Aleister Crowley, early 20th century ceremonial magician, sex maniac and Great Beast 666, may not be everyone's cup of tea. In fact, at the time he was alive, he was about as popular as James Blunt would be nowadays if he revealed that he's also actually a Nazi.
But certain of his ideas I've found very interesting, and you don't have to believe in the occult to see grains of truth in terms of how our society has progressed.
Bear with me.
A brief and superficial history, for those who aren't aware of him - born into a wealthy English family, entered into a lifelong path of spiritual self-exploration which led him to join and found various occult orders, travelled the world, had sex with a lot of people, was a pioneer of the use of psychedelic drugs in the context of 'religious experience', went broke, was simultaneously spying for British intelligence while being seen as a traitor in his homeland, and published poetry and novels that were generally seen at the time as being the work of a hack. He died in 1947, with the contempt of a lot of those who had heard his name, seen by some as immoral, evil, and even as a satanist or the devil incarnate.
While clearly this was the tabloid press of the day having their usual fun, he was an arrogant man, and a bastard to pretty much every woman he had been with. But we all have our faults. He wasn't evil. And I think he was a genuine pioneer in a lot of respects.
Perhaps his most important legacy was the founding of a spiritual philosophy, Thelema. He claimed that, on his honeymoon in Cairo in 1904, a non-human intelligence had dictated a sacred text to him, over the course of three days. This came to be known as the Book of the Law, the founding text of Thelema. Whether a spirit actually dictated this to Crowley or whether it was a drug-induced hallucination is anyone's guess, and besides the point for me. Thelema is far too complicated an idea to go into in a blog, but essentially, and again superficially, it involves the individual becoming aware of their 'higher self', while at the same time becoming 'at one' with the Universe, through a mystifying and mystical journey through occult techniques and spiritual development. It could be seen as similar to the Buddhist concept of enlightenment, with some western occult trappings.
A central concept of this spiritual paradigm is the idea that mankind has moved through identifiable spiritual and societal 'stages', known as Aeons. These can be seen as not necessarily literally true, but symbolic of the journey of humanity through time (although some take it literally). The first, when we stood up straight as a species and looked around us, was the Aeon of Isis, the Egyptian mother goddess - in which we worshipped the earth as our goddess, because we depended so completely on her during our brief lives on her hostile terrain - we needed sustenance, we needed shelter. So 'pagan' religions, with the emphasis on the mother goddess and nature, flourished.
As humanity progressed, and we became better at mastering our environment, we entered the Aeon of Osiris, the father god. This, broadly speaking, saw the emergence of patriarchal religions, with their emphasis on self-sacrifice and submission to the father god.
1904, Crowley believed, was the dawn of the Aeon of Horus - Horus being the crowned and conquering child of Isis and Osiris. This was to be an age of the individual, but also in some ways a synthesis of nature/goddess-worship and the worship of the father - fitting with Crowley's pantheistic, universal view of the nature of divinity. In some ways he was foreseeing humanity's fight for the rights of the individual and the oppressed parts of society that the 1960s is partly remembered for.
On the flip-side, Crowley foresaw apocalyptic war and destruction on a grand scale. He perceived the political ideologies that originated in the 19th and early 20th centuries as being 'infantile' - not in the sense of being harmless, but in their inexorable and dangerous conviction that their way of thinking is the only way - absolute truth. And absolute truth is always a dodgy concept. In this way, the dangers of fascism, nationalism, communism, religious fundamentalism and their sway over the greater part of the 20th century, and even the 21st, contrasted with the growing trend towards individual rights, encapsulates the idea of the Age of the Child. He saw the inevitability of world war, unimaginable horror, and the renaissance of the individual, all in 1904.
Now, we've had our playtime, we've run riot, and we're about to be put to bed. We need to be put in front of the TV and soothed. This is the phase, symbolically, we have now entered. Our popular culture is geared towards treating us as children. I'll use the example of television and cinema, which can sometimes be the most amazing and innovative art forms, but which are often centred around, for want of a better and less snobbish-sounding phrase, the lowest common denominator.
I would add that I'm only writing from a western cultural perspective, as that's all I can do.
Think about a lot of primetime television - comforting and formulaic, but with a non-threatening level of suspense, before we find out which of the no-hopers is going home this week. You've seen one, you've seen them all. Soothing. And we have our own say, through the audience vote, which makes us think we have control of the toys. We like watching programmes when we think someone might have a tantrum, have an argument, be stupid - see where I'm going with this? Childishness. And I'm not in any way placing myself 'above' all of this - I'm just as much part of this as anyone else.
But hasn't popular culture always been 'lowest common denominator?' What am I trying to say?
Well, yes, of course it has, by the very nature of it being popular. But as time is going on, new and innovative ways of amusing us, without challenging us, are thought up. The barrel is being scraped. A lot of popular culture from forty years ago, while being looked down upon by some at the time, now looks like I, Claudius by today's standards. Shakespeare's plays were a fun night out half a millennium ago, but are now seen by many as intimidating, boring and untouchable - too highbrow. That's progress!
Of course, I am talking about general trends here, and there are some geniuses out there still making though provoking and astonishingly good popular art - maybe next time I'll talk about one of them, and I can be a bit more upbeat!