Theodore Roosevelt Do what you can, with what you have, where you are
Six Principles of Magic
1. Every magician has a beautiful vision for the world.
2. Every system of magic is a single artists tool, used to reshape reality.
3. If you believe, it shall exist.
4. When you call, they will answer.
5. Success and failure, is one and the same: ignorance and depression is the enemy.
6. Be like all equally, and you shall unite; refuse and separate.
An excerpt from The Place of Enchantment British Occultism and the Culture of the Modern by Alex Owen
In late 1909, two Englishmen, scions of the comfortable middle classes, undertook a journey to Algiers. Aleister Crowley, later to be dubbed "the wickedest man in the world," was in his early thirties; his companion, Victor Neuburg, had only recently graduated from Cambridge. The stated purpose of the trip was pleasure. Crowley, widely traveled and an experienced mountaineer and big-game hunter, loved North Africa and had personal reasons for wanting to be out of England. Neuburg probably had little say in the matter. Junior in years, dreamy and mystical by nature, and in awe of a man whom he both loved and admired, Neuburg was inclined to acquiesce without demur in Crowley's various projects. There was, however, another highly significant factor in Neuburg's quiescence. He was Crowley's chela, a novice initiate of the Magical Order of the Silver Star, which Crowley had founded two years earlier. As such, Neuburg had taken a vow of obedience to Crowley as his Master and affectionately dubbed "holy guru," and had already learned that in much that related to his life, Crowley's word was now law.
It was at Crowley's instigation that the two men began to make their way, first by tram and then by foot, into the North African desert to the southwest of Algiers; and it was Crowley's decision to perform there a series of magical ceremonies that prefigured his elaboration of the techniques of sex magic, or, as he was later to call it, Magick. In this case, the ceremonies combined the performance of advanced ritual magic with homosexual acts. It is this episode in the desert—sublime and terrifying as an experience, profound in its effects, and illuminating in what it reveals of the engagement of advanced magical practice with personal selfhood—that constitutes the focus of this chapter.
The Crowley life story is almost the stuff of Victorian melodrama: the good man gone bad, betrayer of women and men alike, corrupter of innocence, dark angel and self-proclaimed Antichrist. Viewed differently, Crowley assumes tragic-heroic status. This was a gifted man born into privilege who scorned convention and ultimately destroyed himself in his relentless search for impossible truths. In the magical world that he made his own, the name Aleister Crowley evokes admiration, even reverence. Offshoots of Crowley's Magical Order and practitioners of his Magick are to be found throughout the Western world. Just the same—from his early days in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn to the present day—Crowley has been denounced by magicians as everything ranging from an evil genius to a magical fraud. His contemporaries excoriated him as rumors of his escapades reached a wider public through reported court cases and salacious articles in the general press.
Nevertheless, however Crowley is viewed, his magical odyssey is deeply instructive of the potentialities of the psychologized magic of the fin de siècle, and illustrative of its dangers. Not least, Crowley's magical practice epitomized the ease with which the high aspirations of an Order such as the Golden Dawn could metamorphose into those so-called black arts against which occultists such as Madame Blavatsky railed. At an individual level, as seems to have happened with Crowley, undisciplined psychologized magic in the hands of the ill-prepared could lead to personal disintegration. At all events, what happened in the desert might be said to have destroyed the lives of two men. It certainly crystallized the moment at which Crowley let go of what was known and could be anticipated magically, and for good or ill embraced both a lived and a magical modus operandi in which there are no safeguards and no guarantees.
The episode that forms the focus of this chapter marks the point at which Crowley crossed the Rubicon in a number of senses, but the experiment was not straightforwardly self-serving, as much of his magical work was to become. Nor did it represent simply the indulgence of an exoticized and outlawed sexuality. What happened in the desert was the result of a serious, if misguided, attempt to access and explore a centuries-old magical system, and it represented an intense personal investment in the pursuit of magical knowledge. In the following discussion the event itself is deconstructed with a view to presenting both a microanalysis of a magical rite performed in a specific context, and a focused discussion of the relationship between psychologized magic and the exploration of subjectivity. The chapter therefore sets out to examine the meaning and significance of a particular magical work performed in a colonial context against a backdrop of fin-de-siècle "decadence," while also getting at its immediate experiential dimensions. The episode itself provides a rare glimpse of interiorized magic in the making, although that was certainly not Crowley's intention in either his subsequent veiled allusions to the performance of the rite or his documentation of its magical effects. Furthermore, in situating the discussion within the conceptual framework implied by the term subjectivity I am stepping outside both the magical episteme and the liberal-humanist conception of self upon which Crowley (in 1909 at least) depended. I am instead relying on a particular theoretical formulation of selfhood that underscores its contingency. The poststructuralist concept of subjectivity is suggestive of a self that is both stable and unstable, knowable and unknowable, constructed and unique. The central purpose of the chapter, however, is to present an analysis of a pivotal magical experience, elucidating its complexities, and arguing for it in terms of an ultimate self-realization that exposed the limitations of a unified sense of self upon which experiential self-identity depends.
The Making of a Magician Aleister Crowley was born in 1875 to Edward and Emily Crowley, Plymouth Brethren of the strictest kind. He was baptized Edward Alexander, known in the family as Alick, and only later (in his ardent Celtic phase) changed his name to Aleister. The Crowley money had been made in the brewery trade, but the senior Edward Crowley had little to do with the business and lived a gentleman's existence. He was a gifted and devoted preacher, and his son adored and sought to emulate him. Conversely, and significantly, the youthful Alick had no time for his mother, whom he despised and remembered treating virtually like a servant. At the age of eight, and in accordance with the dictates of his social class, Alick was sent away to school, where he continued in a pious vein. In 1887, however, his father died, and an immediate change was wrought in the boy. He began to hate his school, and while continuing to accept the theology of the Brethren quite "simply went over to Satan's side."
In his Confessions Crowley states that he could not understand the reason for this sudden identification with the forces of evil. It is possible that his claim that from the age of twelve he sought Satan's path with a passion previously reserved for the God of his father might have been a convenient authorial fiction. On the other hand, it is not difficult to speculate on the possible reasons for a switch of allegiance—the death of a father who was synonymous in the boy's mind with Christ, if not God; the fallibility of the idea of an all-powerful and just God; and so on. Crowley, perceptive and witty about the foibles of others, could apparently display an astonishing lack of insight when it came to himself. Perhaps this is why he failed to make more of the fact that it was his mother who first referred to him as "the beast," a name he was to make his own. It was she, possibly in the wake of an adolescent episode involving Crowley and a family maid, who "believed that I was actually Anti-christ of the Apocalypse." Whatever the reasons, in a boyhood suffused with biblical imagery, Crowley seems to have made an early identification with Satan and a further connection between Satan and sexuality. This was ultimately to be worked out in the Magick of his adult years.
In 1895 Crowley finally overcame family opposition and went up to Cambridge University. Cambridge was a final liberation from the stultifying religious atmosphere of his home, and he gave himself over to the three proscribed joys of sex, smoking, and literature. Already adept in Latin and Greek, Crowley abandoned work for the moral science tripos and spent his time in an intensive study of English literature supplemented by French literature and the classics. It was at Cambridge that he first read Richard Burton's Arabian Nights and began to acquire an extensive library, including valuable first editions. Crowley adopted a luxurious lifestyle, but he was also reading voraciously, won distinction in the game of chess, and began to write and publish verse. Like other young men of his class, he sought amours with working-class girls in Cambridge. He found these encounters intoxicating, but beneath the surface his attitude towards the female sex was ambivalent. Crowley later espoused liberated views on the subject of women, recognizing female sexuality and denouncing the sexual double standard (in favor of mutual sexual abandonment). There remained, however, an undercurrent of fear, resentment, and contempt. His tendency to throw himself into passionate romantic entanglements with women was paralleled by an equal facility for discarding them when his needs altered or attention wandered. This single-minded ruthlessness was a feature of his personality and affected both women and men, but it nevertheless remains the case that Crowley left behind a trail of devastation when it came to the women in his life. Alcoholism, insanity, and suicide followed in his wake, and the suggestion that he deliberately sought out "border-line [unbalanced] women" because they could better access the astral plane remains highly questionable.
In his final year at Cambridge, at the age of twenty-three, Crowley met and fell in love with Jerome Pollitt. Pollitt was ten years his senior, a close friend of Aubrey Beardsley's, and a talented female impersonator and dancer who had performed as Diane de Rougy in tribute to the actress Liane de Pougy. In spite of the cautionary tone of Crowley's account of the affair, and his insistence that his sexual life remained intensely heterosexual, he conceded that their relationship was "that ideal intimacy which the Greeks considered the greatest glory of manhood and the most precious prize of life." Later he immortalized Pollitt in The Scented Garden of Abdullah the Satirist, also a tribute of sorts to Richard Burton's translated work The Perfumed Garden. Crowley's collection of poems are a blend of Persian mysticism and the glorification of homosexual love, written in the style of ghazals by an imaginary seventeenth-century poet. They are supposedly translated into English by an Anglo-Indian, Major Lutiy, helped by an anonymous "editor," and are then discussed by an equally fictitious clergyman. The collection, however, is typically Crowley-esque: both spoof and serious, learned in its own way while designed to amuse. Beginning "As I placed the rigid pen of my thought within the inkstand of my imagination, I tasted the bliss of Allah," the poet Abdullah El Haji, the El Qahar of the ghazals, praises the "podex" of his lover, Habib. More notable than the explicit meaning of the verses are the hidden references to Pollitt and to Crowley himself. In the closing sections of the book, the name of Herbert Charles Jerome Pollitt is spelled out in the first letter of each line, to be followed (but in reverse order) by that of Aleister Crowley.
But Crowley's relationship with Pollitt, while intense, was not the sole source of meaning or diversion in his life. Pollitt introduced Crowley to the "decadent" movement, and in Crowley's words made a poet out of him; but he had little sympathy with the younger man's growing occult interests and did not share his passion for mountaineering. During the Cambridge vacations Crowley went climbing in the Alps, achieving a lone ascent of the Eiger, and began to read widely on esoteric subjects. Inspired by the apparent allusion to a Hidden Church in A. E. Waite's Book of Black Magic and of Pacts, Crowley wrote to Waite requesting further information. Waite responded by recommending that Crowley read the occult classic The Cloud upon the Sanctuary by Councillor von Eckartshausen, which had recently been translated by Isabelle de Steiger; the book duly accompanied him on a climbing and walking holiday during the Easter vacation of 1898. Crowley discovered that Eckartshausen indeed elaborated on Waite's theme, describing a Secret Sanctuary and a hidden community of saintly beings who possessed the keys to the mysteries of the universe. From that moment, Crowley determined to find and enter into communication with this "mysterious brotherhood": "I longed passionately for illumination…for perfect purity of life, for mastery of the secret forces of nature."
Crowley perceived his aspirations as religious—certainly his preoccupation at the time with the origin of evil and the nature of Satan suggested they might be—but from the outset there was also the issue of power and control. Magic, like mountaineering, was in some respects the perfect answer to the desire for "mastery" of the forces (secret or otherwise) of nature, and he now gave himself over to his magical studies. Pollitt was rapidly seen as inimical to these researches, and Crowley ended the relationship shortly after going down from Cambridge in the early summer of 1898. Crowley was later to recognize this as an "imbecile" mistake, and it remained a cause of permanent regret.
In 1898, however, he was utterly focused, "white-hot," on his several ambitions: climbing, poetry, and the pursuit of magical knowledge. Now a wealthy young man in his own right, he was free to pursue his interests, and several meetings that year were to further them. At Easter he had met Oscar Eckenstein, one of the finest mountaineers in England and a man whom Crowley deeply admired. Eckenstein taught him a great deal about mental discipline and they went on to climb together in major expeditions. About the same time he met Gerald Kelly, a painter who was later to be elected to the Royal Academy and his future brother-in-law. Kelly, unlike Eckenstein, shared Crowley's interest in magic, and was to travel along that path in Crowley's company. A chance meeting that summer, however, was possibly the most auspicious. By this time Crowley had advanced to Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers's Kabbalah Unveiled, and was disposed to brag about his occult knowledge. One evening in Zermatt, while taking a respite from climbing, he met and conversed with an analytical chemist named Julian L. Baker, a man who clearly knew more than Crowley about the occult. Upon their return to England, Baker introduced Crowley to George Cecil Jones, also a chemist and, like Baker, a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Crowley was subsequently introduced to MacGregor Mathers, presumably made a favorable impression, and was duly initiated on 18 November 1898 as Frater Perdurabo [I will endure] in the Neophyte grade of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. In spite of dismissing most of the Order's initiates as "muddled middle-class mediocrities," Crowley was convinced that he had found and entered "the Hidden Church of the Holy Grail."
Crowley therefore persevered with what he considered disappointingly dull and elementary studies, and was advanced to the grade of Philosophus in May 1899. He had now reached the top grade of the First Order and fully expected to be invited to join the tantalizing Second (or Inner) Order. About this time Crowley met Allan Bennett, an honored magician in the Golden Dawn whose magical powers were considered second only to those of MacGregor Mathers. Bennett approached Crowley after a Golden Dawn ceremony and accused him of dabbling in malignant forces beyond his control. Crowley, who had indeed been secretly studying the demonic system known as Abra-Melin magic, recognized in Bennett an occult Master and invited the impoverished magician to stay with him in his comfortable London flat at 67 Chancery Lane. A period of intense magical activity now began. Crowley's flat was fitted out with two "temples" consecrated to magical acts, one white and the other black. Here Bennett, Jones, and Crowley, in spite of the latter's relatively junior status, began to experiment with advanced magic and evoke spirits in the Abra-Melin fashion. Bennett also instructed Crowley in the magical use of drugs. These activities did not find general favor with senior members of the Golden Dawn, and Crowley began to acquire an unsavory reputation as rumors of his flamboyant lifestyle, demonic magic, and homosexuality began to circulate. W. B. Yeats thought Crowley was immoral, if not mad, while Crowley was convinced that Yeats was envious of his literary and magical prowess. Nonetheless, as we saw in chapter 2, MacGregor Mathers overruled the London leadership and initiated Crowley into the Second Order in January 1900. Crowley in turn became involved in a bitter power struggle within the Golden Dawn, subsequently abandoned both the Order and MacGregor Mathers, went on to study with other teachers, and finally established his own Magical Order in 1907.
By then a great deal had happened to him. Crowley had traveled extensively, broken several climbing records with Eckenstein and established new ones, married Rose Kelly and taken her and their new daughter on a grueling trek across China, lost that same daughter to typhoid fever, and was in the process of losing Rose to alcoholism. In 1906 he had returned to the intensive Abra-Melin magic of his earlier days, resumed his experimentation with drugs, and been recognized by George Cecil Jones as a master magician. Accordingly Crowley began to work out the details of his own Magical Order, Astrum Argentinum, or Silver Star, and founded its mouthpiece, The Equinox, an ambitious, well-produced periodical dedicated to the serious discussion of the occult arts.
By 1907 Crowley was in search of a following and, looking to Cambridge for potential recruits, simply turned up one day in Victor Neuburg's room at Trinity. Neuburg was already a published poet, and Crowley had been attracted by the mystical leanings in his work. Victor Benjamin Neuburg was then in his midtwenties, not having gone up to Cambridge until 1906, when he was twenty-three and his family had finally admitted that he was not cut out for a business career. He came from a comfortable middle-class home in North London, and had been raised by his mother following the departure of his father for his native Vienna shortly after the arranged marriage. The bulk of the family money on his mother's side lay with Victor's Uncle Edward, who financed his nephew's education and gave his mother a cottage in Sussex as a supplement to the Hove flat to which she had moved in 1903. Victor's family, however, while undoubtedly kind and generous, had little in common with a young man who rejected conventional Judaism along with all organized religion, espoused Freethought views and progressive values, and yet had experienced mystical states since childhood.
Crowley, affluent, charming, and urbane, an erudite fellow poet who claimed to understand spiritual realities, held a magnetic appeal for Neuburg. Equally, Crowley immediately recognized in Neuburg an "altogether extraordinary capacity for Magick," and began to groom him "for the benefit of the Order, and of himself." Crowley thought Neuburg faddish, incurably lazy, and lacking in self-discipline, as well as inhibited and nervous. His answer to some of these shortcomings was vigorous and prolonged physical exertion, combined with a course of extreme mental discipline—important for all embryonic magicians. In the summer of 1908 Crowley took Neuburg on a long tramp across the Pyrenees and down through Spain. Neuburg managed to make it to Madrid before succumbing to illness and exhaustion, but he and Crowley subsequently traveled on to Gibraltar and made the crossing to Tangiers.
By the time Neuburg returned to Cambridge for his final year, he had to not only work for his degree in modern languages but also read his way through the comprehensive corpus of magical, philosophical, mystical, and fictional literature required of any novice in Crowley's Order of the Silver Star. In this Order a seeker first became a Student and then a Probationer before advancing to the Neophyte grade and beyond, and Neuburg seems to have been a Probationer in 1908. Crowley's regimen of magical training was much more demanding than that of the Golden Dawn's First Order, but he seemed fairly pleased with his pupil. For his part, Neuburg was convinced that he stood in the shadow of a Master and, like Crowley at the turn of the century, on the threshold of a Secret Brotherhood. The spring of 1909 found Neuburg cramming feverishly for his final examinations at Cambridge while attending to Crowley's demands. He obtained an adequate Third Class degree and immediately made preparations to join Crowley at Boleskine House, his Master's large residence on the shores of Loch Ness in Scotland.
Neuburg left Cambridge on 16 June 1909 and traveled to Scotland by the night train, accompanied by another Cambridge man, Kenneth Ward. Ward was going only to take up a social invitation and to borrow a pair of Crowley's skis. Whether he knew it or not, Victor Neuburg was destined for a quite different experience. Upon his arrival at Boleskine, Neuburg was informed that he was to undertake a Magical Retirement—a withdrawal from the world during which, as Crowley made clear, he must make a serious attempt to access and explore the Astral Light. Accordingly, on the eighteenth of June, this young and inexperienced fledgling magician took his place in a specially prepared chamber at Boleskine and began what was to prove to be a ten-day period of isolation marked by extreme discomfort, a certain amount of suffering, and occasional glimpses of ecstatic joy. Throughout, Crowley was almost impossibly testing. He expected Neuburg to make the kind of magical progress in days that took years to achieve in the Golden Dawn, and to do this while existing in spartan conditions with little food to sustain him. The young Probationer was made to sleep naked on a bed of gorse for a week, and early in the Retirement Crowley visited the shivering Neuburg at night and scourged him with a bundle of nettles. Later, dissatisfied with his progress, Crowley gave him thirty-two strokes with a switch of gorse and drew blood. Presumably this was not the sole purpose of these nocturnal visits. The Probationer noted in his meticulous written record that Crowley "is apparently a homo-sexual [sic] sadist.…He performed the ceremony with obvious satisfaction." Gorse has strong prickles and nettles sting, but the young man had taken a holy vow of obedience to his magical Master. It is small wonder that Neuburg attributed an "emissio seminer" to anxiety.
Crowley's attitude was clearly not that of a disinterested teacher. It also represented part of a complex and ritualized playing out of elements of his personal relationship with Neuburg. He chastised the Probationer, but in terms that related to the man. Crowley afterwards expressed the view that there was a "fundamental moral deficiency in his character," and "a strain of racial congenital cowardice too deeply seated for eradication." At the time he continually harped upon his student's supposed "racial," that is, Jewish, traits, and Neuburg found the personal abuse almost intolerable. He went through periods of rebellion, but in awe of Crowley, bound to him emotionally, and cognizant of his vow, Neuburg always repented of his outbursts. The racial slurs and personal insults continued. Meanwhile, however, Neuburg began to have some magical success. Prolonged periods of yoga and meditation began to facilitate changed states of consciousness, and these in turn gave way to vivid experiences on the astral planes. Moments of supreme spiritual insight, of intense and rapturous identification with the cosmic "Mind," were equaled by episodes of horrifying despair. But Neuburg emerged from the storm to find a sense of peace and harmony, and seemed to find within himself some kind of "center." He understood that, at some level, this sense of center accorded with the magician's will, the essential focal point for all magical activity. Crowley approved the insight, commenting that this approached a description of initiated consciousness. In Neuburg's account of his Retirement, dated 29 June 1909, he thanked his Most Holy Guru and, fittingly, both praised and blamed him. Crowley then advanced his Probationer to the Grade of Neophyte.
North Africa Crowley and Neuburg traveled to London at the beginning of July, and there set about bringing out the second issue of the Equinox. But there was more than the production of his occult periodical on Crowley's mind. His divorce proceedings were coming to a head. Crowley claimed that divorce was inevitable because Rose refused to seek treatment for her alcoholism (she was later incarcerated, suffering from alcoholic dementia), but that he had done the gentlemanly thing by providing his wife with evidence of adultery so that she could appear as the plaintiff. Nevertheless, Crowley was anxious to be out of the country by the autumn of 1909 as the trial was pending. He decided upon North Africa, and maintained that he had no specific magical purpose in mind when he set out on the trip. He loved that region and simply wanted to roam at will. Accordingly, and accompanied by "Frater Omnia Vincam, a neophyte of the A…A…disguised as Victor Neuburg," Crowley left England and duly arrived in Algiers on 17 November. Here he undoubtedly evinced the unmistakable subtly superior air of the English gentleman abroad.
On arrival, Crowley's attitude toward colonial French officialdom was one of polite disdain. He chose to ignore warnings that an unaccompanied trip through the desert could be dangerous. Instead, confident and at ease, every inch the seasoned traveler, he immediately set about buying the necessary provisions for a journey. Crowley claimed to have a basic grasp of Arabic and understood a fair amount about Muslim culture, but was concerned that the physically slight Victor Neuburg with his "hangdog look" would undermine his credibility. His remedy was surprising. On Crowley's insistence Neuburg's head was shaved, leaving only two tufts at the temples that were "twisted up into horns." Crowley laughingly, but tellingly, comments that his chela was thus transformed into "a demon that I had tamed and trained to serve me as a familiar spirit. This greatly enhanced my eminence."
The two men then took the tram to Arba, and set out on a tramp through the desert. Crowley and Neuburg reached Aumale on 21 November after spending two nights sleeping under the stars. Here Crowley had the sudden insight that he must renew a magical undertaking begun in Mexico nine years earlier. Although he denied premeditation, Crowley had brought with him various magical accoutrements, including a vermilion wooden cross set with a large golden topaz. The magical operation that he had in mind relied on a complex magical system developed by John Dee, the eminent Elizabethan mathematician and astrologer, and his clairvoyant, Edward Kelley. Dee and Kelley were well versed in practical Cabala, and experimented with the angel magic of the Renaissance magician Henry Cornelius Agrippa. Agrippa had elaborated a system of numerical and alphabetical tables for the summoning of angels, and it was within this framework that the two Elizabethans worked. John Dee used Kelley's gifts as an expert scryer, one who could "travel" in the many realms of spirit existence, to vicariously enter into conversation with the angels in order to tempt from them the secrets of the universe. Dee asked his questions through Kelley and duly recorded the results. During their lengthy s‰ances, Kelley would "Skry in the Spirit Vision" using a "shew-stone" in much the same way as a seer might use a crystal ball. It was Kelley who saw the angel in the stone and communicated its message to Dee. If the instruction concerned a magical invocation or Call, the angel dictated it in reverse, as it was considered too powerful to simply replicate. In 1583 the angels began to give their communications in an "Angelic Secret Language" known as Enochian, and the information was recorded in a complex grid form. Over time, Dee built up an entire cosmology of angels and demons and sketched out thirty Aethyrs (or Aires)—realms of otherworldly existence.
This schema, probably reworked by MacGregor Mathers, had been integrated into the teachings of the Order of the Golden Dawn. Although he had been denied entry to the Second Order, Crowley had studied with other senior Golden Dawn Adepts, most notably Allan Bennett, and was familiar with Dee's system. But whereas Golden Dawn initiates were set to study Dee's so-called Enochian system as a scholarly exercise, Crowley was prepared to test its efficacy. He had made a faithful copy of Dee's nineteen Calls, or Keys, which called up powerful occult forces, and had experimented with the nineteenth Call in Mexico. Now, in Aumale, he felt impelled to resume this magical operation. Crowley considered himself a master of Astral Travel, and was in the process of teaching its necessary techniques and procedures to Neuburg. He felt that the conditions were perfect for undertaking a journey through John Dee's Aethyrs.
Crowley's technique was simple. He would select a secluded spot and recite the appropriate Call—the ritual incantation that would give him access to the relevant Aethyr. After satisfying himself that the invoked forces were present, Crowley would take up his magical shew-stone, in this case the large golden topaz, and "Skry in the Spirit Vision" much as Kelley had done centuries before. He made "the topaz play a part not unlike that of the looking-glass in the case of Alice." By making the relevant Call and concentrating on the topaz, Crowley could enter the Aethyr. He was clear about what this meant: "When I say I was in any Aethyr, I simply mean in the state characteristic of, and peculiar to, its nature." In other words, Crowley recognized that this was a similar experience to that of Astral Travel; it was conducted within his own mind. Having accessed the Aethyr, he would describe his experiences to Neuburg, who would write them down. It is noteworthy that, typically, Crowley adapted the procedure to suit himself. Unlike Dee, he, the master magician, would be his own scryer. Victor Neuburg, whom Crowley recognized as a gifted clairvoyant, was to be merely the scribe.
As the two men made their way through the desert, Crowley increasingly fell under the spell of his experiences in Dee's Aethyrs. He encountered celestial beings, both terrible and beautiful, who divulged in richly symbolic language something of the realms in which they dwelt. Crowley understood much of the symbolism, and began to realize that the Calls did indeed give the scryer access to an intricate but cogent and coherent universal system of other worlds and beings. He was satisfied that, whereas he saw visions and heard voices, he was not the autonomous author of his experiences: "I saw with my own eyes and heard with my own ears the truth.…These visions thus crystallized in dramatic form the theoretical conclusion which my studies of comparative religion had led me to adumbrate."
Crowley fully intended the Calls to be an impersonal exploration of the Aethyrs, and was convinced that he was being shown the "shining simplicity" of cosmic truths. But he gradually became aware that he was personally implicated at another level. The magical work was working on him. As the Calls proceeded, Crowley began increasingly to feel something very akin to fear. It was as though, he says, a hand was holding his heart while a whispering breath enveloped him in words both awful and enchanting. In a gender reversal that was to typify much of this magical experience, Crowley reveals that he "began to feel—well, not exactly frightened; it was the subtle trembling of a maiden before the bridegroom." In order to fortify himself against growing feelings of awe and dread, he began to recite the Qur'an as he marched across the desert. The great stretches of empty landscape, hot by day and icy at night, and continuous intoning of magical and religious formulae, combined to effect a state of almost overwhelming spiritual intensity.
A little over two weeks after arriving in Algiers, Crowley and Neuburg reached Bou Saada. This isolated haven in the desert, with its palm trees, gardens, and orchards, was where the desert road ran out. Bou Saada gave the impression of a last link with civilization. Some distance from the town was a mountain, Mount Da'leh Addin. It was here that Crowley, acting on instructions from previous angelic interlocutors, made the appropriate Call and attempted to enter the fourteenth Aethyr. He encountered a thick black veil that, try as he might, he could not penetrate. All the while, a voice spoke of Crowley as one about to enter "the Kingdom of the Grave." As he struggled with the blackness a great earthquake rent the veil and Crowley saw "an all-glorious Angel" standing in front of him with his arms outstretched and head thrown back. The angel had a star upon his forehead, but he was surrounded with blackness "and the crying of beasts." The angel instructed Crowley to withdraw, the mystery of the fourteenth Aethyr being so "great and terrible" it cannot be revealed "in sight of the sun." Shaken, Crowley prepared to return to Bou Saada. As he did so, "Suddenly came the command to perform a magical ceremony on the summit" of the mountain. Whatever form the "command" took, Crowley experienced it as absolute. He and Neuburg responded by building a great circle with loose rocks. They inscribed the circle with magical words of power, "erected an alter" in its midst, and there, in Crowley's words: " I sacrificed myself. The fire of the all-seeing sun smote down upon the alter, consuming every particle of my personality."
Crowley says simply in his Confessions that what took place amounted to a final tearing away of "certain conceptions of conduct which, while perfectly proper from the standpoint of my human nature," he had regarded as "impertinent to initiation." What happened in prosaic terms was that Crowley was sodomized by Neuburg in a homosexual rite offered to the god Pan. Pan, the man-goat, had a particular significance for the two men. Not only did Crowley revere him as the diabolical god of lust and magic, but Neuburg literally had what acquaintances described as an elfin and "faun-like" appearance. It is likely that what happened on Mount Da'leh Addin was a classic invocation; the young chela, in accordance with accepted magical technique, probably "called down," or invoked, the god Pan. A successful invocation would result in the neophyte's becoming "inflamed" by the power of the god. If this is what happened during the ceremony on the mountain, Neuburg, in his magical capacity, would momentarily identify with all that the man-goat god represented. Put simply, Neuburg with his tufted "horns" would become Pan—the "faun-like" yet savage lover of Crowley's psychosexual world. This may well have been the first time that Crowley (and certainly Neuburg) had performed a magical homosexual act, although Crowley quickly came to believe that sex magic was an unrivaled means to great power. Conversely, the image of Pan was to haunt Victor Neuburg for the rest of his life. It inspired some of his best early poetry, but later filled him with dread. The experience was overwhelming for both men, but it temporarily devastated Crowley. His summation was brief. "There was an animal in the wilderness," he writes, "but it was not I."
Crowley remembered nothing of his return to Bou Saada. As he slowly came to himself, however, he knew that he was changed.
I knew who I was and all the events of my life; but I no longer made myself the centre of their sphere.…I did not exist.…All things were alike as shadows sweeping across the still surface of a lake—their images had no meaning for the water, no power to stir its silence.
Crowley felt that he had ceremonially crossed the Abyss—a term reminiscent of Nietzsche (whom Crowley greatly admired), but denoting the last terrible journey that a magician must make before he could justifiably lay claim to the highest levels of Adeptship. Master of the Temple, a grade of enlightened initiation achieved in Crowley's own Magical Order only after crossing the Abyss, meant renunciation of all that life meant. The Order of the Golden Dawn taught that such awareness could not be accessed this side of death, and Crowley affirmed this in his own way. The Angel of the fourteenth Aethyr had warned him that the Master of the Temple is condemned to darkness. Crowley in turn taught that becoming a Master of the Temple implied not simply symbolic death and rebirth, a concept familiar to all magical initiates, but the annihilation of the personal self. The Abyss, then, was closely associated with the death of the individual—although not necessarily on the physical level.
A few days later, Crowley, who in the aftermath of the "sacrifice" on Mount Da'leh Addin had already acknowledged that at one level "I did not exist," prepared formally to undergo the Abyss ordeal. He understood that he would do so when he entered John Dee's tenth Aethyr, and knew that while there he must meet and defeat the terrible "Choronzon, the mighty devil that inhabiteth the outermost Abyss." He also knew that he could do so only as Perdurabo, a magical Adept, and that it was paramount that he applied the lesson of the fourteenth Aethyr: no shred of ego must remain if he was to survive the experience unscathed. Success depended on Crowley's ability to master Choronzon through the dominating power of the magical will. The complex techniques, rituals, and paraphernalia of magical practice are the means by which a magician develops and "inflames" his will, the single most important attribute of a magician. Crowley understood that Choronzon's power could be bound and brought under control only through the silent but relentless application of the magical will, and that this was critical for a successful crossing of the Abyss. Failure to force Choronzon into submission would enslave the magician to him, corrupting every subsequent undertaking and bringing disaster in its wake. Given this, and the warnings he had received in the previous Aethyrs, Crowley changed his magical procedure.
On 6 December 1909, Crowley and Neuburg left Bou Saada and went far out into the desert until they found a suitable valley in the dunes. Here they traced a circle in the sand, inscribing it with the various sacred names of God. A triangle was then traced nearby, its perimeters likewise inscribed with divine names and also with that of Choronzon. This was correct magical practice. The magic circle provided protection for the magician; the Triangle of Art was intended to contain any visible manifestation of the forces "called up" or evoked by Perdurabo. The process of evocation was designed to produce a physical materialization of, in this case, the demonic inhabitant of the Abyss. Three pigeons were sacrificed and their blood placed at the three corners of the triangle; Crowley took particular care that it remained within the confines of the figure so that it would facilitate and help sustain any physical manifestation. At this point Neuburg entered the circle. He was armed with a magic dagger, and had strict instructions to use it if anything—even anything that looked like Crowley—attempted to break into the circle. At Crowley's instigation, Neuburg swore an oath to defend its inviolability with his life. Crowley, dressed in his ceremonial black robe, then made an astonishing departure from accepted ritual practice. Instead of joining his chela in the relative safety of the circle, he entered the Triangle of Art. While Neuburg performed the Banishing Rituals of the Pentagram and Hexagram, a procedure designed to protect him, Crowley made the Call of the tenth Aethyr.
The mighty Choronzon announced himself from within the shew-stone with a great cry, "Zazas, Zazas, Nasatanada Zazas":
I am I.…From me come leprosy and pox and plague and cancer and cholera and the falling sickness. Ah! I will reach up to the knees of the Most High, and tear his phallus with my teeth, and I will bray his testicles in a mortar, and make poison thereof, to slay the sons of men.
Crowley probably uttered these words. Thereafter, however, as far as Neuburg could tell, Crowley fell silent; he remained seated in the triangle in the sand, robed and hooded, deeply withdrawn, and "did not move or speak during the ceremony." It was Neuburg who both heard and saw. Unlike the previous Calls, when he had acted merely as scribe, Neuburg now beheld not Crowley seated within the triangle, but all that Crowley conjured. Before him appeared Choronzon in the guise of a beautiful woman whom he had known and loved in Paris, and she tried to lure him from the circle. She was followed by a holy man and a serpent.
Slowly the demon in his various manifestations managed to engage the inexperienced Neuburg in discussion, and then proceeded to mock him: had he not, "O talkative One," been instructed to hold no converse with the mighty Choronzon? Undoubtedly Neuburg had been so instructed by Crowley, but in the heat of the moment he forgot himself. During the intense debate that ensued, with Victor Neuburg scribbling furiously so as to record every detail, Choronzon began stealthily to erase the protective edges of the circle in the sand. Suddenly, Choronzon sprang from the triangle into the circle and wrestled Neuburg to the ground. The scribe found himself struggling with a demon in the shape of "a naked savage," a strong man who tried to tear out his throat with "froth-covered fangs." Neuburg, invoking the magical names of God, struck out with his dagger and finally forced the writhing figure back into the triangle. The chela repaired the circle, and Choronzon resumed his different manifestations and ravings. Cajoling, tempting, decrying, pleading, he continued to debate and attempt to undermine the scribe. Finally, the manifestations began to fade. The triangle emptied.
Neuburg now became aware of Crowley, who was sitting alone in the triangle. He watched as Crowley wrote the name BABALON, signifying the defeat of Choronzon, in the sand with his Holy Ring. The ceremony was concluded; it had lasted over two hours. The two men lit a great fire of purification, and obliterated the circle and the triangle. They had undergone a terrible ordeal. Crowley states that he had "astrally identified" himself with Choronzon throughout, and had "experienced each anguish, each rage, each despair, each insane outburst." Neuburg, however, had held forbidden converse with the Dweller of the Abyss. Both men now felt that they understood the nature of the Abyss. It represented Dispersion: a terrifying chaos in which there was no center and no controlling consciousness. Its fearsome Dweller was not an individual but the personification of a magnitude of malignant forces made manifest through the massed energy of the evoking magician. But to experience these forces at the most immediate and profoundly personal level, and to believe, as Neuburg did, that he been involved in a fight to the death with them, was shattering. As Crowley remarked, "I hardly know how we ever got back to Bou Saada."
Over the next two weeks Crowley and Neuburg continued the Calls as they made their way towards Biskra, a desert journey of over a hundred miles. Some of Crowley's experiences in the Aethyrs were lyrical hymns of beauty and ecstasy, but others seemed full of foreboding—suggesting that he had stumbled into a world for which he was not yet prepared. By the time they reached Biskra on 16 December, Crowley knew that he was perilously close to the absolute limit of his powers. Four days later he concluded the final Call. The magical work was finished. The two men were utterly exhausted, but not by the hardships of the physical journey, which Crowley, at least, found delightful. It was the magical experience that had taken its toll. Those who knew them said that Neuburg "bore the marks of this magical adventure to the grave," and that Crowley, shattered psychologically, never recovered from the ordeal. The two men recuperated in Biskra before returning to Algiers. They sailed for England on the last day of December 1909.