From a World of Pain to Existence as Pure Joy: Some Notes on a Critical Reading of Crowley’s “Berashith”

Berashith” is a foundational essay of Aleister Crowley’s, and often taken to present an ontology that is consistent throughout Crowley’s life. In fact, this early essay has a number of limitations compared to the Book of the Law and to some of Crowley’s later writings, and is ultimately a reductionistic view of the relationship between nothingness and manifestation.

0. In “Berashith,” Crowley starts metaphysically from the concept of the Qabalistic Zero or Ain. He describes how, from the Qabalistic Zero, “the multiplying of the infinitely great by the infinitely small” (identified in later years with Nuit and Hadit) results in a “Great Inversion” that manifests the finite universe.

1. Crowley regularly referred to “Berashith” throughout his life to explain his metaphysics, but its account is limited and reductionistic compared to the Book of the Law and to some of his later writings. In “Berashith,” the Qabalistic Zero is an abstract first cause, and the “Great Inversion” that leads to the finite universe (which he produces through a pseudo-mathematical formula) appears to happen once for all time. 

2. “Berashith” constitutes an attempt at a somewhat rationalistic ontotheology, an attempt to explain the universe through the Qabalistic Zero as the first principle or highest being. It also describes a static, finite universe, a “world of pain” from which Crowley posits a Western (mis)interpretation of Buddhism as the way of escape.

3. But the Qabalistic Zero or nothingness shouldn’t be understood as an abstract first cause. Instead, it should be understood as a dynamic insight into the unfinished truth of reality — that there is no ultimate essence, that any attempt to master the flux of reality results in an encounter with a holy nothingness that resists our attempts at rational explanation.

4. Crowley’s mistake might have been attempting to conform his experience of reality to the Qabalah he learned in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. The “qabalistic” part of the Qabalistic Zero, and Crowley’s constant attempt to incorporate the Book of the Law into a qabalistic system, results in an emanationist worldview in which the Qabalistic Zero or Ain sits at the top of a “great ladder of being,” with the manifest universe at the bottom — in other words, the Tree of Life diagram.

5. The Book of the Law itself (as well as, to an extent, Crowley’s later writings on it) does a better job describing a dynamic reality in which the dialectical interplay between Nuit and Hadit is constant, in which new permutations of experience are constantly forming, but also always ultimately equilibrating to nothing. Liber AL does not suggest that there is a highest being beyond Nuit and Hadit; instead, as Nuit says directly of herself in the first chapter, “I am Heaven, and there is no other God than me, and my lord Hadit.”

6. Indeed, Frater Achad’s insight that the “key” to the Book of the Law is 31, AL/being and LA/nothing, actually undermines the main assertion (in capital letters) of “Berashith” about the “absoluteness of the Qabalistic Zero.” Liber AL suggests, instead, a constant dialectic between nothing and being, zero and two. The interplay of Nuit and Hadit doesn’t emerge secondarily from zero — which would suggest that zero is the first cause or principle — rather, their interplay is zero. The two is as primary or not primary as the zero: “None, breathed the light, faint & faery, of the stars, and two.”

7. This view is closer to actual Buddhism than the Western pseudo-Buddhism of “Berashith” — “nothing” is not a highest cause or ground of being, something to which we might be able to escape like the world of forms in Platonism, but an insight that is only experienced in embodied reality, in the midst of the dance of manifestation.

8. If being has an essential nature in this conception, it can only be described as a “creative nothing,” always on the move. As Crowley puts it in The Book of Thoth, describing the harlequin figure in Atu VIII or Adjustment, manifestation is “the ultimate illusion,” “the dance, many-coloured, many-wiled, of Life itself. Constantly whirling, all possibilities are enjoyed, under the phantom-show of Space and Time: all things are real,” because they are instantly compensated for by the dialectic of Adjustment; therefore, “all things are harmony and beauty; all things are Truth: because they cancel out.”

9. This does not describe a finite and static universe, a “world of pain,” as Crowley described emerging from the Qabalistic Zero in “Berashith”; it is an infinitely changing, infinitely expanding, constantly whirling reality in which nothing or zero is at the root of all things not as ultimate essence — for “nothing” precisely describes the lack of an essence — but as an insight into the dialectical flux that is the heart of reality.

10. This flux can’t serve as a first principle or highest being, as a stable ontotheology, because it is no thing; it is the illusion of the harlequin performing the ongoing phantom-show of life itself. Being is always going in this conception; there is no start or end.

11. Although Crowley never totally contradicts the contents of “Berashith,” both Liber AL and his later writings explode its meaning. All of this results in a more dynamic vision of reality than the rationalistic, pseudo-mathematical explanations of “Berashith.” As Crowley explains to Frieda Harris, again describing Atu VIII, “I should like you to feel that every adjustment was a grande passion; compensation should be a festival, not a clerk smugly pleased that his accounts are correct.” It is this insight which explicates the rapturous assertion of the Book of the Law: “Existence is pure joy.”

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