Aleister Crowley is an intimidating figure. I confess that for years I was reluctant to read his work , swayed by the popular identity that had grown up around him – one that he fostered as the “Wickedest Man in the World.” True or not, he wasn’t always what he became – the Man with the Menacing Eyebrows (I made that one up – have you seen some of those later pictures?), The Magus or The Beast. In fact, there was a time when he wasn’t sure himself who or what he really was. Call me old-fashioned, but I find that refreshing.
We expect our cultural icons to be fixed stars – no wobble, no collapse. Yet everyone struggles with self-doubt at some time or another. It is an essential and wholly unpleasant part of the human condition – fragile and finite beings, we all become (at some point) painfully aware of the limits of our own existence.
So this is a rather Byzantine way to get around to saying that I’ve been reading Aleister Crowley and the Practice of the Magical Diary (trying to brush up on Uncle Al before the Book Club begins in earnest) and came across this surprising passage – written after a period of what editor James Wasserman calls Crowley’s “spiritual desolation”
Hope died in my heart. There was not a glimmer of light on the horizon anywhere. It seemed to me an obscene mockery to be called a Magus…I felt that I had not only failed, but that it was little short of lunacy to imagine that I could ever make the slightest impression upon the monstrous mass of misery which was soaking through the very spine of mankind. My faith failed me; I made a gesture of despair…I closed my Magical Record and refused to write.
There are several such occasions recorded in these diaries – days, weeks, even months of self-doubt and existential questioning. Then, interspersed among other passages that detail the complex and exhaustive preparations he made for his great work, are brief, mundane and amusing entries that make Crowley seem far more accessible than his image would imply.
7.30. Have breakfasted – a pear and two Garibaldis. (These by the way are the small size, half the big squares.)
7.50. Have smoked a pipe to show that I’m not in a hurry.
All of this is might be rather dull to those of you who have studied Crowley in depth. I, however – still relatively new to Uncle Al’s world – find it fascinating. It humanizes him in a way that makes his work seem somehow more important, more profound. Crowley the legend is a powerful and (to some) terrifying figure. Crowley the man was something far more complex and far more interesting.
I’d love to hear from folks who have already the diaries. Did you find them informative? enlightening? or disappointing? Does Crowley’s doubt color the way you see his work as a whole? Do you care when he napped or what he ate for breakfast? Seriously, if the life informs the work, are these details relevant?