Cover that left eye: in a new book,
the Beast’s biographer, Dr. Richard Kaczynski, aims to bring a degree of
balance to all the crazy shit.
BY ROBERT DEAN LURIE
At first blush Aleister Crowley’s “spiritual guru”
credentials seem dubious indeed: per various accounts, the collateral damage
from the English occultist’s lifelong vision quest included at least two cats
(presumably black), a couple of goats who happened to be in the wrong place at
the wrong time, a crucified toad, an unlucky acolyte who expired after drinking
contaminated cat’s blood, and a boatload of wives, mistresses, and male lovers
who ended up either dead by their own hand or institutionalized. As bad as all
that sounds, though, it’s the supremely lame Ozzy Osbourne song that really
makes one want to have a word or two with “Mr. Crowley.”
Then along comes Dr. Richard Kaczynski (pictured above,
right) who, through painstaking research, demonstrates in his new book Perdurabo: The Life of Aleister Crowley
(Expanded Edition) that much of what we thought we knew about the notorious
magician is either greatly exaggerated or just plain wrong. Which is not to say
that the man who called himself “The Beast 666” was a lovely guy-one former
lover declared from her deathbed that he was the “nastiest son of a bitch” she
had ever known-but it now appears the business of drinking cat’s blood and
sacrificing a goat while it humped his mistress didn’t happen at all (though
Crowley did admit in his diary that he tried to get the goat to mount his ladyfriend but the animal showed little interest.
Make of that distinction what you will).
AC got up to some crazy shit, there’s no doubt about it. But
Kaczynski balances that well-documented facet of his life with a vivid account
of the magus’s inner journey. It’s important to remember that Crowley was a prolific writer and serious
student of western mysticism. On any given day you were more likely to find him
writing, studying, or meditating than getting loaded on ether and buggering
Arab boys. If anything, the pansexual debauchery was what the guy did to
unwind, like having a scotch after dinner. More important is that Crowley’s rigorous
spiritual study resulted in a concrete system of “practical magick” that
incorporated, in Kaczynski’s estimation, “a broad range of yogic, divinatory,
and meditative techniques.” In our own era of yoga studios on every corner,
it’s easy to miss the significance of Crowley’s
achievement: he was one of the very first westerners to introduce the practice
of yoga to European audiences. Similarly, his synthesis of Buddhism,
Gnosticism, and Kabbalah was groundbreaking for its time.
Kaczynski has an intimate working knowledge of Crowley’s system,
something that distinguishes him from the many other writers who have attempted
to tell this story. His interest in the mystical realm began early: “I grew up
in the era of Star Trek and In Search Of,” he tells me. “Monsters and UFOs were a real big
craze in the ‘70s. Mix that in with David Carradine’s Kung Fu, which I used to watch in lotus position. What makes a
seven or eight-year-old kid do that?
“Years later I made my way to the occult bookshop. I picked
out two or three books and then the bookseller recommended (Crowley’s) Magick in Theory and Practice.”
From there it was a slippery slope.
Granted, a diet of science fiction, UFO conspiracy theories,
martial arts shows, and the occult was not particularly unusual for a kid
growing up in the ‘70s – especially with Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page acting as
the C.S. Lewis of Crowleyanity, What was unusual was Kaczynski’s continued practice of occultism as he ascended the
ladder of his academic career, eventually landing a research scientist position
with the VA Northeast Program Evaluation Center and an affiliation with the
psychiatry department at Yale University’s School of Medicine. His website gives curious onlookers the opportunity to browse his curriculum vitae, which
includes citations of such peer-reviewed publications as “BANA Assessment of Putative
Periodontal Pathogen Levels in Relation to Malocclusion in a Pre-treatment
Orthodontic Population.” From there, one can take a gander at his many articles
and books concerning Crowley,
the occult, and paganism. Then there’s the extensive gallery of Kaczynski’s
pumpkin carvings: lifelike portraits of Viggo Mortensen, Keanu Reeves, Bill
Clinton, and, uh, “Solid Snake” from the videogame Metal Game Solid, meticulously etched into decaying vegetable
matter. Last but not least, there is a wealth of information on his prog-rock
band House of Usher.
Clearly the guy follows his own path, which he says is the
essence of the Crowley
philosophy: “His axiom ‘Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law’ simply
means find out what you’re here to do, and do nothing else. It’s about finding
the thing that you love. Don’t get discouraged; see it through to the end.
That’s what Crowley’s
magical name Perdurabo means: ‘I shall endure to the end.’ Concomitant with
that, other people don’t have the right to tell you what you can or cannot do
if you’re not bothering anyone else. I think that’s a message we can all find
So…”Do what thou wilt” is not so much the diabolical
proclamation of The Wickedest Man in the World as it is a cogent distillation
of an almost universal human desire, shades of which can also be found in the
writings of Rousseau, Thomas Paine, Ayn Rand, and, yes, even the garbled but
nonetheless libertarian slogans wafting from that creepy Glenn Beck rally the
It is true that the hierarchical system of ritual magick Crowley designed to this
end includes outlandish costumes, portentous incantations and, at higher
levels, the controversial practice of “sex magick,” but by his own dictum you
can take it or leave it. Do what thou wilt, bro. And don’t tase me if I decide
to do this.
So, is Perdurabo the
biography currently on the market? I would argue that Martin Booth’s
marvelously entertaining A Magick Life holds that honor, though that probably reflects my own preference for a ripping
good yarn over detailed analysis. Perdurabo is certainly the most thoroughly researched and balanced account of Crowley’s life available.
It achieves the alchemical feat of transmogrifying a maligned demon into…if not
a saint then some kind of mad prophet worth a second look. Readers may not take
AC’s ecstatic visions as seriously as his biographer does, but at the very
least they will come away with a greater appreciation for the man’s criminally
underrated literary gifts.