Weekly Readings #51 (01/23/23-01/29/03)
love is the law
A weekly newsletter on what I’ve written, read, and otherwise enjoyed.
“I am tired of my voice, the voice of Esau,” thinks Stephen Dedalus in the National Library sequence of Ulysses while exhaustively exhibiting his theory of Shakespearean authorship to the gathered literati. Stephen’s theory is a quasi-Marxist, quasi-feminist, incipiently postcolonial critique of the man from Stratford as a grasping, litigious, erotically obsessive-possessive climber and miser, bigot and misogynist. He is, in essence, saying his time’s equivalent of “as a BIPOC pangender person, I have have difficulty connecting with Shakespeare,”even though the portrait he sketches of Shakespeare matches his own face more than he’d like to admit.
My old teacher, Colin MacCabe, glosses “the voice of Esau” somewhere as “the voice that does not guarantee recognition by the father.” I don’t disagree with that—the Joycean polysemy makes every intelligent interpretation available—but I think of it more as the voice that whines after the father’s blessing has been bestowed, however unjust the distribution:
And Esau said unto his father, Hast thou but one blessing, my father? bless me, even me also, O my father. And Esau lifted up his voice, and wept. (Genesis 27:38)
Ireland is Esau to England’s Jacob, Stephen-Joyce is Esau to Shakespeare’s Jacob, Joyce is Esau to any number of the men he thought had usurped him—literarily, politically, and erotically. And in the end, Ireland’s wayward and cosmopolite anti-national national epic certainly sides with Esau against Jacob, just as America’s wayward and cosmopolite anti-national national epic sides from its opening sentence with Ishmael against Isaac—sides, that is, against the chosen people and with what a later entrant in this tradition, Thomas Pynchon, will call “the preterite,” those whom another of its participants, Toni Morrison, hailed as “throwaway people.”
But the voice of Esau is the voice of neediness and resentment, not of its own counter-affirmation. Stephen recognizes Esau’s weepy plea as his own while in the act of criticizing Shakespeare rather than doing what he ought to be doing, exemplified in the fiction that circumscribes him: making a work of art to rival Shakespeare’s. The voice of Esau, in other words, is the voice of the critic.
Below, a further reflection—these, I hope you don’t mind, are essayistic sparks thrown off by the novel I’m writing, which I will share with you soon—on art and magic.
“New Gods Are Crowned in the City”: Art and Magic Redux
Friend-of-the-blog(AKA Katherine Dee) writes for Tablet about a topic I’ve addressed several times this month myself, the now-viral practice of “manifestation,” part of a broader suite of occult techniques for transforming one’s will into reality (which is just what magic is, according to exponents like the mage Crowley):
The 2020s fixation on manifestation feels less like an extension of “hustle culture”—that go-get-them, lift-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps attitude that characterizes so many American self-help fads—and more like an expression of maladaptive daydreaming. It is about reaffirming that the world is defined by you and you alone, that you speak reality to existence. We are all living in a lucid dream, it insists, and like dreams, the real fun begins when you know how to manipulate your environment.
Kat links this to our immersion in digital environments, whose alteration is just a tap or keystroke away, but honorably concludes her critique by acknowledging her own practice:
And of course, I write this only after visiting a psychic to ask about my identity as a writer, journaling about how I will be a writer, indeed that I am already a writer (that’s the Law of Assumption), visualizing being a writer, and anointing a candle with cinnamon oil in the hopes that it speeds things up.
What, again, is the relation between art and magic? Some say they are the same—the comic-book writers who, in my youth, conveyed me via their self-taught allusions into the literary canon, about whom more in moment. For others—Joyce, for example, perhaps as against the Golden Dawn’s own Yeats—they are wary rival brothers: Esau and Jacob again, though here I assume the ancient rituals represent the older brother usurped by the wily and upstart child clinging to their heel.
I turn to the public sphere. I find the leading voices of self-styled moderation, those who stand for science and reason and the traditions of classical liberalism, denouncing occultism and gnosticism. They are particularly aghast at NOW, sculptor Shahzia Sikander’s new statue topping a New York City courthouse—a ram’s-horned, tentacle-armed female figure emerging from a lotus flower and wearing Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s lace collar. The meme-like lace collar is aesthetically unforgivable, an instance of what Ginsburg’s Cornell literature professor, Vladimir Nabokov, would have mocked as poshlust. And I will leave archetypal and mythological criticism—finding the statue’s origin in Ishtar and Co.—to experts in that field.
I am more interested in who first taught us to imagine justice as the theophany of an interspeciated woman with tawny skin? Who first dreamed it, quietly, in the form of the sometimes sparsely-circulated written word and/or low-resolution image, that it might appear a generation or two later on the skyline, presiding over the law and the landscape? I am again going to recommend the great Art of Darkness podcast with Kevin Kautzman and Brad Kelly—am I trying to manifest my own appearance on this show?—and I note that Kautzman says, over and over again, as they discuss figures from Joyce and Woolf to Crowley and Nin, “It’s their world; we’re just walking through it”—even though it very much was not their world when they walked the earth. In whose world was NOW erected?
First, I think again of Octavia E. Butler. I haven’t read the particular novels she wrote addressing interspeciation yet, gathered significantly under the collective title Lilith’s Brood, but I’ve read and even taught her most famous short story, “Bloodchild,” a gruesome reproductive parable with the following premise. Some time in the story’s past, a group of humans fleeing persecution on earth came to the homeland of the Tlic, an insect-like species suffering because it could not find sufficient mammal-like creatures to host its larvae. Eventually, and after some hostility between the species, the Terrans and the Tlic made an arrangement that female Tlic would implant their eggs for gestation in human males. In an afterword, Butler said she intended the story as a political model, with whatever unsettling levels of defamiliarzing disgust, for a full-body modus vivendi among different peoples and cultures, rather than a swaggering and conquering imperialism—siding, again, with Ishmael and Esau against the model of “the chosen.”
There’s one more thing I tried to do in “Bloodchild.” I tried to write a story about paying the rent—a story about an isolated colony of human beings on an inhabited, extrasolar world. At best, they would be a lifetime away from reinforcements. It wouldn’t be the British Empire in space, and it wouldn’t be Star Trek. Sooner or later, the humans would have to make some kind of accommodation with their um…their hosts. Chances are this would be an unusual accommodation. Who knows what we humans have that others might be willing to take in trade for a livable space on a world not our own?
Second, I think of Toni Morrison. Her 1997 novel, Paradise, systematically parodies and thereby discredits the narrative of the Hebrew Bible and all liberation narratives based on it, including prior models of black liberation. Morrison regularly dined with Elaine Pagels, author of The Gnostic Gospels, as she composed the novel. It begins with an epigraph from a gnostic gospel, the anarchic feminist deity who gives voice to “Thunder, Perfect Mind,” as if to side, among other things, with the female sea serpents, the uterine ocean, which the Lord had to subdue before He could fabricate an orderly and properly hierarchical Creation. Paradise concludes with the theophany of a Black Madonna.
In ocean hush a woman black as firewood is singing. Next to her is a younger woman whose head rests on the singing woman’s lap. Ruined fingers troll the tea brown hair. All the colors of seashells—wheat, roses, pearl—fuse in the younger woman’s face. Her emerald eyes adore the black face framed in cerulean blue. Around them on the beach, sea trash gleams. Discarded bottle caps sparkle near a broken sandal. A small dead radio plays the quiet surf.
Third, I think of Grant Morrison, no relation to Toni. Morrison’s own epic, contemporary with Paradise, is a 70-some-issue comic-book series called The Invisibles. Also explicitly gnostic and based partly on the author’s own shamanic experiences and meeting with spiritual entities—including a Christ of gnosis who told Morrison, and then the comic’s hero, “I am not the God of your fathers. I am the hidden stone and break all hearts”—it counseled the end of the individual, a new post-hierarchy Aeon, the reconception of the personality as infinite memeplex, and the wide diffusion of occult techniques so that everyone, not just the archons of earth, might download their will, via the word, into flesh. For those impatient with comic books, Morrison expressed these ideas in an influential lecture at the turn of the millennium, insisting there that magic works.
Fourth, I think of Alan Moore, Morrison’s magical rival, the wily and triumphant Jacob to Morrison’s sometimes whiny Esau (Moore is older, but Morrison started writing comics first), whose recent graphic novel, Providence, surveys the sources, nature, and consequences of controversial early-20th-century horror writer H. P. Lovecraft’s cosmological perspective. Moore concludes, against Lovecraft’s own right-wing politics and materialist metaphysics, that the New England misanthrope’s vision of an inhuman, polymorphously perverse, omni-miscegenated and interspeciated earth might be welcomed as a respite from the ordinary, the monolithic, the conservative. Moore, of course, is an occultist overtly in Crowley’s tradition. I note as well that Richard Stanley’s recent film of Lovecraft’s most famous story, The Colour out of Space, suggests the same—and begins, moreover, with its heroine performing a magical rite, as if to summon the intergalactic “colour.”
A devotee of occult self-help, Octavia Butler said her manifestations every day. A maven of high culture, Toni Morrison believed that serious literature, with its diffusive power, eventually altered all of culture through its slow dissemination of a new language and new models. An exponent of popular culture, Grant Morrison construed mass-cultural narrative works as hypersigils, magical symbols expressing a wish to the universe, charged by the attention and desire of the audience, and thereby able to transform the real in accordance with the author-magus’s will. Alan Moore, trapped between high and pop models—trapped in wishes he imperfectly expressed in his sorcerer’s apprenticeship, so that they came true in ways he didn’t anticipate and couldn’t accept—is much warier about the process than the other three, but he knows it works.
And so, after a generation reared on these explicitly occult and gnostic visions (I am a member of this generation; I was reared on these visions), itself based on a longer tradition of rebel metaphysics going back to Joyce and Melville and beyond, we arrive at what we might call The Woman of Colour out of Space atop the courthouse.
Are you still wondering if magic works?
Our literature’s foremost anti-magician and anti-gnostic, despite her almost helpless attraction to its rites and idols, is the last author I am thinking of: Cynthia Ozick. She knows that reason and science are useless against magic where they are not themselves occult manifestations (the Royal Society deriving from the Rosicrucians, etc.). All that can combat magic is religion, with its scrupulous division between God’s will and man’s (Adorno argues in a similar vein in his Marxist “Theses Against Occultism”).
But Ozick fears, too, that it may be a fool’s errand to keep religion and magic apart. The pedagogical-legal sections of the Bible enjoining us not to suffer a witch to live were written by priests; the riddling stories, ambiguous as they are, leaving us as free to side with Ishmael and Esau as with Isaac and Jacob, were written by poets, which may be as much as to say: by magicians. Is there any ground religion and magic may share beyond their otherworldly commitments? Any common commandment? Look above for the answer.
I finally watched Tár. It’s as good as everyone says, the best movie in years, a formal tour de force (the way the Russian cellist scrapes her fork against her teeth when she eats!) and a truly heroic performance (Cate should play Sontag next). I recognize so much in it of what I myself am trying to do in my forthcoming novel, which the majority of Substack readers agreed in last week’s poll should be called Major Arcana. Like a college kid, I want to go back to the theater and watch it five more times; I want to absorb its canon. Must I finally read Vita Sackville-West instead of just Orlando? I should dig out my CD of Mahler’s Fifth that I bought at the National Record Mart in the mall as a teen while trying, like our titular maestra, to transcend my origins. My only quarrel with the film is how it treats her lower-middle-class origin as some Crying Game revelation, as if we were supposed to gasp at the disclosure of her transclass deadname, Linda. But where else is art supposed to come from if not from the lower middle class? The upper middle class and working class are both too busy at their jobs, the poor don’t have the resources or the requisite freedom, the rich are vapid and complacent and over-insulated—of course we petit-bourgeois barbarians are going to be the artists, watching Leonard Bernstein or reading Harold Bloom in our teenage bedrooms! That’s why Shakespeare is obviously—as Joyce well understood—that man from Stratford with his mind on his money and his money on his mind. And that’s why Tár has a happy ending, if, formally, a tragic-ironic one: she’ll claw her way up from anywhere, and even if she doesn’t, there’s still the way the music makes you feel.
Morrison has, more recently, had a sorcerer’s apprentice moment as well. Watch this video starting around minute 45 to see what I mean. When a commonplace statement in an interview that, by today’s standards, his youthful self-presentation would be classed as genderqueer or nonbinary—I could say exactly the same of my own glitter-faced goth adolescence—he was, in his own words, assigned the pronouns “they/them” and the identity “nonbinary” by young activists. As an exponent of counterculture, as a foreteller in The Invisibles of a 21st-century generation of “Gnostic Straight-Edgers,” he felt compelled to accept these “assignments,” though he squirms with discomfort when discussing it, says he doesn’t care what pronouns he’s called (hence my use here of the more familiar “he”), and cautions against reductive and imprisoning labels. In other words, perhaps the most prominent writer to use they/them pronouns in fact scrutinizes this particular practice in just the same terms as I did on Tumblr—for which I was accused of disregarding people’s “lived experiences” and imagined fistfighting Ulysse Carrière. We are all Lydia Tár now.
Boy, do we connect--although I don't so much agree about Tár, despite the brilliant performance by Cate (I think it's ultimately idea-driven). I'm a deep Ulysses/Joyce lover--can't stop reading or alluding to that novel. Isn't it Anthony Burgess who said in _Re Joyce_ ( I have so many flags on this book but still can't find the quote) that if he had two books on his bedside table, they'd be the Bible and Ulysses? Love this essay. ~ Mary