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30 of 33 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Only Half of the Picture, January 21, 2007
This review is from: Do What Thou Wilt: A Life of Aleister Crowley (Paperback)
This book is certainly not for those who are merely curious or casually interested in Crowley. Let's be frank, Sutin's biography is not light reading by any means. He gives us nearly 500 pages of details; no fluff, no sensationalism, and very little speculation beyond that which is evident by actual facts. Because of this, Do What Thou Wilt will surely disappoint those who prefer to think that Crowley was a Satan-worshipping black magician, those who place him on a pedestal as a perfected spiritual master and those 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. At any rate, I would not recommend this as a Crowley bio for beginners.

Sutin gives us a carefully researched book. He makes no claims without verifiable sources. 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 subjects life as well as can be gathered from the source material available (which he seems to have studied well). 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 condemn, apologize or praise Crowley.

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, how he sought all his life to transcend his deeply ingrained puritan sense of sin and guilt with regards to sex, and a few other aspects of his life. But Sutin does this with a cool, detached, non-judgmental 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 lets readers think these out for themselves.

Sutin makes it exhaustively clear that Crowley could often be 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 others for money. Since Crowley himself downplayed these traits and because his auto-bio Confessions was written about halfway through his life, I again strongly suggest that one does not read Confessions without reading Do What Thou Wilt. Having reiterated that, I also suggest that one does 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, philosophy and Thelema because - and this is the main fault of Do What Thou Wilt - Sutin gives us almost no understanding of this.

Because his magical philosophy and Thelema was central to his life, Sutin's book tells us only about half of what one needs to know in order to get a good understanding of Crowley. It is somewhat like telling the story of Einstein without telling us about the physics that occupied his genius or his revolutionary discoveries. 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 displays one of the few places where Sutin directly gives us his own opinion when he could have discussed this more objectively in terms of the impact that this work had on 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 writer on occultism. Let's face it, if Crowley was merely a promising Cambridge chess champion, a minor poet and a man who came close to being the first to reach the peak of the world's third highest mountain (which would have made him placed him in the position of being the climber to have reached the highest peak ever before climbed) he would likely have been merely a footnote in the history of mountaineering and Sutin would almost surely not have written a book about him.

But, to be fair, 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 he experimented with, when, and in combination with what magical and mystical practices.

Sutin gives us no real sense of Crowley's role as a pioneer in the re-emergence of psychedelics Western civilization. The short passage by Suster quoted above gives us a greater sense of Crowley's place in this re-emergence than Sutin does in his entire book. But then again, Suster does not tell us the details that Sutin does. Also, Sutin adequately shows us (through evidence, not opinion) Crowley's struggle over whether the use of consciousness-altering substances are legitimate or counterfeit aids in the exploration of the mind and spirit. He also shows us how in one account of a given event Crowley frankly admits the use of a particular drug in addition to a particular magical operation to gain entry into a particular "plane" or state of mind whereas in another account of the same event Crowley omits the fact that he used a 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. As Sutin shows in his book, Crowley merely noted in his diary that, "Huxley improves on acquaintance."

Over the course of the book, we see that Crowley devolved from a young man with seemingly boundless enthusiasm to find truth and to gain new ground in consciousness, to build a sound body of knowledge Crowley called Scientific Illuminism ("The method of science, the aim of religion") with determination and perseverance (mirrored in his considerable achievements in the field of mountaineering and rugged hiking across thousands of miles in various parts of the world) to a derailed and self-deluded older man who spent the later half of his life preoccupied with sex and self-promotion and hampered by hard drug addiction and by poverty all the while attempting 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 period - perhaps this was a time when he was able to reflect upon and write about what he discovered earlier in life - 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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Showing 1-4 of 4 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Apr 19, 2010 3:39:37 AM PDT
Evan Pike says:
Excellent review. Thanks for taking the time to write so comprehensively.

Posted on Dec 20, 2011 11:55:46 AM PST
Fair and intelligent review. Thanks.

Posted on Sep 28, 2012 3:40:46 PM PDT
superbly written.

Posted on Feb 21, 2013 7:11:04 PM PST
J. Smith says:
Richard Kaczynski's "Perdurabo" is a far more superior biography and is filled with far more information and details.
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