Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Bibliography Problems

The passage above is from my dad's copy of the 1928 edition of the Chambers Encyclopaedia. The entry headed "Race" in volume 8, R-T.

Yes, it really says black people are smelly, stupid and overemotional. You didn't imagine it.

Chambers was and still is a reputable and mainstream British publisher of encyclopaedias and lexicons. What you need to take away from this is that the idea that European people, African people and Asian/American people being separate subspecies was seen by science as relatively uncontroversial. Enough that it could be published in a 13 volume domestic encyclopaedia.

This is a thing we choose to forget. Few people remember for example that John Scopes, the man at the centre of the 1925 Monkey Trial, was teaching exactly this stuff, and that his creationist prosecutor, William Jennings Bryan, one of the most prominent social progressives of his day, took on the case because he believed, as Scopes did, that this racism was the inevitable result of Darwin's theories.

All of that is a preamble to the bibliography that informs my writing, since this wrong-headed approach to race, informed by faulty Darwinism, is too close to the centre to be ignored. The central core of the Atlantean/Lemurian myth taps into it and tangles it with quasi-religious authority. The writers experienced this stuff, remembering past lives, channelling what they sincerely believed were spiritual beings. A nd that reflected what they thought they knew about the world.

These are my sources.

Scott-Elliot, William. The Story of Atlantis and the Lost Lemuria (in print currently as Legends of Atlantis and the Lost Lemuria), 1904.
All fantasy fiction and occult literature about Atlantis hails back to this book. Its detail is unparallelled, and no other book has supplied so much of the background material for this game.

As I've said before, it's appallingly racist, a fact that the pre-war American pulp writers who soaked it up had no problem with.

Parts of it were dictated by Charles Leadbeater, from whose apparent psychic experiences the body of the text were taken.

Speaking of Leadbeater...

Leadbeater, Charles Webster and Besant, Annie. The Lives of Alcyone (also published as Man: Whence, How and Whither), 1924.
Oh, where to start with this. 

After Mme Blavatsky and Col. Olcott had died, the Theosophical Society was led by Annie Besant and CW Leadbeater, a radical women's rights advocate and a defrocked priest. And they produced this.

Purportedly a channelled account of the 48 past lives of their reluctant messiah Jiddu Krishnamurti, it's actually a cross between fruity fantasy romance and a complex exercise in score settling and favour-granting, as the enemies and favourites of Leadbeater appear in myriad forms, over and over again.
In the early chapters, Leadbeater's imagination supplies colourful detail into the characters and especially the magic of a decadent Atlantis. Oduarpa, the Black Sun and The Throng of Bestials all come from this book.

Leadbeater's vices would, in modern times, have landed him in prison; back then, a scandal sufficed. One can't help thinking though that Leadbeater, whom I like to think of as the occult Jimmy Savile, was the inadvertent prime mover in Krishnamurti's eventual repudiation of the Theosophical movement.

Blavatsky, Mme Helena. The Secret Doctrine, Vol II: Anthropogenesis. 1888.
Leadbeater and Scott-Elliot's work wouldn't exist without this. The first book really to set out the idea of the occult Atlantis. Essentially it amounts to a set of opaque esoteric scriptures. This is one of the foundational works of the New Age movement. It is also the source for the Stanzas of Dzyan, which Lovecraft was so fond of namechecking.

Blavatsky, who claimed to be a Russian countess, was fascinated by Hinduism, and her work has a strong orientalist element. Many of her terms (Manus, rûpas, Daksha and so on) are appropriated from Indian mythology and mysticism.

Hope, Murry. The Ancient Wisdom of Atlantis (originally published as Practical Atlantean Magic). 1991.
One of a handful of books by Hope that approach Atlantis, also largely channelled. Much on Atlantean science, Atlantean eugenics (written about as if it's a good thing), a bunch of Atlantean place names, the colour of an Atlantean priest's robes and detailed instructions for rituals to Atlantean gods (all named). Atlantean psychic computers, cybernetic implants and quasi-crystal batteries (being firmly New Age, she's well into crystals).

Helio Arcanaphus, an Atlantean king, supposedly dictated long passages of the book, via a psychic named Tony Neate. Hope herself recalls past life memories of existing in "The Old Country,  telling us that she doesn't remember seeing toiling slaves and nuclear reactors. But then... Why would she?

Hope died only a couple of years ago. A regular contributor to Prediction in the 70s and 80s, she was, not to put too fine a point on it, an opinionated, racist crank (in one jaw-dropping passage she chides Blavatsky and Scott-Elliot's work for what amounts to not being white enough). Her grasp of the methodology of history, archaeology and science is shaky at best (one of my favourites: Otto Muck's archaeological writing is trustworthy, she says, because he was a high ranking Nazi rocket scientist).

But anyone who claimed to have Conclusive Proof that humanity was given civilisation by Cat People from Sirius (note to self: stat them up) is never less than entertaining.

Montalban, Madeline. The Prediction Book of the Tarot. Jo Logan ed. 1984.
Madeline Montalban wrote about the Tarot in Prediction for about thirty years, and this is a compilation of her best writing, published about the time she died. It's a solid trad guide to Tarot, and full of personality, with the added bonus of being part of the paraphernalia of my childhood in a strong sense (all the crazy occult ads I post are scanned from my dad's stack of Predictions).

Montalban was very much of the they-don't-make-them-like-this-anymore mould, the epitome of the fierce woman of mature years, broad of vision and girth, shining of eye, whose powerful personality made her an occult force to be reckoned with.

Madeline Montalban was a legend in her own teatime. She'd have hated me, I have no doubt, but her writing is powerful and never less than inspiring.

Churchward, James. The Lost Continent of Mu. 1931.
Mu is another name for the supposed Pacific Continent. A seminal work of spurious archaeology (an entire mythical history based on getting Naacal completely wrong), and a big influence on Graham Hancock and co. Useful for iconography and geographical ideas.

Aficionados of classic fantasy will be interested to know that the Professor in Lovecraft's "At The Mountains of Madness" uses the same wonky methodology as Churchward to read the Old Ones' hieroglyphs (the unintentional subtext being that he's got it wrong too).

Steiner, Rudolph. Cosmic Memory: Prehistory of the Earth and Man (the 1959 translation; also available in the 1911 translation as Atlantis and Lemuria). 1904.
Steiner was a follower of Blavatsky whose dissatisfaction with Leadbeater's leadership after her death led him to go off on his own. Nowadays he's best known for inventing Waldorf Schools and organic farming as an intentional thing.

This book is mainly about the inner lives, thought processes, dreams and psychic experiences of the people of Atlantis and Lemuria and gave me the basis of Rmoahal and Atlantean magic.

Steiner was easily the most humane and least racist of the Theosophical leaders. Which is not saying much, but it partly explains why he's lasted and Leadbeater hasn't.

There's a lot of this stuff. The Atlantis work is well worth reading with a critical eye, intensely interesting, and extremely disturbing.

It's also fed into so much of modern fantasy fiction and gaming (Lovecraft and Howard are the obvious examples, but it goes deeper still) that a revisionist take on these myths seems well worth the effort.

And it is a thing in gaming. I have, for example, seen a popular OSR supplement I won't name where the inhabitants of an Eastern land are described using the exact words "teeming yellow masses" and while that toxic racism is right there in the original pre-war source material, that's not an excuse.

I enjoy classic fantasy and have a genuine enthusiasm for the loopiness of Theosophical myth, but there has to be a way to redeem it, to take the good parts, the inspiring parts and make them something that, even without the poison, has a bite, a bitterness, a dusting of ground glass. Smoothing over the inequalities of the source material would be untrue to it.

My own solution, as I've said before, is to tackle this head on, is to make the setting about an unequal clash of cultures and the injustices that arise from it. I see it this way: if you can revise history to show it through an egalitarian lens, why can't you revise myth?

1 comment:

  1. Other than the inherent tragedy of the setting, this - the fact that you choose not to gloss over the ugliness of all this stuff - is a major reason as for why I'm very interested in the game.

    ReplyDelete

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