Acts of Apostles

“Manifesto,” the poem that launched Banned Book Week 2010, was written by banned author Ellen Hopkins. As a perspicacious undergraduate I know pointed out, each stanza of this poem addresses an aspect of that strange cultural fear known as Banned Book Week. Her line, “false
patriots who live in fear of discourse,” in stanza one makes me tremble each time. You see, it is easy to believe that censorship applies only to Nazis goose-stepping around bonfires with books flying through the air like a Steven Spielberg movie, or even, more recently, The Book Thief (the book is better than the movie), or godless Communists. That fear, however, travels both forward and backward in time. The Patriot Act has been at work effacing liberty for several years now, and people too fond of fear are unwilling to withdraw it. The world of frightening ideas in which we live, however, is nothing new. Literary artists bring us to uncomfortable places. That’s why we read them.

If we turn history’s pages back to the Nazis, we find ourselves sitting in judgment over their cowardly act of book burning. Those who never read of the phoenix are swift to recreate the myth. But we do history a disservice if we stop there. I was recently reminded that burning books has a biblical precedent. According to Acts 19.19, while Paul was performing miracles in Ephesus, those who were converted brought out their books of magic and burned them, to the approval of the nascent Christian movement. A Bible that advocates the burning of books is ironic, for the Bible itself has been banned in parts of the world. What greater crime against humanity can there be than the deliberate destruction of its own cultural heritage? We don’t believe in magic any more, but we still burn books.

NewYorkSocietyForTheSuppressionOfVice

Owen Davies, in his book Grimoires, shows that the practice goes back even further, with Romans burning books of magic as early as 186 B.C.E. There is a perverse symbolism at work here. As someone who admires, but can’t afford, antique books, the thought of ancient documents intentionally destroyed appears as one of the most easily preventable of cultural crimes. Sometimes as I hurry through the Port Authority Bus Terminal to reach my gate, I see the military guards with machine guns and full combat fatigues and I hope that they don’t stop me to search my bag. The only thing I’m carrying is books. Books, however, convey ideas. Banned Book Week reminds us each year that ideas are essential to the life of the mind. They may be burned or banned, but they will live on. The cost, however, may never be fully recovered by the society that permits its ideas to be incinerated.

Banned Magic

Grimoires“If you believe in the power of magic,” Eric Woolfson plaintively sang, “then I can change your mind.” A song that bewitched my younger years, when the atmosphere is just right, it can still bring a silent tear to my eye. Magic is a powerful elixir.

On my own personal almanac of holidays, Banned Book Week is one that takes the most preparation. In anticipation, for it is next week already, I read Owen Davies’ Grimoires: A History of Magic Books. Since this blog doesn’t get nearly the readership of a banned book, I might explain that witches are among my favorite topics. Despite that, and despite growing up with constant curiosity about religion, I only learned about grimoires recently. Davies makes it clear in his book that apart from some standard texts that have been around for a few centuries, the idea of a magic book is really relatively recent. Yes, the Egyptians and Mesopotamians had books of magic, but the concept of a grimoire only really fits the Zeitgeist of medieval Europe particularly well. Such books may draw on or cite oriental wisdom, frequently stepping into the forbidden territory of Arabic learning and alchemy, but they reflect the worldview of the Middle Ages when magic still seemed possible. In earlier centuries conjuring seems to have been subsumed under the miracles associated with Jesus, and we don’t hear much about magi beyond people like Simon Magus.

Davies packs a lot of information into his book, but my reason for focusing on it here, now, is the banned nature of grimoires. Many of them are considered rare and valuable books today, but in their day they were dangerous and forbidden. The concept that an idea can be suppressed is an odd one. In fact, many ideas have a very difficult time finding receptive minds. Once it is written down, however, an idea can circulate. The surest way to guarantee that it will is to ban it. People want to know what is so dangerous about this idea that it must be kept hidden. It makes an idea powerful, esoteric. Forbidden fruit, we all know if we’ll only be honest, is the sweetest.

Grimoires were considered most efficacious when written by hand. Although it took the printing press to proliferate such books, magic was believed to be most potent in the hand-written form. By writing text, one engages intimately with it. This is a reality we are in danger of losing in the computerized age. I grew up with only a second-hand typewriter acquired by my family when I was in high school. Most of what I wrote—for inspiration seldom comes when you’re sitting at your desk—was done by hand. My own little grimoires. Now we’ve added the interface of a keyboard. It is faster, and more efficient. Clinical even. But often the magic seems to be gone. And that is testified in many banned books. They especially, I would aver, believe in the power of magic.

Candle, Book, and Bell

AmericaBewitchedHaving married into a family descended from the surviving relatives of women executed as witches at Salem, I have long been saddened and fascinated by the story. Not just the story, but also by the cultural milieu. We all know about the witch trials and the tragic massacre of innocents (mostly women) that took place in late Medieval and early modern Europe; the Salem miscarriage of justice came at the very end of that, after the start of the Enlightenment. Owen Davies is also fascinated by witchcraft, and his America Bewitched: The story of witchcraft after Salem is an exploration—mostly via newspapers and court trial records—of witchcraft accusations in America that continued up until about the 1950s. The coincidence of the 1950s with the “witch hunts” of McCarthyism will not escape some readers, and indeed, from the time of Arthur Miller’s nemesis on, those who vociferate against witches have kept rather quiet. Unless, of course, you count those who subsequently feared “terrorists” or any other group that might be profiled. We could learn from history, if we’d let ourselves.

Davies’s book brings together largely overlooked, nearly forgotten instances of how many cultures, including that cultural mix of Europeans who were to become “whites,” feared and sometimes killed witches. The difference from Salem was that almost all of these cases took place at the hands of self-appointed accusers (vigilantes) who hounded, punished, or killed someone suspected of being a witch. Surveys still show that a large percentage of people in the United States, although not a majority, believe in witches. It is an idea that has a primal hold on human psyches, and, as Davies points out, it is often used to explain misfortune. As I read this book I reflected how Americans come across as pretty gullible and not exactly sensible in this matter. The germanic strains of immigrants, it seems, were particularly susceptible to such beliefs. We also find witches, however, among Native Americans and African Americans as well. Misfortunate plays no favorites.

There are those who claim technology will save our culture. The other day a friend reminded me of the third of Arthur C. Clarke’s laws: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Even the most scientific of us knows, whether or not s/he will admit it, that “spooky action at a distance” does occur. It is perhaps only a matter of time before we find the hidden laws that operate the mechanism, but I can’t help but feel a little bit uncanny when I see more and more lifelike robots operating with what seem like human intentions. Of course, those intentions are programmed by humans. And it is often otherwise rational adults who with gun in hand, up until fairly recent times, accused flesh-and-blood neighbors as witches. America Bewitched can be a scary book, especially since unlike vampires, witches do cast their reflections in a mirror.