“If you believe in the power of magic,” Eric Woolfson plaintively sang, “then I can change your mind.” A song that bewitched my younger years, when the atmosphere is just right, it can still bring a silent tear to my eye. Magic is a powerful elixir.
On my own personal almanac of holidays, Banned Book Week is one that takes the most preparation. In anticipation, for it is next week already, I read Owen Davies’ Grimoires: A History of Magic Books. Since this blog doesn’t get nearly the readership of a banned book, I might explain that witches are among my favorite topics. Despite that, and despite growing up with constant curiosity about religion, I only learned about grimoires recently. Davies makes it clear in his book that apart from some standard texts that have been around for a few centuries, the idea of a magic book is really relatively recent. Yes, the Egyptians and Mesopotamians had books of magic, but the concept of a grimoire only really fits the Zeitgeist of medieval Europe particularly well. Such books may draw on or cite oriental wisdom, frequently stepping into the forbidden territory of Arabic learning and alchemy, but they reflect the worldview of the Middle Ages when magic still seemed possible. In earlier centuries conjuring seems to have been subsumed under the miracles associated with Jesus, and we don’t hear much about magi beyond people like Simon Magus.
Davies packs a lot of information into his book, but my reason for focusing on it here, now, is the banned nature of grimoires. Many of them are considered rare and valuable books today, but in their day they were dangerous and forbidden. The concept that an idea can be suppressed is an odd one. In fact, many ideas have a very difficult time finding receptive minds. Once it is written down, however, an idea can circulate. The surest way to guarantee that it will is to ban it. People want to know what is so dangerous about this idea that it must be kept hidden. It makes an idea powerful, esoteric. Forbidden fruit, we all know if we’ll only be honest, is the sweetest.
Grimoires were considered most efficacious when written by hand. Although it took the printing press to proliferate such books, magic was believed to be most potent in the hand-written form. By writing text, one engages intimately with it. This is a reality we are in danger of losing in the computerized age. I grew up with only a second-hand typewriter acquired by my family when I was in high school. Most of what I wrote—for inspiration seldom comes when you’re sitting at your desk—was done by hand. My own little grimoires. Now we’ve added the interface of a keyboard. It is faster, and more efficient. Clinical even. But often the magic seems to be gone. And that is testified in many banned books. They especially, I would aver, believe in the power of magic.
Posted in Books, Literature, Monsters, Mysticism, Posts
Tagged Alan Parson's Project, Banned Book Week, Grimoires: A History of Magic Books, magic, Medieval Period, Owen Davies, witches
This past week I had a look at Christian Century. It has been about a century since I’ve read it, so I noticed quite a few changes in that time. Magazines in general, I’ve noticed, have been on a weight-reduction program. They are thinner and more direct than they used to be. Also, the last time I looked at Christian Century, perhaps in my college days, it was still assumed that Christianity was the dominant paradigm for American society. Church attendance wasn’t stellar, but it seemed pretty solid. In my town, in any case, pretty much everything was closed on Sundays. There was a sense of status quo ante, perhaps it was just that social changes of the sixties and seventies were taking a while to settle into the cracks. My college town was pretty far from the forefront of theological, or even social developments, and enough other places must have still been as well. There was no denying that you had great odds of finding Christians, self-professing, in places outside the halls of government.
It was almost sad that Christian Century felt so diminished. Inside I was surprised to see so many ads and reviews concerning themselves with secularism and/or atheism. Attempts to understand, or convert, were the foci of seminars and books. Get things back to the way they used to be. A century ago. One gets the sense that subscriptions might have slipped a bit. The consensus is breaking up. Too much information—too many choices. People aren’t sure what they will choose after all. The Christian Century seems to have been the nineteenth or twentieth. We are sadder but wiser.
It could be that I’m misreading this whole thing. After all, a couple of the articles were written by big name scholars teaching at big name institutions. One of them, however, is admittedly not a Christian. Those who are are, it seems, trying to learn about this sea change that happened around them while they perhaps supposed everything was progressing as normal. Growing up where I did, I know that I was unaware that people could not, in great masses, not go to church. That other religions were not but minor blips in an otherwise uniformly Christian country. Considering the posturing of many televangelists, I’m not the only one who thought so. It may be that another Christian century is to come. Or even a millennium. Until that happens, however, the institutions that look backward instead of toward a future approaching very fast will feel, I suspect, that a century quickly slipped by and left them wondering in its wake.
The Lady and Her Monsters reminded me of Gothic. A friend of mine in seminary showed me this “shocking” movie by Ken Russell just after it was released on VHS (I always was fond of ancient history). To my young eyes this was a challenging film, but it rated higher in moodiness than scariness. Roseanne Montillo’s book brought the movie to mind because, it turns out, several of the incidents in the movie were based on fact. Perhaps I need to take a step back because Gothic never made it big, and many may not realize that the movie is about the legendary night Mary Godwin (soon to be Shelley) came up with the idea for Frankenstein. In an early nineteenth-century walk of fame, Percy Shelley, Mary Godwin, Lord Byron, and John Polidori decided to write scary stories, as a kind of contest. Only two ever made it to print, Polidori’s The Vampyre, which inspired Bram Stoker’s Dracula many decades later, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The movie, with Ken Russell’s famous flamboyance, traced an unlikely story of the friends conjuring a ghost and then banishing it once again before the stormy night is over.
Ken Russell had the reputation for being obsessed with the church and sexuality. These interests are certainly well represented in Gothic, where Percy Shelley, famously an atheist and believer in the supernatural, struggles to make sense of it all. Polidori, Byron’s personal physician, is presented as a Catholic who admits, when each has to confess his or her deepest fears, that God terrifies him. The friends (perhaps in an unwitting prelude to a television series by that name) explore sexuality and the supernatural through the long night. Waking nightmares meet them at every turn. They even have a skull of “the black monk,” a character attested in all sincerity, at one time, at the most gothic seminary in the Wisconsin woods.
“He who fights with monsters,” Friedrich Nietzsche opined, “might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” That which we worship is that which we fear. Certainly the Christianity of the Middle Ages had as much of Hell as of Heaven in it. Bursting out into the light of rationalism, it seems, did not banish the darkness after all. We still have many questions left unanswered, and many intelligent people have begun to question whether any one paradigm fits all of the evidence. I suspect not. Human experience goes in multiple directions at once. We have ladies, we have monsters, we have scientists, we have God. And on rainy nights we have movies that make us see that we have combined them all into a tale often repeated but never fully understood.
Posted in Books, Literature, Monsters, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts, Religious Violence, Science
Tagged Dracula, Frankenstein, Gothic, John Polidori, Ken Russell, Mary Shelley, Roseanne Montillo, The Lady and Her Monsters
Hi ho Silver, away! I’ve been pondering academic freedom. (It was suggested to me that I might discourse on such.) My academic career, three years cold in the grave, seems a long way away. In religious studies it is kosher to fire someone for academic freedom issues. Doctrine permits no challenges, for it has already been decided. This doesn’t only apply to conservative religions, but to academic institutions of all stripes. Nobody likes to be challenged. Somehow, since 9/11 any academic dispute in religion is a potential threat. I have known many academics to have lost their jobs. I also know how it feels to see colleagues go from grace to grace because they have an institution that will vouch for them. I don my black mask and saddle up Silver. Those of us raised in working class families watched that show, you know, religiously. And Gunsmoke, among other campy westerns. Caricatures of good guys versus bad guys. You know the story.
In a moment of self-delusion, I thought I might be asked to deliver a paper at this year’s Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting. I plodded along in my cumbersome way, reading a few books on academic freedom and interviewing a couple of its sacrificial victims. Turns out I was, well, self-deluded. It is probably for the best since I don’t wish to put myself forward as an expert on anything. Still, it felt like arriving at the front desk on that great and terrible day to find out your name’s not in the book after all, and so, where do you go now? Academics are running along as healthily as they always have. I was not raised knowing the difference between a salad fork and a meat fork. Some colleagues insist that universities crave the voice of hoi polloi; the authentic blue collar academic who worked his or her way up from a disadvantaged start through a doctoral program. I know it’s all just fancy talk. Academics are just as xenophobic as the rest of us.
Losing an academic position is easy. It’s like falling off a horse. I speak from experience here, having fallen off a big horse during a canter while helping underprivileged kids at horse camp one summer. It didn’t seem much like the wild west at the time. Seeing the world in a side view of the horse as you’re sliding off has a way of changing your perspective. You know the ground is coming fast. You just hope that your feet have slipped the stirrups. When it was all over the horse whisperer (or whatever they were called back then) publicly berated me for letting the reins fall from my hand. I should’ve slipped them over the saddle horn on my way down. Didn’t I know that the horse might’ve stepped on them? Rubbing my sore backside, I didn’t feel like such a masked lawman anymore. Silver had gotten away. At the dining hall I could feel the uncomfortable stares. Which one is the salad fork again? I never could keep my silver straight.
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