No So Innocent

Mark Twain’s best-selling book in his own lifetime was his first commercially produced one: The Innocents Abroad.  Originally a set of letters sent during an excursion to parts of the Mediterranean basin with stops in Europe and the Levant, it’s difficult to read today.  Although satirical with much of it clearly for fun, Twain’s humor about those other than Americans embodies an attitude that would fit into Trump’s America a little too comfortably.  Other religions are strange and therefore wrong, for example.  People in the regions visited did not bathe frequently enough and were often singled out for their looks.  There’s something rascally about the behavior of the American visitors, chipping away at monuments so that they might take a piece of history home with them, yet never failing to feel superior.

I had to remind myself constantly that this is a period piece.  It contains much of the gritty humor for which Twain became justly famous.  Travel broadened him also.  A southern abolitionist, Twain nevertheless never overcame some of the racism into which he was born.  My wife and I were reading the book because of its early description of western visits to Palestine (there was no Israel at the time).  Keeping in mind that travel to much of that part of the world was expensive (his trip was sponsored by the newspaper for which he worked) and difficult, his account is actually one of the early modern travelogues on what would eventually become a fairly common pilgrimage.  Twain, like all of us, was a product of his time.

Twain’s diary famously reveals what he came to believe about religion.  There are inklings of it here.  Although he refers to the manner of dress of the ship’s passengers as “Christian,” and although he casts aspersions on Islam frequently, he reserves his most biting humor for his own brand.  During their visit to Smyrna (one of the seven cities of the book of Revelation), for example,  he writes, “Thick-headed commentators upon the Bible, and stupid preachers and teachers, work more damage to religion than sensible, cool-brained clergymen can fight away again, toil as they may” (page 327 from the 2018 SeaWolf Press edition).  Still, the assumption of the rightness of Christianity is something that he would eventually come to question.  His humor does often fall flat in an era of government support of racist, sexist tropes.  And the impressions made on those they met was summed up in his contractually-obligated note to the paper: “Many and many a simple community in the Eastern hemisphere will remember for years the incursion of that strange horde in the year of our Lord 1867, that called themselves Americans, and seemed to imagine in some unaccountable way that they had a right to be proud of it” (page 526).  Some things, it seems, haven’t changed despite the time elapsed.

Paranormal Pilgrimages

Although the Allegheny Mountains are hardly the Rockies—they’re much older and gentler on the eye—they harbor many tourist locations.  Even before my daughter attended Binghamton University, I’d been drawn to the natural beauty of upstate New York.  Prior to when college changed everything, we used to take two family car trips a year, predictably on Memorial and Labor day weekends, when the weather wasn’t extreme and you had a day off work to put on a few miles.  One year we decided to go to Sam’s Point Preserve (actually part of Minnewaska State Park) near Cragsmoor, New York.  It features panoramic views, a few ice caves, and, as we learned, huckleberries.  What my innocent family didn’t suspect is that I’d been inspired to this location suggestion by the proximity of Pine Bush.

A friend just pointed me to an article on Smithsonian.com by my colleague Joseph Laycock.  Titled “A Search for Mysteries and Monsters in Small Town America,” Laycock’s article discusses how monster pilgrimages share features with nascent religion.  People report strange encounters with all kinds of creatures and objects, and science routinely dismisses them.  Odd encounters, however, leave lasting impressions—you probably remember the weird things that have happened to you better than the ordinary—and many towns establish festivals or businesses associated with these paranormal events.  Laycock has a solid record of publishing academic books on such things and this article was a fun and thoughtful piece.  But what has it to do with Pine Bush?

Although it’s now been removed from the town’s Wikipedia page, in the mid 1980s through the ‘90s Pine Bush was one of the UFO hot spots of America.  Almost nightly sightings were recorded, and the paranormal pilgrims grew so intense that local police began enforcing parking violations on rural roads where people had come to see something extraordinary.  By the time we got to Pine Bush, however, the phenomena had faded.  There was still a UFO café, but no sign of the pilgrims.  I can’t stay up too late any more, so if something flew overhead that night, I wasn’t awake to see it.  Like Dr. Laycock, I travel to such places with a sense of wonder.  I may not see anything, but something strange passed this way and I want to be where it happened.  This is the dynamic of pilgrimage.  Nearly all religions recognize the validity of the practice.  It has long been my contention, frequently spelled out on this blog, that monsters are religious creatures.  They bring the supernatural back to a dull, capitalist, materialistic world.  And for that we should be grateful.   Even if it’s a little strange.

Supernatural Quest

SupernaturalTwo things we’re told about the supernatural: one, it doesn’t exist and two, it can’t be studied. Of course the vast majority of people in the world don’t buy into number one and hardly care about number two. Both, it seems to me, could be wrong. As Jeannie Banks Thomas says in her introduction to Putting the Supernatural in Its Place: Folklore, the Hypermodern, and the Ethereal, belief in the supernatural is not declining. In fact, the more we’re told by cocksure scientists that all of reality is quantifiable and material, the more we become aware of the many exceptions to the rules. Of course, “supernatural” may be a misnomer. It could be that anything sloughed off into that category is simply not understood well enough to be empirically studied. Thinking back over the history of science I find it ironic that the very system that had to convince people that something couldn’t be seen (many gases) could be deadly. Now if it can’t be seen it can’t exist. We certainly don’t want any deities hanging out around here.

But back to the book. Putting the Supernatural in Its Place is a folkloric study of place. The contributors to the volume look at popular beliefs, some serious, some not, that accrue around certain places. As I’ve often stated on this blog, we are aware as humans that some places are fraught with meaning. Scientifically we know this shouldn’t be true, but we feel it when we approach any space of significance. The contributors to Thomas’ book look to some very interesting places: New Orleans, Salem, St. Ann’s Retreat, Lily Dale, Japan, and even movies and the internet. If any of these places aren’t familiar to you, it’s worth picking up a copy of this accessible book to learn more. Supporting folklore is a very good thing. Folklore, after all, is the wisdom of the people.

The places in this book are rumored to be haunted by ghosts, witches, zombies, vampires, and even fairies. Folklorists, of course, don’t try to prove that beliefs are true. Like any academic they study and analyze. The main form of exploration for the non-academic is the legend quest. Many of us have gone legend questing from time to time. A place where something happened is said to have a certain feel or manifestation, so we go to see what it’s all about. If such trips are given religious sanction we call them pilgrimages. We want to see. But more than that, we want to experience something that the past has left behind. In the part of the year when each night grows longer than the last, my thoughts turn to what is usually termed “the supernatural.” And I, for one, am glad to have able guides along the way to make the simple voyage into a quest.

Year of Poe

Apart from sharing a “middle” name, I would never dare compare myself to Edgar Allan Poe. Yes, I dabble in the literary arts, but every acolyte recognizes a true priest when he sees one. So as my train pulled into Boston, a city that has deep emotional resonances for me, I decided to stop and see where Edgar Allan Poe was born. The actual site is now a parking structure, an unexpected parallel between our emerging universes. All of my childhood homes, with one exception, are now parking lots. Standing at the foot of the memorial plaque near Emerson College, I reflected on my Poe year. I visited his college room at the University of Virginia in February, his one-time apartment in Philadelphia in March, his burial site in Baltimore in August, and now his birthplace. Not in any chronological order, but a voyage of discovery nevertheless.

This is the essence of pilgrimage. It is not rational and not really practical, but it is something people do. With religious intensity. I am in Boston as part of my secular job, but the city has sacred associations for me. I met my wife here, and that single event has changed my entire life. Boston will always be the place where something extraordinary happened to me. Poe did not like Boston, but for me it is the eternal city. Even the places with negative associations stake claims upon us. Over the weekend a friend posted a picture online taken before combat forced his evacuation from Vietnam many years ago. I kept coming back to that picture throughout the day. Lingering. Staring. Even though I’d never been there, it was like place had the ability to haunt those who’d even dared to look.

Poe and my friend are both writers who’ve drawn me into their worlds. What better way is there to learn that the universe is indeed infinite? Looking out my window at a Kenmore Square I recognize only by the giant Citgo sign that shed its garish light on many an evocative student night, I realize even eternal cities change. The last time I was in South Station I was saying goodbye to the woman I hoped, but did not know, would become my wife. Almost as if on cue, ” Lola” by the Kinks spills out of a local store as the Citgo sign flickers to life over the scene of my coming of age. In Boston I will always be twenty-three, wars will be long over, and Poe will remain alive forever.

Sacred Philadelphia

What makes a space sacred? There is no agreement on that issue, but it is clear that considering a specific location numinous, holy, or just special is something that even the most secular do. We trek to the places where something happened, maybe hoping for a personal epiphany or enlightenment. So yesterday I found myself in Philadelphia on the trail of Edgar Allan Poe. Like some other famous figures of the past, Poe was essentially homeless—no place claimed him (though now many do). Several years of his short life were spent in Philadelphia, and only one of his residences still survives there. On a pleasant Saturday it was clear that many others were drawn to this sacred space on pilgrimages motivated by diverse needs and curiosities. My family has gone on literary trips for many years, visiting the places of writers—for, at the end of the day, every piece of sacred writ has a writer.

Poe's house on Spring Garden

I can’t recall a time, after I began to read, when I did not favor Poe. Like some other inspirational figures he lived a short life, frequently rejected by his peers. Sad circumstances haunted him and he expressed them so well. His was a rare gift. Standing in his Philadelphia house, I guess I might have been hoping that, on some level, he might know that his life had touched mine. We all seem to leave an intangible part of ourselves in places we have been. Even the hardest skeptic of the “paranormal” will travel countless miles to come to some location of significance. There is no logical reason to do so. It is perhaps the most human of religious impulses. I saw no specters, heard no ghostly voices. But I saw and listened and wondered.

Writing is among the canon of sacred activities. It is taking what is hidden safely inside the confines of our minds and offering the opportunity to others to read it. Frequently it is ignored, lost in the noise. Life is too busy to sit down and read unless some teacher or professor assigns a task with grade consequences. We miss, however, so many opportunities to explore the legacy bequeathed to us by great minds. Our lives are driven by economics, not enlightenment. Poe died poor and largely unmourned in Baltimore after having called many locations home. Those locations are now shrines. I suspect he may have been very surprised to learn that over a century and a half later some people would attempt to follow in his footsteps for what can only be described as religious reasons.

Where Whoever Walked

No adequate explanation has ever been proffered for the human desire to be where more prominent individuals have been. In its religious guise this is generally called pilgrimage, and the faithful seek out locations where a besainted member of their faith tradition once trod, ate, slept, or died. Going to the place of the famous is a major motivation for the travel industry. We are driven to see what s/he saw, taste what s/he tasted, experience what s/he lived. Just to be there, and contemplate. No one person, however, is universally known by every individual world-wide, so who it is we follow varies widely. This sense hit me once again last night as my family undertook the rare treat of a live show at the Paper Mill Theater in Millburn. Although Hairspray is not the most profound of shows, it was exceptionally well done, and the images on the walls of the foyer reminded us of who had been here before.

The Paper Mill Playhouse, a place of transformation

The shotgun blast of emotions this experience created verges on the religious. There was a time when I too donned the greasepaint (hard to believe for those who’ve only known me with this two-decades worth of old-growth forest on my face), and I know it to be a transcendental experience. The clean-shaven face is a boundless canvas. My own experience was local and small-scale, and certainly not done for fame, but the transformation was palpable. I am sure that actors everywhere share this experience – the apotheosis of becoming someone else. This week in mythology class we discussed Dionysus, the god of such transformations (and theater). A god who travels, a god associated with place, it is easy to understand how Dionysus became so popular, with or without the wine.

An epiphany of Dionysus

Dionysus was the recipient of a mystery cult in antiquity, one that rivaled Christian inroads in the Roman Empire. You see, many people recognized the similarities of Dionysus and Jesus. Both were begotten in unusual ways by their father (the high god), and both were gods of epiphany. Both were gods who understood the human condition – having mortal mothers, who came to people where they were, and who transformed the ordinary into extraordinary. Both were associated with wine – Jesus’ first miracle at Cana showed his theological pedigree – and both had reputations for associating with the less desirable members of society. And yes, both offered resurrection, a means of overcoming the limitations of life itself. Perhaps that is why the rare pilgrimage to the theater is so transcendental. It is pilgrimage and apotheosis all in one. And that is more than most of us might ever hope to achieve, short of encountering Jesus, or Dionysus, himself along the way of our pilgrimages.