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Aleister Crowley Reads Inferno: Towards an Occult Reception of Strindberg

From: Scandinavian Studies
Volume 84, Number 3, Fall 2012
pp. 323-346 | 10.1353/scd.2012.0030

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

1. A Story of Kindred Souls

I was awakened to the knowledge that I possessed a magical means of becoming conscious of and satisfying a part of my nature which had up to that moment concealed itself from me. It was an experience of horror and pain, combined with a certain ghostly terror, yet at the same time it was the key to the purest and holiest spiritual ecstasy that exists.

(Crowley, Confessions 109)

Writing an article about the relationship between August Strindberg and the British writer and occultist Aleister Crowley (1875–1947) may at times resemble an account of parallel lives. If taken out of context, the excerpt above could fit into Strindberg’s Inferno just as well as into the book to which it belongs, the autobiography The Confessions of Aleister Crowley. Crowley’s magical experience, which took place in Stockholm on 31 December 1896, was the first in his life and became a turning point in his esoteric development. Meanwhile in Lund—not far removed and at about the same time—Strindberg was beginning his studies of Swedenborg, who profoundly influenced his mystical ideas (Brandell, Paris 231–2). More generally, it appears that Crowley, even though he was twenty-six years younger than Strindberg and had never met him, went through similar personal, spiritual, and artistic experiences in the decades between the two centuries. Both were born into religious, middle-class families; both experienced wealth and economic trouble; both turned to intense and heterogeneous writing after troubled university studies; and both experienced bohemian life in Paris and enjoyed contacts with the artistic avant-garde. Both went through personal crises and eventually found a guardian angel, as they each formulated it: Strindberg turned to Swedenborg (Inferno 202) and Crowley to the preternatural entity Aiwass, from which he claimed to have received the Liber Al Vel Legis or Book of the Law in 1904, the text that became the foundation of his esoteric thought, Thelema (Pasi, “Varieties” 156–60).

The aim of this article is to investigate Crowley’s acquaintance with Strindberg’s work and to explore its esoteric, scientific, and literary implications. I will concentrate on the review of Inferno (and, to a lesser degree, on that of Son of a Servant), which Crowley published in his journal The Equinox in 1913. These reviews provide important material for understanding the literary and/or esoteric productions of both authors. They offer evidence of the reception of Strindberg’s works in occult circles after the Inferno period. Such a reception based on his occult association invites a reconsideration of his introduction in Britain as a whole. Accordingly, a significant number of the early Strindberg translations were either done or published by esotericists, a fact that strongly affected the horizon of expectations of his readers, Crowley included. Most importantly, Crowley’s review questions Inferno’s reliability as an autobiography—an unusual developement in Strindberg’s early reception in Britain—and invites rather a reading informed by Crowley’s “scientific illuminism” and anti-Victorianism, two currents which were deeply rooted in the avant-garde and radical discourses of the age.

2. Strindberg’s Early British Reception

By 1913, when Crowley reviewed Strindberg, Strindberg’s reputation in Britain was based mainly on an isolated translation of The Father and a handful of obscure productions of his plays (The Stronger in 1906 and 1909, The Father in 1911, Miss Julie and Creditors in 1912). A few articles had followed J. T. Grein’s unsuccessful attempt to stage The Father in 1893, which presented Strindberg primarily as a pessimist and misogynist (Rem, “Premature” 151). Twenty years later, this was still the predominant view when as many as twelve Strindberg translations were issued between 1912 and 1913, possibly capitalizing on the attention surrounding the author’s death in 1912. However, the numerous translations must not be equated with success, since Strindberg’s reception continued to suffer from hostility and accusations of misogyny (Ewbank 7–25; Robinson 10–9). Arguably, Strindberg’s legacy suffered from a lack of committed critics and translators such as William Archer and George Bernard Shaw, who had managed to introduce his colleague Henrik Ibsen on the British stage. A difficult acting style...

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