While the New Right discussion has most recently dredged it up, everyone who combines a religious affiliation with Left politics hears it eventually. Apparently, because we prioritize both areas of concern, we must therefore be putting politics first. (Ironically enough, while our coreligionists make that claim, we often face the opposite accusation from political comrades.)
Of course, that begs the question: why should left-wing and religious concerns be at odds? Many Pagan leftists have reiterated lately that everything involving more than one person is, in some sense, political by definition. Others have denied any strict delineation between the religious and political components of their worldviews. I also might observe that when right-wing or reactionary politics get injected into Pagan theology, their proponents might get told they’re wrong, but they don’t get called “fake Pagans.” Not uncommonly, our detractors suggest that the mere existence of the Pagan Left somehow impedes the revival of polytheism itself. Sure, I think that right-wing politics and redbaiting are absolutely wrong, but I’d certainly never question someone’s religious sincerity on those grounds. I’d prefer to be extended the same courtesy, particularly from people who accuse us at Gods&Radicals of attempted censorship. It seems to me that there’s less a backlash against “bringing politics into polytheism” per se than against bringing in leftist, as opposed to rightist or liberal, politics.
(And again, there’s a category difference between censorship and asking Pagans to stigmatize the practice of discrimination. Public criticism isn’t censorship; for that matter, neither is no-platforming. Censorship means using violence, the threat thereof, or a direct position of power over someone to prevent them from disseminating their ideas. Anything short of that is just disagreement, and even if G&R wanted to censor our critics – we don’t – we lack the logistical ability to censor anybody, conspiracy theories aside. It’s not as if we’re a government agency with police powers.)
As a devotional polytheist, I don’t think that the gods’ multiple and divergent agendas cleanly line up with any worshiper’s ideology, my own included. I don’t promote a set of generalized or supposedly-universal spiritual values. Instead, I have specific deities whom I serve in particular ways. Am I putting my communism “first?” Without looking at the actual relational content of my religious life, there would be no way to coherently say. So, let’s take a look – after all, to my mind, my devotional situation actually requires some sort of political engagement.
“[Gallai] wear effeminately nursed hair and dress in soft clothes. They can barely hold their heads up on their limp necks. Then, having made themselves alien to masculinity, swept up by playing flutes, they call their Goddess to fill them with an unholy spirit so as to seemingly predict the future to idle men. What sort of monstrous and unnatural thing is this?”
“Transies who attack us only care about themselves. We women need our own culture, our own resourcing, our own traditions. You can tell these are men…Women are born not made by men on operating tables.”
I am a galla. I belong to Kybele, Mother of the Gods, and Attis. I’ve taken vows to serve them however they prefer. That’s my unshakable priority.
Not everybody can be a galla. A cisgender person couldn’t, nor could a trans man. Being a galla requires a transfeminine identity. (Theologically, this involves the devotee’s relationship to the apotheosis of Attis.) After all, my deities’ spheres of patronage include the transgender community. Kybele collectively adopted us thousands of years ago, and my individual spirituality needs that context to work. One consequence of that is the importance of venerating the non-biological ancestors who constitute all the previous generations of trans people.
Further, I find myself charged with work going past prayer and cultus (though certainly including those!). Kybele’s children aren’t all ancestors yet, and Matar has conveyed to me that serving her implies serving trans people, too. Necessarily, that includes supporting other trans people’s material as well as spiritual and social needs. The ways trans people inhabit our bodies are often painful but always sacred. Every trans woman and nonbinary transfemme moves through the world echoing Attis’s own divine physicality. So when prominent and powerful people call those holy bodies little more than walking rape machines, trying to punish us for existing as we are, how apolitical could I in good faith allow myself to be? When Paganism contains leaders who theologize that rhetoric, how could I not challenge it without dishonoring my deities?
I last entered a Christian church on November 20th last year. The pastor had offered his sanctuary to a small advocacy group for their annual Trans Day of Remembrance vigil. As I stood there, candle in hand, reading aloud the names of some of the newest trans ancestors, I silently recited a prayer over and over. The TDOR list includes just the ones whose deaths were reported as murders and classed as hate-motivated, just the ones whom the police identified as trans, just the ones whose bodies have been found. Even without factoring in the many driven to suicide, everybody involved knows the official list represents a small portion of those actually killed. Despite these restrictions, I still can’t recall a year when the number of names didn’t hit triple digits. I venerate the trans dead alone every day, and once a year with everyone I know. This is part of my polytheism.
Anti-trans violence, of course, is neither bad luck nor a natural disaster. The nexus of racism, patriarchy, and capitalism that impoverishes trans communities also exposes Black, Indigenous, and Latina trans women to the most intense violence in the LGBT world. The patriarchal gender system and lack of legal jobs that disproportionately lead transfeminine people into sex work also criminalize that work, partly causing astronomical rates of incarceration (plus plus pushing up the work’s danger level). The gentrification in Seattle, where I live, that leaves so many trans people unhoused also gives us the third-highest rate of anti-LGBT hate violence in the US. The right-wing Christian organizations that cause parents to kick trans kids out also push laws that criminalize trans bathroom use and slander us as rapists.
That’s the shape of American trans people’s reality. These conditions kill some of us and prevent many more from living free and fulfilled. They are Kybele’s children’s needs.
My religious mission demands I address them.I can’t pretend they’re not political.
“With the realization that what we saw as personal problems were in fact social ones, we have come to understand that the solutions must also be social ones.”
Sure, I could ignore my community’s material conditions, but Kybele and Attis deserve gallai who don’t choose ignorance. Honest engagement requires analyzing these problems as they actually exist. They are structural, economic, and political. Personally, I’d connect the particular strain on trans people to society-wide systems that organize power and resources – capitalism, racism, and patriarchy. My opinion is that the best empirical understanding of those systems says that they’re about who does what work and who enjoys the benefits created by that work. Various divisions of labor have led to a class system, where some people make a living by skimming a chunk off the top of what working people create. Those people are a ruling class of business owners. They enforce their exploitative and unaccountable power through both organizedviolence and sophisticated propaganda. That’s capitalism. Further, capitalism keeps certain kinds of work – housework, emotional labor, most sex – out of the money economy and mostly makes women and femmes do it. That’s patriarchy. Under patriarchy, your gender isn’t just a question of your own identity. It’s equally a matter of whether or not others, in a given situation, expect you to do that unpaid gendered work. Trans women and nonbinary transfemmes get expected to do that work in an extra-exploited way. The enormous levels of violence (emotional, social, physical, and spiritual) that get thrown at us serve to keep us in line, doing that extra-exploited work. Marxist feminism means figuring out ways to fix all that.
You may well think that’s 100% off the mark and incorrect. However, once we’re talking about whether my specific ideas are the most accurate ones, we’ve already conceded the point: politics won’t be dodged. If you think my politics are wrong, then all that means is that yours differ. I’d never expect my coreligionists to become communists en masse just because I’m one. No one else on the Pagan Left asks for that, either. Hell, I don’t even demand it of the people with whom I do secular activism.
But, my religious commitments and desire to piously serve my deities don’t permit me to eschew some sort of political consciousness. I take polytheism seriously. Therefore, I can’t ignore Kybele and Attis’s imperative to address the trans population’s needs, material ones included. Thus, I have to know and address those needs as they really are. More often than not, what they are is political.
My deities come first. That’s why I’m an organizer. That’s why I lack the option of deferring to “civility” or some supposedly-apolitical polytheist unity. Racist and male-supremacist discrimination is already happening in Paganism and polytheism. Attis and Kybele want and deserve gallai who won’t leave that alone.
The Pagan Left’s critics wish we’d just focus on rebuilding the cultus of the gods. Because I take that same mandate seriously, I’m with the Pagan Left. The gods don’t automatically align their plans with conservative polytheists’ comfort zones. From time to time, deities do, in fact, decide to be patrons of acutely oppressed populations. Mine are among those, so I do politics.
And that is what living polytheism looks like.
Sophia Burns is a galla, vowed to serve Attis and Kybele, and a Greco-Phrygian polytheist. After coming out in the small-town South, she moved to Seattle, where she is active in the trans lesbian community. Other than writing for Gods&Radicals, Sophia’s activities include political organizing, attending nursing school, and spending time with her partners, friends, and chosen family. This fall, she will lead a ritual at Many Gods West.
I don’t just mean easing my client to the ground and checking for stroke. As I wait for the charge nurse, I focus on my smile. Other residents have visitors, after all; they’re liable to complain about a caregiver who lets it show that she’s had too little sleep for a 12-hour shift. Nursing resembles customer service, waitstaffing, and retail: most of the work does not involve the specific set of tasks listed in the job description. 80% of the time, nursing means presenting cheerfulness, politeness, deference, and a willingness to handle other people’s interpersonal tension no matter how they treat you.
And as I push through the minor crisis on the emotional momentum of my devotional prayer that morning, I wonder, “Why should my employer care about my facial expression as much as my ability to cushion this client’s fall?”
Of course, it’s gender.
Two sociologists in particular have defined the ways we approach the connections between gender, emotions, and work. Emerging from the Second Wave of Western feminism in the 60s and 70s, Louise Kapp Howe wondered whether increased access to paid work had, in fact, much improved women’s lives. She found that women overwhelmingly got shunted into low-wage, majority-women, service-sector occupations; for these she coined the term “pink-collar” (as opposed to still-male-dominated blue- and white-collar jobs).
Later, Arlie Hochschild’s book The Managed Heart showed us what those pink-collar jobs disproportionately involve: she termed it emotional labor. Emotional labor is a waitress smiling and laughing even when a customer is rude. Emotional labor is a retail clerk greeting everyone who walks in with a smile, no matter how she actually feels. Emotional labor is a nurse aide acting pleasant even under deeply unpleasant conditions.
Emotional labor is the work of acting like you feel a certain way because the boss and customers demand it. And emotional labor, above all, is “women’s work.”
She tells me everyone thinks I’m disgusting and I know what to do.
This time it’s not a client, but a partner. Relationship abuse, though often not discussed, is as much a reality for LGBT people as for straights. By this point, she’d quite effectively isolated me with a move across the country, and I wouldn’t get away from her for several more months. So I smile, and I draw on whatever emotional strength I can find – from the Meter Theon, from myself, from the ability to do emotional labor on demand that women under patriarchy have to develop. The skill set here didn’t differ from the one I use at work. And in principle, it doesn’t differ from the work of listening-with-empathy that I do for female and nonbinary friends (who reciprocate it), and for male friends (who perform it neither for me nor for each other, getting it from women instead).
Women who’ve survived abuse often have people asking us why we put up with it, why we stayed even after it became “really” bad. There’s plenty of answers – lack of financial resources, absence of crucial support networks, nowhere to leave to – but I rarely hear the biggest reason of all. Satisfying other people’s desires without expecting reciprocation is what women do; under patriarchy, that’s what “women’s work” means.
Much of the emotional labor required of pink collar workers involves smiling and apologizing at people targeting you with abusive behaviors. Tell an angry, verbally-violent customer, “don’t talk to me like that. I deserve basic respect,” and you’ll likely get fired. Submitting to an abusive partner or family member involves precisely the same work, and it’s work forced on most of us by the power structure of capitalism. The requirements of paid pink-collar work reinforce abusive dynamics at home, while the emotional conditioning of unpaid abuse makes women better at putting up with it on the job.
Capitalism runs on the abuse of women.
“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.”
– Karl Marx
When faking happiness at work is more than my depressive brain can bear, I pray for strength and find that the Mother of the Gods answers. When tolerating my abuser without melting down became more than was possible, I also prayed for strength, and also found that the Mother answered. Sure, Marx may have opposed religion on principle. But I wouldn’t have lasted this long without the power my goddess gives me. Patriarchy is the system growing on women’s unpaid, unreciprocated work (emotional, domestic, and social). And like all exploitation, patriarchy harms its victims. Women are consistently more religious than men across many different traditions. This holds even truer for Paganism than for the Abrahamic religions Marx had in mind. We seek so much divine support because we can’t keep going without it.
Many of us are used to getting through on the strength our deities give us, and many of our deities are used to “giving a portion of power to women” because women need it. But part of our work as anticapitalists involves removing the need for religion to act as a stopgap for exploited, struggling people. We humans deserve better, and our gods do too.
“Everybody wants a revolution, but nobody wants to do the dishes.”
– Shane Claiborne
In the left-wing subculture, certain roles and political strategies get glory. Everyone wants to admire the building occupier who stands firm when they get pepper sprayed, or the leader whose oratory whips a crowd of demonstrators into ecstasy, or the organizer who founded six organizations and sits on the steering committee for five more. And confrontation and “speaking truth to power” surely do take courage and express the righteous fury of the activist community; sometimes, they even get material results. But there’s more to revolution than challenging the old (including the often-unsung behind-the-scenes work that allows confrontation to occur. While this work is disproportionately done by women, the visible glory-winning roles still tend to go to men). You also need to build the new.
During the Indian independence struggle, Gandhi developed a theoretical distinction between an “obstructive program” and a “constructive program.” The former means challenging existing unjust systems and demanding they change (by whatever tactics one chooses; virtually everything activists in the US currently do falls into this category). The latter, however, means building something better now, so that when the old system falls, something will be ready to take its place. While we need both, Gandhi rightly prioritized the latter, saying:
“My real politics is constructive work.”
Patriarchy is about labor. Patriarchy is about exploitation. And without doing away with patriarchy, we won’t really be able to undo capitalism; like all structures of exploitation, they’re too mutually reinforcing to get rid of just one by itself. The type of work exploited through patriarchy is generally women’s unwaged and unnamed domestic and/or emotional labor (be it in a pink-collar job or just informally, between friends, families, and lovers). Until you start looking for it, it’s hard to notice; so is abuse, of course, and abuse exists on a spectrum with unreciprocated emotional work. We can’t get rid of abuse without getting rid of the entire spectrum. Our constructive program must involve men doing this labor for each other and doing it for women. Even our male revolutionaries need to start doing the dishes.
Otherwise, women won’t find our communities sharing power and support together. We’ll only have what strength our gods can give.
Sophia Burns is a galla, vowed to serve Attis and Kybele, and a Greco-Phrygian polytheist. After coming out in the small-town South, she moved to Seattle, where she is active in the trans lesbian community. Other than writing for Gods&Radicals, Sophia’s activities include political organizing, attending nursing school, and spending time with her partners, friends, and chosen family.
In my day to day life (setting aside the world of the internet) I travel more in academic than pagan or occult circles and as such I am more likely to interact with, say, a Marxist professor than a druid. This has made me acutely aware of a challenge to the unification of Paganism and radical anti-capitalist politics that might be less pressing to those more fully engaged in the unification from the side of convincing and motivating other pagans. I more frequently face, and can anticipate resistance from, those fully identified with various brands of radical anti-capitalist politics from Marxism through to anarchism than from anyone associated with Paganism or occultism.
In such a crowd the challenge is not to convince anyone of the problem of capitalism, that work is well over, but rather to answer their confusion when attempting to establish solidarity between a pagan perspective and their own. Of course many of my more strictly activist friends don’t much care either way, their attitude is largely that you can believe what you want just so long as you fight for the right things, but the rather high theoretical level of debate that often occurs with those who are both professional academic and political companions raises some serious challenges. These challenges have often hovered in the back of my mind as I have written my previous posts, and many answers to them have been embedded in those posts though they have not always been overtly discussed as such.
I think the time has come, however, for me to attempt to directly address at least one type of criticism of Paganism and magical practices from the standpoint of radical theory and practice. This challenge takes the form of a criticism of pagans and occultists as stuck in a counterproductive idealogical illusion. At the simplest level it shows up as a criticism of us as trapped in “magical thinking” which distracts, limits, or misdirects our potential for real political action.
For now I will not be concerned with the question of what actual type or mode of thought we could accurately call magical. Rather I will simply be relying upon various standard formulations of the idea of “magical thinking” as found in political theory, anthropology, and psychology in order to assess whether the application of this term to pagan anti-capitalism is fair. For this purpose we should note that “magical thinking” as I intend to use it is almost universally considered a bad thing, sometimes it is even considered the fatal illness that keeps people from coming to meaningful political consciousness. In a nonpolitical context I was recently talking with a pagan priest who was seeking psychological counseling for concerns unrelated to Paganism or the occult but who found it impossible to get his therapist to discuss anything other than a diagnosis and treatment of “magical thinking” based on nothing more than the fact that my friend was a pagan priest! Clearly this was a bad therapist, but the general attitude is not an anomaly especially in much of the radical anti-capitalist community.
So, what is “magical thinking”? The most direct formulation of it is not very useful, as it is too question-begging to withstand the slightest criticism. This would understand “magical thinking” as you might expect, the belief in “false causes” such as spells and so on. I say that this formulation is not useful because it simply shifts the conversation to the question of whether or not magic is actually real and effective. Theoretically this is an interminable question and anyone with a grounding in philosophy of science should see it can’t at all be the start of a criticism but rather an endlessly postponed potential conclusion. Arguing with a Marxist over the reality of magic when they accuse you of “magical thinking” is not a productive endeavor. It is a criticism just as naive as it assumes the fault it claims to diagnose is. Plus, ultimately, it is purely a practical question of strategy no different in kind from “does peaceful protest or participation in mainstream politics work or is revolution necessary”. So I will put aside any question as to the reality or efficacy of magic and feel justified in doing so because I think this isn’t really the meaningful content of a criticism of “magical thinking”.
Rather than focus on the practical and empirical questions associated with magic we can instead consider “magical thinking” as an epistemic criticism. In fact, engaging in “magical thinking” can be understood as being victim to a type of ideology in the Marxist sense in which the concrete relation between people and social classes is mystified. This would also associate it closely with the idea of religion as the “opium of the masses”. I would like to focus, then, on a few different approaches to understanding the ideological illusion known as “magical thinking” and then ask whether Paganism 1. necessarily falls prey to this ideological illusion or 2. tends towards this ideological illusion.
Rather than engage with the frequently racist and culturally imperialist origins of the concept of “magical thinking” in anthropology, I shall instead focus on its appearance in radical political theory. My two main theoretical resources will be the work of Paulo Friere (and the influence of Erich Fromm upon it) as found in the book Pedagogy of the Oppressed and the discussion by Marx of ideology and religion as the opium of the masses.
Loving Death and Loving Life
Friere was a Brazilian philosopher and educator with a particular concern for the ways in which education disempowers or politically empowers disenfranchised members of a community. Through extensive work with the illiterate poor in Brazil he developed a distinction between two different types of eduction. The first, and most traditional method, he terms the “banking method of education” which sees the student as a passive and obedient receptacle into which the active and authoritarian teacher deposits information and skills. The second method, which he implemented with great success, was termed the problem-posing method. It is unnecessary to go into too many details about the philosophy of education here, though I encourage any of you to check out Friere’s excellent work, but the key point for us is the unification of the banking method of education with a certain perspective it engenders in its students that Friere frequently refers to as a “magical” view of the world.
Whereas the banking method directly or indirectly reinforces men’s fatalistic perception of their situation, the problem-posing method presents this very situation to them as a problem. As the situation becomes the object of their cognition, the naive or magical perception which produced their fatalism gives way to perception which is able to perceive itself even as it perceives reality, and can thus be critically objective about that reality.
(Paulo Friere Pedagogy of the Oppressed Chapter 2)
Using a distinction derived from Erich Fromm, Friere describes the banking method as necrophily, or the love of death, versus the biophily, or love of life, found in the problem posing method. A necrophily perspective is death loving to the extent that it embraces those things that characterize death and rejects those things that characterize life. Specifically, life is always growing and changing while those things that are dead are unchanging. Necrophily is primarily characterized, then, by a view of the world as stable and unchanging. Whether this applies to “laws of nature” or mathematical truths or economics or the laws of grammar the key effect of this “death loving” rejection of change is that it presents social and historical relations as fixed and only unrealistically resisted. Necrophilic education inspires one, then, to “wisely” and “practically” adjust oneself to the powers-that-be and learn how to get along while sticking to your place and accommodating your superiors. Biophily, on the other hand, recognizes that whatever is currently the case has come to be and both can and will inevitably change. What is more, it recognizes that each person has an active role to play in those changes. If one adjusts oneself to the current social formulation one is actively contributing to its maintenance and if one works to change it one is actively contributing to the continual growth and change of society. There is no passive option since inaction is an active choice contributing to the structure of the whole.
We are rather familiar with a naive necrophilic perspective in the guise of those who not only cannot imagine a world without capitalism but actually think the idea of such a world is unrealistic and utopian. Such a perspective is naive because capitalism is far from the standard social formation throughout history and came about through various rather unexpected events, actions, and changes in history. Capitalism’s specific contemporary formations are a rather young thing and the dogmatic adherence to it as the only possible way of life is just as naive as assuming that any other current aspect of our situation is somehow historically prioritized or ordain and can’t or won’t change. Of one thing we can be certain, all will change eventually and frequently rather sooner than we suspect. This unquestionability of the present is connected to a key aspect of ideology in general, specifically ideology consists of a process of naturalization in which it is assumed that something is right and unchanging because it is presented as natural and universal (check out Judith Butler on the ideological naturalization of gender to see some excellent discussions of how this works).
The necrophilic perspective is the one termed “magical” and is clearly conjoined with fatalism. The necrophilic mistake is to assume that the current formulation of reality is ordained and maintained by some ultimate force – for many it has been God though more recently it is just as likely to be Nature. Capitalism, one hears, derives from “human nature” which we don’t choose or form and which we cannot change. Communism, socialism, anarchism, etc. are all lovely ideas but they are fantasies because they do not accommodate themselves to the unchanging dictates of Nature (or God and so on). We see clearly here the fatalism to which Friere refers.
The “magical” aspect of this worldview is related to the fatalism. It is magical to the extent that it takes social and economic facts to be symbols of deeper metaphysical truths or forces. One of the easiest examples of this shows up in the influence of Protestantism on the early formation of capitalism (and its remaining influence in contemporary American Prosperity Theology). As Max Weber made clear in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, early capitalism was fundamentally influenced by the reliance of some Protestant religious views on worldly success as a sign of having been chosen and saved by God. Success in business was a symbol of having been blessed by God and granted both grace and salvation. Worldly power and success are symbols of spiritual blessedness in the same way that being a member of the aristocracy was seen as a sign of having been chosen by God for power during the medieval period or membership in a given caste was representative of the Karmic state of the soul in Hinduism. This ideological equation of worldly status with otherworldly merit is clearly fatalistic and overlaps with one of the earliest understandings of “magical thinking” in terms of an associative thinking that sees symbolic meaning behind everyday objects and events.
It is important to note that the symbolic view of the universe is not, in and of itself, the problem but rather the specific claims of what symbolizes what and the related assumption that this symbolic connection (for example of wealth with holiness) underwrites the justice of the economic situation and its stability. The view is “magical” in a negative sense because it assumes a magical force endorses the current social configuration and it would be wrong, or impossible, to change it. It should be clear that there are much more common and equally “superstitious” or “magical” views of wealth and “success” floating around which we might be more familiar with, for example the simple equation of wealth with merit so common in capitalistic thinking. The idea that hard work, intelligence, virtue, talent etc. has primarily resulted in the status of the wealthy “mystifies” a very real collection of concrete relations of historical dominance, violence, theft, and privilege all grounded in luck (including accidents of birth such as race, sex, family, social class, global location, community membership, inborn mental and bodily characteristics and so on). Such views, whether of the “god given” or “self-made” variety, both inspire a type of paralysis because they make clear that things are as they should, and must, be.
Keeping in view the concrete matrix of forces and accidents that have given rise to the contemporary moment does not, however, foreclose at the same time reading this matrix in terms of symbols or as expressions of other levels of reality. A Marxist may remain at the level of the determining force of material economic factors but others, some pagans for instance, can accept the reality of this level while at the same time seeing it as an expression of a complex of forces at another level; for example a conflict amongst different gods or metaphysical principles. This doesn’t dismiss or foreclose the necessity of acting on the worldly level, rather the reverse. It hallows the profane with a sacred purpose in a way that is exceptionally foreign to religions focused on transcendental salvation in overt rejection of natural daily life. Within the domain of some universal all-powerful perfect monotheist creator God worldly welfare for others or for oneself tends to collapse into one of two categories; it is either a gift from God or to be dismissed in preference to God.
Our discussion has brought us into contact with a general criticism of religion for its penchant for “magical thinking” with hints that paganism may be able to avoid some key aspects of this criticism. Before we attempt to expand upon these hints, let us look at one of the most famous criticisms of religion from the stance of radical politics.
Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.
Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower. The criticism of religion disillusions man, so that he will think, act, and fashion his reality like a man who has discarded his illusions and regained his senses, so that he will move around himself as his own true Sun. Religion is only the illusory Sun which revolves around man as long as he does not revolve around himself.
The idea of religion as an opium of the masses has two senses here and the most overt one is not the one most commonly discussed. The most common understanding of the opium of the masses is that it is used to pacify the masses and make them tractable. This is what Christianity did when it justified monarchy via the authority of the Divine Tyrant just as much as when it counseled the poor to tolerate their lot and patiently wait for heavenly reward or counseled the slave to obey the master. All world-hating religions, intentionally or not, serve to prop up the status quo by directing people away from worldly action and concerns.
The above sense of “opium” does not, however, seem to be Marx’s main target here. Indeed, his discussion of religion is more ambiguous than that. Instead, religion is a sigh of the suffering and a heart in a heartless world. As the image of the chain covered in flowers makes clear, religion is also a beautification of a rather ugly situation. Insofar as it brings some grace to a graceless world and some comfort to those in pain it is not to be despised, but to the extent that this grace and comfort keep people from changing the world in which they suffer it is indeed a malevolent force of seduction.
Many forms of paganism are decidedly this-worldly, as I have often enough stressed in my previous posts, and as such do not inspire transcendental dreams of escaping the world of nature and political/economic struggle. Indeed, this world of nature is frequently enough understood either as identical with the object of worship or a particularly important manifestation or expression of the gods. We see this as well in some pagan visions of the afterlife (though it is worth noting that nowhere is the history of pagan religions so diverse as in views of what happens after death – every position from the achievement of a paradise to entirely ceasing to exist can be found). In some traditions death represents an increased identification with nature, in others we find the idea that the dead join together to continue to fight for their community, family, values and concerns in this world – the revolution continues after death, only the strategies have changed. Sometimes life is to be preferred to death, as in the shade of Achilles’ haunting words to Odysseus: “…don’t try to reconcile me to my dying. I’d rather serve as another man’s labourer, as a poor peasant without land, and be alive on Earth, than be lord of all the lifeless dead.” Whatever the fate of the dead, the focus is most often on this world, this life, and what we can and must do with it.
When religion is opium it provides comfort, but it is comfort by way of reassurance, by way of promises. Most Paganism makes no promises, indeed we can even find highly nihilistic forms of paganism. Opiate religion counsels the slave to be a good slave and, later, the master shall suffer and the slave shall be king. Opiate religion counsels the servant that real riches are found Beyond, or that the ruler is ruler by divine right and so deserves the service of those who are inferior. Paganism, often enough, counsels not to trust the promises of the gods. Nothing is assured, each and every god faces challenges, opposition, potential downfall and even death. Yes, in most forms of Paganism even the gods might die. What is has come about through struggle, through the conflicts amongst gods and conflicts amongst people. What is can change and will change, whether the grand cosmic order or the specific contours of our life. The pagan world is one of conflicting forces, a conflict we might hope and strive to make more a dance than a brawl, but a shifting and growing one nonetheless. When I speak with my gods, though of course I cannot speak for any of you, they do not tell me “Have faith, all will be well,” they tell me “Struggle, and we will struggle with you.”
There are, then, several aspects of Paganism as generally conceived that resist any accusations of “magical thinking”. First, Paganisms tend to see reality as too complex and pluralistic a collection to suggest that things are the way they aught or must be. Second, Paganisms tend to rely upon a view of history as the story (whether the story of gods, nature, or humanity) of how the current world has been crafted piece by piece through work and struggle, cooperation and accident. Nature and humanity, together with the many divinities, have all played off of each other as a restless changing community that continues to craft itself. Third, Paganisms tend to imply that gods and people alike are subject to a fate or chance that is, at least in part and sometimes very largely, a mystery. Zeus is as confused by the inevitable fall of Troy as anyone, and Odin cannot avoid Ragnarok. But this fate, as mysterious, is not a divine dictate or ordained order. There is the necessary, but humanity and the gods rarely know what is necessary or why. Fourth, more often than not the Otherworld of Paganism is an aspect of this world and the struggles that take place there are often focused on this world. There is very rarely any implication that the Otherworld, however it is conceived, is the real focus of this life when the gods themselves are bent upon this world from their own abodes. Most often the Otherworld is a neighborhood just adjacent to our own and not another reality in any robust sense. Worldly concerns and struggles pour back and forth across these vague boundaries almost constantly.
None of this is to say that pagans or Paganism can’t fall into “magical thinking” in any of the ways it has been discussed here. It certainly can, and it has at various points in history. Indeed, Hinduism is arguably a pagan religion and its view of social caste and reincarnation has clearly at times acted as a primary example of “magical” opium. But, I would suggest, Paganism is clearly not equatable to “magical thinking” and its inherent tendency as manifest repeatedly throughout different pagan cultures and religions is in opposition to “magical thinking”. This is not the case, I would argue, with any transcendental religion insofar as true value in these is always to be located somewhere and somewhen else than here and now. It is also not the case with monotheistic religions insofar as omnipotence precludes the possibility of any real conflict, productive activity, or accident at the ultimate level of reality. The battles within a monotheistic myth cycle are always staged affairs aimed more at enforcing obedience than co-creating reality.
Finally, many types of Paganism offer something that a stark political materialism such as that commonly found in Marxist and anarchist thought can not. It offers a view of the struggle that goes beyond the purely humanist. Marx’ criticism of religion clearly has a humanist ring as he calls for man to become his own sun. For most Paganisms this can’t but ring false. We fight not only for ourselves, but also for and along side of the forces of nature. The world is neither a creation of human consciousness alone nor raw material for our productive capabilities, these views are the failed remnants of a Modernism much radical politics has failed to get beyond. In the maintenance of a thoroughly anthropomorphic and anthropocentric view of nature, it is largely the adherents of radical political theory who have fallen into a mystifying ideological illusion that ignores the real community in which we find ourselves engaged as companions to all the other aspects of nature. Far from diverting our political action, this instead strengthens and motivates it in a way that other forms of radical politics can often fail to do. There is, all things considered, plenty of “magical thinking” involved in the very technological triumphalism and scientism that many radical anticapitalist agendas believe can save us.
Kadmus is a practicing ceremonial magician with a long standing relationship to the ancient Celtic deities. His interests and practice are highly eclectic but a deep commitment to Paganism is the bedrock upon which they all rest. Kadmus is also a published academic with a Ph.D. in philosophy teaching at the college level. You can find some of his reflections on the occult at http://starandsystem.blogspot.com/or look him up on twitter at @starandsystem
We’re happy to announce that the second printing of A Beautiful Resistance–Everything We Already Are arrived. Thanks to the collaborative efforts of some kind friends (tea and Thai Curry notwithstanding), all orders will be fulfilled today.
Want to submit a piece for the next issue? All the information is here. Pre-ordering information will be announced in March.
Also, a print copy of A Pagan Anti-Capitalist Primerwill soon go on sale once the final proof is checked. Look for more information on that in a few weeks!
Stephen McNallen, the racist leader of the Asatru Folk Assembly has escalated his anti-muslim and Nationalist rhetoric. We stand behind this callto keep racism, nationalism, and fascism out of the Northern Religions.
The most intense moments of revolt I’ve seen have been uprisings in the names of the Dead, specifically people of color killed by the police. While it is tempting to declare in hindsight that anti-capitalists should seized those opportunities and acted more boldly to challenge all repressive, recuperative and reformist attempts to suppress those moments, “Riding seems easy to every warrior while he is indoors/and very courageous to him who traverses the high-roads/on the back of a stout horse.” Though what Walter Benjamin called the “memory” of revolt may be possible to take control of on a microcosmic level “as it flashes in a moment of danger,” the macrocosmic is, as far I as I can tell, in the hands of the Gods. If we’re to place faith in a “historical subject,” we’re in the realm of religion anyways.
His piece “Are The Gods on Our Side?” was reprinted in A Beautiful Resistance: Everything We Already Are, and he also writes a regular monthly column for The Wild Hunt.
More of his writing on Gods&Radicals can be found here, and his occasional blog is locatedhere.
The evils of capitalism are as real as the evils of militarism and evils of racism.
In reading the somewhat poignant commentary on Jonathan Woolley’s latest & greatest, I saw something quite intriguing; a benefit to being the bastard offspring of the worst sorts of the British Empire and the midday soap opera that is the U.S.A’s influence on the 21st Century.
Something that was very strongly highlighted by Woolley in his article and even more strongly present in the commentary was this difference between European and North American (read: U.S.A) attitudes regarding the pursuit of
Pagan, Heathen, Polytheist, &c. practices. For not a few people, the difference seemed to come across as a surprising (to me) source of tension, rather like that moment in Buffy the Vampire Slayer when Willow has invitations to go to both the top American & European universities; le gasp, choices!? How does one choose between Harvard or Oxford, Princeton or Sorbonne? Ultimately Willow avoids the question by doing the best-friend thing and sticking by Buffy and the hometown, a sadly devoid option in the current scenario.
The differences between Europe and North America are so deeply entrenched in the latter’s psyche that jokes can be made about it in pop-culture (and the referencing thereof) – similarly so in the European perception of the United States as a haven of freedom et.al; again, there are many examples in popular culture of the European escaping to the pseudo-idyllic ‘America!!’.
There’s a number of very good and obvious reasons why there would exist these stark differences between this pair. The question that I have to ask however, is: why are these differences such a surprise to the Americans? and when will the Europeans stop getting thin lipped when America behaves uncouthly? It is maybe easier to perceive, being an aforementioned bastard offspring, but let’s all be honest with each other: after several centuries it shouldn’t take special circumstances of birth to see something like this.
Did you know? The source of the Australian accent (a.k.a The Drawl) stems from a bunch of prisoners, immigrants and local folks getting together and having no choice but to get along: Irish, English, Aboriginal, German, Chinese and countless more; alcohol may or may not have had a facilitating hand in this. Jury is still out on that one.
In the almost-year that Gods & Radicals has been running the sheer, raw provenance of the writers has been honestly awe inspiring; fearsome and wondrous. With so many people ‘in the stable’ as it were, one would think that eventually, inevitably, there would be someone having an off-day or simply too caught up in sudden happenstances to keep such a high standard going. Nevertheless the quality has remained the same, even increased over time.
At the same time however, the number of fractures in our wider cross-sections have also increased. The real tragedy is not so much the presence of those fractures, in an amalgam of people as diversely varied as we are there are always hairline fractures; rather it is the reasons these fractures are rapidly growing into adult fissures – You and I think We are ‘right’. Obviously, this personalization is a tad reductive… but it serves. Allegorically speaking:
I think that I’m right and that anytime you say something contradictory, everytime you so much as issue a single utterance without acknowledging all possibilities that ‘I’ represents, you are inherently disrespecting everything ‘I’ holds dear – the only two questions of import now are how badly have you ‘deliberately’ shown disrespect and how irate I shall be.
I sounds like more than a ‘bit’ of an asshole, don’t ‘I’ – let’s continue to be honest though, You is the same. ‘You’ does the same thing for much the same reason.
Speaking outside the example now, I find it hard to address this issue because of the irony which ultimately makes this a beautiful circumstance. Returning to Jonathan’s example of Europeans and Americans being the broad line along which he divided the biggest fissure-in-progress: this example highlights perhaps the most amazing, almost genuinely miraculous element in all of these events. We are, unintentionally perhaps, closer to that ever ill-defined ‘Paganism’ because of this difference–and that is a very good thing. It demonstrates that maybe the most precious aspect of our collective Pagan, Heathen, Polytheist etc. identity is finally developing into maturity.
Who we are and where we come from, what we speak and what is seen as appropriate are clearly starting to affect how we exist as Pagans, Heathens, Polytheists et.al. To wit: our culture, personal and national, has become a driving force behind our aforementioned sense of Identity. To show this, let’s look at the differences between Americans & Europeans once more vis a vis Woolley’s division of the two:
Americans. Famously known for their heart-on-the-sleeves patriotism and swaggering one-upmanship are desperately trying to collate and distill Pagan, Heathen, Polytheist etc. into a single word of equivalent weight, significance and use to ‘America’ and ‘American’;
Europeans. Long used to retaining individual identities privately as a coping mechanism for living while surrounded by people who are or have been friends, foes or both, are taking a more understated approach to living in a way, a lifestyle if you will, that allows for both developed practice and oft necessary European mores.
This is an incredibly beautiful thing in a world which has increasingly few beautiful things contained within it. There is however, a hitch, rather twisted in its cruel irony:
These two groups who, though different in execution, have strong foundations in diversity and incorporation of others without assimilation; in the pursuit of a shared developed and more mature Pagan, Heathen, Polytheist et.al practice – which itself is twice renowned for its inclusivity and variety – have combined together to create a resulting toxic atmosphere of biting accusations, vitriolic name calling, acerbic denunciations and absolutism towards what I’m fairly sure we all agreed had no so-called ‘right’ answer
If that’s not fucked up, someone please. Show me what is.
At this juncture though I must advise caution in jumping either too far or to conclusions. My subject is the differences in culture that are being translated via disparate practices and used as excuses to behave like spoiled children. I can best show this through a joking patronization of both groups, as most Australians are wont to do…
It’s an insecurity-based identity crisis thing. Don’t question it.
“Europe, honestly, I get it. I really do; America is loud, brash, occasionally unwashed and is the living embodiment of the adage ‘bull in a china shop’. Lets be fair though, you have a stick up your arse roughly the same size and shape of the offspring of a hedgehog and an agave cactus. Live. A. Little. Learn to relax once in a while – just because you’re getting older doesn’t make you less attractive. Plus a lot of us are into older people now.
America, we’re on the same page mate. Honestly. Europe is an old, stodgy, grumpy S.O.B who wouldn’t know fun if it slapped them in the face with a cold trout and there’s no denying that they tend to say ‘by Christmas’ and really mean ‘in a hundred years or so’. Let’s be real though, you still haven’t learned that its not polite to toss yourself off when there is someone in the room and your capacity with a broom and vacuum cleaner are not exactly up to scratch. You’re 240 next year, time to start acting your age.
Seriously though, its getting embarrassing. All my friends are acting weird around me now. Like, the other day Finland gave me this look and I swear! It was like they were saying ‘its ok, I’m here for you’. Fucking, JAPAN of all people actually said to me yesterday that it would be ok to stay with them till I can find a place of my own.
New Zealand came to my room this morning, balling their eyes out asking who they’d be living with after the divorce!
You two are the worst anthropomorphized continents-as-parents ever!”
There is a stupid, almost Biblical number of ways to say this: build a bridge, drink heavily, eat chocolate till you feel sick, spank your inner moppet, have a quickie with that cute guy or girl who’s almost certainly a drug runner, do a yoga retreat, take up glass blowing (again) or the ever popular “fucking get over it already” – literally anything else is more important for you associated Pagans, Heathens, Polytheists etc. to fight about than the differences between how and what an American and a European does it.
Don’t fight, you’re both pretty.
What really germinated all of this was a combination of genuine shock regarding what Woolley described and was subsequently exemplified in the commentary, the closing of the year, a Norse deity called Kvasir and the origins of my own country.
It struck me as practically obscene that the approaches, or rather the difference in approaches, to Paganism, Heathenry, Polytheism etc. between American and Europe had billowed out into such a big ticket debate when there are categorically more important things to be concerned with – much like Woolley himself mentions. Obviously, there will always be problems in any group and the history of Europe and America both individually and together throws a number of curve balls into the relationship.
Guess what, though? It is not and never will be required that the two of you get along perfectly – in fact no one expects that. The only expectation is that you not behave like children. In this respect, America and Europe are much like the Aesir and Vanir.
Two groups of similar but different ‘folks’ are fighting but unable to truly win out over the other. Eventually its decided everyone has better things to be doing, they exchange some token ‘hostage-prisoners’ and then everyone spits in a bucket. Odin waves his hand and Lo! We have the god Kvasir, made from the two halves of the Norse gods. Do they get along perfectly from then on? Fuck. No. They do not. They just don’t let the minutiae of their differences keep them from the important tasks at hand.
Australia is much the same: Great Britain’s most despicable bastards and hellions, mixed with a combination of brutalized Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations, migrants of opportunity and war, got drunk and made a country. Again, it’s not perfect. We definitely have our share of bad days and cold blooded lizard people for Prime Minister, but at the end of the day we band together and drop those contextually petty contrivances when the chips are down and the important shit that keeps us together is imperiled.
The ease with which modern telecommunications and transport allows us and information to move around means that the analogy isn’t exact; some Americans are more European in their mores while some Europeans are more American; add that to the reality that folks are moving where they feel most at ease or at home even more regularly than in the past.
All this creates a certain murkiness around the edges and often times (I myself included) the sort of people that are drawn to areas like Gods & Radicals forget that the way We experience our culture is very different to the way others within it experience it and dramatically different to how it presents to other cultures; liberal minded Americans forgetting that for most other people, American and non, the U.S.A regularly adopts US vs. THEM mentalities which becomes WITH or AGAINST modes of thought, for example. Yes, it is easier to pick on the Americans. I’m sure you’ll survive.
This is important to keep sight of because when you lose sight of this, when you lose sight of the fact that you are all going to have culturally-based approaches that are different, when you don’t see how beautiful that is and the victory it represents you consummately lose sight of the people who are living examples of how you can at the very least, reconcile your differences in a way that lets the important shit be the first priority.
I was fortunate enough to attend COP21 as a researcher. As part of a team of researchers affiliated with Climate Histories – a seminar series dedicated to tackling questions around climate change – I helped document the civil society-focussed “Green Zone”; a large exhibition space open to the public. Spread over several acres beside the main Conference Centre, the Green Zone was filled with stalls, lecture rooms, restaurants and an auditorium, all hosting a variety of speakers and NGOs, voicing their own particular solutions to the crisis. These spaces were frequently contested. Activists would often seize space in the Green Zone, protesting the inclusion of major corporations in the Conference or drawing attention to the neglected plight of the marginalised.
When I first entered the Green Zone, having passed swiftly through heavy security, my ears were met by singing. A group of men and women wearing dog-collars processed about the site chanting in words I did not understand. One of them played the bongos, while another piped away on a wooden flute. This procession of Christian clergy was an indication of the increasingly important role that the Christian churches – and religions more generally – are playing in Climate Action. Whether it is the theologically vigorous paean to the Earth and our responsibilities to her of Laudato ‘si, or the spiritually-infused passion of indigenous peoples for protecting their homelands; holy words and sacred deeds enliven the movement for environmental justice. At COP21, I saw Christian priests, Buddhist monks, Muslim youth, and indigenous elders; all representing the ecological teachings of their respective traditions.
With the active participation of so many different religious groups, I wondered if there were any Pagan organisations present at COP21. I hadn’t come across any, so I went to Twitter to see if I could track them down. As you can see below, my post didn’t pick up any replies:
Christian churches have been very active in recent years in throwing their energies behind the climate movement. They have been assiduous in establishing a platform in a host of civil society spaces – such as COPs – from which they can influence the wider debate by sharing their own valuable theological, moral and cosmological perspectives. Other spiritual groups have done likewise: even when they lack centralised ecclesiastical institutions (such as Islam), or when they’re small communities that struggle to afford the cost of travelling to these events (as is the case for indigenous communities).
It should be no surprise that under such circumstances, our religions should be sidelined on what is – in essence – our moral cause celebre. It’d be like Christians being outclassed on charity, Jains being outstripped as ascetics, or Zen Buddhists being bested on inner peace. Pagan organisations are in a position to lead the world in environmental ethics – and yet, that position is rapidly being lost as other traditions shift emphasis, and prioritise ecological concerns. The ability to do this is not a matter of money, or size – many of the agencies present at COP21 I spoke to had minimal resources – but of application.
Of course, the obvious point to be made in response is that there’s no point in engaging with these formal spheres of discussion around the climate. Many activists, when I spoke to them, pointed out something my fellow researchers and I also saw: the Green Zone was less an experiment in the democratic inclusion of non-state narratives and actors, and more of a Sustainability Expo. It was devoted to showcasing bright ideas, over and above nurturing real political action – this function, it seems, was reserved for the Blue Zone, where the parties gathered. Though there was much to be inspired about being said and showcased, as the searing poetry and art of SustainUS’s young protesters decried, this was obfusticated by and into so much greenwash, while people of colour and the world’s poor are being slain and displaced by rising waters, soaring temperatures, rushing winds, and failing fields. Caleen Sisk, the Chief of the Winnemem Wintu people of California, who are currently battling against the raising of the Shasta Dam that will flood what’s left of their country, wryly observed to me – the whole place had the feel of a playpen; where the dependents could be amused, while the adults talked next door. Far better, then, that we Pagans try to green our own lives and take action at a grassroots level, than to involve ourselves with the messy business of international politics.
But it’s important to remember: even though they were critical of the entire process, these activists still took part in it. They recognised the importance of contesting the Green Zone, reclaiming the space and speaking truth to power, as far as possible. The reason being, if you don’t participate at all, you simply surrender to the corporations, lobbyists, and oil-producing governments who already command huge influence. The Green Zone, despite its significant shortcomings, is the place where the future is imagined, where expectations are raised, and the parties in the Blue Zone come to learn and witness a broader set of views. The more strongly the multitude can occupy this space, the harder it is for for those opposing change to have their way.
Before I took the train home, I joined a massive illegal march through the streets of Paris. A kaleidoscope of people from every corner of the world, bedecked in red cut a path through the city, flooding from the Arch de Triomph to the Eiffel Tower, across the Seine, one of Europe’s Mother Rivers. One of the last things I saw that day was a group of young Muslims, gathered together, posing for a photograph with a banner proclaiming the sacred duty – enshrined in the Qur’an – to steward the Earth on behalf of Allah. They stood upon the Champ de Mars, an open field named after Campus Martius in Rome, between the Eiffel Tower and the Ecole Militaire in the heart of Paris. Sacred to Mars, the God of War, the original Field of Mars was the gathering place of Roman soldiers, before they marched off to fight hostile tribes. Mars is the God of War, but also of wild, growing things – of field and forest. His wars are – unlike those his Greek brother Ares – not mindless aggression, but rather conflict that seeks, in the end, a stable peace. Mars does not fight for the love of it, but because necessity drives him to do so. What unites this broad set of quality is the core masculine virtue of the Roman people – namely, virilitas – a life-essence that gives us the strength to secure peace, and make the Earth fruitful.
The fact that the illegal action on Saturday culminated in a place dedicated to such a god was, to my mind, a powerful ritual act. The patriarchal notion that only men possess the essential vital quality needed to promote peace and restore life is wrong; but the idea that these two objectives share a common foundation is more relevant than ever. To refer back to Laudato ’si, the plight of the Earth and the plight of the poor are one common cause. People from all over the Earth; men, women and everyone else; standing together hand-in-hand, before heading out to fight for the safety and fertility of the world upon which we all rely. Though I had to leave before the ceremonies were over, I was careful to say a prayer to Mars before I did.
Even though Paganism had no formal representation at the Conference, the influence of the kinds of thinking of which we are custodians was present in subtle ways. In the Green Zone itself, one of the official art installations involved brightly-painted trees, upon which visitors could tie ribbons upon which they had written their wishes for a better future. To tie a clootie in the heart of the Green Zone; to sing, and teach and pray in public; to represent our traditions as part of a great multitude – all these acts are sacred, and carry great potency. We neglect these rites only at great cost.
I say we should stand up for the planet and its people; we should be recognisable and recognised.
I’ll meet you on the Fields of Mars.
Jonathan is a social anthropologist and human ecologist, based at the University of Cambridge. He is a specialist in the political economy of the British landscape, and in the relationship between spirituality, the environment, and climate change. A member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, and an eco-animist, Jonathan maintains a blog about his academic fieldwork called BROAD PATHWAYS.
“I will not Reason and Compare: my business is to Create.” – William Blake
Reason is a tool. There are things you can do with it and things you can’t. You can’t hammer a nail in with a drawknife or saw a board with a screwdriver, and you can’t experience magic and mysticism while maintaining the reasonable, distanced coolness of a skeptical observer. When I’m trying to evaluate a logical argument, I use my reason. When I’m trying to communicate with spirits and gods I need other tools.
Skeptical materialists aren’t willing to do that, because they’ve talked themselves into thinking that only one kind of tool is valid. They’ll never be able to experience the magic that way, so naturally they deny that it exists in the first place. That makes sense to a degree – I’d never ask anyone to believe anything based on faith alone – but it’s inherently limited. It only allows you to see in one way, so you only see certain things.
In the Scottish Highlands, the ability to see visions and spirits was known as an da shealladh. This is often translated as “the second sight,” but it literally means “the two sights.” If you can see the world in two different ways at the same time, with the eyes of reason and the eyes of magic, would it not be accurate to say that you have two sights at once?
Several years ago I had to fly out to Oklahoma and go on a business trip with my employer at the time. He needed my help selling CDs of Celtic music at the Highland Games in California and Colorado. To get from Oklahoma to California to Colorado and back requires a lot of driving, much of it through the deserts of the American Southwest. As I said, a business trip – except that it was also something more than that. A few weeks before my boss called me I had a dream, in which I was told by spirits that I would soon be asked to go on a quest.
To the devotees of reason alone, I had a dream and then went on a business trip. It isn’t reasonable to take dreams seriously or to think of business trips as quests. If we want to see the world “the way it really is,” we always have to be strictly reasonable.
Well, I refuse. I refuse to live in a world where I’m obliged to be strictly reasonable. I secede from that world. The inhabitants of the reasonable world have been busy sucking the spirit out of everything for centuries, and in doing so they have managed to bring the whole planet to the brink of ecological catastrophe. By constantly telling us that things are simply things and not infused with spirit, they have made it easy to use and dispose of those things – to cut down and burn and blow up and cover everything in asphalt.
If this planet becomes unlivable for human beings, it will be largely because we stopped listening to what the spirits told us. But I’m no enemy of reason, any more than I’m an enemy of screwdrivers just because I also use hammers. I went on the business trip and played the role I was asked to play in exchange for my paycheck. I helped my boss load and unload, I watched the table and took people’s cash in exchange for CDs of beautiful Gaelic music, I helped change a tire when we got a flat. You could say that driving for thousands of miles to sell CDs is not exactly ecological – but isn’t that the problem with capitalism right there? If we want to survive, we’re pushed into compromise from every direction. I think that’s why so many of us are eager to embrace the rational at the expense of the mystical. It would all be easier to take if the world was actually as dead as we tell ourselves it is.
As my boss drove in silence through those vast deserts, I was sometimes awake and sometimes asleep. Lulled by the truck motor, I kept drifting off, and every time my eyes closed for a moment I was in the other world. Eyes open, on a business trip. Eyes closed, on a quest. Sometimes both at once, the other world bleeding over into this one in fragments of voices and strange sights, like the boulder that suddenly changed into a rock woman as we drove by.
I’m pretty sure that at no point in our long drive did my boss suspect I was on a quest, or hear what the spirits were telling me, or see what I saw out the window. He had one sight. I have two.
If magic itself is the revolution, then this is how we become revolutionaries. We refuse to be bound by reason alone, to see the world in just one way. We stop falling back on the cheap comfort of skepticism, which allows us to ignore what the spirits are telling us by constantly doubting our own experiences. We refuse to kill the world by imagining it as dead.
When I returned home from those weeks on the road, I sat down and wrote a poem called “The Desert Spirits,” by stringing together all the things I had seen and heard with a few connecting lines. Is this the account of some dream fragments on a long drive through the desert, or is it the record of a quest?
That depends on which tool you use – and how many sights you have.
The Desert Spirits
Storm banks in the distance on the Texas panhandle
Like diagonal mushroom clouds
Whose silent lightning carves fresh slices
Out of a flat, gray future.
Across the border, and we’re inside them.
The raindrops snap at us
Like falling monsters,
Biting at the windshield
In a suicidal dive.
And the wind whistles like a machine run amok,
And the clock stops,
And we are lost to time.
Pain can always be endured
If there is a voice to give protest.
Out here there are two voices:
And a void on either side.
She pouts, and cocks her head at him,
“Why, perhaps next summer,
When my dear gollem-mad father
Turns the Earth into a prison for the goblins.”
“No, my dear,” he says. She hasn’t understood.
Pain can always be endured
If there is a voice to give protest,
But what I saw there in front of me
Had no mouth, just smooth skin.
The desert mountains are like great bodies
Pockmarked by scrubs,
Pale and obese in their roadside resting places,
As if we were passing
Through a plague pit
Choked with giants.
There’s a void on either side of me,
And an unexpected ache.
I am attached to my head like a balloon on a string.
Hours pass in a ghost phase,
Between sleep and waking.
My eyes squint at the mountains
And they become glass
In atomic heat.
Would you know how to find me here?
Would you trade my hope for new memories?
Because the Mojave is mighty
And I don’t want to come home.
Great rocks in the distance like the gods of Stonehenge,