the devil’s field guide (part 3)

continued from Part 2

Life, Death and Ego

LaVey has a fair amount to say about the subject of death and our attitude to life, unsurprisingly as the relative values of “this life” and “the life to come” play such a big role in mainstream religious doctrine in America and elsewhere, while Satanism sees itself as a life affirming philosophy. What is more surprising is that he does not discount the possibility of a post-mortem existence for the individual, and has clearly thought about it. Surprising if you thought he was a materialist rationalist, not so much if you remember that he was an occultist².

LaVey often looks to animals as exemplars of spirited behaviour, and he notes that while they generally accept an inevitable death gracefully, they will fight to the end for their survival, given the possibility.

He considers the religious idea of death as an awakening or liberation to be a cop out. If you have had a truly unsatisfactory life it is understandable, but if you have lived life fully, you should have a lust for that life. Martyrdom for an impersonal cause would be a ridiculous proposition for a Satanist. Life should be a party that you have no reason to want to leave. I think this is basically correct. Different people want different kinds of party, but you should try for the kind you want, and meet the challenges that life gives you. There are different kinds of growth, and different kinds of fulfilment, but this is your shot at something, and there should be no regrets.

Dissolution of the ego makes no sense for a Satanist, and LaVey considers this mainly a means to control people in societies that offer few life opportunities. He also considers the belief in reincarnation to be mainly wish or alter ego fulfilment.

“Belief in reincarnation provides a beautiful fantasy world in which a person can find the proper avenue of ego-expression, but at the same time claim to have dissolved his ego”

Myself, I can find little time for the belief in “karma”, at least in the way that people generally cling to it. A power that, despite all appearances to the contrary, brings some kind of justice to the world. As action and reaction, cause and effect, sure. But what most people mean by karma is much the same principle that many others cling to, that they will be rewarded (and miscreants punished) in the afterlife, or eventually in this life by a universal moral agency. If this exists, it is disguising itself very well, or has conveniently removed itself to places where it cannot be observed or verified (ie afer death).

For LaVey it is better if we just go straight for ego-fulfillment, and he feels that it is only when the ego is fulfilled enough that someone can really afford to be kind to others, yet still respect themselves. He thinks we are quite wrong in our common valuation of the ego. We think a bragging bully is someone with too big an ego, but actually they are usually trying to satisfy a stunted, starved ego. So Satanism encourages people  to develop strong egos, with the self respect they need to live a good, full life.

Further:

“If a person has been vital throughout his life and has fought to the end for his earthly existence, it is this ego which will refuse to die, even after the expiration of the flesh which housed it”

He compares this to the attitude of children who are determined to stay up past bed time, and says that it is this kind of vitality “that will allow the Satanist to peek through the curtain of darkness and death and remain earthbound”. It’s a good humoured, pragmatic and bloody minded approach to going beyond death. What it does express is a strategy of approaching death and beyond which never leaves off from the fullness of life until it is, as for the graciously dying animal, an inevitability.

The Black Mass

One of the last sections of the Book of Lucifer is a lot of fun, dealing as it does with some history and a bit of literature; and indeed Satanism has a great and eclectic cultural store for the individual to draw on; far more than is touched on in The Satanic Bible. Just ask any goth or horror fan. The “black mass” is an interesting motif which LaVey looks at. In a funny way, this looking back paves the way for the future more creatively.

The black mass started as a literary invention, with repugnant descriptions that acted as Christian Church propaganda “informing the public …. of the heresies and heinous acts of the Pagans, Cathars, Bogomils, Templars and others who, because of their dualistic philosophies and sometimes Satanic logic, had to be eradicated”. The reference to “Satanic logic” is a bit vague, but you can see the same projection applied to Jews and Muslims, and in fact one theory is that the famous “Templar idol” Baphomet is actually a corruption of the name Mahomet (Muhammed, referring to the Islamic prophet). However:

“A black mass is not the magical ceremony practiced by Satanists. The Satanist would only employ the use of a black mass as a form of psychodrama”

A “black mass” is a parody, and could be loosely applied to any satire on a religious ceremony. LaVey actually considers them to be somewhat redundant, as he views established religious rituals as effective parodies of older (“Pagan”) rituals, so you would just be doing a spoof of a (unconscious) spoof. I get the joke, but I think it would all be in the context really. Everything derives elements from something older, even the original Pagan rituals would have.

What the black mass needs to do is to shock and outrage, in order to be a success. So it’s no use “blaspheming” something that is old hat, or that it is fashionable to parody. This wouldn’t provide the requisite “psychodrama”. So for instance, in 1969 he would have thought of blaspheming eastern mysticism, psychiatry, the psychedelic movement and ultra-liberalism. In contrast:

“Patriotism would be championed, drugs and their gurus defiled, acultural militants would be deified, and the decadence of ecclesiastical theologies might even be given a Satanic boost”

It’s an approach which would be appreciated by punk in the following decade, though you clearly have to be careful to not fall asleep at the wheel. Times keep changing, and the point is to wake people up and free them from a moral trance, not create a new one. LaVey says that the Satanic magus “has always been a catalyst for the dichotomy necessary in moulding popular beliefs”, but I wonder if this Machiavellian self-image is really accurate? We seek to have power over our own lives, and live unimpeded by our own lights, but has there ever been anyone really in charge, or capable of manipulating the creative train wreck of collective human life? I think we can pull off stunts occasionally that have a temporary positive effect, and we can live our lives to bring about the results we want to the best of our ability, but the idea of the magus self-consciously moulding popular belief is I think a fiction.

We then get led on a little history of the black mass, which is enjoyable:

We start in 1666 when the first commercial black mass was performed by La Voison in France, which sets the stereotype.

“Satanism-for-fun-and-games” follows in 18th century England with the Hell Fire Club and Sir Francis Dashwood. He eliminated the gore and conducted rituals of “good dirty fun”, creating colourful and harmless psychodrama for leading lights of the period.

In the 19th century LaVey considers Satanism to have been white washed by “white” magicians trying to perform “black” magic. He considers this to have been a “paradoxical” period for Satanism, with writers such as Baudelaire and Huysmans showing their apparent obsession with “evil” in their literary works.

“The Devil developed his Luciferian personality for the public to see, and gradually evolved into a sort of drawing-room gentleman”

This is the era of Eliphas Levi, and trance mediumship is in vogue. Mention is made of Crowley (who spans the late 19th to the mid 20th centuries), and LaVey notes his humour, and his “self-imposed image of the beast of revelation”. He seems sympathetic to Crowley, but not to his followers taking his esotericism too seriously. He also notes that there were sex clubs using Satanism as a rationale, and that these persisted till his own time.

Thus the black mass developed from a literary invention of the Church, “to a depraved commercial activity, to a psychodrama for dilettantes and iconoclasts, to an ace in the hole for popular media”.

So where does it fit in with real Satanism, and who was practicing Satanic magic before 1666? Who are the real Satanists?

LaVey says that a certain kind of “devil worshipper” was created through the inventions of theologians, but this “evil” character is not necessarily practicing real Satanism. He does not think the real Satanist is as easy to recognize.

Though LaVey considers it an oversimplification to say that every successful person is an unconscious Satanist, he considers that the most powerful and successful people can in a sense be considered the most Satanic, whatever their field. I’d say that brings up a lot of questions as to what “success” really is. Some people would say Paris Hilton is really successful, because she is rich and has been on TV, having been born into it. Some would say Van Gogh is successful, having been a great painter. Some would say the relatively anonymous waitress with a happy family life is successful, because she is really satisfied with her life. You can’t really judge, yet it seems that LaVey is trying to get at something here, and I’m not sure if he isn’t going for a refutation of the entire liberal, egalitarian, hippie dream ideal, just to be contrary to his time.

However, he then goes in for a bit of sly myth spinning, as to which historical figures might have “dabbled” in “the black arts”; a bit of name dropping of the famous and infamous.  I can’t help feeling that he is a bit over impressed by fame and public reputation. But these are people who LaVey claims form links and clues “of the true legacy of Satan … a legacy which transcends ideologies, ethnic, racial and economic differences”. In other words, they were individuals first. That at least I can agree with him on, in terms of what the Satanist is. But LaVey is quite determined in his assertion that Satanists have “always ruled the earth …. by whatever name”. I find this a bit overblown, but if political influence is your thing, I guess you would be interested. I am more interested in ruling my own life than in getting involved in too many collective games.

“In the secret thoughts of each man and woman, still motivated by sound and unclouded minds, resides the potential of the Satanist, as always has been”

It is most essentially the potential of the realized self.

In conclusion

Anton LaVey and the Satanic Bible have had a big influence on several generations of modern Satanists, indeed he launched modern Satanism to all intents and purposes, and the Satanic Bible remains a popular point of departure into Satanism.

You can pick up what I would take to be essentials of Satanic thought from it: the questioning of collective moral authority, the sovereignty of the individual self, the value of fulfilment and gratification as guides to living, when balanced by the needs of the whole self. The living of a full life, of conscious freedom and responsibility. The enquiry into your own values and beliefs. Facing life honestly as it is, without self-pity, self-righteousness or the exaltation of victimhood. Maturity, boundaries, self-realization.

But LaVey gives just one expression of these principles, by his own lights. It is up to you to question and find your own answers and expressions. The Satanic Bible no doubt had a big part to play in launching a movement, but as with any genuinely popular movement, the causes and catalysts are complex; they stimulate, provoke and inspire, but cannot determine.

In some respects Satanism is like a universal solvent, or a “reboot” button, on moral and spiritual belief. That is the power of the individual, and of the self; the hidden god.

continued here

Movie poster for The Exploits of Elaine episode 13, “The Devil Worshippers”, 1914 by Pathé Exchange, publisher. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

² At least at the time of writing The Satanic Bible.

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1 Comment

  1. Pingback: the devil’s field guide (part 2) | Summer Thunder

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