I’ve written about Aleister Crowley’s books before, but of the texts I reviewed, one was a novel and the other a translation. I thought it high time to look at some of Crowley’s mystical texts, the ones in which he propounds his deepest insights into magick, humanity and existence. To start, I decided to look at what is perhaps his best known work, the Book of the Law.
Just to get this out in the open right away: I’m not an expert on Crowley, and this is mostly an opinion piece. If you are a dedicated Thelemite and you feel frustrated/offended by anything in this post, please leave a comment and explain to me where I have erred. I would genuinely be interested in your insight.
The text of the Book of the Law or Liber AL vel Legis (hereafter to be referred to as AL) was supposedly revealed to Aleister Crowley by a guardian angel styled spirit named Aiwass in 1904. The work is rather short (about 20 pages), but it provides the foundation for the religion of Thelema. Much of Aleister Crowley’s subsequent literary output either references this text or serves as a commentary on it. While not an expert by any means, I’ve been mildly interested in Aleister Crowley for a few years, and I’ve had an idea of the importance of this book to his followers ever since I read about it after buying my first Fields of the Nephilim cd. I decided to buy a copy of AL a few years ago, but then I found out that the text was included in its entirety in Crowley’s Liber ABA, Book 4, Magick, a much larger and more expensive book that, for some reason I have since forgotten, I was determined to own. I thus decided that I would wait until I owned a copy of Book 4 before reading the Book of the Law. In the meantime, I found myself in possession of a book called Portable Darkness. This is a collection of assorted writings by Crowley that also includes the text of the Book of Law, but it doesn’t contain the infamous Comment section. I hate abridgments and so decided not to read AL until I owned the complete text. Eventually I found an affordable copy of Book 4, but when I opened it up and realized that it was largely about yoga, I felt desperately ashamed of myself and put it on the shelf to collect dust for few years.
I decided to read AL a few months ago, but I wanted to do a bit of research on it beforehand to ensure a decent level of understanding. I read essays about it in Portable Darkness and DisInformation’s Book of Lies and on countless websites. I listened to youtube clips of Robert Anton Wilson’s ramblings on Crowley, and I even read the wikipedia pages of the Egyptian deities that I knew were going to be alluded to in the Book of the Law. I felt fairly prepared by the time I opened the book.
Jesus Christ lads, what a pile of muck.
Honestly, I don’t even know where to start with this garbage. I’ve long understood that Aleister Crowley was both full of shit and had his head up his arse, and I wasn’t really surprised that he had the audacity to present this hogwash as divine revelation, but I was a little taken aback by extent to which he has gotten away with it. I could break the text down and analyze it piece by piece, but it doesn’t merit doing that. With the amount of time and effort it would take to squeeze any form of meaningful interpretation out of this barrel of masturbatory vomit, a person could doubtlessly resolve several of their real life problems. Thelemites, I have deduced, are just religious hipsters. Their religion is far more obscure than yours; I mean, you’ve probably never even heard of it, and you almost definitely wouldn’t get it if you did. Other tortuous religious texts have the excuse that they were written thousands of years ago by individuals living in societies that were vastly different our own. The Book of the Law, on the other hand, was written by a smackhead British toff that wanted to make himself sound mysterious and smart so that he could get girls (and a few fellas) to sleep with him. If you’ve been thinking about reading this piece of trash, take my advice: spend that time updating your CV and applying for a new job instead.
Now, if you are ever lucky enough to be in my apartment, you might notice the above sign. Why would a person who has such disdain for Crowley’s masterpiece place its credo above his front door? Well, the phrase ‘Do what thou wilt’ and the word ‘Thelema’ actually come from one of my favourite books, the novel Gargantua and Pantagruel by François Rabelais. In this long and lurid tale, the Abbey of Thélème is basically a monastery, led by the licentious Friar John (pictured above), where the only rule that the brothers must follow is ‘Do what thou wilt’. This phrase was later adopted as a motto for the Hellfire Clubs. Interestingly enough, it’s also word-for-word the advice given by Mephistopheles to Faustus after he has turned the good Doctor invisible inside the chambers of the pope in the 7th scene of Marlowe’s tragedy (A-text).
I also read The Book of Lies. This book is probably slightly more self indulgent than the Book of the Law, but it’s made a little more palatable by the fact that it comes across as being more aware of its own absurdity. (I’m not saying that Crowley wasn’t aware of how obnoxious the Book of the Law seems; he might well have written it just to wind people up.) The Book of Lies, or to give it its full title, The Book of Lies,Which is also Falsely Called BREAKS. The Wanderings or Falsifications of the One Thought of Frater Perdurabo, which Thought is itself Untrue. Liber CCCXXXIII [Book 333], is broken up into 91 little passages that can be read as poems, jokes, philosophical aphorisms, nuggets of advice, magickal instructions and/or riddles. Each passage comes with a commentary from Aleister that’s supposed to explain it. Most of this book is absolute rubbish, but there were a few bits that made me think.
The 80th passage starts off:
“The price of existence is eternal warfare.
Speaking as an Irishman, I prefer to say: The price
of eternal warfare is existence.
And melancholy as existence is, the price is well
Is there is a Government? then I’m agin it! To Hell
with the bloody English!”
A self-professed Irishman? Wasn’t he born and raised in England? Crowley’s attitude towards Ireland was a little strange. He once wrote a rather curious poem to Saint Patrick, requesting that the saint come back to again rid the country of snakes (an apt metaphor for the brits). Within the O.T.O. Crowley obtained the title of Supreme and Holy King of Ireland, Iona and all the Britains within the Sanctuary of the Gnosis, and two years later, in 1914, he went to New York and tried to convince people that he was there to raise support for Irish independence. His attempts to do so included writing a declaration of independence for the Irish Republic. As with much of what he did, it is very hard to tell how sincere he was being, but he definitely seems to have been on the right side of the argument. The above chapter is a little cringey, but I like the idea of existence being the downside of chaos.
There’s another interesting bit in the commentary for chapter 46 where Aleister says,
“The lesson of the chapter is thus always to rise
hungry from a meal, always to violate one’s own nature.
Keep on acquiring a taste for what is naturally
repugnant; this is an unfailing source of pleasure”
There’s something wonderfully Sadean about this notion, and although seemingly paradoxical, it’s remarkably accurate. Humans get bored very easily, and we love doing what we shouldn’t. Hardcore pornography, death metal, super spicy food and ultraviolent films might seem rather unpleasant the first time they are encountered, but they all have the potential to become ‘unfailing sources of pleasure’. However, while I think that Crowley’s observation on the insatiability of human nature is interesting, I’m not sure that I agree with his advice. While our tendency may be to intensify our pleasures, I think it might be dangerous to make the intensification the goal. I’m not preaching humility here; I just reckon that there comes a point in most human endeavors where enough is enough.
There were a few other bits and pieces in here that made me think, but it probably wasn’t really worth reading the whole thing to find them. The most rewarding part of the book was probably when I finally got the Psalm 69 joke that Ministry used on their ΚΕΦΑΛΗΞΘ album. I’ve listened to that record a thousand times, and I have often wondered what the ‘the way to succeed and the way to suck eggs’ line meant. After reading the commentary here, I felt a bit silly for not getting it sooner. I guess I just never thought that Al Jourgensen would be smart enough to use puns. Chapter 88 (Gold Bricks) is pretty funny too. I’ll leave you to find it for yourself.
There you have it. Aleister Crowley led a very interesting life, but his books are shit. His magical writings serve as little more than ‘how to be Harry Potter’ instruction manuals for grown-ups who want to play make-believe (or is it believe-make?) In fairness to Crowley, I don’t think either the Book of the Law or the Book of Lies are aimed at beginners, but if understanding these works is what reading his other books will allow me to do, I’ll probably not be bothering.