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Posts Tagged ‘witches’

Boon Companion

August 5, 2016 | by

Evliya Çelebi’s Seyahatname is one of history’s greatest travelogues.

Evliya Çelebi painting (c) Sermin Ciddi

Edward White’s The Lives of Others is a monthly series about unusual, largely forgotten figures from history.

According to his own recollection, Evliya Çelebi, the seventeenth-century Turkish writer and traveler, experienced a life-changing epiphany on the night of his twentieth birthday. He was visited in a dream by the Prophet Muhammad, dressed nattily in a yellow woollen shawl and yellow boots, a toothpick stuck into his twelve-band turban. Muhammad announced that Allah had a special plan, one that required Evliya to abandon his prospects at the imperial court, become “a world traveler,” and “compose a marvelous work” based on his adventures.

As religious missions go, it was a pretty sweet deal—and for Evliya it came at the perfect moment. His feet itched to travel and his fingers to write, but he could never find a way of telling his parents that the life they had proudly mapped out for him—a stellar career, a virtuous wife, and a brood of smiling children—played no part in his vision of a meaningful existence. Muhammad’s intervention, whether an act of providence or not, spurred three decades of globetrotting indulgence. Evliya took in Anatolia, Mecca, Medina, Jerusalem, Cairo, Athens, Corinth, Sudan, and swathes of Europe from Crimea to—supposedly—the Low Countries. His path crossed Buddhists and crusading warriors, the Bedouin and Venetian sailors, ambassadors, monks, sorcerers, and snake charmers. Along the way he wrote the Seyahatname (“Book of Travels”), a magnificent ten-volume sprawl of fantasy, biography, and reportage that is utterly unique in the canon of travel literature, and which confirms Evliya as one of the great storytellers of the seventeenth century. Read More »

Pockets—They’re Still Great! And Other News

March 23, 2016 | by


  • The cafard and mirthlessness that have long governed French philosophers have now extended to French writers of all kinds—a new survey says they’ve never been unhappier. Their proposed solution? Surrender. “French writers have never felt more badly paid, undervalued, or under pressure … More than half of established authors earn less than the minimum wage. Many are so depressed by the state of the book industry that they are considering giving up altogether, according to a new report that canvassed more than 100,000 authors of fiction and nonfiction … Although exact comparisons are difficult to make, French writers appear to be still doing better than their British or American equivalents.”
  • BREAKING: Nicholson Baker loves pockets. Give him a good pair of pockets, he’s happier than a pig in shit. And who isn’t, really? You gonna look me in the eye and tell me you don’t like pockets? “I’m a pocket-loving guy,” Baker says in a new podcast. “At any moment I got a couple pens—like why would you have just one pen? For a long time I tried to do everything with pockets … the pocketing of things. The prestidigitational trickery of being able to move things from the world of public visibility into a private place. It sort of feels to me like writing. Or I guess, what I like about writing, is that paragraphs take your most personal observations, or embarrassments sometimes, fantasies, whatever they are, and you fill them up, and it feels as if you’re putting them away or you’re stowing them, you’re pocketing them. But then because of the weird and wonderful act of publishing, you’re making public what you have hidden.”
  • Terry Southern’s letters are full of the humor you’d expect from him, Will Stephenson writes—but as windows into his personal life, they’re curiously opaque. “There’s something cold about Southern’s persona, in other words—he’s always in character, always on. The letters come complete with scenes and dialogue—a voice that’s arch and faux-pretentious, recalling the comedian Lord Buckley—and his habit of signing them under false names only thickens the fog. Reading the book, I wondered whether Southern would have really wanted to see it published, or whether that matters. I wondered whether I even liked Terry Southern anymore, having read it … The majority of these letters, though, have to do with the labor and economics of writing … In some ways, this is the major theme of the collection—where is the next check going to come from?”
  • Alex Mar on Doreen Valiente, once dubbed “the mother of modern paganism,” who believed that witchcraft was simply a means of accessing one’s own power: “One particular image of Doreen Valiente tells two unresolvable stories at once. In this black-and-white portrait, perhaps taken in the fifties at her home in Brighton, she is, at first glance, a suburban wife seated before a pale curtain, wearing a patterned cocktail dress, a string of stones around her neck. (She was in her thirties then, her jet-black hair cut short in a wavy bob, her lips and brows painted in.) But then the photograph becomes complicated: spread before her on a table is an altar laid out with a crystal ball, a bowl, rope, candles, and incense; in one hand she holds up a large bell, in the other a ritual knife … She is the Nerd Queen, a person of rare esoteric knowledge. She is Doreen Valiente, the Mother of Modern Witchcraft … ‘I had never felt any objection to working in the nude,’ she writes. ‘On the contrary, it was fun to be free and to dance out the circle in freedom.’ ”
  • I consider it part of my job to keep you abreast of quiet advances in the robot-writing community—so you should know that artificial intelligences can now write well enough to make headway in literary contests. “In Japan, a short novel co-written by an artificial intelligence program (its co-author is human) made it past the first stage of a literary contest … Humans decided the plot and character details of the novel, then entered words and phrases from an existing novel into a computer, which was able to construct a new book using that information … The prize committee didn’t disclose which of the four computer co-written entries advanced in the competition. The Japan News reports that one of the submitted books is titled The Day a Computer Writes a Novel, which ends with the sentences ‘I writhed with joy, which I experienced for the first time, and kept writing with excitement. The day a computer wrote a novel. The computer, placing priority on the pursuit of its own joy, stopped working for humans.’ ”

Magnet Hands, and Other News

October 13, 2015 | by

Karl Wirsum, Magnet Hands, 1972, crayon and ink on chipboard, 84" x 72".

  • In which Alex Mar gives neo-paganism a try and spends a weekend at a witches’ gathering, only to understand, through her skepticism, the communal appeal: “most humans, once they get in deep enough, will dig in their heels and commit to the value of an experience, because to change their minds and become, instead, openly critical involves a cutting off, a loss, that’s more than most of us want to bear … There’s pressure not to disappoint the group or ourselves, and it colors our individual results, the stories we’ll later tell of circling together. We’re each here, in part, out of a desire to share secrets with the tiniest of in-groups … All religious communities, to some degree, function in this way, bolstered by the collective’s dream of specialness—a specialness spun out of practices whose value can never be verified in the practical world.”
  • Karl Wirsum has been making “boldly graphic interpretations of the human form” for more than forty years. Our managing editor, Nicole Rudick, talks to him about art, Harry Kari, and armor: “If you think of football players putting on the shoulder pads and other protective equipment, or a baseball catcher with the mask and the pads. It’s like armor, and armor really appealed to me, the abstraction attached to the human figure … the abstraction of the armor allows for movement and presents a fearsome quality to the wearer’s presence. I think about it as putting on a more stylized version of what’s underneath, which might look more realistic.”
  • “Jon was quiet, and when he spoke, he told me that his cousin had been recently murdered. ‘My Aunt Margo used to call him a bad seed … He was an alcoholic, and he was murdered by his best friend after they had spent a day and a half drinking together. You can investigate the psychology of it, but basically my aunt was right: He was a bad seed … He and his friend were in a bar, and then they finally ran out of money, so they went home and continued drinking there, and apparently the friend got it in his head … that my cousin was interested in the friend’s daughter, and that led to violence.’ The details, Jon said, were horrifying. When his cousin was still conscious he was asked whether he wanted to be taken to the hospital, and the cousin said, ‘No, he’s my best friend. I don’t want to get him in trouble.’ ” Rachel Kushner talks to Jonathan Franzen in Santa Cruz.
  • I’m eating leftovers for lunch today (tabbouleh, thanks for asking) and so participating in the latest phase of an ever-developing national conversation. Because in America we have a history of caring deeply about our leftovers, except when we don’t: “By the 1960s leftovers were becoming a joke to a lot of people, with a grumbling husband and a mystery casserole playing stock roles. That humor was a direct result of abundance. In the postwar era, a historically anomalous food economy was coming to define American culture, as the cost of food relative to income plummeted and even the poorest Americans were less desperate for calories than they had ever been … [but today] gleaning and scavenging and scrimping have become righteous statements in some quarters. Foraging, meanwhile, has been elevated to high cuisine.”
  • It’s rare that an august publication like The New York Review of Books allows novices and first-timers among their ranks. But they’ve let this total nobody named Barack Obama interview Marilynne Robinson, and the guy, even more weirdly, goes all big-picture on the thing, turning it into a dialogue about America and democracy and religion and God knows what else …

Goya’s Gallows Humor, and Other News

April 29, 2015 | by

Francisco Goya, Wicked Woman, 1819–23. Via NYRB

  • When he was in his early seventies and gravely ill, Goya began a series of private drawings, full of piss and vinegar and intended to amuse his friends—among them were pictures of naked witches, newborn babies tied to poles, and a procuress fingering her rosary and slugging some rotgut. “The captions are minimal: ‘Monk,’ ‘Nothing is known of this,’ ‘I can hear snoring’ … Goya’s drawings may leave us up in the air, filled with a disquieting unease. Yet in the end, the witches and old people are tokens of life, not death—even the tired, ancient man shuffling on his sticks, mockingly captioned Just can’t go on at the age of 98.”
  • By piecing together years of letters, diaries, and newspapers, one scholar believes she’s discovered the man who inspired Pride and Prejudice’s Mr. Darcy. She noted, for instance, “that the physical similarities between the Earl and the description of Darcy are ‘obvious,’ with the former looking ‘very intense.’ ” An airtight case.
  • In Park Slope, Brooklyn, for thirty-five years, a gated storefront hid an artist’s studio. “Behind the black gate was a world of color, hundreds of abstract works created and hidden away by Mr. [Leo] Bates, who had a promising start as a painter in the 1970s before renouncing the art world and retreating to his storefront to paint.”
  • Eight rare books, including one by Benjamin Franklin, had long-ago disappeared from the New York Public Library. A woman who recently tried to sell them to an auction house “said the books have been in her family for decades, and there’s no proof that her late parents obtained the books illegally.”
  • Everyone loves a good sentence—and clauses, subordinate or not, are beloved throughout the land—but what of the paragraph, that other indispensible unit of prose? Why do we speak so often of “a great writer of sentences” and so rarely of “a great writer of paragraphs”?


The Witch and the Poet: Part 3

November 23, 2012 | by


The story so far: the author visits a fortune-teller whose prediction that she will become a poet changes the course of her destiny.

In the U.S. there are two groups concerned with the conduct of tarot readers. The Tarot Certification Board of America, which posts a Client Bill of Rights, and the American Tarot Association, which promotes a Code of Ethics. The TCBA’s Bill of Rights states, among other things, that as a client you are entitled to confidentiality; that readers are not qualified to give medical, financial, or legal advice (except if they’re doctors, financial advisors, or attorneys); that readers are not qualified to predict the future; and that they’re not qualified to make decisions for you.

The ATA believes that “Ethical Tarot readers are people who help others better hear their own inner guides.” And they reiterate the TCBA’s Bill of Rights, making the additional point that if readers happen to be doctors, financial advisors, or attorneys, they will “clearly differentiate between the tarot reading and any professional advice additionally provided.”

While there was an extant Association of Tarot Readers in 1964, the TCBA wasn’t formed until 2002. In any case, I doubt the witch in Galilee was a member of any professional group. She was probably a rogue reader, in that she didn’t charge for her services and only read for friends and guests in her home. I’m not sure if she offered our futures as a politeness, the way you’d offer an extra piece of coffee cake, or if she wanted to mess with us. Clearly she overstepped her bounds with Wendy on the “predicting the future” issue. If I were Wendy, I’d start watching for falling pianos on my 84th birthday.

The witch was on target with me in the “helping others better hear their own inner guides” category. But what are the repercussions of telling a 19 year-old she is one thing or another? Most tarot sessions start with a question: the seeker, or client, winnows away her world until the yearning is laid bare. Will I be happy in romance? Is my career on the right track? Should I get a puppy?

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The Witch and the Poet: Part 2

November 22, 2012 | by

The story so far: the author and a friend visit a local witch for an assignment and, unexpectedly, the witch informs Pamela that her destiny is to be a poet.

Things went downhill pretty quickly after our visit to the witch. I wrote the story for our college paper and naively sent it to the witch for verification. Trying to imitate the brutal truthiness of the New Journalists I was reading, I’d described her as “somewhere between middle aged plump and any age fat.” I didn’t expect she’d be pleased, but I did believe that Truth was inescapable and we all had to accept it, in print or in the mirror. The witch didn’t see it that way. Eschewing magic, she threatened to call down a different but equally powerful set of spells on me—the legal kind. She said she’d sue my ass if I ever printed a word of it.

I regret calling her fat. What a churlish thing to do. (How often does that word come up? It’s a good one, and a rare one, especially in memoir—especially if you use it about yourself.) I thought I needed to tell the truth as I saw it. It never occurred to me I could edit out the bits that might be hurtful.

I often wonder about the witch: what did she edit? Did she see the train wreck that would almost kill me seven years later, but think better of bringing it up and ruining my night? Maybe the cards aren’t that specific. Surely, though, a massive Amtrak wreck with sixteen dead and hundreds injured, a crushed jaw, broken ribs, and slashed lung and spleen would contribute to one of the “down” times ahead?

Did she see that I was gay? Again, alternative sexuality certainly brings its share of ups and downs, as she put it. But if that’s what she intuited, the witch didn’t call a spade a spade. Would she, like me, not have had the vocabulary to identify something she might have glimpsed in my future or in my soul? Or would she just call me a “poet,” in the way people used to say Oscar Wilde and his set were “artistic?” How far outside our own experience can we—dare we—tread when mapping the lives of others? Or did she exercise the judgment I lacked and edit out information that might have been too deterministic? Or too negative? Who can say how the witch’s socio-political belief system broke on the issue of homosexuality.

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