THE MAGICAL DIARIES OF ALEISTER CROWLEY, TUNISIA 1923
Aleister Crowley lived from 1875 to 1947. He is widely considered to be one of the greatest magicians of his time, and in addition to his own voluminous published writings, many books have been written about his life and magical studies. The Tunis diaries are a departure from most of the published material about and by Crowley. Written for his own reference, and in accord with his instructions to his followers that a magician should record every detail of a working, the Diaries reveal a more thoughtful and human side of Crowley. We also see the foibles and insecurities of a complex man, not just the pompous, smooth writing of his most famous books.
A poet, mountaineer, traveler, novelist, editor, and reviewer, as well as an occultist and the prophet of the new religion of Thelema, Crowley can be seen in many lights. If you have only read Crowley's carefully polished books, you may have been entirely taken byor put off byhis self-aggrandizing style. Here is another face to the man. In the Diaries, we see him at one of the low points of his life.
The Magical Diaries covers the five month period from 11 May to 5 October 1923, when Crowley was forty-seven years old. He was addicted to heroin, cocaine, and ether, and he had just been expelled from the Abbey of Thelema in Cefalu, Sicily where he had lived for several yearsand from Italy itselfby Mussolini. One of Crowley's favorite disciples, Raoul Loveday, had died only a few months earlier while at the Abbey. He and Leah Hirsig (also known as Alostrael), his Scarlet Woman at this time, were living in a series of hotels in and around the city of Tunis in North Africa. They had almost no money and were constantly fighting with the managers of the various hotels they were staying in. During the several months covered by the Diaries, we see Crowley and his followers as they are evicted from one hotel after another, as Crowley tries to kick his heroin habitand fails, as Crowley hatches one scheme after another to acquire more money (from magical rituals to begging friends, from fund drives to my favoriteCrowley's attempt to get the contract as designer for a proposed golf course and hotel in Tunis!). He was also in a running battle with several of the popular newspapers of the day, and made life hard for the British Consul in Tunis, with frequent run-ins with the local law.
During this time Crowley also dictated the conclusion to his Confessions of Aleister Crowley, and worked on other books. He goes into great detail about his health and money troubles, and crows over his victories in the local chess club. Given all this chaos, you may wonder why you would want to read the book. While this is a valid question, the answer is not easy. While the book's morass of minutea will put off many readers, there are true gems here for the student or practitioner of magic. Crowley thought constantly and deeply on the entire field of magic, and he was willing to examine his own thoughts even when they were less than exalted. Where another may have edited the "bad parts" out of the record even while they were creating the diary, Crowley felt that every thought was worth recording as evidence of the process the human mind goes through as it learns and practices magic. As a result, there are connections and revelations which would otherwise be lost. Crowley's writing is littered with sharp insights into the nature of magic and the reality of day-to-day magical practice. I found myself having "ah-hah!" experiences often while reading this book, and find this to be the major value of the Diaries.
These diaries, not being written by Crowely for publication, are full of recursive thought patterns, obscure references, and abbreviations (even moreso than Crowley's regular work). The work Stephen Skinner set himself to do was to expand the abbreviations, quote the references, and link the major threads of Crowley's thinking. He has succeeded. While this is not a book for beginning occultists, it is made infinitely more readable by Skinner's skillful handling of the text. His footnotes are helpful, but it would seem that he used a computer to place footnotes, which results in multiple explanations of the same basic concepts: for instance, how many times do you need to have it explained that the term "31-666-31" refers to Ms. Hersig? Nearly every reference to Leah will have its footnote, explaining yet again who she was.
Skinner also does not assume that you have any knowledge of Crowley's works. While it would help to have copies of Book Four and The Book of the Law by your side while you read The Magical Diaries, it is possible to understand the text without them. Skinner's Introduction and the Timeline to Crowley's life are valuable aids to comprehending the environment in which the diaries were written, and he supplies usable appendices covering the technical details which will help clarify the text references still more. The weakest section of this whole book is the Foreword. In it Mr. Skinner sells another book of his to the reader, and waxes dubiously philosophical about the meaning of Aleister Crowley's life.
Students of Crowley's life and writings will find much else of value here, but any practicing magician will be able to wade through the dross to find true gold in The Magical Diaries of Aleister Crowley.
Reviewed by Jorah Lavin
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