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Home > Archives > Paranormal > Do What Thou Wilt: A Life of Aleister Crowley

Do What Thou Wilt: A Life of Aleister Crowley

A review by Gene Stewart

Do What Thou Wilt:
A Life of Aleister Crowley
by Lawrence Sutin

St. Martin's Press, 2000,
ISBN: 0-312-25243-9
483pp, photos, notes, index

He left a mark and it was the mark of the beast. Occultist, writer, painter, poet, mountain climber, world traveler, ethnologist, scoundrel, cosmic jester, and symbol for many of all that's dark and demonic, Aleister Crowley remains one of the most enigmatic and misunderstood people ever to have lived a semi-public life. He may be the most reviled and the most unfairly slandered and libeled person, too.

Lawrence Sutin, whose previous biography of visionary science fiction writer Philip K. Dick brought new appreciation to another misunderstood genius, took ten years researching this new biography, and it shows. He took time to understand Crowley in context. The result is a fair and fearless biography that offers both an introduction for those unfamiliar with The Great Beast 666 and a wonderful overview for anyone who already knows the basics.

In fact, the Introduction, in only 14 pages, offers the best short overview of Crowleyıs life and impact this reviewer has seen. Reading only this ought to at least double one's appreciation for what the real Aleister Crowley was all about.

There are fresh insights, such as Crowley's insecurity about his male pattern baldness, which prompted him to adopt the tonsured skull that remains his shining hallmark. Remember Uncle Fester in the Addams Family television show? That was a nod to, and mockery of, Aleister Crowley as he often appeared in public, robes aswirl and eyes bugging out from beneath his shaven pate.

Crowley was born in 1875 into a fundamentalist Christian family and his intelligence, imagination, and sense of self chafed from the start under the daily scourgings his mother offered. His father, a reformed Quaker and failed lay minister, had inherited a fortune made in brewing and in a chain of pubs that sold Crowley ale and sandwiches, but he longed only to succeed in spreading the word of God as he understood it. He was an important role model for Aleister, who was born Edward Alexander Crowley, incidentally; he later changed to a spelling of his middle name he preferred as being more Celtic.

His mother seems to have hated and feared aspects of the boy and, at an early age, took to calling him The Antichrist. Theirs was a complicated relationship, with much love and even humor interspersed with vituperation and condemnation. He soon determined to live up, or down, to his nickname as the Great Beast of Revelation. The public ramifications of this bitter irony against his mother's scoldings would eventually prove devastating.

Aleister Crowley enjoyed a privileged upper-class Victorian British upbringing. He was sent to Trinity College, Cambridge, to finish his education as a gentleman, and this training in that particularly Victorian self-image remained embedded in his every attitude and action throughout his life. Call it snobbery or sophistication, bigotry or the burden of privilege, his stance both steadied him in his many troubled times and perhaps fed the hubris with which his worst behavior and work is tainted.

It was while at Cambridge that Crowley was initiated into a society of magic called the Order of the Golden Dawn. It must be understood that magic is not pulling rabbits out of hats, but rather a tradition that parallels and predates modern religious and scientific thought. It is nothing more or less than a system of training the mind and body to achieve an understanding of reality, one that encompasses all while promising nothing. Magic is not the path for the faint of heart, and in pursuit of its attainments Crowley was among the first modern Westerners to investigate such matters as yoga, meditation, and what later was termed free love.

More later on the secret at the core of his sojourn, but suffice it to say that much of what is best about what we now term New Age philosophy stems directly from Aleister Crowley's discoveries and ideas as expatiated by his writings.

Despite persistent rumors and lingering canards, he pursued white magic, meaning magic focused on spiritual aims, and not black magic, which means magic focused on material gain and advantage. He was never a Satanist in any sense of the term, having early on rejected even the notions of typical Judaeo-Christian dualism and symbology. Light and life were his aims and he considered most neo-paganism and all Satanism to be but silly pastimes for bored dilettantes.

He once termed his approach Scientific Illuminism. The methods of science, the goals of religion: He wanted systematic individual experimentation in magic so each seeker might be transformed; gone was the dogma of more accepted religious traditions, gone the superstition and side issues of morality and ethics. He insisted no one believe him or take his word, preferring comrades to followers. He made sure, too, his many human faults and flaws were well known in order to prevent any canonizing after his death. "I will not become a plaster saint," he insisted.

All these traits were evident early on. He lived the depths and embraced the heights and vice versa.

If he could not excel in something Crowley often abandoned it; an example is chess. At quite a young age he demonstrated world class potential in chess and was taken to an international tournament. The sight of all the eccentric old duffers shuffling about in shoddy clothes convinced him on the spot that pursuing a chess grand mastership appealed little. He wanted, even expected, much more of himself.

In his youth, Crowley strived to achieve the heights in three main areas: Mountain climbing, poetry, and spiritual development.

In mountain climbing he achieved several probable world records in his time, including the first assault on K2 and the record, 65 days, exposed on a glacier, but these were not officially recognized, as even this early in his life, his typical knack for pissing people off took precedence. By doing precisely as he wished and by failing to bother currying favor with established authorities he often undermined even his best efforts.

It was during these mountain excursions that a taste for sadism revealed itself, too, along with a tremendous capacity for hard work, endurance, and even suffering. To get what he wanted, Crowley was quite willing to batter others and himself mercilessly.

In poetry, Crowley was capable of both the heights of excellence and the plateaus of mediocrity and imitation. As one contemporary put it: "...His poetry could be very bad as well as very good...but he never seemed to know whether he was doing one or the other..." Most agree vanity was to blame for Crowley's uneven abilities, as he rarely bothered with second drafts or rewriting. Perhaps his experiences channeling communications from spirits taught him to respect the first draft; this anticipates by several decades the Beat esthetic epitomized by Jack Kerouac and Alan Ginsberg. And in the clarity, complexity, directness, and verve of his prose Crowley was among the best of the modernists, rivaling such luminaries as James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and D. H. Lawrence.

It was, however, in the area of spiritual development that Crowley shined brightest, and darkest. His explorations into magic as it was practiced in esoteric schools of thought around the world, his many retirements to the North African desert to refresh spiritual batteries, and his many encounters with beings of other dimensions -- entities he called Aiwass and Horus and other holy names -- all convinced him that he was the prophet of the New Aeon, when the Crowned Magical Child would usher in a new reality founded upon the basic tenets we remember to this day: Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law. Love is the law, love under will.

To understand what is meant by these somewhat terrifying precepts, commands, or ravings, one must delve deeply into traditional esoteric magic and initiatory ceremonial magic and other forms of hidden reality. Even Crowley found several ways to misunderstand and misinterpret his own creed, even as he founded several orders -- from the Argentum Astrum to the Thelema Abbey to the Ordo Templis Orienti and beyond. His understanding changed and matured, but at the core was something we now call sex magic, the use of sexual energy to reach spiritual states and insights. This was his central epiphany.

The Kama Sutra and Tantric Yoga are perhaps the two best known aspects of sex magic in Western awareness. Neither are well understood, but both offer a familiar jumping-off point to discuss the role sex magic played in Crowleyıs life. To summarize, it dominated him. To many he was but a drug-addled sex maniac, but in fact he was deadly serious about using sexual energy to boost consciousness into realms of Samadhi, Nirvana, and beyond. He desperately sought insight and wrote many erotic poems and passages offering encoded or oblique revelations in metaphor and simile. As lessons learned and as prescriptions for those with eyes to see who might follow, these writings of Crowley remain unparalleled and invaluable. They are also dangerous and misleading to dilettantes and neophytes.

Aleister Crowley's legacy goes beyond providing the likes of Somerset Maughm and Dennis Wheatley models for villains in novels; beyond scowling from the cover of the Beatles's SGT. PEPPER's album; beyond providing Led Zeppelinıs Jimmy Page a collector's hobby and pastime; and beyond giving Ozzy Osbourne something to sing about. His influence surrounds us. In advertising, film, music, literature, art -- his paintings anticipated the very best of the Expressionist and Brutarian schools with bold splashes of vibrant color and unsettling forms and portraits -- Crowley's imagery and referents touch us many times each day. He remains a pivotal, compelling presence; he might have fared better had we tried to understand him primarily as an artistic type, rather than as an occultist, but that choice was largely his to make, and choose he did. Popular culture would be much different had Aleister Crowley not offered his imprint.

Incidentally, Stanley Kubrickıs final film, EYES WIDE SHUT, may well have been intended as a revelation of sex magic still being practiced today, but the released version is a hodge-podge of unfinished scenes, bad rehearsals, and pointless if beautiful images. Those numbed by it lacked context to sort out those hints, winks, and nudges, but the signals were there for those with the code and it's a shame Kubrick died before making his final cut. And he died, please note, as mysteriously and conveniently, for some, as the prostitute in the movie.

Despite all this, however, the final word of the movie emphasizes a message Crowley would have recognized and applauded, even as it left most audiences bored, puzzled, and taken aback. And no, the word was not "Love," as the Beatles might have claimed. The word was an imperious command and a desperate plea: "Fuck." It may be our best, even our only, chance at redemption, is the message. All we need is love? Not quite.

Crowley snarled at mere love and insisted upon will, even as he trumped Nietzsche's atheism with a new theism focused on each of us. He meant that cognizance, being aware and willing things, is more important than a bland, mushy, all-encompassing hippie-dippie haze of lovey-dovey feelings. It allows each of us to aspire to godhood. Thelema comes from the Greek for "will", and his principles have informed discussions of a wide range of occult and religious endeavor, from Gnosticism and Sephiroth and Qabbalah studies to Rosicrucianism and even unto Anton Szandor LaVeyıs Church of Satan, silly as that bit of hedonism would have seemed to Crowley.

And yet, it was Crowley's willingness to play to the hilt the role of AntiChrist that early on saw him branded The Wickedest Man on Earth and so on. That he was bisexual in an age even less tolerant than our own did nothing to help Crowley's acceptance; he was alive during Oscar Wildeıs public flogging over a homosexual affair, remember. Tolerance was not anyoneıs watchword.

Crowley was excoriated and pilloried by tabloids in England and in newspapers and magazines the world over in a campaign of bile unequaled even by the right-wing spew against Bill Clinton. It cost him his reputation as a gentleman, it cost him safe haven in many countries, and it ended up costing him even a chance at making a modest living as a writer. By the time the attacks had reached their heights of stridency and hysteria, Crowley lacked funds to bring lawsuits for libel and slander, and so he remained stoic, even devilishly insouciant, and modified his own behavior not a whit.

This too cost him, as few could afford the public castigation any link with him would bring. He ended up destitute much of his life, once heıd gone through the modest fortune he'd inherited, and he lived off sponging, frequent moves to duck dunning landlords, and the occasional sale of a bit of writing or his services as a teacher of magic tradition. His few followers contributed what they could, but it was very little.

Lawrence Sutin has now given us two biographies of men who claimed contact with higher intelligences. (Can L. Ron Hubbard be far behind in this string of investigations?) Visionaries, loons, or simply sad examples of genius gone awry -- one's reaction to the subjects of his biographies is left to each reader, but it's compelling, important work on neglected, misconstrued, remarkable people that Sutin offers.

If there is any lack in Do What Thou Wilt it lies in the slender photograph section. As one reads, one craves glimpses of Crowley's many Scarlet Women, for instance, or the sight of his Abbey, decorated with original paintings and murals.

It is the signal accomplishment of Sutinıs biography to have humanized Crowley. We are given many glimpses of the public image, yes, but the focus remains fixed beyond the lurid headlines, past the grandiose claims and outright lies to the man. He is understandable finally. Sutin's definitive account spares Crowley none of his many flaws and excesses, but it never picks them up to use as cudgels either. Neither awed nor contemptuous, Sutin's scholarly tone and brisk narrative offers us the chance to meet a truly interesting, often astounding mind and man named, mostly, Aleister Crowley.

Sutinıs biography ends with lines penned by Crowley himself. Part of a poem, they might have served as epitaph on a tombstone, had Crowley been given a proper grave. Instead, his ashes were either buried under a tree or scattered among trees on a friend's estate in Hampton, New Jersey, depending on whom one believes.

Those words bear mention here as a pithy summation:

He had the gift of laughing at himself.
Most affably he talked and walked with God.
And now the silly bastard's on the shelf,
Weıve buried him beneath another sod.

Copyright 2001, all rights reserved. Used with permission. This article first appeared in the in BRUTARIAN QUARTERLY #32, Spring 2001

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