Friday, October 30, 2009
Thursday, October 29, 2009
I am meant to be posting more often, invariably other deadlines stymie this. Regardless, here is a lengthy book review of The Legend that was written for, and published in, the Fortean Times.
The salacious and ever prurient British public has always been excited by lascivious tales of sex and decadent celebrity, add in ritual magic, and especially ‘black magic’, and the media hit pay dirt. These stories sell papers and the general public can best enjoy them when they can mask their interests via the moral tongue clicking of suitably outraged columnists.
During his lifetime Aleister Crowley’s name always sold newspapers, the readers scandalized and titillated by the tales they read about “the wickedest man in the world”, despite the fact these stories were invariably sensationalized hearsay and often mere fiction. Of course Crowley also luxuriated in playing up to his public image as the Beast 666 and certainly at times he enjoyed the notoriety.
First published in 1930 by Mandrake Press The Legend was the work of Percy Reginald Stephensen co-founder of the publishing house who in the late 1920s were central in publishing many of Crowley’s works, including Moonchild and The Confessions, amongst others. An enthusiastic Australian ex-pat who also translated Nietzsche’s Der Antichrist and oversaw an edition of the then banned Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Stephensen saw in Crowley a liberating poetry that was analogous to Nietzsche and D H Lawrence’s work. For Stephensen, Crowley’s importance was not necessarily metaphysical but in his writing, his humour, and philosophy, as he wrote in The Legend Crowley was “a dangerously good poet both in his poetry and in his life”.
The Legend was the first serious attempt to challenge the ongoing vilification of the poet, mountaineer, magician, and Thelemite. Drawing attention to Crowley’s work from the an aesthetic and philosophical perspective, and the tabloid press’s rote response to it, Stephensen’s book offers what would could be considered a bastardized version of a deconstructive media analysis, albeit written in a voice that owes more to Edwardian jurisprudence than Post-Modern theory.
Now re-published in full – including, for the first time, Stephenson’s opening philippic against James Douglas, then editor of the Sunday Express – the book and its exhaustive and engrossing introduction by Stephen J King, offers a unique perspective on the contemporaneous response to Crowley’s work.
As editorial advisor of this new edition, published by Australian OTO affiliates Helios Books, Ian Drummond makes clear "The Legend is important to the contemporary reader in a number of respects. The introduction and the central work by Stephenson place the 'legend' in the context of 20th century press campaigns of panic and vilification, and show how easily journalism and the economies of the media not only misunderstand but grossly distort the lives and ideas of those who others recognize as representing the avant-garde of consciousness and culture."
It’s notable that some of the accusations directed at Crowley still resonate. Thus , for example, Raoul Loveday died of enteric fever caught from drinking contaminated spring water according to his wife’s autobiography, yet contemporaneous reports in the Sunday Express stated that Loveday “died under such mysterious circumstances”. Similar charges were repeated in Gary Lachman’s piece in FT231:48 where he writes that Loveday died “after supposedly drinking the blood of a sacrificed cat”. Some tabloid stories are still too good to waste.
Similarily Crowley’s sexual treatment of women scandalized the 1920s media, with descriptions of women kept for orgies. His ‘outrageous’ sexual acts still have the power to shock, but what seems to be ignored by most commentators is that these women chose to participate in these acts (and may even have enjoyed participating in sex magic rituals).
The Helios Books volume of The Legend also features a number of tabloid articles written by Crowley, which, as Drummond observes, “show his attempts to leverage the tabloid form and his own notoriety to shed a more positive light on his occult activities and Thelema.”
"Contemporary Thelemic groups still face the challenge of overcoming the misinformation generated by the press in the period discussed in The Legend" states Drummond, who notes that while more recent biographies about Crowley present a more reasoned exploration of both his life and Thelema, "the scandalous journalism of the past still has its effects, periodically rehashed in the press and often emerging in strange new forms in contemporary, and often unconsciously 'gnostic', conspiracy theories."
Much of the modern mainstream media still views anything to do with ‘magick’ or ‘the occult’ derisively, often it is merely a topic to be plundered at Halloween or as a tie-in to a book or film. Likewise the Satanic Panic of the eighties was fuelled largely by uninformed journalists who were more than willing to believe in the existence of an international network of Satanists hell bent on overthrowing the God fearing souls of North America through the processes of back-masking on rock albums and introducing (evil) magical themes to children’s cartoons. Most serious was the mainstream media’s hysteria around the non-existent phenomena of Satanic Child Abuse.
Pop histories of Satanism or ‘examinations’ of the Illuminati frequently evoke Crowley’s name despite his lack of connection to either. His name is often a touchstone for conspiracists ever anxious to hypothesize an imaginary lineage from the Bavarian Illuminati through to Skull and Bones via the (pseudo) arcane rituals of the global elite that transpire annually in the Northern Californian woodlands. Crowley was responsible for many headlines and is still too often associated with ‘evil’ rather than the liberation of the human spirit under the maxim “do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law” and “Love is the law, love under will”.
 Betty May, Tiger Woman, cited in The Legend, p.141.
 Sunday Express, March 4th 1923, cited in The Legend, p.145.
 Supposedly sexually outrageous acts are of course both culturally specific and culturally constructed, clearly some things that upset uptight 1920s Britain – such as homosexual relationships or orgies - will not upset most people in 2007.