Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Aleister Crowley and the Temptation of Politics by Marco Pasi, from Acumen Publishing.
I had known about this book for many years, and while I am unequipped to engage the Italian original, I had more than once considered taking on the German edition. I am glad I waited long enough to benefit from the English version, though. Not only does it include the author’s revision and expansion, the timing has allowed it to come into useful dialog with Richard B. Spence’s Secret Agent 666, another volume drawing on an overlapping set of data. Pasi accuses Spence of overindulging in speculation and of oversimplifying Crowley’s motives. (I find myself more in agreement on the second count than the first.) Whereas Spence offers a picture of a Crowley whose loyalties to his home country are privately invariable, Pasi is more apt to take Crowley on the basis of his mercurial presentation.
Among the many variations in Crowley’s character and political interests as traced by Pasi, there is a single watershed point. Like Alex Owen, Israel Regardie, and Crowley himself, Pasi locates this change in the Algerian desert operations by which Crowley completed his passage of the Ordeal of the Abyss. Prior to this episode, Pasi observes, Crowley’s focus was on the adventure of self-development, while after it he pursued the mission of communicating his Law of Thelema and putting it into practice in society.
On either side of this biographical divide, however, Pasi notices inconsistencies in Crowley’s expressed political affections and associations. He tends to characterize these as a function of the magician’s “opportunism” or “pragmatism” with respect to political movements. Given how very contradictory some of these political positions were, however, a further level of explanation is required. Pasi has dismissed (perhaps too quickly, in light of these contradictions) the solution of double agency proposed by Spence, but he omits another possible rationale to which he should have been attentive.
For the younger Crowley-as-aspirant, radical change of political perspective was a magical discipline for spiritual development. He documents this practice in the form of an instruction in the technical paper Liber III vel Jugorum: “By some device, such as the changing of thy ring from one finger to another, create in thyself two personalities … For instance, let A be a man of strong passions, skilled in the Holy Qabalah, a vegetarian, and a keen ‘reactionary’ politician. Let B be a bloodless and ascetic thinker, occupied with business and family cares, an eater of meat, and a keen progressive politician. Let no thought proper to A arise when the ring is on the B finger, and vice versa.”
For the mature magus, on the other hand, there were the words of the Angel of the Fifth Aire whom he had encountered in Tolga, Algeria in 1913: “For below the Abyss, contradiction is division; but above the Abyss, contradiction is Unity. And there could be nothing true except by virtue of the contradiction that is contained in itself.” The Master of the Temple must thus finally comprehend in himself all political valences, expressing them as demanded by the finite conditions of circumstance. If, as the Thelemic scripture of Liber Porta Lucis avers, “To the adept, seeing all these things from above, there seems nothing to choose between Buddha and Mohammed, between Atheism and Theism,” then how much less between democracy and monarchy, capitalism and communism?
Besides a political biography of Crowley himself, and studies of his most politically significant close associates, Pasi’s book includes a special examination of the Beast’s connection with Fernando Pessoa, and the fake suicide that Crowley staged in Portugal. These events, interesting in their own right, shade into the final topic of “Counter-initiation and conspiracy,” the keynote of which is René Guénon’s allegation that Crowley’s Portuguese stunt was intended to allow him to slip off to Germany where he would become a special adviser to Hitler. As a matter of factual claim, this notion is laughable, but it makes an excellent anchor for a limited survey of others’ use of Crowley as a villain in political narratives.
Pasi’s Aleister Crowley and the Temptation of Politics was first published in 1999, but in its second major revision, it stands as one of the best examples of thoughtful 21st-century scholarship on Crowley. [via]