Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.
Aleister Crowley’s Confessions has the story of him being in Mexico with his mountain climbing colleague Oscar Eckenstein, where they were invited to dinner by the mayor of the little town of Amecameca, at the foot of the volcano Popocatepetl.
“When he saw us he assumed an air of sympathetic melancholy,” writes Crowley. “We wondered what it could mean. By degrees he brought himself to break to us gently the terrible news. Queen Victoria was dead! To the amazement of the worthy mayor, we broke into shouts of joy and an impromptu war dance.”
So, Crowley was immune to the stuffiness and vainglory of the Victorian era, yes?
No, not really. He was a lifelong snob and, despite his admiration for Asian mysticism, a racist by today’s standards. In one Simon Iff story, Not Good Enough, Iff the brilliantly insightful detective-hero, (and stand-in for Crowley), says to two associates about a woman who had married a man from India: “I should like here to make the point that she was a sex-degenerate …. for all white women who marry coloured men must be classed as such.”
To, which, both Iff’s friends in the story solemnly intone in sequence, “I agree.”
Oh, it’s embarrassing.
Or, take a passage such as this remark in his New Comment to The Book of the Law, on Cap II, v. 58, “the slaves shall serve,” viz:
“Men should not be taught to read and write unless they exhibit capacity or inclination. Compulsory education has aided nobody. It has imposed an unwarrantable constraint on the people it was intended to benefit; it has been asinine presumption on the part of the intellectuals to consider a smattering of mental acquirements of universal benefit.”
The comment shows a poor grasp of human developmental psychology (at what point do children or adolescents definitively ‘exhibit capacity or inclination’ for learning if they’ve never been taught to read?) as well as highlighting the High Tory pomposity Crowley never shook off, except maybe in his final decade.
Our Beast was a thoroughgoing son of the British Empire. Before he lost his money, and sometimes after, he often enjoyed the benefits of being an Englishman abroad: women, often of colour, for his bed (as in Mexico and India), fawning respect from people like the mayor of Amecameca, and a general assumption of superiority to anybody afflicted with being born outside of the British Isles.
Britain in Crowley’s youth (his birth-year was 1875) seemed at the peak of imperial power, but it was actually over-extending itself. At his life’s end in 1947, a Britain bankrupted by war and heavily in debt to Washington had finally ceded top place to the US, which had once been a motley collection of its discontented colonies. Many of his kind of views dissolved from the mass mind in the next quarter-century, and as a result of attitudinal changes Crowley himself helped spread while he was alive.
Further on in the Confessions (Cap. 66) he comments, “All I ask is that my results should convince seekers after truth that there is beyond doubt something worth while seeking, attainable by methods more or less like mine. I do not want to father a flock, to be the fetish of fools and fanatics, or the founder of a faith whose followers are content to echo my opinions. I want each man to cut his own way through the jungle.” In line with this, we have to ignore the bits of Crowley we dislike, and feast on his many nuggets of wisdom that have survived the tests of time – for example, the lines just quoted.
But what nuggets we select depends on where and when we’re living. A generation from now, when the memory of President Trump’s tumultuous residence in the White House has faded, will some of the Beast’s more excruciating remarks come back into favour?
None of us can wholly step outside of our own times and places, yet where and when we live is intimately involved in the functions of True Will. We’re partly defined by what we contest in life, just as Crowley was by his detesting Queen Victoria.
For example, after being in Mexico for half a decade, I found Toronto, my home for the previous forty years, bizarre and alien. It’s taken me months to grasp how useful this is. It feels isolating, but it also removes some blinkers I unthinkingly adopted when I lived here continuously. In Mexico, where people have a very firm sense of their national identity, their ‘Mexicanidad,” I was often lost, because I didn’t truly share in that identity. In Canada, I know what to argue with. I can see the jungle I need to cut through, even if I probably do it in a very Canadian way.
There’s a famous quote from Robertson Davies I’ve always relished:
“I see Canada as a country torn between a very northern, rather extraordinary, mystical spirit which it fears and its desire to present itself to the world as a Scotch banker.” Things have changed much since Davies died twenty years ago, but the statement is still intrinsically true. The country’s self-image is partly a construct: peace-seeking, environmentally aware and clean, something its last national government did its best to annihilate. The “mystical spirit which it fears,” however, is expressed through novel and song: elusively, or on the fringes. Which, since we fear it, makes sense. It has no solid personification, no legend or named archetype, within the European cultures planted here.
For a long time, I belonged to the Los Angeles-based Temple of Thelema, rising to be an officer in its top echelon. One factor out of several that finally made me leave was a belief held by its leadership that the USA embodies a special mandate in regard to the Law of Liberty.
I don’t dispute this was a sincere, considered opinion. Yet I usually experience background paranoia on my visits there, something I experience neither in Canada nor in Mexico. As I, an outsider, often experience it, America isn’t an embodiment of actual freedom so much as the idea of it.
To choose an example that gets excessive attention, making gun ownership a symbol of liberty, when firearms are explicitly designed and purchased to close down discussion and prevent debate, not extend it, strikes me as the daftest absurdity. And daft things ought to be laughed at, not hotly debated on TV. Guns in Canada have traditionally symbolised a means to hunt dinner.
But then, I’ve always been drawn far more to the extraordinary, northern (or otherwise oriented) mystical spirit in my own Thelemic quest, than the Law of Liberty per se. The former can have a transforming effect, while I find the latter meaningless without inner transformation.
Robertson Davies also observed: “Canada is not really a place where you are encouraged to have large spiritual adventures.” The temptation to defy that discouragement is seductive.
Cutting a way through that inner jungle of Crowley’s isn’t easy. His life, racist and sexist warts and all, was about going at this task full-on.
People who work at their jungles do rise above their own time and place, partly from embodying and living through these things. That, in the end, makes it easier to overlook the narrower opinions which, like the Beast with his Victorian stuffiness, they didn’t shed along the way.
Love is the law, love under will,