Erik Graff's Reviews > Aleister Crowley: The Nature of the Beast

Aleister Crowley by Colin Wilson
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Jul 06, 2011

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bookshelves: biography
Recommended to Erik by: John Elkin
Recommended for: Wilson/Crowley fans
Read in July, 2011 , read count: 1

Rick Strong gave me a copy of The Confessions of Aleister Crowley years ago. I tried to read it, managed about a hundred pages, gave up. What I already knew about the man, some of it from Wilson's own The Occult, did not dispose me to expect much. I prefer biographies that are either inspiring or at least about world-historical individuals and their times. Crowley, it seemed, was neither.

Looking for books beyond the pale, beyond those already in my own library and within the ambit of my usual reading, I asked a friend for a recommendation, was given several and picked this biography and a couple of Iain Banks novels to read over holiday. Wilson's Crowley seemed a safe, short introduction to subject. Whatever Crowley's flaws I'd enjoy a reminder of Wilson's grand optimism.

And that is what this book delivered. Wilson, a specialist on the matter of flawed genius in the cases of criminals of various sorts, presents what may be the most generous portrayal of Crowley possible. Even then, it was hardly an inspiring vision. Wilson allows that his subject was accomplished in several regards, among them some of his writing, his yoga, his (often manipulative) "charm", but also admits to his very many flaws, treating Crowley like an arrested adolescent locked into perpetual rebellion against authority and incapable of real care for others.

Still, in Wilson's opinion, there was something there: Crowley was on to something. Naturally, what Crowley apprehended was what Wilson has been pushing throughout his career, namely that humans have great potentials which are rarely realized. This is framed in reference to neo-Kantians like Schopenhauer and Fichte and in terms of modern existentialism in the concluding chapter.

Choosing Aleister Crowley as a case study for arguments in favor of Abraham Maslow's psychology of health would seems a contradiction, and one is suspicious that the author took him as his subject because his contemporary popularity would lead to sales, but there is certainly reason to consider the interaction of exceptional persons with their social environments--to reconsider what Wilson terms "outsiders" seriously. What characterizes them? What creates them? How have they been regarded by those around them? What causes some to become exceptional criminals, others failures incapable of survival? As ever, Wilson's treatment of Crowley is written with some mind to persons with the potential to become like him. As ever, Wilson diagnoses the disease as in part the result of circumstance, as in greater part the result of bad decisions.

This is not a great book. One gets the impression that Wilson has simply summarized his subject's life without any original research, working entirely from Crowley's publications and from secondary sources, interspersing the narrative with occasional asides representing his own opinions and interpretations, ending with a summary epilogue of such interpretation. The editing is terrible, mistakes appearing throughout, the whole book giving the impression of being a rush job.
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