Aleister Crowley, mountaineer, mage and magician, has been the basis for a number of fictional characters - Somerset Maugham's Oliver Haddo, M. R. James' Karswell, Anthony Powell's Scorpio Murtlock, Dennis Wheatley's Mocata and even Ian Fleming's Le Chiffre in the first James Bond story, Casino Royale. Rarely has he appeared in fiction as himself. Here, in a highly researched story based upon his relationship with his acolyte, Victor Neuburg, he is himself in all his occult and charismatic glory - a manipulative, overbearing, bizarre yet compelling character. Fiction could hardly have invented him: he is a gift of a character to any novelist and Richard McNeff has accepted him, unwrapped the parcel and given him his head.
For information about acquiring the book go to link
THE SYBARITE CHRONICLES
In 1977, International Times, the house journal of the alternative society, published a short story called Sybarite among the Shadows. I based the story on an anecdote I found in Sexuality, Magic and Perversion by Francis King, which relates how Aldous Huxley was given his first mescaline trip by Aleister Crowley in Berlin in the Thirties. The thought of two such divergent characters in such a setting intrigued me. For added spice, I added some atmospherics concerning the influence of the German branch of Crowley’s magical order, the OTO, on the Nazis – such speculations being very much in vogue at the time. Victor Neuburg, poet and disciple of the Beast, acted as narrator.
The story caused something of a stir and the American magazine High Times contacted me with a view to publishing it. They assumed I was in possession of the secret diaries of Victor Neuburg. Sadly, I had to disabuse them. Fourteen years later, I found an anthology called Rapid Eye at a bookshop on Oxford Street. The famous photo of Aldous Huxley parting a torn hanging, symbolising the opening of the doors of perception, was on the cover. The blurb promised transgressive writing. Wondering why I never featured in such anthologies, I leafed through pieces by Derek Jarman and William Burroughs until I came across my name misspelled at the top of a page and the Crowley/Huxley story beneath it. In fairness to the editor, the late Simon Dwyer, I was then living abroad and he had tried to contact me.
No such attempts were made by the Russian(s) who translated it and posted it online another decade on. . Pan’s Asylum Camp, a website that describes the development of Thelema in Russia, lists the story as part of the collected works of Crowley, published in 1997. According to the website, many Russian readers took the story to be true. So did Micheal Howard - no relation I am assuming to the former leader of the Conservative party’s, though the politician’s Transylvanian ancestry might suggest otherwise. In the Occult Conspiracy Howard relates how “Crowley had confided to the writer Aldous Huxley in 1938 when they met in Berlin that Hitler was a practising occultist. He also claimed that the OTO had helped the Nazis to gain power”. Such a notion persists. A recent coffee-table book called The Nazis and the Occult by Paul Roland assumes the story to be a factual account written by Neuburg, quotes extensively from it, and uses one throwaway line attributed to Crowley to justify the claim that Hitler also used mescaline.
Crowley and Huxley did indeed spend time together in Berlin; the Beast painted the writer’s portrait. Crowley used mescaline liberally for many years, famously spiking the audience during the Rites of Eleusis in 1910. Apart from King’s anecdote, however, as far as I am aware, evidence that he introduced Huxley to what was then called Anhalonium Lewinii is sketchy. Nevertheless, through the alchemy of other writers, it seems my faction has transmuted into fact.
The idea of using Neuburg as the narrator of a longer work persisted. At first, I considered portraying the extraordinary events of his eight-year association with Crowley – Bou Saada, the Paris Working. Then an approach from another angle sprang to mind: a reunion in the Thirties with Dylan Thomas as the link. Neuburg had discovered the Welsh bard when poetry editor of The Sunday Referee. Jean Overton Fuller’s The Magical Dilemma of Victor Neuburg was the primary source but there were others, most of whom she lists in the excellent bibliography at the back of her book. There is a detailed portrait, for example, of both Crowley and Neuburg in Arthur Calder-Marshall’s long out of print The Magic of my Youth. Here Vicky appears without a halo: his eccentricity has edge. Rupert Croft-Cooke devotes a chapter to him in Glittering Pastures. In the memoirs of the painter Nina Hamnett, Laughing Torso, which Crowley sued her over, there is the story of the actor Ione de Forest and the bizarre ménage she formed with Vicky and the Beast, which culminated in her suicide. Hamnett does not name Neuburg but refers to him as the Poet throughout.
In his limericks, letters and The Confessions, Crowley is predictably scathing about Neuburg, the disciple who reneged. More surprising is Dylan’s attitude. In Fuller’s book, uncharacteristically meek and sober, he gratefully laps up his mentor’s wisdom. In The Collected Letters, by contrast, he is full of scorn for “the Creative Lifers” as he dubs Vicky and his circle. “The creature himself – I must tell you one day if I haven’t told you before how Aleister Crowley turned Vicky into a camel – is a nineteenth-century crank with mental gangrene, lousier than ever before, a product of a Jewish nuts-factory, an Oscar tamed.” (To A.E. Trick – December 1934).
There is much more in this vein to several correspondents. Dylan loathes Vicky’s view of poetry, in which all must be sweetness and light. “Word tinkling” he calls it. Neuburg told Fuller that he had read some of Crowley’s poems to Dylan. He did not like them. Neuburg’s book of poems, The Triumph of Pan, is still in print but likewise is of a style that has little appeal to modern tastes.
The expanded Sybarite among the Shadows takes place during the course of one day, June 11th 1936, the date of the opening of the Surrealist Exhibition in London. It begins with Dylan visiting Neuburg at his home in Swiss Cottage. In a Soho pub the previous evening a sinister stranger had mimicked Dylan’s doodling. The stranger then approached and revealed he had drawn the same picture as the poet before introducing himself as the Beast.
The story of Dylan, Crowley, and the doodle is not my invention. Constantine Fitzgibbon relates it in his Life of Dylan Thomas. In fact, since the publication of Sybarite I have, thanks to Geraldine Baskin of Atlantis Books, come across someone who was actually present and can corroborate the incident. As I continued to research the connection, I found several references to Crowley in Dylan’s letters. Both were integral members of a bohemian scene that flourished in Fitzrovia and Soho and had several friends in common, including Augustus John and Nina Hamnett. As did Somerset Maugham, Anthony Powell and Ian Fleming, so Dylan even based a character on the Beast. In The Death of the King’s Canary, a posthumously published satire on contemporaries the Welshman composed with John Davenport, there is a sinister marijuana-smoking magician called Great Raven. The code is not so difficult to crack. Nina Hamnett appears as Sylvia Bacon – to his friends, the Beast was “Crow”.
Dylan and Neuburg embark on an adventure, whose settings include the Surrealist Exhibition, the Café Royal, the Fitzroy Tavern, and the Gargoyle Club. They encounter Augustus John, Tom Driberg, gossip-columnist, spy and at one time Crowley’s magical heir, along with other well-known members of the London demi-monde, such as “the tiger woman” Betty May. The narrative connects each to Crowley, as did life.
Reunited with the Beast, Neuburg becomes involved in a plot hatched by Crowley and MI5 to avert the Abdication. There is an abundance of evidence linking Crowley to the Secret Service, explored most recently in Secret Agent 666 by Richard B.Spence. Spence also goes into some detail about the Beast’s use of mescaline as a kind of truth drug, anticipating the CIA in this respect. In addition, Neuburg and Crowley employ again the magic they have used in an attempt to exorcise the consequences of their earlier Workings, which have played havoc with Vicky’s life.
According to Fuller, in 1910 Neuburg, a formidable seer, was put in a triangle and possessed by the god Mars. He predicted there would be two wars within the next five years, one centred on Turkey and the other on Germany. The result would be the destruction of both nations. The contention of Sybarite is that Mars still inhabits Neuburg, and the book opens with him in an armchair undergoing a vision of war. In 2002, Marc Aitken made a short film called Do Angels Cut Themselves Shaving - a quote from Magick without Tears. This commences with Neuburg in his armchair also experiencing martial visions. It ends with a reunion with Crowley. Marc and I were working completely independently of each other. Coincidence, some might say. Yet if the hypotheses of magic hold true, there is a numinous architecture, which we glimpse, and sense we are here more fully to behold.
As a somewhat tongue-in-cheek illustration of this, I am grateful to the eagle-eyed contributors to a Beatles blogwho recently spotted the following. If you draw a line from the photo of Crowley to that of Lennon on the cover of Sergeant Pepper, it intersects first Huxley and then Dylan, exactly mirroring the chronology of the Sybarite series. The sixties ley line then crosses Tom Mix’s hat, behind which in all probability Hitler is lurking,and goes on to traverse Oscar Wilde. Cyril Connolly of course described Crowley as the missing link between the twain.
For further information see: www.mandrake.uk.net/richardmcneff
Reproduced below is the 1977 International Times story that inspired the novel.
Sybarite among the Shadows
“He bridges the gap between Oscar Wilde and Hitler…”
BERLIN. The yellow stars daubed on shop windows in the Jewish Quarter, overshadowed by the monstrous towers the Nazis called architecture – totems of the thousand-year Reich. Such a millenarian atmosphere suited Crowley, fresh, if that is the word, from a reinvigorating interlude of sex magic with a woman half his age in Lisbon. Like a gratified parent, he still doted on the “German Crusade”, as he called it. In turn, the authorities tolerated his existence. Names he had been invoking for years were on the lips of high-ranking SS officers: Ahriman, Horus, and Moloch – many deities were abroad that year. Besides, his relationship with the Nazis stretched back to the early days of the Party’s formation. Yet they did not like the relationship to be too defined. Already theirs was a hidden doctrine, a sect of intrigue and the esoteric, of ritual and symbol, posing as the modern. A few years later, his eyes opened, the OTO suppressed in Germany, Crowley would describe them with contempt as the Black Brothers. Indeed, they were worshippers of the left hand, the perverted spirit – but in secret only. To the ostensible world, they presented themselves as the final cultists of the empirical. Crowley to them was something of a buffoon: an actor in a shadow play of rich widows and cocaine who shared their interests but not their intent. The Wanderer of the Waste was comfortable with this arrangement. He loved outrage and extravagance; while for them, purpose was enough.
Crowley had first met Aldous Huxley in this same Berlin at the start of the decade and had painted his portrait in the belief that he was rich. This time Huxley was in the city as an observer of the strange monster Germany was becoming. Like many witnesses, he was both repulsed and fascinated by the dark rhythym that beat in the pulse of that nation. To describe their relationship as friendship would be to miss the point. Crowley was doubtless fascinating – notorious as the Great Beast in his own country and much of Europe, a brilliant conversationalist and something of an enigma, whereas Huxley was a myopic intellectual. Yet Crowley attracted him, just as thirty years before he had intrigued the dry and peevish Somerset Maugham in Paris. He almost existed for the straying eye of the novelist who hunted those chapters of exhibition life did not afford. Yet now Crowley fades, his rotundity, absurd and menacing, is blurred – a glaring headline of Edwardian sin.
“Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law,
Love is the Law, Love under Will.”
So I utter his Law in my own defence, that simplification filched from Rabelais, supposedly dictated in the mirage of a Cairo night by his guardian angel Aiwass. I think of him shortly after the war shambling through that seedy Hastings boarding house sated with the Law: a figure of pathos in his threadbare dressing gown nursing his habits and remorse, an aged minotaur, sybarite among the shadows, in the fading of his Aeon, more Fool than Prospero.
Already in the Thirties psychotropic agents fascinated Huxley. Albert Hoffman, synthesizer of LSD, had yet to sway on his bicycle after the mysterious chemical seeped through his pores, yet there existed an abundance of literature concerning its predecessors: Havelock Ellis’s experiments with mescaline or those of William James with psylocibin. Moreover, Berlin, at that time, still nursing is Weimar hangover, was the epicentre of drugs in Europe. Both Hitler and Goering used amphetamine and cocaine, and the SS administered many narcotics in their initiation ceremony, the Ritual of the Stifling Air, which closely resembled the Black Mass. Indeed, one of the biggest contributors to the formation of the Nazi Party, and so the Second World War, may have been the diet of methedrine, a super strength amphetamine, and Nietzsche fed to German soldiers in the trenches - both pills of the former and copies of Also Sprach Zarathrustra were standard army issue. An oversimplification, perhaps, yet the first chemical history of our epoch remains to be written.
Thus it was that Huxley came to Crowley for his first taste of mescaline. The latter took the drug irregularly, without pretensions, purely as an exercise in that hedonistic spirituality he practised. Huxley, on the other hand, nursed a genuine mystical longing that had surprisingly blossomed in a soul as rooted in reason as his own. There was a confusion of aims, a perennial ambiguity about their enterprise. I, Victor B. Neuburg, poet and sodomite, sorcerer’s apprentice, veteran of Bou Saada and the Paris Workings, was the arbiter.
They had spent the afternoon in our less than opulent rented quarters discussing Karma. Crowley was talking:
‘To me it exists solely as a paradox. It is true I have seen retribution visit others on many occasions, especially those foolish enough to cross me as they have learnt to their cost. There does seem to be a sense of balance in the machinery. Nevertheless, this process is unending. It acts in everything and so to allow it an iota of acknowledgement is absurd.’
‘We reap what we sow, Aleister,’ Huxley countered, ‘not in a moral sense, at least only haphazardly moral. Nemesis is something like gravitation, inevitable yet indifferent. If, for example, you sow self-stultification by an excessive interest in money, you will engineer a grotesque humiliation.’
‘In what sense? How can you possibly accuse the rich of humiliation? Surely they’re the last people to fall victim to that particular failing.’
‘I was coming to that. By self-stultification I don’t just mean money. I mean anything that clouds the spirit. Over-indulgence in alcohol, food or sex are more examples of things that wreck our purpose. However, because these things reduce you to a sub-human condition, you will not be aware the humiliation is humiliation, so to speak. There is your explanation of why Nemesis sometimes seems to reward. What she brings is humiliation only in the absolute sense, for the ideal and complete human being, or at any rate, for the nearly complete. For the sub-human it may seem a triumph, a consummation, a fulfilment of the heart’s desire.’
‘Moral,’ concluded Crowley,’ live sub-humanely and Nemesis may bring you happiness. Well, if you will excuse me, my dear Aldous, I will proceed to self-stultify. Victor, if you don’t mind: Pandora’s box!’
I rose and went to the cabinet and took out his medicine. Four phials lay in the ivory box. I selected the one containing Burmese heroin and another crammed with Bolivian cocaine. Carefully I mixed the powders on a silver tray, crushing the dirty khaki coloured heroin and adding about five times as much cocaine. I passed Crowley a silver spoon that, with surprising dexterity, he used to scoop up some of the powder, which he then deftly inhaled, first through the right and then the left nostril.
‘Won’t you join us for cocktails?’ Crowley invited. ‘This combination certainly beats Pimm’s.”
Disapproval etched itself into the lines on Huxley’s austere face.
Observing this, Crowley commented: ‘I’m afraid if you keep the devil’s company then you must see his works. Imagine you’re with Falstaff, you know, “gentlemen of the shade, minions of the Moon”.’
‘But this is such waste,’ declared Huxley, ‘the ultimate form of self-stultification. What’s more I’m sure it’s a conscious assault on the soul, an immense dereliction.’
‘It depends,’ Crowley replied. ‘Drugs are magick and have always been used as such. The soma of the Vedas, the nepenthe of Homer, the henbane and belladonna of the witches all point to the fact. I am sure for the nomal man, whom I happily call the sub-human, they are invariably detrimental. However, in no way do I consider myself ordinary. To me drugs are the litmus test of capacity. I know the wraith-like effects of cocaine, that long corridor of shadow where the soul is wasted and profaned. And heroin! The cushioned daze of the opiated night. But it is because I have supped large on both such joys and sorrows that I consider myself more than human.’
‘Have you not read Baudelaire’s intimate journals? Isherwood, who is staying near here, has just translated them. I’ve never come across such desperation, such remorse for a lifetime given over to false ideals – hashish and all the other indulgences that besotted the Decadents.’
‘But that is it exactly!’ Crowley, excited by the drugs, sputtered. ‘Baudelaire gloried in his fall, his self-imposed damnation. Besides, he did write some damn fine stuff, and wasn’t that born precisely out of those feelings of failure and hysteria he cultivated with his drug taking, his black bitch, his guilt? You see, Aldous, as long as we are active we are saved. All energy is eternal delight provided we use it. To take a drug is to permit a daemon to enter the sanctum of thought and action. If we give voice to this captured spirit then we enforce, rather than profane, and so exorcise the very spirit that possesses us.’
He got up and went over to the sideboard. It was growing dark outside and his obesity threw a giant shadow across the wall. I suppose, in tribute to the spirit of the times, I should comment on the stamp of stormtroopers’ boots from the street below. But in truth I only heard the low growl of traffic and the occasional voice. Crowley came back and gave Huxley a piece of paper. ‘Read!’ he simply said.
I have that paper before me now. In the last decade, it has become yellowed and brittle round the edges. It is one of many of his papers that I still keep: bills, incantations, the occasional doodle or letter. Like me they survive in obscurity, unknown to both his followers and biographers. I shall transcribe it here.
“From the tower enchantment and the sweet hypnosis of lost time, my dreamseed spill their valediction across known worlds. I tell the cartographers, who call my map invisible, that space is frozen in the habit of their fictions. Their cities are my seed, their houses, wives and toil are fantastic shadows of solidity. I see only waves, brilliant, aural cartoons containing one centimetre of gross matter. Let the radiant language now spill forth. I sing the chisel and the blade, the hammer and the scales, and all melodies of craft. The Work ferments inside my battery of cells. My voltage is a million watts.
“Alchemy is patient. It sits in stillness. Like Tao it recognises the divinity of hazard, the vigour of the useless – accident is merely the collision of two meanings. So in me the dross solidifies. I have stopped asking if I have a story as there are no stories now, only decipherable collisions. In me, the opaque furniture of the random is condensed and drained into rich ore. My veins are heavy with dark coal nurturing diamonds. I am the redking, the bronzed phoenix upon the wheel of flame. I have traversed the river of ordeal and was crowned by elementals. Now shall the paradox of prisms blaze onto papyrus my heart’s bold voice.
“Airborne visions tingle. Coming from rich flight, the dreamer’s wingspan – almost prosaic this whirlwind. Lost continents, contours, cartographers, and me, my maiden voyage is crystal and a glass. Truly it is the scheming polarity of vision this placing on a glass, a pane that mirrors to the heart’s dereliction, the soul’s migration. I sweep the city. This is the holy liquid of metropolis, fashioned in the image of its metal bowels. This is the Fall of Ushers, the corruption of sense. Tell me the sex of electricity, of coils, sockets, plugs. Once the planet gave the deity of gender to the thunder in the hills. Only man creates the sexless. My mind is snow vapour; airwaves flow freely like the magic carpet on Sinbad’s voyage. I am standing in Mexico. I have the stature of the ancients, the children of Lilith, twenty-three feet tall. I strut the sunflower Van Gogh sand, eaten by cacti, while the arcane sun explodes above. I eat the sun. I am the debris of the stars. Solar storms flare from my pores and launch a billion sun borne seeds, the first shudder running through me forever. In the fever of mirage, in hallucination, I seek to touch the brimming fare of yellow; peyote, datura, mescaline. Behind needles sharpened by white light, fantastic buds map shades of an oasis.”
Huxley read the piece carefully but seemed unimpressed.. His exact words I cannot recall, only that they were polite and vague. Myself, I am fond of the passage and as I am fond of all visionary otherworldly things. Doubtless, to Huxley the words were another demonstration of the Beast’s eccentricity, like the whole pantheon of dark, forgotten gods that sprang so glibly to his lips.
‘When the wind of the wings of madness comes,’ Huxley said, ‘I hope you will be spared!’
His purpose in coming that evening was to take mescaline. They had discussed the subject at length – Huxley referring to Havelock Ellis, Crowley to the Vedas. ‘Come then,’ said the Beast as dusk fell. First, we smoked hashish from the hookah, its effect lightening the atmosphere considerably. Huxley lost most of the caustic self-possession that clung to him like a limpet to a rock. He was almost merry. Crowley’s mind still maintained the intense superficial clarity that cocaine induces, and heroin and hashish only partially placate. He teased our guest as if he were a mischievous child. Huxley’s intellect was running wild. He talked scathingly of England and the English, expressing opinions that delighted Crowley. They discussed Gurdjieff then Yeats and his Vision, and this time it was Crowley’s turn to be scathing. Huxley even launched into a lecture on Tao exercises, which Crowley brought to an abrupt halt by asking if one-hand clap was not a form of masturbationary syphilis. We all laughed uproariously, like schoolboys over a dirty joke. Meanwhile, I had administered the mescaline.
‘You know Hitler has taken this stuff,’ Crowley observed. ‘I heard it from a reliable friend in the OTO.’
‘OTO?’ Huxley was perplexed.
‘Ordo Templi Orientis. My local branch, you might say. Their connections with the Nazis are nobody’s business. They almost founded the Party, or at least subverted it. Do you know that two of their top men personally trained Hitler? Before he was a stuttering Austrian oaf, a shoddy bohemian with dirty nails, and a pervert to boot. They coached him in oratory and rhetoric, and under the influence of the drug that will shortly, my dear Aldous, set your eyes on fire, gave him his daemon.’
‘Then,’ declared Huxley, ‘all the dispersed romanticism that in its waning found expression in the esoteric, in secret cults, has made its kingdom here; fascism is, after all, the triumph of decadence, the final madness of bohemia.’
‘So that Bartzabel may have his Day, precisely,’ Crowley replied.
Later a vast smile spread across Huxley’s formerly dry features, now radiant, illuminated, his eyes indeed tinged with fire. In what region of enchantment he walked, I do not know. Whether beneath the icy domes of Kubla Khan or in some long vanished field of his childhood, fragrant with wood smoke, he did not say. And what music flowed inside him, whether the Abyssinian maid soothed him with her dulcimer or the highest octaves of the stars astonished his ears, was also secret. Whatever is discovered at such moments belongs inviolably to the inner life of the traveller. Even if he should wish to convey it, he would probably find the few words that pertain to this province of experience unforthcoming. We have no maps for the mescal voyage of the psyche.
For me, it was a night of colours – yellow phantoms emanating from the street lamps below; silver flashes of rain tangoing on the windowsill; deep cobalt of the sky - an airless backdrop to the unflinching stars; a violet gauze of cloud over the white moon, and all the world’s allure gathered in a rainbow.
At one point Crowley produced some Tarot cards, prototypes of the pack of Thoth that Lady Frieda Harris had just embarked on in Marylebone. The figures seemed to move - the Lovers entwining themselves on the matrix, the Empress breaking into her impenetrable smile, the Prince of Wands tightening the reigns of the chimera he rode. All these vital creatures, through our intent, in the steely point of time called Berlin, living out the correspondence of their ageless dance. Like a pharaoh long ago, we parted the curtain and glimpsed the peerless geometry of the stars.
At another point Crowley quoted from The Book of the Law.
“I am the snake that giveth knowledge and delight and bright glory and stir the hearts of men with drunkeness. To worship me take wine and strange drugs, whereof I will tell my prophet and be drunk thereof! They shall not harm ye at all.”
‘A trifle perilous, don’t you think?’ Huxley murmured.
‘Of course,’ Crowley agreed, always lucid at such moments, 'if you read it carelessly and acted on it rashly it might well lead to trouble. But the words “to worship me” are all important. They mean that things like cocaine, mescaline and alcohol may be and should be used for the purpose of worshipping, that is, entering into communion with the Snake, which is the genius that lies at the core of every star. For every man and woman is a star. The taking of a drug should be a carefully thought out and religious act. Experience alone can teach you the right conditions in which the act is legitimate; in other words, when it can assist you to do your will.’
Huxley left shortly afterwards. He walked through a Berlin he had never seen before, where cylinders of fire in the cold dawn air dazzled his senses, and the splashing rain became cartwheels of light spinning across the pavement. He had entered a hitherto unknown continent and now, like an illuminated Columbus, was intent on discovery. I remained with the good Master Therion, his bulk shifting in reverie on the Turkish couch.
Many years stretch between then and now. Long ago my two protagonists were dust, fallen to the bottom of the hourglass. Huxley on his deathbed: two hundred micrograms of LSD-25; the luminous smile of his chemical exit. Crowley in that rambling Hastings boarding house: a vast spider with a heroin itch, regurgitating the entrapments of the past. Many years: a war; the accelerated madness of an epoch; the dawning of the age of Thelema. To me long slow years of remorse, when I turned from the gender he had so skilfully taught me and from the vision that witnessed me abandoned in the desert: the pallid brow, stiff horns, the foul rapture that attends that angel to we in league with him through time and eternity - his sub-contractors.
To see a scan of the story as it appeared in International Times go to link
To see the story in Russian go to http://kolonna.mitin.com/archive/mj57/sybarite.shtml