Of late my mind has been circling back to a scene from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, one of the passions of my insufficiently misspent youth. The scene in question comes early in the third volume of that sprawling trilogy, as the cavalry of the kingdom of Rohan hurry to the rescue of their allies in the city of Minas Tirith. Hostile armies block the way and all seems lost, but in the nick of time Ghân-buri-Ghân, chief of the tribespeople of the White Mountains, comes to their aid, showing the king of Rohan a hidden route that gets them past the enemy and into striking range of the battle that matters. All the while vast clouds of volcanic smoke have blotted out the sun. As the riders of Rohan and their guides reach the edge of the battlefield, however, something shifts:
“Ghân-buri-Ghân squatted down and touched the earth with his brow in token of farewell. Then he got up as if to depart. But suddenly he stood looking up like some startled woodland animal snuffling a strange air. A light came in his eyes.
“‘Wind is changing!’ he cried, and with that, in a twinkling as it seemed, he and his fellows had vanished into the glooms, never to be seen by any Rider of Rohan again.”
As it turned out, Ghân-buri-Ghân was correct; the wind was changing, and with it a tide of events that was shaping the history of Middle-earth turned and began to flow the other way. That scene has been coming to mind, in turn, because some similar tide seems to be shifting around us in the affairs of our less romantic but equally troubled world. The wind is changing, and a great many of the apparent certainties of the recent past are much less certain than they once were.
One hint of change in the air came my way last week. As I think most of my readers are aware, I host a weekly ask-me-anything session Mondays on my Dreamwidth journal for people who are interested in occultism. It gets a broad range of questions, as you can imagine. Monday before last, one question was from a young man who was trying to break the habit of masturbating to pornography, and who had noticed that something that wasn’t part of himself—something that seemed to have a personality and an agenda of its own—was pushing him to keep up the habit.
A lot of people dismiss such things with sneering contempt—the reaction so often deployed just now to quash ideas that are too far out of step with the approved narratives of our time. As just noted, however, the point of my “Magic Monday” sessions is to field questions about occultism, and it so happens that traditional Western occultism has a fair amount to say about beings who don’t happen to have physical bodies, but can interact with human beings. Yes, the usual term for these beings is “spirits.” So the young man and I discussed what occultism has to say about this class of parasitic spirits and how to get rid of them. It was far from the only question I fielded that Monday, and once I closed things up I thought no more of it.
Wednesday came around, and half a dozen readers of mine let me know that Rod Dreher had posted an article, “Porn Is Demonic, Says Top Occultist,” which cited me at some length to bolster an argument that pornography ought to be banned by law. Dreher’s an interesting cat; a senior editor at The American Conservative and an Eastern Orthodox Christian, he’s among the more thoughtful voices of the new Christian conservatism. Despite the differences between his religion and mine, some of our ideas occasionally come within shouting distance of one another. This wasn’t one of those points of agreement; I hadn’t said that pornography is demonic, after all, and I don’t agree that a legal ban on pornography is a useful notion. (It astonishes me that a century on, so many people still haven’t learned the lessons of the Prohibition fiasco.)
So I posted an essay on my Dreamwidth journal making these points, and between that and Dreher’s original post on The American Conservative, there was quite the lively discussion for a few days. Of course some Christians castigated Dreher for quoting an occultist, and of course some of them dragged out the shopworn lie that occultists worship the Christian devil. (No, we don’t, and it’s long been a source of wry amusement to me that so many Christians seem to think that the ninth commandment—“Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor”—doesn’t apply if their neighbor belongs to some other religion.) Meanwhile, some Neopagans waded into the debate to castigate me. Typical was one who said he’d been involved in Neopaganism for twenty years and had never encountered the ideas I’d discussed.
That didn’t surprise me at all. Back in the day—i.e., further back than the twenty years waved about by the commenter—most Neopagans had at least heard of Dion Fortune, the English occultist whose studies of the magical dimensions of sexuality have done most to shape my own take on the subject. Unfortunately that fairly basic degree of occult literacy is hard to find in today’s Neopagan scene, and don’t bother asking about less famous figures of occult history such as Andrew Jackson Davis and P.B. Randolph, who also had quite a bit to say about the subject. Ironically, Fortune’s work had plenty of influence on the Neopagan movement in its formative years; so, indirectly, did P.B. Randolph—his teachings reached Wicca’s inventor-in-chief Gerald Gardner by way of Theodor Reuss and Aleister Crowley, and did a lot to shape Wiccan concepts of sexuality and the Great Rite. You’ll find very few people in today’s Neopagan scene who know that, though.
All in all, it was a modest tempest in a couple of very small teapots, but it brushed up against collective cultural, political, and spiritual shifts on a much larger scale.
To begin with, the young man who asked my advice is far from alone. I’ve had other young men ask me similar questions. What’s more, off beyond the restricted circles in which it would occur to someone to seek advice from an occultist, there has emerged a substantial movement of young men who are uncomfortable with the roles of masturbation and pornography in their lives, and have decided to do something about it. You’ll find cryptic labels such as “nofap” and “pornfree” splashed across various corners of the internet these days, markers of a rising subculture that’s begun to explore the possibilities of self-discipline, and to reject the facile and heavily marketed notion that the only thing you can do with a desire is give into it, preferably by handing over money to a corporation somewhere.
Can this be taken too far? Of course. The opposite of one bad idea is usually another bad idea, and it’s entirely possible that a good share of the nofap subculture will manage to extract itself from the frying pan of obsessive sexual addiction only to plop into the fire of obsessive sexual repression, with its usual cargo of self-righteous ego preening, pervasive hypocrisy, and frantic hatred of the sexualized Other. That risk doesn’t make a movement toward the balanced middle ground a bad idea, nor does it justify the remarkably shrill pushback the nofap scene has gotten from the defenders of the status quo.
I’m thinking here of a recent and rather hysterical article in Rolling Stone—“hysterical” referring both to the emotional tone and the level of unintentional comedy—insisting that any young man who decides not to wallow in onanistic excess must surely be an alt-right Trump supporter who devotes the time he’s freed up from masturbation to stomping on women and minorities with hobnailed boots. No doubt I’m showing my age here, but I recall a time when liberals of the sort who read Rolling Stone were all over the notion that people ought to have the right to decide what kind of sexual expression is right for them, and when a good many people on the Left asked reasonable questions about the way that pornography promotes the objectification of women.
Those days are long gone now, and that isn’t just because pornography was most of what kept the internet from going broke in its early years. It’s an interesting detail of history that certain kinds of repressive society fear what’s left of their virtues far more than they fear their vices. I’m thinking here of James Francis’ 1994 book Subversive Virtue: Asceticism and Authority in the Second-Century Pagan World, which chronicles the pervasive hostility of the Roman imperial establishment toward the principled asceticism of the Stoic movement. Stoics were routinely exiled from Rome or subjected to other legal penalties. The logic is quite straightforward: those who are dominated by their passions are easy to dominate in other ways, while those who can control themselves pretty reliably can’t be controlled by anyone else.
Those historical parallels are on few minds these days. We’re used to think of youth subcultures as libertines, contending against a puritanical status quo. Now we’ve got a puritanical subculture of youth contending against a libertine status quo, and fielding the same sort of ranting condemnation from Rolling Stone that Rolling Stone itself used to get, before it sold out and became a well-polished mouthpiece for the corporate culture of our day. Wind is changing…
The handful of angry responses I fielded from Neopagans were themselves another marker of the changing wind, not least because the arguments they made were basically political in nature, evidence of the hollowing out of the movement they represent. I’m not sure how many people outside the Neopagan scene these days realize that Neopaganism at this point is in freefall. Look around and you can see the signs. Twenty years ago, most urban areas in the US were dotted with “witch shops,” little stores catering to the Neopagan trade with books, herbs, trinkets, classes, and the like; nearly all of those have gone out of business since then. Witchvox, for many years one of the premier Neopagan networking sites, will be going offline forever at the end of the year; Pantheacon, for many years one of the largest Neopagan conferences, has announced that the conference next February will be its last.
There are plenty of reasons for the collapse of the Neopagan movement, and I discussed some of them in a talk I gave in 2009 (it’s reprinted in my anthology A Magical Education, on the off chance you’re interested). One reason I didn’t anticipate at the time is that a very large share of Neopagans in the US flung themselves into the attempt to use magic to overturn the results of the 2016 election, and—well, let’s just say the results have not exactly been a testimony to the power of Neopagan magic. It’s reached the point that when I read, a few weeks before the British general election earlier this month, that a group of British witches were setting out to use the same methods to win the election for Labour, I commented to my wife that Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party was sure to win by a landslide—as it then promptly did.
I’ve discussed at some length in this blog how magic—the art and science of causing change in consciousness in accordance with will—can be, and has been, used as part of a campaign for political change. To make that happen, though, you have to have a good technical mastery of the methods you’re using, you have to have a clear sense of the landscape of ideas and emotions you want to influence, and above all else, you have to realize that you can fail. That last detail is the stone over which the “Magic Resistance” in the US and the “Witch the Vote” project in Britain tripped, fell flat, and bloodied their noses.
I recall with some amusement the airy insistence, by one organizer of the campaign in the US, that since the arc of history bends toward justice, and since justice could only mean what he said it meant, the garbled symbolism and inept rituals he was deploying against Trump were sure to triumph. In some other world, maybe; in ours, the results of the “Magic Resistance” have been a textbook case of what happens when you take a foam rubber athame to a knife fight. Since too many of the people involved seem to be unable to consider the paired possibilities that their cause is not as just as they think it is and their grasp of magical theory and practice is inadequate to the considerable challenges of political magic, I expect to see most of them respond to their ongoing string of political defeats by deciding that magic obviously doesn’t work.
This sort of disillusionment is a common feature of a recognizable cycle in American history, in which the interests of the avant-garde cycle from politics to spirituality and back again over a period of about one human lifetime. Thus spirituality held sway as a focus of popular culture from the late 1880s through 1929, when the stock market and the Theosophical Society crashed very nearly together—the latter collapse is less famous than the former, but those who look up the early career of Jiddu Krishnamurti can learn all about it. Those who put all their hopes on an imminent transformation of the world were just as disappointed by the non-arrival of the World Teacher in 1929 as their descendants were by the failure of the pseudo-Mayan prophecies of 2012, and a great many of them reacted by abandoning spirituality altogether and turning to political action instead.
Politics thus took over as a central theme from the 1930s until the late 1970s, when the great wave of political innovation and activism that crested during the 1960s finished breaking and going back out to sea. It was replaced in turn by the New Age movement, Neopaganism, the second wave of Christian fundamentalism, and the “angry atheist” movement. Now those are cracking beneath the weight of their failures, and the pendulum is heading the other way. Friends who watch youth culture have told me of young people they know burying themselves in the Federalist Papers, looking for a politics that transcends the crass kleptocracies of the present and offers some way out of the false choices being pushed on them by the corporate media.
So I wasn’t surprised to be denounced by Neopagans whose arguments were basically political in nature, and who demonstrated an embarrassing ignorance of teachings that were widely known in Neopagan circles a few decades ago. I expect to see new political ideas and movements springing up in the decades ahead, while existing alternative spiritual movements either buckle down for the long term and accept a period of contraction, on the one hand, or pop like soap bubbles on the other. That’s par for the course at such periods, just as similar processes affect alternative political movements at the other end of the cycle.
And occultism? It will do what it always does in such periods, and circle back to established traditions. It was during the last period of political focus that Albert Reidel brought the modern alchemical revival to North America, Israel Regardie’s publication of The Golden Dawn laid the foundations for decades of American Hermeticism, and astrology quietly established itself as a major presence in American public life. It interests me to notice each Monday just how many people are interested in old-fashioned occultism of the sort Dion Fortune taught during the corresponding period of English cultural history. Wind is changing…
Of course things are shifting on a broader scale as well. The Conservative triumph in the recent British general election, as perceptive observers have pointed out, marks an immense shift in British political life. For a century it was axiomatic that the working classes voted Labour while the middle and upper classes voted Conservative. Under Tony Blair, Labour reoriented itself (as “New Labour”) to promote the interests of the middle classes against those of the working classes, while counting on the working classes to turn out and vote Labour anyway out of a misplaced sense of loyalty. That worked for a while, but it convinced Labour’s middle class leadership that they could tell the rank and file of the party what they were supposed to want, rather than listening to them and finding out what they actually wanted.
The rank and file eventually decided that the only way to get the Labour party leadership to listen to them was to speak in the language of electoral defeat. A great many working class Democrats in Midwest states decided to phrase things in the same language in the US election of 2016, though the Democratic leadership proceeded to stuff its fingers in its ears and shout “La, la, la, I can’t hear you” at the top of its lungs thereafter. That’s why it’s axiomatic among the Democratic mainstream that those who voted for Trump can only have done so because of racism, sexism, or some other currently unfashionable form of prejudice. After all, to abandon that claim—disingenuous as it is—would be to admit that working people in America have their own needs and wants and interests, which are not necessarily the same as the ones their soi-disant betters, the self-proclaimed “good people,” wish to assign to them.
Will the new leadership of the Labour Party make the same mistake? If they do, there’s a good chance that the same working class voters will repeat themselves even more loudly at the next election. One way or another, though, the conventional wisdom of a century of British politics has been overturned. An equivalent upset is in process here in the United States, though I suspect it will take either a Trump victory in 2020 or a wave of indictments of Democratic Party apparatchiks to make that sink in. Since we’re very likely to see both those happen over the course of the next year, though, we can take it as given.
One way or another, the wind is changing, and a great many other things can be expected to change in the years immediately ahead. As I recall the aftermath of Ghân-buri-Ghân’s utterance in the scene described at the beginning of this essay, for that matter, it occurs to me that the defenders of the conventional wisdom of our time might want to listen carefully for the sound of distant horns. Will they do so? That’s a question that occultists can’t answer.