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."
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.