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TMaroney: Why Crowley Doesn't Suck

To: alt.magick.tyagi,alt.magick,alt.magick.order,alt.thelema,alt.consciousness.mysticism
From: (nagasiva)
Subject: TMaroney: Why Crowley Doesn't Suck
Date: 21 Jul 1997 16:28:07 -0700

[from Tim Maroney ]

I've been reflecting on my contributions to the Thelema list since coming 
back from vacation, and I noticed that I seem to come down pretty hard on 
Mr. Crowley. I've said many things like this: He was psychologically 
naive; his history and politics were uneducated and facile; he failed to 
make any contribution to philosophy or even to grasp it at a 
baccalaureate level; it would have been a nightmare if he had achieved 
secular power; and so on. This may have created a false impression about 
my feelings towards the man and his work, and I thought I might try to 

To understand Aleister Crowley's contributions one needs to create a new 
category, which I will call "ritual arts." This is a new category only in 
that it has not been called out as such; people have traditionally viewed 
ritual (by which I include meditation) as either sacred and beyond mere 
criteria of artistry, or as socially functional and to be understood as 
part of a society. I propose that we look at it as an art form related to 
theater. It is in the area of the stylistic construction of ritual and 
meditative practices, and as an explicator of these processes of 
construction and performance, that Crowley comes into his own. In fact, 
his contributions in this area are unique and deserve to be part of any 
religious studies program.

Crowley was a poet, perhaps only of the second rank, but a poet by nature 
nonetheless, and the grace and beauty of the poetic sentiment infuses all 
his rituals and meditations. While one could find much to criticize in 
his overall corpus -- poems choked with purple like kudzu, 
two-dimensional fiction, megalomaniacal essays proposing ultimate answers 
to questions he did not understand -- there is none of this in his ritual 
instructions. Their style is beautifully sparse, like watermarks on rice 
paper, with just a gentle touch of purple and a hint of that which cannot 
quite be put into words. All the flaccid prose of the Golden Dawn, with 
its pompous Masonic declamation, has been put aside for its few true 
approaches to the spirit. The result is a genuineness and sincerity of 
aspiration and experience which is not only beautiful to read but 
compelling to perform.

In poetry derived from ritual and meditative experience, particularly the 
sublime "Book of Lies" and the "Hymn to Pan", Crowley sometimes enters 
the first rank of metaphysical poets. When he is working from the soul, 
rather than indulging in the superficial play-acting so characteristic of 
occultists, he has no need to tart up his work. When he lapses into 
posing the result is awful -- the impenetrable "Aha!" comes to mind -- 
but our need to exercise selectivity with respect to Crowley's voluminous 
output in no way vitiates the quality of his best work.

Though his solitary rituals are perfect gems, the same cannot be said of 
his group rituals. The O.T.O. initiations are lifeless and dull, though 
occasionally clever, and the less said about his "Rites of Eleusis" the 
better. The one really successful group ritual he created was the 
"Gnostic Mass," and even that still creates for many observers the false 
impression that it is a mere mockery of the Catholic Mass. Despite its 
strengths, the Gnostic Mass institutionalized Crowley's misogynist ideas 
about the sexual magic that was central to his system. His belief that 
"man is the guardian of the Life of God; woman but a temporary expedient; 
a shrine indeed for the God, but not the God" reduces the priestess, 
despite a promising introduction, to a mere functionary for the priest, 
waiting passively as he does all the work in which the real sacredness 
resides. This point is not lost on most observers and serves to 
discourage many women from pursuing Crowley studies.

Crowley's longer writings about ritual and meditation practice, of which 
the best examples are "Magick in Theory and Practice" and "Eight Lectures 
on Yoga", exist in a gray area. The grayness results from Crowley's 
unfortunate attempts to delve into philosophy and his self-aggrandizing 
accounts of his own spiritual authority. To consider only MTP, it leads 
off with a ridiculous philosophical claim to have reconciled nihilism, 
monism and dualism by simply attributing each to one to the Thelemic 
trinity of gods. MTP is riddled with megalomaniacal passages and specious 
philosophical observations. Yet when Crowley simply explains how he 
thinks rituals work, what feelings he associates with particular points 
of ritual, styles appropriate to particular points, and how the parts 
integrate into the whole, he presents a comfort with and knowledge of 
Western occult modes that would be difficult to find anywhere else.

I have in the past faulted MTP for parochialism, in that Crowley seems to 
take a particular ritual formula as paramount when in fact there are many 
other forms of magical ritual, and for exegesis instead of analysis, 
since he generally fails to jump to a meta-level of analysis to engage 
basic questions, such as why we would want to do ritual in the first 
place or why rituals should involve mythic figures such as gods. For 
these issues one will have to go to ritual studies and anthropology. 
Still, the fact that he fails to contribute here does not mean that he 
makes no contribution at all. His account of his own practice and of his 
thinking about it is unusually detailed and beautifully rendered, and 
deserves general study as a unique window into practice.

One more of Crowley's strong points deserves mention, again related to 
his writing. The Equinox is half mystical encyclopedia and half literary 
journal. While its literary contributions are not stellar, they are good, 
and the playful, knowing feel of the whole is as pleasant now as it was 
almost a century ago. Mystics and magicians today are often faced with a 
great cultural divide from their spiritual ancestors, and simply to see a 
magician being very much a man of the twentieth century is a useful 

Of course, none of this excuses Crowley's more egregious personality 
failings or his dilettante excursions into areas he was unable to 
understand, which I will continue to underline as the opportunity 
presents itself. In the future, though, I will try to give equal time to 
the good and the bad, rather than allowing myself to be drawn into the 
reactive mode of constantly correcting his followers when they demand 
that Crowley be showered with unearned rewards.

Tim Maroney

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