Escape to New York

I went up to New York this weekend to enjoy A Day of Conjure and Cunning Craft. It’s part of a concerted effort to de-hermit a little (I’m not great at it; when it comes to socializing, I’m cultivating dumb but dogged). Since I was already up there, I did a little out and about the city. There is a fair amount I want to talk about with that, but for this post I’ll just talk a little about the conference itself.

Steven Grasso opened with a charmingly self-deprecating account of his personal work with a specific graveyard, sharing some of his own early necromantic missteps. His use of the terms of vodou (loa, ghede, and baron) made me a little uncomfortable since he seems to lack initiation or intimate experience with those ritual worlds, but it wasn’t too hard to see past that, to the concrete dialogues with his British dead that those terms helped him to pursue.

The concrete relationship with a specific place, with specific dead. It’s hard not to admire that.

Jesse Hathaway’s talk shared some of the DNA of his VG talk (though without the practical hands in the graveyard dirt accompaniment; not that this was the sort of setting for that). He proceeded from anecdote to anecdote, developing a picture of the spirits of Quimbanda through those anecdotes and then proceeding to apply that to the topic at hand. In this case, that topic was the grimoires and their relationship to the Quimbanda, from the perspective of the spirits of Quimbanda.

The anecdotal style worked well. Using the first-person voice of the spirits and his encounters with them, neither what the spirits say nor what he says are to be taken as the final word on the matter. Instead, between the two, the listener is invited to reflect for themselves on the matter. When he reports an Exu saying that the spirits have Quimbanda have masqueraded as grimoire spirits, that some of the grimoire spirits aren’t even really around anymore, he’s providing us insight into Quimbanda’s self-understanding, not making a dogmatic cosmological assertion against the claims of grimoirists.

There were useful tangents, too, ranging from the centrality of Justina in Mexican Cyprian work to the notion within Quimbanda that the remembered dead eat the unremembered dead (a fiercer way of looking at what W. B. Yeats described). Of course, by necessity, eventually everything passes into the unremembered.

He mixed in liberal amounts of history, but his anecdotal style gave some of it a pat quality that isn’t to my taste. His account of the role of Ife in the slave trade and the trajectory of Kimpa Vita’s movement, for example, seemed to be based more on how members of contemporary diaspora practitioners have used history to form myths to understand themselves (cf. Andrew Apter on West African strategies of deep meaning). That isn’t exactly a bad thing (cf. Nietzsche’s uses and abuses of history for life), but it’s a bit of a tangle and it flattens out the complexities of the historical African situation.

Al Cummins’ talk was the surprise gem for me. I didn’t know much about him before the talk and had very little idea of what to expect. His talk was a nicely turned bit of textual scholarship with an eye toward the interests of practicing occultists. Focusing on a grimoire that predates the Book of Oberon, he unpacked a method of doing magic that developed from a relationship with Azazel/Asasel/Azazil, the four cardinal kings, and a series of alliances with the mighty dead of the Western esoteric tradition.

(It looks like he may be doing some version of the talk for the Esoteric Book Conference this year. Worth your time if you get a chance.)

Troy Chambers spent a good bit of time expressing his ambivalence around talking about obeah, his concern that even cautious sharing would lead to shallow copycatting without an appreciation for the invisible, lineage-driven forces that animate the power of obeah. He played the devil, talking about the dangerous and difficult aspects, squirming before his summoners on the seal of the stage.

As devils are wont to do, he played the accuser, too, lambasting those who take to the African diaspora as a model from which they can extract this bit or that without undergoing the intimacy of initiation. From my perch toward the back, I could see a few people shift uncomfortably in their seats.

To talk about the theater of his presentation is not meant to deny his sincerity, but the dynamics of the stage and audience and the devil and the summoner? It sets me to wondering a bit about the dynamic at work in the grimoire tradition between the summoner and the devil.

There is something else, too. The particular flexibility of obeah, it’s capacity to absorb and deploy different outer forms for its work, reminded me more than a little of the accounts of honest-to-goodness conjure work in the African American tradition. The particular forms of isolation Troy described as proper to the obeahman also reminded me of the isolation proper to the root doctor. Troy’s lineage traces its line to the Ashanti regions, the very same regions from which many Africans were captured and sent into the slave trade destined for South Carolina and Georgia lowlands.

It makes me wonder if the latest effort to give the lowland region’s religiosity a Kongo foundation may just be the latest in a long line of misreadings, and if part of its roots may lie more properly with the Ashanti and their hinterlands, rather than with the Kongolese. Speculative, no doubt, but there is a long history of misreading African American culture by failing to address the richness of its African roots (I know, I’ve toyed with some of this before from a slightly different angle).

Jake Stratton-Kent…what to say there. One of the reasons I came to the conference was to see him in person. I have been unable to get into any of the excitement around his work and I was curious to see if I would respond differently to the presentation of his ideas in person.

His way of talking and thinking about this stuff just doesn’t do it for me. Some of that has to do with the (pagan) reconstructionist language that animated some of his commentary. The grimoire magicians’ others seem to straightforwardly be the conjurers of the Jewish and Muslim world (who may not be Jewish and Muslim). He even quoted texts that explicitly identify spirits like Frimost with the ‘Lebanese.’ These aren’t the cunning folk of England at all, except insofar as some of them have direct ties to these ancient traditions.

Which makes the grimoire tradition less of the beginning of the end of the Western esoteric tradition, but more the scrapings from the much richer, well-developed, and deeply old world of the Middle East and its outposts throughout the early modern Mediterranean (perhaps the same that form the roots of some of the contemporary diaspora practices Jake suggests looking to for role models). It makes the western esoteric tradition the backwater that is only recently begun to find its way back into the deeper currents.

Reading things like the Brethren of Purity, its easy enough to see that tradition, with its practices of initiation and sacrifice, more in-line with the living traditions of the African diaspora in all its multitude, a tradition that lives by hand-to-hand, mouth-to-ear transmission. The problem, of course, is that those aren’t the sort of things you can reconstruct. If the line breaks, the line breaks.

(I do think the relationships with spirits can be remade anew, but that doesn’t requires less archival work and more concerted spiritual work to reforge alliances both with spirits and other people, regardless of how it fits against an archive. Hand-to-hand, mouth-to-ear. In the European world, Masonry and blasphemous transmutation seem to be the two easiest vectors for doing that.)

This doesn’t even touch on some of the after-hours nuggets turned up, but this is getting a little long. Another time, perhaps.

2 thoughts on “Escape to New York

  1. simon tomasi

    Thanks for a great write up and your thoughts on the talks.
    I heard Al Cummins at Treadwells bookshop recently give that same talk, very informative and enjoyable.

  2. Pingback: Dérive, New York | Disrupt & Repair

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