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Escaping The Nothing

The writer Tara Isabella Burton is one of the most interesting people you could ever hope to meet in New York City. In this essay, she writes about how she threw herself into the occult in a Romantic effort to escape meaninglessness … but ended up, in the end, becoming a Christian. Excerpts:

Trieste was a liminal, crossroads place. It was not beautiful, exactly, but full of Habsburg nostalgists and strange but friendly middle-aged occultists, who would draw Hermetic sigils on the back of notepaper for me, and explain that I had been preternaturally chosen to bring Trieste to public prominence because I was the great-granddaughter of the travel writer Sir Richard Francis Burton, who once lived there.

[UPDATE: TIB writes to say that in the editing process, a line explaining that she is not related to Sir Richard, though the hermeticists believed she was, was inadvertently removed. — RD]

Incidentally, Sir Richard (d. 1890) was a hero of the occultist Aleister Crowley, who dedicated his autobiography to him. He is commemorated in the “Gnostic Mass” written by Crowley and celebrated by his followers. More:

Trieste is the sort of place you go if you want to transmogrify your life. Most of the bad decisions I’ve made, I’ve made in Trieste.

A friend came to visit me there, right in the middle of my breakdown. She was in a comparable place, emotionally, as I recall, although it is likely that I, in my solipsism, collapsed any distinctions between us. I can’t speak for her. What I remember is this: We sat right on the Adriatic, where the piazza drops straight into the sea. We watched the sunset. We talked about what being unafraid of passion might look like. We decided. We would become maenads.

The original maenads were the followers of Dionysius: god of wine, but also of mysteries, but also of torn animal pelts, of blood, of madness, of a certain kind of chosen fatality. Maenads means “the raving ones,” and because they are mad, and wine-drenched, and followers of a dark god, it also means they are unafraid of anything.

That is what we meant when we said maenad. Women who tore into life. Women whose blood flowed. Women who did not stop themselves from raving.

So they enacted a rite they made up, to consecrate themselves to the maenad life. More:

I am not saying that magic is real. Who knows if magic is real? I am saying, only, that for most of my life I had two options: a world that was enchanted, and one that was not, and the one that was enchanted was the only one I could bear to live in. I was—as it happens—in graduate school for theology, and would have called myself some kind of anodyne Episcopalian, but at my core I was thoroughly pagan. I believed in forces that had no names. I bargained with them and expected to win.

I wanted magic. I didn’t think too much about meaning. Or at least, as long as everything meant something, the specifics didn’t seem to matter. Basil could mean love. Thursdays could mean power. The full moon purity. Why not?

The alternative was that nothing meant anything at all.

That was a false choice. Eventually she began to see the shadow side of this kind of life.

In Euripides’ The Bacchae, the maenads are exciting, until they’re not. They rave—and you can almost forget, watching them, that there are real people, among the bacchae, whom raving hurts. There are people whom raving kills.

Why did she open herself to these mad spirits?

I wanted to outrun the Nothing. There was nothing I would not have sacrificed—friendships, relationships, the blood from the heel of my foot—to get it.

Read it all, and to learn about TIB becoming a Christian.

Much of this resonates with my experience. I never flirted with the occult, but I understood, and understand, why a soft version of it appeals to people. Like TIB, I couldn’t bear to live in a world of metaphysical meaninglessness. I don’t know if I can speak for her here, but I also believed that there really was meaning there, behind the veil of matter. That is, I believed (and do believe) that transcendent meaning exists, whether or not individuals believe it does. Our task in life is both to perceive that meaning, insofar as we can in our mortal states, and to integrate ourselves harmoniously with it. Like TIB now and in her pagan years, I cannot find stability in a religion that seeks to anesthetize. To set boundaries around the wildness, and to order it rightly, yes, absolutely; but to deny its spiritual power by turning the living God (and the demons who oppose him) into a denatured form of ethics or therapy — no. Never. 

The state that drove TIB to become a self-styled maenad was the same one St. Augustine lived through, and that led him to declare, famously, that our hearts are restless until the rest in God. TIB says that being a maenad delivered her from meaninglessness, and made her a “not-nothing,” but she overlooked the cruelty and the darkness of that way of living. It was only through discovering Christianity that she became a “Something” (her word). In other words, her embrace of magic was about running away from Nothingness; her embrace of Christianity was about running towards Reality.

TIB’s next book, Strange Rites: New Religions For A Godless World, will be a journalistic journey through spirituality in post-Christian America. Pre-order it here. She’s a terrific writer. I can’t wait for this book.

Just this morning I was trading e-mails with a Christian writer friend, who said, “Really, you can’t underestimate how powerful the fear of meaninglessness is.” Reading Hannah Arendt’s study of the origins of totalitarianism, I learned that this was one of the prime reasons for masses of people giving themselves over to Nazism and Communism in the early 20th century. These political religions gave them a sense of purpose.


about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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