Books can present themselves as sacred works: “received word.” They can also serve as ceremonial objects containing the teachings of ancestors. Authors share mythoi and logoi. Exchanges occur cross-culturally. Histories are understood to unfold within and share the form of religious myths. History is the latter’s translation and dissemination across space-time. These myths and histories can be mixed and sampled, played with a difference by the storyteller, as they are by Ishmael Reed in Mumbo Jumbo. Stories can be intercut with myths as the two rhyme across time. Stories become circles within circles, as in Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony.
Is it Faustian to wish joy and happiness? Are Utopians Faustian? What about those of us who wish alleviation of suffering through escape from capitalism? Or through religion, education, spirituality, cultivation of land and consciousness — all of which are at least Promethean, if not Faustian, in their defiant aims and ambitions. Projects waged against fate. The Faust character is distinct from the others, though, as he practices magic. Faust visits a crossroads. He makes a deal, sells his soul. The Devil features as a character in the Faust narrative, as does a demon named Mephistopheles. The latter name appears in the late-16th-century Faust chapbooks, stories concerning the life of the historical figure on which the Faust character is based, an ambitious scholar named Johann Georg Faust. The author of these chapbooks remains anonymous. The proper response to Faust, I suppose, is the one offered by Fatima Bhutto: “nothing on earth can be gifted to compensate for injustice.”
Ishmael Reed begins his novel Mumbo Jumbo with a dictionary definition of the title phrase. He does so to demonstrate that White Americans have appropriated this phrase. They use it ignorantly, disrespectfully, forgetful of its origins. The term derives from the Mandingo ma-ma-gyo-mbo, meaning “a magician who makes the troubled spirits of ancestors go away” (7). Mandingo or Mandinko is a language spoken in West Africa (Guinea-Bissau, The Gambia, and Senegal). Reed tells us with his title that his book is the work of such a magician. How would that work? Who are these “ancestors”? Are they black? Are they white? Why are they “troubled”? Where is “away”? I flip through old journals reading trance-scripts from the dawn of the Trump era (just after the election but prior to the inauguration). How was I able to write like that? Is it because consciousness is able to be in two or more places at once? Or is it on account of them loas? Nina Simone recorded three tracks based on originals by Bahamian artist Exuma: “Obeah Woman,” “Dambala,” and “22nd Century.”
I wrote about the latter song four years ago. Exuma called himself “the Obeah man.” The cover of his first album bore the message, “the future is freedom, the past a chain / the present, anybody’s game.” PaPa LaBas is described as an “obeah-man” (45) in Mumbo Jumbo.
Due to health problems, Ada Lovelace started using opium “systematically,” as her biographer notes, from 1841 onward. Her mentor and collaborator Charles Babbage is an interesting figure, too, the author of both “On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures” as well as the Ninth Bridgewater Treatise, a work on natural theology. The fourth chapter of the latter work is titled “On the Account of the Creation in the First Chapter of Genesis.” Scanning the chapter’s opening pages, one discovers references to geology. Most mysterious of all, though: Ada’s letters to Babbage contain references to a “lady-fairy” and “Fairy-Guidance.” Babbage’s nickname for Ada was “Enchantress of Number.” Her hope, apparently, was to “bequeath to the generations a Calculus of the Nervous System.” As her health declined in the 1850s to the point where opium no longer controlled her pain, she began to experiment with cannabis. Ada was largely forgotten after her death until her rediscovery by figures like Alan Turing nearly 100 years later in the 1940s and 1950s. The key to all of this magic, I think, is what Ada called “cycles” and “cycles of cycles,” or loops and nested loops.
Magic is a narrative device deserving of reinvention. Realism may be capitalism’s reigning mode — but it, too, is no more than a genre, and like all genres, emerges embedded in a particular historical narrative. Realism, in other words, is not reality; it can be supplanted through reemergence of magic. This reemergence hinges upon invention of the future by way of remembrance of a forgotten past among oppressed and colonized peoples. But the potentials available in forms of magic other than technology frighten Westerners into disbelief. Is there a way for disbelievers to be healed of this disbelief?
If I had a library, I’d visit it mornings, evenings, I’d look for books by David Henderson, co-founder of the Umbra writer’s workshop, a group that met on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the early 1960s. At one point Henderson was married to the black feminist scholar Barbara Christian. I have a book of his on Jimi Hendrix somewhere in my basement. By the 1980s, though, Henderson started publishing with North Atlantic Books, a press founded by Miranda July’s father, the writer Richard Grossinger. I retrieved a book of Grossinger’s from my basement earlier this week. He seems to be quite a character — a magician of sorts who apprenticed under Robert Kelly. At some point I should also look for work by Calvin Hernton, another of the writers associated with the Umbra group. Hernton studied with R.D. Laing, participating in the Institute of Phenomenological Studies and the Antiuniversity of London before returning to the US in 1970. Ishmael Reed once described him as “a modern-day warlock…the man faltering governments keep their eye on. The native who has his own cabala.”
Wizards often stroke their beards as they think. Picture it — as in a Halloween costume. ‘Tis a trope of the genre — as with Merlin, Gandalf, and Dumbledore. Wizards don’t have to fit this image — but there’s a long tradition of bearded wizards, sages who clutch staffs, canes, walking sticks, wands. The particulars vary from culture to culture. Tolkien is said to have acquired the trope from an ancient Finnish epic called The Kalevala, at the heart of which is a mage named Vainamoinen — old, wise, long beard, performs magic using voice and song. Esoteric secrets and forgotten knowledges grant all such figures special powers, distinct from the powers of their peers.
The Fool is Tarot’s main character, the first and last of its “Major Arcana.” Are all of us fools? Or do the cards only speak for those who learn to read them? Are fools the ones drawn to the Tarot? Or is the Fool archetype one each of us manifests and embodies time and again, the pattern of the journey a timeless one — universal, perennial? Sarah Cargill, host of the Tarot for the End of Times podcast, reminds me that after The Fool comes The Magician. The latter is a figure who makes use of the Word, setting in motion an alchemical process: an exertion of intent, followed by a release (so sayeth the podcaster) of “egoic attachment to results.” Stepping away is a crucial part of the manifestation process. One must place faith in the invisible and trust in the larger unfolding.
Discussing Pearl with students, I find myself wondering why the poem — a “visio” or “dream-vision” from the late-fourteenth century — begins and ends in a “garden of herbs.” An hour later, a book turns up in a bin at Goodwill: Paul Beyerl’s The Master Book of Herbalism. The book includes a long midsection titled “The Herbalist as a Magical Practitioner.” What do we moderns know, I wonder, about the medieval psychopharmacopeia? Beyerl helped to found an Earth-focused Wiccan organization called the Rowan Tree Church, legally incorporated in 1979. Members study and practice a tradition known as Lothloriën (named, I assume, after one of the Elven homelands in Tolkein’s Middle-Earth). In another book of his called A Wiccan Bardo, Revisited, Beyerl notes that the Lothloriën tradition works with archetypes and symbols that are compatible with Buddhist and Native American traditions as well as Neo-Paganism. Reading Beyerl is a bit like reading M.C. Richards: one senses in the wisdom of his prose the presence of a teacher in service of the Good.
Driving a shady, tree-lined section of road on the way to work the other day, I remember feeling mildly disappointed by the line of cars passing in the opposite lane, wishing there were more VW buses, not just to beautify the drive, but to reinvent reality as a place of eupsychian possibility. Lo and behold: there before me this morning, a gorgeous white and red one, restored, pristine, passing me at the same point where I’d wished it the day prior. A magic bus! And with it, a lesson: stay open to the possibility of its appearance. Reflecting on it afterwards, sunlight just so, I imagine colors and textures from the pages of old comic books, as in Ed Piskor’s Hip Hop Family Tree or X-Men: Grand Design. Later for that, I tell myself, and meet some friends for drinks.