Reply to Sandy Robertson’s review of Aleister Crowley: Magick, Rock and Roll, and the Wickedest Man in the World
Sandy Robertson, author of The Aleister Crowley Scrapbook, has posted a review of my Aleister Crowley on amazon.co.uk. As I say in my reply, I have enjoyed reading Sandy’s book and refer to it in my own. After posting my reply, I thought I would post it here too, as it addresses some wider issues regarding the book’s reception in some circles. Readers should get the gist of Sandy’s criticisms from my reply.
I am glad that Sandy Robertson, whose Aleister Crowley Scrapbook I’ve enjoyed reading very much and which I refer to in my book, has taken time out to make some remarks about my book. Sadly, I have to disabuse him and readers of his review of what he considers glaring errors in the book. In the first place, I do not say that H.P. Lovecraft never mentioned that he heard of Crowley; I say that he doesn’t mention him in any of his stories. (There is a reference to an ‘English cult leader’ in ‘The Thing on the Doorstep’, but that is all.) There is, as I’m sure Sandy knows, a lot of rubbish written about Lovecraft and Crowley – including that Lovecraft’s wife, Sonia Greene, had an affair with Crowley – and it is easy to lose track of what is fact and what is interesting fiction. Also, the first use of the term ‘monster’ in regards to the alleged creature inhabiting Loch Ness does indeed date from 1933, in an article by Alex Campbell in the Inverness Courier for May 2. There is some argument that an account involving St. Colomba in the Sixth century is the first report of Nessie, but this is considered dubious by many researchers and is not accepted as an ‘official’ sighting. The term ‘underground magazine’ is very broad and can be applied to a wide range of publications, from the early issues of the Village Voice to short-lived fanzines; I do not see where my use of it in regard to Flexipop is a mistake. Others have pointed out similar so-called errors, such as my using ‘inaccurate’ online sources for some of Crowley’s works, but they have not shown where these references are mistaken, and at least one reader has done the homework and concluded that they were not.
The main issue for me is that some readers believe the book is only or centrally about music and the occult. It is not, nor does it say so on the tin. (Neither the word ‘music’ nor ‘occult’ appears on the cover.) The subtitle is ‘Magick, Rock and Roll, and The Wickedest Man in the World,’ and all three of those ingredients are amply evident; I even point out more than once that Crowley was not as wicked as the tabloids who pinned this sobriquet on him believed. One of the key questions I explore in the book is why Crowley remained a pop ‘icon’ – apologies for using a much abused and emptied-out term – long after other esoteric figures taken up by the 60s counter culture, like Jung and Madame Blavatsky, no longer were. The answer to that is that Crowley’s philosophy of excess – ‘excess in all directions’, as his friend Louis Wilkinson called it – is purpose built for rock and roll and the pop aesthetics that followed it. As far as I can tell, a handful of readers have seen this – Erik Davis, Maja D’aoust and I discussed it on their program Expanding Mind – but some ignore it, willfully or otherwise, I do not know. I came to Crowley through rock and roll – I write about my early reading of his work while a member of Blondie. The rock and roll ethos is a motif throughout the book, and in the last chapter I look at Crowley’s continued influence on contemporary rappers etc. So music is certainly in the book, but it is not the only thing in it.Sadly, with people like Crowley, who have a large and proprietary fan base, it is difficult to write critically but respectfully about them, without incurring the displeasure of those who believe they ‘own’ them. I have had the same experience with my books about Ouspensky, Steiner, Jung, Blavatsky, and Swedenborg. It would be gratifying if rather than point out where my take on these people disagrees with the received opinion – and anorakisly collecting bloopers to show that I don’t know what I’m talking about – such readers engaged with the critical questions and saw the lives of these remarkable characters as something to be understood, not championed. Likewise, for those who reject such figures outright, to revile their lives is profitless – and an unbiased reader of my book on Crowley will, I think, realize that I do not do this.