Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.
Aleister Crowley (1875 – 1947) and the nineteenth century’s enchantment with esoterica grew up together. Born in the year the Theosophical Society was founded, he was an Oxford educated, pansexual playboy, rock-climber, Swinburnian poet, yogi, cabalist, and something of a monster. He was also a born sorcerer, a natural magus given over to the enthusiasms of his era: narcotics, the unconscious, and the occult.
Once dubbed “the wickedest man in the world” by the British press, Crowley is often called a Satanist. Technically, he was not. But he might as well have been. The demonic character of the aphorism for which he is still celebrated is a variant, in biblical cadence, of Lucifer’s cry: “I will not serve.”
Self-invented, he fashioned himself as a kind of Übermensch destined to transcend and destroy what Nietzsche termed “slave morality.” Crowley warred against “the oppressors of the human soul, the blasphemers who denied the supremacy of the will of man.” He venerated and invoked those deep, supra-rational forces that awaken “the creative genius which is the inalienable heirloom of every son of man.” Self-idolatry is only a short walk on from there. The instinctive will must rise, become a law unto itself, and acknowledge no other.
Crowley is not dead yet. If anything, he is more alive today than he was when he claimed to have created the “V for Victory” sign as a magical talisman against the Nazi swastika.
If you are a connoisseur of old Beatles LPs, you have Crowley’s portrait on the album cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. If you are a Tom Cruise fan you know that the Church of Scientology hatched from Ron Hubbard’s attraction to Crowley’s vision. Hubbard made no bones about it: “The one super-secret sentence that Scientology is built on is ‘Do as thou wilt—that is the whole of the law.’”
Crowley’s conjured eidolon holds particular appeal for the individualistic egos of musicians (most notably John Lennon) and actors. It suits the quest for gnosis, the pearl prized by assorted bohemians and New Agers as they tap into their own higher selves. Considered outré and eccentric in Victorian England, Crowleyiana all is pretty mainstream by now.
I was reminded of just how mainstream while I was standing in line at the local farmer’s market on Saturday. In front of me was a young woman with Crowley’s maxim tattooed on her shoulder. We were queued at my favorite stall, waiting for the same artisanal cheeses and brick-oven baked breads.
On another day, her tattoo might have left me either indifferent or amused. Just as likely, it might have nettled, gotten under my skin in some irksome way. This time, though, it simply made me sad. Needled into her skin, the words struck me as infinitely sorrowful. So smug and cocksure, they seemed as bleak as a shroud. The woman had branded herself like livestock, a heifer steered by a genie riding herd on a culture that had lost its compass and its dignity.
Non serviam is the world’s siren call. It has been with us from the beginning and will accompany us to our end. Dare I tell her? After all, she was making a public announcement, was she not? For a fraction of a nanosecond, I fantasized leaning over and whispering: “Oh, sweetheart, may all that thou wilt be graceful.” Had she been anyone I knew I might even have kissed her shoulder—a benediction to mute the curse implicit in those tattooed words.
But she was a stranger. Besides, I wanted my cheese. I had come for a week’s worth of cave-aged cheddar, a quarter pound of Amish schmearkase, and a glorious roasted garlic ciabatta. Why disturb the universe? I felt like Prufrock; but that bread smelled so good.
In the end, I kept my impulse to myself. Perhaps the Spirit would bend to kiss her for me.