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Comments on Sutin's biography of Crowley
Sutin, Lawrence. Do What Thou Wilt: A Life of Aleister Crowley. New York: St. Martin’s Press. 2000.
For better and worse, Aleister Crowley is one of the pivotal figures in the recent history of magic. He is also one of the more inscrutable, and the difficulties of his deliberate misdirections are multiplied by the revulsion that his actions and ideas can create. He proclaimed himself the divinely inspired messenger of a vast cultural shift and a magician of the highest achievement, but was widely reviled and - much worse from his perspective - often ignored. Capturing the breadth of these paradoxes in a single personality is not easy, and Sutin tackles it well in his biography of Crowley, which makes an excellent introduction for anyone trying to gain the necessary perspective on Crowley and his work.
Too many works on Crowley and his ideas fall prey to a simple dichotomy of pro or con, that one must either embrace Crowley entirely or hate him passionately. Sutin does an admirable job of walking the fine line between the two by attempting to maintain some distance from his subject without adopting an attitude of opposition. This measured separation is especially tricky for Crowley because Crowley made a habit of trying to manipulate the ways others perceived him, and delighted in provoking extreme reactions. These issues were thorny enough for those trying to engage Crowley within his own context; with the passage of time, some of his motivations become clearer, but others are lost, or confused by later contradictions within the man himself.
Studying Crowley is a rare instance where I would not encourage readers to engage with the primary sources first and foremost. For example, Crowley described his own memoir as an “autohagiography,” a self-written account of a saint. The oxymoronic quality of the claim is perfectly Crowley, and yet the idea that he was divinely inspired is perfectly in keeping with his opinion of himself in other ways. The contents of the work are similarly shot through with retrospective interpretations and self-justifications that range from the perspective application of hindsight to the basest forms of self-deception and retroactive justification. Given this, as well as our separation from Crowley in time, the wise reader attempts to get some overall perspective on Crowley before plunging into the mass of original material, and for the purposes of perspective, Sutin’s work is an excellent place to start.
Sutin’s introduction asks the reader to join him in an attempt to put aside preconceived notions about Crowley; he gives examples of Crowley’s achievements that should not be ignored, but also writes honestly about Crowley’s downfalls and shortcomings. The best feature is that Sutin is willing to discount Crowley’s self-serving explanations in places, and usually does not fall into Crowley’s inappropriately vain assessments of how his writing and personality affected those around him. Sutin does value Crowley’s literary work rather more highly than is generally the case, but he does not try to argue that the work should be separated from the person who created it. In assessing Crowley’s relationships with those around him, Sutin is willing to expose some of Crowley’s callousness and brutality, contextualizing it from multiple perspectives in a way that can help the contemporary reader make better sense of the conflict and failures within Crowley’s tumultuous experiences.
In my opinion Sutin errs a little bit on the side of his subject, and takes Crowley’s claims too seriously in places, but for such a work that is not an insurmountable obstacle, especially to a reader who is willing to supply a healthy dose of skepticism along the way. The downside is that by attempting to take a balanced approach, Sutin runs the risk of alienating anyone who holds too strong a preconceived notion of Crowley’s worth; those convinced that Crowley was demonic will see this book as a paean to evil, and those convinced that Crowley was the magus of a new age may see the criticisms of their guru as intolerable. I hope that for those willing to suspend preconceptions temporarily, this work will serve as a useful source of solid material on which to render a more solid judgment - either pro or con - but it does take a healthy dose of willingness on the reader’s part to join in Sutin’s project.
This biography is not a book of magic, it’s a book that can help you read other books of magic sensibly. Crowley’s own writing is difficult to grapple with; his direct and authoritative style can come across to a contemporary reader oddly, at one moment clear and engaging, and at another bizarrely arcane and encrusted with quasi-Christian imagery designed to be repulsive. To be able to engage with Crowley’s writing and to be able to form a well-grounded opinion of him as a person, an overall perspective on Crowley and his context is a necessary precursor. Sutin’s work is an excellent starting place for anyone trying to get a good look at this influential and wildly controversial figure.
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