John Wisniewski: Tobias, you have written two books on the life of Aleister Crowley. What interests those interested in the story of Crowley, the occult and magic?
Tobias Churton: I suspect the first thing that attracts people to Aleister Crowley is a fascination for the unknown, and for the powerful. Crowley was not afraid to stand out from the crowd in many respects: in his demeanor, his sexuality, his beliefs, his artistry, his dress. He is something of an archetypal romantic, even though his persistent popular image may not appear romantic at all. He was an absolute believer in destiny and to a certain extent followed the whims of love, like that old song: “Wherever love takes me”, though of course for Crowley, “love” was always qualified by its being, ideally, “under will”. Love was for him the dynamic energy of the universe, so for him love and will are practically identified. This is a powerful attraction, though it may take a while for people to see this, once they’ve got over the popular image of the “evil magician” or alleged sex fiend, and penetrated Crowley’s self-spun glamour somewhat.
Some people may come to Crowley through rock n roll. Led Zeppelin III (1971) had “Do what thou wilt” inscribed on its run-out groove, if memory serves, and I suppose this gave the music a kind of free-form, libertarian rationale. However “Do what thou wilt” does not mean “Do as thou wilt”, so people in search of mere kicks of self-indulgence might be disappointed when they discover Crowley was a stickler for discipline! He did of course have extensive psychedelic experience, being one of the first to experiment with mescaline and hashish for purposes of consciousness expansion. His doses, by the way, were always moderate. He later became addicted to heroin for some periods after his family doctor in Harley Street, London, prescribed the opiate for his appalling asthma, a disease that nearly killed him on several occasions in his life, so severe it was. Heroin brought relief and he became tolerant of it in prescribed doses. It was not illegal to prescribe heroin for asthma at the time. He experimented with cocaine but eventually gave it up as a “fool’s game”.
People come to magic and what has been called the “occult” – which simply means “hidden” or “obscured” – often because of a dissatisfaction with prevailing belief in materialism, that is, that Nature is, as it were, fundamentally “solid”, and allegedly leaves no “room” for spiritual or non-material dimensions of reality. They may also be in search of an alternative to conventional, organized religion, or they may be natural mystics, or “gnostics” in search of a spiritual solution to what Crowley once called “the material muddle”. Some are attracted to Crowley by the complexity and beauty of some of his writing, writing, that is, backed up by a life lived to the very fullest extent of exploration, self-expression and exterior and interior adventure. Crowley was also a highly accomplished pioneer of mountaineering, part of the first expedition to attempt the summit of K2, the world’s second highest mountain, in 1902 – without oxygen or modern specialized clothing. His friend Oscar Eckenstein invented the crampon, by the way!
Crowley was also a poet and an artist of a highly individualized kind. He was also an immensely funny man, able to prick the pretensions of the pompous and overbearing in a way that made powerful people afraid or wary of him. I love his sense of humour – perhaps for me that was Crowley’s biggest attraction.
I think Crowley is becoming more truly visible to us now, with the passing of the years. Also in the last 20 years or so, some serious work has been done at last on establishing an academically sound representation of many of his more important works – he was a prolific writer and publisher during the Edwardian period (c.1901-1914). So there is an enormous amount of color, adventure, sex, outlandish and ahead-of-his-time mysticism to keep the biggest appetite occupied, along with a great deal of thought-provoking philosophy that does not reveal itself at once, and so draws the seeker in. If you think modern society is both shallow and frequently stupid, that our established media is blinkered and controlled by prevailing habits of non-thought and low motivations, then a figure like Crowley (is there anyone really like him?) is going to stand out as a beacon or oasis.
With Crowley, as I have found, after having written four books about him, there is always more to learn, and that process always feels worthwhile, unlike so much else one does.
John Wisniewski: Crowley worked for British Intelligence. Can you tell us about this?
Tobias Churton: This is a very big subject and is by no means a matter “solved”. About ten years ago, Secret Agent 666: Aleister Crowley, British Intelligence and the Occult by historian Richard B. Spence, was published. Prof. Spence made a general assertion that Crowley was probably “recruited” for Britain’s secret services while a student at Trinity College, Cambridge (1895-1897). Spence then went chronologically through aspects of Crowley’s extraordinary career, rather looking for suspicious situations that might have suggested ulterior intentions and powers behind the scenes. His narrative was compelling, and the book was well researched. However, the basic narrative might be flawed and, as a whole, remains something of a hypothesis. There are, nevertheless, three periods of Crowley’s life where we know for a fact he offered himself as an “intelligence asset” to Britain’s Naval Intelligence Department, and to “Special Branch” (liaison between Britain’s police and MI5 or home security) and he certainly argued that his activities during these periods were of benefit to British security interests. Those three periods were during World War One, when he lived mainly in New York (1914-1919) infiltrating (as he plausibly insisted) the German propaganda mission in the United States, whose interests were sabotage of Allied munitions and efforts concerted to keep America out of the war. Crowley had a friend, the Hon. Everard Feilding, who worked for British Intelligence in the Middle East whom Crowley informed of his activities in New York (which involved writing ludicrous pro-German propaganda). I discovered a letter in London where Feilding makes it categorically clear that while eccentric, Crowley was indeed trying to assist British intelligence, and could not in his experience be judged as a traitor to his country.
Crowley lived in Berlin between 1930 and 1932, where he remained in contact with Head of Special Branch, Lt Col. John Fillis Carré Carter (codenamed “Nick”), whom Crowley met after his right to residence in Paris was terminated by the French government in 1929 amid newspaper accusations of spying. In Berlin, Crowley spied on the activities of, principally, communists (he met the Head of Soviet espionage in Germany, Louis Gibarti) but also kept Carter abreast of Nazi activities and tendencies in Germany’s capital. I found a note to the latter effect sent to Carter by Crowley from Berlin (he was there ostensibly to establish himself as an artist). Shortly before he left Berlin in Spring 1932, he wrote to his London contact, Gerald Yorke, that if he did not get out of the city soon, he might be “mysteriously” dispatched and Yorke would have to call for the “embalmers”. Berlin had got too hot for him.
Crowley saw Carter regularly for “chats” during the 1930s, and at the beginning of World War Two offered his services to – and was interviewed by – British Naval Intelligence (NID). Officially at least, NID declined politely his offer, but later in the war Crowley gave magical training to the man who became secretary to the Head of MI6, the most important figure in British Intelligence. Crowley was also mentioned in connection with espionage in reports sent by traitor Kim Philby to Stalin during the war, as the “Mitrokhin Archive” has demonstrated.
J. Edgar Hoover had Crowley investigated in 1918 but could never establish whether Crowley was spying for the British in the US, or not, and for that reason apparently resisted Crowley’s attempts to return to the States to see his followers in California. British Military Intelligence, New York, denied to the (then) Bureau of Investigation that he was working for them, and it may be that Crowley operated in an intelligence loop that kept significant intelligence parties out of knowledge of his specific activities. Nobody in the British state prevented Crowley from returning to Great Britain in 1919.
They say there’s no smoke without fire, and Crowley’s career offers a fair amount of smoke in this regard, and it would be foolish to deny Crowley’s sometime role as a British intelligence asset (almost certainly not as a paid “agent”) as it would be unwise to overstress this aspect of his career. It should be borne in mind Crowley went to Cambridge to study for a diplomatic career, but had a kind of crisis of values that made him put his whole effort behind serving spiritual powers on earth as a surer way to affect the world’s destiny than purely material powers. There is a kind of link between spiritual activity of this magnitude and covert espionage, though the fundamentals are very different. If Crowley worked for “intelligence” it was in his own mind a means of furthering the work of what he regarded as the Higher Intelligence, believing as he did, that planetary destiny was ultimately guided by praeternatural beings through the medium of human agency. The cornerstone of his magick was to communicate with higher intelligence to expand the realm of human activity, knowledge and effectiveness; this work involved discipline and a supernal ethic beyond purely material interest. Most politicians he regarded as overblown puppets of staggering naivety and egoism.
John Wisniewski: You say Crowley wanted to go to California to see his followers. What was that about?
Crowley established a magical order before World War One, sometimes known as the “Order of the Silver Star,” which offered individual instruction in the means to establish “the knowledge and conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel”. Training involved magical ceremonies, consciousness exercises, and raj yoga practices. He was also English Head of an originally European Order called Ordo Templi Orientis, which was a fraternal order for both sexes, based on Masonic lines. Both orders attracted two Englishmen, Charles Stansfeld Jones, and Wilfrid T. Smith, who both migrated to Canada and subsequently, to the United States during the “Roaring Twenties”. Smith was particularly devoted to Crowley, and established a U.S. O.T.O. headquarters at a number of addresses in the vicinity of Los Angeles. By the mid-1930s, “Agape Lodge”, led by Smith, was a going concern, attracting various artistically minded members from the region. They performed the “Gnostic Mass” which Crowley had written in Moscow in 1913 in a specially constructed temple in the attic of Smith’s house. Members included Hollywood actress Jane Wolfe from the days of silent pictures who had first gone out to meet Crowley in Sicily in the early 1920s when Crowley ran an “Abbey of Thelema” at Cefalu. She was a pinion of the Agape Lodge, later incorporated as the Church of Thelema. Most of those who had a pivotal role in the revival of the O.T.O. in America between 1969 and 1971 were associated with Smith’s Californian “Lodge”, which seems to have been an easygoing affair with music and culture nights, and a special “Crowley” night and a lot of romancing among members who tried to practice Thelemic ethics of unselfishness and mutual generosity. Handsome rocket fuel expert John Whiteside Parsons would join and dominate the little community during World War Two.
Crowley’s fear was that it would gain the reputation of being something he regarded as odious: a “love cult”, and he eventually banished Smith from his role for a period for what Crowley considered a lack of discipline. But Smith remained devoted and maintained his devotions into the 1950s when he died, and the O.T.O. was run by Crowley’s old collaborator, Karl Germer, until Germer’s death in 1962, when the O.T.O. became effectively leaderless, until Grady McMurtry, who was involved with Smith’s community in California, felt able to take the reins Crowley had wished him to take after Germer’s death. So the Californian “Thelemites” proved to be very important in the continuity of Crowley’s teachings in the world, up to this day, when the O.T.O. thrives as never before in its history.
John Wisniewski You have also written about occultism and magic and its influence on the art and music of the 1960s. Could you tell us about this?
My new book The Spiritual Meaning of the Sixties embraces the whole question of what really was “behind,” so to speak, a decade which people still talk about today as having very special characteristics. While I address issues raised by critics of the decade – many of whom “blame” the decade for alleged moral decline afterwards and a collapse of order in the western world through an explosion of decadence, political weakness and code-ethics – the overwhelming interest of the book is to demonstrate and investigate the highly difficult question of locating the decade’s “spiritual meaning”. Now, this “meaning” might manifest as a “warning from history” or it might yet encode a record of spiritual activity, and I am careful to define my terms as exactly as possible in the first part of the book, especially for those who might think terms like “spiritual meaning” are actually meaningless.
In fact, I found many layers of spiritual meaning in the decade’s distinctive events, personalities, creations and political and artistic events. The period was overflowing with spiritual meanings and one would be hard pressed to give any particular “meaning” undue dominance. There is a vast matrix of spiritual meaning because one can detect not only distinct spiritual movements – people moved by and for spiritual concerns – but also see how otherwise non-spiritual events yet evince spiritual meaning. For example, the rise of interest in eastern spirituality, mysticism, religious philosophies coincides with an emerging spiritual vacuum in organized religion, a vacuum of effective meaning. I give the example of the “New English Bible”, a translation of the Bible intended to render Christian scripture in “modern English” yet which only really succeeded in cutting off the very thing that many seek in religious life, namely, the “timeless”, a guarantor of life and meaning beyond the here and now.
As for the “influence” of occultism and magic on art and music, I rather think the creation of art and music are themselves magical, and if we go deeply enough, “occult” activities. I think of Bob Dylan who has said in recent years that many of his best known songs of the 1960s were created through a kind of personalized “magic” (his word) that he can no longer activate in the same way. John Lennon also spoke of what he considered his best songs as being the products of a kind of mediumship, where he felt he was really just the scribe of a magical message that transcended his conscious self to a sufficient extent as to make him “have to get up” and write words down or record melodies. Lennon insisted on Aleister Crowley appearing as a member of “Sgt Pepper’s band” on the famous album’s cover artwork (a blatant example of art-meets-magic). Some artists were consciously using magical ideas. Harry Everett Smith, film-maker, for example, used magical ideas he gleaned from his intense interest in Aleister Crowley, and in spiritual practices of native Americans – a common source of magical inspiration for American artists in the period. French creator of performance art, Yves Klein, had profound Rosicrucian interests that shaped his notion of an “Age of Space”, which to him meant an age of spirit, free spirit, free movement, free air. I list the dominant artists who consciously employed magical ideas in the book. I also go deeply into the cinema, TV and music of the period. All of these transcendental ideas coalesce in different, sometimes surprising, ways. We find spiritual ideas in Rothko’s chapel paintings. We find Jimi Hendrix using a whole array of occult correspondences of color and sound and inner travelling and redemptive angelic figures to craft his soundscapes and dancing sound textures, tuned in and plugged in to the invisible electricity or rays of the stars and analogous objects in our more immediate world. Above all, perhaps, enlivened by a courageous spiritual freedom, Love itself becomes a new kind of flower as it emerges from moon n june songs to become something cosmic, universal and transcendent, even politically motivational. The universe, it seemed, beams love to us. It beams positive energies. Thanks to what I call the “great plastic fantastic space race” aspect of the 1960s we have the notion of ascent into higher realms, gaining powers formerly held as the reserve of angelic powers. At its beginning, the decade was defined as a decade by President Kennedy when he declared it America’s will to put a man on the moon by the decade’s end.
Upwards movement, transcendence, freed imaginations, intellectual daring – all these aspects of an expanded consciousness come into play in the ferment of the decade. Rising consciousness. One thinks of Jim Morrison and the Doors – named after a line from visionary gnostic William Blake. Morrison produces an anagram of his name: Mr Mojo Risin’. The mojo is the magical spirit of creativity in man, linked to a liberation of the sexual from the purely animal towards greater joys and transcendence of the ego for purposes of union with divinity. Walls would be overcome, whether in Berlin or elsewhere. No “iron curtain” would last.And of course while all this was going on, you had a resurgence of interest in the formal history of Magic and its place in the history of ideas and the genesis of science. Frances Yates publishes Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition in the year the Beatles touchdown for the first time in the U.S. In Crowleyan terms, we witness a real manifestation of what he called the “Aeon of Horus” or Age of the Child, characterized by aspects of child psychology: unrestrained reconnaissance, boundless challenge, innocence of imagination, androgynous creativity – all those energies that “straight” society wants to put in a straight jacket, as epitomized in Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and given tragic expression in the prophetic movie, Easy Rider.
You might say today (2019), along with the first century rabbi: “The dew of inspiration falls not upon our lips”. If we would refresh ourselves, then we have a life-giving pool of ambrosia waiting for us in the 1960s to realize now and in the future. My book is intended to inspire this use of the means at our disposal that we have either rejected, mistrusted or forgotten about. We must recover the citadel of communication from the archons of the “entertainment and media industry”: arguably, an imprisonment of the mass imagination. No wonder, one may think, when one realizes the collective power available through positive use of the technology available. Yes, we have much to learn still from a much-maligned decade. My own daughter is not alone in wishing she’d been alive in that period. That says a lot, given how much terrestrial time has passed since. The 1960s are alive and well, one might say – but can one say the same for these first decades of the 21st century? The solution is there for the imbibing. As Crowley observed in Berlin in 1931, walls are there for people who are afraid to go out. Beware of those who would erect borders in space. Or to quote Jim Morrison: “Break on through to the other side!” Have we made it yet?