Biographies are a lot of fun. While I like getting to know a person through their works, learning more about the circumstances that produced them lends additional weight to certain turns of phrase, and often frames ideas in contexts not previously considered.
I read Thomas Williams’ biography of Éliphas Lévi (titled: Eliphas Levi, Master of the Cabala, the Tarot and the Secret Doctrines) about six months ago in preparation for a workshop that was drawing on his influence in the occult tarot and I wanted to better understand where he was sourcing his material.
I read the second edition and was not impressed with the number of typos and general lack of editing, however, this may be the only full length biography of Lévi in print in English – it’s certainly the only one I’ve been able to find. Despite its flaws, it serves as a decent introduction to Lévi’s life and thought.
I remember reading about Parsons for a science project in grade school, brief paragraphs – no mention of his connections with Aleister Crowley or L. Ron Hubbard then. John Carter’s Sex and Rockets: The Occult World of Jack Parsons helped fill in those blanks.
However, despite the letters quoted, I didn’t get a real sense of who Parsons was as a person, what he really believed or how he might have framed those beliefs. Even so, it provides a great introduction to Parsons’ scientific work and his occult pursuits.
Philip Ball’s biography of Paracelsus, The Devil’s Doctor: Paracelsus and the World of Renaissance Magic and Science is an incredible read. We get real sense of the climate, the politics, medicine, travel, personalities and general way of life in Paracelsus’s well-travelled Renaissance.
Happily Ball resists the temptation to project interpretations of his alchemical work as viewed through a modern lens and the book is certainly better for it. This book beautifully frames Paracelsus’s life in the times in which he lived, and it’s quite a story. I highly recommend it, particularly to anyone interested in learning more about how alchemy was understood in the Renaissance.((For an introduction to the elements through the ages, his earlier book, The Elements: A Very Short Introduction, serves as a decent quick-and-dirty follow-up.))
Biographies about Aleister Crowley are almost a dime a dozen (and some aren’t even worth that) and while they’re undoubtedly important, there are so many others for whom we have yet to see a single book appear. Has there ever been a full length biography of Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers, William Wynn Westcott, Theodor Reuss, or Charles Stansfield-Jones? The interest must be there, surely?
First published on Plutonica.net 11 November 2007.