First published in November 1898 in Amsterdam by the popular English publisher of erotic literature Leonard Charles Smithers (1861-1907) and printed by Binger brothers, `White Stains' remains a little known work of erotica outside of Crowley aficionados'. At the time of its publication (only 100 copies were printed, most of which were destroyed in 1924 by British Customs) Crowley was just twenty-three years old with the world before him as a man of quite a significant inheritance. Because of the book's content, Crowley had to issue `White Stains' or the `literary remains' under the authorship of George Archibald Bishop, a `Neuro-path of the Second Empire'. The name `Bishop' is a reference to Crowley's detested Uncle Tom Bishop, a devout member of the Plymouth Brethren, who looked after young `Alick' (Crowley) when his father Edward died in 1887.
`White Stains' was considered `the filthiest in the English language' by Mr Peter Fryer, an authority on erotica (Confessions. p.16), and the preface to the book leaves us with no doubt as to the orgiastic excess and debaucheries we are about to encounter: `The Editor hopes that Mental Pathologists, for whose eyes alone this treatise is destined will spare no precautions to prevent it falling into other hands.'
Many of the poems, which appear to be imitations of Baudelaire, Rimbaud and his beloved Swinburne, were written while Crowley was an undergraduate at Trinity College, Cambridge (1895-1898) and relate to some of his sexual escapades (though some are clearly products of a fertile imagination) during his vacations in Berlin, St Petersburg, Switzerland and Stockholm:
`What time for language, when our kisses flow
Eloquent, warm, as words are cold and weak? -
Or now - Ah! sweetheart, even were it so
We could not speak!'
And there are tender moments with his lover, Herbert Charles Jerome Pollitt (1871-1942):
`His breath as hot and quick as fame;
To kiss him and to clasp him tight;
This is my joy without a name,
A strong man's love is my delight.'
[A Ballad of Passive Paederasty]
At its publication, Crowley was taking his first steps into the occult when he became a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in London on 18th November 1898.
White Stains is Crowley's reaction to the opinions of the Austrian sexologist Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebbing (1840-1902) in his `Psychpathia Sexualis' of 1893. In it he claims that all sexual perversions and abnormalities are the result of illness and disease - Crowley disagrees, saying that they are `magical affirmations of perfectly intelligible points of view', they are in fact, acts of sexual magic.
The collection of poems, vile and sublime, goes beyond the bounds of common decency into a hellish nightmare in which `the mysteries of death become more and more an obsession, and he is flung headlong into Sadism, Necrophilia, all the maddest, fiercest vices that the mind of fiends ever brought up from the pit'. [Preface]. There is a romance in disgust and a childish fascination with fellatio, sodomy, urophagia, cunnilingus, lesbianism, analingus, bestiality, sado-masochism, coprophagia, venereal disease, blood lust and necrophilia (`Yea, thou art dead. Thy buttocks now / Are swan-soft, and thou sweatest not'.); in fact, the book contains all the pleasurable pursuits and virtuous acts in which the ordinary Englishman excels!
`Let my fond lips but drink thy golden wine,
My bright-eyed Arab, only let me eat
The rich brown globes of sacramental meat
Steaming and firm, hot from their home divine'.
[Go into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in]
`I yield him place: his ravening teeth
Cling hard to her - he buries him
Insane and furious in the sheath
She opens for him - wide and dim
My mouth is amorous beneath'.
[With Dog and Dame]
Despite the nature of the book, Crowley remained insistent that he wrote the book with a pure heart: `my essential spirituality is made manifest by yet another publication, which stands as a testimony of my praeterhuman innocence. The book is called white stains and is commonly quoted by my admirers as evidence of my addiction to every kind of unmentionable vice. Asses! It is, indeed, technically, an obscene book, and yet the fact that I wrote it proves the purity of my heart and mind in the most extraordinary fashion'. (Confessions. p. 139).
And the perpetrator of these crimes: a poet, who descends into madness and murder through his diabolical debaucheries! Crowley often used the device of an `imagined author' to pin his sexual abominations upon and to use as a mouthpiece for his blasphemies. In White Stains, he `invented a poet who went wrong, who began with normal and innocent enthusiasms, and gradually developed various vices. He ends by being stricken with disease and madness, culminating in murder. In his poems he describes his downfall, always explaining the psychology of each act. The conclusion of the book might therefore be approved in any Sunday School'. (Confessions. p. 139).
Amongst the poems is one titled `A Ballad of Choosing' and it shows the poet (Crowley) at a spiritual crossroads, rejecting Christ and `the vileness of his plea'. In `At Kiel' he wonders `What is Eternity, seeing we hold this hour / For all the lusts and luxuries of shame?'
In `La Juive' the poet imagines copulating with Christ's spear wound, which `lay open for a lover's prize - I violate the Crucified!'
The poet is a man who has `sold soul and body to Satan for sheer love of sin, whose mere lusts of perversion is so intense that it seems to absorb every other emotion and interest'. (Preface).
But Crowley is no Satanist; he is a man rebelling at society and howling at Victorian propriety, prejudice and Christian morals, in the only way his youthful self knew how - through his poetry. His whole life was about not conforming, breaking barriers and taboos; freeing the soul from restrictions. He saw only beauty in strength and despised weakness. In White Stains, Crowley has put into print what most of us have thought about at some time or another and for that he should be commended!