Oct 9, 2012

What can Aleister Crowley teach you about writing?

Truthful words are not beautiful.
Beautiful words are not truthful.
— Lao Tse, Tao Te King

Now, then, the Seer being entered within the triangle, let him take the Victims and cut their throats, pouring the blood within the Triangle, and being most heedful that not one drop fall without the Triangle; or else Choronzon should be able to manifest in the universe.
— Aleister Crowley, The Vision and the Voice

To Mega Therion himself.
Aleister Crowley by Austin Osman Spare

A singular life came to an end in Hastings, a life of magic and debauchery and explosive creativity.

Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) was an English painter, poet, womanizer, mountain climber and sorcerer. Magicians often appear as characters in fantasy novels, but I can't help the suspicion that few writers take the time to study their real-life counterparts.

Just who Crowley was, what necessities he served, all that defies illumination. Crowley left behind a poetic self-portrait in his description of a mysterious incident in the Sahara desert. The year was 1909, and Crowley, aided by Victor Neuburg [1], invoked Choronzon [2], whom they called the Demon of Disperson, maker of form and dweller in the Abyss.

By Crowley's account, the invocation was successful; Choronzon appeared within the summoning triangle (Yes, you can have summoning triangles too, not just circles) and, not entirely devoid of creativity for one who owns neither definite nature nor shape, threw sand over the triangle, opening a passageway and breaking out of its confinement.[3] It then proceeded to give Neuburg a fine thrashing but Crowley forced the non-entity back into the triangle with curses most foul. Having put the Demon of Dispersion in its place, Crowley would also like it to sing. Choronzon goes on record thus:   

I feed upon the names of the Most High. I churn them in my jaws, and I void them from my fundament. (...) Be vigilant, therefore, for I warn thee that I am about to deceive thee. (...) I shall say words that thou wilt take to be the cry of the Aethyr, and thou wilt write them down, thinking them to be great secrets of Magick power, and they will be only my jesting with thee. (...) I know the name of the Angel of thee and thy brother P. . . ., and all thy dealings with him are but a cloak for thy filthy sorceries.
— Aleister Crowley, The Vision and the Voice (Emphases mine.)

So at least he got the thees and thous correct — no surprise, given that Crowley was a literate man. What strikes me about this passage is how it reveals the way Aleister Crowley's mind works and, to an extent, his entire oeuvre. While you can glean a couple of gems from each of his books, most of the material seems designed to confound and obfuscate. [3]  

Crowley was raised within the Plymouth Brethren, a fundamentalist Christian sect. His own mother took to calling him “the beast,” which he’d take for a cognomen later in life. Aleister didn't find his parents' brand of Christianity palatable at all, joining the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn [4] at a young age.

Leila Waddell, one of Crowley's Scarlet Women
Bad boy that he was, he went everywhere. In Portugal Crowley met with Fernando Pessoa, a poet who made up entire back-stories for his pseudonyms and — out of boredom, I suspect — Crowley faked his own death at the aptly-named Hell's Mouth, a sheer coastal cliff over a honeycomb of tidal caves. In Cefalù, Sicily, the Great Beast founded the Abbey of Thelema, new See of his new religion. When Mussolini's government got wind of what Crowley was up to, they promptly kicked him out of Italy. Homosexual orgies and black masses in the New Italy? Unthinkable.

Americans accused him of working for the Nazis, the Nazis thought he was a spy for the Allies. Crowley said his pro-war articles in the newspapers were too hyperbolic to be read as anything other than parodies of war and warmongers.

Aleister Crowley was also a drug addict who squandered his family fortune, returning to England to die in the staid town of Hastings [5]. There are three or four conflicting accounts of his death, because an ego so large as his must needs go out like the dinosaurs, amid thunder and doubt. He would have wanted it so.

So, what can Aleister Crowley teach you about writing a novel, story or play?

"The Way of Mastery is to break all the rules—but you have to know them perfectly before you can do this; otherwise you are not in a position to transcend them."

Spend any amount of time with Crowley's books and you'll get the sense that he's almost completely unlike you. It's not just the archaic diction which he infuses with alien vitality; no, there's more. You get the feeling that Crowley is teacher to people who do not yet exist. His concerns are otherworldly. While he touched disciplines like yoga and flirted with echoes of Renaissance, medieval and Egyptian magic, he stood on the cusp of a magical revolution that only the sudden historical outbreak of controlled electricity and computing on this plane of existence would bring to full flower. We are standing on the vast growing petals of that flower even now. What worlds those petals will touch, what insects draw from the stars we have no name for, that remains to be seen.

Jimmy Page, a student of magic, bought a house hard by the shores of the
Loch Ness, where Crowley once lived. The house has been boarded up for
some time. Overnight guests have complained of strange sounds, such as
the scuffling of claws, and reported other disturbing sensations.

Crowley was a student. Years into his magical life, having penned a few books already, he confessed to a friend that he'd never write anything as perfect as the Tao Te King.

We master disciplines in unique ways; archery, fencing, singing, writing. Your body turns a certain way, your mind charts a certain path the way only your mind can. Each mind is different, each grass bends to the wind by itself, but all the grasses bend in the same direction. It is goals that unify practice; goals define practice, define signposts also.

But what lies beyond your goal?

In you undertake to become a perpetual student your mind will expand. So will your writing. This is a promise.

"It is the mark of the mind untrained to take its own processes as valid for all men, and its own judgments for absolute truth."

Guess who was in the Golden Dawn, too:
Nobel prizewinner William Butler Yeats.

Yeats thought very little of Crowley. In fact they
waged magical war against each other.
A common human failing — don't beat yourself up if you do it, everybody does — is to mistake the contents of one's own mind for universal principles. Some assumptions are clearly not amenable to becoming universals, such as 'all kind-hearted people love cats' or 'a killer deserves the death penalty under any circumstances.'

On matters of life and death, on matters of in-group cohesion and survival, people do hold unshakeable beliefs that seem objectionable to outsiders. I'm against the death penalty but I can understand a logical case for it, if you put it to me; I'll agree with the validity of your argument if not with the final assumption that death is a fitting punishment.

Characters in fiction illustrate these conflicts between in-group and out-group morality, as well as the conflict between different narratives of justice. Take, for instance, To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus Finch represents a black man, Tom Robinson, wrongly accused of raping a white girl, daughter to the town drunk. Although Finch establishes that the girl and her father are lying, Robinson is convicted by the white jury. To the white people of Maycomb, Alabama, Tom could not possibly be innocent. He was guilty of color to begin with.

Let me make a counter-intuitive assertion; the less you know about someone, the easier it is to judge them. And we do judge people, we judge them all the time. Assess them, pigeonhole them, reduce them to categories so we can more easily understand them.

Sometimes our efforts at reduction are not enough. Bafflement ensues. From bafflement and confusion questions arise, and questions are the lifeblood of drama. Questions are the beginning of narrative. "What the hell is going on?" is a great place to start.

Assuming that you have lessons to teach is dangerous. Nothing ruins fiction like a didactic tone. Why do you think Twain wrote "Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot"?
Most of the time you have no idea what you're saying. That is to the good. You can't control a reader's imagination, and there are wild readers out there. Some will understand you better than you could possibly wish for. Start telling the stories you're burning to tell and let the lessons teach themselves.

I've said my piece. I'll give Crowley the last word:
" ...in the absence of will power, the most complete collection of virtues and talents is wholly worthless."

Europe After the Rain, by Max Ernst.
Ernst also dabbled in magic of some kind.

[1] Publisher of the early works of no less than Dylan Thomas.
[2] Seriously under-represented in horror fiction, if you ask me. A remarkable episode of Hammer House of Horror revolves around an invocation of Choronzon.
[3] But I am not a ceremonial magician, nor have I ever made ceremonial magic the focus of my life; Crowley's work could be one giant Rosicrucian-style ludibrium, a smoke-screen. Or, the unsuspected depth of it could lie beyond my ken.
One thing will always stay with me: partway through a ritual, two of the celebrants are supposed to run X times around a wheel drawn on the floor. Once they complete the prescribed laps, they must face each other, and one of them must say that they've done their best, but they are "no nearer the center of the wheel." I'm betting you've seen people do the same, metaphorically — running around in circles, hoping to get somewhere. To find that all your running has been for naught is an enlightening moment.
[4] No connection to the Greek far-right party.
[5] From where Alex Sanders, one of Crowley's epigones and exponent of Britain's pagan revival, also rejoined the loving embrace of the Goddess.

And if you thought Aleister Crowley was out there... (All the tidbits I couldn't fit in)
Hymn to Pan (also set to music by Coph Nia)
Liber al vel Legis (The Book of the Law)

What can they teach you about writing? -- is a weekly series of articles drawing on public statements by talented people, and how such statements apply to the act of writing. “Talented people” does not mean they’re entertainers, nor do I expect you to agree with my definition of talent at all times. In early 2012, I decided to expand the scope of these articles to include remarkable characters in works of fiction. 

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