Do What Thou Wilt BOOK review [Lawrence Sutin]

Book Reviews
Do What Thou Wilt BOOK review [Lawrence Sutin]
Sep 14, 2000, 02:42

DO WHAT THOU WILT by Lawrence Sutin; Harper Collins, 2000

It'd be downright impossible to write a boring biography of Aleister Crowley. He was simply one of the most confounding, fascinating figures of the 19th and 20th Centuries and his influence and relevance continues to grow subtly but steadily year after year.

His story is rife with self-aggrandizement and fantastical assertions, not to mention distortions and exaggerations of ascertainable facts, much of them perpetrated by A.C. himself! It gets more complicated because some of the apparently most improbable claims (pioneering mountain climber, world class chess champ) turn out to be true and readily supported by public record while others he freely admitted, in fact insisted, were matters of subjective experiences. Of course in the wake of Existentialism and quantum physics, we view just about every element in our environment as provisional and at best a matter of personal perspective.

Lawrence Sutin's biography of Crowley, Do What Thou Wilt, ten years in the writing, painstakingly documents the factual signposts of the man's life as well as discusses his remarkable body of beliefs and practices in magick at length, with a fair degree of accuracy, if not sympathy. The book is a heroic effort to make sense of the enormous, bewildering bulk of literature not to mention rumor and myth about Crowley, his spiritual aspirations, extravagant, often decadent lifestyle, and the motivations that drove both; reams upon reams were written by Crowley himself while his published detractors as well as supporters and apologists have been numerous and prolific.

Sutin squarely addresses the myriad apparent contradictions (from mainstream Western society's perspective at least) that comprised the fabric of this extraordinary individual's existence. His highest aspirations, as stated in the noblest of his writing i.e. The Holy Books of Thelema, were for ecstatic spiritual experience, communication with the Divine—period. In his domestic, business and social, affairs however his behavior was too often sordid, even horrific—but then, many of the techniques he employed to attain exalted states of consciousness might seem equally repulsive to most readers.

Sutin meticulously examines the paradoxes from multiple angles. Discussing the magickal academy Crowley established in Sicily, the Abbey of Thelema (named after a fictive religious community described by his literary idol Rabelais in Gargantua and Pantagruel) Sutin collects the testimony of disciples who felt they genuinely benefited from the course of strenuous, involved magickal study offered there alongside that of participants whose main response was disgust at the squalid living conditions and grisly nature of some of the rites enacted, most notably animal sacrifice (an unusual practice for Crowley). One student sickened and died during his stay, leading to an international outcry that caused Benito Mussolini to deport Crowley. Both sides of the argument are equally authentic and accurate in their assessment of the situation but they present very different pictures, subject to the individuals' perspective.

This incident is just one instance among many where the reality fell far short of the ideals involved, partly due to the limits of Crowley's material resources as well as a number of his socio-psychological handicaps. Throughout his career, his most sublime visions would be compromised again and again, by his prejudices of class, nationality and gender. He was no worse than the average middle class Englishmen during the Victorian era, but no better—he was simply a man of his time and circumstances. He did make continued efforts to free himself from these attitudes and made some progress, but never fully liberated himself or his actions.

However it is precisely this tension between passionately held cosmic goals and all too human shortcomings that renders him a sympathetic figure in Sutin's account as well as the perfect spiritual guide for our cynical, relativistic times. Many would claim that many of the values which underlie Western cultures in the 20th century stem from Crowley's teachings or at least were predicted by them: virulent individualism, persistent yet open-minded skepticism, a return to spirituality that functions in harmony with science. Moreover, self-consciousness of his failings and self-doubt goaded him to evolve a system of mystical attainment that even the least psychically gifted, unenlightened, and morally bereft could employ with guaranteed success if followed faithfully. He dubbed this system “Scientific Illuminism: the aim of Religion and the method of Science. All magickal operations were approached as experiments and recorded in detail—preparation, prevailing environmental conditions, and long-term results—in a Magickal Diary. Crowley readily admitted that many workings failed altogether or had very subtle results often only discernible when viewed in retrospect, weeks months or even years later; one of the reasons for keeping a permanent record to be referred to down the line.

Sutin states up front that he himself is not an initiate of any Crowley-alligned magickal orders nor a “believer” in magick per se. Nonetheless, he does present Crowley's accounts of magickal events under the assumption that he was utterly sincere and accurate in so far as his subjective experiences. In some cases, Sutin gives him the benefit of the doubt in regards to the objective outcome of particular magickal operations, in others, he points out “facts” that contradict Crowley's claims, as per Newtonian mechanistic view of physics and cosmology. This leads Sutin to occasionally misinterpret certain mystic objectives and not acknowledge—and clearly not bother to research – the underlying logic and/or historical precedents for particular magico-religious practices.

Sutin never considers that much of Crowley's Sex Magick was taken directly from long established Hindu and Buddhist Tantric operations or that the mockery and deliberate obliqueness he subjected some students to is rooted in Sufi initiatory technique. Sutin doesn't address what would appear to be highly significant considerations of Crowley's career as an occultist occurring in the thick of an “occult revival” movement that engulfed Europe and North America that in turn coincided with the first translation of many key texts of Eastern mystical doctrine into English including the Kama Sutra, Tao Te Ching, Mahanirvana Tantra and many more. This was one result of English colonialization forces encountering and penetrating Eastern cultures many which had been held by the Ottoman Turks for the preceding six centuries and thus isolated from contact with much of Europe. This of course is quibbling as Do What Thou Wilt is meant as a factual biography not a scholarly investigation of parapsychology or practical metaphysics.

Overall, Sutin does an excellent job of unscrambling the wildly improbable yet verifiable events and circumstances of Crowley's astonishing life. Crowley emerges as an utterly enthralling character whether he's viewed as one of the greatest magicians of modern times or as a virulent individualist who's approach to life presaged the development and establishment of “alternative lifestyles” with regard to sexual orientation, drug use, DIY publishing, or just plain rejecting society's standing and forging a unique, adventurous life according to his own whims and impulses.

-Howard W.

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