Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) is a hot name for heterodoxologists. He is also the most famous English occultist to have lived, his life having been told in about a dozen biographies. Today I taught a class on Crowley, magic, modernity and psychology, drawing on a chapter from Alex Owen’s book, The Place of Enchantment: British Occultism and the Culture of the Modern (2004).
The book was quite well received among intellectual historians and Victoriana scholars. It especially drew praise for its attempt to place (British) fin de siècle occultism squarely amidst an evolving experience of modernity, particularly by showing how it interacts with both popular and learned culture, and played a role in ongoing conceptualizations and explorations of “the self” and of “subjectivity”.
The chapter on Crowley (chapter 6) is in some respects the climax of Owen’s project. Here she engages in a close discussion of a specific set of magical operations which Crowley performed in the desert of Algeria, in 1909, together with his disciple and lover, the poet Victor Neuburg. It was a month’s adventure rich on juicy anecdotes for posterity, including a homosexual rite and the evocation of the demon Choronzon. Owen uses both episodes for all they’re worth. And more, in my opinion.
In a sense, what I have to say about Owen’s interpretation of Crowley and Neuburg’s exceptional ritual tour of the Algerian desert is related to what I said earlier about some interpretations of Mesmerism. It’s about a certain psychologizing bias, which I have problems seeing the use of.
Owen is not a psychologist or psychoanalyst, to be sure, but she does admit finding the poststructuralist psychoanalytic perspectives of Jacques Lacan and Julia Kristeva to be suggestive (297, n.1). Also, she tends to rely on one of the earlier “insider” biographies of Crowley, Israel Regardie’s Eye in the Triangle. Regardie, who swallowed psychoanalysis whole in the 1930s (not settling for anything less controversial than the theories of Wilhem Reich), largely attempted to psychoanalyze Crowley in that book, a project which Owen, willingly or not, seems to some extent to follow up.
This is nowhere more apparent than in her portrayal of the evocation of the terrible demon Choronzon – an act that Crowley deemed necessary to magically cross “the Abyss” and attain initiation. For this operation Neuburg, robed and armed with the paraphernalia of the ceremonial magician, took place in a protective circle inscribed at its circumference with words of power. Crowley, on his part, stepped into a “triangle of art”, ready to become possessed with the terrible demon and let it speak and act through him. As the ceremony began and Crowley started spouting demonic obscenities, Neuburg would scribble down everything that was seen and heard (this document is our historical source to the fairly detailed proceedings of these operations, published as The Vision & the Voice), while fencing off demon-Crowley as he attempted to trick the magician and break into the circle.
Now, Choronzon, the Abyss and the rest all had their special place in frame of a larger set of occult theories which Crowley adopted and adapted from the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and his own reading of other earlier esoteric sources, from Agrippa and John Dee to Eliphas Levi. We don’t get to learn much about this by Owen. She recognizes that “Crowley, schooled in the magical tradition, conceptualized both Choronzon and the Abyss as having an external reality, and he made no subsequent attempt to amend this view” (p. 209-10). But instead of following up that lead, she does something quite different:
… But in psychoanalytic terms … it can be said that Choronzon is equally a manifestation of the dark, repressed components of the psyche. … Characterized by Disintegration, Dispersion, and Chaos, qualities suggestive of the fracturing experience of modernity, the Abyss is both symbolic and real. It is emblematic of breakdown – the breakdown of the personal sense of self as manifested by the ego, the uncoupling of the body from the «I», and the dissolution of everyday consciousness. It marks the formal erasure of the boundary between the conscious and unconscious, an erasure that the future magus must invoke at will. Successful negotiation of the Abyss represents the ultimate test of high Adeptship. The magus is one who can establish a harmonious relationship with the unconscious, working with it to achieve «Change in conformity with the Will». (210; emphases added).
Maybe this can be said in psychoanalytic terms. I, for one, can’t really see why one should. What you get is indeed “a reading”, but it is not one that has much to do with the “text”.
Again I think we see a psycho-centric reading which leads to a basic distortion. This becomes clear in the puzzling conclusion that Owen draws about a page later. Referring to the chaotic state of Crowley’s personal and professional affairs:
Crowley’s subsequent behavior suggests, indeed, that he had not made a successful crossing of the Abyss – that he was caught in the grip of unconscious forces that he was unable to filter, monitor, or control. Far from establishing an all-seeing, harmonious relationship with the unconscious, working with it to achieve magical ends, the unconscious now controlled and dominated him.
On the psychoanalytic reading of what “crossing the Abyss” means, this may have made sense. Unfortunately, the esoteric theories in terms of which Crowley saw these actions had completely different ramifications, and Crowley himself did indeed consider the crossing successful. Actually, he claimed that a state of apparent disintegration in this world was exactly what you would expect to happen when someone passed over the threshold of the Abyss and on to higher initiations. Indeed, from these magical theories, what you would expect to see for someone “trapped” in the Abyss is something else: completely self-involved, expanding egos who may very well achieve a lot of apparent success in this world by assuming political office or leading positions in business, etc. In an initiatory sense, those who get trapped are not ready to give up all their worldly gains and tap the last drop of their blood into the cup of Babalon, as the orthodox Crowleyite might express it.
The bottom line, once again: Be ware of psychologisms. In a book which is otherwise quite the achievement, this still remains problematic.
This work by Egil Asprem was first published on Heterodoxology. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.