What little Pagan philosophy I’ve read has been a little scant on actual theory on the world or, for that matter, theory. There’s plenty of advice on how to run a ritual, or what sort of wand to make for a specific purpose, and even, to some degree, cautious conjecture on how to approach certain presences. Practical advice abounds everywhere, oftentimes contradictory (wand or athame? white cloth or black? One goddess or many?), but for those looking for an actual theory of the world, or for a framework of understanding how Paganism relates to sex, or politics, or economics, or even the world around us, there’s very little for the seeker to read.
So I’ve learned to look elsewhere, to cobble bits and pieces from other sources to build what I can of a theory of Pagan thought. The work of Slovenian philospher Slavoj Zizek, while quite Atheist and Materialist, can almost function as a Pagan theory of Disenchantment and Alienation, if you can ignore his occasional but quite perceptive digs on Neopagan universalism.
Similarly useful (but problematic) is the specifically anti-Modern, anti-Pagan Catholic writer, G.K. Chesterton. In fact, his defense of Catholic sensibilities, Orthodoxy, could perhaps be seen as the greatest theory of Pagan understanding, a near perfect work cutting through all the nonsense of Modernism with the dancing sword of Pagan thought if it weren’t for his insistence on calling it all “Catholic.”
Of particular note is Chesterton’s conception of the “Mystic:”
Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity. The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic. He has permitted the twilight. He has always had one foot in earth and the other in fairyland. He has always left himself free to doubt his gods; but (unlike the agnostic of to-day) free also to believe in them. He has always cared more for truth than for consistency. If he saw two truths that seemed to contradict each other, he would take the two truths and the contradiction along with them. His spiritual sight is stereoscopic, like his physical sight: he sees two different pictures at once and yet sees all the better for that.
And my personal favorite passage, his analysis of the problems of Naturalism:
That is what the moderns mean when they say that the ancients did not “appreciate Nature,” because they said that Nature was divine. Old nurses do not tell children about the grass, but about the fairies that dance on the grass; and the old Greeks could not see the trees for the dryads.” (emphasis mine)
But for all his brilliance, Chesterton is often alternately misogynist, homophobic, and sometimes quite downright useless in his insistence that Christianity is somehow the savior of Paganism. Reading him is equal parts utter joy and frustration. But I’ve taken what I can of his work, on account of there being no such thing as Pagan theory.
Until Judith O’Grady’s book arrived in the mail.
“I see visions and hear voices.”
So starts perhaps one of the most brilliant books I’ve had the chance to read in quite some time, full of probably the most poignant observations of what it’s like to hear gods, to be, as she calls it, “God-Speaking” and being “God-Bothered.”
“The historical way of describing my perceptual reality is to call me a visionary, a seer, or a mystic. All serious words and good ones, but the way I think of it is as a conversational two-way street….This whole process I call God-Bothered because, really, the Gods don’t enter into communication with us to pat us on the back or congratulate us on a job well done but instead to give us difficult tasks and teach us unpleasant truths. (2)
O’Grady has an intimate understanding of not only what it’s like to find yourself speaking to Gods, but precisely what it means for the rest of your life, your interactions for others, and that very strange and quite difficult act of living in several worlds at once, the mystic’s “stereoscopic sight” to which Chesterton refers.
The most difficult aspect of that balance? The question of sanity.
And that is the crux of the problem for the modern God-Speaker. Being crazy. Actually, being thought to be crazy and being crazy for real, which can be two quite different things. (5)
She calls her trance practice, rightly, “getting on the Crazy-Train,” and it’s impossible not to nod in agreement with her description of what it’s like to get aboard:
I go into trance, and I am offered a vision–I am at the station and the Crazy-Train pulls in….Beings may enter my car or compartment and sit down for a chat, if I respond. I will not descend onto the dark, graffities, broken-down platform of Destructive Thinking even though it too is a stop on the line. The train will eventually pull into the terminus and I will be able to tour the immense and impressively glittering station of Visionary Experience before I either die (always a slight possibility especially in traditional societies) or travel back where I came largely unchanged except for new and significant knowledge” (12-13)
But here is where one begins to see precisely what distinguishes a Pagan, Animist, Polytheist ethic from Chesterton’s conception of what a Mystic is on about. While both acknowledge the living in multiple worlds and with multiple truths aspect of mysticism, O’Grady, who is not only a Druid but also a biologist, asserts that the position of a God-Speaker is one of consistency and of action:
‘Logically consistent’ is one of the benchmarks I employ in determining which side of the visionary/crazy line I am on. And, unlike Post-Moderns, I am continually making that distinction.” (6)
She addresses the matter of mental-health quite well, particularly ‘disassociation’ and ‘magical thinking.’ As both are precisely what a mystic must do in order to speak with Gods and also defining characteristics of mental-illness, the question of ‘visionary/crazy’ must have a secondary reference point. In clinical psychology, this is often a matter of function. That is, if someone who appears to respond to “internal stimuli” (as both self-generated voices and gods are called) yet is still able to function perfectly fine within the world, hold down a job, take care of children, pay bills and bathe, their illness something else.
Of course, take away that ‘functionality,’ and the person is suffering from a diagnosable illness treatable with medications.
But on neither side of these clinical axes do we have any statement regarding the actual-nature of the gods. In fact, much of European-derived psychoanalysis starts with the premise that the there are actually no gods or spirits, so only the material existence of the sufferer’s experience matters when deciding whether or not there’s a problem.
O’Grady seems fully aware of this problem, detailing her experience discussing her God-Bothered state with another Pagan who does not believe in actually-existing gods, a tale I’m certain many a polytheist can relate quite well to. Yet ‘logical consistency’ does indeed work quite well as a measure: not the trapped, self-referential logic of the schizophrenic, but rather an external appeal.
On my side, that of the believer, I have a responsibility to examine the findings that result from my belief. Not to convince the unbeliever (which is demonstrably impossible) but to be confidant that I have received an OtherWorldly message, that I have understood/correctly interpreted it, and that I am willing to do what is requested….When I receive a message, I can research in mythos and lore to see if any other God-Bothered people have a similar finding to mine exactly like a dieting person can look up in diet books to see what well-liked food they can safely substitute for an unpalatable one…
The Gods rarely, if ever, tell us to do what we want to do and were planning to do anyway; the Gods are logically consistent (They do not change Their minds) and do not abrogate our free well (They do not force us to do Their will); the directives of the Gods are often unpleasant and surprising, although not outside our capabilities. (8,9)
On that matter, O’Grady offers perhaps the most delightful formulation of precisely how the gods tend to work, how one is able to self-check against the potential of what is often called “sock-puppetry,” or delusion:
…a message from the Gods that I should plant trees is likely valid–it asks me for effort and it betters the living world. A message from the Gods that I should preach tree-planting is still believable although I am being asked for less effort and am influencing if not compelling others. If I hear that the Gods will put any trees planted by my acolytes on my Spirit credit balance without any planting effort on my part I am likely telling myself a story.” (12) (emphasis mine)
She doesn’t stop there, either, though one could almost certainly found an entire theology and practice on such incisive statements alone, because I have only thus far told you of the first chapter. But to restate her point, being God-Bothered is sometimes like being on the Crazy Train, occasionally like finding yourself dancing on Soul Train, but should never, under any circumstances, be like watching Solid Gold.
Leaving the Station of the Modern
Like Chesterton, Judith O’Grady possesses a subtle and brilliant ‘humor of reversal’ which quite often takes you unawares, a deliciously archaic wit to match a voice of sense which seems to come from the earth itself, the oldest of stones and the most ancient of trees. And though both writers quite accurately attack the [post]Modern sensibilities which strip from human activity and relations the dreaded solidity of common-sense, O’Grady’s short book (52 pages) doesn’t re-inscribe the reader back into a universalized experience or the Holy Mother Church. Rather, in subsequent chapters she analyzes several of the values of Modernity against an almost Anarchic common-sense. Regarding empowerment, for instance, she says:
“Historically, power is something you take, not something you legislate or demonstrate for”(17-18)
Regarding Democracy and the particular passivity of [Post]Modern ‘subjects:’
In history the Gods involved in Sovereignty spoke only to Kings and God-Speakers but they are now constrained to speak to whomever will talk to Them. Democracy has overthrown Kingship each person has become the tiny equivalent of a King and so, in my world-view, has the responsibilities of a ruler. (24) (emphasis mine)
And particularly dear to my heart are her laughing indictments of the modern myth of Progress:
There is a possibility that global connectedness could enhance the perception that we are all similar, fragile and valuable…but this does not appear to be the case. Instead there seems to be a terrible lowest-common-denominator applied that everyone wants a car, a cell phone and a color TV and no one wants a farm. Previously non-industrialized countries jump from walking-pace to cell phones and from cottage manufacturing to importing poisonous first-world garbage in order to kick-start destroying their own ecologies.
…Technology, more insidiously, creates an ever-faster, ever-smaller loop (as in the cascade telegraph/telephone/ tiny hand-held device or movies in theater/movies on televisions/movies on your tiny hand-held device) that creates enormous hungry markets for products and concurrently enormous piles of poisonous garbage.” (46)
Spoken by others, many of these ideas might seem utterly reactionary and quite suspicious. Yet one cannot escape both a profound joy and love for the world and for people, human and non-. If anything, you can almost hear an almost twinkling and mirthfully kind laugh at the strange absurdities that we’ve found ourselves in. Unlike other theorists who barely conceal their misanthropic disgust with what humans have become (Derrick Jensen, perhaps, and sometimes John Michael Greer), one cannot help but laugh along with her at the sillyness of angry, destructive people.
Passengers and Conductors
Though she speaks of a multiplicity of gods and goddesses, she speaks most fondly of Hertha, the Goddess of the Earth. Like decades-long lovers or friends who’ve known each other forever, it’s said that those devoted to gods begin to take on their qualities, and sometimes I imagined myself hearing the laughter of the earth itself in her words, a matronly bemusement hoping us children who dwell upon Her might finally get it right.
In fact, O’Grady is quite evidently in love with the earth and particularly trees, like any good Druid. And this is her ultimate goal, to delineate a theory of the gods and the earth together. Spirits of land are crucial to this, as is understanding our roles as God-Speakers, invoking the most common-sense critique of anthropocentricism of any writer I’ve yet read. That is, we are both needed and not needed.
“What would happen without [God-Speakers]? Something else. The Gods would carry on with Their plan without any communication to or from people and the people would only have whatever hindsight their science allows them to plan their future actions with. So Earth wouldn’t end; Hertha has weathered larger storms than the actions of people on Her. And the Gods wouldn’t end either; They don’t need us for Their existence but only as company. And as Their eyelash mites or gut bacteria.” (43)
Her embrace of both the ‘scientific’ and the ‘spiritual’ dances throughout the pages, hearkening again to the liminal states and multiple-worlds in which a God-Speaker must dwell, and she’s funny to wit. While I’m quite certain a polytheist or animist will immediately take to her ideas, I suspect a Naturalist would find her equally amusing, even if a bit, well, “crazy.”
I could go on for much longer, perhaps for even longer than the length of her book, about how very good and how desperately needed such a work is. And I could also prattle on for hours about how I could quite easily have read another 300 pages worth of such stuff. And she’s funny–I fell off my bed laughing when she recounted explaining why she didn’t accept a certain savior into her heart, and I spilled my tea regarding the uselessness of measuring the speed of a God.
Mostly, though, I want lots of other people to read this book so I can talk about it with them. And it’s the book I wish I’d had 2 years ago when the gods started ‘bothering’ me, one that I’d buy for any poor soul who doesn’t know what they’re about to get themselves in for, and one I’ll be certain is close at hand in case I’ve forgotten which station I’m at on the grand line of the Crazy Train. And I’m hoping more people will write books like this one, so I can finally put Chesterton to rest.
Next review: Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything (on The Wild Hunt, 26 November)
And P.S. Your Face is a Forest is 30% off (as is everything else on Lulu) until midnight, 20 November! Use code ‘FLASH30′