Satanism and indoor golf

Notorious occultist Aleister Crowley revelled in his tabloid reputation for bizarre sex-magic and 'vile practices'. Beneath the demonic mask, however, was the Beast just a bored and boring dilettante?
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The Independent Culture

A Magick Life: a biography of Aleister Crowley by Martin Booth (Hodder & Stoughton, £20, 508pp

A Magick Life: a biography of Aleister Crowley by Martin Booth (Hodder & Stoughton, £20, 508pp

Young Wife's Story of Crowley's Abbey. Scenes of Horror. Drugs, Magic, and Vile Practices. Girl's Ordeal. Saved by the Consul." So ran a headline in the Sunday Express in 1923, as it denounced the occultist Aleister Crowley's experimental Thelemic community near Cefalu in Sicily. The community's watchword was "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law". Although Crowley courted publicity, he always seems to have been surprised how bad it was when he got it. With his sinister reputation and open contempt for conventional morality, he fulfilled a need in the popular press for a really excellent villain to hound.

Also, Crowley was ever so good at getting himself into other people's novels and stories. He appears under various names in Somerset Maugham's The Magician, M R James's Casting the Runes, Dion Fortune's The Winged Bull, Dennis Wheatley's The Devil Rides Out, Christopher Isherwood's A Visit to Anselm Oakes, Ian Fleming's Casino Royale, Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time, Colin Wilson's Adrift in Soho and, most recently, in my own novel, Satan Wants Me. He also featured on the sleeve of Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band.

A spectacularly evil man who possessed genuine occult powers is a gift to any novelist, but was Crowley really that? Did he really conjure up demons, and did they come when he called them? Martin Booth, a novelist and biographer, makes a good case for Crowley as a first-rate mountaineer, chess-player and conversationalist. He also argues that on such matters as sex and drugs, he was a thinker ahead of his times, and hence his revived popularity in the 1960s. Booth has made use of the Crowley papers in the Warburg Institute and his book, which reads easily, is longer and more thorough than the other most recent life, Roger Hutchinson's Aleister Crowley: the Beast demystified.

However, though Booth's book is better than most of the 30 or 40 lives of Crowley that have so far appeared, he is not on very sure ground when he discusses occult matters. Booth's notion of what is magic is wishy-washy. According to Booth, what Crowley "classed as magic would today be considered an amalgam of the subconscious, the imagination and the techniques of reaching through to control or communicate with them often to be found in a psychiatrist's office". Not magic at all, then.

At another point, Booth refers to the occultist MacGregor Mathers working in Paris on one of the most famous works of magic, The Key of Solomon, "which consisted of an ancient ritual of initiation and the true attribution of trump cards in the tarot pack". No, it did not. The manuscripts of The Key that Mathers worked on were in the British Museum and, though there are interesting spells for things like making magic carpets and exorcising bats, there is no initiation ritual nor any overt reference to tarot cards.

Booth is also unreasonably credulous about the occult propensities of the Nazis. It is true that Himmler had serious occult interests, but Hitler and Goebbels had no time for such stuff. In general, the Nazis preferred torturing occultists to listening to them. As for Crowley's alleged part in Hitler's downfall, his contribution seems to have been somewhat less than that of Spike Milligan.

Crowley sent a copy of his Magick in Theory and Practice to Dennis Wheatley, when the latter was still only an apprentice novelist. Wheatley was provoked to write The Devil Rides Out. People who know of black magic and black masses from stuff like Wheatley's novel may think of these things as glamorous and exciting. Either the Goat of Mendes will make itself manifest, or the Duc de Richelieu will turn up to rescue some virgin from being ravished by Satanists. The truth is that the only black mass I ever attended was a rather dreary affair. Most of the magical texts I have read, including Crowley's, have been similarly boring.

There is a dated Edwardian feel to much of Crowley's writing and, though he certainly read widely in occult and oriental mystical texts, I have the feeling that his self-presentation as a magus owed more to a reading of such Edwardian peddlers of fictional occultism as Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, Marie Corelli and Bram Stoker. In Edwardian parlance, there was something "not quite sixteen annas to the rupee" to Crowley. Isherwood hit the mark when he observed that the "truly awful thing about Crowley is that one suspects he didn't really believe in anything. Even his wickedness. Perhaps the only thing that wasn't fake was his addiction to heroin and cocaine".

Having inherited a private income, Crowley spent the first part of his life travelling, mountaineering, dabbling in mysticism, designing boomerangs, trying to invent a gadget for indoor golf - anything to pass the time. Then, when the money ran out, Crowley had to sell himself as a serious occult hierophant and set to peddling an eclectic and inconsistent brand of sex-magic: self-improvement through mystic buggery, among other things. There was a long diminuendo from the glory days of the 1920s until his death in 1947. He scrounged off friends, scrabbled about for journalistic assignments, and increased his drugs intake.

Professor E M Butler, a serious researcher into the occult, interviewed Crowley in his last years. She found him to be "oppressive, boring, egotistical and narrow-minded, a seedy little man with thick spectacles and a yellow addict's face, a tear lingering in one corner of his eye". I am not sure that Crowley deserved Martin Booth's dedicated research and enthusiasm.

* Robert Irwin's 'Satan Wants Me' is published as a Bloomsbury paperback in October