Thursday, January 24, 2013

Satanism: The Story of a Reluctant Antichrist and the Hell he Raised

My most recent post on Anton LaVey spawned a fair bit of conversation on Facebook.  There was particular interest when I floated the idea of a book on Satanism as an American cultural movement ala New Orleans Voodoo. Hence my latest project, tentatively titled Satanism: the Story of a Reluctant Antichrist and the Hell he Raised.  

On one hand the research is easier than The New Orleans Voodoo Handbook.  New Orleans Voodoo has a 250+ year history spanning multiple continents. Satanism as we know it today can be traced to one time (the mid-1960s), one place (San Francisco) and one man (Howard Stanton "Tony" Levey, better known by his preferred monicker of Anton Szandor LaVey). On the other hand, things are a lot more complicated.

At the time of his death LaVey was embroiled in a number of personal controversies. He had also acquired a number of competitors who wanted to discredit him.  This meant that a cottage industry arose in material which painted LaVey in the worst possible light.  Accordingly, people close to Anton LaVey tend to be instinctively wary when questioned: people who hated him are only too happy to share their grievances.

I have no desire to write a salacious tell-all, especially since LaVey's life doesn't appear to have been all that salacious.  (He's certainly got nothing on transvestite meth-head priests).  I won't hide unflattering information if it is important to his work, if it sheds light on his philosophy or influence. But I'm primarily concerned with his failings insofar as they shed light on his accomplishments.  Tragic flaws interest me: petty ones not so much.

When I started this project I had LaVey pegged as an entertainer, a comedian whose tongue was always firmly in cheek.  I still think there's a great deal of truth to that: many of his followers and detractors alike take him WAY too seriously.  Anton LaVey as an artist, writer and performer is comparable to people like William S. Burroughs and Andy Kaufman.  As a religious leader he all too often gets judged in the light of clowns like Grand Magister Malodorous and High Priest Gorgoroth of the Temple of Eternel (sic) Evil.

Then I saw a throwaway line where LaVey told Lawrence Wright that he hadn't done a Black Mass in over twenty years.  And I realized that here's a guy who could have made a tidy living working the lecture circuit.  Hell, I'm imagining LaVey with robe and hood, holding up a sword and proclaiming  "In this arid wilderness of steel and stone I raise up my voice that you may hear. To the East and to the West I beckon. To the North and to the South I show a sign proclaiming: LIVE FROM NEW YORK, IT'S SATURDAY NIGHT!!!"

But he didn't do that.  Instead he watched like Sauron from Barad-Dur as others ran with his ideas (and more often than not got them spectacularly wrong). For a good part of Satanism's story Anton LaVey is conspicuous by his absence. Those aren't the actions of someone who was doing this as a performance, someone who was just looking for a quick buck.  There are many religions founded by conmen pretending to be prophets.  Anton LaVey was a prophet pretending to be a conman. He may have played a little fast and loose with the facts, but he believed everything he said.