What better way to mark April Fool’s Day than by commemorating one of the wittiest and most daring of practical jokes, one perpetrated by Aleister Crowley in those brilliant years before drugs and/or self-delusion fogged his mind. Decades before the pathetic “Peekaboo Crowley” of much renown Aleister was still churning out some very enjoyable poetry – some of it brilliant. The Sword of Song and Konx Om Pax are my favorite volumes of verse by “the Laird of Boleskine” … AFTER Clouds Without Water, that is.
Clouds Without Water was not Crowley’s only literary practical joke, of course, but the humor of it resonates to this very day, thanks mainly to the never-changing air of pious self-righteousness that afflicts most of the world’s clergy-members. And not just pious self-righteousness but a habit of condemning in the strongest language works of art which their self-limited minds clearly don’t understand.
THE JOKE: Clouds Without Water was published under one of Crowley’s pseudonyms – Reverend Charles Verey. It was circulated to various ministries and teaching colleges allegedly as a condemnation of “the type of atheism and socialism” that the young and the bohemian were embracing. Crowley – writing as Reverend Verey – wrote a foreward and a closing prayer for the volume of poetry as well as (when you know the full story) HILARIOUS footnotes expressing the kind of simplistic moral outrage that only the most narrow-minded of holy-rollers can spout.
Under another assumed identity Crowley ALSO wrote the sonnets being condemned by his Reverend Verey alter ego. On the surface the poems were written by a college professor scandalously celebrating an extramarital affair with one of his female students, a young woman named Lola. The sonnets reflect the supposed couple’s flouting of social and sexual conventions until the affair ends in tragedy for all concerned. Crowley’s fictional persona Reverend Verey was denouncing the poems and the lifestyle reflected in those poems in the strongest possible terms.
He was also feigning profound outrage and blaming “works such as this” for corrupting the morals of the young and turning their minds against God and religion as well as tempting them toward socialism. That type of behavior from the clergy rings right through to the present day as, over the past several decades religious fanatics have condemned everything from movies to popular music to books and magazines and television for eroding the country’s (any country’s) morals and conduct.
All of that would be comical enough for those in on the joke but making it even better was the fact that, though the book played to the particular phobias of the moment with regard to much of the world’s clergy in the early 20th Century (atheism, socialism and free love) it was IN REALITY a collection of poems metaphorically depicting Satanic and Tantric sexual and ritual practices. And I don’t mean the faux “Satanism” that religious types read into everything that strikes them as unorthodox, I mean ACTUAL Satanic practices involving sex and violence.
The poems take us through orgies in which Lola’s body is both God and altar to God and in which various intoxicants are ingested as the basics of the Satanic theology are laid out. And all the while “Reverend Verey’s” footnotes misinterpreting it as atheism and socialism provide a running condemnation that is pitch-perfect as a send-up of pious buffoonery.
(As regular readers of Balladeer’s Blog know I ridicule Satanism as much as I do every other religion so my fondness for this work of Crowley’s stems from the supreme irony of the situation and is NOT an endorsement of the irrational and self-satisfied Satanic faith.) (* And as we all know the Reverend Vereys of today would be huffily muttering “Oh, his distaste for Satanists is based on them being ‘irrational and self-satisfied’. No moral considerations of course!” – “Oh, Lord, what didst thou come to save?” – to quote one of Crowley-as-Verey’s footnotes.)
Taking the poems alone they are still enjoyable even WITHOUT the humorous angle of the footnotes, the foreward and the closing prayer but they’re enjoyable mostly on the level of a dramatization of Satanic mythology. They’re only a bit erotic by today’s standards but back then when, to quote the song “a bit of stocking was looked on as something shocking” they must have packed a powerful punch. In the end the professor/poet loses his job, catches v.d. and commits suicide. Lola, for her part, is reduced to prostitution. All of this is seen by Faux-Verey as “the logical outcome of Atheism and Free Love” (capitals his).
The sonnets are divided into eight sections and for the Rosicrucian- minded they can be seen as Diabolism’s inversion of the ritual stages depicted in The Alchemical Wedding of Christian Rosycross. Those eight sections are titled The Augur, The Alchemist, The Hermit, The Thaumaturge, The Black Mass, The Adept, The Vampire and The Initiation. Also for the esoteric- minded there are exactly one hundred fourteen sonnets in Clouds Without Water. Volumes could be written about the significance of that alone but it would consume too much space and is mostly off-topic anyway.
To provide a feel for the poetry in this work I’ll provide an exerpt that is particularly apt with Easter coming up:
“This wine is sovereign against all complaints
This is the wine the great king-angels use
To inspire the souls of sinners and of saints
Unto the deeds that win the world or lose.
One drop of this raised Attis from the dead
One drop of this and slain Osiris stirs
One drop of this before young Horus fled
Thine hosts, Typhon! This wine is mine and hers
Ye gods that gave it – not in trickling gouts
But from the very fountain where ’tis drawn
Gushing in crystal jets and ruby spouts
From the authentic throne and shrine of dawn
Drink it? Aye, so – and bathe therein and swim
Out to the wide world’s everlasting rim.”
Hell, if Jim Morrison was still alive he could read the poetry for Books On Tape, while, for the Reverend Verey footnotes and such the thoroughly outdated Brent Bozell III would make the perfect pious buffoon to read those!
Why would Crowley go through so much trouble, you ask? Well, the reason makes this possibly the most “practical” of practical jokes. Want to get a volume of poems celebrating Satanic theology, woman-worship and Tantric sex-magic distributed in Edwardian Age England of all places? Just disguise it as a clergyman’s “holy” condemnation of “the kinds of things going on on college campuses these days” and such. Publish it under the name of the non-existent “Society for the Propogation of Religious Truth”, then sit back and enjoy the joke! The more copies that make the go-rounds the better. Though I have no doubt some of the clergymen immediately saw through Crowley’s joke and wanted nothing to do with the book after reading part of it.
Still, there’s no denying that the “Reverend Verey” contributions to the book are sheer comic genius on Crowley’s part as his fictitious minister righteously condemns the poems – but for ALL the wrong reasons! And in the same clownishly prudish terms that STILL categorize the sex-fearing religious types.
The title of Clouds Without Water was one of the contributions credited to Reverend Verey and is from a Bible verse that begins “Clouds they are without water …” and is meant to symbolize what Verey saw as the spiritual shallowness and emptiness of the poet and Lola. I was just a teenager when I first read Clouds Without Water but over the years it’s been hard not to think of this literary joke of Crowley’s every time the religious-minded rail against things like Heavy Metal Music or violence in movies, etc.
Enjoy April Fool’s Day and try to not to fall for anything TOO obvious!
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