Liber vel Bogus: The Real Confession of Aleister Crowley by Richard T. Cole. (TBC) If Colin Wilson were still around he would have doubtless recommended, if not introduced this unusual title.
This soon to be released book has succeeded in causing some concern amongst custodians of Aleister Crowley’s legacy, but it deserves to be read by a much wider audience; it will be of interest to (Fortean) sceptics, psychologists, and possibly even criminologists (pages 30 – 32 have a expert diagnosis of Crowley’s severe personality issues, and there is a disturbing quote from his Magical Record which would be of interest to Operation Yewtree, were The Beast still living). Occultists with beliefs blowing in the direction of the 93 Current will perhaps find the details collated here somewhat unflattering to any idealised imagining of their guru, and in extreme cases (and not without a little irony) they may even suggest the book is libellous or possibly even ‘blasphemous’. Quite frankly, discrepancies and problems with Crowley’s development of his “Law” are nothing new to those familiar with his work and those of his closest commentators. The worst thing about Crowley that emerges from Liber vel Bogus is that he rendered a precise Existential, if not phenomenological truth, an essentially simple fact “for all”, obscure and possibly even impotent with an endless amount of misdirection. Coupled with unnecessary pretensions towards a full blown Messiah complex, Crowley is considered something of a fake outside of his clique. This book perhaps explains the latter reaction to The Beast’s unique career better than any biography, “hostile” or “unbalanced” ever could.
Every study of Crowley’s extraordinary life will contain a variation of the following “fact”: that between noon and 1pm on the 8th, 9th and 10th of April, 1904, a “messenger from the forces ruling this planet” bearing the name Aiwaz (there are various spellings) dictated to Crowley the three parts of a work which, according to the scribe, would solve all of mankind’s religious and social problems. This book, Liber AL vel Legis A.K.A. The Book of the Law, is a brief work written in similar poetic style to Crowley’s previous efforts – certain symbols and concepts in it have already appeared in his earlier, less sensational poetic fiction. It is difficult to align the contents of Liber Legis with its alleged utilitarian effects, yet otherwise intelligent people continue to take it’s provenance and status as an objective, or perhaps spiritual, fact. Richard T. Cole’s study is a stern yet amusing corrective to such lazy acceptance, yet the discrepancies collected in his book – which deconstruct Crowley’s patchy narrative, one by one – are almost incidental to the analysis of Crowley’s attitudes and the detrimental effects these have had on the wholesale implication of his liberating creed, The Law of Thelema (which he considered to be more important than the wheel). A century after it’s supposed praeterhuman genesis, that all encompassing Law is practised only in a tiny corner of the remains of the counterculture, and Crowley is a very minor, if not invisible, figure in scholarship and academia (he continues to be perhaps the only occultist often referenced in popular culture, though this is something of a diminished return. It’s a long way down, creatively, from Kenneth Anger, Harry Smith, The Beatles and Throbbing Gristle to Robbie Williams and Peaches Geldof *)
The discrepancies which Cole notes are fatal to any notion of genuine objectivity on Crowley’s part; nothing corresponds with Crowley’s own narrative of his crowning achievement; for such an important event, his actual recording of it is surprisingly vague. Crowley kept extensive diaries for the bulk of his life, recorded every other bowel movement, every fix, every desperate scheme for a few quid. Daily details regarding the genesis of the New Aeon are scant, missing or of secondary import to golf, of all things. The paper stock on which our new Bible is handwritten, supposedly at the dictation of Aiwaz on the selected days, is manufactured by Pirie & Sons, and it bears a watermark which actually dates the sheets to one year later than it’s alleged composition, i.e. 1905. The sheets have subsequently been backed with linen, probably, suggests Cole, to hide this flaw. A rumour abounds of two attempts existing. There are other serious problems, particularly with chronology. The Boulak Museum, Central to the reception myth, closed in 1902 when “an irreversible shift in the Nile transformed it into an impromptu swimming pool.” Relevant notebooks are also missing or have pages torn out. Crowley even mixes up his own chronology, subconsciously admitting an earlier date of composition (1902, rather than 1904). Photographs miraculously show his ageing process in reverse and Aiwaz himself suffers both memory loss and lack of basic numeracy skills. These are just a few examples. Readers wanting more (Cole has even more unpublished information) are best off reading the book, or visiting here where Crowley aficionados will rake over each and every accusation in peer-reviewed, scientific detail. But as noted, it’s the wood, not the bark patterns on the trees which are of interest. It’s not an accident that all of the “unbiased” biographies of Crowley get heavier and heavier on the minutiae – wow, did you know Crowley had a chauffeur? – and show a progressive disinclination to step back and perform a truly unbiased autopsy on Crowley’s motives.
To get the most out of Cole’s book, a familiarity with Crowley’s work is necessary. A lot of the humour is as self referential as Private Eye, and will doubtless be as uncomfortable to fundamentalist Thelemites as that esteemed organ is to Westminster. However, even without knowledge of the obeah and wanga, Crowley stands accused of fraud. The contents of Liber vel Bogus could very well be a large boulder in the road towards academic acceptability for “Crowley studies”; a shame, as postmodernist lassitude has almost allowed the old goat into the academy. There is Nuit outside the text, after all. His portrait is a fixture of popular culture – for now anyway. But a scientist of consciousness who fakes the central document which ‘proves’ a new dispensation? That’s not science or even poetry – it’s deception along the same lines as Blavatsky and her Mahatma Letters. The question is – why go to such lengths to deceive? Crowley’s April Fool prank ran until he was perplexed on his deathbed.
In his absorbing study of false messiahs, The Devil’s Party (2001), Colin Wilson remarks that Crowley’s belief “that he was the messiah was undiminished. To have abandoned it then [i.e. at Netherwood, where he died] would have been a form of psychological suicide.” It is relevant to note that Wilson regards “messiahs” from Koresh and Manson to Shoko Asahara and Yukio Mishima (and more intriguingly, Derrida and Foucault) as individuals hiding their weaknesses behind “the mask of power”. “The Mask” (a term coined by Crowley’s own bête noire, W.B. Yeats) “is the front he chooses to show the world, often the opposite of his basic type.” According to writer Robert North, from “the few contemporary accounts of A.C. that we possess, his manner was pompous and his voice had a high, nasal pitch. He was “different” and people made fun of him behind his back.” A recording of Crowley’s voice certainly confirms the second assertion. The problem with the mask, continues Wilson, “is that it condemns the wearer to hatred and resentment. Why? Because a mask implies defensiveness…[this] combination of resentment and superiority is of course, the essence of criminality.” Wilson has suggested previously (in his Aleister Crowley: The Nature of The Beast, 1987) that Crowley’s mentality was borderline ‘criminal’ – resulting perhaps from a head injury after a homemade firework knocked him unconscious for ninety six hours, and Cole delves a bit further into this. “That Crowley survived at all, is almost miraculous. That he did not suffer irreparable neurological damage is unlikely in the extreme.” Cole backs this up with testimonies from a doctor specialising in mental health issues – “a patient exhibiting five of these traits is diagnosable as suffering from NPD. Throughout his life, Aleister Crowley exhibited chronic symptoms associated with all nine [criteria of Narcissistic Personality Disorder].” Measured against Robert D. Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist, Crowley scores an astonishing 38 points out of 40. And if this were not enough, application of Pincus and Lewis’ three tier principal of key triggers (psychiatric illness, neurological damage and childhood abuse) leave little doubt that despite his firm belief he was beyond human comprehension (an Ipsissimus, no less) Crowley was simply a very damaged individual.
In what is possibly the only Crowley penned book of interest to the non-partisan reader, The Confessions (a vast, near thousand page work even in it’s edited form – an unexpurgated facsimile of what should have been the original text has been “in preparation” for a decade) The Beast tells his own embroidered version of his life up to the 1920’s. Yet this isn’t any mere “autobiography” – this is an autohagiography. A close reading of this remarkable document doesn’t really convince the reader of Crowley’s saintly status. At age fourteen – pretty much adulthood then – he literally thought a cat had nine separate lives, indulging in a moronic act of animal cruelty that illustrates the destructive literal mindedness that would blunt his reactions to almost every event in his life. Cole comments “[that] Crowley labelled this barbaric act of savagery as “science” is illustrative of the sheer scale and complexity of psychological self-defence mechanisms he employed to conceal unresolved issues […] That Crowley simply assumes readers will accept his word at face value, and not see ‘the cat incident’ for the act of outright sadism it so obviously was, merely emphasises the severity of his repression, denial and increasing divergence from reality.” Unfortunately for our clear eyed, objective scientist, it gets worse.
An incident quoted on page 40 of Cole’s book sums up Crowley’s pseudo aristocratic attitude towards women and the proletariat. The fact that Crowley was still rubbing his hands with glee over this reprehensible act decades later simply reinforces at the very, very least what an appalling snob he was. Sections from his Magical Record (quoted here for those with a strong stomach) would be interesting to officers dealing with the fall out from the Savile sex abuse scandal, and let’s not forget – selected verses from his own Koran would most certainly be noted by the other “ISIS”. But don’t complain, because who was it who whined that “I want blasphemy, murder, rape, revolution, anything, bad or good, but strong”?
So how does Crowley get taken seriously as a neutral recording mechanism of divine truths when he’s so obviously – at the very least – riddled with prejudices? Crowley supporters will usually perform their favourite act of moral bifurcation and suggest we forget what an awful person he was, and just concentrate on textual analysis, or perhaps counter with a vaguely faux-naive statement like ‘that’s just how people were in those days.’ (They most certainly weren’t). When Crowley scores an unusually high mark on Robert Hare’s Psychopath Test, and if Crowley is a documented racist, sexist, animal abusing coprophiliac fraudster – with allegations of paedophilia and the author (author, don’t go blaming any “praeterhuman” intelligences) of a ‘holy’ book which contains lines corrosive enough for a very, very serious fatwa – the only option is to pray that these ‘foibles’ will wither away unnoticed, and bend over Nuitwards to counterbalance this information with an idealised portrait of ‘chess master, mountaineer, mystic, book designer, and poet.”
To turn away from the reality of who Crowley actually was, what he did, what motivated him, and into this idealism, is not a way to discover the truth. Just as defenders of Heidegger will tie their very Daseins into philosophical knots to prove that he wasn’t really a Nazi, against all well documented evidence, those with an interest in The Beast tend to be unnecessarily over protective. There’s no need. Cole’s book, in fact, makes Crowley much more human and a damn sight more interesting than the slightly cringeworthy mollycoddling of recent studies (Tobias Churton’s Aleister Crowley – The Biography being one enjoyable, if frustrating, example). Reading Bogus, hearing other facts from the author (some hinted at in the text) makes me certain that Crowley, far from being an objective scientist recording a new creed, as he claimed, simply constructed an after the fact narrative to hide a different type of ‘revelation’ – which is slightly reconstructed by Cole. The worst thing you can truly say about Crowley isn’t that he ticks every box on the psychopathic scale, it’s isn’t that he’s stuffed full of right wing prejudices and naive resentment. It was clearly his choice to modify his behaviour,; he could have made even a token attempt to be more socially aware and empathetic. The real frustration with The Beast is that he couldn’t be honest enough to use his not inconsiderable talents to simply describe what happened to him without recourse to self reverential bluster. For a man who understood intentionality and it’s relation to “the transcendental ego’ without apparent knowledge of Husserl, for a man smart enough to see Fitche as a precursor of this new dispensation, a forgery as unconvincing as The Book of the Law is seriously underwhelming. Writers have compared it to Nietzsche’s Zarathustra – this is “optimistic to the point of blindness.” With wonderful insight, basically unacknowledged, Colin Wilson very perceptibly compared it to Gide’s Fruits of the Earth (a cult book if there ever was one). Crowley’s most creative pupil, Kenneth Grant, has suggested that Crowley was actually scrying from an akashic grimoire, and like Randolph Carter, misunderstanding severely alien cryptography then unfortunately transcribing it into the stiff prose of Liber Legis. One explanation states that Liber Legis can only be understood by applying the kabbalistic numerology of Gematria to the text. But if the text in question is of fully terrestrial origin, what can this deconstruction achieve? Grant would in fact later come to treat The Book of the Law as something of a ‘red herring’, describing it in similar – although not as materialistic – terms to Cole’s, with help from unverifiable ‘revelations’ from Crowley’s “son” (sic) Amado. Grant left a body of hugely entertaining work which suggests Crowley was genuinely in rapport with strange entities as much as Lovecraft’s own fictional antiquarian of Miskatonic University. Outré as that is, it rings a distant astral bell. But although The Beast nearly named Cthulhu before Lovecraft, Crowley’s terrifying reputation is somewhat diminished by the rather pathetic and depressing facts presented by Cole. These are squalid rather than eldritch.
Cole follows Capt. Fuller’s lead and expresses the surprising opinion that “Crowley was the single most important individual Mankind has produced in the last ten-thousand years.” A statement made all the more baffling by his suggestion that an investigation into a fake manuscript, written by a psychopath, strengthened this view. Yet Crowley, despite all his ludicrous defects, did state a major philosophical truth, perhaps the only philosophical (and I’d suggest: political) truth applicable to our present situation. Alick’s tragedy is that he buried it underneath a mountain of unresolved complexes, grudges, unanalysed prejudices and overlaid this psychic mess with too much decaying hermetic paraphernalia. And of course, fabrications. If you’re going to invent, Aleister, write a decent novel, not a “received text”. Just what the world needs – more religious dogma. Fay ce que vouldras.
That Crowley experienced extraordinary things I have never doubted. His response to these experiences, and more importantly his presentation of them, is the “bogus” of Cole’s book, and is my main problem with a character I’ve been fascinated by for decades. Philip K Dick didn’t present his bicameral Valis moment as a new Bible (the Exegesis wasn’t really an exegesis). There’s no embarrassing holy feast days or the gothic self abuse of Liber III vel Jugorum. There is however, fiction so startlingly and genuinely prophetic that it describes every next technological and psychological development in our present world with an uncanny accuracy reminiscent of one of PKD’s own fictional pre-cogs. Crowley’s archaic pantheon creaks by comparison – his reaction to what Julian Jaynes described as auditory hallucinations (voices in the head which speak with great authority) was to take everything they said the only way he knew – literally. John Symonds, Crowley’s first and best biographer (Symonds is a very, very underrated talent) remarked that Crowley lacked imagination. He was right. In the end Crowley should have done what Philp K Dick did, bewildered by his alien voices and his recherché perception of time, and just written it up as fiction.
Nietzsche asked: Freedom From or Freedom For? Crowley was most certainly in the former category., but he was convinced he belonged in the latter. Tragick in Theory and Practice. The Beast was human, all too human.
* Crowley stated that “all art is Magick” and this would explain his usefulness to the likes of Anger, etc. Magick in Theory and Practice is less of a book of strict instructions and more of an aesthetic manual, and it appeals to me more than Liber Legis. The Beatles are well known to have included Crowley’s portrait on their Sgt. Pepper – it’s a lesser known fact that Grant’s Carfax Monographs are seen – in the magicians sequence, aptly – of their Magical Mystery Tour. This is something of a mystery and I am glad to be the first to notice it. (edit. – another person to notice it. See post by David below).