ecosophia: JMG in lecture mode (Default)
Beardsley illustrationFor some time I've been watching, with wry amusement, the antics of a certain subset of Neopagan witches who have apparently decided to embrace the Christian notion of what witches are, i.e., evil. These are the folks who have been posting long earnest essays online insisting that witches have to curse people and do other forms of nasty magic, since after all that's their heritage, and it's justified at least sometimes, and real power means the power to harm, etc. etc. Me, I'm an old-fashioned occultist and not any kind of witch, so what witches do is really no business of mine -- not my circus, not my monkeys -- but as my academic background is in the history of ideas, I'm intrigued to watch this particular remake of a familiar pattern. 

A few days ago one of the Neopagan witches just mentioned, one who's sufficiently on board with the idea of witches being evil that she's embraced the term "banefolk" for herself and those who agree with her, posted a lengthy diatribe on her blog that denounced Neopagan witches for being, well, evil. Specifically, she accused them of making up traditions and then lying about their origins, of making money off witchcraft, and of various kinds of sexual improprieties -- all of which, in her eyes, are apparently sins far more serious than (say) using magic to hurt people. 

There are plenty of things that could be said about the diatribe in question. It's amusing, for example, that she starts out by denouncing the habit of equating "pagan" with "Wiccan" and then goes and does exactly that, treating habits and teachings specific to modern American eclectic witchcraft (such as the "Thirteen Principles of Neopagan Belief") as though they're common not only to all Neopagan traditions, but to unrelated phenomena such as the Druid Revival and chaos magic (!). Still, the thing that struck me most was a powerful sense of déjà vu. 

La-Bas cover artI don't know how many of my readers are familiar with the French author J.-K. Huysmans, a very popular literary figure at the turn of the last century, or with his most notorious novel, Là-Bas. (Down There is the usual English translation, though it's very rough; the French idiom "là-bas" is pretty much untranslatable.) It's a novel about Satanism -- specifically, the fashionable Satanism that became wildly popular in French occult and countercultural circles at the end of the 19th century. The viewpoint character, Durtal, disgusted by the banality and crassness of modern life, lets himself be drawn by the mysterious Mme. Chantelouve into Paris' devil-worshiping underground, attends a black mass, and then tears himself away from Satanism to return to the Catholic faith of his childhood.

Là-Bas
once had a lurid reputation, though it's frankly pretty tame by modern standards; the thing that often gets mislaid by modern readers is that it's a profoundly Christian book, and it accepts as a basic truth the orthodox Christian attitude toward occultism -- essentially, that if it's serious it's devil worship, and if it's not devil worship it's just play-acting and dress-up games. The Paris occult scene at the time Huysmans was writing was large, active, and those people who weren't playing at Satanism were by and large involved in serious work; the Martinist tradition and the modern alchemical revival are just two of the things that were getting under way then and there; but you won't learn that from Huysmans. 

What's more, Huysmans spoke for a significant movement in the counterculture of his time. There really was a big Satanist scene in late 19th century Paris; last I checked, most biographers of Huysmans agree that he probably based the black mass in his novel on one he actually attended. That movement had a predictable outcome, too, one that W.B. Yeats wrote about in his visionary essay Per Amica Silentia Lunae. In his early visits to France, he recalled, "one met everywhere young men of letters who talked of magic." Fast forward a few decades, and that had changed: "It was no longer the soul, self-moving and self-teaching -- the magical soul -- but Mother France and Mother Church." 

Beardsley illustrationSatanism was the intermediate step between those two conditions, and it's easy to see why. If you embrace the idea that Christian orthodoxy is right about the nature of occultism, it's a very short step to embracing the idea that Christian orthodoxy is right, period. Once people got tired of the fringe benefits of being evil -- in turn of the century France, those mostly involved plenty of cheap sex and the opportunity to shock people, more or less the same as today -- they could then go through a fine melodramatic repentance, renounce their sinful ways, and be welcomed into a community of people who were eager to give them lots of attention and encouragement. This they accordingly did. 

It's far from the only time that's happened. Some of my readers are old enough to remember the twilight of the hippie scene at the end of the 1960s. Peace and love and brotherhood got chucked overboard by a significant faction of hippies, who took up in its place the kind of evil-hippie image made permanently famous by the late and unlamented Charles Manson. This was followed, after an interval of a few years, by the transformation of a great many hippies into "the Jesus People," and after another brief interval most of the latter ditched their countercultural values and settled down to get jobs and raise families as ordinary Christian Americans. 

I'm pretty sure that's what's going on in this case, too. Countercultures die when their members give up their own independent value judgments about the counterculture, and accept the (usually hostile or dismissive) judgments of the mainstream culture from which they previously distanced themselves. Now that a significant fraction of the Neopagan scene seems to be embracing the notion that witches are evil, and a few early adopters (like the author of the essay cited above) are generalizing from that to denounce the whole movement for its sins, I don't think we'll have long to wait before the current trickle of defections from Neopaganism turns into a flood. Conservative Christian denominations, on the off chance that this post of mine comes to their attention, might want to brace themselves for the arrival of a great many loudly repentant sinners in the years immediately ahead. 
ecosophia: JMG in lecture mode (Default)
printing pressI was delighted to read in a news story today that one of the more loudly ballyhooed waves of the future has definitely broken and is now rolling back out to sea. E-books, heavily marketed not that many years ago as the inevitable next step in the glorious march of progress that was guaranteed to sweep all before it, peaked three years ago with about 20% of the book market. Since then it's slid back down to about 15%. 

Those numbers are a solid confirmation of something I've been hearing for a while now. Lots of people just plain enjoy books as physical objects, and lots more prefer the experience of reading printer's ink on paper to the experience of reading pixels on a little glass screen. I've heard of several people who got rid of their entire library of printed books in their initial enthusiasm for e-books, only to turn around six months or a year later and start buying the books back again, because once the rush wore off, they missed their books. 

I don't expect e-books to go away forever any time soon -- they'll drop out of use as the technological infrastructure needed to build and use them comes apart, but that's still a ways in the future -- but the old-fashioned book still has plenty of life left in it. I'm particularly pleased to see some small presses concentrating on making books that are a physical pleasure to hold and read -- books that are well designed, gorgeously illustrated, and attractively bound. (Like, ahem, my newly released translation of Giordano Bruno's major handbook on the art of memory, On the Shadows of the Ideas, just out from Miskatonic Press: drop-dead gorgeous doesn't half cover it.) 

In the meantime, I'm going to sit down with an old book and gloat a bit...

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