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A History of Music, Real Pagan Witches, and an Ode to Skimming

Johann Heinrich Füssli, The Three Witches (1783), via Wikimedia Commons.

I don’t live for the weekend, but I’m glad it’s here. First up: Old grammar forms live on in American English: “Take the past participle of get, which in Britain is got and in America gotten. To some Britons, American gotten is a cute or irritating invention. In fact, it is the older form, which came from Old Norse. ‘Gotten’ appears in a Bible translation of 1535: ‘Treasures that are wickedly gotten, profit nothinge.’ It persisted for centuries before fusing with the past tense, got, in Britain. Not that America was entirely conservative; it has a got too. But Americans use it differently: ‘He’s got a car’ means he owns one, while ‘He’s gotten a car’ means he has acquired one.”

We’re told that reading online articles or ebooks rather than print makes us dumb and unhappy. Hogwash, says Leah Price: “Where readers of books are typically portrayed as methodical and patient, moving seriously, page by laborious page, from the front cover to the back, Price draws on evidence from a wide range of contexts to show how readers have always ‘skipped and skimmed their way through print’ – think about the way we page through dictionaries, anthologies, car manuals or cookbooks. I was reminded of an image I saw online, of two children in literary costume for World Book Day. They were dressed as the Argos catalogue. The image went viral because of the clash between the high-minded ideals we are supposedly celebrating when we celebrate books, and the literal interpretation of a book as any object with pages. Similarly, reading in print is supposed to be a sedentary activity which absorbs the reader, situated in opposition to a complex of online reading-based activities (browsing, posting, retweeting, commenting). Price offers, by contrast, dense histories of marginalia and dog-earing, of books sold, loaned, redacted, recommended and withheld – multi-tasking rather than rapt attention. Where reading books is assumed to palliate pathological issues including anxiety and depression, Price draws attention to the history of moralistic opposition to books (particularly novels) as spreaders of disease, and, more broadly, to readers who turn to literature not to be sedated but rather to be stimulated. Reading books has, Price shows, fostered community and conversation, and still does.”

Michael Dirda reviews Ted Gioia’s Music: A Subversive History: “Rather than devote space to yet another analysis of the sonata form, Gioia’s focus is primarily sociocultural: He wants to explain the dynamics of music history, to track how styles and forms evolve, run their course and are eventually replaced or re-energized. Naturally, he has a thesis. Just as societies need carnivalesque holidays such as Mardi Gras to remain healthy, so too does music require regular infusions of Dionysian eroticism and violence. Conservative practices and arthritic genres must be periodically disrupted and undermined.In particular, Gioia argues that ‘musical innovation happens from the bottom up and the outside in.’ After all, fresh ideas are seldom found in the conservatory, cathedral or concert hall. One needs instead to search out ‘the neglected spheres of music that survive outside the realms of power brokers, religious institutions and social elites.’”

Archeologists discover a cache of ancient coffins: “The seemingly well-preserved sarcophagi were discovered ‘as the ancient Egyptians left them,’ said an official press statement highlighting their intact engravings and surviving coloration. Found in Al-Assasif, an ancient necropolis on the west bank of Nile, the coffins were spread out over two levels of a large tomb. The site once formed part of the ancient city of Thebes, the ruins of which are found in present-day Luxor.”

Frank Lloyd Wright’s love-hate relationship with New York: “If you know the slightest thing about Frank Lloyd Wright, you’ll know that he abominated New York City in just about all of the colorful and scabrous ways that he could. There are dozens of deprecations to draw upon, about ‘dying a hundred deaths a day on the New York gridiron in the stop-and-go of the urban criss-cross’ and more of every variety: ‘I have seen an enormous glut of everything—and seen nothing of any true significance where any real life worth living is concerned.’ But Wright also needed New York, and made very considerable use of it during his most difficult mid-career years, as a not infrequent home base for public relations, for writing income, and of course as a source of clients. He also even occasionally enjoyed it.”

Rod Dreher on the collapse of Christianity in America: “Just yesterday I heard from a reader who teaches in a school in one of the most conservative, religious parts of the US. He told me that he discussed the Masterpiece Cakeshop decision the other day in class as they were discussing the Supreme Court. He said every one of his students thought that the cake baker ought to be crushed.”

Essay of the Day:

The common view of witches today—that, throughout time, they have been oppressed for their opposition to patriarchy—is “utter rubbish,” Diane Purkiss argues in Athenaeum Review:

“The autumn 2018 television schedule was also full of witches, from pseudo-historical A Discovery of Witches to remakes of Charmed and Netflix’s reboot of Sabrina the Teenage Witch, a feminist who hexes her headmaster with a plague of spiders when he refuses to act on the bullying of her non-binary best friend. The witches of 2018 are galvanised and political, says the London Times. Which all sounds like a lovely extended Halloween party. But soon, the reservations begin. ‘We are the granddaughters of the witches you weren’t able to burn,’ read a sign at the 2017 Women’s March. Yes, except that unless they were descended from German or French immigrants, they were actually descended from the witches that hadn’t been hanged. The writers probably mean the Salem witches, though, which means they are mathematically challenged. It’s an odd image to choose to empower young women. The spells, the shows, and the signs are pretending to a history that could be described charitably as misunderstood, uncharitably as utter rubbish. In fairness to them, they are drawing on published books, albeit ones that have been overtaken by more recent work. And they are very clearly picking and choosing. Yet as a historian, I am, shall we say, uncomfortable with the degree of falsification involved.

“A central aspect of witchcraft in its 21st-century incarnation is its insistence on its own virtue, a virtue which it projects back into the past. Modern witches have no doubt that witches in the time of the persecutions were good too, opponents of patriarchy like themselves. Patriarchy here means Christianity in the sense of organised religion, and especially the Catholic Church with its obvious discomfort with the body and human sexuality. Modern witches claim to be speaking for an entire class of oppressed people who have existed throughout history: ‘For decades, witches have been moving slowly out of the shadows and spreading good magic across the planet…the forces of capitalism, patriarchal greed and white supremacy united for one last gasp, producing our present circumstances—Nazis in the streets, our earth in peril, and an actual rapist in the White House. It’s not great out there these days. But in 2018, we will fight for the change we deserve to see. In 2018, we will support progressive candidates, advocate for justice, and, most importantly, vote witch.’

“In a way, this is indeed nothing new; countercultural movements from the 1960s also sought ironically for magical powers, as when the Yippies tried to levitate the Pentagon. Witchcraft ‘was always practiced by the people who were the outliers, who were on the fringes,’ witch Dakota Bracciale says. ‘Those people oftentimes had to also be the arbiter of their own justice.’ This almost meaningless statement seems to claim impunity for launching magical attacks. They have been attacked, so it’s fair to fight back.

“This argument depends on history. These exotic outsiders are framed as historical constants. However, the source quoted (even by such an august scholarly journal as Marie Claire) is Barbara Ehrenreich’s long-discredited idea that the majority of those accused were midwives and herbalists. Careful study of the witch trials, including studies by women historians such as Lyndal Roper, has revealed that very few of the accused were midwives, and some historians have argued convincingly that the majority of midwives were more likely to be working with the persecutors than against them. The popular idea that witches in the past were lonely souls living at odds with their ignorant Christian communities is just not true.

“There are in fact so many problems with some modern witches’ historical narrative that it’s hard to know where to begin, but a good starting point might be the assumption that witches are at variance with their culture rather than a product of that culture. Those accused of witchcraft—including those who genuinely believed themselves to be practicing magic, a minority of those accused—espoused beliefs that derived directly from medieval Christendom. In this essay, I will show that medieval and early modern witchcraft was for the most part not a pagan practice, but a dissident form of Christianity. I will also argue that modern pagans and modern witches are themselves products of the very globalized, commercial, urban and anywhere culture which they set out to resist, because rather than reacting against those trends, they are turning what might once have been a genuinely radical alternative into another form of self-care. Finally, I will show that the surviving remnants of pagan culture illuminate a much more violent and less liberal world than the one imagined by modern witches.”

Read the rest.

Photo: Klaushof

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about the author

Micah Mattix is the literary editor of The American Conservative and an associate professor of English at Regent University. Follow him on Twitter.

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