Do What Thou Wilt: A Life of Aleister Crowley

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9780312252434: Do What Thou Wilt: A Life of Aleister Crowley

An exploration into the life and works of a modern mystic, occultist, poet, mountaineer, and bisexual adventurer known to his contemporaries as "The Great Beast"

Aleister Crowley was a groundbreaking poet and an iconoclastic visionary whose literary and cultural legacy extends far beyond the limits of his notoriety as a practitioner of the occult arts.

Born in 1875 to devout Christian parents, young Aleister's devotion scarcely outlived his father, who died when the boy was twelve. He reached maturity in the boarding schools and brothels of Victorian England, trained to become a world-class mountain climber, and seldom persisted with any endeavor in which he could be bested.

Like many self-styled illuminati of his class and generation, the hedonistic Crowley gravitated toward the occult. An aspiring poet and a pampered wastrel-obsessed with reconciling his quest for spiritual perfection and his inclination do exactly as he liked in the earthly realm-Crowley developed his own school of mysticism. Magick, as he called it, summoned its users to embrace the imagination and to glorify the will. Crowley often explored his spiritual yearnings through drug-saturated vision quests and rampant sexual adventurism, but at other times he embraced Eastern philosophies and sought enlightenment on ascetic sojourns into the wilderness.

This controversial individual, a frightening mixture of egomania and self-loathing, has inspired passionate-but seldom fair-assessments from historians. Lawrence Sutin, by treating Crowley as a cultural phenomenon, and not simply a sorcerer or a charlatan, convinces skeptic readers that the self-styled "Beast" remains a fascinating study in how one man devoted his life to the subversion of the dominant moral and religious values of his time.

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Review:

The legendary Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) is a tantalizing and bizarre subject. As an occult leader, heroin addict, sexual adventurer, misogynist, and visionary, he is the inspiration for many vile Gothic protagonists. Author W. Somerset Maugham even devoted a novel, The Magician, to this chilling figure of indulgence and religious mockery. Like any good biographer, Lawrence Sutin set out to discover the man behind the myth. After considerable research, Sutin admits that Crowley was "a shameless scoffer at Christian virtue" and "a spoiled scion of a wealthy Victorian family," but he also sees him as a 20th century figure as "protean, brilliant, courageous, and flabbergasting as ever you could imagine."

Consider these facts about the man who named himself "The Great Beast": He was one of the first Westerners to seriously study Buddhism and Yoga. He radically redesigned the traditional Tarot deck (thus the "Crowley deck"). Contrary to common belief, he was never known to participate in satanic ritual--to do so would acknowledge the Christian church, which he was loathe to do (although he nicknamed his son "The Christ Child"). These are but a few of the surprising morsels one can glean from this excellent biography. Don't expect to find Crowley a likable figure. Do, however, expect to meet a flamboyant man who challenged all forms of religious, sexual, and social oppression and hence became a revered visionary and a reviled demon. --Tara West

About the Author:

Lawrence Sutin is a professor in the M.F.A. program at Hamlin College and holds a J.D. from Harvard University. His previous works include Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick; Jack and Rochelle: A Holocaust Story of Love and Resistance; and A Postcard Memoir.

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