I recently finished reading Martin Booth’s biography of Aleister Crowley, A Magick Life, which I think I first started 5 years ago but got side tracked on.
This must be the third biography of Crowley that I’ve read, starting with The Great Beast by John Symonds in my late teens, which while not considered a sympathetic or unbiased account, did manage to inspire me in parts nonetheless. My favourite had been The Magical World of Aleister Crowley by Francis King, which was more sympathetic. This latest book was really worth reading though, as it gives a fair treatment without smoothing over Crowley’s faults, and uncovers facts and follows up leads that do fill out the story, especially with respect to some of Crowley’s followers and “Scarlet Women”.
Some of the story remains boring for me (mountaineering, just not my thing), and Crowley’s British Empire attitude, combined with his apparently inflated personal self-assessments do rankle, as does his callous and careless treatment of a good few people in the story. But we know about that already, and he did anything but try to hide it. What Booth’s account does add though is that extra detail about the people who were part of AC’s life (including his children), and underneath all the exorbitant surface of a life lived so large, you eventually get a sense of the human reality underneath it all. That, and Crowley’s undoubted genuineness in his dedication to Thelema. By the end of the story I felt I had a deeper, more well rounded and related sense of this man than I have had before. His last days, tended by a former partner (Deirdre McAlpine) and their son are really moving. At the end I felt he had love and a peaceful (if still somewhat notorious) happiness, and that touched me.
In an odd way, his life seems like a “decline” into humanity. He becomes more creatively interesting to me as his money runs out (which is also when he really starts painting, so maybe that is my bias) and his imperial, pseudo-aristocratic attitudes lose their back up in America. I had always been greatly seduced (and certainly inspired) by tales of The Abbey of Thelema in my youth, but here it appears as an exotic but disastrous failure in terms of essential hygiene, practicalities and public relations. Ahead of its time as a learning experiment, but nevertheless a failure. Crowley wanted to do an Abbey 2.0 with a tighter run ship and more selectivity, but it didn’t happen. Unfortunately so much of the records of the Abbey were seized and destroyed by the authorities as “obscene” that the experiment’s researches are largely lost.
I was very interested to hear more about Leah Hirsig, one of Crowley’s most famous “Scarlet Women”, and certainly a figure in her own right. She was there with him from his painting years in America, through The Abbey at Cefalù, to some time after, in spite of being largely abandoned by Crowley. She continued with amazing strength and commitment to Thelema. She finally repudiated Crowley and her position as Scarlett Woman in 1929, but not her belief in their philosophy, though we don’t know for how long. She went on to the rest of her life, a marriage, and reportedly returned to her career as a teacher of music. Unlike some others who had played the role of Scarlet Woman, she returned as her own person, from precarious positions of poverty and drug dependency. She lived to a good age apparently, dying in 1975 according to internet searches, though Booth puts her year of death as 1951, which would have made her only 67 or 68, still not bad for a woman of the times who had lived life in extremis till her 40s. We don’t have much information about what she lived, believed, thought or might have taught after Crowley. It is one of the unfortunate biases of biography that we register colourful train wrecks better than what might be happier human realities.
I would love to know what she gained from life, and what she made of it. The part in the story where she walks away from Crowley, with considerable dignity, is one that hits a nerve with me, and has me rooting for her. If you have ever loved someone as a virtual god and had them behave accordingly, you will know the hazardous extremes to which it subjects a person, even without it being a Crowley. But in fact that very predicament can be an occupational hazard of loving (though we don’t like to admit it), and certainly of loving sexually and emotionally as an experience of the sacred. Whatever Leah went through, you never felt she was less than her own person, which is what makes her such a compelling figure for me. You can feel how essential her part of the puzzle is, and you can but salute her as both a survivor and a co-creator of a work. Thelema can appear stereotyped in its implied sex role allocations on the surface, but I for one do not believe in that metaphysical “allocation by genitals”, and I do not believe that Thelema is that shallow.
Another figure from the Cefalù period is Jane Wolf, who apparently went on to help found the Agape Lodge of the Ordo Templi Orientis in Southern California, and was its lodge master. I would have liked to read more about Jane Wolf, though of course this was not her biography.
When we get to the War years (WWII) and after, Crowley seems more at peace, in declining health but more stably looked after all in all, though his heroin addiction revived due to the unavailability of an asthma medication from Germany. I always thought that the late production of things like “The Book of Thoth” (and the brilliant tarot cards he produced with Frieda Harris) and “Magick Without Tears”, all in his supposed “twilight years”, showed an astonishingly modern mind of great lucidity, insight and humour. In old age, when Grady McMurtry referred to him as “Master”, Crowley looked over his shoulder and said that he couldn’t see any masters there. The man who had played the part of the colourful, mystical megalomaniac with such determination for so long, apparently dropped the mask of performance near the end. What persisted was his absolute belief in Thelema.
Crowley and the band of bohemian seekers who joined him remain pioneers, especially in these accounts from the 1920s. There is a tremendous amount of the (sometimes tragic) interweaving human stories that are lost, unaccounted for, unrecorded. Israel Regardie once said that had Crowley been living in the 1960s rather than the time he did, he would have been distinguished by his brilliance, but he would otherwise have been largely at home, one among many, rather than the demonized figure he was. In other words, he was too far ahead of his time. That does seem to be true, and the tale of his life does appear like an object lesson in what can happen when the future arrives in a place that isn’t ready for it. I think you can see some of the same in DH Lawrence. What a very extraordinary time it was.