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The happy news is that I am definitely in a reading mood, for the first true time since like... I don't know when.  A very long time ago.  Middle school or something.  My first Amazon batch of this new euphoric period - Pym and Volt - arrived a couple weeks ago, and I haven't gotten the chance to read them because I've been finishing up Hostage to the Devil, by Malachi Martin.  [ETA: I got this book on [ profile] handful_ofdust's recommendation - thank you!]  It's a book about exorcism.  Martin was a theologian and Catholic priest, and the bulk of the book consists of 5 case studies of Americans in the 1960s-1970s who underwent the rite of exorcism - each time with a bonafide Catholic priest, not somebody called in by Lorraine Warren.  It's non-fiction. 

Each case study spends a lot of time developing a nuanced, multi-decade view of the exorcist and the victim of possession, because in this book, that's how long it takes.  It's not exactly playing with ouija boards one day and levitating the next week.  Evil has to be allowed in, and weaves its way into an authoritative position of a person's life - to the point that it provides ready-made answers and decisions for the person to accept that are designed to separate the person from humanness - over many years.  It's a complicated, invisible downward spiral.

My favorite case of the 5 was the last (very long) one, The Rooster and The Tortoise.  It's about a scholar of parapsychology, Carl, who the book readily admits has psychic capacities of some kind and eventually was convinced that he was the reincarnation of an ancient Roman and had to go to ancient Aquileia to worship some thing called The Tortoise.  The priest, Father Hearty, also has psychic capacities of some kind, and had taken classes from Carl at a university.  The whole interaction between psychic phenomena and academia and spirituality was pretty interesting, but what made the story for me was this part where Carl is talking to his mentor, a Tibetan guy named Olde who practices Tibetan Buddhism.  Carl had already been in contact with the evil spirit at this point, but was essentially ignoring that it was evil - anyway.  He's trying to learn higher planes of consciousness.  I was really afraid that Olde was going to turn out to be evil, but not so:
Finally one day Olde seemed to have no more answers.  Every soul, he said, which turns to the perfection of Allness is like a closed-petaled lotus flower in the beginning of its search.  Under the direction of a master or guide, it opens its eight petals slowly.  The master merely assists at this opening.  When the petals are open, the tiny silver urn of true knowledge is placed in the center of the lotus flower.  And when the petals close in again, the whole flower has become a vehicle of that true knowledge.

Looking away from Carl, Olde said gratingly, almost inimically: "The silver urn can never be placed at the center of your flower.  The center is already taken by a self-multiplying negation."  A pause.  "Filth.  Materiality.  Slime.  Death."

Carl was stunned, literally struck dumb for an instant.  Olde walked away from him, still without looking at him.  He was about five paces away when Carl broke down.  He could only manage a choking exclamation: "Olde!  My friend!  Olde!"

Olde stopped, his back to Carl.  He was utterly calm, motionless, wordless.  Then Carl heard him say in a low voice and not particularly to him: "Friend is holy."  Carl did not understand what he meant. [...] Olde said only this to Carl, words Carl could never forget: "You have Yama without Yamantaka.  Black without white.  Nothingness without something." 

As Olde turned away again, Carl had a sudden reversal.  He seemed for a few instants to be absorbed in "higher prayer."  His surge of frustration and anger gave away to contempt and disgust for Olde.  Then as he looked at Olde's retreating back, he was filled with a warning fear of Olde and what Olde stood for.  Somehow Olde was the enemy.  Somehow he, Carl, made up a "we" and "us" with someone else, and Olde could not belong to it.

"Enemy!" he suddenly heard himself shouting after Olde.

Olde stopped, half-turned, and peered over his shoulder at Carl.  His face was back to its usual repose.  His forehead, cheeks, and mouth were unruffled and smooth.  His eyes were calm, wide open, just gentle deeps of impenetrable light, as they usually were.  The compassion in them hit Carl like a whip.  He did not want anybody's compassion.  He took a step back, wanted to speak, but could not get any word out of his throat.  He backed away another step, half-turning away, then another step and another half-turn, until he literally found himself moving away.  He told himself he had walked away, but deep in himself he knew he had been repelled, had been turned around and propelled away. 

Apparently Olde too had his own protectors.
I've been thinking more about morality lately, and turning against relativism.  I think this is actually due to a combination of reading about the use of torture and reading that whole "bankrupt nihilism" epic fantasy smackdown a while back.  The idea of a divine goodness and an evil that transcends particular religions really appeals to me, but is probably hopeless naive.  But I am a religious naif.  All I know is few things bother me more within this subject than listening to Christian exorcists say that Hindus worship Satan because Kali is in their pantheon.  I like to believe that people of multiple religions can touch/experience the same basic "Allness" in their worship.  But anyway.  I'm sure I sound like a moron, so I'll just move on.

This book taught me a lot about Christianity.  Before reading this book, my knowledge of the subject was restricted to my experience living among and being close friends with Christians (for some reason I get along better with the orthodox/LDS variety than the moderate kind), basic pop/mainstream culture exposure, the American religious right in politics, the Unitarian Universalist church (but only marginal exposure to that one), college courses on colonial and U.S. history (not flattering depictions), and Jesus Christ Superstar.  And none of those things gave me the same impression of Christianity as Hostage to the Devil does.  As strange as it may sound, I never "got" that Christianity was about love before this book.  I mean, I'd heard that, certainly seen the church signs saying "Jesus Loves You" and so on, but mostly my impression of Christianity was this and Jesus Camp.  I know a lot about - and disagree to the extreme with - what the dominionist religious right does politically and the tactics that they use, and I'm still allergic to Left Behind, but this book was like a small revelation to me.  It's kind of funny that a book about exorcism and dealing with evil is what gave me this compassionate, loving view of Christianity, but in the end that's really what it seemed to be about.  The emphasis really wasn't on horror, although there were unsettling passages.  But then the depiction of evil also wasn't something I expected - I think I was expecting pain or cruelty or hatred, and that's in there, but more than anything else, evil in this book is about meaninglessness and nothingness. 

It took a little getting used to - I had particular trouble with the attack on evolution in the chapter Father Bones and Mister Natch, but by the end I felt like I understood, somewhat, what Martin and the exorcists were getting at.  Not that I can put it in words right now.  I'm planning to reread the book.  But I do feel like this was an eye-opening experience for me.  It made me think a great deal about evil and humanness and goodness and Earth, and I was quoting passages of the book to my mother, who really didn't want to hear it, I don't think.  My mother is an atheist who gave me a horrified "are you becoming Christian? do you believe this guy?" line several times.

And no, I'm not saying Hostage to the Devil made me a Christian.  That would be too easy and thoughtless a conversion.  And as to whether I "believe" Malachi Martin, I guess I'd say that "I don't think he's lying," to paraphrase Scully.  In any case, I'm glad I read it.

And now I get to go write my book about non-evil "demons."  Heh, as Lindsey says.  At least the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church doesn't seem to believe in the gag-inducing deliverance movement (it's probably connected to the Alaskans that believe there's a demon queen on Mt. Everest), so that's something I can leave to my charismatic church.  Going off that tangent:

I caught an episode of the new Animal Planet show "Demon Exorcist" last week.  I like some paranormal-reality TV, for the same reason I like horror, and I like AP's "The Haunted" quite a bit, but "Demon Exorcist" was hysterically horrible.  A lot like "Extreme Paranormal."  Suffice it to say that if you catch that show, about a ghost hunter who has some run-in with an evil spirit and then becomes a wannabe John Constantine (I wouldn't be surprised if he somehow got licensed to practice "demonology" over the internet, and no, I do not take "demonology" seriously), the rigorous, devoted exorcists in Hostage to the Devil are the polar opposite of that guy.  For one, this guy totally violates the spirit of working under the banner of the power of God instead of making it about the exorcist himself, cuz the exorcist ain't strong enough (has he not seen The Exorcist?  "The power of Christ compels you!"), because he wants to be a hero.  For two, this is the kind of person who sees anything vaguely malicious and says "demon."  No question about mental or physical health.  Just straight to "demon," every time.  He's a lot like the Warrens.  Maybe it's a demonology thing.

Date: 2011-04-15 05:22 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Fascinating, truly.

I too think that relativism is, at its heart, bankrupt. I'm not sure how we define the absolutes, precisely, but I'd say that humans pretty much agree on them, actually, and where custom and tradition cause deviations, the deviations are ones that the societies that practice them feel are a sad necessity rather than a joyful good.

I think the book would frighten me, though.

Date: 2011-04-15 01:18 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I guess the book is disturbing, but I actually don't feel like it goes out of its way to frighten.

Date: 2011-04-15 01:41 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
It comes down to, basically, that I'm fine with a cosmic good--in fact, I believe in it/one--but the thought of a cosmic evil is frightening, because what if it's too powerful to resist? The absence of goodness, that I'm okay with--because I see it, and I know how to deal with it (add goodness!), and the banality of evil, evil as laziness, as petty corruption, as greed, as sadism, even--those things I can deal with (conceptually, anyway) because I understand them. But cosmic evil? I don't want there to be such a thing.

The universe, alas, does not arrange itself to suit my whims.

Date: 2011-04-15 01:52 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Heh, who was it that I was telling that as a kid I found it much easier to believe in cosmic evil, hell, etc., than a cosmic good and heaven and God? I don't know, maybe that's what I get for being a glass-half-empty person. I read about the Holocaust at a younger age than I suspect most kids do and the way religion was taught to me far emphasized the existence of jinn and iblis over the glory and goodness of God (which may be part of why the emphasis on love in this book surprised me). This is actually from Tea Obreht's Harper's article about vampires in the Balkans (I should post excerpts from that article), but in Indonesia (as it is apparently in the Balkans) "the light" is only there to protect you from "the dark." You learn about "the dark" first, you know "the dark" instinctively. And quite frankly "the light" is only as good as its protective quality. You will literally switch "lights" if that's what it takes. And this extends to political figures as well...

Just a different way of looking at things.

Date: 2011-04-15 02:11 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]

Well, too, any metaphor for goodness is limited by its metaphorical quality--if you think about a reality of endless light, you end up thinking about headaches and heat stroke and insomnia (if you're me, anyway). That's why I liked a line from a Henry Vaughan poem: "there is in God, some say, a deep and dazzling darkness"

There's plenty of evil about in the world, so it's not that I can't believe in cosmic evil--it's just that I'm frightened by the concept. Which, I guess, is as it should be. If there's cosmic evil, then it's a frightening thing.

Lots of religions (or aspects of religions) imagine a constant struggle of good and evil.

Date: 2011-04-15 02:17 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
It's interesting, because with time my definition of evil has actually gotten more and more narrow - I really hesitate to label things or people as evil, especially banal evil, because I feel like the word means something very strong and is used so often to obscure and put up defensive barriers. So now cosmic, inhuman evil actually makes more sense to me, because I'm not sure people on their own can be evil. They can be shit people, immoral people, can "work in the dark against their fellow man," but not be an embodiment of absolute evil. I don't know, though, this is still something I'm trying to work out.

Date: 2011-04-15 02:28 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
This is a really useful thought, and well-put. People throw the word "evil" around rhetorically in a way that really is increasingly disturbing, these days; it strikes me as a trap, another way to avoid actually thinking deeply about where things lie on your personal moral spectrum.

Date: 2011-04-15 02:50 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Yeah, exactly. It seems like it's just code for "person(s) I don't want to even try to understand," and "person(s) who I am nothing like, you guys." And it's a serious trap for horror writers too, I think.

Date: 2011-04-15 02:30 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Maybe we're getting into problems with names?

I don't mean to give you the impression that I think individual people are evil. I've never known a person who seemed irredeemably bad.*** There may be such people, but I wouldn't want to be the one to judge. Most people do all kinds of good and bad things all the time. So when I say I see evidence of evil in the human realm, I don't mean to say, "Oh Neutron Jack, he's eeevil!" or anything like that. But it's in the human realm that I see people taken advantage of, people suffering for want of things that it ought to be easy to have, people teasing or mocking others to no purpose, people destroying things for no good reason (or for reasons I think are bad)--that stuff. And elements of that are what I'd call evil (not all of it. Earthquakes cause suffering, but I don't think they're evil. Viruses cause suffering, but I don't think they're evil, etc.)

***Annnnd, that implies I feel capable of judging. But what I mean is, when I've met miserable, nasty, unfriendly people, it usually also turns out they have some thing or other--something they've done, or some thing they value, or something, that makes them seem less nasty and miserable.

But okay... I see that i'm pretty judgmental, really....

Edited Date: 2011-04-15 02:34 pm (UTC)

Date: 2011-04-15 02:43 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Okay, the "evidence of evil in the human realm" is helpful. And indeed, because where else would we get that evidence? I totally agree that even the nasty and unkind often are not absolutely so.

I stayed up way too late reading about deliverance ministries (which I mentioned in the post briefly) last night and the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church had some really interesting things to say about this movement (which says that demons are everywhere, and cause every ailment ever, and so they must be cast out - like demons make you poor, diabetic, schizophrenic, bald):

"First, it is deeply problematic to conclude on the basis of the Scriptures that human weaknesses that in general may be attributed to the fall (including physical weakness such as illness) are the result of some kind of "demon possession." Moreover, this raises the serious question of a failure to distinguish between the influence of sin and evil upon our lives, and the demonic possession of Christians--the latter of which has no basis in the New Testament. Second, it is possible that among some deliverance ministry advocates Christians are thought not to be "whole" or "fully holy" until they have been rid of certain "vices." Such a view would be contrary to the unanimous testimony of the biblical writers that God has declared us to be totally righteous in his sight through Jesus Christ, who gives us His Spirit that we may grow in a life of sanctification--something that is never perfect in this life. Finally, the deliverance ministry movement seems to fail to recognize the role that human suffering plays in the life of the believer who places his or her trust in the God who in the midst of suffering works out his good purposes (Rom. 8:28-30)."

I think that last sentence is particularly good. Oh me, I'm citing the Lutherans now.

citing Lutherans

Date: 2011-04-15 02:53 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]

Good things can come from human suffering. Empathy, for instance.

Date: 2011-04-15 02:57 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Yeah, but people aren't viruses or earthquakes. What we do, nine times out of ten, we choose to do. When it's to the detriment of everybody else but us, we make that choice. I think this is where the "evil" label pops out, to distinguish these particular actions/choices from more understandable values like "crazy", "stupid", "awful", "mean", "fearful", "miserable", etc.

For example, I was thinking the other day about two women who killed their kids--Susan Smith vs. that more recent woman who'd already left her daughter with her parents, but apparently felt the need to go back, kidnap her, poison her and then dump her body someplace. I don't think they ever even found the actual corpus delicti, just some tape, a car trunk full of corpse-smell and a Google search string with topics like "kill with poison" and "dispose of body".

Smith had a history of abuse, low self-esteem out the wazoo, and genuinely seemed to believe that if she didn't get rid of the proof she was somebody's mother she'd never be able to get the latest guy she was hanging her self-image on to marry her. Her actions were driven by terror and borderline psychotic ideation. The other woman seemed to just literally want to party like she was the teenager she'd been when she got pregnant--she spent the time other people were frantically searching for her daughter doing things like going on week-long binges, flirting and kiting cheques. Between the two, I'd be more likely to call her "evil", but that's mainly because she didn't have reasons/excuses for her actions I could even halfway sympathize with.

Still, is either "evil"? Not on a cosmic scale. For me, it's like BOB from Twin Peaks: Is it worse that a demon possessed you and made you rape and kill your daughter to produce "garmonbozia" it could feed on, or is it worse you just plain raped and killed your own daughter? I'd always go with the latter. People aren't epic, and when they act like this, maybe they don't deserve to be.

Date: 2011-04-15 03:06 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I hadn't heard about that second woman.

Yeah, "evil" isn't a word I use for people, pretty much ever. I mainly use it for actions, I guess, and even then, I'm more likely to use some other word, like "cruel." If 98 percent of a person's actions are cruel, selfish, etc., then--wow, that's too bad. But I still don't use the term "evil," as it happens. Just, I guess, because it's a pretty grandiose term? I do use the word sometimes, though.

Date: 2011-04-15 03:48 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I hadn't heard of the second case either. Who is it? But it reminds me of the woman in - Florida, I think? - in a gated community, with a husband in intelligence/security, who shot her teenaged children apparently because they were arguing, but probably because she was on various substances. Mothers who kill their children fall in with murderous pedophiles and criminal cannibals (i.e., not the soccer team type) as people most likely to be called "evil," it seems to me, presumably because they seem to be violating social and natural norms on top of everything else.

Off-topic, but BOB is one of the few fictional demons that really viscerally scares me. I mean, to the point that when I see people say/write things like "fire walk with me" in ref. to the show I'm like "shhhhhh!"

Date: 2011-04-15 04:38 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Sometimes mothers--or fathers--kill their children when they commit suicide. Sort of not seeing the children as separate entities: destruction of self has to include destruction of the children. I see that exceptionally sad and messed up.

Date: 2011-04-15 10:50 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Though sad and messed up, it's also possible that some remaining part of them thinks "the kids will miss me," and it gets twisted into "better take them along."

Date: 2011-04-15 10:55 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Yeah, you do hear that rationale quite a bit.

self doubt and hedging rear their heads

Date: 2011-04-15 06:09 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Ahhh.... and now in the wee hours of the morning I'm afraid you're going to think that I think some complacent version of "Oh yes, dearie, we're all the same at heart; we all like a good sleep at night and good food to eat, now don't we???"--and that's not what I mean to say at all. I think we have thousands of variations, and there are thousands of modes and moods of human behavior... the absolutes I'm thinking of are pretty fundamental, I mean, so basic I'm not sure it even gets us very far to acknowledge them as absolutes.

Re: self doubt and hedging rear their heads

Date: 2011-04-15 01:13 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
No no no! I think I know what you were trying to say, and I hope that's true. I wonder though if those absolutes might be more abstract than concrete, thus making the challenge applying them to the human plane.

Re: self doubt and hedging rear their heads

Date: 2011-04-15 01:42 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Yeah; I think you're right about the challenge.

Date: 2011-04-15 02:25 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I must admit, I'm really happy you A) read this and B) got such a lot out of it. I agree that the Jesuitical inquiry aspects were some of the best parts, for me--the sheer amount of effort put into figuring out what else might be responsible for these effects, with "the Devil" always the absolute court of last resort. And yes, love vs. negativity, something vs. nothing; the emphasis placed on the physical during obsession, debunking the soul while identifying the flesh as garbage, trash, repulsive, filthy, dirty, brief, doomed to rot, and you along with it. The destruction of pleasure in anything, and the enshrining of that anhedonia as ultimate "freedom".

I think that what works about Hostage to the Devil is that most of us have probably gotten trapped in these thought-patterns at least once, so they ping as familiar, and yet every time it happens there's this visceral need for them to have to come from "somewhere else", to be the result of sustained psychic attack rather than just a chemical bi-product of our own brains/bodies. And therefore you can see that version of Catholicism as either a welcome placebo or no different from (say) Buddhist affirmations, a way to break the cycle and re-train our mode of thinking, thus re-integrating ourselves, putting our "protection" back in place.

Date: 2011-04-15 03:02 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Yeah, the emphasis placed on the physical was also noteworthy. Like Yves' corrupted wedding vows, the whole death-to-death thing. I think when I re-read it I want to pay particular attention to the way freedom and choice are dealt with, because both "sides" claim freedom. But the final vision of the Tortoise - Earth as a self-enclosed shell - and the vision offered up by The Smiler, I think - the one about a hall of mirrors showing only you, you, you, and no possibility of comparison to anything else - really make evil's freedom seem more about complete isolation from everything, and complete emptiness.

That's an interesting thought. Yeah, I suppose the whole "why the fuck am I here, what is my purpose" train of thought can lead one down that road, certainly, although I don't know if I have a visceral need to make them come from somewhere else. I guess if they come from somewhere else I don't know how to fix them, and it's in someone else's hands (someone bad). But this is probably my lack of a religious mindset talking.

Date: 2011-04-15 03:25 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
With you on the lack of religious mindset part, which is why books like these--or stories like The Exorcist--continue to fascinate me. Faith is a very human yearning/quality, as much so as imagination; that's one of the reason that proselytizing atheists and ultra-rationalists annoy me so much, because if you constantly reduce faith to a fantasy, it's sort of like you're saying all fantasy (my own included) is toxic, stupid and reductionist itself, and I will never be down with that, ever. Strangely.;)

Date: 2011-04-15 04:40 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
if you constantly reduce faith to a fantasy, it's sort of like you're saying all fantasy (my own included) is toxic, stupid and reductionist itself,

Yes, and you can see that train of thought leading to the conclusion that all imagination of any sort is stupid, etc., when really the capacity to imagine, in addition to being vastly entertaining, is both a coping method and a valuable tool for survival.
Edited Date: 2011-04-15 04:40 pm (UTC)

Date: 2011-04-16 04:38 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I'm not quite sure how you got through college without learning something more substantial/theological about Christianity? Didn't you have to read the Bible, or St. Augustine, or Nietzsche, or...I dunno, anything that dealt with Western humanities after Rome? Not that I read everything I was supposed to, and I feel like the curriculum's been stripped down and lightened from what it should be even at that, but still.

I wouldn't want to judge any religion by random practitioners, in this case people in the contemporary U.S. that have a thousand other reasons for being the way they are. I feel like I still formed beliefs that way in middle school and parts of high school, but by the time I got to college I didn't really have any thing against Christianity or theism in general. I certainly never felt any real anger toward Christianity or God or anything either.

Date: 2011-04-16 04:43 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I dunno, this isn't meant to be so critical...I just honestly find it odd.

Date: 2011-04-16 05:30 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
No, it is kind of odd. I mean, it didn't seem so at the time.

Date: 2011-04-16 05:24 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Nope, none of those things. I think they have to at Columbia, in their Core class, but Barnard has no Core. The class that would be closest that I took freshman year - required - rotated focal points every year, and the year I took it it was totally focused on Greek stuff. Old Greek stuff. Definitely I had like zero exposure to Western humanities.


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