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Lawrence Sutin characterizes Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) as “protean, brilliant, courageous, and flabbergasting,” citing his accomplishments as a mountain climber, writer, scholar, painter, and spiritual organizer. Crowley is known best to the public as a flamboyant “ceremonial magician” who used archetypes, symbols, and rituals as means to turn the universe to his own ends. He sought to systematize magic by applying scientific methodology to it. And by coining the phrase “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law,” Crowley assured himself a tattooed spot on Goth bodies everywhere, if nothing else.
Sutin speculates that Crowley took to “magick” in unconscious mimicry of his wealthy father’s devout Christian beliefs. Crowley beat a soldierly path to self-discovery, from yoga to Buddhism to ever higher self-awarded levels of achievement in the Golden Dawn, Europe’s largest occult group. But where the subject of Sutin’s previous biography (Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick) experienced a spontaneous midlife mystical revelation that inspired some of his best writing, Crowley’s spiritual persona only frayed with time.
Sutin shoots for an evenhanded assessment that weaves together Crowley’s own voluminous writing with earlier documents from the archives of the Ordo Templi Orientis, the magical order with which he was subsequently aligned. If Sutin seems defensive about his subject, as he often does, it’s easy to understand why. Crowley’s career comes across as a tediously long string of failed attempts to institutionalize his mystical self-realization, and an equally lengthy series of doomed marriages and relationships with the alcoholic females and gullible lads on whom he worked his mojo.
Sadly, none of Crowley’s biographers, including Sutin, accounts for a single verifiable act of reality altering on Crowley’s part. He appears to have been a bogus magus. One waits in vain for Sutin to reveal that, contrary to all indications, Crowley was anything more than a prolific hack writer, sex addict, con man, and longtime junkie. A wonderful story could undoubtedly be unspooled around such a debauched character, but Sutin’s neutral tone prevents Do What Thou Wilt from doing so. And when Sutin deems Crowley’s book Magick in Theory and Practice a “modernist masterwork” without providing a jot of evidence for the claim, you suspect that this biographer was bewitched by his subject.