I ended the previous installment of this blog series on Satanism as religion with seventeenth-century English poet Robert Herrick’s memorable phrase “wild civility.” So let me pick right back up and open this belated fourth post on that same note.
Wild Men in an Eastern Wilderness
As an undergraduate at the University of Georgia, I studied anthropology with a man named Peter Brosius who was perhaps the embodiment of a civil wildness, looking for all the world like a modern incarnation of Wild Bill Hickock. Dr. Brosius had spent years sojourning a might distance from the Old West, however.
In fact he did his field work in the Far East, where he lived among the semi-nomadic Penan Geng on the island of Borneo. And the good doctor had two large Penan tattoos adorning the quads of each leg to prove it: the intricate ink surprised our class whenever our scruffy professor would sit on a wooden stool in front of us, propping his flip-flopped feet on the bottom rung and letting his knees fall open a bit, so that the fabric of his shorts rode high on his thighs.
I had previously been introduced to the Penan and their Bornean jungle habitat during high school, through documentaries like 1989’s Blowpipes and Bulldozers that followed the exploits of yet another civil westerner-wild-man, controversial Swiss environmental activist Bruno Manser, who had lived with the Penan for six years from ’84 to 1990. Manser eventually began organizing Penan resistance to government-backed logging in Sarawak, including blockades of logging trucks, activity that made him a marked and wanted man in the province.
He was still hiding out in the jungle among the Penan, evading police and logging thugs alike, when Dr. Brosius arrived in the region to begin his own fieldwork with the embattled tribe. When Manser went missing during his final visit to the region in 2000, Brosius, who had known him personally, opined that it wouldn’t have been uncharacteristic of the corrupt logging companies and the gangs they hired as enforcers to have had the prominent activist “disappeared.”
Maybe Borneo wasn’t so different from the lawless American Old West after all.
Brosius’ doctoral work with the Penan Geng had concentrated not just on their traditional ecological knowledge and fraught plight in the face of encroachment from “modernity” that had so exercised activists like Manser, but more particularly on their intriguing death customs. Though for the most part immediate-return hunter-gatherers with typically minimal death rituals or even burial practices, the Penan have, in one respect, one of the most elaborated systems of death observance of any central Bornean society, including those of long-house agriculturalists.
Brosius’ thousand-plus page doctoral dissertation had much to say about the complex Penan Geng custom of “death-naming”: that is, giving individuals in mourning often macabre new names to reflect their relationship to the deceased. We’re talking names like mommy-dead, decomposing-mother, daddy-gone, and the like.
He also devoted reams of paper and a flood of analytical ink to the Penan’s bizarre but fascinating habit of using these so-called “death names” to coo to their children of all things, believing they can thereby avert the threat of death from their precious little ones. The practice provides a touching, if morbid, point of interest I referenced a while back in this previous essay.
Perhaps the second most intriguing thing Dr. Peter Brosius shared with us in class about his time on Borneo that has stayed with me for all these intervening years had to do with the way he described how Muslim Malaysians in Sarawak keep their yards. Scrupulously “clean” is the answer, by which they mean completely and utterly devoid of vegetation, swept down to the bare dirt.
You see, Muslims in Malaysian Borneo, Brosius maintained, associate the jungle, as well as all growth not subdued within the confines of a carefully managed garden, with forest-dwelling nomadic and semi-nomadic populations like the Penan Geng, who—again to emphasize—live a markedly more immediate-return way of life than the sedentary Abrahamic monotheists.
For Muslim Malays in the region, the jungle represents a force of chaos, wild in its fecundity and constantly encroaching on human settlement and delayed-return endeavors. It must be kept strictly in check.
Similarly, peoples like the Penan who dwell in and depend on the jungle in all its ferocious wildness are seen as undisciplined, lazy, untrustworthy, vaguely evil, and a threat by their very existence to the delayed-return narratives and convictions of the Malay way of life.
Ultimately, one gets the distinct impression that Malays of Sarawak would like very much to do with the Penan Geng what the majority Muslims of Indonesian Sumatra have attempted to do to their own home-grown immediate-return jungle-dwelling foraging population, the Orang Rimba. That is: settle them, convert them to Islam, and all but obliterate their former immediate-return life.
This sort of totalizing evangelistic fervor on the part of delayed-return peoples to spread their way of living, seeing, and interacting with the world through commodification (in this case: logging and palm oil plantations) helps explain precisely why delayed-return lifeways and worldviews systematically outcompeted immediate-return ones during the Neolithic Revolution, as well as in the periods post (like our own).
To judge by the experience with settlement had by the Penan Benalui of the Indonesian province of East Kalimantan, Borneo, the Penan Geng likely would not fare well under such an arrangement. During the period between the 1950s and the 1970s, the Penan Benalui caved to pressure from Indonesian bureaucrats and Christian pastors alike to settle in fixed villages where their livelihoods were to be based on rice farming. However, the people’s immediate-return orientation and lifeway clung on even amid their changed material circumstances, rendering them fairly maladapted for the new way of living.
The settled Penan Benalui tended to underproduce rice due to improper labor allocation. They failed to save due to their present-orientation and a strong social ethic of sharing and shared spending. They experienced high levels of child mortality and maintained fairly low levels of formal education, this latter trait due largely to the people’s non-directive parenting style and resultant unwillingness to force their children to attend school or study.
And, of course, these “failures” to successfully convert to a delayed-return worldview and lifeway made the Penan Benalui even more the objects of scorn, derision, and discrimination within larger delayed-return Bornean society.
Until such time as they can totally “convert” the Penan Geng in a similar way, seizing their forest habitat in the name of “economic progress” (read: exploitation and devastation), the majority of the Muslim Malaysians of Borneo appear to rest content with keeping the threatening jungle and its dangerous denizens relatively subdued and safely at arm’s length.
Wild Men in a Western Wilderness
Author Matthew Stewart opens his book entitled Nature’s God about “the heretical origins of the American Republic” with a discussion of a yet another civil wild man from the earliest days of pre-Revolutionary America whose radical ideas about individual sovereignty and the place (or rather lack thereof) for God and conventional religion in both public and private life proved threatening to the broader conservative colonial culture of his time in a way remarkably similar to how Penan culture threatens Muslim Malays in Borneo.
The wild man in question was Revolutionary War radical Ethan Allen, the rough hewn New England frontiersman whose name first came to my own young awareness as a child through its ironic association with the local Ethan Allen furniture store. The place where my fairly conventional parents shopped for staid, polished-wood end tables and a solid oak desk on a showroom floor stuffed with lacquered, conservative appointments was a far cry from the rabble rouser whom Moby Dick author Herman Melville once described as “a wild beast; but of a royal sort.”
Stewart details how the future leader of the Green Mountain Boys in their squatters’ revolt against distant landlords from New York and New Hampshire received tutelage during his young adulthood from another early American radical, the doctor and political agitator Thomas Young, one of the principal organizers of the Boston Tea Party.
Young initiated Allen into the heterodox religio-philosophical lifeway known as Deism and has been suspected of being the chief influence on, if not the actual uncredited author of, a much disdained Deistic treatise expressing a vigorous attack on conventional Christianity attributed to Allen and published in 1784 under the lengthy title Reason, the Only Oracle of Man; Or, A Compendius System of Natural Religion. Luckily for us who wish to refer to it by name, Allen referred to the work in his own correspondence by the shortened title of Oracles of Reason.
Lucretius and the Universe Unbounded
Ultimately, Stewart traces the subtitular heresy of his book which formed the subject of Allen’s Oracles all the way back to a singularly unlikely historical source that you should by now know to expect: Epicurus and his philosophy-cum-religion of Epicureanism as explicated and “set to music” in the first century BCE by the Roman poet Titus Lucretius Carus in the masterful epic De Rerum Natura.
Stewart describes the cosmic vision set forth in the Latin poem in terms reminiscent of how the Muslims of Malaysian Borneo reportedly viewed their surrounding jungle menace. Lucretius’ poem presents, in Stewart’s words, an “extraordinary vision of an infinite universe—a universe without beginning, end, center, or edge, everywhere abounding in extraterrestrial life…a limitless, eternal, wildly fecund cosmos.”
Over time, this chaotic vision and its concomitant destabilizing ideas about religion, morality, and the place, not to mention goals, of human life in the cosmos would prove a kind of “universal acid,” as Stewart puts it, that would “dissolve every pretension of religion in its popular and traditional forms to represent the meaning of existence.”
As we saw in the previous essay in this series, the inevitably somewhat destructive character of their program earned for the Epicureans and their movement considerable vitriol and vilification. This fact helps explain why Lucretius’ work survived into modernity solely as a result of just a handful (not even a handful, really) of manuscripts.
Firstly, there was the single manuscript copy that Italian Humanist Poggio Bracciolini rediscovered in 1417 and from which all early printed editions of the work derive. Secondarily, Lucretius’ poem has come down to us in the modern day from just two ninth-century CE Carolingian manuscripts, themselves both copied from yet another single lost source likely dated to the end of Antiquity.
In other words, the fate of the single biggest and most fulsome source of information about ancient Epicurean belief and doctrine once hung in the balance by just two individual manuscript threads.
By way of comparison, modern scholars have discovered and cataloged almost six thousand complete or fragmentary Greek manuscripts of the text of the New Testament, ten thousand Latin manuscripts of that same work, and some nine thousand-three hundred New Testament manuscripts written in an array of other ancient languages like Syriac, Ge’ez (Ethiopic), Armenian, and Gothic.
Still, as does author Stephen Greenblatt in his own 2012 Pulitzer-Prize-winning book about the curious nachleben of Epicureanism within European culture entitled The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, Stewart attributes to the revolutionary force of Lucretius’ almost lost vision an outsized, if covert and often coded, influence over subsequent thinkers throughout Western history. He argues that the work and its dangerous ideas would eventually inform and inspire some of the greatest scientific and rationalist minds of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the American Revolution.
In such more pious, Christian-dominated environments, however, the echoes of Epicurus would have to take on veneers of Stoicism (especially in the form of pantheism and anthropocentricity) and, eventually, Deism as masks to cover the radical and destabilizing atheism that supposedly lay at their core.
Stewart goes on to argue that the revolutionary ultimately Epicurean ideas entertained and propagated by Thomas Young, Ethan Allen, Thomas Jefferson, and others provided the necessary impetus that drove the Colonies toward their critical break with England and eventually gave birth to these United States. Without such iconoclastic thinkers and their radical vision that taxed the limits of conventional acceptability in both the New and Old Worlds, perhaps we would still form part of the British Commonwealth to this day.
The mighty power needed to break the strong bonds of empire had to come from an even stronger ideology with the power to dissolve those bonds, a religion-cum-philosophy of unknotting, untying, and release. “When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another…”: so began the revolutionary (with both big and little R) document authored for the express purpose.
Satanism as Universal Religious Solvent
The metaphor that Stewart develops of Epicurean religio-loosening as the action of a kind of philosophical universal solvent falls closely in line with the discussion we’ve been having thus far in the present blog series about how my particular brand of deconstructive Satanism qualifies as “religion.” I’ve argued that Satanism similarly seeks to dissolve many of the bonds delayed-return religion and social order would otherwise place on individuals, restrictions on even the most intimate and personal areas of our lives, including sex, ingestion, and reproductive choice.
At the same time, Satanism does not and will not rest content with the mere loosening of such binding fetters and releasing the individuals previously bound by them. Rather, as a religion of rebellion, it seeks to subvert and ultimately destroy the many burdensome and psychologically damaging aspects of delayed-return worldviews that emphasize strict self-abnegation and subjugation to alleged value outside of the self, obedience to others’ principles of behavior, and devaluing of the physical and the immediate (including, for instance, the environment).
Granularity of Dissolution
So far, I’ve mainly considered the Satanic project of releasing society from the knots of coercive and abusive power, but the quote from comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell that I brought up last time to describe the basic, fundamental drive of religion and spirituality as being to “actually feel the rapture of being alive” casts the issue primarily in intimately personal, rather than societal, terms. How does this unknotting work within the mental, psychological, and emotional life of the single individual Satanist?
I want to now pivot and examine the idea of Satanic religiosity as untying the knots and dissolving bonds of traditional delayed-return religion on the more personal, individual level of the self. Here’s a quick preview of how I’m going to do it.
I imagine any random assortment of people you might consider polling on the question of what precisely the phrase “the rapture of being alive” parses out to mean will provide an array of different (and possibly contradictory) responses. All would likely agree, however, that, for one thing, Campbell’s idea certainly sounds like a worthy goal in life (or at least a desirable side effect of pursuing some other goal), and, for another, such a commitment would likely require at a minimum a certain openness to life experiences and both a depth and breadth of emotional content in partaking of those experiences.
That is, someone who wants a rapturous experience of being alive would need to be open to novel experience and emotionally available to really give themselves over to that experience and remain mindful while in the throws of it. I would (and will!) argue that Satanism is uniquely suited to ensuring both this required neophilic openness and the emotional availability to really enjoy it.
The next post in this series will treat the whole neophlilia v. neophobia issue in its relations to mental openness and flexibility, as well as the tendency (or not) of thinkers to project their own internal mental, moral, and emotional processes out onto the world so as to limit and contain its chaotic variegation rather than letting the wildly fecund diversity of the world of external experience exert greater control over one’s own conceptions and reactions.
Then, in a post to follow that one, I will deal with the myriad ways in which delayed-return religiones, based in and justified by externalizations, act so as to limit personal experience of the world and empathy felt for other beings, the non-human environment, and even for one’s own self.
It’s time to get personal in this exploration of Satanism and its power to dissolve bonds and release individuals to greater freedom of thought and action. This is where my personal Satanism transitions from a tool for the betterment of society (a goal which many Satanists dispute should ever constitute a legitimate Satanic aim and about which I myself remain wishy-washy and somewhat anemic) to a tool for the betterment of self (a goal on which all who describe themselves with the S-word will likely heartily agree).