Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Voudon Gnostic Workbook

Recently a rather heated discussion ensued on a private Facebook group concerning Michael Bertiaux's notorious Voudon Gnostic Workbook. Many participants were outraged with Bertiaux's free and easy blend of sex magic, Reichean orgone work, Afro-Atlantean Transdimensional Algebra, H.P. Lovecraft and deities only know what else.  I opined that Bertiaux's work was useful for practical magicians, and that it owed more debt to Surrealism than Haitian Vodou.  While it most certainly bears little resemblance to anything I've learned from Haitians or Haitian-Americans, it is effective as a thing in itself.

Adam McGee, a scholar at Harvard University, offered an excellent counterpoint:
I have to offer a dissenting view, insofar as I must question the criteria by which you evaluate the system as "worthwhile." Something can be powerful and yet morally repugnant. And morally repugnant it is. Michael Bertiaux's Vodoun Gnostic Workbook presents a vision of Haiti that is infantilizing, colonialist, and racist. Bertiaux writes of Vodou as something that must be lifted out of the hands of Haitians, who do not and cannot understand its complexities. Bertiaux, by introducing a purposely esotericizing language, seeks to "restore" to the control of (white) magi a Vodou that he proposes has Atlantean origins. This has precise historical parallels in the way that some Europeans, upon first viewing the Ile-Ife bronzes, that they had discovered the lost civilization of Atlantis because surely Africans could not have produced such sophisticated art. Having thus expunged from Vodou its most irreducibly Haitian--i.e. black--elements, Bertiaux then reconstructs it as a libidinal space for the performance of lurid sex rituals. This version of "Vodoun" recycles racist stereotypes of hypersexed black bodies and surely draws on H.P. Lovecraft''s depictions of hypersexual, ultraviolent "black voodoo cults." This cannot be defended by recourse to arguments of religious freedom or laissez-faire liberalism.
I agree that Bertiaux's work contains some uncomfortably racist and colonialist ideas and preconceptions.  (It's still better, in my opinion, than Hyatt and Black's truly odious Urban Voodoo). But I felt that the VGW is so outré that few would mistake it for anything save the product of M. Bertiaux's impressively fevered imagination.  In that, I found it less potentially dangerous to the practice of Haitian Vodou than the ever-popular Vodou Initiation Tours. A bunch of sex magicians holding an "oral-anal Guede orgy" aren't likely to be taken as representatives of the tradition.  A plastic shaman who has put a plane ticket and a ceremony on his credit card might be taken seriously by a lazy journalist or a well-meaning but naive seeker.

My major beef with Bertiaux comes from his efforts to claim Haitian roots where none exist.  His OTOA (Ordo Templi Orientis Antiqua) claims lineage through a Haitian Martinist, Gnostic Christian and Vodou priest Lucien-François Jean-Maine: L-F J-M is repeatedly quoted as the source for Bertaiux's work.  Yet as Thelemic scholar P.R. Koenig notes:
The reader must bear in mind that there is almost no documentary evidence of the History of the O.T.O.A. There is absolutely no trace of either L.-F. Jean-Maine or of his Gnostic Church, his Memphis Misraïm or his OTO-Version (O.T.O.A.) in any of the 'old' French Gnostic magazines. Obviously the History of the O.T.O.A. and its maze of related organisations seems to be developed by Marc Lully, Michael P. Bertiaux and Manuel C. Lamparter, and maybe Kenneth Grant, in the late 1960s. Bertiaux admitted that his History outline was written from notes drafted by Marc Lully; and those notes had been lost meanwhile.
I do not believe that Bertiaux made this stuff up out of whole cloth, but I suspect his "Haitian roots" come from his local library.  In particular, I suspect he read some early 20th century texts like Her-Ma-Ra-El (Arthur C. Holly)'s Les daïmons du culte vodou.   These works attempted to combine Vodou with other esoteric traditions to establish it as a Respectable World Religion rather than a savage negro cult.  (Their goals were certainly laudable, even if their scholarship was at times questionable...).  Combined with what he gleaned from Hurston, Deren, Seabrook and other Anglophone writers, he was able to create a "Vodou heritage" which would have looked reasonably plausible to readers in the late 1960s, when information on the topic was very scarce indeed -especially for monolingual English speakers.

As more information about Haitian culture and Vodou has become available, contemporary OTOA/LCN folks have begun de-emphasizing Martinism and drawing upon a supposed "Sect Rouge/Zobop" heritage.  This is convenient, as there is little or nothing written on Haiti's secret societies: it's also quite in keeping with the evolution of other origin myths.  (In the 18th and early 19th century Masons and Rosicrucians traced their heritage to Egypt: after the deciphering of the Rosetta Stone and growing knowledge of Egyptian mythology, secret societies began claiming roots in "Atlantis," "Lemuria" and other conveniently sunken continents... ).

I think Adam's comments about Bertiaux's motivation and racist preconceptions are worth exploring.  However, I might take them a step further.  How many foreigners practicing "authentic" Haitian Vodou are looking for Noble Savages and Little Brown Holy Men? How many see this tradition as a source of unsullied and primitive power, something which will free them from the taint of civilization and absolve them of their skin color? All too often I've found the loudest critics of "phony Vodou" are unwilling to question their own motivations or acknowledge their own privilege.  Their efforts to "protect the faith" look suspiciously like efforts by one group of outsiders to gain the moral high ground on another.

In the end, Bertiaux's work will stand as a thing in itself.  You can call it racist, you can call it incoherent, you can call it a brilliant piece of surrealism.  (I could make a case for all three).   I'm satisfied so long as you don't call it Haitian.