The European Witch-Craze of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, by H.R. Trevor-Roper

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Witch hunts are always a relevant topic, as we live in a time when internet witch hunts are rife. So I thought I should repost my review of an obscure history book. Rarely is history so weird as in this book, which addresses the theology behind the old witch hunts, and shows the backwards grasping for reasons, justifications and explanations, so familiar to us today, but become ludicrous with the benefit of hindsight.

Last night I was reading H.R. Trevor-Roper’s classic work The European Witch-Craze of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, which I was quite enjoying. In the first chapter, Trevor-Roper was discussing various clerical theories of how the Devil managed to beget offspring after having sex with witches at night in the form of an incubus, that visited female witches or a succubus, that visited male witches. But this was a problem; wasn’t the devil neuter? A great deal of theological thinking was expended in the attempt to resolve this matter. Some thought the Devil swiped the testicles off the dead and impregnated the witches with borrowed vital essences, but the church eventually followed the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas, the second founder of demonology after St. Augustine. He said the Devil could only discharge as incubus what he had previously absorbed as succubus. Trevor Roper then remarks:

There are times when the intellectual fantasies of the clergy seem more bizarre than the psychopathic delusions of the madhouse out of which they have, too often, been excogitated.

Excellent for other reasons not adumbrated here.

My Idea of Fun, by Will Self

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Sometimes you read books that just weren’t meant for you. This was one of them.

A truly ghastly experience, My Idea of Fun records the memories, justifications and sheer relish of a delusional maniac, serial killer, animal torturer and all around repulsive fellow, couched in prose so purple it’s no longer a part of the visible spectrum. As the protagonist’s predilections are presented on the first page, you can’t say you didn’t know what you were getting into. Against the chidings of my conscience I continued reading, fascinated, much as you can’t not look at a grisly automobile accident as you wheel by on the highway. You can’t help but admire Self’s turn of phrase, his dictionary squeezings, his calculated yet slick deployments of rib-cracking funniness, but you nonetheless wish he weren’t quite so sick.

The book is a compelling enough read. There are a couple flubbed hallucinatory sequences of a William Burroughs variety which I flat out skipped. I frankly didn’t give a damn about our protagonist’s career in advertising or his (possibly meant to be loathsome?) yuppiedom. Self fell asleep on the job more than a few times, misplacing his character’s characteristics, straining and failing to shock, including flat or pointless scenes. Only the scenes in which The Fat Controller played a part were gripping, though inevitably gripping a part of you you’d rather had never been gripped at all. By the end I was just turning pages and feeling icky. That the editors or the author were feeling somewhat insecure about whether or not this book was to be taken as satire is evidenced by the book’s anxious subtitle A Cautionary Tale. Wash yourself thoroughly after reading this one, though that may not suffice. A colonic might be more appropriate. For the very susceptible, an exorcism.


Further Reading:

Read other things I’ve written about books. You might find something else of interest!

My Idea of Fun by Will Self. You might just be curious enough to look into it yourself.

 

 

 

 

Greetings from Utopia Park

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A cast of characters doesn’t get any better than this: Levitating yogis, a dreamy, beautiful, transcendent mommy, Midwestern thugs in metal t-shirts, and one wide-eyed, unicorn-loving, pure-hearted girl–all of this in, yes, Greetings from Utopia Park, by my friend Claire Hoffman.

This childhood was not easy, you gather from Claire’s story. She tells of the ups and downs of growing up in a religious community, in this case the Fairfield, Iowa community built by the famous guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the home of Transcendental Meditation. TM was made famous by some of the Maharishi’s disciples: Paul, John, George and Ringo, and was subsequently slammed by the same. David Lynch (Eraserhead, Blue Velvet) is another famous proponent of the sect, who has written books and made videos in support of the organization, and has become its unofficial spokesperson. In TM each person is given a special, magic mantra, all of their own. They use it to meditate, and eventually, hopefully, reach enlightenment.

Claire’s mom, a single mom, managed to pursue peace and truth while raising two children and struggling to make a living–a feat in itself. Claire and her brother grew up as members of a community that sought enlightenment and harmony, but struggled under its share of controversy. She thinks hard about her experiences, and what they meant, and how they shaped her. To live in a utopia–what a privilege! But to look behind the curtains almost destroys her belief. How do you know you’re on the One True Path? Sham or Shangri-La? Were the rumors about her guru true? All believers must confront their doubt. All seekers must question what they find. In the era of Hoffman’s childhood, many sought something greater, something higher. Many of them were parents, who wanted the best for their children, and brought them along.

The beauty won from this alternately lovely and terrible childhood was hard fought for. She details the picnics and ceremonies, the school days and meditations. She feels the pain of being an outsider among the uninitiated. Watches her friends go astray. And in the end, after her angry teens and resentful twenties, now a married mother in her thirties, Claire goes back to what was good and true about her upbringing, and returns to her spiritual home. She goes back to meditation, to reap its fruits. She makes her peace with her childhood and her mother’s decisions. And she takes her small daughter down to the TM center to learn her mantra, and meditate.

The suffering can be borne and meaning wrung out of wasted days. Deceptive gurus and false messiahs litter the paths of pilgrims. But they don’t have the last word. First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is. Sometimes you climb the mountain, and you fall and fail. Maybe there is a different path that will take you up. Sometimes a different mountain. Greetings from Utopia Park tells you the path of the seeker is a path with a heart.

Keep climbing, keep seeking.

920 O’Farrell Street

Harriet Lane Levy, in her book 920 O’Farrell Street, show how many different nationalities were mingling on the streets of San Francisco in the 1880s:

“On Saturday night the city joined in the promenade on Market Street, the broad thoroughfare that begins at the waterfront and cuts its straight path of miles to Twin Peaks. The sidewalks were wide and the crowd walking toward the bay met the crowd walking toward the ocean. The outpouring of the population was spontaneous, as if in response to an urge for instant celebration. Every quarter of the city discharged its residents into the broad procession. Ladies and gentlemen of imposing social repute; their German and Irish servant girls, arms held fast in the arms of their sweethearts; French, Spaniards, gaunt, hard-working Portuguese; Mexicans, the Indian showing in reddened skin and high cheekbone—everybody, anybody, left home and shop, hotel, restaurant, and beer garden to empty into Market Street in a river of color. Sailors of every nation deserted their ships at the waterfront and, hurrying up Market Street in groups, joined the vibrating mass excited by the lights and stir and the gaiety of the throng. ‘This is San Francisco,’ their faces said. It was carnival; no confetti, but the air a criss-cross of a thousand messages; no masks, but eyes frankly charged with challenge. Down Market from Powell to Kearny, three long blocks, up Kearny to Bush, three short ones, then back again, over and over for hours, until a glance of curiosity deepened to one of interest; interest expanded into a smile, and a smile into anything. Father and I went downtown every Saturday night. We walked through avenues of light in a world hardly solid. Something was happening everywhere, every minute, something to be happy about… . We walked and walked and still something kept happening afresh.”


Further Reading: