In writing A Magick Life Martin Booth sets himself a challenge. Biographies of figures like Aleister Crowley can be difficult because he was one of those people who devote their lives to subjects which believers take extremely seriously, but which sceptics tend to simply find amusing and/or disturbing (depending on just how prudish their instincts are).
In the case of Crowley, the subject in question is occultism and ritual magic, including sex magic rituals. This is the sort of subject matter people tend not to have mild, moderate, wishy-washy opinions about. For occultists, Crowley is either a hugely important figure in terms of recent innovations in the subject (Thelemites follow his system to this day, yet more draw on it, and chaos magicians tend to see his work as a necessary precursor to the sort of postmodern take they utilise) or one of the worst disasters to ever befall the field. Those who do not lend credence to occultism still tend to pass judgement on it; “it’s creepy and culty and manipulative” say some, “it’s an amusing eccentricity” say others, “it’s the work of the Devil” say yet others, “it’s asinine self-aggrandising nonsense” say still others.
Martin Booth seems to take the point of view that for the purposes of writing a biography of Crowley, the reality or otherwise of magic is unimportant – the significance is not in whether Crowley’s occult work was effective at accomplishing the purposes intended, but in the impact it had not only on the course of his life but in the cultural status he attained during and after his lifetime. This means we don’t get much of an in-depth look at the deeper specifics of Thelema, beyond basic discussion of its infamous “Do what thou wilt” maxim and what that actually was meant to signify, but we do get a clear idea of how seriously Crowley took the subject.
On balance, the answer to that seems to be “very seriously indeed”. Crowley went to great lengths in terms of investing time, money, and effort into his magical pursuits, to an extent that a mere charlatan out to fleece people simply wouldn’t bother with. Yes, he lived a lavish lifestyle until he could no longer afford to and blagged money off people a lot, and received donations and membership fees from people who joined his magical orders. However, when towards the end of his life he needed expensive care arrangements he didn’t get them because he wouldn’t use his (still quite substantial) reserves of money for it, because that had been donated for the operation of the OTO (one of various magical orders he led over his lifetime). You would not expect someone to be that scrupulous under such circumstances, when those who had provided the money would have probably been glad to see Crowley spend it on his personal care at that, if he were out to enrich himself.
The fact is that Crowley doesn’t seem to have had the skills to be much of a con artist. His extravagance with money was a result of him genuinely not being very good at it – he spent much of his early life sufficiently well-off from various inheritances and the like that he simply never learned the value of money. Whereas he could have exploited his infamous reputation ruthlessly in the pursuit of fat stacks of cash, and he was certainly charming enough to get people to pay him large amounts on occasion, he never seems to have gone out to systematically fleece people in the way that, say, L. Ron Hubbard did.
The extent to which Hubbard took inspiration from Crowley is debatable, but it’s documented fact that Hubbard did get in deep with Jack Parson’s West Coast OTO group for a while in the 1940s, though whether Hubbard ever sincerely believed in Thelema or whether he was just faking it for the sake of scamming Parsons is far from clear. What is clear is that Hubbard was far more of a businessman than Crowley ever was. Whereas Hubbard was intent on producing a corporate structure funnelling money up to him, Crowley never seems to have turned the OTO into a pyramid scheme (despite the fact that a degree-based initiatory order is perfectly structured for such purposes), relying more on the indulgence of friends, acquaintances, and acolytes he worked with personally than any attempt at mass solicitation of money.
Moreover, Crowley seems to have genuinely tried to give his companions their money’s worth: people wanted to pay to support an occult order and to learn from him, and he did his level best to teach them. That is not to say he was a kind or caring man in any of his fields of pursuit – his tendency to dismiss or abandon people when they wouldn’t follow his lead reached its nadir when, on a Himalayan mountaineering expedition, he allegedly abandoned the other mountaineers up the mountain in the wake of a fatal accident, an incident which ruined his reputation in the climbing community. Moreover, his pursuit of sex magick, whilst having a religious motivation, seems to have resulted in him entering a string of abusive relationships, leaving behind a trail of misery as he went.
If Hubbard and Crowley had one personality trait in common, it was that they both seem to have seen the world and other people as existing primarily for their benefit. In Hubbard’s case, he seems to have seen other human beings as walking wallets who give you money if you say the right things to them. In Crowley’s case, the primary question he asked himself seems to have been less “how much money can I get out of this person?” and more “How can this person be of use to me in my occult projects?” If the answer was “By giving me money,” that was one thing, but if they weren’t in a position to do that, Crowley could find other uses for them.
Booth’s treatment of Crowley is therefore neutral in tone but damning in the facts reported, at least in terms of Crowley’s personal interactions with others. At the same time, a good case is made for Crowley having been a genuinely original thinker who was ahead of his time. The Abbey of Thelema in Italy, where Crowley and others attempted to set up a community living by the Law of Thelema, basically seems to have been a hippy commune some four decades too early, and was riddled with the sort of problems such utopian experiments in group living ran into, like how everyone was very keen on drugs and free love and meditation but nobody wanted to do the housework.
(The bestiality, animal sacrifice, self-harm with razors and hierarchical structure, though… those were all Crowley touches.)
Crowley at least seems to have had a bit of a sense of humour about himself; he called his autobiography his “autohagiography”, and you don’t do that unless you fully admit with open eyes that you are a self-aggrandising egotist on a grand scale. Crowley’s writing has a way of veering from the reverential to the flippant at a whim which tends to overshadow just how seriously he took his work, but this biography puts the lie to the idea that he was just LARPing. I suspect that few people who have read Crowley and embraced Thelema in the present day will be too put off by this biography – if you can stand Crowley’s blatantly obvious boasting, self-mythologising, and stirring of controversy, you can probably stand the truth behind it. Those disinterested in his philosophy may still find this an interesting portrait of an agile thinker from a privileged background living a life of absurd adventure and scandal in the dying days of the British Empire.