Friday, February 1, 2013

For Chas Clifton: Questions for the Devil

While I puzzle out some conundrums in the Lineage of Hell, I thought I'd reply to this comment from Chas Clifton regarding my new book project.
Love the Saturday Night Live fantasy. 
Oh, I think it would have been the coolest thing ever. And the huffy complaints about how he was cheapening his contract with the Prince of Darkness would have made it even cooler.  Now imagine a skit where Dennis Spade does his "And you are...?" to Anton LaVey, who pushed ahead of Jesus in line.  Jesus, of course, would say "Get thee behind me, Satan" to which Anton could quote something suitably bitchy. LaVey had a natural sense of humor and could have easily played the cowl and horns for laughs. He could have become Uncle Anton, your Host for Satan's Monster Mania. But he didn't do that.  He was happy to tell a joke but he never let himself become the joke.

I think Tony Levey (his preferred monicker among friends) had a complex relationship with Anton Szandor LaVey. ASL brought Tony fame and attention while simultaneously providing a shield against too much intimacy.  Like many entertainers ASL was at heart a very private man. And yet ultimately his shield became his prison. He couldn't go back to being Tony tickling the ivories down at the local watering hole.  Because people wouldn't be going to see Tony anymore, to put tips in his jar and maybe engage in some idle chit-chat before heading home for the night.

No, they'd be coming to see the Black Pope. And they wouldn't care that he was an excellent keyboard player -- an assessment made by friends and enemies alike, btw -- and they wouldn't listen to the music. All they would hear is Anton Szandor LaVey. Then they would all come up to talk, to shake his hand and call him the Antichrist or sneer at him and call him a fraud. And so he grew increasingly reclusive and increasingly misanthropic: I'd imagine a few years of dealing with dumbshits in black will do that to a person.
I never had any dealings with LaVey, although I knew people who did. It would be hard to assign percentages to "con man" and "prophet," but perhaps he was one more visionary who tried something, saw that it impressed the rubes, chuckled to himself, and then wondered, "Maybe there really is something to this."  
We need to clarify two terms here.  First, when I said "prophet" I did not mean to imply that Anton LaVey had any kind of direct contact with an entity answering to "Satan."  In fact, he repeatedly stated that he did not and that he had synthesized these ideas on his own.  But he believed in those ideas and he lived those ideas and he introduced those ideas into the mainstream. And so he, as sure as Karl Marx, wound up a prophet.  Both tapped into "dark forces" in the zeitgeist of their times and set stuff in motion without any claim of divine inspiration.

I've also heard Anton LaVey called a "con man" a lot. They generally point to Lawrence Wright's article and burning questions about LaVey's oboe skill and whether or not his Tab A ever went into Marilyn Monroe's Slot B.  A few others point to Zeena's FAQ, which adds allegations of animal abuse and domestic violence in an effort to prove Anton LaVey is a bad, bad, bad person.  But amidst all these allegations I've never seen anyone say that Anton LaVey bilked a nice little old lady out of her life savings.  Or that he took tens of thousands from a bored San Francisco socialite to teach her "the Darkest of Dark Arts." Or that he extorted money from his flock. Or that he ever did any of the things you'd expect a con man to do.

I think LaVey was a true skeptic and willing to admit he had seen and experienced things which he could not explain.  For all his contempt of occultniks, he read an awful lot of obscure and esoteric occult texts.  It's also telling that he gave his son the middle name "Carnaki."  William Hope Hodgson's Carnaki more often than not finds a rational answer for strange findings, but those where he actually encounters the Outside are among the most chilling tales in 19th century horror.  (Try "The Whistling Room" right before you go to sleep.  Preferably facing a brick fireplace).  Please note that "things he could not explain" does not mean "things that spoke to him and declared him Satan's Emissary on Earth."  What it means is acknowledging and accepting that the world is a weird place and sometimes weird things happen.
It took Aquino, of course, to make it more of a self-conscious religion, instead of a . . . entertaining self-help movement, shall we call it?
Making LaVey's movement a "self-conscious religion" is rather like improving the Mona Lisa by splashing it with house paint until it resembles a Jackson Pollack. The absolute LAST thing Anton LaVey ever wanted was a self-conscious religion: "Say unto myself I am my own redeemer" and all that.  And you say "entertaining self-help movement" like it's a bad thing.   That's exactly what LaVey was aiming for: he even called it "spooky psychodrama."

(Question: how many of the Pagan writers of the mid-60s and early-70s were talking about the God and Goddess as archetypes, symbols or something other than actual deities? I am honestly not sure: I've noticed that among most modern Pagans I encounter nowadays, his ideas on "the nonanthropomorphic dark force in nature" and "ritual as psychodrama" are pretty much the norm).

My take on LaVey and his work is like my take on New Orleans Voodoo.  I'm well aware that a good bit of New Orleans Voodoo started out as a publicity stunt to bilk tourists.  But people are still finding meaning in New Orleans Voodoo and getting something out of practices they call New Orleans Voodoo.  And I'd say the same thing about Satanism, only LaVey's influence is arguably a whole lot bigger.  New Orleans Voodoo has a central area and is presently becoming more popular in America: there are death metal fests throughout the world with kids wearing baphomets and screaming "Hail Satan!" You may not like the music but once again a lot of people are getting something out of it.

I don't see a comparable influence with Setianism.  I see a few intelligent people within the ToS who have written thought-provoking books (i.e.  Don Webb and Edred Thorsson). But I don't see where the Aeon of Xeper is Remanifesting on this poor material plane.  Never mind black metal: I don't see a Setian artist whose images are as widely recognizable as Coopgirls nor do I see any indication that a New and Better Human has Come Into Being within or without the Temple of Set.

I'm not saying that Setianism isn't a perfectly fine spiritual path for those who wish to follow it.  But at this point it bears far more resemblance to Thelema or other initiatory occult orders than the philosophy expounded by LaVey. Covering Setianism in a book on Satanism would be like covering Haitian Evangelical Christianity when writing a book on Vodou: it is important only insofar as it interacts with the primary subject.