Why Crowley Does Not Suck

Why Crowley Does Not Suck Cover I've been reflecting on my contributions to the Thelema list since coming back from vacation, and I noticed that I seem to come down pretty hard on Mr. Crowley. I've said many things like this: He was psychologically naive; his history and politics were uneducated and facile; he failed to make any contribution to philosophy or even to grasp it at a baccalaureate level; it would have been a nightmare if he had achieved secular power; and so on. This may have created a false impression about my feelings towards the man and his work, and I thought I might try to explain.

To understand Aleister Crowley's contributions one needs to create a new category, which I sometimes call "ritual arts." This is a new category only in that it has not been called out as such; people have traditionally viewed ritual (by which I include meditation) as either sacred and beyond mere criteria of artistry, or as socially functional and to be understood as part of a society. I propose that we look at it as an art form related to theater. It is in the area of the stylistic construction of ritual and meditative practices, and as an explicator of these processes of construction and performance, that Crowley comes into his own. In fact, his contributions in this area are unique and deserve to be part of any religious studies program.

Crowley was a poet, perhaps only of second or lower rank, but a poet by nature nonetheless, and the grace and beauty of the poetic sentiment infuses all his rituals and meditations, in contrast with the awkward, didactic, stentorian or pompous style of many occult rituals. While one could find much to criticize in his overall corpus - poems choked with purple, two-dimensional fictional characters, megalomaniacal essays proposing ultimate answers to questions he did not understand - there is none of this in his ritual instructions. Their style is beautifully sparse, like watermarks on rice paper, with just a gentle touch of purple and a hint of that which cannot quite be put into words. The flaccid prose of the Golden Dawn has been put aside. The result is a genuineness and sincerity of aspiration and experience which is not only beautiful to read but compelling to perform.

In poetry derived from ritual and meditative experience, particularly the sublime Book of Lies and the "Hymn to Pan", Crowley may sometimes enter the first rank of metaphysical poets. When he is working from the soul, rather than indulging in the superficial play-acting so characteristic of occultists, he has no need to tart up his work. When he lapses into posing the result is awful - the impenetrable Aha! comes to mind - but our need to exercise selectivity with respect to Crowley's voluminous output in no way vitiates the quality of his best work.

Though his solitary rituals are perfect gems, the same cannot be said of his group rituals. The O.T.O. initiations may be spiritually efficacious when well performed, but they are not very original, being patterned closely on Freemasonic rites. The less said about his "Rites of Eleusis" the better. His most frequently performed group ritual, the "Gnostic Mass," was derived from Catholic and French Gnostic rituals. This Mass creates for many the false impression that it is a mere mockery of the Catholic Mass, while raising troubling questions about Crowley's ideas on gender. The Priest part is distinctly paramount in the script, although it may not be in particular performances. Priest-centricity is not lost on many feminist observers of the Mass and it discourages some women from pursuing Crowley studies. However, concerns about originality, anti-Christianity and gender aside, the power and majesty of the Gnostic Mass and OTO initiation rituals when "rightly performed with joy & beauty" can hardly be denied.

Crowley's longer writings about ritual and meditation practice, of which the best examples are magick in Theory and Practice (MTP) and Eight Lectures on Yoga, exist in a gray area. The grayness results from Crowley's unfortunate attempts to delve into philosophy and his self-aggrandizing accounts of his own spiritual authority. To consider only MTP, it leads off with an absurd philosophical claim to have reconciled nihilism, monism and dualism by simply attributing each to one to the Thelemic trinity of gods. MTP is riddled with megalomaniacal passages and specious philosophical observations. Yet when Crowley simply explains how he thinks rituals work, what feelings he associates with particular points of ritual, styles appropriate to particular points, and how the parts integrate into the whole, he presents a comfort with and knowledge of Western occult modes that would be difficult to find anywhere else.

I have in the past faulted MTP for parochialism, in that Crowley seems to take a particular ritual formula as paramount when in fact there are many other forms of magical ritual, and for exegesis instead of analysis, since he generally fails to jump to a meta-level of analysis to engage basic questions, such as why we would want to do ritual in the first place or why rituals should involve mythic figures such as gods. For these issues one will have to go to ritual studies and anthropology. Still, the fact that he fails to contribute here does not mean that he makes no contribution at all. His account of his own practice and of his thinking about it is unusually detailed and beautifully rendered, and deserves general study as a unique window into practice.

One more of Crowley's strong points deserves mention, again related to his writing. The Equinox is half mystical encyclopedia and half literary journal. While its literary contributions are not stellar, they are usually good, and the playful, knowing style is still pleasant to read. Mystics and magicians today are often faced with a great cultural divide from their spiritual ancestors, and simply to see a magician being very much a man of the twentieth century is a useful lesson.

Of course, none of this excuses Crowley's more egregious personality failings or his dilettante excursions into areas he was unable to understand, which I will continue to underline as the opportunity presents itself. In the future, though, I will try to give equal time to the good and the bad, rather than allowing myself to be drawn into a reactive mode such as correcting his followers when they demand that Crowley be showered with unearned rewards.

Books You Might Enjoy:

Aleister Crowley - Liber 011 Nu
Aleister Crowley - Konx Om Pax
Aleister Crowley - To Man
Aleister Crowley - Songs Of The Spirit
Aleister Crowley - Thoth Tarot Deck

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