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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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