Tuesday, September 3, 2013

'Occult Atlas: Aleister Crowley' at the Warburg Institute, 2nd September 2013

Last week, after narrowly escaping a burning art gallery, I was strolling back through the gloomy, underlit streets of Notting Hill when my foot struck something on the pavement. It was a book, skidding along the stones in front of me.  I stopped, bent down and plucked it from the pavement: Sword of Wisdom: MacGregor Mathers and the Golden Dawn.  The book, a history of the magical Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn constantly mentions Aleister Crowley; aka Frater Perdurabo; aka 'The Great Beast 666'; aka Baphomet; aka The Mad Mullah; aka Oliver Haddo; aka "The Wickedest Man in the World". Aleister Crowley, the most notorious occultist of all time - the man whose papers I had just booked a place to view the following Monday.

The coincidence was unsettling - it's a bit portentous to literally stumble across a guide to British occultism just as I'm about to nose my way through Crowley's personal artefacts.  I don't believe there's any dark forces influencing my life, but despite my rationalism I couldn't help the chill that ran down my spine.  The source of that chill died sixty-five years ago, penniless and addicted to morphine, in a Hastings boarding house: his last words reported as "I am perplexed".  Yet Crowley's gravitational pull only increases as the years tick by, the mists of time obscuring his fleshy, all-too-human foibles, creating a mysterious, sinister figure that menacingly glares at us across the decades.

The Warburg Institute, nestled in a leafy square on the University of London's Bloomsbury campus, is devoted to academic investigations of the influence classical antiquity on Western civilisation.  As you walk through the doors the bricks practically ooze with knowledge, such is weight of learning within these walls.  We're led into a small classroom, and given a potted history of the place.  On the blackboard behind our host is a diagram that reads "Egyptians > Kabbalah > ??? > Jesus > Early Church Fathers > Spinoza".  I love these little peeks into what's going on inside these institutions; there's something impossibly romantic about people exploring exotic gnosticism while commuters rumble past on the number 24 bus.

As interesting as the history of this place is, all eyes are on a thick burgundy book resting on the table, the pages a sickly yellow.  This is what we've come here to leaf through; Gerald Yorke's collection of Aleister Crowley's papers; consisting of hundreds of pieces of Crowley esoterica: iconic photos, architectural sketches, letterheads, wax seals, detailed correspondence, paintings and his business cards.  This is the flotsam and jetsam of a life, a gallery of potent direct physical connections to the past.

There's a fetishistic thrill in interacting with original documents, a sensuous enjoyment in running your fingers across the slight indentations the Crowley's pen carved into the paper, or feeling soft pencil scribbles making up diagrams, feeling as though a sneeze might blow it all away. Just the knowledge that this actual piece of paper was in Crowley's hands creates a frisson of electricity.  Turning the pages of this collection is an archaeological dig: encompassing not only the expected evidence of scandal, mysticism and kinky sex but a peek behind the curtain at mundanity - half-baked ideas and sweetly amateurish sketches.

Crowley in the robes of the Golden Dawn
There's a quaint 'Hammer Horror' feel to these sketches and photographs; a sense of a very English magic - serious looking ex-public schoolboys parading around in extravagant robes in rather mundane looking surroundings.   Leafing through these documents you begin to piece together a careful system of occult bureaucracy - application letters from prospective members, neatly typed letterheads, business cards and polite, reserved correspondence between members, entirely ordinary except for the fact that they're talking about the oncoming ├ćon of Horus, humanity's time of self-actualisation and the triumph of individuality and 'True Will'.

The members of these societies are often famous in their own right, a tangled web winding its way through the upper crust of London's artistic community.  Deciphering these complex relationships and various societies is tricky, but fortunately we had Gary Lachman in attendance; an expert on mysticism and the occult (and founding member and bassist in Blondie!).  He puts flesh on the bones these document's bones, guiding us through the winding labyrinth of Crowley's complicated life.

Gary Lachman talking the talk.
This was invaluable in understanding these documents.  For example, we came to a birth/death certificate for Crowley's young daughter Lilith.  In isolation this is a faintly sad, clinical document, but just a cold collection of facts.  Gary tells us a story: Crowley and his then-wife Rose were on a visit to India.  When they were due to leave (after Crowley had shot a guy), he convinced his wife that they should travel separately and that she should take his daughter with her.  His reason for travelling alone was that we wanted to sleep with a fellow occultist.  On returning to Britain he discovered that his child had died of typhoid on the journey.  Griefstricken, he blamed his wife for the death, accusing her of being too drunk to sanitise the baby's bottle. Gary archly points out that the notion that Crowley could have accompanied them doesn't appear to have crossed his mind.

These recognisably human reactions define the man as much as this collection of documents. The pictures are enlivened by tales tales of how Crowley and his friends used to hold wild parties at night in the Horniman Museum during which they'd remove the mummies from their sarcophagi and attempt to raise them from the dead. Or explaining that a reference in a letter to a mysterious Black Temple refers to 67 Chancery Lane - somewhere Crowley holed up, again trying to resurrect the dead.

Some of this stuff is bizarre even for this collection.  My favourite bit of oddness was the carefully conceived 'Crowley Grill', consisting of devilled kidneys, Cambridgeshire sausages, kidneys, anchovies, eggs, truffles, caviar on toast and devils on horseback (prunes wrapped in bacon).  He also came up with a lawn game based on his religion; 'Thelema Ball' and a board game.  These things shine a light on Crowley as shameless self-publicist, the kind of man that takes a quiet glee in faking his own death and reappearing dramatically a few months later, a man who obviously adored his status as "The Wickedest Man in the World" .

The visit dispelled my image of Aleister Crowley as a sinister man of mystery. Though it more than supports his deserved reputation as a fascinatingly radical libertine, it also shows him up as a shameless self-publicist with a juvenile sense of humour (check out his signature).  Gary's useful filling in of the blanks also paints a picture of frankly, a bit of an arsehole, Crowley attracting women on the verge of mental illness, using them in intense rituals and pushing them over the edge into asylums.  But arsehole he may have been, at least he was an interesting arsehole.

I'm pretty sure Crowley was never in touch with any mystical entities.  But that doesn't really matter.  Convincingly behave like you're in possession of diabolical powers and secret occult knowledge for long enough and people will begin to treat you as if you do - by that point you may as well actually have magical powers.  Crowley created his own personal mythology and lived it so vigorously that fiction and fact became blurred together - a process these documents chronicle in minute detail.   Though they humanise him the collection underlines Crowley's uniqueness - a life lived without compromise, full of controversy, kinky sex, dirty humour and a above all, a rapacious thirst for knowledge.

Thanks to the Curious Congress for arranging this, the Warburg Institute for hosting and to Gary Lachman for the much needed context.

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4 Responses to “'Occult Atlas: Aleister Crowley' at the Warburg Institute, 2nd September 2013”

tantris said...
September 6, 2013 at 9:29 PM

"I'm pretty sure Crowley was never in touch with any mystical entities."
Why so sure?

londoncitynights said...
September 6, 2013 at 11:31 PM

Well, I don't believe in mystical entities. So I don't think Crowley was in touch with them.

Anonymous said...
September 9, 2013 at 1:48 PM

93, Crowley did not die penniless, there were several hundred pounds in a strong box under his bed...the OTO publication fund. Crowley's wife's name was Rose. She was the sister of Sir Gerald Kelly. And finally, Crowley thought it was the baby's bottle or its contents that was contaminated, not the crib. I'm sure it was a good time. 93 93/93

londoncitynights said...
September 9, 2013 at 2:19 PM

Thanks for the corrections! It was a fascinating time.

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