Category Archives: Reviews

Women Publishing

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When I was in college back in Santa Cruz in the 1980s, there was a women’s poetry collective known as Moonjuice that held poetry readings and self-published their own poetry anthologies. That is how I became acquainted with the wonderful Maude Meehan, whose book of poems Chipping Bone I loved. When I was looking for Ellen Bass’s poem Then Call It Swimming to post here last year, I found it in one of the Moonjuice anthologies still on my shelves.

A couple years later, the Kensington Ladies’ Erotica Society came out with their first book of erotic short stories. Around that same time, the Women’s Songbook Project in Berkeley published the anthology Out Loud: A Collection of New Songs By Women. If I tried to recall all the grassroots women’s publishing projects I have come across from that era to this, I could go on for pages. In fact, just a couple weeks ago a friend sent me an announcement for a new anthology of women writers she’d been published in.

During the 70s and 80s, the idea of ordinary women writers getting together and publishing their work when no one else would was no longer a groundbreaking thought. Now it is even less so, with desktop publishing, scores of vanity presses, millions of women blogging, and compilation sites such as BlogHer popping up all over the net.

Publishing WomenStill, ’twas not ever thus. So when I had the opportunity to review Diana Robin’s fascinating history Publishing Women: Salons, The Presses, and the Counter-Reformation in Sixteenth-Century Italy, I jumped at the chance. And I am here to tell you, women back then had way fewer options for publishing than we do today. Why, it turns out that in the 1500s there were no women’s erotica anthologies at all!

Publishing Women is one of those rare works that investigates a previously overlooked subject with exhaustive, original research, and manages to synthesize the information in a way that is scholarly and coherent, with a narrative that is engaging for a general audience. Diana Robin highlights the vibrant groups of women writers that emerged in the Renaissance period across several Italian cities, and the network of publishers, printers and agents who had a hand in producing and selling their books.

Because of these women and their male colleagues, for the first time in Europe’s history women’s writing made it into the public sphere. Women established literary salons, published their own anthologies, and promoted religious reform in Naples, Rome, Florence, Vienna, and Siena. For anyone who is interested in book history, the appendices Robin includes are invaluable: an index of all the authors, editors, publishers and dedicatees of the anthologies; a physical description of the anthologies, many of which have not been published since the Renaissance; and a chronology of the key events in the history she describes.

Predictably, this movement provoked the ire of the Church. I won’t give away the story, but let’s just say the Council of Trent and piles of burning books were involved. But that was not the only problem that beset these literary women.

By the 1570s, war, plague, typhus, as well as Church-led persecutions left the Venetian publishing world a shadow of its former self. It would take a new generation of writers and publishers, working under very different social strictures in the 1580s and 90s, to revive the literary culture and in some instances reprint the writing of these early women writers.

This book illuminated for me a period of European history I knew nothing about, and ultimately left me feeling hopeful. Against all odds, creativity erupts. Groups coalesce, people figure out how to work together, movements form, cultures shift and change. Sure it all eventually dies, but even for movements such as these, left in tatters with only one or two copies remaining of many volumes, all it takes is one intrepid researcher with patience and a keen eye to make it live again.

The Navel of No Thing

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If only I had all day to sit here and write about how my life has been influenced by just a handful of trips to Esalen. If only the stories were as interesting to everyone else as they are to me. Ah well, with great restraint I will spare you and focus here on the task at hand, which is to review a mighty new book, Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion by Jeffrey Kripal.

Esalen Religion of No Religion KripalNo conversation about California Cosmology would be complete without a long detour into the history of Esalen, a venerable hot springs resort on the Big Sur coastline. Kripal’s book is an excellent, incredibly thorough account of Esalen’s beginnings as a sacred spot for the Esselen and other Coastanoan tribes, its establishment in the 1880s as a hot springs resort, its purchase by the Murphy family in 1910, and subsequent influence on American culture beginning in the 1940s and continuing today.

Kripal focuses much of his story on the journeys of Esalen’s two founders, Dick Price and Michael Murphy. In describing their travels, Kripal takes several fascinating side trips into some of their major influences: Sri Aurobindo and Hindu Tantra, Henry Miller and the Cold War, the Vedanta Society, Alan Watts and the Beat poets, Aldous Huxley, Abraham Maslow, Fritz Perls and George Leonard, to name only a few.

Esalen from its beginnings set out to explore the intersection of Eastern mysticism, psychology, and the potential of the human body. It was successful in large part because “Esalen inhabited a liminal position between the academy and the counterculture,” in Kripal’s words. They brought in the most original thinkers and intellectuals as well as hands-on experimenters with psychic phenomena, psychedelics, body therapies, and psychology, to hold seminars and mingle with each other. Not to say that every experiment was a success, but in remaining committed to new thinking Esalen ultimately avoided becoming merely a West Coast feel-good, anti-intellectual sinkhole.

There is some fascinating back story in these pages to just about every movement in modern psychology: the Freudian Left, Gestalt therapy, Encounter groups, the human potential movement, Somatics. Everything from Cold War Russian psychics to UFO and non-local mind researchers at one point wended their way through the filters of Esalen’s workshop business and residential community, and Kripal makes the journey enjoyable with an easy writing style and an obvious passion for his subject.

There are some vignettes from the Big Sur Hot Springs that are too priceless not to re-tell, such as this one from 1961, shortly before the Institute was founded. Michael Murphy’s grandmother had not yet decided to turn the management of the property over to her grandson. Instead, she had a young (22!) Hunter S. Thompson serving as property manager. Kripal paints the Esalen scene at the time:

Thompson was hardly the only colorful character on the Murphy property, though. The folksinger Joan Baez lived in one of the cabins, where she often gave small concerts. The guest hotel on the grounds, moreover, was being managed by a certain Mrs. Webb, a fervent Evangelical Christian who had hired her fellow church members from the First Church of God of Prophecy to help her manage…the place…. The bar, on the other hand, was patronized by what Price and Murphy called the Big Sur Heavies, locals known for their rough manners, their penchant for marijuana (which they grew in the mountains), and their quasi-criminal (or just criminal) tendencies. Then there were the baths, frequented on most weekends by homosexual men who would drive down from San Francisco or up from Los Angeles to gather in the hot waters and explore the limits of sensual pleasure. These men had even developed a kind of simple Morse code…to signal to the bathing lovers the approach of straight people coming down the path.

Needless to say, mayhem ensues more than once.

Kripal is not just a scholar and careful historian of the institution, he also drank the Kool-Aid. Kripal can take an overly credulous tone about the synchronous events that contributed to Esalen’s mystique. For instance, Price and Murphy met with Aldous Huxley shortly before his death, just before the two founded Esalen. When referring to Aldous Huxley’s last novel, Island, Kripal writes:

“Somehow, Aldous knew what Esalen would come to know. And then he died. An earthquake struck Big Sur that day.”

Holy shit! Man the lifeboats!

But this is also part of Kripal’s mystical approach to his subject. He believes that there were a series of spiritual or energetic transmissions from both Eastern and Western traditions that created a unique energy at Esalen. The value in this is the depth of understanding Kripal brings to every stream of thought feeding into Esalen’s crucible. He understands mysticism, and mystics, and in many ways illustrates through his writing what he describes at Esalen: the ability for personal gnosis and critical thinking to co-exist and even enhance one another. Kripal appears to agree with Michael Murphy’s basic premise that there is in fact an evolution of human potential going on, and he seems to have intended his book to be at one level a vehicle for further transmission to those who read it a certain way.

Kripal has been at the center of controversy with some of his earlier works on Hinduism in particular, where he has suggested that much of Eastern mystical experience derived from sublimated homoerotic urges, and he has examined more than one Indian mystic through the lens of Freudian psychoanalysis. In this history, just about every person connected with Esalen was either influenced by Asian tantric traditions or contributed to tantra’s integration into Western culture. Page by page he bangs that drum, until you either cry uncle or get zapped by a divine transmission of spiritual unity. For me it was mostly the former, but perhaps that is because I am already a child of the California mindset and need no further zapping. If so, I will take it as a blessing.

This book surprised me by vindicating one of my initial criticisms of Jone Salomonsen‘s book about Reclaiming, Enchanted Feminism. In my review from 2002, I argued that Jone tries to tie Reclaiming’s praxis exclusively to Judeo-Christian origins, when in fact it was highly influenced by yoga, meditation, and other Eastern influences. There is much more than a passing connection between Starhawk‘s 1994 novel The Fifth Sacred Thing and Michael Murphy’s 1977 novel Jacob Atabet. Jone missed these major regional influences, and any future history of the Pagan movement in the Bay Area will have to take this up more seriously.

The “religion of no religion” (a phrase originally coined by Frederic Spiegelberg, another important Esalen influence) is Kripal’s unified field theory of West Coast mysticism: a mixture of nature religion, the non-theistic strains of Taoism and Zen Buddhism, Western somatic psychology, and the tantric union of opposites. To Kripal, Esalen stands as a central broadcasting tower, transmitting these ideas into the weave of world culture.

In ancient cosmology, the mountain was the center of the world. Here we have a place at the bleeding edge of a continent, clinging to the cliffs of the most unstable mountain range in North America, at the confluence of 3 sacred waters: sulphur, fresh, and salt. Any alchemist can tell you that big juju lies there. Try it yourself, I highly recommend it. And if you really want to understand California Cosmology, you need to read this book.

Hidden In Plain Sight

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Our top story tonight: Jerry Falwell is still dead.

Moving on. I have always been a big fan of open book tests. That’s when, in high school and college, you are allowed to bring important books with you during a big test to help you answer questions. The theory is that for most subjects, memorizing information is less important than knowing where to look for that information when you actually need it. I think this is an excellent philosophy not just for school but for life itself. It also, conveniently, gives me a clever excuse for collecting probably more books than I actually need. You just never know when you’ll be faced with a pop quiz on any number of subjects, really. It’s best to be prepared.

As a Pagan, having a large reference library puts me in good company. Most Pagans I know are voracious readers with sizeable libraries. One of the first things I like to do when going to a friend’s house is to head for the shelves and side tables to see what books are there. More often than not, I’ll find a new book or two about Paganism in with the fiction, financial advice, and tarot for dummies books.

It is an odd time to be a Pagan. We have books written by all sorts of practitioners of different traditions, talking about their spirituality. We have writers who look at these books and write their own books drawing general conclusions about trends and so forth. Then we have writers who read both kinds of books, and comment on how and why people have come to the conclusions they have about the first people’s books. When I pick up any new book on Pagans nowadays, it’s as though I’m looking in a funhouse mirror with multiple reflections, and if I couldn’t look down and see my own body I’d get hopelessly lost.

This phenomenon of relentless self-observation is due to the fact that apparently we Pagans are part of a New Religious Movement (as opposed to a vestigal Stone Age religion—but that may change again next decade, so stay tuned) which boasts among our number a large quantity of academics interested in studying New Religious Movements. In any given workshop or ritual these days, chances are that there is at least one insider/observer in attendance collecting data for her master’s thesis at Podunk University. In fact, I’d bet money that someday this very blog post will end up as a footnote supporting someone’s rigorous research suggesting that modern Pagans are ironic and enjoy making fun of others.

As an overeducated person myself yet not motivated enough to be a true academic, I find this trend amusing and instructive. I have several really smart friends who are academics, and I like to read at least the introductions of their books when they come out. I figure so long as I understand the general theme of the book and have a passing acquaintance with the table of contents, I will be well-prepared for any pop quiz on the subject that comes my way. This is especially true for my dear but (just between you and me) misguided friends who write about cyborg theory. But enough (please God) about cyborgs for now.

her hidden children

All this is really just an introduction to what is supposed to be the point of this whole post, namely that I have recently read an excellent book on Paganism that I would like to review here briefly. Her Hidden Children: The Rise of Wicca and Paganism in America by Chas Clifton (AltaMira, 2006) is a fascinating history of Paganism in the U.S., with a wide historical view yet particularly focused on the 1960s and 1970s.

Chas seems to have two main goals with this book. One is to expand on Ronald Hutton’s The Triumph of the Moon, which gave a bang-up version of the history of modern Witchcraft from a British perspective, by delving more deeply into how the Craft changed when it came to North America. Somewhat akin to how African tribal music came over with the slaves, turned into jazz, and then was exported back to Africa to create even newer styles of music, Chas details how Paganism went from “the Old Religion” in the UK to “Nature Religion” once it took root here, and in turn changed the focus of British Paganism on its return.

The second goal I see in this book is to reclaim (ah, irony!) early Wiccan history from feminist revisionist Witches. Chas states, and rightly so, that once feminism met the Craft, and Z Budapest and Starhawk found their audience, not only did the tenor of the movement change, but so did its popular history. I really enjoyed the backstory he covers in great detail, from the Transcendentalists through Swedenborg, Theosophy, the Sierra Club and Earth Day in 1970, the Green Egg magazine and CAW, Wilhelm Reich and “orgone energy”, the SCA, right up to the point in 1979 when Margot Adler published her groundbreaking Drawing Down the Moon and Starhawk published The Spiral Dance. Anyone interested in exploring the scaffolding from which feminist Wicca launched itself would do well to delve into this thorough and well-organized history.

The two things I most abhor in academic books are a snotty attitude and bad writing. Happily, Chas’s book displays neither of these unfortunate tendencies. He thinks critically about his subject matter but does not indulge in excess criticism of many of the eclectic thinkers whose careers he chronicles. His writing is clear and precise, educated without being overly dense, detailed without lapsing into obscurity.

While on the whole this is an even-handed and much-needed portrait of early Wiccan history, I do detect a subtle note of pointedly taking some of the darlings of popular Wicca down a notch or two. Margot Adler, Isaac Bonewits, Tim Zell, Church of All Worlds, Feraferia and the ADF all get a mention in the glossary. But curiously, Starhawk is not mentioned, though she is referenced in the book as much as the others. I noticed this tendency too in the otherwise excellent Paganism Reader, edited by Chas Clifton and Graham Harvey. In this valuable compilation of important writings about Paganism from Classical times to the present, they have a couple excerpts about eco-feminism by relatively obscure writers, but none by one of the most influential Pagan writers of this age. I wonder why this is.

Small quibbles aside, I find Her Hidden Children to be a very valuable addition to my bookshelf. I may not remember all its detailed history a month from now, but I have high hopes that should anyone ask me a question about Wicca in the U.S. in the mid-20th century, at least now I’ll know where to look to find the answer.