Somewhere in the wooded foothills of the North Cascades, a bunch of communists gathered to summon the dead. I was one of them but didn’t really know what was going on. I’d just been up on the deck by the kitchen, looking out over the meadow, smoking weed and talking about how and why we all love Kanye when a witch or two (friends of ours) passed by and instructed everyone to make our way down the gravel road to the barn. From there, the pair assumed the role of stony-faced acolytes. They carried Costco tiki torches and led us along an ever-darkening path through the woods, taking care to guide us around the puddles, away from the ankle-breaking sinkholes, and over the little brook that ran parallel with, if much more gently than, the river some 500 yards out through the trees. We were excited, solemn, and probably just curious more than anything else. The canopy of douglas firs loomed above us like a black bag thrown over the head of a kidnapping victim, as if the sky didn’t want us to see its face. Every once in awhile, we’d hear a scurry in the underbrush and jump a little.
It had been a rainy week. The gloom of the Northwest is great for necromancy and black metal, but the rain has a tendency to soak into your good vibes and make them dark and heavy. Last year when we camped here, we had the sun and the smoke from nearby wildfires. This year we had rain and fog. The forest in this part of the country feels magical, but magic is not always whimsical or inviting. At the time of the ritual, it was doomy and foreboding. No one ever said that the world is here for you. It’s not even here for itself. It’s just here.
Gingerly picking my way through the mud, the menace of the forest continued to fill me with dread. All I could think about on our solemn march was the way that folks at camp had started using the shorthand “Hellworld” to describe all the shit that sucks about life. Someone said it once and it immediately caught on. We all crammed it into any sentence we could because it unified our problems into one coherent quagmire. Hellworld was cops. It was work. It was the advancing and all-consuming impossibility of joy on Earth. Hellworld is everyday life.
My friend Emily killed herself this year. It was a pretty big deal. I can’t honestly say that she and I were necessarily that close (although we spent a lot of time together) but her departure from this realm was fucking world-breaking to those of us she left behind. It’s just like that, I think. Everyone is grieving, and everyone’s emotional support network is also grieving, and no one has their shit together in the first place. Have you ever tried to touch bottom while you were swimming only to realize that the water had been deeper than you’d thought the whole time? The water that rushes into your nose and mouth while you try to breathe at that moment— that’s Hellworld.
At last, we arrived tentative and a little frightened at the site of the ritual. It was a small clearing with some kind of altar in the middle: The frame of a small, overturned canoe, held aloft by two rough-hewn wooden tripods. Between the tripods, little white stones were strung from the frame of the boat, giving the impression of rain, or at least icicle christmas lights. At the base of all this was a small pile of large rough stones (traditionally known as a cairn, if my memory of bad fantasy novels is correct). The organizers of the ritual had come out before us and lit more tiki torches and what must have been hundreds of those little tea candles that elementary school art teachers love.
Something in the atmosphere had already made me a wreck. The theatrics got to me, maybe, or there was too much ozone in the air. I felt terrified for reasons I couldn’t put my finger on. The organizers, or as I’ll call them from here forward, the Witches Committee, began by explaining a little bit about what they intended for the ritual.
As I understood it, the point was to contact our fallen friends, as well as those who died without us ever getting to know them: casualties of the slave trade, the enclosures, the police, poverty, abuse, murder—to add their strength to our own. Together, our dead friends represent a continuity in the history of Hellworld, its weight carelessly pressing bodies into the dirt as a necessary fact of its existence. The river Styx, which runs through this Hell, is just all those sips we poured out for our homies. Setting aside certain factual debates about the current state of the dead, what better allies could one hope to muster against the world?
It’s not at all surprising when you think about it that communists and anarchists might have a close relationship with the dead. It’s not even just that they spend so much time reading and debating the theoretical work of dead people. After all, at the heart of communism is a profound maladjustment to Hellworld. We all know dead people, sort of as a fact of life, but if you compound that with a habit of frequenting incestuous, disaffected subcultures and a background in groups that find life in Hellworld harder than other groups might, the bodies unfortunately start to pile up. As the German communist Eugen Levine put it to the court that sent him to the firing squad, “We communists are all dead men on leave.” It’s true of everybody, of course, but it is maybe especially true of those of us whose existence might someday threaten the smooth flow of capital.
After the more choreographed part of the ritual, which involved some poetry and theatrics, the crowd was invited to call on particular dead people that they wanted to welcome into the space. People spoke about parents and grandparents, friends, those who had been victims of police killings, those who had been murdered by husbands, boyfriends and bigots, impactful writers, figures from social movements, etc. I could only think about Emily.
Emily killed herself to escape Hellworld. What would it mean to try and call her back into it, in whatever form we expect the dead to come? Literally, her last wish was to be dead. Who am I to wish life on her? To curse her with rebirth when birth was so unkind.
I bet Lazarus was so pissed at Jesus. To die, escape Hellworld and go up to Heaven only to get called back to some musty tomb three days later by his friend, the uppity carpenter’s son? Nah. I couldn’t try and do that to Emily. It made me think of that Cioran quote: “To have committed every sin but that of being a father.” With that in mind, I instead decided to join in by calling my dead dad to our witchy ceremony. That deadbeat never did much for me in life so I don’t mind asking him for shit in the afterlife. Once again, however, my father failed to materialize in any meaningful way. More than anything else, this exemplified my feelings about not just the ritual but the dead in general.
I’m not a disbeliever in magic, exactly, just of its general practice. I’m interested in a magic that is deeply unhuman, that unseats the human as capable of holding dominion over the world and the energies that move through it, an eldritch magic that is difficult to use because it manifests in ways that are impossible to know. The dead, I think, fall into the category of the unknowable and certainly refuse to be harnessed.
My dead are dead. For me, that’s sort of the point. I don’t just mourn Emily. I mourn every conceivable reality that wouldn’t have made her prefer not to exist. I mourn a world that holds possibilities that are less crushing than having to go to work just to have food to eat and a place to live. That’s a world Emily might have survived in. It’s a world I might survive in. Instead, here I am, half-dead and asking the dead to be half-living.
Today’s self-styled cosmopolitan witches by and large seem to inform their practice as much by the slander of the witch hunters as by the actual historical accounts of ritual and magic usage, globally. For many, the hip resurgence of witchcraft is a primarily aesthetic movement that seeks the image of the witch more as an attempt to embody an edgy taboo than as a means to deploy personal power in the world. Lest we get too excited about the character of this evidently antisocial turn, Hostis reminds us that
The recession of saintly figures doesn’t mean that morality tales have disappeared. Virtuousness now appears in negative; wickedness is paraded in front of audiences for them to ‘make their own decision.’ It hardly works, though, as postmodernism took the piss out of disruption – little is truly shocking anymore. Frat boys love either American Psycho or Fight Club, depending on their mood. There are plenty of stockbrokers that read Bukowski and defense analysts who refuse to miss ‘Girls’ on Sunday nights. This confirms a suspicion many have had about the radical potential of cultural politics obsessed with its own marginality: rather than condemning badness, today’s depictions of transgression end up making it mundane.
On an historical note, it’s interesting that the witch hunts carried out by Europeans coincided with the establishment and institutionalization of a worldview that sees humanity as a head exercising its will over the highly mechanical body of the world, safe and in control. Above them was only God, and what was he in their minds but a projection of human-ness onto all of the weird in the world? The witches, as depicted by their killers, could only exist within a philosophy arguing that individuals are capable of affecting reality through the sheer application of disembodied will. This philosophy forms an approach to magic which I call the Arcane. Arcane magic operates as an extension of its practitioner, acting upon the world through unobservable means to achieve a specific goal. Because the operation of the Arcane hinges on a conscious exercise of will, it necessarily relies on humanistic ideas that privilege consciousness above all else.
Animism is a great example of a field of thought in which an arcane notion of magic generally prevails where a more staunchly eldritch conception would be more engaging. That nonhuman (or nonconscious) things move about and have a sort of life (or will) of their own is certainly an interesting thought, and one that complements the perspective of a world which not only doesn’t need us or want us, but is also simply different from us to the extent that the Will of objects is, generally, unknowable to us, outside of a basic understanding of the forces that move them. A truly eldritch practice of magic would do well to conceive of a thoughtless world as much as possible. Kind of like an exercise in extinction.
Rather than acting on the world with what we have in front of us, we call across the veil for some unknown quality, hoping it might come to our aid. In this case, Necromancy, the school of magic dedicated to making use of the dead, is more than just a clever analog for politics. It’s literally a practical deployment of leftist politics over the world of the dead.
The cajoling of bodies and spirits into conflict by the exhortations of a self-selected representative is the goal of any of those sad souls we see holding picket signs in the street. Whether the signs they carry say “REPENT NOW OR FACE JUDGEMENT” or “REVOLUTION NOW!” the operative philosophy is essentially the same call to wake the dead.
Maybe the old socialist we see chanting slogans and hawking corny leftist newspapers lives on that street corner. Who knows? Who cares? If he does, he’s just another body we politely sidestep on our way to work. Day in and day out, he or some other cornball is there waving newspapers, calling strangers “comrade,” and spreading the good word. I would probably buy his paper every once in awhile if I could only convince myself that he were in it for the money, but I can’t bear the thought of offering him any validation for his self-aggrandizing political fantasies. I want him to be discouraged and quit, to be not only dissatisfied with life, but also with his methods of coping with it. If you shout for help and companionship into the void, only the void will answer. Politics is the necromancy of everyday Hellworld.
When the ritual was over and everyone was wiping off their tears to make their way back out of the woods, I stayed a minute. Getting down on my knees on the damp earth, I examined the ring of candles that formed the circle I assume spirits were being summoned through. I picked one candle, named it Emily, and broke the circle by blowing it out, because that’s what Emily is to me now. Emily is precisely not-Emily, the particular absence of Emily. Emily is just one name I could give my bitterness. That’s what Hellworld is: the feeling that someone’s missing at the function until you realize they’re just dead. It’s the inversion of everything I know as good in the world. One of the members of the witches committee could tell that I was feeling pretty fucked up. They put their hand on my back and told me that they’d walk me back to camp.
I’m not an atheist regarding magic. Ritual can be meaningful and powerful. The magic circle has its own limitations, though, and rather than the souls of our loved ones, I think what we summoned was a catharsis: one we could try to share. What we summoned was one more day borrowed from our terrifying future. Whatever helps me get through to the next day is good enough for me. What I’m really interested in is looting everything I ever wanted and flaying the rich kids of Instagram alive, but I’m gonna need a few more days to make that happen. I’m glad that the Witches Committee could give me something, at least.
When we lose people to Hellworld, and we really come to terms with that death, it distills the essential problem of what life is for us here and now. If Hellworld, or capitalism, or whatever you wanna call it, is the death of the shit we love, then we must kill Hellworld. We must turn the world upside down, shake the joy out of it and crush whatever else remains. Let’s develop a magic that can do that.
— Harper Ferry