Sunday, January 22, 2017
Do What Thou Wilt
On the 1st December 1947, a 72 year-old man died at the Netherwood Guest House on The Ridge in Hastings. He had lived there for two years and had been in ill health throughout that time; he finally succumbed to chronic bronchitis, pleurisy and heart disease. This was not an unusual occurrence for a seaside town boarding house with an elderly clientele. And this particular guest was typical: he had spent his days unremarkably, taking local walks and beating all-comers at Hastings Chess Club. What had marked him out from the others, however, were the parcels he received from around the world, occasional visitors from London and Europe and the fact that he spent the nocturnal hours in his room at Netherwood reading, writing and taking heroin.
The elderly man was Aleister Crowley and his incredible life had led him, not many years before, to be regularly dubbed ‘the wickedest man in the world’ by the tabloid press. An occultist, he had devoted his life to the search for wisdom through an exotic mix of mysticism, paganism, magic, sex and drugs - it was the last three that really got the press going. Born into a wealthy family in Leamington Spa, Crowley had rejected his fundamentalist Christian upbringing and, in his early twenties, joined The Golden Dawn occult society and was soon practicing ceremonial magic. His inheritance allowed him to travel and, after spells in Mexico, Egypt, India and China, where he studied religions and climbed mountains (he was a serious mountaineer), he published The Book of Law, espousing the idea that people should be free to follow their own will. This book, and its motto ‘do what thou wilt’, had supposedly been dictated to Crowley by a messenger from the Egyptian deity Horus and it became the cornerstone of his own religion, Thelema.
Crowley also established an order, the A:.A:., based in Victoria in London, where his religion was practiced. He had become interested in the ritual use of drugs – particularly hashish – in his search for objective truth and had been privately experimenting with bisexuality and sadomasochism. Influenced by his close links with a German occultist group, Ordo Templi Orientis, Crowley began to incorporate ‘sex magick’ – the use of sexual activity and arousal - into his Thelemic ceremonies. His spelling of ‘magick’ was to differentiate his sorcery from the popular stage magic of the early 20th century.
Crowley’s chaotic personal life – one of his two daughters had died of typhoid in Burma and his alcoholic wife had been institutionalised in Britain - worsened as his money ran out. He was a prolific writer of books on mysticism but also wrote poetry, plays and articles; and when war broke out in 1914 he travelled to the United States and earned a living there as a journalist writing for Vanity Fair and other publications. He became involved in the pro-German movement in New York and wrote for the propaganda newspaper, The Fatherland. This led him to be condemned as traitor in Britain but Crowley had been, in fact, working as a double agent for British intelligence.
Back in London after the war, he was prescribed heroin to treat his asthma and so began an addiction that would stay with him for the rest of his life. He published Diary of a Drug Fiend in 1922 and was demonised in the popular press as a result. This was compounded when details began to emerge of the goings-on at the Abbey of Thelema that Crowley had established in Sicily. Stories of degradation and depravity led to the Sunday newspaper, John Bull, declaring him to be 'a man we'd like to hang'. In 1923, he was deported back to Britain by the new young Italian Prime Minister, Benito Mussolini.
In the 1930s, Crowley continued his nomadic existence moving from Tunisia, to France, to Germany. He wrote his autobiography in Paris and exhibited paintings in Berlin before moving back to London at the start of the Second World War. After periods in Devon, Buckinghamshire and Surrey, he settled, for the last time, in Sussex in 1945. After his death, he was cremated in Brighton where one of the few mourners read from The Book of Law. The tabloids reported his final ceremony as a Black Mass but were disappointed in the lack of sex and drugs.