October 12, 2009
Mountaineer, fiendish hedonist, and magus incandescent, ALEISTER CROWLEY (1875–1947) remains one of the more remarkable figures of Edwardian letters, though his peculiar reputation makes a frank assessment of the man a rare thing. Between his public infamy as an obscene heretic — the “wickedest man in the world” — and the claustrophobic subcult of antinomian occultists that continue to adore him as the prophet of the magickal religion of Thelema, Crowley remains a man set too far apart from the central currents of his age. Whatever else he did, Crowley was a productive, powerful, and often brilliant writer; his essays, rituals, and almost Imagist invocations (not to mention his porno poetry) reflect a potent if often purple blend of late Romanticism, Nietzschean swagger, shadow pulp, and modernist disenchantment (his earlier forays into Buddhism and magic, for example, were matched with a surprising philosophical materialism). Crowley’s later experiments in communal living, bisexuality, and drug gobbling mark him as a prototype of the postwar world’s wayward counterculture and its emphasis on hedonic personal alchemy. In Crowley’s The Book of the Law, a visionary and sometimes violent scripture channeled in Cairo during the peak of the Belle Epoque, we read that “Every man and woman is a star.” It remains a startlingly poetic prophecy of the obsessive transmutations to come.
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