"Fay ce que Vouldras…" from Gargantua (Chap. 57), by François Rabelais.
Today, at 17:27 GMT (1:27 p.m. EDT), we experience the autumnal equinox, day and night are said to be of equal length, it's the start of the Fall season with leaves to be dropping soon, and icy Winter is not that far off. Also, Lawrence Sutin reads from his latest book, Do What Thou Wilt: A Life of Aleister Crowley (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000), at Hamline University in Minnesota, where he teaches, at 7:30 p.m. CST.
Edward Alexander ("Aleister") Crowley (1875-1947), one of the last century's most depraved fops, is perhaps best known for inspiring The Addams Family character, 'Uncle Festus', as well as being included on the cover of The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Capital, 1967). Crowley is often associated with The Equinox, a lavishly printed and bound serial publication which violated a few copyrights, included much rubbish, yet provided several rare gems of esoteric insight. His gay name was "Alys," sometimes recorded as "Alice," and Prof. Sutin's balanced biography makes for a good read, clears up several myths, falsehoods, and misunderstandings, and gives an impartial description of his final years. Autumnal Alice, per Sutin's research, is almost pathetic, but not quite. Crowley as an old, sick dude remains a monster (from monere, to admonish or warn) and his example is a frightening reminder of what trouble one person can get into.
Sutin's Do What Thou Wilt provides a fairly comprehensive account of where and how Crowley lived. Such information seems a secondary theme of the biography and allows the reader to follow Crowley from being a spoiled rich kid with a £40,000 inheritance, to a well-traveled young man spending wildly, to full maturity, bankruptcy, loans, evictions, and his final decades of cons and charity. It's difficult to apply normal expectations when someone embraced controversy and purposely sought to violate the conventional. The appellations of "The Beast" and "The Wickedest Man on Earth" appear deserved, at least partially, as Crowley pursued decadence with a dedicated vigor. To imagine Crowley engaged in steady employment, sharing holidays with family and friends, perhaps even owning a pet or taking in a sporting event, would be something akin to arguing it really might be possible that at one time the Pontiff actually moved his bowels in the woods. Silliness! Crowley with a job? Some things are too far-fetched for rational consideration…
I've always regarded Crowley as a writer. Oh, his poems and artworks are inane and forgettable. The accounts of his mountain climbing experiences are fraught with controversy and talk of his bisexuality and drug abuse bores me. Crowley's involvement with Masonic secret societies and the practice of ritual magic were items of uniqueness, to be sure, but it remains his role as a writer that interests me. Sutin correctly draws the reader's attention to Crowley's daring (and, then, illegal) gay and erotic writings, his passable fiction, and his work describing an investigation of the chemical properties of hashish. Sure, he presented himself to the world as a Faustian messiah of occult wisdom (and believed he should have been treated accordingly, i.e., many free lunches), but …Crowley was a prolific writer and his choice of topics place him securely in a separate category as an independent and trend setter. Much was drivel, but insight requires acknowledgement, and I'm grateful to Sutin for challenging us to once more consider the writings of Aleister Crowley. It's someone's work, at least ideally, on which he or she should be judged, and not their personal life.
Yeah, sometimes I find it difficult to listen to anti-Semitic Wagner, or the pederasts Copeland and Bernstein, without bemoaning the bad behind the good. Reading Chuck Bukowski is always a treat, but I wouldn't have let the man in my house without security and a full maintenance crew to scrub up afterwards. Many media personalities today produce credible work, however as individuals they should be given a wide berth and avoided like the plague. A person's work is one thing and what they do in their off time is another. And, no, that wasn't a veiled attempt to mention Monica, but she really should get back into public service! Maybe there's a position for her in the Bush camp…
Sutin's biography of Crowley is, I suspect, the first by someone not a friend or student of Crowley's, nor a current practitioner of the occult. Though the book is nearly 500 pages, there's so much to Crowley's life that the volume seems brief somehow, too short, needing more details, but …that's just an understood response to a careful, concise work about a complicated individual. Crowley screams for more, but history (and Sutin's research) can only provide so much.
Names? How about Yeats and Shaw? Hitler and Churchill? James Bond creator, Ian Fleming, and the novelist and philosopher, Aldous Huxley? If it's names that impress, Crowley's life and Sutin's biography will not disappoint.
Familiar with nasty stuff Crowley is alleged to have done? Like the episode when he's said to have entered the home of a socialite, dropped his pants and crapped on the living room rug? Sutin dismisses the incident as rumor, though he describes an even more disturbing incident of pseudo-mystical coprophagy.
It goes without saying Crowley still has followers, though I found it odd Sutin would repeat the figure "a few thousand" as often as he did. Crowley's impact on the occult, Wicca and Scientology needs further work, though the biography is a succinct introduction to the problems involved. Books by Crowley are still in print, heavy metal idiots still adore him, one may listen to actual audio recordings online here (as well as here), and …those secret societies seem to be holding their own (or at least are capable of putting together nice web-pages).
Uncle Al (or Aunt Alice, if you will) continues to defy appropriate categorization. Larry Sutin has given us a fine biography about a not-so-fine fellow. Information is always a good thing and Do What Thou Wilt certainly puts facts about Crowley at our fingertips.
Changing my will,