The Diary of a Drug Fiend by Aleister Crowley

During lockdown, I’ve tried to make a concerted effort to go on a long walk once a week. I call it an effort, because I mean at least an 8-10 mile walk because there are only so many outings you can do in your immediate vicinity without getting bored. I concluded that the longer the walk, the more scope there was for finding new places. Up until 6th July, if you lived in Wales, you couldn’t travel by car to have a jolly day out, so the start and end of the walk from the house might be boring…but the rest of the route could open up new experiences.

As I tend to do the majority of my walking alone, I have started listening to my audible books en route. I used to listen to books in the car, but as it’s now mainly sitting on my drive there is a backlog of books to be listened to. A book that piqued my attention was Diary of a Drug Fiend by Aleister Crowley. I thoroughly enjoyed the book but was reticent to share my thoughts about it. Should I publicly admit to reading a book by such a villainised figure, someone the tabloids had branded “The Wickedest Man in the World.” You only have to look at Twitter to see how people enjoy misconstruing what someone has said…would it be safer to keep my head down about reading books by the world-renowned occultist?

The most celebrated occultist of the modern age.

Published in 1922 and dubbed a book for burning by the media at the time, The Diary of a Drug Fiend is written as a novel, but according to the author is a true story…a terrible story, but also one that offers hope and redemption. The book provides a unique insight into the mind of the author and his involvement with both drug addiction and the religion of Thelema.

The Diary of a Drug Fiend tells the story of Sir Peter Pendragon who is dealing with the aftermath of WW1; he is depressed and lacking in direction and has just acquired a large inheritance following the death of his uncle. He meets Louise Laleham one evening, a devotee of Basil King Lamus, an occultist. The two quickly fall in love and marry and set off on a bohemian adventure across Europe fuelled with an appetite for cocaine, which quickly moves onto the reliance of the more addictive drug heroin.

The reader follows the couple on their drug fuelled honeymoon to Italy where they have all of their belongings stolen and have to return to England where they find themselves desperate to score more drugs. As we delve deeper into Peter and Louise’s journey, the reader witnesses the power that the drugs have over the couple, both physically and psychologically.

Back in England the couple are forced to move from Peter’s country estate to a slum house. There are physical beatings, theft, an increase in stress levels as they lie to one another in order to obtain their next fix and the pleasurable sensations that the drugs can arouse. As their health and finances decline they attempt to quit heroin, but the drug has a power over them and there is graphic detail recorded about their cravings and addiction which show how easily a person can be drawn into a world of drugs and how the addiction of cocaine and heroin ensnares the user into an endless cycle of needing a drug to feel better.

During their “highs” they experience visions and prophecies, but as their supply of drugs inevitably ceases, they have to face the reality of their drug addiction and the level of dependency they have to maintain some sort of normal life. During one attempt to quit the drugs, they move back to Peter’s estate to experiment with magick. Louise is more successful than Peter in this regard, as she is able to communicate with her Guardian Angel, whereas Peter ends up shooting himself and Louise has to nurse him back to health.

This failure to quit allows the couple to move back to London and back to a life dependent on drug fuelled binges. The couple conclude that there is no way off the hamster wheel of addiction and that the only solution open to them  is to commit suicide. They are saved by Basil King Lamus who agrees to help them fight their addictions. In a series of twists, the couple end up travelling with Lamus to the Abbey of Thelema where he uses Magick for the couple to master True Will and a release from their self-imposed destruction.

Do What Thou Wilt is the Whole of the Law.

It is interesting to read about people who take drugs to be enlightened, as there have been many notable artists of repute who have admitted to only being creative whilst under the influence. It’s not an avenue I have gone down, nor would I be willing to do so, so it is both interesting and disturbing that Crowley advocated the use of opiates as a wonderful thing if you had the correct mental attitude towards them. Knowing that Crowley was addicted to heroin up until his death (25 years after Diary of a Drug Fiend was published) the book is an interesting viewpoint on the subject matter; although with our enlightened view of drug use and abuse in the 21st century, advocating the use of heroin for spiritual enlightenment feels somewhat disturbing.

The notion of “Do What Thou Wilt” might seem arcane, or perhaps menacing, but the ultimate message of finding your own purpose in life so that your problems will leave you behind is a notion that many would hold onto, that is, if the message had been spread by someone other than Aleister Crowley. I don’t know if the printed versions of The Diary of a Drug Fiend contain an autobiography of Crowley, but I feel that an introduction to him would assist in understanding both him and the audio book a little better. So I did a little bit of research, re-read The Book of the Law and The Book of Lies and whilst being still utterly bamboozled by the contents, I felt less embarrassed at admitting I’d read some of his work and also concluded that the man was rather a fascinating multi-faceted character.

Edward Alexander Crowley was born 12 October 1875. He was a renowned occultist, mystic, ceremonial magician, poet, mountaineer, who dabbled in drugs. He became known as both Aleister Crowley and The Greta Beast 666 and was the founder of the philosophy of Thelema which enforced the idealism of “Do What Thou Wilt.” His father was a preacher who died when Edward was 11. Although Edward had been devoted to the Christian religion whilst his father was alive, he soon started pointing out inconsistencies in the Bible during school lessons following his father’s death. His behaviour defying all the Christian morals he was brought up by earned him the nickname “the Beast” from his mother…a title he revelled in.

Do what thou wilt or do what you want? People can only fully understand things that they have an experience of. That is why I toyed with the idea of writing about this. How many people do I know, who have a closed mind, will read this article? I know of several people who have joined me in my life’s journey who I have left on the wayside as they have such black and white views about matters. I remember going to watch Andrew Scott in Hamlet a few years ago. What should have been a joyous evening was tainted on the way back to the hotel as the conversation for some reason turned to abortion.

Staunch religious women and me were never going to agree so I didn’t bother involving myself in the conversation…certainly there seemed no point when they decided that even if a woman had been raped she should see the pregnancy through and then just hand the baby over. How could one human being lack so much empathy towards another? If it was difficult to open their minds to just considering someone else’s feelings for a moment on such an emotive topic, they would never begin to understand the concept of “Do What Thou Wilt” especially from the viewpoint of the occultist who wrote about it!

People can read these words of one syllable and construct many different meanings around them, all determined by their experiences of life – both their own and others who surround them. When we express ourselves, can we honestly say that these are our own unadulterated thoughts? The brain is a powerful tool and it subconsciously soaks up information from our daily lives, so instead of expressing ourselves, we take words of wisdom that we have picked up around us and genuinely use them as though they have just been thought of by ourselves. As Crowley tries to make us understand the term “Do What Thou Wilt,” he concludes that to fully understand it you need to pick the same spot in your brain as the person who has made the remark, for both parties to extract the exact same meaning. If you can’t do that, then you either misunderstand or you don’t understand at all.

The most shocking account of addiction.

The Diary of a Drug Fiend is a book to be read and reread to try to fully understand the layers of prose. It is not a book for those of the black and white mentality.  In 1922 when it was published, it was possibly one of the most shocking accounts of drug addiction that the general public were faced with. It is hardly surprising that Crowley earnt himself such a poor reputation. Today the contents will be less shocking, perhaps even a little tame, as culturally we have become hardened to the drug culture surrounding us. Films like Trainspotting and even more recently The Souvenir, bring you into the depraved world of the addict and allows a form of understanding as to how someone reaches that point of no return.

Crowley’s book, written after many years studying and experimenting with drugs, is a useful tool for those studying (drug) addiction, or even those who cross this field in their working lives, be they doctors, police, lawyers or psychologists, due to the detailed accounts of Crowley’s experiences with drugs himself. “Do What Thou Wilt” is more than an expression of do what you want and sod the consequences…it’s asking you to take a good look at your life and to fulfil your own desires…not to do, or allow, what other people expect of you.

Whilst the book focuses on the story of a couple who are riding the rollercoaster of drug addiction, the reader should be mindful that there are many forms of addiction before commenting in their “holier than thou” mindset. When does the glass of red wine every night stop being an enjoyable end to the day and become a necessity? When does the glass become a bottle? When does the bottle of wine need a whisky chaser at the end? When does the drinker admit they have lost control?

From my groupie days, when I was told it was all "harmless" fun!
Addiction doesn’t have to remain in the sector of alcohol, drugs or even tobacco; the human race has many habits which are perfectly legal and don’t change the chemical compounds of our brain, yet they still distract us from our True Will. What happens when the desire to see someone takes control of your life? Take for example someone who enjoys the theatre. If you go to the theatre a lot and watch a broad range of plays, then you may surmise that it is a hobby, no more harmful than playing golf or watching EastEnders each week. What happens when it isn’t a broad range of plays? What happens when it is the same play over and over again? What happens when this only applies to plays with the same actor in them? Is this still just a hobby, or is an addiction forming? What happens when you are willing to sacrifice your life savings or your relationships in order to facilitate all of these trips? This is when it becomes an addiction…this is when you are no longer in control, when you are unable to honour your own true will or “Do What Thou Wilt,” because something, or someone, has taken away your ability to think for yourself…just like Peter Pendragon and Louise Laleham, you find yourself making excuses, you find yourself in DENIAL.

It's the type of story that should be put on the stage.

Whilst I had some misgivings about this book, it is a bit of a diamond. I’m not saying that it’s a book without faults and I’m not saying that I’m a Crowley convert, but it is a book that gives an insight into our own addictions, whatever they maybe. In some respects, the book is an advert for Crowley’s Thelema religious persuading’s, but it is also a reflection of our own pursuit of spiritual guidance and understanding of this thing called life.  

I found The Diary of a Drug Fiend an inspirational read and one that opened many avenues of discourse in my mind. It’s the type of book I would love to see turned into a stage adaptation so I could watch it with friends and go to the bar afterwards for a good debate, not only on addiction, but the arcane, the occult, the imagery and mystical that abounds throughout the book…all in all, it is a story worthy of discussion.