so entrancingly.

It was not the Mark of the Beast that marked Crowley; it was the mark of his uncle and the Plymouth Brethren. His life was a constant flight from Plymouth—much as if the Pilgrim Fathers had firmly turned the Mayflower’s bow in the direction of Sodom and Gomorrah instead of New England. He joined a sect of Free-masons, but the Grand Treasurer went insane and “actually made away with my very underclothing,” leaving Crowley with nothing but “some of my Highland costumes” and “moral resources.” He joined a “Magick” circle and ran into a nut-case named W. B. Yeats—“a lank dishevelled demonologist who might have taken more pains with his personal appearance without incurring the reproach of dandyism.” He made great friends with Gerald Kelly, a future President of the Royal Academy, and I include his description of Kelly here because it shows how wonderfully well Crowley wrote:

He is described in the telephone book as an artist; and the statement might have passed unchallenged indefinitely had not the Royal Academy recently elected him as an associate. He is hardly to be blamed for this disgrace. He struggled manfully. Even at the last moment, when he felt the thunderclouds about to break over his head, he made a last desperate coup to persuade the world that he was an artist by marrying a model. But the device deceived nobody. The evidence of his pictures was too glaring. The effort, moreover, completely exhausted his power of resistance; and he received the blow with Christian resignation. It saddens me more than I can say to think of that young life which opened with such brilliant promise, gradually sinking into the slough of respectability. Of course it is not as if he had been able to paint; but to me the calamity is almost as distressing as if that possibility had ever existed.

Reading this reminds me that Crowley did confess to one flaw in his own character—“a fatal weakness for believing the best about everybody.” I don’t believe this went as deep as he thought it did; certainly, it was not “fatal.” Insofar as his character was capable of flaw, I believe this consisted in his being too English. I have no basic objection to a man being English; it gives him a confidence that one looks for in vain among people of other nations. I like to read: “I was very disappointed with the Rockies…. They are singularly shapeless.” I like the strong generalizations, e.g., “The English Colony in Mexico City was disliked and despised. The consul was habitually constipated and the vice-consul habitually drunk. It is a curious fact that all over the world these qualities never vary.” And in what book but an English book could one read such a line as “I…went to stay with Allan, who had been advanced from a simple bikkhu to a sayadaw in his choung…”?


No, the trouble only starts when this English naturalness is smirched by foreign influences. One cannot, as Crowley did, make “Rule, Britannia!” a favorite song and hope at the same time to attain to “Sammasati, Right Recollection, the seventh step on the Noble Eightfold Path.” Why bother to escape the Plymouth Brethren if one is to end up making “a Great Magical Retirement on the Hudson, in a canoe, in the summer of 1918…”? Even the long roster of priestesses and concubines—The Snake, The Owl, The Cat, The Dog, The Ape, The Scarlet Woman Alostrael—added up to an incessant strain on what Crowley called “my personal Magick” and led more than once to “an inscrutable paralysis” lasting “three times three-and-seventy days.”

Most of these women were drunks or hysterics, but one of them suffered from a “hard bitter cynical disbelief” and had to be punished for it by the infliction of “a callous and cruel insult.” This was provided by Crowley’s dental equipment. “I had unusually pointed canine teeth. I fix a fold of flesh between the two points; and then, beating time with one hand, suddenly snap, thus leaving two neat indentations on the flesh concerned.” Readers may imagine how violently the lady responded to this punishment—the bitter bitten, so to speak. They will easily share imaginatively the orgy that followed (“twelve hours or more of indescribably insane intoxication”), after which: “I sank into a sleep deeper than death—and woke at dawn to find myself inscrutably purged of iniquity.”

Personally, I prefer his men friends to his women: they are more interesting. There is the man from Bridgeport, Conn., who has the paltry “Americanized signature Samuel A. Jacob” but soon proves to be none other than SHMUEL Bar AIWAZ bie YACKOU de SHERABAD, thus incarnating the Lost Word of Freemasonry, with the value 418, “the number of the Magical Formula of the Aeon.” I like the Grand Treasurer of the Ordo Templi Orientis, who was a deaf mute named George Macnie Cowie, VIII, Frater Fiat Pax…etc., etc.: he and the Grand Secretary hopped off with all the Order’s money while Crowley was initiating a certain Sister Cypris into passions “no less fierce than anything in Wuthering Heights.” I like the day when H. L. Mencken was to be introduced to the Ape of Thoth (“in her flowered black suit and stockings, wearing the silver and scarlet Star of the Temple”), but turned out to be only a South African businessman of the same name.

Best of all the men, however, is Eckenstein, the German-born mountaineer from Oxford, with whom Crowley attempted to climb Kanchenjunga and made “a very thorough exploration of the mountains of Mexico.” Eckenstein was to Crowley what Wittgenstein has been to Oxford, and it is sad to read that after recurrent attacks of “spasmodic asthma” he was carried off in his prime by the deadly combination of “phthisis and marriage.” I would give a lot for a book called “Crowley’s Gespräche mit Eckenstein.”

Crowley was an Englishmen of the old school, and I believe that if he had not been corrupted by Uncle Tom he would have made a first-class administrator of natives. He liked robes and processions; he loved mountains and wild places; he took promptly to bizarre religions; he knew that if Indians were allowed to attend the London School of Economics they would go to be with English girls and bust the Empire from the bottom up. The danger is that the way of life he chose may be imitated by little men who have none of his character and originality and who suppose that with little effort they may become, as he became, first a Magus, then a Saint, and finally, God.

Even John Symonds, who writes a sympathetic Introduction to this book, warns of the danger of becoming God and says certain “occultists” believe that Crowley himself was guilty of a “lapse” when he assumed Divinity. I can only say that no “lapse” is to be found in these pages. The strong prose, the hilarious stories, the superb self-confidence—these are just as apparent after Crowley became God as they were when he was only a Saint. Criticism, in my opinion, is never just when it shows signs of envy.

This Issue

March 12, 1970