Montreal Then: Encounter with the Beast, 666
Written by Zsolt Alapi
Aleister Crowley. The Beast. 666. The Devil incarnate. Even for those who have never read Crowley, his reputation precedes him. Once called “The Wickedest (sic) Man Alive,” Crowley was vilified in his native England yet is still the fascinating subject of occultists and remains an icon in popular culture. The Heavy Metal group Black Sabbath, fronted by Ozzie Osbourne, was inspired by him, among others, and Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin owns his former mansion that was reputed to be the place where much of Crowley’s magical experiments took place. It was surprising, then, to read recently in the London Review of Books that Crowley had made the list of the 100 Greatest English Authors of All Time.
This prompted me to buy the most recent of many biographies, Perdurabo: The Life of Aleister Crowley, by Richard Kaczinski, occult scholar and Crowley expert. What emerges from this 600 plus page work is the portrait of a fascinating poet, artist, religious leader, drug addict, womanizer, and all-round megalomaniac. Born into a wealthy family, Crowley quickly squandered the family fortune on printing beautiful, obscure limited editions of his own writing, travelling, and his greatest passion, mountain climbing. An expert climber, Crowley was one of the first to attempt Mt. Everest, later made so famous by Sir Edmund Hillary. Crowley lived a great portion of his life in exile from his homeland, living in New York City reportedly as a British agent prior to World War II, establishing the Abbey of Thelema in Italy, experimenting with drugs and with sexual magic, and founding the OTO, one of the most renowned occult groups devoted to the study and the practice of what Crowley came to call “magick”. Along the way, he published hundreds of poems, several collections of detective fiction, and his treatises on magic such as The Book of the Law, which to this day is revered by occultists and scholars alike. A former member of The Golden Dawn, the occult organization W.B. Yeats was so active in, Crowley became Yeats’ enemy due, largely, to Yeats’ jealousy about Crowley’s talent as a poet.
After Crowley’s death, many of his works were republished, and there emerged a whole industry devoted to Crowleyanity, especially as his works were often printed in limited, artistic editions.
So, as a graduate student at McGill back in the late ’70s, I came to learn about his work, thanks to a friend and collaborator who was a devoted student of all that was Crowley. He bought me his Collected Writing, upward of 15 volumes, and Number 64 of the numbered, limited edition of his poem, “Leah Sublime”, a poem addressed to his former mistress, Leah Hirsig, his “Scarlet Woman” with whom he lived in Italy and with whom he practiced “sexual magick”. This poem has two distinctions: it was printed and published privately in Montréal, and it is considered to be the most pornographic poem in the English language.
Ever the student/scholar, I was eager to read this work, especially having heard that its incantation would potentially lead to magical activity. I had just returned from a trip to Chicago to visit family and had lent the use of my basement apartment to my warlock friend who had introduced me to the world of the occult. When I returned to my flat, I was shocked to find it transformed. There was a huge pentagram with magical symbols drawn in the centre of the living space with black candles at each specific point. In the middle was a makeshift “altar” upon which rested a deck of Tarot card designed by the Beast himself.
That evening, two friends came over, my friend, Randy, and his girlfriend, a lovely young lady of Welsh origin who had grown up on a family plantation in Jamaica and spoke with a wonderful lilt. After indulging in the sacred herb and other stimulants, my warlock friend did a reading of the Tarot for the young lady. It was impressive: his eyes rolled back in his head, he invoked various spirits in a deep baritone, and the stoned young lady was mesmerized by his antics. Then, he decided to read out the entire poem, “Leah Sublime,” but only after warning us that this was an invocation of the Devil and asking were we prepared to be “visited”?
Now, being rational scholars all, we secretly guffawed enjoying what we perceived to be his histrionics. However, strange things began to happen once he reached the part that went:
“May the Devil our lord, your/ Soul scribble over/With saying of ordure!/Call me your lover!”
The large candles began to flicker with the flames rising every higher, and we could feel a charged tension in the room. When he finished the poem, or should I call it incantation, there was a brief silence, followed by a tremendous cracking sound. There, before our eyes, a huge ceramic decorative ashtray that weighed around 6 lbs. exploded into a thousand pieces, scattering debris all over the room. We had not used it for anything, and it had been sitting placidly on the mantel piece for months since I had moved into the apartment.
To make this long story short, I still own this small book but have not read it since in its entirety. I’m thinking of selling it to some rare book dealer and wonder how much it’s worth. I’ve long since sold the collection of Crowley’s works, and even his Tarot deck is locked away in some forgotten box from the past. And the girl? She passed out after the ashtray exploded, forcing her to spend the night. The next morning, we had coffee and, I swear, some remains of a Devil’s food cake I had in the fridge. Strangely, she no longer spoke in a Jamaican accent, but affected a Newfoundland twang.
There may be a moral to all of this, and perhaps this only involves the suspension of disbelief, something that we who move lightly in this strange, strange world are aware of: the rational world has little to offer of interest, and there is in the arc of our lives the hint of mystery that urges us to abide.
“Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law. Love is the law, love under will.” – Aleister Crowley