Wednesday, 28 October 2015

An Iconoclastic Review of Alex Mar's Witches of America

When I learned, through the Wild Hunt blog, of documentarian Alex Mar’s new book release Witches of America, I immediately went to read the linked excerpts; and finding the subject matter relevant to my interests, I got myself a copy and set about reading it over the weekend. During that time, I also began seeing reviews of the book cropping up, among them pieces written by people of the same type of demographic that Mar’s book chronicles, and was bemused by the tone that most of these were taking. Some were right on the edge of vituperative, and I found myself scanning the narrative more closely, looking at particular passages and their contexts while trying, and mostly failing, to detect the implied insults that these readers were seeing.


(I have a long history of being flummoxed by others’ perceptions of things, to the point where I often find myself wondering if I’m reading or watching or hearing the same thing [the answer to that being, of course, that we’re all experiencing the same thing from different vantage points, but that’s secondary to the subject here at hand]. I can remember once attending a screening of Gone with the Wind with a friend, thoroughly enjoying ourselves discussing [quietly, of course, we’re not complete boors] the historical context of the film, anecdotes about the production thereof, the general social milieu of antebellum and reconstruction-era America, etc.—then being surprised when the lights came up to find ourselves in a theatre filled with mostly weepy middle-aged white women, and noting aloud that we were perhaps getting something from the experience that they were not. I was reminded of that experience as I read Mar’s book, and the reactions to it from various corners of the online pagan community.)


The first thing I noted was multiple references, in reviews and comment threads, to remarks Mar made about certain older, heavier pagan women’s “pendulous breasts.” I re-read the relevant passages, and failed to find any implied insult or value judgment in what seemed to me to be merely descriptive writing—not to everyone’s taste, apparently, but not outwardly hostile. If the description was not especially flattering, neither was it particularly critical; but if we’ve reached the point in our discourse where only obsequious flattery is permissible, then we’ve put the stake through the heart of not only free speech, but creative writing as well.


Learning that Mar came from an Ivy League background helped to explain some of the antipathy she was garnering from certain critics, as well. Not all of us came from backgrounds of obvious privilege (and I hate resorting to that overused and overloaded word, but it’s the most appropriate), nor have the ability to jet all over the country in pursuit of enlightenment, and the fact that this author does can’t help but rankle. I too tend to be very wary of the wealthy, the elite, the 1%, and have to struggle with the impulse to stereotype and dismiss people on basis of their social and financial standings; but I also recognize that as being as limiting and dangerous as dismissing those at the lower echelons of wealth and power, and try to give people at least the opportunity to prove themselves to be worthy (or not) of respect. Obviously, some readers feel that Mar has proven herself, on the negative side of that balance; for the most part, I thought differently.


In this book, Alex Mar openly explores her own ambivalence and skepticism toward the very spiritual and esoteric subjects that also beguile her; a struggle that is very immediate and relatable to me, as I wrestle with these issues continually even after over two decades as an initiate and most of a lifetime of fascinated study. I can’t help but wonder if that openness is part of the problem some pagan readers are having with her. It may be that the author’s voice at times sounds too uncomfortably close to that little voice that some of us carry inside us, the one that questions, endlessly, the validity and the purpose and the reality of our spiritual experiences and pursuits. Certainty is a luxury that many of us lack, but even admitting that to ourselves is sometimes more than we can comfortably deal with. Like Toto pulling back the curtain to reveal the not-so-great-or-terrible Oz, Mar lifts the veil that separates us from the myths we tend to create around ourselves and our paths. It’s surely unnerving to some to see (or be forced to admit seeing) that the powerful witch priestess can also be a struggling single mother, or that the dark necromancer started down his left-hand path in the wake of youthful romantic disappointment. But if we (as pagans, witches, occultists, magicians, whatever label we choose) can’t accept and reconcile these seeming dualities, these apparently opposing qualities in ourselves and our acquaintances, what does that tell us about ourselves, or our level of awareness? If our self-created emperors are as naked and blind as we are, where does that leave us? That’s a frightening territory to map, and it’s the terrain Mar leads us into in this book. It’s not always a comfortable read, but it’s an important one, and in the end leaves us in much the same place as the author: with no concrete conclusions, no tidy wrap-up, only a host of new questions to join the ones we came in with. That’s a rare sort of fearlessness, and I can’t help admiring her for it.


Mar goes places far beyond what you’d expect of a journalist scratching the surface of a subculture for salacious copy. This is a work that spans years of study, travel, and expense. This is no Rex Nemorensis redux, no shill going amongst the pagans to run a hatchet job in the press later; either Mar is genuinely seeking something among her subjects, or she is a most brilliant and convincing sociopath. In reading of her experiences, I marveled at her willingness to throw herself into things that would’ve had me balking instantly: hundreds of dollars spent on monthly witchcraft lessons, hundreds more on weekend retreats, multiple days spent camping in a goddamn Louisiana swamp with strangers, awaiting an unknown initiatory fate! This speaks of a dedication to ones’ craft above and beyond the ordinary. And while I can see the questionable ethics involved in sharing swathes of personal correspondence, if Mar was upfront with her subjects about her intention of writing about her experiences, then everyone involved should have known that anything they said or did could potentially end up in print. She did take pains, so far as I could see, not to reveal anything she was asked not to reveal, including peoples’ mundane names, oathbound material from the traditions she studied, or specifics of locations mentioned in the book. I’m not sure what else can be expected of a journalist.


So, in short: I found this a fascinating and valuable book, for all the reasons that are making people quite uncomfortable. It wasn’t always a comfortable read for me, either, far from it. And that, I reiterate, is why this book is important.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

A Question Of Identity

Identity has always been an important concept, though lately it seems to be coming more to the forefront of cultural awareness and discourse, even if only because we moderns have a media machine ready and eager to seize upon any facet of the zeitgeist and thrust it forth as the Most Important Thing Ever. The current trend seems to be to parse one's identity down to the rarest levels of minutiae, even while adhering to a perception of fluidity, the end result being generally incomprehensible to anyone but the individual doing the self-defining. It may be a generational thing (although a cursory glance round the interwebs would indicate that it's taken hold beyond the bounds of the younger set), and it may not be a bad thing unto itself; taking the longer view, it's not that difficult to see how this cultural pendulum will swing back eventually, settling into a territory at once less diffuse than the current one but more expansive than what was envisioned before. Still, as someone who came of age eschewing "labels" as being constraining and constricting of my full self-expression, much of what I see these days is head-scratchingly odd to me. (Since I now have a lawn again, I will soon have to purchase a cane, so that I may go outside and shake it furiously at the sky while muttering imprecations against These Damn Kids.) 

Spiritual identity is also a thing these days, with people out here in the provinces of Alternative Religions also indulging in the same extremely precise parsing that we see in the realms of sexuality (and of course, there is plenty of overlap). There have been times when I've attempted it myself, coming up with mocking and self-conscious descriptors like "Celto-Kemetic Zen Dru-witch," but labels like that seem hopelessly entangling and inaccurate; either they're too all-encompassing, or they're still inadequately broad. I'm mostly content to go with "Pagan" and let that enfold all the facets of my practice and study, despite my occasional flare-ups of agony over what I see parading under that banner often looking rather markedly different than what I perceive myself to be. It often appears that people want, simultaneously, both the right to define their own identity, and to police the boundaries of others' (lest they step beyond the acceptable parameters of a particular definition). If I had a dollar for every time I've chafed under another's inference that I was not Doing It Right by their definition of "It," I'd have more than a few dollars, and I'd still have a rash from rubbing up against the irritant of others' expectations. If you, dear reader, have been at this for any length of time, chances are you have experienced this, too. 

Some twenty years ago, my husband/partner and I decided to break away from the tradition we'd both been initiated and elevated in, and form our own based upon a synthesis of what we'd learned and inherited and gleaned, but filtered through our own philosophical and ethical viewpoint. We put a lot of time and care into its development, and in time met people and trained them and initiated them. We were upfront about our antecedents, and in some cases, a funny thing happened: the identity we'd presented them with was no longer acceptable to them. They started clamoring to be initiated into our parent tradition, perceiving it as being more "valid" for whatever various reasons. (All of this led us down a rabbit-hole, the story of which is not relevant to the present discussion.) Looking back on that now, I find that I am surprisingly offended, in ways that I wasn't at the time--if only because I lacked the experience and the perspective that I have now. It's like we'd baked a beautiful cake, based on our interpretation of an older recipe, and given that cake for free to people that we cared about and with whom we wanted to share it--and they said, "That cake is OK, but we want the REAL cake that we know you had, so bake THAT for us and give it to us." In hindsight, I think we might have done better to take back the uneaten remains of our cake and show them the door. 

Don't think I'm painting myself as an innocent little snowflake; good gods, I had the social acumen of an abandoned wolverine when I first started in this biz, and probably had the least amount of business trying to run a coven or a tradition or anything else of nearly anyone I've ever met. (I got better.) But at the heart of that was identity, you see, and what that meant to others and to their self-perception and to their perception of a thing's worth. I've fallen afoul of the identity trap myself, being bullied in the past into not identifying as something because I defined that identifier differently than did others. I feel sometimes as though my/our current practice lacks a definite identity; my partner and I have initiated people who have gone out and in turn initiated others, and their practices have stayed aligned with ours in some ways and morphed interestingly and sometimes dramatically in others. We're the same and different simultaneously, so how do you define that? It has a name to identify it, given to it by those initiates; and it's been called a tradition, and although perhaps it's not a "tradition" in the sense that many seem to use that term, there is absolutely a family resemblance and a bond there. I am inclined more to thinking of it as a "lineage" rather than a "tradition" that we have passed on. That may be as clear an identity as I can concoct for it, and for me.