Aleister Crowley?

You don’t expect the name of the old charlatan to crop up in an episode of Van der Valk. Twenty-First Century crime series don’t generally engage with the sort of pre-modern occult ideas propagated by a man dead more than seventy-five years.

Oddly. it was in visiting the French village of Auvers-sur-Oise last month that brought an insight into the possible origins of Crowley’s ideas and writings.

Sitting in the auberge where Vincent van Gogh stayed during the final ten weeks of his life, a friend explained to me a potential cause of Vincent’s progressive psychological decline – absinthe. It seems that the consumption of glasses of an alcohol of significant strength and toxicity is unlikely to have facilitated a positive state of emotional health.

‘Artemisia absinthium,’ said my friend, ‘wormwood’.

My first encounters with wormwood were in a hymn we sang on Ascension Day at primary school:

Sinners, whose love can ne’er forget
The wormwood and the gall,
Go, spread your trophies at His feet.
And crown Him, crown Him, crown Him,
Crown Him Lord of all!

In adult life, wormwood was encountered in the verses of Scripture. It is an expression of a sense of bitterness in the book of Lamentations. In the Revelation to Saint John, wormwood is a star that falls from the heavens and poisons the water. In spiritual reading, Wormwood was the name of the apprentice devil in C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters.

At no time had it ever occurred to me that wormwood might also be the name of a content of an alcoholic drink that found favour with numerous major artists and writers. A web search for absinthe revealed that it seems to have been drunk by Crowley and Vincent and have had a detrimental effect on numerous artists.

As well as Aleister Crowley and Vincent van Gogh, absinthe drinkers included: Édouard Manet who died with gangrene caused by rheumatism and syphilis; Paul Verlaine, who died from drug and alcohol abuse; Amedeo Modigliani, who  used absinthe and hashish and died aged 35; and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, who died from alcoholism at the age of 36.

Perhaps the drinking of absinthe was more an aspect of the behaviour of certain characters of genius rather than the cause of that behaviour.

When compared with the short lives of the artists who drank absinthe, the seventy-two years of the life of Aleister Crowley seems to represent considerable longevity. Long life, however, did not seem to have diminished the esotericism of his ideas.


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