Monday, June 16, 2014

The Devil in Vaudeville:
Showbiz as Satanic Magic

About a week ago, I visited Spoonbill and Sugartown Booksellers in Brooklyn. Perusing my favorite shelves, I espied a title of preciously rare, immediate, and personal resonance: American Vaudeville as Ritual. As a writer, cartoonist, musician, comedian, and Satanist, I found this an unusually promising resource for my studies. And I was not disappointed!

Written by Albert F. McLean, Jr., a professor with a Harvard Ph.D. in American Civilization, this text was published in 1965 — a year before Anton Szandor LaVey founded the Church of Satan. LaVey gave ample credit to his influences: diabolically insightful predecessors from whose works, as well as his own life, he distilled the principles of Satanism. Though I don’t know whether LaVey was aware of this particular publication, I suspect it would have felt perfectly at home in his library. This highly readable academic work explores truly Satanic principles within the context of American entertainment, focusing on vaudeville from the late nineteenth century to 1930 — the year LaVey was born.

American Vaudeville as Ritual refers to figures specifically mentioned in the Church of Satan’s recommended reading lists, including Horatio Alger, Herbert Spencer, Jack London, and H. L. Mencken. Its vocabulary alone reflects a sincere grasp of the concepts and practices at the core of Satanism. Of course, this is not to suggest that the author is a Satanist. However, McLean, going against the academic grain, tapped into a magically carnal undercurrent, communicating its dynamics with remarkably sensitive wisdom.

McLean states his overall thesis as follows:

“Myth itself consists of interrelated constellations of images and symbols that both singly and collectively express the unconscious assumptions upon which men base their functional attitudes and beliefs. Vaudeville, as became clear in the course of my investigations, stood in relation to the American dream of human progress and personal achievement as primitive ritual stood in relation to primitive myth.” (ix)

Already, we find several Satanic principles: meritocracy, self-realization, pragmatic engagement with philosophically-resonant symbolism, and remembrance of past orthodoxies. These themes constitute the core of the book’s content and its relevance to Satanism. They are reinforced later in the preface:

“...there is, in this heterogeneous society, still a folk element which too seeks to evolve its usable myths; only instead of linking these myths with the religious aspirations of the community, the new urban folk has drawn its symbols from the secular magic of its era — the very scientism which set out to dispell (sic) forever the prestige of myth. Vaudeville stands in the center of this secular myth-making and has been engaged in a process of real significance for modern society, a process which has gone largely unperceived because of inadequate perspectives and inattention to the nature and history of mass entertainment.” (xi)

Here the text criticizes two Satanic sins: Forgetfulness of Past Orthodoxies and Lack of Perspective. It also embraces the concept of secular magic, which is essential to the Satanist’s practice of Lesser Magic and certain works of Greater Magic that would go unnoticed by most people as genuine sorcery.

I was particularly struck by another, longer passage, rich with elements of Satanic theory and practice:

“Committed to no particular tradition, capable of infinite variations and permutations, alien to all of the formalized modes by which educated persons communicate, the ritual of entertainment could absorb public sentiment and respond to it immediately. Ritual, as it has manifested itself throughout time, has been dynamic and effervescent, always evading the attempts of language to confine it. And within the heterogeneous society of the American city, composed of many peoples from many cultures, it was precisely this active, elusive form of expression which could be most effective. Vaudeville was catholic in its tastes, hospitable to the most ambiguous and contradictory symbolisms, open to old myths but also busy building new ones. Whereas the popular myths which served it were pointed and restrictive — symbolized through stereotyped characters and stories — vaudeville itself remained mobile and elusive as a form, capable of shifting in coloration and emphasis from one performance to the next. 
“Through ritual the process of myth-making could be sustained; the symbols could be tested, and the gestures varied until the right combinations evolved.” (4)

Where do I begin? Apply these ideas to a more individualistic point of view, and the resonance is astounding. We Satanists, a cross-cultural meta-tribe, freely borrow from seemingly incompatible sources of inspiration, blending them into idiosyncratic syntheses that fulfill an infinite variety of individualistic needs. Our magical workings, conducted both within the ritual chamber and through other evocations, are exercises in intellectual decompression — an aesthetically-induced emotionalization that LaVey suggested was all the more necessary for the intellectual. And while I would not say we focus on stereotypes, we do revel in the powerful conceptual embodiments found in archetypes.

Many Satanists have little or no interest in the traditional accoutrements of Satanic ceremony, and may find more inspiration in the creation or enjoyment of other sensory catalysts. That can include physical environments, works of literature, and even certain television programs. Indeed, the Satanist has the unique privilege of genuinely religious experiences that can appear thoroughly mundane to the average person — or even to another Satanist.

McLean’s mention of feeling out the “right combinations” brings to mind LaVey’s essay, “The Combination Lock Principle,” from The Devil’s Notebook, in which he emphasizes the inimitable nature of one’s personal system of sorcery. Prescribed methods can be a useful framework, but should be adapted, even until they are unrecognizable, to suit the Satanist’s personal needs. Of course, that sometimes does mean following tradition down to the letter. However, in my experience, that is rarely the case.

In the following passages, McLean outlines the fundamental mechanisms of  these evocations:

“Like most rituals, vaudeville combined without explanation or apology the means by which an audience could be lured, enthralled, and emotionally satisfied.” (7) 
“Caroline Caffin, whose book Vaudeville appeared in 1914... saw vaudeville as... at its best creating ‘an electrifying experience’ in which the performer evoked from the audience ‘an answering vibration.’” (13) 
“Anyone present in the wings before curtain time could not help but feel the electric tension charging the atmosphere...” (92)

This dynamic will be familiar to the Satanic student of Greater Magic. The power of any ritual is in its ability to heighten the emotions, and thus expand the will, through custom-tailored, personally satisfying stimuli.

For those not seeking to directly affect change outside of themselves, ritual is employed as “self-transformative psychodrama,” to borrow a phrase from Magus Peter H. Gilmore. This can be achieved not only before a traditional altar, but also through means that may appear to be mere entertainment:

“The New Folk were not just dreamers or escapists. If they wished relief from the give-and-take of city life, they also wanted the strength and motivation to face it once again.” (68)

Of course, one need not feel overwhelmed by urban existence in order to benefit from this method. But Greater Magic through discriminating engagement with “entertainment” sure helps me to survive the daily grind in New York City!

(And I’ll admit that, sometimes, it’s just plain helpful to wind down with an excellent sitcom.)

As for Lesser Magic, McLean offers this keen encapsulation:

“Sex, which in primitive thought often shared with the earth mystical powers of regeneration, but which within the Puritan consciousness had become linked with a shameful bestiality, was refurbished into ‘glamour,’ a power accessible to even the most uneducated man or woman. Through ‘glamour,’ as vaudeville-goers and newspaper readers well knew, one could acquire popularity, wealth, fame, and happiness.”

He continues with an insightful, if slightly utopian, take on the magical potential of modern indulgences:

“Even the machines — dynamos, trolley cars, and Gramophones — had invaded everyday life, creating wonderful new possibilities for pleasure. In the mythical view which saw all human society as moving toward a collective, euphoric future, the machines were indispensable talismans.” (6)

As might be expected, the Satanic nature of entertainment has not been lost on the religious establishment. To this day, Christian fundamentalists and their Islamic counterparts, along with a joyless assortment of other death-worshiping religionists, protest these life-enhancing creations. As we’ve seen on the news — and sometimes in our personal lives — their irrational, totalitarian responses range from obnoxious comments to fatal acts of terrorism.

In several passages, McLean directly addresses the tension between Christianity and vaudeville, which naturally tends to result in the triumph of instinctual delights over stifling dogma:

“Vanity Fair, as it was described from the pulpit, stood ready to lure Christian from his journey to salvation... the Protestant movement had gained its impetus from the rejection of pomp and ritual, and latter-day prophets could, without too much distortion, find in theatrical presentations just such an appeal to carnal, unregenerate man.” (72)
“Vaudeville in its formative stages spoke for a generalized conception of the good life rather than for liberated fun-making. Happiness, however, within its ritual was no longer an otherworldly reward for good works, nor was it the endowed privilege of a few saintly members of the community. Happiness was, the ritual implied, already blossoming within the cities and would soon spread beyond the palaces into the daily lives of men.” (84) 
“To the immigrant the spiritual promise of his religion had been manifest in the hues, lines, and lights of the cathedrals, and when he came to the secular society of the United States, he could not help seeing the symbolic promise — not for the life hereafter but for the present life — in vaudeville palaces. By its proportions and decor the vaudeville palace made easier the immigrant’s translation from the rites of a ceremonial religion to the ritual of secular amusement.” (195) 
This last statement in particular reminds me of LaVey's proclamation at the opening of The Satanic Bible: “Since worship of fleshly things produces pleasure, there would then be a temple of glorious indulgence...”

In the concluding chapter of McLean’s book, one finds the author’s most direct thoughts regarding vaudeville’s inherent diabolism:
“Obviously the vaudeville ritual denied the validity of certain basic Christian principles. Where Christianity sanctified poverty and turned men’s eyes toward heavenly rewards, vaudeville extolled the gospel of wealth and sought happiness in immediate existence. Where Christianity marked man’s place in history through a framework of revelations, the vaudeville myth knew no past nor future, only the the sensuous and climactic rhythm of its man-made, man-centered ritual... Salvation was no longer an arduous hike along a cruel path but a willingness to open the senses to the brilliant wares that Vanity Fair had to offer.” (215, 216)

I encourage the reader to hunt down a copy of this outstanding book, as this essay only touches upon a few of its ample moments of Satanic resonance.

We often note that Satanism is the only religion that takes pride in its showbiz elements, even though all religions are rooted in fetishistic theatricality. American Vaudeville as Ritual demonstrates this more clearly and thoroughly than I have seen anywhere else. It has certainly helped me to further recognize and articulate the principles of Satanism within the context of entertainment.

What a rare pleasure. The newest book on my shelf is already among my most cherished grimoires.

And I just wrote a book report — for fun.

Work Cited
McLean, Albert F., Jr. American Vaudeville as Ritual. Kentucky: University of Kentucky Press, 1965. Print.

Gilmore, Peter H. The Satanic Scriptures. Baltimore, MD: Scapegoat Publishing, 2007.
LaVey, Anton Szandor. The Devil's Notebook. Venice, CA: Feral House, 1992.
LaVey, Anton Szandor. The Satanic Bible. New York, NY: Avon Books, Inc., 1969.

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