David Bowie and Drug Literature from the Eighteenth Century to the 1970s

[Aleister] Crowley does not figure on Bowie’s debut LP, but by the time of Man Who Sold the World (1970) and Hunky Dory (1971), he would be an influence directly on Bowie’s lyrics and continued to influence Bowie’s lyrics, ideas, and philosophies throughout the 1970s. Of particular interest to this chapter are Crowley’s experiments with drugs and his ideas about how drug use is related to creativity and religious experience, two ideas that Bowie also pursued in his work.

Eric Pellerin, David Bowie and Romanticism, pp. 69-70

Between 1970s’ drug culture and its ultimate origin, Romantic-era drug literature in the works of Thomas De Quincey (1785-1859) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), lies Aleister Crowley’s (1875-1947) Diary of a Drug Fiend (1922), the seminal work of an author who became a central figure to many rock figures of the 1960s and 1970s, even appearing in the upper left corner of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967). Diary of a Drug Fiend is generally considered a roman à clef: a work of fiction based upon real people and actual events. Crowley, in my opinion, is generally misunderstood in some ways that he would find flattering and in other ways that he brought upon himself, and it’s not clear to me that the work needed to understand him would yield much in the way of real benefit. But he deserves the dignity of honesty about his legacy–while I’m not a Crowley scholar, and never will be, I will attempt to tell the truth about him as someone who is neither an adept in his religion nor hostile toward him as “the most evil man alive.”

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Crowley’s Diary of a Drug Fiend follows the life of Sir Peter Pendragon, a minor English aristocrat who, early in the story, on a single night meets a woman whom he marries without knowing and takes cocaine for the first time. Their honeymoon consists of a drug-fueled romp across Europe that becomes part tragedy and part comedy of errors, as Pendragon’s judgment is badly impaired by drug use. They progress from cocaine to heroin, rapidly degenerating into a serious addiction that leads them to the point of suicide until rescued by Basil King Lamus, who had been their guide through drug use from the beginning and is a leader in the religion of Thelema. On the one hand, the narrative propagates the myth that even heroin use can be controlled to lead users to higher states of consciousness, but on the other hand, it is graphic, detailed, accurate, and unflinching in its depiction of the worst aspects of heroin addiction.

Thelema in this novel and its follow-up, Moonchild, is a syncretist religion that appears to me to use the Sefirot (Kabbalah’s Tree of Life) for its conceptual structure, the teachings of Christ for its moral consciousness, and then associates the insights of other religions and empirical science on different nodes of the Sefirot. Adherents of this religion practice “magick,” which because of Thelema’s study of nature is able to create real effects in the world (according to the religion). “Magick” is therefore not an occult practice as commonly understood but the proper understanding of the relationship between human beings and the natural world, the ultimate integration of empirical science, philosophy, psychology, and religion.

The fundamental principle of Thelema is “Do what thou wilt,” but it’s carefully distinguished from “Do as thou wilt,” the former being the practice of deliberate action moving toward carefully chosen goals while the latter is the practice of caprice or mood without regard for consequences. Thelema and the practice of magick by its own account should be distinguished from Satanism and the practice of black magic: while Crowley could write poems like “Hymn to Satan” in the very early twentieth century, probably working with a gnostic view of Satan, by the 1930s he would compare practicing black magic to a mouse trying to make a pact with a cat. Thelema, overall, is conceptually naive in that it makes identifications among objects based on superficial similarities alone, and it is dependent upon early twentieth-century science only partially understood by the author. However, in many ways, it’s not hard to see how so many rock stars from the 1960s and 1970s would be attracted to Crowley — Diary of a Drug Fiend at times reads like a user manual for a 70s’ rock star: the life of someone wealthy, aristocratic, young, and free.

Eric Pellerin in chapter 4 of David Bowie and Romanticism, “Drug Use and Drug Literature from the Eighteenth Century to David Bowie,” covers the ground described in his title, locating Bowie’s 1970s’ lifestyle and songwriting about drug use at the end of a lineage of drug literature that begins with Coleridge and De Quincey, moves through Baudelaire and Crowley, and then moves on to David Bowie with additional discussion of contemporaries such as Jimmy Page.

Read more in David Bowie and Romanticism: you can order the book from The Bookstore or ask your local, college, or university library to order it for you.

Eric Pellerin is Assistant Professor and the Electronic Resources & Serials Management Librarian at Medgar Evers College, CUNY. His research interests include genre theory, authorship in film, and Hong Kong cinema.

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