A New Life of Aleister Crowley

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Do What Thou Wilt
by Lawrence Sutin
(St. Martin's Press 483 pages, $27.95)

Aleister Crowley comes to mind, here. Crowley failed at the task, mainly owing to hubris and a general inability to focus his agenda, but he lived large for quite a while and cut one hell of a swath. Numerous biographers and essayists have attempted to address and examine Crowley's life; hagiographies and denunciations abound. John Symonds' The Great Beast is a fine example of someone going off half-cocked in attack mode and trying to reduce the Crowley story to a simple matter of arrogance and fraud. Unfortunately, Symonds' eagerness to accept every tawdry tale and disparaging rumor undermined any attempt at an accurate depiction of Crowley's life.

Francis Israel Regardie's The Eye in the Triangle fails for the opposite reason: by attempting a psychoanalytic apologia for Crowley's depravity, Regardie misses the point of Crowley's intense and unrelenting assault on the social conventions and mores of his time. What comes through most strongly in Regardie's commentary on Crowley's life is his longing for what might have been between them, and his unrequited love for his subject mars the telling of the tale. Susan Roberts authored a terse but fairly accurate account in her Magician of the Golden Dawn. She seems to be unencumbered by any sort of bias one way or the other, and her brevity has always made this particular account my favorite pick for a film adaptation. That cinematic brevity is the problem with her book, though: it lacks depth and detail, and gives only the most superficial and cursory rendering of a deep and complex life.

Up until now, the only way to really get a handle on The Beast was to wade through all of the above-mentioned material and then go to the source and read Crowley's "autohagiography" (his term), The Confessions of Aleister Crowley, a mammoth volume, a classic ripping yarn, liberally spiced with self-promoting lies, omissions and messianic delusions of grandeur.

At last, more than half a century after his death, someone has brought forth a thorough and unbiased account of the life of Aleister Crowley, warts and all. Lawrence Sutin spent the last decade researching and writing Do What Thou Wilt: A Life of Aleister Crowley, and it was time well spent. He had access to the archives of the OTO (Ordo Templi Orientis), the most public of Crowley's various religious organizations, and he went to the trouble of tracking down survivors of the time for their accounts. He is clearly not a disciple or an adherent of any of Crowley's demented dogma. Neither is he gunning for the ducks in a barrel presented by Crowley's character issues.

The result is the only truly definitive biography of this authentic eccentric available. I have some familiarity with the subject, having immersed myself in Crowley's works for nearly two decades of my life and personally examined selected portions of the OTO archives at some length. Sutin is very well aware of Crowley's achievements and the importance of his life in the continuum of contemporary Western culture. He pulls no punches when it comes to Crowley's shortcomings, both as a practicing magician and as a human being. Crowley's inability to form lasting relationships is a major theme of his life and is tied inextricably to the Cult of Psychopath he founded with his infamous "received text," Liber AL, the so-called "Book of the Law."

Sutin's admiration for Crowley's poetry is tempered by his clear enunciation of the obvious need for an editor. Crowley considered his every utterance a thing of cosmic import, and the bulk of his poetry reads like bad Browning or, at best, Kipling on cocaine. Crowley's prose tended toward windy, coke-fueled pomposity, and his attempts at fiction were laughably two-dimensional.

Where Sutin really shines is in the details, the incredible adventures that Crowley had and the labyrinth of sexual escapades. He manages to cut through the self-aggrandizing lies promulgated by The Beast himself and the huge quantity of slanders hurled against him by his detractors. Crowley had a knack for self-promotion that makes Madonna look like Kato Kaelin. Sutin also copes admirably with the fundamental problem of Crowley's existence: his desperate need for acceptance. For all of Crowley's outrageous antics and flagrant depravity, he was forever attempting to fit in with the upper classes of the time. He saw himself as an English gentleman, and never seemed to fully grasp that he was essentially a clown. Sutin is the first biographer to capture this quality in full, illustrated by numerous incidents and encounters throughout the twists and turns of Mad Aleister's wild life.

Sutin has also clearly taken the time to thoroughly acquaint himself with the various texts and techniques of the form of theurgy that Crowley termed "magick," adding the "k" to distinguish the practice from prestidigitation. He takes great pains in this work to point out the abundance of shortcuts and cheats Crowley pulled with these various systems, and the numerous contradictions in Crowley's own accounts of these workings.

Toward the end of his life, Crowley seemed to grow smaller. Perhaps the appearance of a real Beast on the scene intimidated him. As Hitler grew larger, Crowley passed into obscurity and seemed to drift into a kind of poignant nostalgia. He spent his last years in a series of boarding houses, his tenuous existence predicated on the kindness and generosity of his few remaining friends, his drug habit finally fully rampant and victorious. Sutin's account of Crowley's twilight years is at once touching and frightening, a reminder of what can happen to bad boys who live too long.

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