Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Aleister Crowley and the Occult Orient

Crowley of Arabia. 

In the recent annals of Western occultism one figure looms large: Mr. Aleister Crowley. There is no need to rehearse his credentials here; of all the figures who embraced the occult revival of the late 19th C. he, more than anyone else, took it by the horns and pursued it with a life-long dedication. He was endowed with both a small fortune to spend and a very considerable and creative intellect to apply to the task. Raised by Plymouth Brethren Puritans, he devoted his adult life to the tireless exploration of occultism and magic, both white and black, and at length created his own religious edifice - "Crowleyanity" as some have called it - the cultus of Thelema, advanced by several organisations of Mr. Crowley's creation such as the O.T.O. (Order of the Templars of the Orient) and the A.A. (The Silver Star). Today, Mr. Crowley retains a wide and growing following having long been a darling of the counter-culture who were impressed by his libertine bisexuality, his endless indulgence of drugs and his personal war on Christian morality.

All of this is well documented. What is less well understood and has received less commentary is the extent to which Mr. Crowley falls into the category of 'Orientalist' and, indeed, the extent to which the so-called 'occultism' to which he was dedicated was and is an essentially orientalist enterprise. That is to say, it consists of appropriations from the real or imagined 'East'. Especially the imagined. In the case of Crowley his orientalism is easy to demonstrate. While ostensibly an exponent of the 'Western' path and a Master of occidental magic, the whole content of his doctrine is oriental in origin. For a start, the central structure of his teaching is an adaptation of the Hebrew Cabala based, largely, upon the alphanumerics of the Hebrew alphabet. To this he has added elements of yoga (via his teacher, a Mr. Allan Bennet) and a liberal dose of Taoism (very largely via the I Ching). This is all then incorporated into the distinctly quasi-Mahometan Masonic structures of the O.T.O. (Knights of the Orient) with, above all, a supposed sacred text called the Book of the Law which was written by this Mr. Crowley in Cairo in 1904. The 'Book of the Law' is nothing less than a pastiche of the Koran dressed up in Egypto-magickal clothing. Endlessly restless, Crowley travelled to India, journeyed across China and toured North Africa and the French Levant in search of his own variety of enlightenment. His journeys to Russia and his work as a British spy are less well documented.

Crowley dressed as a Chinaman. 

Crowley trekking in the Himalayas. 

It is very noticeable that there is little or no truly occidental content in this mixture. Like other Victorians, Crowley looked eastwards. In particular, when he needed a model for his system he looked to Mahometan models and to Soofism. Very few sources give full credit to this fact. The clues are all there, though, in books such as Mr. Israel Regardie's The Eye in the Triangle. Mr. Regardie notes that Crowley had immersed himself in the study of Mahometanism and had learnt to recite portions of the Koran just prior to the "revelations" of 1904. According to Crowley's own account (he is notoriously unreliable in accounts regarding himself, it should be observed) he and his poor wife Rose were living in Cairo when he, Crowley, was contacted by a "praeta-human intelligence" named "Aiwass" who appointed him Holy Prophet of the New Aeon and dictated the Book of the Law to him. That this is a carbon-copy of the story of the Prophet Mahomet having the new law of the Koran dictated to him by the Angel Jibreel is all too obvious. It is remarkable that more people have not commented upon it. In setting himself up as "Prophet" Mr. Crowley has modelled himself upon the Prophet of Islaam. It is a very obvious appropriation. There are stylistic and other parallels too. Those the new prophet deputised in his new religion he named "Caliph", among other strongly Mahometan gestures. While he was a vicious and embittered enemy of Christianity, Aleister Crowley wrote approvingly of many aspects of Islaam and adopted the prophetic structures of Islaam in his self-made quest for illumination.

The debt of Crowley to Masonic-Soofism and to Mahotemism more generally deserves to be the subject of a major study, or at least it deserves to be among the issues considered in a broader study of the "occult" as an orientalist phenomenon. We might start, for example, by noting that the magickal cypher ABRAHADABRA - one of the keys to Mr. Crowley's cryptic Cabala - is, like most "barbarous names" and "magical formulae" - just a European corruption of Arabic words. This is true of European occultism in general. It is a fringe phenomenon - a dabbling with the Other. (The Occult-as-Other and, conversely, the Other-as-Occult.) Aleister (his real name was Alexander) Crowley is a particularly transparent case. He was indeed a very English and very Victorian adventurer who became fascinated by the Orient, but in his case by the Orient as source of the mysterious, the occult (which is to say 'hidden') and, by extension, as source of the Sinister. It is a very persistent and very deep theme in European culture - Islaam as the Hidden, the Dark. Crowley devoted his life - brutish and coarse and grossly self-indulgent as it was - to exploring exactly that. It makes him one of the most interesting and colourful characters in this genre and a worthy focus for any study of the general topic, Mahometanism as the source of the occult.

Amongst other things the case of Crowley underlines what we might call the arena of shadows on the borderlands between European and Mahometan (Occidental and Oriental) civilisation. Think of the Occident and the Orient as being like tectonic plates. Where they meet there are fissures, eruptions, tremors, earthquakes. What is called the "occult" in the West is, very often, if not usually, a manifestation of those borderlands. The present writer proposes this as a general thesis. No consideration of Islaamic/West relations can be complete without some address to this borderland of shadows. There are deep and dark forces in that borderland. It is impossible - and very unwise - to consider Islaam/West relations without taking such forces into account. Arguably, as the two civilisations intermingle in the contemporary blending of 'globalism' and the supposedly 'post-colonial era' many of such forces are now loosed upon the world.


Harper McAlpine Black

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