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Reviewed by:
  • Aleister Crowley and Western Esotericism edited by Henrik Bogdan and Martin P. Starr
  • Nick Serra

Henrik Bogdan, Martin P. Starr, Aleister Crowley, Western Esotericism, magic, Victor Neuburg, A.E. Waite, Modern Satanism

Henrik Bogdan and Martin P. Starr, eds. Aleister Crowley and Western Esotericism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. Pp xiv + 406.

Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover. In this case, not the hand-tinted, rather mortuary-esque 1913 portrait of Crowley from The Equinox I:10, but J. Gordon Melton’s observation that, “One would be hard-pressed to put together an assemblage of people to equal the scholars included in this collection—the cream of the crop of those esoteric scholars who have studied Crowley.” More, this volume is less concerned with correcting any of the persistent biographical and ideological myths about Crowley himself (propagated in some of the “scholarship” from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s) than presenting new material that sheds light on how Crowley’s ideas and myth developed—and influenced—the esoteric movements during the subsequent three generations. As such, it is a scholarly tour de force, a volume with true range and striking power that will find a place on the shelves of anyone interested in Western esotericism.

As one might infer from the list of contributors, it is a very academic text, but not heavy-handedly so: erudite, but not recondite. It is certainly head-and-shoulders above the usual treatment of Crowley in academic publications [End Page 107] across the contributors’ disciplines, sometimes lamentably rehashed from popular publications. In fact, a noticeable portion of most chapters is devoted to examining what “everyone knows”—sometimes confirming, sometimes debunking. Yet if this is not a lurid repainting of the anecdotal Great Beast, neither is it an apology except in a formally classical sense. More, it is as much about Crowley’s effect on other individuals and esoteric traditions as the genesis, evolution, and derivation of his own beliefs.

This reviewer has been studying the impact and oeuvre of Aleister Crowley for close to thirty years. There is no chapter in this text that did not teach me something new, interesting, and useful. This alone is worth twice the cover price, to say nothing of the up-to-the-minute bibliographic material and the supplementary and suggestive information in the endnotes: Crowley and Freemasonry, Tantra, Neoplatonism, Mormonism, modern Satanism, Scientology, and Wicca; Crowley’s literary, social, and theological background; his relationship with Victor Neuburg and A. E. Waite; his influence on Rosaleen Norton and Gerald Gardner; his views on occult practice—a scholarly smorgasbord offering something for everyone, and more, since so many of the topics cross disciplines—literary, historical, theological, and esoteric—in their application.

Other than the editors’ introductory remarks, the volume opens with Alex Owen’s “The Sorcerer and His Apprentice,” detailing Crowley’s magical workings with Victor Neuburg. Her treatment of the “Magical Exploration of Edwardian Subjectivity” places Crowley’s ideas about magick, the invocations of the Enochian aethers that Crowley and Neuburg performed in 1909 in particular, within the larger fin de siècle environment explored in her larger Place of Enchantment. As one would expect, Owen’s treatment of the incidents goes far beyond the usual tautological anecdotes drawn from John Symonds’s biographies and Jean Overton Fuller’s Magical Dilemma— “Crowley turned Neuburg into a camel”—thereby historicizing the theoretical concepts of human and magical subjectivity. Her treatment of the psychology behind Crowley’s attempt to work through the fears, desires, and hostilities of a “rogue bourgeois masculinity” is insightful and refreshing, making a clean break from the self-involved and rather dogmatic treatments common to earlier psychoanalytic criticism, especially that often propagated by the late Dr. Regardie in his commentaries and abridgements.

Going from subjectivity to objectivity, Marco Pasi’s “Varieties of Magical Experience” evaluates Crowley’s views on occult practice, detailing the considerable influence of James and Maudsley on Crowley generally, as well as his attitudes toward psychic phenomena, the use of yoga, and his interpretation of magic in relation to spiritual entities. However, thankfully, Pasi utilizes [End Page 108] his opening structure to tackle a pernicious and deceptively simple...


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