common wealth

The other day I was starting to get quite depressed. It’s something I’ve probably suffered from, on and off and to varying degrees since my late teens, though I’m pretty good at drawing on inner resources I’ve developed over time, and have got some help over the years with counselling, CBT and occasional, short term (and not very successful) medication. I also don’t do Winters well, so there is that seasonal thing.

We lay down for a while, and as I was drifting I got to thinking a great deal about my mother (who died in 2004). We were very alike in some ways, and I think you could say we both had “unusual” relationships to “reality” and its demands, though we mainly handled it differently. I’m very glad of the mother I had (she was very unnarcissistic, not at all into that conventional mother-gave-you-life  bullshit), but I’m quite unsentimental about her. I genuinely appreciated her and liked her as a person though, and thought she did a very honest job of parenting. High five Jean, we even had some laughs together.

She did have a hard life though, and we shared a lot of emotional characteristics, and separation from her was a necessary part of maturing as a person for me. I expressed my appreciation as I was drifting there though.

At some point, either when we got up or shortly before, I realized that the depression I was feeling was in part her’s. You only glimpsed it at times as a child, and forgot it quickly (of necessity), but from behind her fortress of coping there would sometimes slip just a tone in the voice that betrayed what you could only describe as despair. Like I said, we were quite alike, and you need to develop distance if you aren’t going to turn into your parents.

Later I was talking with a friend of mine online who is another Satanist, and he was recounting the community of Satanists he used to be a part of, celebrating together, as a kind of brotherhood. It was very heartening, and funnily enough, I had only shortly before read Anton LaVey’s opinion (in 1969) that Satanists should seek out others to celebrate with:

“The pageantry of religion is what sustains it. When religion consistently becomes a solitary situation it reaches into that realm of self-denial which runs concurrent with anti-social behaviour”

The Satanic Bible

I am used to focussing on the individual aspect of Satanism (indeed I think it is primary), and with the advent of the internet it is possible to be in touch with people as a network rather than  a conventional community, thus neither properly isolated nor in community, but I do realize that there is a need for fellowship and companionship in the actual bodily sense. Where it is possible, this is a very fruitful thing, though it has to be right for us of course.

The other thing that came from chatting with my friend was the shared enthusiasm we had as theists. I actually believe that the appropriate public form of modern Satanism is agnostic and tolerant of many different approaches, but I am by nature a Devil worshipper and I will not deny myself that. And that brings me to what I think was a perennial cause of depression and pessimism for me, which is the conventional veneration of a world supposedly ruled by a “natural” law that excluded me, or of social norms that devalued the lives of me and my loved ones, or of hypocritical moralities. With my gods there is no such requirement to take care of that world and bow to its requirements or norms. It is up to us.

And with that the war is over. The Devil and his darlings make their own way. Peace; just not as you have been taught it.

Unlearning all the bad lessons that keep you unfree can take time. Breaking your forced vows. Looking after your own. It takes time to undo all those things which, set up as they are, leave you in just the place to lose, to not be counted, to be quietly buried.

The “Creator” who knows best. The “greater good” that doesn’t include you. The “karma” that never happens to makes just sense. The “law” that sacrifices those considered moral collateral damage. The collective valuation of lives that is anything but equal. The body of respectable men and women that, when the scab is knocked off, bleed through as villagers with pitchforks and torches in the night. The exhortations to “do no harm”, to save the world, to put others first, when that is not the way the world works, and it turns you into a target and a liability if you aren’t privileged and protected. It takes time to unlearn these habits, and do the real good you can do for yourself and your loved ones. It takes time to learn new ways to be human.

We all need the warmth of faith and common humanity at some level; it’s just part of our make up. It’s not a big moral deal, but it’s like food, or clean air psychically. For some that faith might be in reason and our own capacity to solve the problems we are faced with. Getting to Mars would be pretty hardcore, and it’s about time we picked up where my parents’ generation left off. But some of us need the kind of faith we get from polytheism too, and understanding that it is not monotheism with cool looking angel substitutes tending the Universe is pretty important. In fact it needs to be an anti-monotheism (sorry interfaith, but I don’t want you and your hangers on), just practically.

The Devil to his darlings is that warmth. And we are warlocked with love.

The History of Witches and Wizards, 1720 by Wellcome Trust [CC BY 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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community of stars

I saw an interesting post today about making alliances, how and why it is ok to make alliances with people we disagree with, and the distinction between alliances and community, especially in relation to the Pagan community. It had some valid and lucid points to make, though I had an underlying mixed feeling about it. After having attended the Pagan Pride Parade on Sunday, that also left me with some mixed feelings, even though it was a positive event.

I just feel wary of getting more involved with the Pagan community again, and maybe it is because it is more of an alliance than a community, and an alliance is always somewhat political, and politics always ends up really sucking.

If there was no “Pagan” label, what would I have lost? I would still have occultism and mysticism. There would be divination, earth mysteries, dowsing, magic. There would be love of Nature. There would be art, and the valuation of sexuality. There would be the paranormal and poetry. There would probably be a means of getting together with other people on those interests and pursuits too.

The one thing I would feel like I would had lost out on is the sincere interaction with other polytheists, maybe the experienced realization of polytheism itself. I needed other Pagans to help me recognize myself and the nature of my own experience. And I got most of that via the internet in fact, though not all of it. And there were times when I was helped, and hope I helped others. And there were some shared celebrations, when the tide was high, and more importantly friends that I do not forget.

In terms of my “community”, well that is a number of people physically, and a wider circle virtually, who I actually have meaningful relationships and bonds with. By no means are most of them Pagan. Some of them are local to us, some not. But they are real relationships. Which is why I am a bit nonplussed when big name Pagan “elders” say they deserve support as elders from “the community” at large. Most people have actual dependants and cares to look after, and while I can sympathize with anyone in hard times (and by all means do ask for help), being an author or public figure doesn’t make someone your dad, or your neighbour. That’s just how it works. But if you have money to spare, of course it’s fine to do your favourite author a favour. But I just don’t feel that Pagans at large are my actual community, or that the Paganism that others have crafted is mine. Sometimes I feel like the assumptions of a previous generation just no longer hold, certainly not for me, and it seems for quite a few other people too. Sometimes I feel like I am watching the agreements of old activist hippies, young hipsters and academics, when as far as I am concerned, the bubble has already burst.  It’s not always just the nature of the “community” that you draw back from, sometimes it’s the assumptions of the “alliance”.

Much  as I enjoyed Pagan Pride, support it and will go again, at the end of the day I have come to really appreciate having gone my own way over the last few years. But then that’s part of why it is good to experience things for yourself. You learn something either way.

I do love all the independent, alternative voices there are out there, and I really love having the internet to make the contact possible. There are so many small voices that I find valuable. In fact sometimes it is a small voice that has made the biggest difference.

Everyone counts, and you are all stars.

By Juanedc from Zaragoza, España (Monegrillo (Explore!) Uploaded by juanedc) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

coming together

Rainbow Pagans UK

When you think of modern Paganism and Pagan community, I think you cannot avoid how varied and divergent we are. People often describe “Paganism” as an “umbrella term”, which is a bit like saying “don’t worry, it doesn’t actually exist”. But where you draw the line between a something and a collection of somethings can actually be fairly arbitrary. That can be an assertion rather than a description.

In emotional, and broadly social terms, I would say that Paganism actually does exist though, but it is a broad and sprawling church with out walls or priests. It is a persisting subculture, and no matter how many times it is colonized by would be leaders or representatives, no matter how many times it is carved up by specific identities and aspirations (and I think all these things are both natural and predictable), the substrate remains and goes…

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sex, pornography and human community

Reactions to pornography are often very strong, simply to the idea of it, never mind the actual phenomenon, which tends to mask the fact that things labelled pornography or “pornographic” can be very different in nature, circumstance and function.

The word “pornography” goes back to a Greek word relating to prostitution, and that term goes back to an Indo-European root relating to “selling” (see podictionary and online etymology dictionary). So we’re already onto the conjunction of sex, commodification and money right back then. Pornography in this very old sense would have related to writing about prostitution, but the link back to prostitution is there. I am no scholar of Greek social history, but we all know you don’t buy something you can get for free, nor sell something without a market, so there are implicit questions about the valuation and freedom of sexuality even that far back.

The word starts to appear in its more modern form in the 1880s (possibly earlier in the French speaking world), relating to depictions of sex, or “portrayal of explicit sexual subject matter for the purposes of sexual excitement and erotic satisfaction” (Wikipedia) and “salacious writing or pictures” (online etymological dictionary). Here we are getting a more explicit focus on attitudes and judgements about sex and sexual arousal itself. Feminist critiques of pornography used to focus on exploitation of human subjects though (specifically of women in this case) when I was young. I was very aware of this criticism of porn, and selective as it is, I think there is no doubt that people have been exploited in the production of pornography at times, even though this is not always so. Many kinds of depiction of women and men, not just in pornography, can be seen to have an oppressive subtext or overt message, which was another analysis of the destructive action of pornography. But just how far and wide, and universally, does this apply?

If we wish to separate out the exploitation aspect, then I think we look to the choice, autonomy and conditions of those working in pornography. Are they free, are they safe, are they reasonably paid, is it their free choice (given that we’re talking about work)? Slavery and abuse are unacceptable under any circumstances – but why do we have difficulty decoupling the erotic from this area?

If we separate out the exploitation aspect, is paying for something bad in itself? Well, only if we disapprove of it apparently. We pay doctors for their services, in spite of healing being considered something approaching a sacred responsibility. We pay priests similarly. Do we object to these people “prostituting” their services? No, not really, though in the UK we have transferred the transaction to taxation in the case of doctors. Financial transactions can certainly distort human relationships, depending on the nature of the transaction and the attitudes of those taking part.

We live in a society which has had a problem with sex for a very, very long time. Think back to the various obscenity trials and controversies we have seen over the years, and the role that the term “pornographic” used to play in the censorship of writers and artists. Think back to the hounding of DH Lawrence and the book burnings of Lady Chatterly’s Lover. Think of Henry Miller, and of Ginsberg’s “Howl”. Think of the vandalising of ancient statues and sculptures by colonialists and missionaries. I can remember performance artists ending up in court on such charges in the 1970s, and Gay News being prosecuted on related blasphemy charges about the same time. Remember the controversy over Cronenberg’s “Crash”? There’s clearly a powerful censoring and anti-sexual (and sometimes anti-intellectual) cultural drive that can come into play here which really has nothing to do with preventing or critiquing exploitation, and it meshes with attitudes towards “pornography” and eroticism. These are strands which we need to separate and gain some clarity over, yet they are strands which many still cannot achieve that clarity on.

Given that our society still suffers from anti-sexual attitudes, and has not kicked the habit of it being ok to exploit people, it would be something of a miracle if the entire field of pornography did not somewhere reflect these distortions. But is pornography the problem, or is it “us”? Is porn the demon seed, or is it our own problem with sex and human equality? Is porn the malaise, or is it an attempt to articulate an answer in spite of the malaise? Is it even that much different to the rest of life? It’s sometimes hysterical detractors characterize it as “bestial”, “dirty”, “perverted”, which is odd given that a good deal of it does seem strikingly plastic, verging on the hilarious at times. But what these terms really point to is the body, sex and sexuality and human difference. Or rather, they point to our inexplicable trouble with these things.

While for some porn is a simple source of pleasure, or employment, or mirth, for others it is something akin to moral panic, which they would feel guilty of even by association. This seems strange in this day and age, but it is so. The only word really I can think of is shame, with a whiff of damnation, to describe the complex of quite irrational reactions surrounding porn for some – surprising given that these folks presumably do not view porn themselves, let alone make it.

I think a lot of this comes down to what sex can and can’t be for, in the society we live in, and I think we have one hell of a moral hangover. Where sex had to be for procreation in order to be sanctified, then of necessity we made of sex and sexuality an iceberg with an impossibly policed “tip”. Most of the iceberg is below the surface. Every time the sea moved, you had problems. It’s a big iceberg, and the sea of Life never stops moving. You can see many driven and convoluted scenarios arising from this scheme, but is it not the denial of sexuality that powers these scenarios, rather than the implicit nature of sexuality and eroticism?

One question here is: do the things we associate with things like pornography and prostitution make sense in a sexually free world? Sexuality is a mighty force, which for some reason we think less sacred and more morally culpable than the drive to have a child say, even in these horrendously over populated times. Procreation and sexuality are two different things, circumstantially linked for heterosexuals, but only some of the time at that. If these things were not so, then we would view someone expressing the desire to have sex with the same rosy glow we are encouraged to feel when someone says “I want to have a baby”. At least we’d say “congratulations”! Until we kick the habit of procreative necessity, and can look at everything calmly and reasonably, then we are stuck on that wobbly iceberg where everything is perfect and pure, but actually nothing really is. These issues are also another reason why effective contraception was such a landmark development, and why it led to greater sexual freedom for all I feel.

But in an area as contrived and conditioned as pornography, does any real sexual liberation happen? Well actually yes, as a side effect, or more particularly dependent on our relationship to it, and the type of porn. I only really have experience of viewing male gay porn, and a good deal of it seems to be, as I said above, plastic and unintentionally funny. I hope some of the actors have a sense of mirthful irony in this, because I do think a good few viewers enjoy both the comedy and any incidental turn on. Anything that helps us laugh at sex and the predicament of human desire is a good thing, and if it turns us on as well, that’s even better. We are in a sense laughing at ourselves, and celebrating what human beings will do in honour of the erotic.

Having said that, in general it’s pretty much a turn off seeing even attractive men being professional in front of a camera; the posed tough scowl, the faked passion, the “come hither” narcissism that somehow sends the libido plummeting. Not just the pose, the formula, but something in the eyes, that makes you feel like you’re actually stuck on top of someone else’s frigid iceberg again. It is emotionally unreal. A good film, or even watching a guy weight lifting, is actually better porn, but of course that isn’t porn at all. But there are of course other things.

If well paid, well treated, autonomous porn models and actors take us away from the old Greek associations of the word to a healthier part of the river, other people have actually burst that river’s banks. The gay Bear community brought about a mind blowing world of non-commercial amateur porn, of men sharing themselves with the adult male community by means of their own cameras on the internet, entirely for free. This was not for money, and this was not formula, it was an overflowing of male generosity and self revelation (and I suspect self discovery in many cases). This was not producers and consumers, plastic “perfection” marketed to the “imperfect” – the “objects” were all subjects themselves, which was very much part of the message of this medium. You could see it in people’s eyes, and their average Joe smiles. Someone real was home, and the lights were on. It wasn’t even porn in the usual sense, because it was freely given. It was genuine “community porn” and that entirely bucks the term.

I think these men gave an enormous amount, in a way which was nurturing, sustaining and profoundly humanizing. For me they brought recognition, empathy and self-understanding to an entire area of sexual manhood during an important time in my life. Beyond that it was sheer celebration of the goodness of the erotic, and may it remain so.

Far from the demonized myth, these men were benevolent, humorous, harmless, ordinary and embracing. The only way in which this was porn was either in a redefined personal sense, or in the sense that it would be judged too sexual and naked, and too candid by an outsider, which is exactly the kind of judgement we need to disregard. They did just that, with immense good will.

Would such a phenomenon have arisen without professional pornography being there in the first place? Given the repressiveness of our sexual history, I don’t know, but I know that professional porn couldn’t do it. Of course they wouldn’t have gone through any of this analysis or theorizing that I just have (any more than I did when I saw it), and thank the gods for that, because they let the real into an area of human sexuality and shared it with us, and debunked all the porn myths in one go, without even thinking about it. What an education. Bless them all.

There is hope.

“solarized version of public domain image by Priwo”

29/1/12 – corrected inaccuracy re payment of priests in the UK.