Just when you thought it was safe to go back into popular culture, something nasty has reared its bald head once again. ‘The Beast’, ‘The Wickedest Man In the World’ or, simply, ‘666’ as he was known, is back.
Aleister Crowley, magician, Satanist, mystic, poet, mountaineer, drug addict, counter cultural hero, take your pick. For generations of disaffected youth he has been a symbol of the dark side, something a little stronger than what you might get in Buffy, something a bit more destructive than Kurt Cobain, he is the man who terrified interwar Britain with his brazen pursuit of sexual magick and every few years he pops up in the most unexpected places. Now he has resurfaced once again, in the seemingly unrelated worlds of James Bond’s Casino Royale and the new rave music of The Klaxons.
The Klaxons have been described as ‘acid-rave sci-fi punk-funk’, but more famously they are one are one of the acts being referred to as ‘New Rave’, though I think ‘new Goth disco’ might be a better term. The bad boy band use Aleister Crowley like an item on their checklist of an intellectual disaffection: they claim to not be Satanists (which must come as a relief to their mothers); Crowley is just another name in their list which includes William Burroughs, Thomas Pynchon and anything by JG Ballard. Their third single was called, ‘Magick’ (and is that extra ‘k’ which is the give away, ‘magic’ with a ‘c’ is the stuff they do at kids birthday parties, magick with a ‘k’ is the stuff involving pentagrams on the floor, slaughtered goats and all the rest of it.) They’ve also released a song called ‘As Above, So Below’ which was one of Crowley’s favourite sayings, but none as famous as his call to extreme freedom: to the liberation from the constraints of middle class morality, his famous dictum, ‘Do What Thou Wilt Shall be The Whole of the Law’.
"Magician, Satanist, mystic, poet, mountaineer, drug addict, counter cultural hero, take your pick."
Quoting Crowley in your new rave song title does seem to be a case of ‘weird shit for the sake of it.’ But you have to ask, why Crowley? Why is this bald old man who died in 1947 still the poster child for anyone who’s ever painted their bedroom walls black and worn a bit too much eye make-up? To see the central and very strange place this man held in British culture in the 20th century, it’s worth looking at the odd story of how he came to be associated with James Bond.
By the time the Second World War broke out, Aleister Crowley was famous in Britain as the public face of Satanism. He had already gained notoriety for his unashamed bisexuality, his claims to have crucified a cat in a black magick ritual while at Cambridge and for his promotion of drug use (including his favourite heroin) as a way of encouraging mystical visions.
However, it was his 1934 lawsuit against the artist Nina Hamnett, which made him front page news in Britain for weeks and ensured that everyone knew the name of ‘The Beast’. She had called him a ‘black magician’ in her 1932 book, Laughing Torso, and Crowley bankrupted himself trying to clear his name. The trial revealed salacious details which the public lapped up about the orgies he had conducted at his Sicilian monastery, the Abbey of Thelema (which, in fact, was little more than a run-down farmhouse) but it was the judge’s summary that made him famous.
In addressing the jury, Mr Justice Swift said: ‘I have been over 40 years engaged in the administration of the law in one capacity or another. I thought that I knew of every conceivable form of wickedness. I thought that everything which was vicious and bad had been produced at one time or another before me. I have never heard such dreadful, horrible, blasphemous and abominable stuff as that which has been produced by the man Crowley.’
Nine years later, Hitler’s right-hand man Rudolph Hess flew to Scotland in a Messerschmitt at the height of the war, lured there by a British secret service plot which had fed the occult-obsessed Nazi with false astrological predictions. This led him to believe that a plot was being hatched in Scotland to overthrow Churchill; and Ian Fleming was one of the British spies in charge of the operation.
Rudolph Hess was found to be little short of a lunatic. But his occult ramblings made Fleming, who had met Crowley and been deeply impressed by his ‘air of true wickedness’, think he should be brought in to interpret Hess’s interrogation. But his superiors vetoed Fleming’s idea as being far too risky. However, a few years later in 1952 when Fleming was writing his first Bond novel, Casino Royale, calling on his experiences as a spy, he needed a model for the villain Le Chiffre, and as has been famously said of Fleming, ‘he always knew a good villain when he saw one.’
And so Fleming chose Crowley – based on their wartime meetings – as the model for the first ever Bond villain. Fleming described Le Chiffre as ‘clean shaven, with a complexion very pale or white, fat, slug-like, with sadistic impulses, constantly using a benzedrine inhaler and with an insatiable appetite for women.’ He also had a rather feminine mouth. It is also written that both called people 'dear boy', and both, like the crazed Benito Mussolini, ‘had the whites of their eyes completely visible around the iris.’
And so ‘The Beast’ lives on – as the archetypal Bond villain, as a name to drop in songs if you want to appeal to the black bedroom brigade, but most of all Aleister Crowley lives on as ‘The Wickedest Man In the World.’ And with a tag like that, you’re always going to find someone to follow you.