Aleister Crowley was routinely referred to during his lifetime as “the wickedest man in the world.” He was an occultist, the founder of Thelema, a person who lived by the phrase “Do what thou wilt,” a drug addict, and all told, not a very fun person to be around. He was also a painter, a poet, a great mountain climber, and ultimately more an aesthete than a madman.
In Gary Lachman’s Aleister Crowley: Magick, Rock and Roll, and the Wickedest Man in the World, the occult expert and founding member of Blondie sets out to prove Crowley’s lasting influence and impact on popular culture, from the portrait of him that hangs alongside Winston Churchill, Virginia Woolf, and Ernest Rutherford in the British National Portrait Gallery to his connection with contemporary musicians as different as Jay Z and Nine Inch Nails. While the attempt to bridge the past with the present takes up only its final chapter, Lachman’s book gives us an opportunity to get to know and better understand the life and methodology of the man nicknamed “the Great Beast.” As a biography, it gives us Crowley’s story and helps us understand, by taking us from his childhood to his time as a fast-rising member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, his practice of magick, his many peccadilloes, his alleged “occult warfare” against the Germans during the Second World War, and his own eventual mental and physical decline. It’s Crowley, not his influence, that is by far the most interesting subject in the book.
But was Crowley bad, or was he just consumed by the sins of the flesh, and any other sin he could wrap his soul around? Lachman’s book ultimately leaves us with the impression that it was the latter, while Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s Gabriele d’Annunzio: Poet, Seducer, and Preacher of War, a biography of the Italian “poet, aviator, nationalist, demagogue, war hero,” doesn’t hesitate to characterize its subject as a madman. D’Annunzio “believed he was working to create a new and better world order, a ‘politics of poetry'”; he even received a pot of caviar from Lenin, who called the Italian the “only revolutionary in Europe.”
In some ways, Crowley and d’Annunzio might seem like kindred spirits — a pair of artistically inclined egomaniacs who had no problem letting the world know they were just that. The difference between them is that d’Annunzio was a celebrity “at a time when a writer could attract a mass following, and deploy a significant political influence,” and Crowley was searching for something bigger and more abstract than just political power. Which of these two is more frightening? Is it the person who searches for power through already established institutions, or one who wants to be the greatest magician on the planet? The answer probably says a lot about your views on what constitutes evil — although when you learn that d’Annunzio was a major influence on Benito Mussolini and other European fascists to follow, that might influence your decision a bit.
While it might not seem an obvious pairing, reading Lachman’s book as a biography of Crowley (rather than an analysis of his importance) alongside Hughes-Hallett’s Gabriele d’Annunzio provides an opportunity to both compare and contrast these two controversial figures who reportedly were acquainted with one another in their lifetimes (d’Annunzio was 12 years older than Crowley and died nine years before him). It also gives the reader an opportunity to consider what’s truly bad or evil, and think about the quest for pleasure or power. Few figures in the last century will inspire you to ponder those ideas like the figures profiled in these two books.