Victor Neuburg is one of the more remarkable talents associated with the emergence of Thelema in the early 20th century.
Early Life and Meeting with Crowley
Neuburg was born in London in 1883. His father deserted the family soon after he was born and he was raised by his mother and maternal family. The family seems to have been reasonably prosperous despite his father’s desertion, as he was a student at Trinity College, Cambridge, by 1906.
Neuburg became a published poet in the Freethinker in 1903. For context this was, at the time, one of the most important secular humanist/atheist magazines in the UK. It was closely affiliated with the National Secular Society and the year before Neuburg’s birth publisher G.W. Foote was sentenced to a year hard labor for Blasphemy. Neuburg was encouraged and contributed to other secular humanist publications.
By the time he met J. F. C. Fuller, he was still disillusioned with Judeo-Christian faith, but had become a mystic. Fuller noted that Crowley had attended Trinity and introduced the two. Neuburg was 23, Crowley 31.
Neuburg’s association with Crowley was a key awakening for both men. That their relationship is poorly understood and that outsiders tend to avoid it entirely or dismiss it with a few words is not surprising. Even a casual glance suggests that Neuburg must be treated as Leila Waddell or Leah Hirsig as one of the major romances and working partnerships of Crowley’s life, and his influence on the development of pre-War Thelema considered in that light.
The Interpersonal Dynamics of Neuburg and Crowley
With Crowley’s other partners we have tried as much as possible to focus on them as individuals, rather than strictly in relation to Crowley. In this case, what makes Neuburg significant as a Gnostic Saint is a very Gnostic relationship in which the dominant influence was Crowley. The two men in many ways defined each other.
People without a kink background tend to fail to grasp the fundaments of the relationship while modern kinksters without a frame of reference for practices decades before even the earliest encoding of any sort of “rules” or ethics concerning Dominance/submission (D/s) practices often find it frightening and extreme.
Crowley and Neuburg evolved what would clearly be recognized today as some sort of D/s dynamic. There is no clear model and it does not look the same as D/s in the modern era. They were in practice far closer in time and culture to the Master/slave relationship described in “Venus in Furs” by Sacher-Masoch (1870) than “Screw the Roses, Send Me the Thorns” (1995).
There are a number of models for their relationship and a few bear discussion. Certainly they had a declared Master/aspirant relationship, and also an informal relationship with Crowley as older poet and mentor. The dynamics between them run deeper and bear considerably more exploration than allowed here, however because this important aspect of their lives together has been so poorly understood we will add some commentary.
The Tradition of Fagging
Certainly the tradition of “fagging” in British Public Schools cast a sort of framework on their relationship. This was a system by which younger boys were made to work as servants, and often sexually abused, by the older.
The Edinburgh Review under founder Henry Brougham and Sydney Smith was a leader in condemning this practice early in the 19th century with Joy Schaverien, author of “Boarding School Syndrome: The psychological trauma of the ‘privileged’ child,” citing an early article which states “the only regular institution of slave labour enforced by brute force which exists in these islands.” The poet Shelley famously refused to fag for his prefect and supposedly organized a rebellion against the custom which he considered brutal and degrading.
The 1911 Brittanica carried an entry on “fagging” in which it discussed the evolution of the process. Brittanica cited Dr Arnold of Rugby’s definition of fagging as “the power given by the supreme authorities of the school to the Sixth Form, to be exercised by them over the lower boys, for the sake of securing a regular government among the boys themselves, and avoiding the evils of anarchy; in other words, of the lawless tyranny of brute force.” Brittanica went on to state that “Until recent years a fag’s duties included such humble tasks as blacking boots, brushing clothes, and cooking breakfasts, and there was no limit as to hours; almost all the fag’s spare time being so monopolized. This is now changed. Fagging is now restricted to such light tasks as running errands, bringing tea to the “master’s” study, and fagging at cricket or football.” A senior boy, the fag-master oversaw the process and acted as court of appeal. Well documented cases through the 1930s involve a well-entrenched system that included sexual abuse and rape. The system was often informally aped by younger children.
Crowley recalls being “removed from St. Leonards” his first school to a school kept by an evangelical in 1885. While the given reason is that the headmaster died, at age ten he would also have been moving from primary school into the first form of secondary school. Crowley’s experience at the Evangelical White Rock School may not have involved fagging as it seems unlikely to have been formally embraced. Tyranny there seemed more headmaster-focused and Crowley’s ire seems mostly to have been directed at the establishment, however Crowley’s letters home concealed issues with abuse and health.
The system was so pervasive throughout English education it is difficult to imagine that he did not experience at least the edge of the underclassman as servant culture. It isn’t specifically mentiond in his notes about Huatingdon No. 4 in Malvern, but Kaczynski says that he became “the butt of abuse,” and that “Buggery was the rule,” though his study companion apparently made money as a prostitute, which suggests the situation was not entirely coercive. Even if Crowley was not raped, he was by Kacyznski’s account subject to “pill-ragging,” or clenching the testicles, a form of sexualized abuse. At the very least the abuses at Huntingdon must have represented the edge of the fagging system, and it certainly would have encountered it as an artifact of most of his peers’ background at Trinity.
Either Neuburg’s family were not so lavish as to send him to one of the “great” public schools or his Jewish background barred him from entering. He attended the by then well thought of, if second tier, City of London School, which had been ruled to be a public school in 1887. References in the school magazine and general practice would suggest that Neuburg did not escape the fagging system.
We discuss fagging to convey the degree to which a Master/subservient relationship was an endemic element of British public schooling in the late Victorian period, though perhaps not so brutal as in the earlier half the century, because it supplies a mold into which it is clear that Crowley and Neuburg to some extent fell without planning. Crowley was upperclassman and prefect, Neuburg underclassman.
Reaching for Understanding
Crowley and Neuburg may only be comprehensible in the framework of a D/s relationship, however it was a relationship carried out before most of the modern language for describing D/s was developed.
The concept of Master/slave relationships was certainly not unknown at the time. Sacher-Masoch’s model, however, was Mistress/slave, which did not apply to Crowley and Neuburg. The culture of gay male Master/slave (M/s) which prevailed after the Second World War as recorded in Townsend’s “Run, Little Leather Boy” (1970) and “Leatherman’s Handbook” (1972) did not yet exist, though the English public school system can be considered through the understanding of BDSM as the “English Vice” to have had some influence on the Weimar era culture may have served in part as inspiration.
The relative informality and lack of formal fetish gear does not disguise a power or authority exchange inherent in the relationship, nor did the declared Master/adept relationship require leading a near nude Neuburg on a leash.
The relationship becomes important because it in many ways defines the magic. Safe in his role as the dominant partner, Crowley was for the first time able to engage in a reasonably safe exploration of his homosexual side. In his significant earlier relationships, he had been either an equal or the less experienced partner. Certainly Herbert Charles Pollitt/Diane de Rougy, four years older than Crowley, was the senior of the two.
Complicating the matter is the fact that Crowley was what might contemporarily be referred to as a “power bottom,” in that he preferred to be the receptive partner, yet remaining in a controlling role. This applies to anal sex at least, and Crowley may also have deliberately framed out circumstances that resulted in him being the recipient of physical pain as well.
To refer to the relationship as “abusive” is essentially an evasion of both its nature and importance. Certainly it was, as was the relationship with Fanny Pistor on which Sacher-Masoch modeled “Venus in Furs,” however few relationships that shattered social taboos in the early 20th century were free of issues. There were no norms for guidance, and the closest playbook, that of “fagging,” gave Crowley extensive rights.
Neuburg seems generally to have been gentle and good natured and Crowley described him as such, however many stories hint at passive aggression and there may have been co-abuse. It is also questionable how much evidence exists of actual abuse when one removes certain “vanilla” assumptions, such that leading a man about on a leash in the desert or cutting a sigil into his chest in a ritual is an inherently abusive act. We have evidence that Crowley hurt Neuburg emotionally. In Perdurabo (2010) Kacyznski writes ” And, when Neuburg commented how lucky [hostess Gwendoline] Otter was to know Crowley as long as she had without being hurt, she shot back, ‘How could he hurt me? I’m not in love with him, and I’ve never lent him money.'”
Both Crowley and Neuburg seem to have been emotional masochists, Crowley, at least, was sadist as well and Neuburg seems to have given considerable implicit permission for Crowley to act on him. Bearing in mind that the concepts of consent, negotiation, etc. which serve us today were not yet developed, it is very difficult in the case of historical relationships to gauge the line between “enthusiastic participation,” and “coerced participation,” however we can take poetry such as “Triumph of Pan” as an indication that Neuburg, at least at the outset of the seriously sadomasochistic portion of the relationship, was getting something which he needed.
Neuburg is the essential thread in the evolution of Crowley’s queerness and Thelema as queer thought. It also marks a substantial growth in what we would today call Crowley’s “kink life.” Able to play for a while with his appetite for darkness, still wrapped in an esoteric context, he began patterns that would play out with other partners.
The conventional narrative would be one of Crowley “falling in” to depravity, hungering for ever darker and more twisted sexual experiences or fantasies. His early writing, however guarded, shows there was never a shortage of such fantasy, though in some cases it required experience to name. An understanding of actual human psychology would suggest that Crowley was in the process of understanding and accepting himself, becoming comfortable both his homosexuality and his darker urges, both sadistic and masochistic. This acceptance of the entire self is an underlying concept of modern psychology but it appears strongly in Thelema, and is a major theme in Crowley’s work from this point on.
Artistic work and the Equinox
Neuburg was part of the genesis of the Rites of Artemis, a musical ritual and dance performed at the Equinox Offices in London while guests were served a drink laced with, most likely, peyote.
Kacyznski gives a picture of a brief period of “normalcy” at the Equinox offices around this time, ” With Leila, Ethel, Gwen, Joan, and Vittoria always around, these students became known as ‘the Harem.’ Crowley would work hard at his desk—”….” “Occasionally the Vickybird, as Neuburg was dubbed, would look up from his desk and make some offhand pun about Archer’s sapphic tendencies, excusing himself with “If you’ll pardon the ostroloboguosity.” No week passed without Victor using this, his favorite word. Having had his say, he would return to business, reading page proofs or tossing coal onto the fire with his fingers. Both activities kept his fingers blackened, and when things got slow, Crowley would march over to his desk and paternally demand, ‘Victor, let me see your fingers.’ In response, Neuburg would adopt a childlike posture, hiding his hands behind his back and replying, ‘Shan’t.'”
No biography of Neuburg would be complete without addressing the death of Jeanne Heyse. Using the stage name Ione de Forest, or Jean de Forest, she entered Crowley and Neuburg’s circles when she answered an ad to dance at the Rites of Eleusis. She was intelligent, and subsequently became a regular in the social circle surrounding feminist journal New Freewoman, marrying in December 1911, while carrying on an affair with Neuburg.
Her new husband named Neuburg as a co-respondent in his divorce complaint. Her father having recently died, she moved into a flat in Chelsea paid for by her husband where she committed suicide in August 1912. She left a well written, coherent note, stating that “although of sound mind, I intend to commit suicide to-night because of the intolerable position in which my extremely rash and unfortunate marriage has placed me.” She had threatened suicide to both husband and solicitor, but never been taken seriously. Ezra Pound, the editor at New Freewoman and also a lover of hers, wrote a poem for her, Dead Iönè.
There were accusations that Crowley had driven Heyse to suicide, though there is no evidence to support that suggestion. He may have been jealous of her influence over Neuburg and feared he’d leave his work at the Equinox to rescue her, but throughout his life Crowley was notably indifferent to his partner’s lovers, and he had a significant coterie at the Equinox. The two remained together for a further two years. Neuburg seems to have been persuaded of Crowley’s role well after the fact under the influence of others who had fallen out with Crowley. Crowley himself made a virtual claim to responsibility in his Biography, suggesting he had used a magical ritual, however this too is likely a fabrication long after the fact. The “Wickedest Man in the World” was not unwilling to indulge a dark fiction if it bolstered his reputation.
More significantly Croft-Cooke thought Heyse was pregnant with Neuburg’s child. The premise is not entirely unreasonable, but whether it came from Neuburg or some other source in the narrow gossipy realm of England’s poetry community, perhaps Dylan Thomas, who liked to tell stories about Crowley, is unknown. If nothing else, Ezra Pound’s reaction suggests what an impact the death must have had on Neuburg who was, to all accounts, equally taken with Heyse.
Crowley’s life can be divided by a series of major “workings” and of those Neuburg is central to two. The 1909 Algiers workings which form the majority of “The Vision and the Voice,” as well as the Paris working in 1914. No other figure in Crowley’s life can claim such prominence, and only Leila Waddell and Leah Hirsig can be taken seriously as “partners” of Crowley in the sense that Neuburg was. For years the fascination with Crowley has focused on his “Scarlet Women” while ignoring what may have been the central and most important romantic and sexual relationship of his life.
Neuburg’s critical presence in creating “The Vision and the Voice,” alone makes it nearly unthinkable that he is not credited as a major Gnostic and Thelemic Saint. Whatever the criteria for Sainthood, integral participation in the creation of the work which Crowley considered second in importance only to Liber AL seems adequate, while for those trivializing Crowley’s pansexuality to frame him as a predominantly heterosexual male, the fact that his sexual acts with Neuburg lie at the heart of Thelema’s second revelation must be a firm and absolute refutation which seems impossible to ignore.
Both workings are of enormous importance, and form the core of Crowley’s move beyond Reuss IX°, which is little more than a rephrasing of the Ansairetic Mystery, to the central XI° Mystery which defines the New Aeon. The repression of the XI° mystery, or failure to understand its full significance, relegating it as a sort of homosexual curiosity remains common in many Thelemic organizations. Kacyzinski comments merely “Although it remains an obscure part of Crowley’s system, the XI° represented a symbolic reversal of IX°: Just as the digits were reversed, so were the energies inverted.”
To understand this mystery as essentially homosexual and masculine is to ignore the profound feminine characteristics which Crowley openly discusses in his biography, and saw, rightly or wrongly, reflected in “Vickybird” as Neuburg’s nickname went around the equinox office. It is also to ignore the methodical and pervasive pansexuality of the Visions themselves, including that in Paris of Crowley as a female Temple dancer and Neuburg’s lover. Together Crowley and Neuburg began a process of breaking down of gender norms in order to allow for individual definition which continues to this day with the XI° as the transcendent celebration of all sexuality beyond procreative sex.
There was no single break between Crowley and Neuburg, though their relationship culminated in a fight. As a new “Dominant” without guidance or standards, Crowley overextended his hand, tiring Neuburg out and using him as the whipping boy for his frustration and ire. After five years as the “underclassman” he was tired of the role, and Crowley’s energy was going elsewhere. Neuburg undertook a vacation where other former Equinox staff who had fallen out with Crowley convinced him that the Master was simply a poser, and attempted to poison his mind regarding Crowley’s involvement in the death of Jeanne Heyse.
That fall Neuburg resigned and renounced his oaths. Crowley, ever one to take rejection with a calm head and healthy dose of charity, cursed him on the spot. For Crowley it was a profound revocation of his safety. His “sub” had “left him” and he blamed everyone but himself. That he had abused his authority over an adult, and had ceased to invest in their relationship was beyond his capacity to reflect.
None of Neuburg’s authors doubt the influence of Crowley on him. As none of them knew him at the time, this speaks to Neuburg’s reflections, not all of which must have been negative. Neuburg was drafted into the British Army, Croft-Cooke describes him serving “uncomfortably but happily,” and believed the Army molded his character as much as Crowley. Crowley was within a few months of forty when the war broke out, too old for meaningful military service for a man who has had no military career. He went West to America.
Later Life and Legacy
Neuburg enjoyed reasonable success in his subsequent career. While the accusation is made that he wrote his best poetry under Crowley’s influence, it is unclear if that is actually the case. Lilligay is a post war work from 1920 which was well thought of at the time.
His family gave him the means to set up a hand printing press at Vine Cottage in Steyling, and he married Kathleen Rose Goddard in 1921, though the couple would separate when he followed Runia Tharpe to London. The true circumstances are unclear though one source suggests that the marriage was a pragmatic match; Goddard wanted a child and marriage and openly took a lover not long after she gave birth. There they would live at Swiss Cottage and preside over a circle of poets.
His son by Goddard was Victor Edward Neuburg (124-1996), a notable writer on literature and military history
From 1933 he ran a section in the general interest section of the British Newspaper “Sunday Referee,” primarily a sporting paper, called “Poet’s Corner.” He awarded weekly prizes, including one to the then unknown Dylan Thomas. Despite this, Dylan Thomas hated Neuburg and excoriated him in letters. The focus of his dislike seems to have been the Swiss Cottage poetry circle, which Thomas could not cease to viciously ridicule. That said, Thomas was also hostile to Crowley. Among Crowley’s more colorful exes was “Tiger Woman” Betty May, who wrote a somewhat calumnious piece on Crowley, largely motivated by the money. Her subsequent relationship with Dylan Thomas’ did nothing for Crowley’s reputation in Thomas’ eyes.
Crowley has himself been criticized for rather caricaturish descriptions of Neuburg that some have suggested are rooted in anti-Semitism. At least one biographer claims that Crowley used racist epithets towards Neuburg when he was angry and this is certainly possible, however the fact that Croft-Cooke, Dylan Thomas, and others who almost certainly never read Crowley directly give similar comical descriptions suggest that “Vicky” was at once both a dark and somewhat comical, figure.
Richard McDuff summarized Calder Marshall, who knew Neuburg, writing in “The Magic of my Youth” (1951). “Neuburg had “thin venous hands and a head which, by nature disproportionately large for his body, was magnified by dark medusa locks”. He dressed scruffily and at times wore Elizabethan style leggings, which went with his general love of fol-de-rol and his use of greetings such as “Prithee, good sir, enter my humble abode.’ He had coined his very own neologism “ostrobogalous”, which he used to describe anything pornographic or odd and was prone to speaking in abbreviations, such as T.A.P., take a pew, or T.K, tobacco craving. He would go to extraordinary lengths to pick up litter or rescue insects and everyone commented on his astonishingly loud and screeching laugh.”
His most extensive biography was ” The Magical Dilemma of Victor Neuburg” written by author Jean Overton Fuller who was, for a time, a member of his poetry circle.
Neuburg died in 1940 of tuberculosis. His romance with Crowley marked both of their lives. Despite their parting, Neuburg gave Crowley a favorable review of “Magick in Theory and Practice” in 1932 in the Referee and even contacted him again, though the two never again became intimates.
Neuburg remains a key influence on the development of Thelema, being core to its inception and the concept of the XI°, and the literal recipient of one of its primary revelations.