coromandal


know your witches

Western Alps: worker of magic, lurid orgies

Germany: flying witches, always a woman, wicked, lone female, wicked thoughts, satanic, dangerous, insatiable, commanding.

England: blood compact with the Devil, marked bodily, enchanter using charms, ointments and effigies.

The continent: hand walker, rode hyenas, attended forest bacchanals, stole babies and penises, extended pregnancies.

Scandanavia and Scotland: flying witches

Massachusetts: general mischief involving cattle, letters, hay and beer, witty and could either be diminutive or strong.

Witchy qualities / adjectives are established by clergy and authorities who were terribly threatened. Each adjective is a restatement – and a mask – of a root female quality that challenged the authority’s power. The root qualities are perennial through centuries: joy, curiosity, yearning, abandon etc.

What exactly was a witch? Any seventeenth-century New Englander could have told you. As workers of magic, witches and wizards extend as far back as recorded history. The witch as Salem conceived her materialized in the thirteenth century, when sorcery and heresy moved closer together. She came into her own with the Inquisition, as a popular myth yielded to a popular madness. The western Alps introduced her to lurid orgies. Germany launched her into the air. As the magician molted into the witch, she also became predominately female, inherently more wicked and more susceptible to satanic overtures. An influential fifteenth-century text compressed a shelf of classical sources to make its point: “When a woman thinks alone, she thinks evil.” As is often the case with questions of women and power, elucidations here verged on the paranormal. Though weak willed, women could emerge as dangerously, insatiably commanding.

The English witch made the trip to North America largely intact. She signed her agreement with the Devil in blood, bore a mark on her body for her compact, and enchanted by way of charms, ointments, and poppets, doll-like effigies. Continental witches had more fun. They walked on their hands. They made pregnancies last for three years. They rode hyenas to bacchanals deep in the forest. They stole babies and penises. The Massachusetts witch disordered the barn and the kitchen. She seldom flew to illicit meetings, more common in Scandinavia and Scotland. Instead, she divined the contents of an unopened letter, spun suspiciously fine linen, survived falls down stairs, tipped hay from wagons, enchanted beer, or caused cattle to leap four feet off the ground. Witches could be muttering, contentious malcontents or inexplicably strong and unaccountably smart. They could commit the capital offense of having more wit than their neighbors, as a minister said of the third Massachusetts woman hanged for witchcraft, in 1656.

Matters were murkier when it came to the wily figure with six thousand years of experience, the master of disguise who could cause things to appear and disappear, who knew your secrets and could make you believe things of yourself that were not true. He turned up in New England as a hybrid monkey, man, and rooster, or as a fast-moving turtle. Even Cotton Mather was unsure what language he spoke. He was a pervasive presence, however: the air pulsed with his minions. Typically in Massachusetts, he wore a high-crowned hat, as he had in an earlier Swedish invasion, which Mather documented in his 1689 book. Mather did not mention the brightly colored scarf that the Devil wound around his hat. Like the Swedish devil’s gartered stockings or red beard, it never turned up in New England.

The Witches of Salem, Diabolical doings in a Puritan village, BY STACY SCHIFF



continental abyss

This is from Simon Critchley’s Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction which describes the differences and similarities between continental and British – also called analytic – systems of thought.

I’m just back from a trip to London and Paris and found the two cities to be radically different; I am convinced the forms of the cities derive directly from their philosophies.

Critchley seems to be saying – you know I don’t really know! – that there is a gap – a gaping one – between merely finding solutions – as Thatcher seems prone to do in the excerpt below – and finding a way toward a well lived life.  The British tradition tends to separate these ideas – with ultimately reductive results, whereas the Continental joins them in a kind of enriching critique of life.

Here is Simon Critchley –

On 5 October 1999, when pressed for her current views on the prospect of a European union, Margaret Thatcher remarked, ‘All the problems in my lifetime have come from Continental Europe, all the solutions have come from the English-speaking world.’  Despite its evident falsehood, this statement expresses a deep truth:  namely, that for many inhabitants of the English-speaking world, and indeed for some living outside it, there is a real divide between their world and the societies, languages, political systems, traditions, and geography of Continental Europe.  British politics, especially but by no means exclusively on the right, is defined in terms of the distinction between ‘Europhobes’ and ‘Europhiles,’ known to their opponents as ‘Eurosceptics’ and ‘Eurofanatics’ respectively.  That is, there is a cultural distinction, some would say a divide – perhaps even an abyss – between the ‘Continental’ and whatever opposes it, what Baroness Thatcher, in tones deliberately reminiscent of Winston Churchill, calls ‘the English-speaking world.’

/…/

There is a gap in much philosophy between theoretical questions of how one knows what one knows, and more practical or existential questions of what it might mean to lead a good or fulfilled life.

/…/

the cultural life in the English-speaking world is marked by a divide between science, on the one hand, and literature and humane understanding on the other.



people to avoid
October 10, 2008, 10:48 pm
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,


Here is a list of the kinds of people you should avoid.  It’s from a travelogue written by Richard of Devizes warning about the dangers of 12th century London, but it reads a bit like a contemporary American political campaign.

Mr. Devizes says the people you should avoid mostly live in the city, no surprise there.  To him, crime in the city is pervasive, a pastime that will let noone merely spectate.  He thinks that the worst crooks are esteemed the highest, an idea that could catch on now – as our worldwide banks tip like dominoes – but probably won’t.  He also says the evil company you keep will corrupt you – where have we heard this recently?

The corruptions of the city dwellers fall into several broad categories:  entertainers, foreigners, the poor, mystics, the sexually deviant. In a sense the city described sounds like a circus – with its itinerant clowns, freaks and sideshows.  Or like a tabloid version of the scandal of Hollywood.

Thankfully, we – you and I and the writer and the written to – are observers of these corruptions.  We sit safely out of the ring and its bright lights and scandal, in our ring side seats.  We can laugh at or judge them, depending on our predilections, and at the end, get up and leave to our normal outside lives.

I actually think the corrupt, in the circus or the city, could be laughing at us.  Or maybe more likely shaking their heads at their judges, briefly, in disbelief, and returning to their lives.

Here is Devizes’ warning:

When you reach England, if you come to London, pass through it quickly, for I do not at all like that city. All sorts of men crowd together there from every country under the heavens. Each race brings its own vices and its own customs to the city. No-one lives in it without falling into some sort of crime. Every quarter of it abounds in grave obscenities. The greater a rascal a man is, the better a man he is accounted. I know whom I am instructing. You have a warmth of character beyond your years, and a coolness of memory; and from these contrary qualities arises a temperateness of reasoning. I fear nothing for you, unless you live with evil companions, for manners are formed by association.

Well, be that as it may! You will arrive in London. Behold, I prophesy to you: whatever evil or malicious thing that can be found in any part of the world, you will find in that one city. Do not associate with the crowds of pimps; do not mingle with the throngs in eating-houses; avoid dice and gambling, the theatre and the tavern. You will meet with more braggarts there than in all France; the number of parasites is infinite. Actors, jesters, smooth-skinned lads, Moors, flatterers, pretty boys, effeminates, pederasts, singing and dancing girls, quacks, belly-dancers, sorceresses, extortioners, night-wanderers, magicians, mimes, beggars, buffoons: all this tribe fill all the houses. Therefore, if you do not want to dwell with evildoers, do not live in London. I do not speak against learned or religious men, or against Jews: however, because of their living amidst evil people, I believe they are less perfect there than elsewhere.”

~Richard of Devizes, A Critique of English Towns in the 12th Century



living the movie
September 23, 2008, 9:49 pm
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: , , , , ,


(Edward Scissorshands, -, chevrolet)

Jonathan Raban is an English writer who lives in Seattle.  He wrote an article about another Englishman who committed a horrible crime on American soil, from which this paragraph is excerpted.  You can read the whole article here.

Although the story of the murder is scandalous and fascinating, the excerpt held my attention.  He describes a magical journey immigrants take from western Europe to the United States, from familiar two dimensions into hyperreal three.  Strangely, in his description, the three dimensional world many of us call home he calls disorienting, a no-man’s land, at odds with reality.  As though the media image of America is more real than actually living there.  Or as though in life we shift naturally and effortlessly between cognition and dream.

English people fresh to the United States are often shaken to find themselves in hyperreality. The landscape, so familiar in two dimensions from television, movies and print, suddenly, unsettlingly, takes on a third. From my own first visit, which happened to be to Massachusetts, in 1972, I remember the hallucinatory character of the experience: my first three-dimensional armed cop, my first American rental car, a boatlike Chevrolet (and this was the season of Don McLean singing ‘American Pie’), my first phone booth, my first cocktail in the bar of a three-dimensional Howard Johnson’s, my first freeway exit, my first white-shingled house with picket fence. Living the movie, I was in that peculiar no man’s land, half-fact, half-fiction, where I remained for weeks, and where I can occasionally still find myself after 18 years of permanent residence here. No other country in the world has quite this disorienting effect on the British visitor or immigrant, this capacity to induce a semi-permanent jet-lagged high in which the newcomer feels himself to be standing at a slight but constant tangent from reality.”

~Just Two Clicks, Jonathan Raban, London Review of Books



the emptiness of one’s luggage
February 21, 2008, 4:36 pm
Filed under: departure lounge | Tags: , , , , , ,

The reason people don’t like immigrants is that they seem to have done the impossible – defied gravity and flown; flown from the things that tether us to the ground, especially love for birthplace.  It’s envy.

Escaping the myth of rootedness gives the immigrant hope; however, it is not only birthplace that we have lost, but also history and memory and even time itself.  The metaphor is of an empty suitcase.

“I, too, know something of this immigrant business. I am an emigrant from one country (India) and a newcomer in two (England, where I live, and Pakistan, to which my family moved against my will). And I have a theory that the resentments we mohajirs engender have something to do with our conquest of the force of gravity. We have performed the act of which all men anciently dream, the thing for which they envy the birds; that is to say, we have flown.

“I am comparing gravity with belonging. Both phenomena observably exist: my feet stay on the ground, and I have never been angrier than on the day my father told me he had sold my childhood home in Bombay. But neither is understood. We know the force of gravity, but not its origins; and to explain why we become attached to our birthplaces we pretend that we are trees and speak of roots. Look under your feet. You will not find gnarled growths spouting through the soles. Roots, I sometimes think, are a conservative myth, designed to keep us in our places.

“When individuals come unstuck from their native land, they are called migrants. When nations do the same (Bangladesh), the act is called secession. What is the best thing about migrant peoples and seceded nations? I think it is their hopefulness. . . . And what’s the worst thing? It is the emptiness of one’s luggage. I’m speaking of invisible suitcases, not the physical, perhaps cardboard, variety containing a few meaning-drained mementoes: we have come unstuck from more than land. We have floated upwards from history from memory, from Time.”

~From Shame (New York: Aventura/Vintage, 1984), 90, 91. Salman Rushdie