THE BRITISH LIBRARY

English and Drama blog

2 posts from January 2018

15 January 2018

It’s a kinda magick: Aleister Crowley

A guest blog by Rachel Brett, Humanities Reference Specialist

For those who believe in magic it’s reasonable to accept it can form in monochrome shades. Potentially the most infamous practitioner of the darker variety was Aleister Crowley (pictured below). Emerging from the Fin de siècle moment when, along with philosophers and psychoanalysists alike, he became interested in mysticism and the occult. Rebelling against his evangelical Christian upbringing causing his mother to dub him ‘The Beast’ a moniker amongst many he would adopt throughout his life as a magician.

ACrowleyCrowley began his magical apprentice training with the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, other probationers included W.B.Yeats. Crowley however, developed an interest in goetia- the evocation of demons and would later believe Yeats was casting spells on him because he was jealous of his poetry… The clandestine life style Crowley was beginning to indulge in encompassing drug taking and sexual experiments cast a cloud over his progress with that magical order prompting him to seek wider magical landscapes.

He travelled extensively and studied a myriad amount of ancient eastern traditions from yoga, meditation to kabbalah. He married and shortly after in telepathic communication with his new wife made contact with the Egyptian god Aiwass, which resulted in him producing The Book of the Law which would serve as the basis for the magic system he dedicated his life to. The premises of his belief system was ‘Do What thy Will, Love is the Law’. Analogous to Nietzsche before him he believed that individuals held the power to be free and live according to their own desires, despite the effect of those desires. Having achieved top level magus status Crowley became head of Ordo Templi Orientis (O.T.O.) he added a ‘k’ to the spelling of magic and set about establishing the religion of Thelema that would guide in the new Aeon.

One vital element to Crowley’s practice was the attainment of a magic diary. He had a strong interest in science and felt that magic should use the ‘method of science with the aim of religion’. In the age of enlightenment knowledge received by reason could be scientifically calculated. The practice of magic for Crowley had to be studied in the same manner; collect data and look for repeatable patterns and repetitions. The diary was key to this procedure.

He kept a diary from his initiation into the Golden Dawn and expected all his students to do likewise. The process of keeping a diary was to record and reflect on experiences and effective exercises. The recording allowed theories and methods to be tested but also a tool to aid his most profound motto; know thy self and ones limits.

He chronicled everything in his diary, from Astrological charts, concentration exercises, dreams, daily observations to what he ate and when. The resolution was to show life as a spell that is willed for a purpose. Evocations were his way of confronting obstacles to the self. By recording all his thoughts, feelings and activities and the reflecting upon these illuminated his perceptions. The practice of keeping the diary was a disciplined aspect of training for the aspirant. The diary would be maintained for a year then reflected upon by the teacher before a pupil could become adept. The principle was for the magician to record their past, where they came from and how they were brought to the gateway of magic. The diary would function as the writer’s conscience that could be used for further experiments. The recording of all activities meant that the mind could not forget or falsely remember.

Sometimes coded cipher might be used, and grammar was banished. There would be no full stops, or use of the word failure Crowley writes in The Book:

“This full stop may never be written anywhere else; for the writing of the Book goes on eternally; there is no way of closing the record until the goal of all has been attained.”

Aleister_Crowley_as_OsirisPicture showing Aleister Crowley as Osiris

For Crowley the maintenance of a magical diary was so vital to attainment that he wrote a novel based upon his own experiences. ‘The Diary of a Drug Fiend’ is a fictional account premised on his own experiences.

Magicians diaries rarely survive least of all become published, the full set are still waiting publications. John Dee who was the astrologer of Elizabeth 1 also kept a magical diary. Some of his original manuscript form part of the British Library collections.

Aleister Crowley had many faces, an iconoclast, a poet, a mountaineer, a mystic and popular culture icon. His cultural influence began as early as 1908 when Somerset Maugham wrote The Magician a novel caricaturing Crowley. During the revolutionary 1960’s Crowley would posthumously become an alternative inspiration for the new generation from magicians to pop stars. It seems that the subterranean world of the magician is an enduring mystery that looks set to remain in our popular consciousness for a long time to come. Just remember magic isn’t just one colour…  

References books on magic can be located on the open shelves in Humanities one reading room.

05 January 2018

Diaries: Recording History in Many Voices

Guest blog by Travis Elborough author of  Our Twentieth Century: As Told in Diaries, Journals and Letters, published by Michael O’Mara.

 TravisElborough author photo (c) David X Green - croppedDiaries and journals as we know them now have been with us since at least the 16th century. But it wasn't until 1812 that the stationer John Letts first began selling a yearly almanack from his shop at the Royal Exchange in London – at that time home to numerous booksellers and coffeehouses and an area previously haunted by Pepys. The Letts Diary was an immediate success, attracting such devoted users as William Makepeace Thackeray who favoured the 'three shillings cloth boards' No 12 model, and continues to be published in a multitude of formats to this day.

I’ve never really kept a diary. But I am an inveterate reader of other people’s. For me, the appeal has always been their immediacy and intimacy. That unique sense of being addressed directly, and sometimes extremely candidly, by someone, perhaps from an age other than our own, is intensely seductive. At the British Library there is the added thrill of being able to consult the original diaries of the likes of Laurie Lee, Kenneth Williams, Alec Guinness, Beryl Bainbridge and Shiva Naipaul in the archives, their personalities coming across here in pen stroke and paper stock as well as in choice turns of phrase.

It has been an enormous pleasure and a real privilege to be able to consult such documents and the Library’s unparalleled collection of published diaries while putting together my latest anthology, Our History of the 20th Century. In this book I’ve used extracts from over a hundred different diarists, both the great and the good and the completely obscure, to present a kind of top down and bottom up account of Britain during the last century. My diarists range from politicians, heads of state, novelists, playwrights and celebrities to ordinary people and the largely unknown and unsung contributors to the Mass Observation Project.

But in any case, as an historian and author of books on vinyl records and the British seaside, diaries are where I go to try and find as instantaneous or unvarnished a reaction to events as possible. First impressions count because they tend to get superseded by the collectively agreed verdict of history. Take for example the funeral of Queen Victoria, an event which we condescendingly assume must have been greeted with great solemnity by the general public. And yet here is Arnold Bennett’s impression of the occasion from his journal on 2 February 1901:

This morning I saw what I could, over the heads of a vast crowd, of the funeral procession of the Queen. The people were not, on the whole, deeply moved, whatever journalists may say, but rather serene and cheerful.

Afterwards, Legge, Fred Terry and Hooley lunched with me at the Golden Cross Hotel, and all was very agreeable and merry.

Diaries are, of course, often far from authoritative and have no commitment to tell the truth or record incidents accurately. They are by their very nature subjective, and so subject to the egos, whims and biases of their writers. Bennett may, perhaps, have nursed a particular antipathy toward the old Queen, who knows? Elsewhere in his journals he denounces cocktails, admires Lyons Corner House restaurants and records meeting T S Eliot and asking the American-born poet if The Wasteland was intended as a joke.

This is another joy of diaries, they can often supply frank (and sometimes amusingly wrong-headed) assessments of artworks long since judged canonical. It is in her diary that Virginia Woolf famously confessed on reading James Joyce’s Ulysses to feeling ‘puzzled, bored, irritated, and disillusioned as by a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples’. In turn Beatrice Webb writes off To the Lighthouse in her diary, deeming the ‘stream of consciousness’ narrative of Woolf’s 1927 novel ‘objectionable’ on the grounds that ‘even one’s own consciousness defies description’.

Our History Cover final - Travis elborough Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman might well have won the Pulitzer Prize in 1949 and is widely regarded as a classic of post-war American theatre. One that continues to be studied and regularly performed all over the world but after seeing its first London run, Malcolm Muggeridge judged it ‘a wholly sentimental affair’, concluding in a diary entry for the 27 September 1949 that it was little more than ‘a glorified hard-luck story.’ He was similarly damning of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger too.

Anyone familiar with the work of the film and theatre director Lindsay Anderson, leading light of the Free Cinema movement who produced politically-charged movies like If and Britannia Hospital, might have expected him to take a rather dim view of Star Wars. And indeed he does, with the robots C3P0 and R2D2 in George Lucas’s cinematic space epic coming in for particular criticism. But it is also in the pages of his diary we learn, rather surprisingly, that in 1978 he was a committed viewer of the American television series The Incredible Hulk.

Armed with this knowledge is it tempting to imagine what Anderson, who late in his career worked unhappily with the 80s pop group Wham! on a documentary of their tour of China, might possibly have done himself with a Marvel comics movie.

Anderson died in 1994, the year Tony Blair became leader of the Labour party. And there is, if anything, nothing more distant than that recent past. What seems like yesterday remains a period when news of Princess Diana’s death, for instance, reaches all the diarists in my book via landline telephone, radio, terrestrial television and inky newsprint rather than by text, the internet or social media.

Today, of course, many more people choose to document their lives with pictures on Instagram and comment publicly on events, personal and political, on Facebook or Twitter rather than privately in the leaves of a diary. It will be interesting to see what future historians might then use to construct a similar volume about our current century. 

Travis Elborough’s new book Our Twentieth Century: As Told in Diaries, Journals and Letters is published by Michael O’Mara.