The Boyhood of Aleister Crowley.
At 36 Clarendon Square, Leamington, Warwickshire, England, at 10.50 p.m. on the twelfth day of October, in the Eighteen Hundred and Seventy-Fifth Year of the vulgar era, was born the person whose history is to be recounted.
His father was named Edward Crowley; his mother, Emily Bertha, her maiden name being Bishop. Edward Crowley was an Exclusive Plymouth Brother, the most considered leader in that sect. This branch of the family of Crowley has been settled in England since Tudor times, but is Celtic in origin, Crowley being a clan in Kerry and other counties in the South-West of Ireland, of the same stock as the Breton `de Querouaille' or `de Kerval' which gave a Duchess of Portsmouth to England. It is supposed that the English branch—the direct ancestry of Edward Alexander Crowley—came to England with the Duke of Richmond, and took root at Bosworth.
In 1881 he went to live at The Grange, Redhill, Surrey. In 1884 the boy, who had till then been educated by governesses and tutors, was sent to a school at St. Leonards, kept by some extreme Evangelicals named Habershon. A year later he was transferred to a school at Cambridge kept by a Plymouth Brother of the name of Champney. (The dates in this paragraph are possibly inaccurate. Documentary evidence is at the present moment unavailable. Ed.)
On March 5, 1887, Edward Crowley died. Two years later the boy was removed from the school. Those two years were years of unheard-of torture. He has written details in the Preface to “The World's Tragedy.” This torture seriously undermined his health. For two years he travelled, mostly in Wales and Scotland, with tutors. In 1890 he went for a short time to a school at Streatham, kept by a man named Yarrow, his mother having moved there in order to be near her brother, an extremely narrow Evangelical named Tom Bond Bishop. This prepared him for Malvern, which he entered at the summer term of 1891. He only remained there a year, as his health was still very delicate. In the autumn he entered for a term at Tonbridge, but fell seriously ill, and had to be removed. The year 1893 was spent with tutors, principally in Wales, the north of Scotland, and Eastbourne. In 1895 he completed his studies in chemistry at King's College, London, and in October of that year entered Trinity College, Cambridge.
With this ends the first period of his life. It is only necessary to state briefly that his brain developed early. At four years old he could read the Bible aloud, showing a marked predilection for the lists of long names, the only part of the Bible which has not been tampered with by theologians. (This curious trait may perhaps be evidence of his poetical feeling, his passion for the bizarre and mysterious, or even of his aptitude for the Hebrew Qabalah. It may also be interpreted as a clue to his magical ancestry.) He could also play chess well enough to beat the average amateur, and though constantly playing never lost a game till I895.(The first man to beat him was H. E. Atkins, British Chess Champion (Amateur) for many years.) He was taught by a tailor who had been summoned to make clothes for his father, and was treated as a guest on account of his being a fellow “Plymouth Brother”. He beat his teacher uniformly after the first game. He must have been six or seven years old at this time.
He began to write poetry in 1886, if not earlier. Vide “Oracles”.
After the death of his father, who was a man of strong common sense, and never allowed his religion to interfere with natural affection, he was in the hands of people of an entirely contrary disposition. His mental attitude was soon concentrated in hatred of the religion which they taught, and his will concentrated in revolt against its oppressions. His main method of relief was mountaineering, which left him alone with nature, away from the tyrants.
The years from March, 1887, until entering Trinity College, Cambridge, in October, 1895, represented a continual struggle towards freedom. At Cambridge he felt himself to be his own master, refused to attend Chapel, Lectures or Hall, and was wisely left alone to work out his won salvation by his tutor, the late Dr. A. W. Verrall.
It must be stated that he possessed natural intellectual ability to an altogether extraordinary degree. He had the faculty of memory, especially verbal memory, in astonishing perfection.
As a boy he could find almost any verse in the Bible after a few minutes search. In 1900 he was tested in the works of Shakespeare, Shelley, Swinburne (1st series of Poems and Ballads), Browning and The Moonstone. He was able to place exactly any phrase from any of these books, and in nearly every case to continue with the passage.
He showed remarkable facility in acquiring the elements of Latin, Greek, French, Mathematics and Science. He learnt “little Roscoe” almost by heart, on his own initiative. When in the Lower Fifth at Malvern, he came out sixth in the school in the annual Shakespeare examination, though he had given only two days to preparing for it. Once, when the Mathematical Master, wishing to devote the hour to cramming advanced pupils, told the class to work out a set of examples of Quadratic Equations, he retorted by asking at the end of forty minutes what he should do next, and handed up the whole series of 63 equations, correct.
He passed all his examinations both at school and university with honours, though refusing uniformly to work for them.
On the other hand, he could not be persuaded or constrained to apply himself to any subject which did not appeal to him. He showed intense repugnance to history, geography, and botany, among others. He could never learn to write Greek and Latin verses, this probably because the rules of scansion seemed arbitrary and formal.
Again, it was impossible to him to take interest in anything from the moment that he had grasped the principles of “how it was, or might be done.” This trait prevented him from putting the finishing touches to anything he attempted.
For instance, he refused to present himself for the second part of his final examination for his B.A. degree, simply because he knew himself thoroughly master of the subject! (Swinburne similarly refused to be examined in Classics at Oxford on the ground that he knew more than the examiners.)
This characteristic extended to his physical pleasures. He was abjectly incompetent at easy practice climbing on boulders, because he knew he could do them. It seemed incredible to the other men that this lazy duffer should be the most daring and dexterous cragsman of his generation, as he proved himself whenever he tackled a precipice which had baffled every other climber in the world. (In Chess also he has beaten many International Masters, and ranks on the Continent as a Minor Master himself. But he cannot be relied upon to win against a second-rate player in a Club Match.) Similarly, once he had worked out theoretically a method of climbing a mountain, he was quite content to tell the secret to others, and let them appropriate the glory. (The first ascent of the Dent du Geant from the Montanvers is a case in point.) It mattered everything to him that something should be done, nothing that he should be the one to do it.
This almost inhuman unselfishness was not incompatible with consuming and insatiable personal ambition. The key to the puzzle is probably this; he wanted to be something that nobody else had ever been, or could be. He lost interest in chess as soon as he had proved to himself (at the age of 22) that he was a master of the game, having beaten some of the strongest amateurs in England, and even one or two professional “masters.” He turned from poetry to painting, more or less, when he had made it quite certain that he was the greatest poet of his time. Even in Magick, having become The Word of the Aeon, and thus taken his place with the other Seven Magi known to history, out of reach of all possible competition, he began to neglect the subject. He is only able to devote himself to it as he does because he has eliminated all personal ideas from his Work ; it has become as automatic as respiration.
We must also put on record his extraordinary powers in certain unusual spheres. He can remember the minutest details of a rock- climb, after years of absence. He can retrace his steps over any path once traversed, in the wildest weather or the blackest night. He can divine the one possible passage through the most complex and dangerous ice-fall. (E.g. the Vuibez seraes in I897, the Mer de Glace, right centre, in I899.)
He possesses a “sense of direction” independent of any known physical methods of taking one's bearings; and this is as effective in strange cities as on mountains or deserts. He can smell the presence of water, of snow, and other supposedly scentless substances. His endurance is exceptional. He has been known to write for 67 consecutive hours : his “Tannhauser” was thus written in 1900. He has walked over 100 miles in 2 1/2 days, in the desert : as in the winter of 1910. He has frequently made expeditions lasting over 36 hours, on mountains, in the most adverse conditions. He holds the World's record for the greatest number of days spent on a glacier–65 days on the Baltoro in 1902; also that for the greatest pace uphill over 16,000 feet–4,000 feet in 1 hour 23 minutes on Iztaccihuatl in 1900; that for the highest peak (first ascent by a solitary climber)–the Nevado de Toluca in 1901; and numerous others. (Written in 1920 e.v.: these records may no longer stand.)
Yet he is utterly fagged-out by the mere idea of a walk of a few hundred yards, if it does not interest him, and excite his imagination, to take it; and it is only with the greatest effort that he can summon the energy to write a few lines if, instead of his wanting to do them, he merely knows that they must be done.
This account has been deemed necessary to explain how it is that a man of such unimaginable commanding qualities as to have made him world-famous in so many diverse spheres of action, should have been so grotesquely unable to make use of his faculties, or even of his achievements, in any of the ordinary channels of human activity; to consolidate his personal pre-eminence, or even to secure his position from a social or economic standpoint.
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