Aleister Crowley in the Desert

An excerpt from
The Place of Enchantment: British Occultism and the Culture of the Modern
by Alex Owen

From Chapter Six: Aleister Crowley in the Desert

In late 1909, two Englishmen, scions of the comfortable middle classes, undertook a journey to Algiers. Aleister Crowley, later to be dubbed “the wickedest man in the world,” was in his early thirties; his companion, Victor Neuburg, had only recently graduated from Cambridge. The stated purpose of the trip was pleasure. Crowley, widely traveled and an experienced mountaineer and big-game hunter, loved North Africa and had personal reasons for wanting to be out of England.

Neuburg probably had little say in the matter. Junior in years, dreamy and mystical by nature, and in awe of a man whom he both loved and admired, Neuburg was inclined to acquiesce without demur in Crowley’s various projects. There was, however, another highly significant factor in Neuburg’s quiescence. He was Crowley’s chela, a novice initiate of the Magical Order of the Silver Star, which Crowley had founded two years earlier. As such, Neuburg had taken a vow of obedience to Crowley as his Master and affectionately dubbed “holy guru,” and had already learned that in much that related to his life, Crowley’s word was now law.

It was at Crowley’s instigation that the two men began to make their way, first by tram and then by foot, into the North African desert to the southwest of Algiers; and it was Crowley’s decision to perform there a series of magical ceremonies that prefigured his elaboration of the techniques of sex magic, or, as he was later to call it, Magick. In this case, the ceremonies combined the performance of advanced ritual magic with homosexual acts. It is this episode in the desert—sublime and terrifying as an experience, profound in its effects, and illuminating in what it reveals of the engagement of advanced magical practice with personal selfhood—that constitutes the focus of this chapter.

The Crowley life story is almost the stuff of Victorian melodrama: the good man gone bad, betrayer of women and men alike, corrupter of innocence, dark angel and self-proclaimed Antichrist. Viewed differently, Crowley assumes tragic-heroic status. This was a gifted man born into privilege who scorned convention and ultimately destroyed himself in his relentless search for impossible truths. In the magical world that he made his own, the name Aleister Crowley evokes admiration, even reverence. Offshoots of Crowley’s Magical Order and practitioners of his Magick are to be found throughout the Western world. Just the same—from his early days in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn to the present day—Crowley has been denounced by magicians as everything ranging from an evil genius to a magical fraud. His contemporaries excoriated him as rumors of his escapades reached a wider public through reported court cases and salacious articles in the general press.

Nevertheless, however Crowley is viewed, his magical odyssey is deeply instructive of the potentialities of the psychologized magic of the fin de siècle, and illustrative of its dangers. Not least, Crowley’s magical practice epitomized the ease with which the high aspirations of an Order such as the Golden Dawn could metamorphose into those so-called black arts against which occultists such as Madame Blavatsky railed.

At an individual level, as seems to have happened with Crowley, undisciplined psychologized magic in the hands of the ill-prepared could lead to personal disintegration. At all events, what happened in the desert might be said to have destroyed the lives of two men. It certainly crystallized the moment at which Crowley let go of what was known and could be anticipated magically, and for good or ill embraced both a lived and a magical modus operandi in which there are no safeguards and no guarantees.

The episode itself provides a rare glimpse of interiorized magic in the making, although that was certainly not Crowley’s intention in either his subsequent veiled allusions to the performance of the rite or his documentation of its magical effects.

Read the entire chapter here.

Image from The Book of Thoth Tarot, by Aleister Crowley

Twilight in the Underworld

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