Scholarly Witchcraft

Witchcraft as I tend to think of it seems to do its best work when perched at the boundary between destruction and creation. It takes apart, but it also infuses what has been taken apart with new force, new potency. Witchcraft is an art of decline, but it is also the art of rebirth. If I were pushed into saying why this is the case, I would say that it is because witchcraft is concerned with the life of the world, the cosmos, the life that precedes and exceeds the life of individuals. The work of destruction is done for the sake of that life, in much the same way as its serving as the ancilla of creation.

This basic commitment sits somewhat oddly against my scholastic tendencies. Scholarship, especially in the contemporary era, runs at odds with the witch work. The context that a historian seeks to establish to explain an event or cultural product is precisely what the witch work eats away at, tears up, in order to get at the juicy bit which can be carried off for consumption or re-purposed. This is why the witch work has more in common with Walter Benjamin’s historical materialism than with scholarly historicism.

To help myself back into that witchy-historical materialist position when I drift a little too long into scholarly forays, I find it useful to remind myself about how occultists prior to the contemporary period approached books and other occult materials. They didn’t have the breadth of potential context we do. The texts they left suggest that they did their best to re-contextualize it, but they had to do so with a much narrower and, by our standards, much more inadequate frame.

The tendency to assign the authorship of texts to a small stable of figures (e.g., Solomon) likely derives in part from this. In assigning a text an author, the real author (or their publisher/distributor/scribe) was projecting that text into a historical frame that they could use to develop and explore the material contained therein.

It helped join the work to life in a visceral fashion. That visceral frame is part of what gives them permission (in a deeper than intellectual fashion) to imitate, modify, or be inspired by the operations described in a text. This is the sort of thing I see when I read the Picatrix‘s instructions to dress up as a scribe or a Persian, too.

Ginzberg’s study of Mennochio the miller in The Cheese and the Worm, while not explicitly about occultism, provides us with another point of reference. Like many of the occultists whose work is available to us, he operates outside the official channels of education and theology, and I suspect that they were more united in their eccentricity than anything else.

Mennochio’s independence suggests something about what these individuals were seeking. They weren’t looking for the affirmation of the crowd, but the affirmation of work, the experience of working with something and discovering in that work a sense of one’s own personal capacities and character.

The diversity and commonalities in occult texts from the early modern period likely has some of its basis in these attitudes. We see figures repeated in variation in part because those variations reflect the individuality of the work. Personal experience joined with eccentric reading and more eccentric applications of it fueled occult exploration, which they then attempted to capture in writing or share with others directly (oral continuity being even more difficult to track, but arguably even more interesting). What was shared, in turn, fed back into the cycle of work.

This isn’t quite the same as scholarly witch work, but the conditions under which many of grimoire writers operated put them in close proximity to it, and if undertaken according to different principles, would be identical with it. I might go so far as to say that the witch work takes place at the limit of the enterprise of deconstruction and destruction, but going both ways, outward across the limit and back inward.

I can imagine potential responses to this sort of comparison that run along the lines of “if these people had our resources, they would have used them and done deeper, more historical work.” Perhaps. I’ll stake out a potentially unpopular position and suggest that if they had, the work would have been poorer for it. At least, if they did historical work as is generally recognized now.

Synchronously enough, while this post was in draft, my partner’s ordered copy of George P. Hansen’s The Trickster and the Paranormal arrived. Last night while we sat reading together, she read me a little bit from it where Hansen emphasizes Victor Turner’s conception of human beings and society being composed of both structural and anti-structural habits. That is on the continuum of what I am talking about here, adding to it the assertion that our present condition favors the structural habits in excess.

At least until we get a little further on down the road of decline, I think it would be good for more people to deliberately cultivate anti-structural habits into their work, to detach themselves from an effort to develop a deeply coherent account of the occult world and take an opportunistic attitude toward the texts available to us, looking to history for inspiration.

That isn’t the same thing as cultivating an incoherent spiritual practice, but it puts the burden of coherence on the practice, on the day-to-day work with spirits rather than on texts that tell you how you ought to engage with spirits on a day-to-day basis. Deconstruct those official habits a little and see what changes. Do it carefully, attend to the shifts for good or ill. Follow the long winding road that takes you deeper into a spiritual life where the books aren’t so important, where what someone might tell you to do, isn’t so important.

Find the kernel of necessity in your work around which everything else will need to fall into place, including our relationships to other workers. Like a stonemason may cement stones of varying size to form a sturdy wall against the elements, so too may our rough-edged necessity be rallied in support of each other.

If the world keeps going the way it is, we’re going to need that, too.

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