The Confessions of Aleister Crowley

Part One
TOWARDS THE GOLDEN DAWN.

Chapter 1

Edward Crowley1, the wealthy scion of a race of Quakers, was the father of a son born at 30 Clarendon Square, Leamington, Warwichshire2, on the 12th day of October3 1875 E.V. between eleven and twelve at night. Leo was just rising at the time, as nearly as can be ascertained. The branch of the family of Crowley to which this man belonged has been settled in England since Tudor times: in the days of Bad Queen Bess there was a Bishop Crowley, who wrote epigrams in the style of Marital. One of them—the only one I know—runs thus:

The bawds of the stews be all turnèd out:
But I think they inhabit all England throughout.

(I cannot find the modern book which quotes this as a footnote and have not been able to trace the original volume.)

The Crowleys, are, however, of Celtic origin; the name O'Crowley is common in south-west Ireland, and the Breton family of de Quérouaille—which gave England a Duchess of Portsmouth—or de Kerval is of the same stock. Legend will have it that the then head of the family came to England with the Earl of Richmond and helped to make him king on Bosworth Field.

Edward Crowley was educated as an engineer, but never practised his profession4. He was devoted to religion and became a follower of John Nelson Darby, the founder of the "Plymouth Brethren". The fact reveals a stern logician; for the sect is characterized by refusal to compromise; it insists on the literal interpretation of the Bible as the exact words of the Holy Ghost5.

He married (in 1874, one may assume) Emily Bertha Bishop, of a Devon and Somerset family. Her father had died and her brother Tom Bond Bishop had come to London to work in the Civil Service. The important points about the woman are that her schoolmates called her "the little {35} Chinese girl", that she painted in water-colour with admirable taste destroyed by academic training, and that her powerful natural instincts were suppressed by religion to the point that she became, after her husband's death, a brainless bigot of the most narrow, logical and inhuman type. Yet there was always a struggle; she was really distressed, almost daily, at finding herself obliged by her religion to perform acts of the most senseless atrocity.

Her firstborn son, the aforesaid, was remarkable from the moment of his arrival. He bore on his body the three most important distinguishing marks of a Buddha. He was tongue-tied, and on the second day of his incarnation a surgeon cut the fraenum linguae. He had also the characteristic membrane, which necessitated an operation for phimosis some three lustres6 later. Lastly, he had upon the centre of his heart four hairs curling from left to right in the exact form of a Swastika7.

He was baptised by the names of Edward Alexander, the latter being the surname of an old friend of this father's, deeply beloved by him for the holiness of his life—by Plymouth Brethren standards, one may suppose. It seems probable that the boy was deeply impressed by being told, at what age (before six) does not appear, that Alexander means "helper of men". He is still giving himself passionately to the task, despite the intellectual cynicism inseparable from intelligence after one has reached forty.

But the extraordinary fact connected with this baptismal ceremony is this. As the Plymouth Brethren practise infant baptism by immersion, it must have taken place in the first three months of his life. Yet he has a perfectly clear visual recollection of the scene. It took place in a bathroom on the first floor of the house in which he was born. He remembers the shape of the room, the disposal of its appointments, the little group of "brethren" surrounding him, and the surprise of finding himself, dressed in a long white garment, being suddenly dipped and lifted from the water. He has also a clear auditory remembrance of words spoken solemnly over him; though they meant nothing, he was impressed by the peculiar tone. It is not impossible that this gave him an all but unconquerable dislike for for the cold plunge, and at the same time a vivid passion for ceremonial speech. These two qualities have played highly important parts in his development.

This baptism, by the way, though it never worried him, provided a peril to the soul of another. When his wife's conduct compelled him to insist upon her divorcing him—a formality as meaningless as their marriage—and she became insane shortly afterward, an eminent masochist named Colonel Gormley, R.A.M.C. (dead previously, then and since) lay in wait for her at the asylum gates to marry her. The trouble was that he included among his intellectual lacunae a devotion to the Romish superstition. He feared damnation {36} if he married a divorceuse dipsomaniac with non-parva-partial dementia. The poor mollusc asked Crowley for details of his baptism. He wrote back that he had been baptised "in the name of the Holy Trinity".

It now appeared that, had these actual words been used, he was a pagan, his marriage void, Lola Zaza a bastard and his wife a light o'love!

Crowley tried to help the wretched worm; but, alas, he remembered too well the formula: "I baptise thee Edward Alexander in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost." So the gallant colonel had to fork out for a dispensation from Rome. Crowley himself squandered a lot of cash in one way or another. But he never fell so far as to waste a farthing on the three-card trick, or the three-God trick.

He has also the clearest visualization of some of the people who surrounded him in the first six years of his life, which were spent in Leamington and the neighborhood, which he has never revisited. In particular, there was an orange-coloured old lady named Miss Carey who used to bring him oranges. His first memory of speech is his remark. "Ca'ey, onange"8; this, however, is remembered because he was told of it later. But he is in full conscious memory of the dining-room of the house, its furniture and pictures, with their arrangement. He also remembers various country walks, one especially through green fields, in which a perambulator figures. The main street of Leamington, and the Leam with its weir—he has loved weirs ever since—Guy's Cliffe at Warwick, and the Castle with its terrace and the white peacocks: all these are as clear as if he had seen them last week. He recalls no other room in the house except his own bedroom, and that only because he "came to himself" one night to find a fire lighted, a steam kettle going, a strange woman present, an atmosphere of anxiety and a feeling of fever; for he had an attack of bronchitis.

He remembers his first governess, Miss Arkell, a grey-haired lady with traces of beard upon her large flat face and a black dress of what he calls bombasine, though to this hour he does not know what bombasine may be, and thinks that the dress was of alpaca or even, it may be of smooth hard silk.

And he remembers the first indication that his mind was of a logical and scientific order.

Ladies will now kindly skip a page, while I lay the facts before a select audience of lawyers, doctors and ministers of religion.

The Misses Cowper consisted of Sister Susan and Sister Emma; the one large, rosy and dry, like an overgrown radish; the other small, pink and moist, rather like Tenniel's Mock Turtle. Both were Plymouth Sister old maids. They were very repulsive to the boy, who has never since liked calf's head, though partial to similar dishes, or been able to hear the names Susan or Emma without disgust. {37}

One day he said something to his mother which elicited from her the curious anatomical assertion: "Ladies have no legs." Shortly afterwards, when the Misses Cowper were at dinner with the family, he disappeared from his chair. There must have been some slight commotion on deck, leading to the question of his whereabouts. But at that moment a still small voice came from beneath the table: "Mamma! Mamma! Sister Susan and Sister Emma are not ladies!"

This deduction was perfectly genuine: but in the following incident the cynical may perhaps trace the root of a certain sardonic humour. The child was wont to indicate his views, when silence seemed discretion, by facial gestures. Several people were rash enough to tell him not to make grimaces, as he "might be struck like that". He would reply, with an air of enlightenment after long mediation: "So that accounts for it."

All children born into a family whose social and economic conditions are settled are bound to take them for granted as universal. It is only when they meet with incompatible facts that they begin to wonder whether they are suited to their original environment. In this particular case the most trifling incidents of life were necessarily interpreted as part of a prearranged plan, like the beginning of Candide.

The underlying theory of life which was assumed in the household showed itself constantly in practice. It is strange that less than fifty years later, this theory should seem such fantastic folly as to require a detailed account.

The universe was created by God 4004 B.C. The Bible, authorized version, was literally true, having been dictated by the Holy Ghost himself to scribes incapable of even clerical errors. King James' translators enjoyed an equal immunity. It was considered unusual— and therefore in doubtful taste—to appeal to the original texts. All other versions were regarded as inferior; the Revised Version in particular savoured of heresy. John Nelson Darby, the founder of the Plymouth Brethren, being a very famous biblical scholar, had been invited to sit on the committee and had refused on the ground that some of the other scholars were atheists.

The second coming of the Lord Jesus was confidently expected to occur at any moment9. So imminent was it that preparations for a distant future—such as signing a lease or insuring one's life—might he held to imply lack of confidence of the promise, "Behold I come quickly."

A pathetically tragic incident—some years later—illustrates the reality of this absurdity. To modern educated people it must seem unthinkable that {38} so fantastic a superstition could be such a hellish obsession in such recent times and such familiar places.

One fine summer morning, at Redhill, the boy—now eight or nine—got tired of playing by himself in the garden. He came back to the house. It was strangely still and he got frightened. By some odd chance everybody was either out or upstairs. But he jumped to the conclusion that "the Lord had come", and that he had been left behind". It was an understood thing that there was no hope for people in this position. Apart from the Second Advent, it was always possible to be saved up the very moment of death; but once the saints had been called up, the day of grace was finally over. Various alarums and excursions would take place as per the Apocalypse, and then would come the millennium, when Satan would be chained for a thousand years and Christ reign for that period over the Jews regathered in Jerusalem. The position of these Jews is not quite clear. They were not saved in the same sense as Christians had been, yet they were not damned. The millennium seems to have been thought of as a fulfilment of god's promise to Abraham; but apparently it had nothing to do with "eternal life". However, even this modified beatitude as not open to Gentiles who had rejected Christ.

The child was consequently very much relieved by the reappearance of some of the inmates of the house whom he could not imagine as having been lost eternally.

The lot of the saved, even on earth, was painted in the brightest colours. It was held that "all things work together for good to them that love God and are called according to His purpose". Earthly life was regarded as an ordeal; this was a wicked world and the best thing that could happen to anyone was "to go to be with Christ, which is far better". On the other hand, the unsaved went to the lake of fire and brimstone which burneth for ever and ever. Edward Crowley used to give away tracts to strangers, besides distributing them by thousands through the post; he was also constantly preaching to vast crowds, all over the country. It was, indeed, the only logical occupation for a humane man who believed that even the noblest and best of mankind were doomed to eternal punishment. One card—a great favourite, as being peculiarly deadly —was headed "Poor Anne's Last Words"; the gist of her remarks appears to have been "Lost, lost, lost!" She had been a servant in the house of Edward Crowley the elder, and her dying delirium had made a deep impression upon the son of the house.

By the way, Edward Crowley possessed the power, as per Higgins, the professor in Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, of telling instantly from a man's speech what part of the country he lived in. It was his hobby to make walking tours through every part of England, evangelizing in every town and village as he passed. He would engage likely strangers in conversation, diagnose and prescribe for their spiritual diseases, inscribe them in his {39} Address books, and correspond and send religious literature for years. At that time religion was the popular fad in England and few resented his ministrations. His widow continued the sending of tracts, etc. For years after his death.

As a preacher Edward Crowley was magnificently eloquent, speaking as he did from the heart. But, being a gentleman, he could not be a real revivalist, which means manipulating the hysteria of mob psychology.

{40}

 

1. "the younger" (1834-87).

2. It has been remarked a strange coincidence that one small county should have given England her two greatest poets—for one must not forget Shakespeare (1550-1610).

3. Presumably this is nature's compensation for the horror which blasted mankind on that date in 1492.

4. His son elicited this fact by questioning; curious, considering the dates.

5. On the strength of a text in the book itself: the logic is thus of a peculiar order.

6. WEH Note: A lustre is a period of five years.

7. There is also a notable tuft of hair upon the forehead, similar to the mound of flesh there situated in the Buddhist legends. And numerous minor marks.

8. He has never been able to pronounce "R" properly—like a Chinese!

9. Much was made of the two appearances of "Jesus" after the Ascension. In the first, to Stephen, he was standing, in the second, to Paul, seated, at the right hand of god. Ergo, on the first occasion he was still ready to return at once; on the second, he had made up his mind to let things take their course to the bitter end, as per the Apocalypse. No one saw anything funny, or blasphemous, or even futile, in this doctrine!