Witchcraft Is Still a Fine Idea, and Other News


On the Shelf

From A Rehearsall both Straung and True, of Hainous and Horrible Actes Committed by Elizabeth Stile, 1579.


  • Say you’re an uptight God-fearing Christian type, and it’s your job to stamp out the sinful specter of witchcraft wherever it may rise. Your central problem will be this: witchcraft is fun, it’s always been fun, it always will be fun, and by depicting it in any form whatsoever you’re probably just going to prove how fun it is. This is not a new dilemma for the antiwitchcraft set. As Jon Crabb writes, early sixteenth-century witchcraft pamphlets relied on a variety of woodcuts to plead their case, and these woodcuts made for perhaps overly exciting storytelling:  “One of the earliest and most notorious British witchcraft pamphlets was published in 1579A Rehearsall both Straung and True, of Hainous and Horrible Actes Committed by Elizabeth Stile, alias Rockingham, Mother Dutten, Mother Deuell, Mother Margaret, Fower Notorious Witches. Stile was a sixty-five-year-old widow and beggar accused of bewitching an innkeeper. The pamphlet describes her association with three other old women … as well as a man named Father Rosimunde, who could transform himself ‘into the shape and likenesse of any beaste whatsoever he will.’ Woodcuts show these old women and several animal familiars, which they reportedly fed on their own blood. The folkloric image of the crone was established through these images and repeated in similar pamphlets over the next century. These witches were usually bitter old women, who lived on their own, and kept cats or other animals as pets … Whether the authors intended it or not, they managed to make witchcraft seem rather exciting and attractive. The stories are easy, compelling reads and the images feature young men and women doing extraordinary things.”
  • Kent Russell is watching the NHL playoffs and hymning the poetry of ice hockey: “Part of what makes the in-person experience of hockey so absorbing is the sound of the game. The shush of skates, the click-click-clack of sticks and puck (which sounds, to me, like an illicit substance being lined up). In-person hockey is orchestral in that the range of its sound is so wide, so rich: from the basso profundo of an errant slap shot booming against the endboards; to the jarring, early-days-of-electronica BARK! of a clearing attempt whipped against the glass; to the tantalizing, cherry-red ping! of puck off post; to the awesome flatulence of the goal horn—ice hockey is set to the best score in sports … You can hit people, hold them; you can use your body (and the tool in your hands) to obstruct or otherwise make difficult the progress of the other guy. You can physically enact the ressentiment of the lesser-skilled, is what I’m saying. You can (and are encouraged to) heave your body, wrench-like, into the gears of artistry.”

  • Elyse Graham on the many freedoms afforded by the ubiquity of cats on the Internet: “In 2011, Katharine Miltner, a graduate student at the London School of Economics, wrote a master’s thesis on LOLCats. She found that LOLCats allowed her subjects ‘to either laugh at themselves or express emotions that might otherwise be seen as “unacceptable” for any number of reasons.’ We like dogs to be simple, perhaps because we find depictions of dogs that are not happy and loyal disturbing; we allow cats to be complicated—grumpy, goofy, imperious, moody—perhaps because we have learned that it’s acceptable to take pleasure in their displeasure … Ethan Zuckerman, the director of the Center for Civic Media at the MIT Media Lab, describes one of his most widely cited arguments about censorship and participatory media as the ‘cute-cat theory’ of digital activism. The theory starts with the quip that the Internet is fundamentally a delivery system for cats; that is, silly content meant to pass the time—metaphorically, pictures of cats—comprises most of the activity on commercial social-media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Activists who live under oppressive governments, he suggests, would do well to consider these platforms as serious tools for spreading their messages.”
  • John Heilpern remembers his friend Jean Stein, and the stories that began to circulate about her love life: “It was during her youthful studies at the Sorbonne in Paris that she had her first major affair—with William Faulkner, thirty-seven years her senior, no less. I do think, however, that the rumor Jean had both serious and inconsequential affairs with everyone she met who was famous enough is somewhat exaggerated. But, still. ‘Tut-Tut,’ I teased her one time. ‘Terrific start. Faulkner yet … ’ She looked surprised. ‘But he was really interesting,’ she protested, and meant it. She sold her interview with Faulkner—one of the best and most brutally honest interviews he ever gave—to George Plimpton’s Paris Review in 1956, and she was off and running and en route to her new life in New York.”
  • The sex letter is a dying art; Snapchat and sexting have given a new immediacy to what was once a protracted, careful effort to capture exactly how horny one was. Hoping to revitalize interest in the form, Rachel Mars is curating a selection of literary sex letters to be read aloud at a theater festival in London. Holly Williams writes of her selections, “Many of the letters convey intense yearning for an absent lover, such as artist Georgia O’Keeffe’s letters to photographer Alfred Stieglitz in 1922: ‘Its [sic] my body that wants you and it seems to be the only thought or desire that I have—it even seems to be my only memory of you—two bodies that have fused—have touched with completeness at both ends making a complete circuit’ … On the other hand, some sex letters are funny. Consider the desperation of Marcel Proust begging his grandfather for money so he can go once more to a prostitute to cure his ‘awful masturbation habit,’ after he broke a chamber pot and got too flustered to perform the first time.”