ABSTRACT: Infamous for his drug use and extreme sexual practices, and proclaiming himself the “Great Beast 666,” Aleister Crowley remains to this day one of the most influential and yet most often misunderstood figures in the history of Western new religious movements. This article offers a fresh approach to Crowley, by placing him within contemporary debates about modernism and postmodernism. By no means the outcast enemy of modern Western society so often depicted in the media, Crowley was, I argue, a stunning reflection of some of the most acute cultural contradictions at the heart of modern Western civilization in the early twentieth century. A uniquely Janus-faced character, he reflects both the “Faustian” will of modernism as well as its tragic failure and exhaustion at mid-century in the aftermath of the two World Wars.
Where does our modern world belong—to exhaustion or ascent?—Its manifoldness and unrest conditioned by the attainment of the highest level of consciousness.
—Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power1
The point about Crowley is that he seems to contain all these sorts of ideas and identities—indeed most of the vices of the Twentieth Century—and he was dead at the end of 1947.
—Snoo Wilson, author of the play “The Beast” (1974)2