Last year, Oxford University Press published a groundbreaking collection of academic studies concerning Aleister Crowley and his place in modern intellectual and religious history. The component chapters of Aleister Crowley and Western Esotericism had been written at various points in the last twenty years, and taken together they demonstrate the considerable breadth of relevant subject matter. I am in the process of reading the chapters that I hadn't yet gotten around to exploring, and I'll be registering my reactions to all of the book's contents in a short series of posts here.
The Alex Owen chapter that follows the editors' introduction is actually an earlier version of a paper that was eventually incorporated into her constructive monograph The Place of Enchantment, which provides a revisionary perspective on modern occultism. In this version, she seems to be at lesser pains to make Crowley out to be a villain against liberal ethics, but she has the same uninformed regard for his later career, using one or two references to conclude that he was broken and failed after his Algerian operations of 1909. The simple fact is that his most enduring and successful work was done after that: writing Magick in Theory and Practice, reforming O.T.O., designing the Thoth Tarot, and so on.
Marco Pasi provides a valuable primer for academic readers regarding Crowley's ideas about magic and mysticism, elucidating a tension between the materialist theorizing of Crowley's early work and the more metaphysical concessions of the fully-initiated Beast. Pasi rightly distinguishes between the Cairo Operation of 1904 and the subsequent attainment of Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel that Crowley claimed in 1906, observing that the identification of Aiwass as Crowley's personal genius was a later development. He errs, however, in speculating that the equivalence was formulated as late as the writing of Magick in Theory and Practice in the 1920s. In fact, it is a feature of Crowley's 1909 vision of the Eighth Aire in The Vision and the Voice.
Volume editor Henrik Bogdan's contribution is a solid paper that fills a lacuna in the literature on Thelema by pointing out the positive contribution of the Plymouth Brethren dispensationalist doctrine to Crowley's idea of magical aeons. While acknowledging the contemporaneity of occultist "new age" concepts (contrasted as largely pacifist vis-a-vis the martial Aeon of Horus), Bogdan does neglect to point out the important symbolic grounding of Crowley's hierohistory in the Golden Dawn Equinox ceremony. (For that in detail, see my web-published essay "Aeons Beyond the Three".)
Gordan Djurdjevic's paper presents "Aleister Crowley as Tantric Hero" in a morphological, rather than a genealogical sense, stressing the notion of functional parallel between Thelema and Tantra. He makes a sound point about the confusion over Crowley's Tantric bona fides originating in the secondary materials of biographers and students, rather than Crowley's own claims. But he fails to address the younger Crowley's derision of Tantra ("follies of Vamacharya [debauchery]" in The Equinox), and omits to observe that while the older Beast claimed to have studied "numerous writings on the Tantra," he conscientiously referred aspirant Kenneth Grant to David Curwen for sounder Tantric instruction than the Prophet of Thelema could supply.
In Richard Kaczynski's chapter, the heroically thorough Crowley biographer provides a somewhat exhaustive exposition of a specific range of Crowley's own sources, presenting Crowley as a synthesist of Rosicrucianism, Freemasonry, and phallicist theory of religion. These are certainly the ingredients that most saliently inform the O.T.O., and thus Crowley's social/institutional legacy, and this chapter amounts first and foremost to a bibliographically-dense essay useful to readers interested in understanding precedents for Crowley's work with O.T.O.
(Next post: Churton, Rogers, Starr, Gilbert, and Introvigne)