Posted on: October 16, 2014

Nearly 70 years after his death, Aleister Crowley is a figure who still splits opinion.  There are some for whom he was an intellectual giant, a man who pushed the boundaries of existence as few had ever done before, a courageous seeker after The Truth, a spiritual prophet even.  For others he was a shameless braggart and self-publicist, a man possessed of a truly monstrous ego, who squandered his intelligence, charisma and wealth, and who destroyed nearly everyone who came into close contact with him.

He was certainly a man of ability. He was a chess champion, a boxing champ, an explorer, and a skilled mountaineer.  If he had stuck to those activities he would probably be largely unknown outside his chosen fields, but much respected within them.  Emotionally, he was a mess.  He spent his entire life trying to get back at his stifling religious upbringing (his parents belonged to the Plymouth Brethen, a deeply puritanical sect).  Emotionally and sexually, he was probably very like the Marquis de Sade, in that he never progressed beyond adolescence.  Lovers, friends and followers were used and abused by him, men and women alike.  Calling himself The Great Beast, and revelling in his tabloid persona as The Wickedest Man In The World, Crowley seemed to spend his entire life being a monstrously overgrown teenage brat.  He would have probably scored very highly on the Psychopath Test, and would have relished doing so.

His influence on popular culture has been substantial.  W Somerset Maugham openly based his novel ‘The Magician‘ on him.  He met Crowley in Paris in the early years of the 20th century, and was clearly unimpressed with him, remarking that what he chiefly remembered about him was that Crowley was always on the scrounge for money.  (Crowley, in true Crowley style, described ‘The Magician‘ in his memoirs as “an appreciation of my genius”). M R James based his character of Karswell in ‘Casting The Runes‘ on Crowley.  Ozzy Osborne has sung about him, so has David Bowie, and John Lennon wanted him pictured on the cover of The Beatles’ ‘Sergeant Pepper‘ album.  I don’t know for certain, but I also swear Richard Matheson based his character of Emeric Belasco on Crowley in his novel ‘Hell House‘.

Crowley still fascinates us simply because he was a complex man who led a very full and adventurous life, but there’s also the other fact … just how far did Crowley go in his investigations into the Occult and the dark side? Crowley himself took the whole thing very seriously, and raged about associates who seemed to regard the Occult as a game, saying that they didn’t know what they were letting themselves in for.  Crowley was such lifelong braggart and self-promoter that sometimes it is very hard to know how much he was telling the truth with some of his more outrageous anecdotes.  Plus, he clearly was able to influence people.  They became obsessed with Crowley, and swallowed what he said with total gullibility.  For some it would cost them their lives or their spiritual well-being.

But there is one incident above all others that seems to have disturbed (and possibly destroyed) even the self-styled Great Beast himself.  It is commonly known as ‘The Paris Incident’, or ‘The Paris Working’.  After it, Crowley’s life was never to be the same again, and it is thought to have launched his long, slow decline.  Crowley hatched a bizarre plan that he wanted to raise the Great God Pan in a Paris hotel room. The date of this great event is not certain, but it’s usually put around the 1913-14 mark. Wikipedia has it as January 1914.

Accompanied by an adoring male acolyte, known as MacAleister, “Son of Aleister”, who reputedly owned the small hotel, Crowley sealed off the top floor, and the two set to work. Crowley issued an order that they were not to be disturbed under any circumstances. Crowley and his cohort, (a sort of Crowley Mini-Me) duly arraigned themselves in their ceremonial robes and locked themselves into the room.  Friends of the pair, who were sitting in a room below, claimed they heard loud bangs and screams coming from the room, and grew sufficiently concerned to ponder breaking down the door.  When they eventually did so, they found the room trashed. MacAleister was dead.  Crowley was found gibbering, naked, in a corner.  Both men were covered in scratches and bruises.

There was a police inquiry and Crowley was put on trial, but his gibbering state meant he was unable to give evidence.  Babbling incoherently, he was incarcerated in a lunatic asylum, where he remained for 4 months.

This is a pretty extraordinary story, BUT did any of it really happen?  There is some considerable scepticism about this.  The story seems to have originated from an anecdote by the author Dennis Wheatley, who met Crowley at a dinner-party, and said he found The Great Beast to be about as frightening as a rabbit.  The politician Tom Driberg responded with “yes now, but you should have seen him before”.  The implication being that something had knocked the stuffing out of Crowley, and made him a mere shadow of his former self.  Driberg claimed to be one of the guests in the downstairs room at the hotel, which considering he was a child of about 9 at the time is pretty unlikely (Driberg was a notoriously maverick character, who probably enjoyed spinning tall tales).

In his biography of Dennis Wheatley, ‘The Devil Is A Gentleman‘, Phil Baker writes that what was more likely to have happened was that Crowley, and his assistant, who was a poet called Victor Neuburg, wanted to carry out a series of invocations in Paris dedicated to invoking Jupiter and Mercury.  Crowley’s motives for doing this were entirely mundane, he needed money, and Jupiter is associated with good fortune.  Baker writes that the Paris Incident was far less packed with dramatic events than has been known.  No one died, and there was no anxious coven of people waiting downstairs.  It is true that Neuburg had a nervous breakdown afterwards, and had to undergo a course of psychotherapy, but he recovered and went on to marry.  He sensibly avoided Crowley after that.  (Nervous breakdowns weren’t uncommon around Crowley). Crowley didn’t take this rejection too kindly, and reportedly cursed Neuberg. Phil Baker roundly dismisses the Paris Incident as an “extraordinary farrago of nonsense”.

There is no doubt that Crowley’s life was one long, sad decline until his death in 1947, but I suspect that was largely down to Crowley himself. He had become a drug addict, he squandered his money, and seemed to be constantly coming up with ever more desperate attempts to keep himself in the public eye.  (I sometimes think Crowley was born ahead of his time!).  He lived in a spiritual retreat called the Abbey of Thelema in Italy, which soon became seedy tabloid fodder for it’s tales of drug-taking, sex-magic and ritualistic abuse, resulting in Mussolini banishing him.

The public were sickened by the tales of animal sacrifice, drugs and utter squalor at Thelema. After the true horrors of the First World War, they must have seen Crowley as a pathetic has-been, a nuisance who wouldn’t go away. Crowley himself confessed to being shocked by the decadence of Hollywood during the Silent Era of the 1920s.  Crowley’s naughtiness was now looking somewhat underwhelming.  The absolute nadir for this egoist must have been during the Second World War when a female acquaintance described him as “a harmless old gent”.  In a world that contained Adolf Hitler and the Nazi’s, Crowley’s brand of “wickedness” must have seemed almost endearing. He offered is services to the Naval Intelligence Division, and was turned down, which considering the likes of Dennis Wheatley were being secretly employed by the government, must have rankled with him.  Desperate for attention, Crowley tried to make out that he had personally inspired Winston Churchill to adopt his famous ‘V For Victory’ hand gesture.

Crowley died in a Hastings guest-house in December 1947.  Only a handful of people attended his funeral.  For several years afterwards Crowley’s fame went into eclipse, but was resurrected in the 1960s, when suddenly his whole ethos of drug-taking, spirituality and promiscuous sex became hugely fashionable.  At the turn of the Millennium he was even nominated as one of the 100 Greatest Britons of all time in a BBC television poll. I suspect Crowley’s vanity would have loved this, although he might have objected to coming as low down as No.73!


Recently I was browsing on the Internet for stuff about Crowley, and I found some newspaper articles from 2013 which claimed that a number of modern-day celebrities were still obsessed with Crowley.  The late Peaches Geldof had been photographed standing in front of a shelf of Crowley’s books, and had vehemently stated that he was a misunderstood genius.  She had had the initials of the Ordo Templi Orientis, the Order Of Thelema, tattooed on her arm.  Crowley’s dark influence lives on it seems.



“He was a chess champion”
One of my main hobbies is chess, and as well as playing, I enjoy reading about the history of the game. I don’t think Crowley was a champion, rather a strong amateur, until he gave up playing to concentrate on his occult activities. The majority of his chess career was when he was studying at Cambridge University. Only a handful of scores of games played by Crowley survive.

Same with boxing, I think that was largely a Cambridge activity.

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