The Long Shadow


A broken man, addicted to heroin and relying on hand-outs from his few remaining disciples, Aleister Crowley’s alleged last words before he died in 1947 were: “Sometimes I really hate myself.”

No stranger to controversy in his life, he was branded THE WICKEDEST MAN IN THE WORLD by the British tabloids after his failed attempt to create a sexual utopia in Sicily. Known as Thelema, which saw Crowley accused of rape, and resulted in an acolyte of his dying after drinking cat’s blood, allegations of ritualised child abuse proved too much for Mussolini, who expelled Crowley from the country.

Living in poverty after the war, his death saw a gradual fade in interest. In 1951, a deeply critical biography of him was released by John Symonds. Echoes of his personality had already integrated itself into the culture: Somerset Maugham had based his 1908 novel The Magician on the Great Beast, it was later made into a 1926 film. Edgar G Ulmar based his satanic priest in The Black Cat (1936) on Crowley. But  it wasn’t until 1960, when Le Matin Des Magiciens by Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier wrote positively on The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a magical cult of whom Crowley was a member, that magic and Crowleyanity met the mainstream. The Beat generation in the 1950’s, beginning with John Clellon’s Go, and Kerouac’s On the Road appropriated into the Thelemic urge to follow instinct and destiny. Perhaps the most talented of the Beats, William Burroughs wrote a personal take on his own heroin addiction, Junkie, Crowley had done the same with his sensationalist novel Diary of a Drug Fiend.

By 1967, Crowley became iconic for the Haight Ashbury crowd when he was featured on the cover of the Beatles album Sergeant Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. In a later interview with Playboy magazine, John Lennon remarked:

“The whole Beatle idea was to do what you want…do what thou wilst, as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody.”

One of his most prominent followers, the homosexual occult filmmaker Kenneth Anger, (who I profiled for CSM some years ago) utilised Thelemic imagery in his work. By the time he was approaching Mick Jagger in the late 1960s to play the eponymous role in Lucifer Rising, he had already parted ways with musician and Manson Family member Bobby Beausoleil. After the Altamont slayings at a Stones concert in 1969, Jagger demurred on the role, but provided a synth soundtrack to the unsettling Anger film Invocation of My Demon Brother. After Anger sought the services of Jimmy Page, the foremost collector of Crowley memorabilia (and guitarist for the occult rock band Led Zeppelin) failed to provided the promised soundtrack,  Bobby Beausoleil wrote and recorded it whilst serving a life sentence for murder. Page, who even bought Crowley’s Scottish estate Boleskine, was quoted in 1976 for Sounds:

“Aleister Crowley is the great misunderstood genius of the twentieth century.”

The Doors famously posed for a photo of the band sitting around a bust of Crowley on the back cover of Doors 13 (1970), LSD fuelled academic Timothy Leary wrote a Crowley inspired biography, Confessions of a Hope Fiend (1973), in 1980 Ozzy Osbourne released the solo track Mr Crowley, and David Bowie, with his early dabbling in kitsch fetish and occultism, was a prominent fan. The current fetish for body alteration and transsexuality such as with the Crowley dark metal musician Genesis P. Orridge’s gender neutrality and belief in “pandrogyny” follow the Thelemic principle of self expression and personal will.

More mainstream artists have exposed their admiration for Crowley. Anton La Vey, the late founder of The Church of Satan, saw Crowley as a Satanic prophet, Marilyn Manson dedicated his long and successful career to Crowleyanity, the hip hop magnates Jay Z, Rihanna, Kanye West and Eminem are rumoured to be members of a secretive group modelled on the Golden Dawn, and pressing the “Do What Thou Wilt” mantra as forcefully as Nike’s slogan Just Do It.

However you regard the man, it’s evident that he has become a posthumous success. In a 2002 BBC Poll of the 100 Greatest Britons, Aleister Crowley came in at number 73, beating Chaucer, Johnny Rotten, J.R.R Tolkien, and Sir Walter Raleigh. This hardly seems appropriate for a man such as he was, a vulgar, perverse, failed novelist, whose complete inability to understand the feelings of others led to his ironic discovery: Do What Thou Wilt is a one way trip to disaster.

Follow Andrew Moody on Twitter @VoguishFiction_