Aleister Crowley The Drug and other stories (2010)
Whilst I've never exactly been enamoured of Aleister Crowley, I've taken enough of an interest to read past the somewhat hysterical reputation of the most wicked man in the world, as someone or other once put it. So far as I can recall from reading Martin Booth's biography, the worst of the man's crimes was most probably the beastly treatment meted out to Victor Neuburg towards the end of their relationship - although it's been a while since I read the book so I could be wrong there. Personally I'd say that whilst Crowley may well have qualified as the most faintly unsavoury character in the world, when looking to give out awards for actual evil, you might do better to consider Hitler or Stalin or even Fred bleeding West rather than someone who was just a bit of an oddball, the real-life Uncle Fester as at least one website has noted in recent times.
The trouble is that it's difficult to appreciate Crowley without his reputation getting in the way, not least when he himself encouraged the spread of at least some of that reputation, leaving us today with a barely recognisable Crowley as cultural icon to a clueless horde of pseudo-goth wankers with Psychic TV albums. Obviously there's not much good to be had discussing Crowley without some reference to magick, but one should be quite clear about what is meant by such a term in this context. What shouldn't be implied includes actual contact with non-corporeal entities on the grounds of there being no such thing, spells of the kind cast in Harry Potter films, or indeed anything which contradicts the existing laws of causality and physics. Roughly speaking this leaves us with magick as philosophy, a view of the world based not so much upon that which is directly perceived as the means by which it is understood, as expressed in the words of Ida Pendragon in Crowley's The Ordeal of Ida Pendragon:
'Realism,' she went on. 'We want truth, but we want beauty too. We don't want what our silly eyes call truth. We want the beauty that is seen by artists' souls. A photograph is a lie because a camera is not a God. And we would rather the truth coloured by the artist's personality than the lie that his mere eyes tell him. The women of Bougereau and Gerôme are more like what the eyes tell one of life than the women of Degas and Manet. I want the truth of Being, not the truth of Form.'
This view is further clarified by Edgar Rolles in the same tale:
'My good girl, perspective is an eccentricity, a symbol; no more. How can one ever represent a three-dimensional world in two dimensions? Only by symbolism. We have acquiesced in the method of the primitives - do you think men and women are really like Fra Angelico's pictures look to the eyes of the untaught?'
Then again, later:
'So Being is not in Form; it is however only to be understood through Form. Hence incarnations. The Universe is only a picture in the Mind of the Father, by which He wishes to convey - what? It is our Magnum Opus to discover what He means.'
None of which should be confused with beliefs born of a refusal to acknowledge objective reality, for as Crowley states in Felo de Se:
It is fear of death that has fooled men into belief in such absurdities and abominations as Spiritualism and Christian Science.
So, given that our boy wasn't entirely the pantomime villain described by persons subscribing to much weirder belief systems than anything ever claimed as valid by Crowley himself, just what was his game?
In terms of art and literature, the Symbolist movement flourished during Crowley's formative years as a reaction to naturalist tendencies in painting and writing, and perhaps as a resurgence of romanticism inflamed by the ever increasing cultural impact of science and industrialisation. Crowley would most certainly have been aware of all this, not least through the associate late nineteenth century Hermetic revival giving rise to magickal societies such as the Golden Dawn and Ordo Aurum Solis, amongst others. As a young man who spent some time mingling amongst Parisian café society - to which a number of his short stories refer - he could hardly have remained ignorant of Symbolism, or unmoved by its aesthetic as may be inferred from the reference to Symbolist painter Félicien Rops in the short story T'ien Tao. To make a possibly somewhat crass analogy, I suggest it may be in some sense useful to view Crowley as the Andy Warhol of Symbolism, a figure whose life epitomised the preoccupations of the movement, just as the distinctly less interesting Warhol later came to embody the commercialisation and commodification of art; so whilst Rops and Moreau painted it, and Paul Verlaine wrote it, Crowley lived it. On which note, one more from Edgar Rolles in The Ordeal of Ida Pendragon:
'Art,' said he, 'and do not imagine that Art or anything else is other than High Magic!—is a system of holy hieroglyph. The artist, the initiate, thus frames his mysteries.'
If any of that makes any sense, keeping in mind that much of what I have thus far written is suggested mainly for the sake of argument, then it's probably time to take a look at The Drug, a big, fat collection of Crowley's short stories picked up mainly out of curiosity because I'd forgotten that he ever wrote this stuff; and I was further intrigued by there being an introduction from David Tibet, who apparently stopped talking to me after I compared his singing to the mice of the mouse organ on Bagpuss.
As you might imagine given the author, a certain number of the forty-nine short stories gathered here - and many of them previously unpublished by the way - deal with esoteric subjects. Some of these - The Three Characteristics and T'ien Tao to name but two - may well make sense to folks who are really into that sort of thing, but were more or less incomprehensible to me, in places reading much like a man having a conversation with himself. Happily, he improved with practice, learning how to meet his readership halfway, so that by the time we come to 1913's The Testament of Magdalen Blair, if the narrative is still a little muddled in places, the whole is nevertheless rewarding; in this specific case proposing a mechanism of magick as a philosophical system, rather than just addressing those who already get the general idea.
Crowley it turns out was a capable author for the most part. The quality of his writing is rich and poetic, but is sometimes lacking focus, at worst leaving the reader wondering what the hell is going on as we swerve off into yet more digressive observations regarding characters whom we may or may not have already met. Unfortunately though, in some instances the problems are more subtle. For example, in God's Journey we read:
There was one person who had not the normal activity of the brain, that superficial quality of swift reaction without reflection, whose evidence is talk. This was a brain that apprehended situations in some deep stratum of the soul, and the result of whose subtle secret operations is to make decisions which really decide things.
When the hubbub chanced for a moment to be lulled, Nadia, who had been watching the scene silently out of the corners of her sombre eyes, came heavily across the floor towards the master of the house. Her very motion might have suggested some inexorable engine of destruction. She lurched clumsily like a tank, slow, stupid, and yet deadly.
She made the most humble reverence to Pavel Petrovich and said 'I saw Dascha with it.'
The words were quite enough. It let everybody out.
So whilst it's not terrible, the first paragraph is a mess with too much defined by that which is lacking or absent, and concluding with a clause that's pure George W. Bush; followed immediately by a less convoluted paragraph with adjectival content left laying around in awkward places, and which may nevertheless prove a little too rich to digest if one is still scrambling to decode the previous paragraph. Then we come to Dascha, and find ourselves backtracking in hope of deducing the nature of the it with which she was seen; ending with the confusion of the plural words which may or may not become the singular it by which everybody is let out. The sum total is readable, but at a pace dictated by a succession of narrative stumbling blocks. In other words, you need to be already more than averagely well-disposed towards Aleister Crowley to get something out of such passages.
Those individual tales namechecked as distinctly wonderful examples of this, that or the other in the foreword mostly left me unimpressed with the exception of The Drug about which in my notes I have written he forgot to include a story, but otherwise fairly readable. On the other hand, Cancer?, A Death Bed Repentance, The Vitriol-Thrower, The Testament of Magdalen Blair, Felo de Se, Robbing Miss Horniman, and Which Things are an Allegory all made enough of an impression to keep me reading until the end, more or less. The A∴A∴, the order which Crowley helped established in 1907 was dedicated to the pursuit of light and knowledge - as Wikipedia is my witness - an ambition expressed in the motto the method of science, the aim of religion. This seems to me a more accurate summary of that which motivated Aleister Crowley if his writings are any indication, at least more accurate than the pursuit of excess and saying important sounding things in a deep, boomy voice with too much echo; and whilst I'm not suggesting he was necessarily a misunderstood genius, he is clearly deserving of better understanding than has generally been his legacy.