Overweening Generalist

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Demonic Powers of (Some) Books: A Take or Three

A while back one of my intellectual colleagues urged me to read Fritz Leiber's novel Our Lady of Darkness, and if you haven't read it yet, it's October and the perfect time to get down to the library and read this thing. It's even better if you live near San Francisco, as it's set there. Leiber, influenced by Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith and Montague Rhodes James, uses some Jungian riffs and gets off a tremendous work I couldn't put down. It's weird, realistic, creepy, and destabilizing, somwhat artsy in style and yet a page-turner. Because I'm all out of breath I'll just say Yo This Is An Amazing Book. It's perfect for Halloween-times. (As I link the title to Amazon- I take no money from them - I noted the reviews were less than 4.5 stars...which is simply absurd, trust me on this.)

Have you ever been in a Big City and felt like It had something to say? As if there were signs all around, but you didn't quite have the key to read the language?

Leiber posits a secret art of reading Cities, and predicting and manipulating the future, via Megapolisomancy, and a dark character named Thibault De Castries literally wrote the book on this art. Everything that makes up the metropolis: steel, wire, and cement; paper, rubber and bricks...has always had effects on humans throughout history. The effects are physiological, psychological, and, perhaps most importantly: hyper-psychological. I'd say "parapsychological" but this could be misconstrued. It's creepier than that. Castries also wrote The Grand Cipher, but I don't want to say too much here. Ever since I finished Leiber, my forays in the City - always an expedition in psychogeography - have never felt the same. It's those damned...elementals emanating from the stuff the City is made from. But I won't go into it. Save for the utterly demonic aspect of Leiber's novel.

                                                      Fritz Leiber

"Demonic"? Aye, but not in the American evangelical's sense. The word's had a peculiar evolution. Everyone who's studied any philosophy knows that Socrates attributed whatever he "knew" to his daemon: a voice that spoke to him. This demonic voice was associated with Divine Knowledge. And I remember reading how Goethe was so blown away by JS Bach he said Bach was demonic.

In late 18th-19th century Europe, highly influenced by Hamann and Herder, Goethe saw uncanny creative genius as "demonic." Goethe seems fairly demonic his own self, but that reminds me of one of his books, The Sorrows of Young Werther. It made the demonic Goethe a huge celebrity writer-star at age 24, and was based on autobiographical elements that Goethe later regretted sharing with the world: a very romantic young man's unrequited love leads him to suicide. And the book was responsible for "copycat" suicides in real life. Is it Goethe's fault? The book's fault? The culture's fault?

I used to say it's a combination of all three, but mostly the culture. Now I prefer to attribute the suicides to the book more than the culture or Goethe. I have my reasons. It seems to me the demonic in the 19th century sense is probably at large in every culture, almost everywhen. And while the demonic powers reside in Goethe's nervous system, those books, when disseminated throughout Germany and then the rest of Europe, went out of Goethe's hands. If the culture's "right" then you get readers who succumb to something irrational they see in the book. But the Book actuated the suicides. Goethe's writing resonated so strongly with young people who saw in themselves aspects of the fictional character. And killed themselves.

Other books are linked to killers. Demonic?

A confession: Here's where I realize I'm a bit...off: I'm bibliomane enough to admit to a Walter Mitty thrill that books can have such powers over humans.

Stephen King voluntarily pulled his novel Rage, a work he started while in high school, because it might prove as an "accelerant" to school gun violence, already notorious in Unistat. I can see his point. Already it looks like maybe there was a copycat killing. And yet: is it a publicity stunt? Something to garner a heavier demand for the novel? Am I being cynical? King says guns aren't the problem in Unistat; it's the Kardashianization of culture that's the problem, and King himself owns guns and is a big 2nd Amendment guy.

Now hold on, wait a minute: if I assert the absurdity of blaming Marilyn Manson for the Columbine killers, or Judas Priest or Ozzy Osbourne for other self-inflicted deaths of Unistatian teens, why do I support the book medium over those musical texts? Good Question. Here's how I've negotiated it: in reading interviews and seeing the rock stars talk about their work - and I'm thoroughly acquainted with their music, by the way - I believe the musicians when they say they're writing that music for the joy and fun of it, and Ozzy liked to argue Who believes Vincent Price was an actor who meant harm for his audience?

The writer of a book is working with the nature of the book, the reading of which is almost exclusively solitary, and silent. Reading a novel makes demands on the nervous system that are unique to the act of reading and certainly different than the apprehension of auditory musical texts. But it's the intent and subjectivity of the Author which, combined with the phenomenology and physiology of reading books that makes some of them...demonic.

It seems only fair to ask of the author of a book that might possibly cause untoward (or desirable) effects on its readers to warn them in some way, but the very nature of fiction and unheimlich aspects of  the demonic...seems to violate the rules of the game. However, a warning or notice is done from time to time. The fair warning. For example, in a series of putatively "non-fiction" postscripts to a 700+-page surrealistic novel, Robert Anton Wilson tells his readers:

This book, being part of the only serious conspiracy it describes [...] has programmed the reader in ways that he or she will not understand for a period of months (or perhaps years) [...] Officials at Harvard thought Dr. Timothy Leary was joking when he warned that students should not be allowed to indiscriminately remove dangerous, habit-forming books from the library unless each student proves a definite need for each volume.
-Illuminatus! Trilogy, p.774, omnibus ed.

Who among us can withhold admiration for the author who, in such an overwhelmingly vivid fashion of embedding a non-existent text within the actual text, influences later generations to actually produce a "real" version of the once-embedded imaginary book? One might think immediately of the Necronomicon. But this has been going on for some time. Here's Frances King:

Someone has only to announce the existence of a mysterious book, or an even more mysterious occult fraternity, and there will always be those who are prepared to produce the required article or organization - usually for a suitably large fee. For example, no one had heard of any alchemical writings of the early English St. Dunstan until the Elizabethan magician Edward Kelly stated that he had found a strange red powder of projection and The Book of St. Dunstan, describing how to use this same red powder for the purpose of transmuting base metals into gold, in the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey. Nevertheless, within fifty years of Kelly first making his claim to this discovery no less than half a dozen alchemical tracts had been printed, all of them differing one from another, and each claiming to be the sole authentic Book of St. Dunstan.
-Sexuality, Magic and Perversion, pp.5-6

But these wild, inspired imaginings that go viral: they act as palimpsests, they infuse and infect and imbue the gesticulations and ideation of far-flung gens, dead ignorant of their originations. Fer crissake: look at the abominable life of The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. Now the Priory of Sion has momentum. The Gemstone and The Octopus will fuel conspiracy thinking for a long while yet. These works might be thought of as "non-fiction," but they seem somehow like hyperfiction to me. They are demonic, but not in Goethe's sense. And there are too many to name.

The prolific historian Philip Jenkins traced the origin of satanic panics in 1980s Unistat to a 1926 novel written by Herbert S. Gorman titled The Place Called Dagon. Lovecraft himself was influenced by this novel. What's sorta odd (a digression!) to me: Gorman was the first biographer of James Joyce, his 1924 book receiving much help from Joyce himself, and now thought to be a wonderful source for how Joyce wanted to have been perceived. Gorman was a busy writer and he could have no inkling that, 55 years later, a strain of high-strung xtian PTA types would read his novel and get ideas. So to wrap up this digression: we have a bizarre synchro-mesh of a newspaper reporter and novelist, Lovecraft, Joyce, and the McMartin preschool debacle, among others...


Peter Lamborn Wilson: "The world of apocrypha is a world of books made real, which may well be understood and appreciated by readers of Borges, Calvino, Lewis Carroll - or certain sufis. The apocryphal imagination turns 'Tibet' or 'Egypt' into an amulet or mantram with which to unlock an 'other world', most real in dreams and books and dreams of books, visions induced by holy fasting or noxious alchemic fumes."
-Sacred Drift: Essays on the Margins of Islam, p.22

More PLW: "According to the Manicheans, books might be Angels, living personifications of the Word from On High - or from elsewhere, from another reality. There exist angelic alphabets. The British magus and alchemist, John Dee, received angelic transmissions in the Enochian alphabet, and Jewish magicians used angelic letters in their amulets and Kabbalistic meditations."
-The Little Book of Angels, p.6

A final thought from PLW: "The crude truth is perhaps that texts can only change reality when they inspire readers to see and act, rather than merely see. [...] Just as there exist books which have inspired earthshaking crimes we would like to broadcast texts which cause hearers to seize (or at least make a grab for) the happiness God denies us. Exhortations to hijack reality. But even more we would like to purge our lives of everything which obstructs or delays us from setting out - not to sell guns or slaves in Abyssinia - not to be either robbers or cops - not to escape the world or to rule it but to open ourselves to difference. I share with the most reactionary moralists the presumption that art can really affect reality in this way, and I despise the liberals who say all art should be permitted because - after all - it's only art."
-Immediatism, Essays by Hakim Bey, pp.57-58

Maybe I ought remember my William James and think about the predispositions of readers who might "allow" a book to take hold of them, influencing but not causing them to act in a way a contemporary evangelist would deem "demonic." It would seem James's "tender-minded" might be more prone to the lure of such books than his "tough-minded." Maybe Erik Davis is right when he writes of Lovecraft's doomed protagonists, bookish types (like some people we know?) whose "intellectual curiosity drives them to pore through forbidden books or local folklore."

"district attorneys hunt for books so evil they are not protected by the First Amendment..." - RAW, p.8, Everything Is Under Control

Okay, for today I'm ready to call this a wash, and suffice to say that only some books are demonic, as are some authors (only they might not know it); culture has some skin in this demonic game, and I'm not sure how much. Writing has always been associated with magic, danger, the demonic. Let us try not to forget it...

                                                       Thoth, who seems to have 
                                                       started this whole damned


Psuke said...

I would argue that music is *more* demonic than text, whatever the intention of the musician, since music acts on the emotional aspects of the CNS without as much interference from the "rational" part of the brain. Like scents.

Thus there are many more musicians then authors accused of selling their souls to the devil.

Anonymous said...

It's called resonance, since authors
Draw sounds on paper which sound
inside your head, the neural network
will act like a wavefront cancelling
and reinforcing what your network
gets from the pages.

Really good books are able to make
you into something you were not
before reading them. This has been
dumbed down into "meme" but there's
a lot more to Mein Kampf or Das
Capital than a series of little
rhymes for the mentally challenged.

Fritz was a junior, his dad was a
Shakespearean actor and later in

I found the Abraham again, it's in
the 98 part 3 Trialogue, I'll see
if I can dig up the link.

One other aspect of really good
writers is how they can recast a
story enough to make you think it
is a new idea they thought up by
themselves. Gather Darkness was a
response to Revolt in 2100, Fritz
did the first one by turning RAHs
second one on its head. RAH had
a technically adept church as a
revolutionary group, Fritz then
wondered what a revolt against
them would be like after they were
in power. So from Tech mimicing
the spiritual you got tech as the
supernatural revolution against an
entrenched religion.

CJ Cherryh has done the same thing
in a couple of her series. The
Union is an entire society that
has its roots in Brave New World,
but the treetops are far from the
roots. The time and space travels
of Morgaine likewise are rooted in
the Arthurian legendry but also
so far away it's lost in the mist.

As humans we do this with ideas,
make them our own, retell them
add to or trim to fit depending on
how they resonate through our
neural net. Sometimes we like a
story so much we try to act it out.

Is that a danger, probably but it
does make for a much more interesting
world to live in.

michael said...

Good points, and ones I've thought a lot about. Music seems to work as a social cohesive in these ways. We're enchanted and say, "He must have sold his soul to be that great..." Paganini, Robert Johnson, and a few others. But the suicides and violence associated with immersion in music seems minor compared to what BOOKS have done.

Marx's theory, in general, about the future: educated proles would lead other proles in a takeover of the means of production, once a country had reached a certain level of industrial sophistication.

What actually happened: intellectuals led peasants ion a revolt agains the State. Mao was a teacher, Che Guevara a medical doctor, Trotsky had a degree in something having to do with aesthetic theory,IIRC...Pol Pot went to the Sorbonnne. On and on.

You're right that music seems to bypass the frontal cortex and our rational decision-making faculties. And Lenin once admitted he thought Beethoven was a threat because his music might make people soften and abhor violence. Something like that.

But by and large, the interpretation of BOOKS, once out of the hands of their authors?: highly associated with tens of millions slaughtered, in the 20th century alone.

[The Book of Revelation or Mao's Little Red Book or Mein Kampf or Das Kapital? Demonic, but each for different reasons.]

(I just now realized I'd written the blog post with Karl Popper's The Open Society and Its Enemies as a subconscious impetus!

Thanks for the thoughtful response, Psuke.

michael said...


I like the reminder of how our resonant brains create sound from the abstracted scratchings on paper.

Clearly there will be some very damaged people who will get hold of the Beatles' White Album and convince followers it justifies some death. But how much easier it seems to justify death from the persuasive allures of books. Just go to the library and do a search. One book will lead to another, then you'll likely take it back home and spend long entrancing hours with your eyes going left to right across the page, picking out passages that seem to speak directly TO YOU! (I'm thinking of Ted Kaczynski's response to Jacques Ellul - a xtian anarchist who fought for the Resistance in WWII - and Ellul's The Technological Society: (I paraphrase): "Finally! Here's someone who's writing all the things I've been thinking for years!"

Is Ellul responsible for David Gelernter's hand being blown off? How about Joseph Conrad? He's another that captivated one we call The Unabomber, who read the Great Books.

(No, the Books are the epicenter of demonic madness...and I regret I've accentuated the negative about demonic books from demonic/creative genius figures: clearly books fuel the greatest achievements too. What did that old crank say about "time-binding"?)

"Sometimes we like a story so much we try to act it out." Aye! Look at something called "fan fiction." E.L. James was so taken by the Twilight books that she wrote her version of it, with S&M...and ended up selling a gadzillion copies. We never know what will happen with our scratchings. I think James unwittingly brought repressed things in the culture more out into the open. By accident. (Demonic!) (a Black Swan)

The ideas about Fritz and RAH: I didn't know that.

I really hope anyone who stumbles onto the OG reads the comments; I can't get over how good they are, and I'm grateful because it seems to make whatever I wrote look better.

Eric Wagner said...

Great post. I love, love, love Our Lady of Darkness. I first read it in October of 1985 or 1986.

I found myself contemplating the question of the power of sombunall books on the way to work this morning, thinking particularly of Joyce and RAW. That of course led me to think about Our Lady of Darkness, and then a few hours later I read your blog. Did Illuminatus! program us both to contemplate these topics today?

Your blog also made me think about Alan Moore's contemplation of London architecture in From Hell.

michael said...

I highly suspect Illuminatus! had something to do with your - our - recent experience.

You and a couple of other RAWphiles turned me on to the psychogeographical aspects of Ian Sinclair and Alan Moore, and I thank you for that.

I had understood psychogeography as something I thought I made up, until I read about Guy Debord and the Situationists and the derive, etc. I had the wonderful feeling: "Someone has already thought of that idea I thought I had, but they've fleshed it out with all sorts of theory and poetry." I was never enamored of the Situationist view of psychogeography, and then realized the idea had been for a long, long time, only a term hadn't been invented for it.

So, influenced by the Situationists, but not satisfied with their terminology, I went about doing my own psychogeography, but it was heavily weighted by my understandings of ethnomethodology and phenomenological sociology, novels and poems, and my observations while in Cities.

Then you and other members of the Tribe turned me on to a more satisfying version some English writers had going.

Now I'm developing my own version, influenced by Alan Moore, Sinclair, and a few others.

I realized a lot of what WSB was talking about when he explained cut-ups as normal perception, when you walk down the street, as a variant of psychogeography.

re: the power of sombunall books: I find myself constantly wondering how anyone can make sense of "life" without their own deep, constant negotiations with the texts they love.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

Perhaps the most obvious example of a novelist taken a little too seriously by fans would be Ayn Rand. I read the other day about a dating service for Rand fans. Could Ayn Rand have influenced RAW's efforts to write a big book that would "program" its readers?

Anonymous said...

He does make fun of it with the book "Telemachus Sneezed" in Illuminatus. Rand herself is there, as I recall, under another name.

Most Randites don't "get" Rand (not defending Objectivism here, it's nuttiness incarnate in its own way), I think like many "daemonic" books the reader projects and becomes enamored of what they see there.

I noticed this with Newton and the gentlemen scientists who came after him studying electricity. They all believed in "action at a distance" as that's how Newton described it in the Principia...but he didn't actually believe that and said so somewhere in the introduction. It held up electromagnetic study for years.

Christians and the bible (possibly the greatest "demonic" book) are another example.

Psuke said...

"Telemachus Sneezed" and its Illuminatus author would seem to suggest Shea and RAW were at least thinking about her.

Anonymous said...

Rand is an odd bird but should be
read in the context of her formation
it makes her a lot clearer that way.

Attacking her, which a lot of folks
have done, hardened her into being
excessively serious. That in turn
rubbed off on the Randroids who had
never been exposed to many serious
ideas before. Most of the attacks
are ad hominems which drown out the
serious critics as vituperation is
triumphant. She's a pretty good
polarizer but if any of her stuff
is worth something it gets drowned
in the noise of her surround. Far
too many true believers and the
superficial types who just parrot
bad reviews as opponents.

Considering her handicaps and the
times she lived in she was quite
an achiever if flawed (like most
pioneers). Didn't Wilson have high
hopes about her which were dashed
when he met her in person ?

I imagine Fritz was expecting a
different book when he reviewed
Illuminatus, part of it's charm is
the disconnectedness of narrative.
It was quite awhile before Stand
on Zanzibar introduced most SF
types to different styles of text.

You'd think SF would be the edgey
new literature but most of it is
pretty stodgy to not alarm the fen
who want the pulp of their teen
years and gee-whizz new. That's
hard to do for the best and just
gets you a lot of hackwork with
weird covers.

I hit Hakim Bey now and then for
a different viewpoint, at least
he's not guilty of greyfaced and
tedious moralizing.

michael said...

I suspect Jackson knows very well about Atlanta Hope and Telemachus Sneezed, Smiling Jim Treponema, et.al

Anon- Leiber's style would suggest Illuminatus!'s forms, diaphrenic address, and digressive jaunts were jarring.

I may be making the fundamental mistake of apprehending a style and assuming too much about the writer...

Yes, RAW considered himself an Objectivist, but then was summoned to Her Presence...and to RAW she made Lenin seem like an open-minded dude.

Someone said something about her entire philosophy was like a 180 mirror - just as unfeeling, but from a Capitalist Right - of those who persecuted her and her family family. (What I never understood was her interpretations of Hugo and Schiller. I also think her reading of Nietzsche is impoverished.)

I appreciate your defense of Rand, though I am not enamored of her. Her Cult is testimony to her demonic powers. I think that's obvious.

A dating service for Randians? Such territorial behavior!