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Do What Thou Wilt: A Life of Aleister Crowley
by Lawrence Sutin
Publisher:
St. Martin’s Griffin, New York 
Year:
2002 
ISBN:
0-312-28897-2 
Categories:
Book Reviews
Reviewed by Justin Case, 6/20/2007

Why, you might ask, is it appropriate to review an Aleister Crowley biography at Erowid? Crowley (1875-1947) is featured in the Erowid character vaults, and for good reason. Not only was he a pioneer in the exploration of consciousness through Eastern mysticism (yoga, meditation, etc.) and Western occult practices and the synergistic combination of these techniques, but he was also a pioneer in the use of certain psychoactive substances. He used these substances to intensify his occult and mystical practices and he used mystical and occult practices to direct his experiences with psychoactive substances. He was doing this in the beginning of the 20th century, no less, blazing his own trail into territories that had not been visited in Western civilization since the Renaissance. As Gerald Suster has written in his much shorter biography The Legacy of the Beast, “Crowley was advocating the method of psychological introspection and he appealed to men of science to become pioneers in the exploration of consciousness, gathering their data from experimentation on themselves with the techniques of Magick and Yoga and also through the carefully observed use of drugs.” Suster points out that this appeal was largely ignored until the 1960s when Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert, Robert S. de Ropp, John Lilly, Robert Anton Wilson and others proceeded to experiment fearlessly and record their results and hypotheses.

Sutin’s biography is certainly not for those who are merely curious or casually interested in Crowley. Sutin gives us nearly five hundred pages of details; no fluff, no sensationalism, and very little speculation. Because of this, Do What Thou Wilt will surely disappoint those who prefer to think that Crowley was a Satan-worshipping black magician, as well as those who place him on a pedestal as a perfected spiritual master or who are looking for juicy tales of sex, drugs, and blasphemy. But anyone who has read Crowley’s autobiographical Confessions of Aleister Crowley should read Do What Thou Wilt to balance out Crowley’s own one-sided version of his life. Also, those who are already familiar with Crowley’s contributions to the study and practice of the occult and who are hungry for a thorough, detail-oriented study of his life would appreciate this book.

Unlike any other bio (or auto-bio) I have encountered concerning Crowley, Sutin seems to have no agenda beyond telling us the story of his subject’s life as well as can be gathered from the source material available (which he seems to have studied well). Sutin makes no claims without verifiable sources, and he also does a fine job of carefully and fairly pointing out inconsistencies and differing accounts from different sources (or sometimes from different works by Crowley himself). This is refreshing, as most writers on Crowley seem to want to either condemn or praise him.

Sutin displays considerable insight when he makes his case for the subconscious motives behind Crowley’s strong need to promulgate his new creed and religion, Thelema. Sutin argues that Crowley sought all his life to transcend his deeply ingrained Puritan sense of sin and guilt regarding sex and a few other aspects of his life. But Sutin makes this argument in a cool, detached, and elegantly minimalist fashion. He tastefully points out a few connections between what must have been strong psychological imprints in Crowley’s childhood and strong tendencies in his adult life, and then he lets readers think these out for themselves.

Sutin makes it exhaustively clear that Crowley was often petty, cruel, dishonest, egotistical to the point of megalomania, bigoted, sexist, boastful, obscene, conniving, and—in the latter half of his life—hopelessly addicted to cocaine and heroin and dependent on the generosity or gullibility of others for money. Since Crowley himself downplayed these traits and because his autobiographical Confessions was written about halfway through his life, I again strongly suggest that one does not read Confessions without reading Do What Thou Wilt. At the same time, one should not read Do What Thou Wilt without reading Crowley’s Confessions, Isreal Regardies’s Eye in the Triangle, or some other book that explains Crowley’s magical practice, because—and this is the main fault of Do What Thou Wilt—Sutin gives us almost no understanding of the theory and ritual core of Thelema.

Given that Crowley’s magical philosophy was central to his life, Sutin’s book tells us only about half of what one needs to know. It is somewhat like telling the story of Einstein without telling us about the physics that occupied his mind. Beyond a sentence here and there, the only passage in which Sutin does Crowley’s life work justice is short enough to quote here. While mentioning that the famous occultist Dion Fortune acknowledged Crowley’s great work, Sutin says that, “Fortune is correct in her judgment of Crowley’s ‘contribution to occult literature.’ Magick is a watershed in the history of that literature—the first work to strip the subject of its gothic trappings and bring it fully into the modern world. Its arguments are ruthlessly practical—assuming, of courses, that the reader will allow that there is such a thing as the ‘Great Work’ that is attainable by human consciousness. There is, indeed, a religious belief at the heart of the book: a conviction that the life of fulfillment of the inmost spirit—the Will—is the highest form of life. Scoff at this and you not only scoff at Magick but at religion itself. Grant it as a nondenominational goal and Magick may have something to teach you. After all, the definition of ‘Magick’ offered in the Introduction is catholic enough: ‘MAGICK is the Science and Art of Causing Change to occur in conformity with Will.’”

Oddly, this passage is one of the few places where Sutin directly gives us his own opinion, when he could have just as easily discussed the matter in the more objective terms of how Crowley’s work influenced students of the occult. Still, Sutin barely gives us an understanding of Crowley’s work and how he is almost undeniably the single most important modern writer on occultism. Nonetheless, Sutin has given me what I was seeking when I bought this book; a more objective view of Crowley’s life and (more importantly for me) details on his experimentation with drugs. Although, Sutin gives us very little understanding of what Crowley experienced with these substances (as he does with Crowley’s experiences with magical and mystical practices) he does tell us what substances Crowley experimented with, when he did so, and in combination with what magical and mystical practices.

Unlike Suster, Sutin gives us no real sense of Crowley’s role as a pioneer in the re-emergence of psychedelics in Western civilization. But then again, Suster does not tell us the details that Sutin does. In addition, Sutin shows us that Crowley struggled over whether the use of consciousness-altering substances should be considered legitimate or counterfeit aids in the exploration of the mind and spirit. He also shows us how, in one account, Crowley frankly admits the use of a particular drug in addition to a particular magical operation in order to gain entry into a particular “plane” or state of mind; in one of Crowley’s accounts of the same event, Crowley omits the fact that he used the drug without which the result would likely not have occurred at all.

Sutin also gives us what little there is to know regarding the legend that Crowley turned Aldous Huxley on to mescaline, resulting in Huxley’s monumentally influential Doors of Perception. Sutin shows us how although it is possible that this could be so, there really is no evidence that this is the case. Crowley was experienced with peyote years before Huxley, the two men met once through a mutual acquaintance and that is about all we know for sure beyond the fact that if Crowley had turned Huxley on to peyote, both men would very likely have written about it at length.

Over the course of the book, we see that Crowley devolved from a young man with a seemingly boundless enthusiasm for truth and consciousness—for the body of knowledge he called Scientific Illuminism (“The method of science, the aim of religion”)—to a derailed and self-deluded older man who spent the latter half of his life preoccupied with sex and self-promotion, hampered by addiction and poverty, struggling and failing to establish his new religion and to gain a large body of disciples. But then again, many of Crowley’s best works were written during this latter period and Sutin barely gives us any sense of this.

In summary, Sutin’s book is valuable in that it provides a good detailed and well-researched biography of Crowley’s mundane life but it tells us far too little about Crowley’s spiritual, creative and intellectual pursuits. I would only recommend this book to those who are already well acquainted with Crowley’s work and who are ready to tackle a long, dry, detailed biography on his all-too-human side.

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