Masks of the Illuminati

Sir John picked out a Crowley volume entitled, with Brazen effrontery, The Book of Lies. 
Opening it, he found the title page:


Despite himself, Sir John grinned. This was a variation on the Empedoclean paradox in logic, which consists of the question: “Empedocles, the Cretan, says that everything Cretans say is a lie; is Empedocles telling the truth?” Of course, if Empedocles is telling the truth, then — since his statement “everything Cretans say is a lie” is the truth — he must also be lying. On the other hand, if Empedocles is lying, then everything Cretans say is not a lie, and he might be telling the truth. Crowley’s title page was even more deliberately perverse: if the book is “also falsely called Breaks,” then (because of the “also”) the original title is false, too, and it is not a book of lies at all. But, on the other hand, since it is the “falsifications. . . of the one thought. . . which is itself untrue,” it is the negation of the untrue and, therefore, true. Or was it?

Sir John turned to the first chapter and found it consisted of a single symbol, the question mark:


Well, compared with the title, that was at least brief. Sir John turned the page to the second chapter and found equal brevity:

What kind of a joke was this? Sir John turned to Chapter 3, and his head spun:

Nothing is.
Nothing becomes.
Nothing is not. 

The first two statements were the ultimate in nihilism; but the third sentence, carrying nihilism one step further, brought in the Empedoclean paradox again, for it contradicted itself. If “nothing is not,” then something is. . . .

What else was in this remarkable tome? Sir John started flipping pages and abruptly found himself facing, at Chapter 77, a photograph of Lola Levine. It was captioned “L.A.Y.L.A.H.” The photo and the caption made up the entire chapter. Lola was seen from the waist up and was shamelessly naked, although as a concession to English morality her hair hung down to cover most of her breasts.

Sir John, on a hunch, counted cabalistically. Lamed was 30, plus Aleph is 1, plus Yod is 10, plus second Lamed is 30, plus second Aleph is 1 again, plus He is 5; total, 77, the number of the chapter. And Laylah was not just a loose transliteration of Lola; it was the Arabic word for “night.” And 77 was the value of the curious Hebrew word which meant either “courage” or “goat”: Oz. The simple photo and caption were saying, to the skilled Cabalist, that Lola was the priestess incarnating the Night of Pan, the dissolution of the ego into void. . .

Sir John decided to buy The Book of Lies; it would be interesting, and perhaps profitable, to gain further insight into the mind of the Enemy, however paradoxical and perverse might be its expressions. He approached the counter, and found with discomfort that the clerk seated there was Lola Levine herself. Since he had just been looking at a photo of her, naked from the waist up, he blushed and stammered as he said, “I’d like to buy this.”

“One pound six, sir,” Lola said, with no more flicker of expression than any other clerk. Sir John realized that it had been nearly three years since the one occasion on which they had met on the Earth-plane; she had no reason to remember him. Then, was it possible that all the astral visions in which she tormented and attempted to seduce him were the product of his own impure imagination? Or were those visions as real as they seemed, and was she merely a consummate actress and hypocrite? It was the metaphysical equivalent of the Empedoclean paradox.

A stout, elderly woman with a Cornish accent asked Lola, “I’m planning to stay for the lecture. Is it pronounced Crouly or Crowley?”

“It is pronounced Crowly,” said a voice from the door. “To remind you that I’m holy. But my enemies say Crouly, in wish to treat me foully.”

Sir John turned and saw Aleister Crowley, bowing politely to the Cornish woman as he completed his jingle. Crowley was a man of medium height, dressed in a conservative pinstripe suit jarringly offset by a gaudy blue scarf in place of the tie and with a green Borsalino hat worn at a rakish angle. It was the outfit an artist on the Left Bank might wear, to show that he had become successful; it was definitely eccentric for London.

The Cornish woman stared. “Are you really the Great Magician, as people say?”

“No,” said Crowley at once. “I am the most dedicated enemy of the Great Magician.” And he swept past imperiously.

The Cornish lady gasped. “What did he mean by that?” she asked nobody in particular.

Sir John understood, but wasted no time trying to explain. Crowley was heading for the lecture room and Sir John followed him closely, wanting a seat up front where he could observe the Master of the M.M.M. most closely. The paradox had been typical of Crowley’s style: he referred, obviously, to the Gnostic teaching that the sensory universe was a delusion, created by the Devil, to prevent humanity from seeing the Undivided Light of Divinity itself. A strange joke to come from a Satanist; but, of course, some Gnostics had taught that Jehovah, creator of the material universe, was the Devil, the Great Magician. The Bible begins with Beth, according to this teaching, because Beth is the letter of the Magician in the Tarot, the Lord of the Abyss of Hallucinations. . .

The lecture room was filling rapidly and Sir John scampered into a front-row seat. He noticed that Crowley had lowered his head and closed his eyes, obviously preparing himself for the lecture by some method of invocation or meditation. Behind him on the wall was a large silver star with an eye in its center, a symbol associated (Sir John knew) with both the goddess Isis and the Dog Star, Sirius.

“Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law,” Crowley intoned suddenly, without raising his head. Then he looked about the room whimsically.

“It is traditional in the great Order which I humbly represent,” he went on, “to begin all ceremonies and lectures with that phrase. Like Shakespeare’s Ducdame, it is a great banishing ritual against fools, most of whom leave the room at once on hearing it uttered. Observing no stampede to the doors I can only wonder if a miracle is occurring tonight and I am speaking, for once, to an English audience that does not consist mostly of fools.”

Sir John smiled in spite of himself.

“My topic tonight,” Crowley went on, “is the soldier and the hunchback. Those are poetic terms I regularly employ to designate the two most interesting punctuation marks in general use throughout Europe — the exclamation point and the question mark. Please do not look for profundities at this point. I call the exclamation point ‘the soldier’ only out of poetic whimsy, because it stands there, erect, like a soldier on guard duty. The question mark I call the ‘hunchback,’ similarly, only because of its shape. I repeat again: there is no profundity intended, yet.”

Sir John found himself thinking of the first two chapters of The Book of Lies, which said only “?” and “!”

The question mark or hunchback, Crowley went on, appeared in all the basic philosophical problems that haunt mankind: Why are we here? Who or what put us here? What if anything can we do about it? How do we get started? Where shall wisdom be found? Why was I born? Who am I? “Unless you are confronted with immediate survival problems, due to poverty or to the deliberate choice of an adventurous life, these hunchbacks will arise in your mind several times in an ordinary hour,” Crowley said. “They are generally pacified or banished by reciting the official answers of the tribe into which you were born, or simply deciding that they are unanswerable.” Some however, Crowley went on, cannot rest in either blind tradition or resigned agnosticism, and must seek answers for themselves, based on experience. Ordinary people, he said, are in a sense totally asleep and do not even know it; those who persist in asking the questions can be described as struggling toward wakefulness.

The soldier, or exclamation point, he continued, represents the moment of insight or intuition in which a question is answered, as in the expressions “Aha!” or “Eureka!”

“I now present you, gratis, two of the nastiest hunchbacks I know,” Crowley said, smiling wickedly. “These two are presented to every candidate who comes to our Order seeking the Light. Here they are:

“Number One: Why, of all the mystical and occult teachers in the world, did you come to me? 

“Number Two: Why, of all the days in your life, on this particular day? 

“That is all you need to know,” Crowley said. “I might as well leave the platform now, since, if you can answer those questions, you are already Illuminated; and if you cannot, you are such dunces that further words are wasted on you. But I will take mercy on you and give you the rest of the lecture, anyway.”

Crowley went on to define the state of modern philosophy (post-David Hume) as “an assembly of hunchbacks.” Everything has been called into question; every axiom has been challenged — “including Euclid’s geometry among modern mathematicians”; nothing is certain anymore. On all sides, Crowley said, we see only more hunchbacks — questions, questions, questions.

Traditional mysticism, Crowley continued, is a regiment of soldiers. The mystic, he said, having attained an “Aha!” or “Eureka!” experience — a sudden intuitive insight into the invisible reality behind the subjective deceptions of the senses — is apt to be so delighted with himself that he never asks another question and stops thinking entirely. Out of this error, Crowley warned, flows dogmatic religion, “a force almost as dangerous to true mysticism as it is to scientific or political freedom.”

The path of true Illumination, Crowley proceeded, walking to a blackboard at the right of the room, does not consist of one intuitive insight after another. It is not a parade of soldiers, “like this,” he said, writing on the board:


“Anybody in that state is an imbecile or a catatonic, however blissful his lunacy may be,” Crowley said sternly.

The true path of the Illuminati, Crowley stated more emphatically, is a series of soldiers and hunchbacks in ever-accelerating series, which he sketched as:

?. . . . !. . . .?. . . !. . . ?. . !. . ?. !. ?
!?!?!?!?!?!?!?! etc. 

“To rest at any point, either in intuitive certainty or doubtful questioning,” he said flatly, “is to stagnate. Always seek the higher vision, whatever states of ecstatic insight you may have reached. Always ask the next harder question, whatever questions you may have answered. The Light you are seeking is quite correctly called ain soph auer in Cabala — the limitless light — and it has, quite literally, the characteristics mathematicians such as Cantor have demonstrated belong to Infinity. As the Upanishads say, ‘You can empty infinity from it, and infinity still remains.’ However deep your union with the Light, it can become deeper, whether you call it Christ or Buddha or Brahm or Pan. Since I am, thank God,” he said the last two words with great piety, “an Atheist, I prefer to call it Nothing — since anything we say about it is finite and limited, whereas it is infinite and unlimited.”

Crowley proceeded to discourse on the infinite with great detail, summarizing mathematical theories on the subject with remarkable erudition and felicity. “But all this,” he ended, “is not the true infinite. It is only what our little monkey-minds have been able to comprehend so far. Ask the next question. Seek the higher vision. That is the path that unites mysticism and rationalism, and transcends both of them. As a great Poet has written:

We place no reliance
On Virgin or Pigeon;
Our method is Science,
Our aim is Religion.

Those blessed words!” he said raptly. “Holy be the name of the sage who wrote them!”

At this point Sir John was far from sure whether he had been listening to the highest wisdom or the most pretentious mumbo jumbo he had ever heard. The Divine No-Thing was much like certain concepts in Buddhism and Taoism, but it was also a nice way of seeming to utter profundities while actually talking nonsense. But then, of course, Crowley’s whole point had been that anything said about infinity was itself Nothing in comparison with infinity itself. . .

With a start, Sir John realized that the lecture was over. The audience was applauding, somewhat tentatively, most of them as confused by what they had heard as Sir John himself.

“You may now,” Crowley said carelessly, “unburden yourselves of the thoughts with which you passed the time while pretending to listen attentively to me; but in accord with English decorum and the rituals of the public lecture, you must phrase these remarks in the form of questions.”

There was a nervous laugh.

“What about Christ?” The speaker was a red-faced man with a walrus mustache; he seemed more irritated by what he had heard than the rest of the audience. “You didn’t say nuthin’ about Christ,” he added aggrievedly.

“A lamentable oversight,” Crowley said unctuously. “What about Christ, indeed? Personally, I hold the man blameless for the religion that has been foisted upon him posthumously. Next question — the lady in the back row?”

“Is socialism inevitable?”

Sir John found himself wondering when Crowley would become aware of the Talisman and attempt to cajole him into surrendering it. With horror he realized that such overwhelming of his mind was possible: Crowley did possess charm, magnetism and charisma, like many servants of the Demon. What was it Pope had written about Vice? A creature of such hideous mein/That to be hated needs but be seen/But something something something/We first pity, then endure, then embrace. . . “Many things are inevitable,” Crowley was saying. “The tides. The seasons. The fact that the questions after a lecture seldom have anything to do with the content of the lecture. . .” What do you seek? The Light. The limitless light: ain soph auer. And the darkness knew it not. . .

“What about the Magick Will?” Sir John asked suddenly, during a pause.

“Ah,” Crowley said. “That is a Significant Question.” Somehow he conveyed the mocking capitals by his intonation. “Such questions deserve to be answered with demonstrations, not with mere windy words. Laylah,” he called to the back of the room. “Could you bring the psychoboulometer?”

Lola approached the podium with something that looked hideously like a medieval thumb- screw.

“There is firstly conscious will,” Crowley was saying, looking directly at Sir John. “We all attempt to exercise this every day. ‘I will give up smoking.’ ‘I will be true to my wife.’ Ninety-nine times out of a hundred such resolutions fail, because they are in conflict with the force that really controls us, Unconscious Will, which can not be frustrated. Indeed, even the profane psychologists have rediscovered what the mystics always knew: Unconscious Will, if prevented from acting, returns in the night to haunt our dreams. And sometimes it returns in the daytime, too, in the form of irrational behaviors which we cannot understand. Magick Will should not be confused with either of these, because it includes both and is greater than both. To perform an act of Magick Will is to achieve the Great Work, I might say. The holiest of all holy books says in this connection, ‘Thou hast no right but to do thy will.’ Alas, if you think you are doing your true Will, without magickal training, you are almost always deluding yourself. . . But I am engaging in the windy verbiage I promised to avoid, and here is the implement of demonstration. Would anybody care to give us an exhibit of what they can accomplish by conscious Will?”

“I think I shall give it a try,” Sir John said, wondering at his own daring. “That’s only fair since I asked the question,” he added, feeling inane.

“Well, then, good! Come up here, sir,” Crowley said with a grin that was beginning to look a bit sinister to Sir John. “We have here,” he went on, holding the ugly thumb-screw so that everybody could get a good view, “one of the implements once used by the Dominican Order to enforce the religion which, as I said, has been foisted on Christ.” He set the torture device on the podium. “They used it as an instrument of torture, but we shall use it as a measure of Will.”

Sir John was now standing beside Crowley, looking uneasily at the thumb-screw. “Just insert your thumb, sir,” Crowley said easily.

“What???” Sir John could hardly believe his ears.

“Just insert your thumb, down here,” Crowley went on blandly, “and then turn the handle which tightens the vise. The needle on the boulometer — my own addition to this toy — will register how far you are able to withstand pain by sheer Will; 10 is a good score, and 0 means you are a mere jellyfish. How far do you think you can go?”

Sir John felt every eye in the room upon him. He wanted to cry, “I am not such a fool as to torture myself for your amusement,” but — he was even more afraid of appearing a public coward. Is that why people go into armies? he asked himself grimly. . . “Very well,” he said coldly, inserting his thumb.

And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him.

And it was about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over all the earth until the ninth hour.

And the sun was darkened, and the veil of the temple was rent in the midst.

And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife; and they went both of them together.

And when Jesus had cried with a loud voice, he said, Father, unto thy hands I commend my spirit; and having said thus, he gave up the ghost. 

“You’ve only reached two in the boulometer,” Crowley said. “The audience will think you’re not trying, sir.”

“Damn you!” Sir John whispered, perspiration cold on his back. “I am done with this cruel joke. Let us see how much better your Magick Will can do!”

“Certainly,” Crowley said calmly. He inserted his thumb into the cruel mechanism, and began turning the vise with slow deliberation. Not a muscle moved in his face. (Sir John suspected that he had gone into a trance.) The needle on the boulometer crept slowly, accompanied by gasps from the audience, all the way to 10.

“That,” said Crowley gently, “might pass for an elementary demonstration of Magick Will.”

There was a burst of spontaneous applause.

“It will also do,” Crowley said, “as an illustration of our thesis about the soldier and the hunchback. The first rule of our Magick is: never believe anything you hear and doubt most of what you see.” He turned the “psycho-boulometer” around, revealing that he had disengaged the screw and had been turning the handle without actually tightening the vise. There was an angry gasp.

“Oh,” Crowley said, “are you feeling cheated? Remember this, then: you are cheated the same way every time emotional turmoil or fixed ideas distort your perception of what is actually before your eyes. And remember to look for the hunchback behind every soldier.”

The audience began to file out, muttering and chattering as excitedly as a group of chimpanzees who had just found a mirror.

And then Sir John realized that Crowley had descended from the podium and was approaching him.

“Sir John Babcock,” Crowley said warmly, “did you ever hear the story of the man with a mongoose in his basket?”

At least, unlike Lola, Crowley wasn’t pretending not to recognize Sir John. “What mongoose?” Babcock asked carefully.

“It was on a train,” Crowley said. “This chap had a basket under his seat and another passenger asked him what was in it. ‘A mongoose,’ he said. ‘A mongoose!’ said the other. ‘What on earth do you want with a mongoose?’ ‘Well,’ said our hero, ‘my brother drinks a great deal more than is good for him, and sometimes he sees snakes. So I turn the mongoose on them.’ The other passenger was baffled by this logic. ‘But those are imaginary snakes!’ he exclaimed. ‘Aha!’ said our hero. ‘Do you think I don’t know that? But this is an imaginary mongoose!’

Sir John laughed nervously.

“That’s the way it is with talismans,” Crowley said. “When a phantom climbs, the ghost of a ladder serves him. But do keep that pentacle in your vest if it makes you feel better. I must go now. We shall meet again.”

And Sir John stared as Crowley made his way to the back of the room, where he greeted Lola with a kiss. He whispered something; they both turned and looked back at Sir John; they waved cheerfully. And then they were gone.

Masks of the Illuminati

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