She’s My Witch by Stewart Home
This is a love story following a pretty conventional trajectory, told with feeling and warmth. Who’d have thought? Mind you, if I tried to summarise what was going on then it’d sound a lot like a typical Home affair: lots of wild sex, drugs, weird esotericism, Metro Euro-London rad lefty underground culture, music references with time travel, witches and reincarnations thrown in to keep the pot boiling. It’s playful and subversive of course, but what I found new was the tone of the performance which seemed to be less astringent, less belligerent and more tuned to the hallowed than the sensational. It rattled along at a fair old pace and there’s lots of it which gives Home the space to game large and wide. Each chapter builds up the ground beneath the lovers via the occult energies that run through the whole narrative. As is always the case, Home is versatile and ambitious in his writing, and has no trouble pulling together a vast time-line into the orbit of the characters. And the whole thing is done with such simplicity which, as usual, vigorously absorbs the negative elements of the age and transforms them.
Maria is a witch and is continually waking her narrator lover to his own past, pushing him to remember and underpin his existence beyond the local. The witchy power of imbuing objects with powers to evoke and change and transform is the book’s core engine. It becomes inescapable and justifies life, transcending limits of time, space, gender and cash..
Magic here is a ceased terrestrial fever and a remedy for error. To me the book’s about learning how to breathe freely, which is to live and think freely obviously, and the way this is shown is by muting the special beneficial silence that sets in with regard to the dead. You’ll see what I mean by that when you read the book and I don't want to spoil the read, but 'death is just an angle' is one large fly in the ointment, and another is 'magic supersedes psychology'. These link up very darkly and deeply in the book where the sorrow and lamentation in the aftermath of death is confronted by a magic that can overthrow a growing death-force. It does this by, as it were, opening the windows of the room where the death took place, and therefore lets the reader see, along with the narrator, how death isn't the force it looks like. The book’s as mysterious as that. It’s because of magic that time no longer presses down quite as hard or in the same place as it does when you don’t have such occult forces in play, or don’t recognize them. Banalities slowly evolve into a vague abundance of life. Categories and attitudes fold and unfold, and as you’d expect, as the narrator begins to finally see himself and the world – and his lover - from this new angle of a magic infused universe , the narrator becomes more open and more receptive.
Throughout Home gives you lovingly-told detailed conversations and exchanges between the two on a very wide range of topics but cranked up so that there’s an oscillation between the general and the particular. It’s as if life in general could only be sketched out as background scenery given the wild new country the witch was terraforming. The narrator’s initial occult poverty and the immotility of this poverty is an advantage, making concentration easier for him from the start. So at the beginning the narrator labours under what Maria sees as an insufficiently profound mingling with the manifold nature of the world. This creates the narrator’s delusion that he can’t endure the monotony of it. Maria, being a witch, knows that the world is notoriously and uncommonly manifold and can be put to the test at any moment if you just take up the arcania and look at it more carefully. If you do that, she says, then his delusions will be springboards.
We get this from Maria at one point, and there's a lot of this kind of perspective from her throughout:
‘ You know when I first came across you I really thought you were gay or bisexual. I didn’t know what to think. I couldn’t reconcile how bright and happy you are on your fitness videos with the anger in your book about being a teenage red skinhead. I thought only someone in the closet could be that angry about racism when you weren’t even a victim of it…’ The narrator is his own puzzle his witch will gradually help him solve. Home’s own interest in fitness, politics, and sexuality buzzes about thick and fast as the narrative drives on. He takes you, as always, on a hip- to-date newsflash on the state of the world, but never loses touch with a different energy that buckles to all of that, which is Maria and a very simple, straightforward love happening in the midst of a messed up world that needs to be destroyed.
In this we’re back in the strange occult world of William Blake and his contrast between the Tree of Life with the Tree of Knowledge. Maria is basically walking the narrator away from the Tree of Knowledge, where Good separates off from Evil. Here the narrators’ anger and politics confronts an evil which can be anything that contradicts meaningfulness. His impulses are those given to him by reality rooted in the material facts of life – and Home routes us through a vast array of these interests. He builds up a hugely informative, colourful, rich and dynamic repertoire of these things via, as the blurb has it, ‘ … London between 2011 and 2014, …riots, rock-and-roll excess, … austerity … the Brexit vote in 2016… London's 1970s punk explosion … tales of teenage drug-dealing and murder on Spain's notorious Ruta Destroy party scene… running bars for criminal motorcycle gangs in Valencia… seven-year stints as a professional dominatrix, and a decades long struggle with heroin.’
Maria’s occult, witchy knowledge is more than a trope surface reality, and through sharing their experiences together these first truths begin to be like flickering moments, fleeting and gone, whist something else gets introduced through them, something more permanent and eternal. This is the new truth from the Tree of Life, which is the reason why the first truths fade away. It is also the secret of the occult which encapsulates the notion of the infinite expanse and copiousness of the cosmos resulting from mixture. Mixture, of the narrator and Maria, is just a spell, as in ‘you put a spell on me’. But mixture like this, carried to the extreme limit of laborious creation and free self-determination (any other kind ‘is rape’ as the narrator puts it again early on), gets you to the road to eternity.
There’s a lot going on but Home skillfully holds it all together. The Tarot deck establishes the unity of the book, each chapter begins with a different pack and image. This establishes the esoteric magical connection between the two lovers. It's interesting to think about this. I remember being astonished many years ago to find that the Wykeham Professor of Logic in Oxford had written a whole book on Tarot. What I brought to my reading of this book comes largely from what I remember from that book, and so is of course only partial. The Tarot pack is the revolutionary moment in card game evolution where ‘trumping’ was invented. In a card game this means that the ‘trump’ card beats all rivals. In this context this in itself sends out a foxy nod to Home’s writing strategies which follow likewise, always out to outwit and take-down oppressive forces with wit and hokum. Maria, the protagonist’s lover and witch, signifies an alternative historical trajectory based on claims of an occult history linking the iconography of the Tarot with the Egyptians and the Cabala. All this is fleshed out throughout the novel and, as always in a Home novel, the detail is spelled out clearly. Even with this light sketch, you can see how this points to the esoteric eternal Tree of Life truth rather than the fleeting one of the Tree of Knowledge.
So along with the affectionate telling of the love story Home gives us a reconstruction of the Tarot genre too, framing his plot and giving him the resources to time jump and slyly insert alternative histories and reclaim the past. It’s a rich book with far too much going on to discuss everything here, so I'm just going to mention a few things that interested me without pretending to be anything like a last word. About half way through Maria talks with the first person protagonist about the Oswald Wirth Tarot Pack and mysteriously the protagonist begins to remember details he couldn’t possibly have known unless he had been reincarnated from a previous time. This in turn gets linked to the content of what he remembers, which makes him sad. Wirth was a mesmerist and once a patient under a trance told Wirth of his future, which led to his meeting occultist Stanislas de Gaita. De Gaita became his best friend but was to die of a morphine overdose at the age of thirty-six ...
“... Which… deprived Wirth of his best friend and the only paid work he ever had that he considered a joy rather than a drudgery.’ The particular deck was ‘… basically a modified Tarot de Marseilles, incorporating occult elements including the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet on the major arcane as a nod to the theories of Eliphas Levi…’ (191)
de Gaita ends up as a character in a novel about occultists, which signals Home’s interest in genre-bending and anti-novelistic writing, whilst the dark sorrow is something that touchingly elides to the central relationship in Home’s book. The expansiveness I detect in this new book is both its thicker mood and its emotionalism. Throughout there’s a lingering thought that, as Kafka put it, ‘ The delights of this life are not its own, but our fear of the ascent into a higher life…’
In his last non-fiction work on Bruceploitation Home reconceived the genre of Brucesploitaton and as ever, it was a personal interest raised to go wider, and spoke to the political moment. No one needs to be told that these are interesting times, and when we talk of trump cards the word ‘Trump’ inevitably conjures up the monster child in the White House. Well, that’s happenstance to some, and magic to others. Where the usual channels of communication, thought and dreams have been corrupted and co-opted, a recourse to an esoteric discourse has a long and distinguished history in the annals of revolution and rebellion, and coopting chance and happenstance are part of this. It’s a live option. Think of it as Eve buying a snake once she’s quitted Eden. You re-appropriate the appropriated items, but you do so knowing that it won’t be long before your re-appropriation will itself be co-opted and you’re going to have to do it all over again. In the light of this process of take and take-back, revolutionary practices mirror the structure of card games that the Tarot inserts itself in.
From what I recall from my previous reading, card games evolved as a means to gamble, and as an alternative to using dice. That was the first stage. Then the card pack introduced the use of different suits in each card deck. This removed cards from dice decisively by adding a totally new dimension to the gamble because there was nothing like suits in dice. The third evolutionary moment was the introduction of different point values for different cards. Once this had been introduced we get turns in the hand and the invention of trick-taking games. These were first introduced in China and then developed into card games in Iran and later India and Europe. Then Trumps were introduced, cards which won over all others. Finally came bidding. Bidding originated with the Spanish card game ‘Hombre’ derived from an earlier game, ‘Primero’, which developed into many other games such as bridge. Throughout, gambling is the underlying motivation for these developments. These innovations were all to make the gamble more interesting.
The introduction of Trumps raises two questions: when was this introduced and how was it invented? The early Italian Renaissance period saw trick-taking card games. The major Arcana was the introduction of Trumps into card games. The Major Arcania were originally called ‘Triumphs’ (‘trionfi’) because either they were the cards that triumph over all others, or else because they recalled the procession of allegorical figures that delighted Italian courts. Or both. All around 1500. Trumps were first introduced as a new sequence within the pack, but later were incorporated into the regular packs for the sake of simplicity – although the Joker card retains this feature of being completely different from rest of the pack.
Why’s this important here? Well, the card games were not about magic but money. But the designs were influenced by magical doctrines in the Renaissance period , first introduced in Ferrara by the painter Sagramoro for the Duke of Este. Alchemy, astrology and divination were present in the images but none of these images were important from the point of view of the game. Different courts used different figures for their Triumphs, so for instance, Austrian, Bavarian and Belgian Tarot packs used animals and plants and its likely that the early Trump cards were not designs based solely on esoteric occult themes . However, Neoplatonism was common in the early Renaissance and late Middle Ages and it is likely that card designs drew on this tradition. So, for example, the Tarot de Marseille is descended from a particular type of design for popular Tarot cards used in Milan from the late fifteenth century, but acquired some of its features in France. The crayfish on the Moon card is found in the Milanese prototype, but the dogs are not and intuitionist logic philosopher and anti-racist campaigner Michael Dummett for one thought it quite likely that the idea of dogs baying the moon is so commonplace that no resort to arcane pseudo-Egyptian symbolism is required to explain its presence. Further, no occult significance was attached to the cards, nor any use made of them save for playing games, until the intervention of Court de Gébelin in 1781. It could still be that the original iconography of the cards involved hermetic or other magical symbolism, though it is far less likely that this should be true of details, like the dogs mentioned above, introduced at a later stage. The iconography of the cards is explicable in terms of standard Renaissance imagery, without invoking anything more esoteric, and allusions to the Cabala remain murky; the fact that there is no general agreement about which card to associate with which Hebrew letter is proof that there is no very evident correspondence between them . Or so my man Dummett claims.
de Gebelin is a revolutionary in the sense that he introduced the occult significance to the Tarot, although as with all pioneers his approach was hit-and-miss and unscientific. de Gébelin’s ideas on the Tarot were eccentric and he overstretched in order to get the occult dimensions on the table. He was reckless and gambled with the idea that outrage might be a better course of action than diligent investigation. Inversion became a card he liked to play. So he suggested, for example, that the trump cards are to be read in descending order (because, he says, the Egyptians always counted backwards), so that trump XX, being the second card, should be seen as depicting, not the last Judgment, but the first Creation. His ideas were eccentric in the prevailing intellectual climate, but his Freemasonry, his defense of French Protestants, his affinity with Rousseau, and his belief in Mesmerism were not if we take into consideration that the first and last volumes of his Le Monde primitif were 1773 and 1782. These were revolutionary times and inversion was the name of every game in town.
de Gébelin does not once refer to Tarot cards as “hieroglyphs” but does offer derivations of the word Tarot from what purport to be transliterated phrases of ancient Egyptian, without citing any hieroglyphic forms, and all this is totally spurious. He made it up based on no evidence at all. There really seems to be nothing to any connection between Tarot illustrations and Egyptian hieroglyphs, and the pre-Champollion fragments of ancient Egypt are hoaxes – distinct from false beliefs or mistakes - used to establish the connection.
So the occult Tarot is an invention of a particular space and time, and uses inversion, the hoax, the spectacle, the radical gesture, the scandalous image, the inchoate, the bizarre, the hermetic, the radical, the demonic and the iconoclastic to subvert mental states of the ruling class. It’s a kind of assault on culture and Home appropriates it to subvert a genre of writing and make the tragic love story a happening genre.
I’m thinking of 'assualt on culture' here as a process not a movement or theory, less still a genre, not because it couldn’t be any of those things but just that I’m not competent to talk about it in those terms. What I’m thinking of is the kind of stuff shown on the Horror Channel, especially in the early afternoon and early evenings, films like Tim Cox’s ‘Mammoth’ and Mark Atkins’ ‘6-Headed Shark Attack’ which are great but wonky, as production values, acting and scripting never realize the imagined conception which is so huge, so brilliant, that no actual film could have ever done it justice. They’re instantiations of the ineffable, and so is Home’s great new book.
Home actually references the Horror Channel in the new book – it’s the channel the two lovers watch – and writes against rules of good taste so orthodoxies are not sanitized. He refuses the imperatives of being either high or low, nor in between either. But these are troubling times for pranksters and inverters. Trump as President is just a reminder that the revolutionary opportunities of valorising the indecent, of making trash a refuge, of the radical subversion of post-literate, total television tropes have been re-appropriated by Trump, Steve ‘darkness is good’ Bannon and the ruling plutocratic class. Inversion, rubbish, spectacle, iconoclasm, juvenile pranks and madness are now carrier signals of repression not resistance. Agitation and radical ideas can’t look the same in this new environment.
So our new landscape requires a new subversion, one that is without forgiveness, parades endless provisional judgments, boundless corruption and larval mutations of disruptive sovereignties which prefers itself to alternatives but can’t escape being complicit in whatever appeal you make, like a sort of hex. Which makes increasing sense of appealing to arcane occult resources to parody sin, abdicate ideals and embrace a horror of messy unfixed process. But we have to note this: the new way can be neither a mere sidebar nor inversion.
You mustn’t be too pleased with any Home book because if we try too hard to reprieve it then there’s nothing to be gained from understanding it. Home’s books don’t just contain good and worthy inversions of the present system but they also have to be fraudulent with an adult, dirty idiocy leaking into itself from outside what competing systems mark as interior. Home knows this: that if we’re going to change anything we’re not going to have to wait until we’re angels. The world implicates everyone. Any attempt to destroy it must destroy you as well, in as far as no one escapes, no one is innocent. Home’s books are products of the same dirty and prohibitive culture as Donald Trump is and that means everything has scum in it. So the Dummetian hard materialist reading of the development of the Tarot is precisely what Home doesn’t use. We get the fun occult version and if it’s a hoax well, firstly, who cares, and secondly, who says hoaxes aren’t true, and thirdly, which assault on culture wasn't?
Home thus writes into this, from a position of privilege, deprivation and no innocence, and so perhaps you’d expect the high expectancies of lust and carnality to route love from the machine. But Home is writing a love story in the midst of all this. It’s the radical move of the book. The subversion of the straight usually means working against dominant tropes to more sensationalist appearances. Home is rightly praised for his stupendously crafted, highly stylized and mordantly humorous sex-and-violence routines in his earlier novels, playing large and fast with the less skillful pulp genre writings of Richard Allen. His internationalism links him to a global dissident tradition. He knows that posting online is throwing away and has been doing this since forever. He writes to create a wedge between his radical dissent and the despoiling of people who create cynicism, resentment, despair and its accompanying bitter oppressions. His reaching to the tropes of the occult is part of his strategy of joyous resistance. In placing love in its category he reaches back to what might, pre-Trump, be regressive and unacceptable. But Home takes the occult as something that can rehabilitate itself, an infection with a chance for change with hope attached. The sensational occultist poet Jana Astanov is the objective correlative of this, along with poets Yeats and Paul Holman for example. It’s also found in the uncanny recent novel by Bridget Penny who harnesses a more malevolent take of English occult to concoct her own dangerous confection shadowing James Whales' Karloff at the windmill and the catasclasmic last scene of the original Wicker Man. The remnants of a used-up life serve dreams well as the outer expression of dreams’ blissful alienation and the strangeness of clarity, and become an admission of guilt about a lack of awareness that revolt triggers and a confession too, as if continuing a crime in a different form.
Home refuses and inverts the wearied acceptance of facades and the usual sense of an inner life only partially hidden in fake exotica, exploitation movies, outsider art, lounge music, porn, treating them as if each is a mythology that has yet to come into being. His two central characters enthuse and play with trash as an act of refusal, a second sensitivity etched in disappointment, sarcasm and contempt for the Mass produced desires sold to victim adults. Art becomes an outbreak of mass insanity. Things vanish when you look. It becomes hard to see something if you don’t know what you’re looking for and that’s a strategy here. Home as ever measures taste by quantity, excess and numbness of expectations. If there’s any frustration left after this it’s thanks to modern psychiatry.
Is funny garbage better than pretentious garbage? No – but can there be good garbage? Home frowns at this and then chuckles his answer: of course there can so long as there’s magic. A filthy liar wants to be just filthy, period! There’s sincerity in a vicious con trick, so Home writes to give sincerity a blow-job . Orgies and defilements outside any industrialized amalgams of written and spoken words become bewitching and lovely. An ecstatic ritual opposes language every time – and trumps it! Art causes the crime by just locating it. The adolescence in Home’s humor is just brilliant criminalized aestheticism raised to the orgy. Entertainment is boredom and homicidal rage to a teenage beat. Drugs steal souls when it’s their time for a party. And a party is always a party. And Home’s books are always the best party. The hedonic moment is processed here as a matter of losing your life being challenged to a spontaneous act by an idler. What it all comes down to is this: a skewed industrial apotheosis of freedom.
Who wants to be known first and foremost as a personality? Home continually raises within his fiction this question and leaves readers wondering about whether, perhaps, a simple way of disappearing is to become an urban structure. Eroticism as technology has a gothic allure that terrorizes everyone else. Far-out sentimentality and camp are edged to the point where the violence of others outside the mix seethes below the surfaces. This novel is beyond sophistication: as with the occult Tarot, you don’t have to believe it, just act it. Is there such a thing as failed seriousness, or failed comedy, or failed sincerity? Home’s answer is the groovy twist. Second identities conceal invulnerability, and this runs through the central conceit of occult rebirth.
‘Everything that can happen to a man in the way of disaster should be catalogued according to the active principles involved in the universe of his particular culture…’ is what anthropologist Mary Douglas writes and what flows from this, as Ken Hollins points out in his own terrific book on Trash - which references Douglas - is that we’d best take disguise literally. It’s a take on his writing, on his deliberate non-literary writing in particular, and one that makes his realism wholly convincing. He works inside out of a tradition expected by tourists and visitors with a genre wary of endings. Given that it’s where authors self-regulate to avoid being porn by ensuring sex is within a relationship, can’t be promiscuous, must have a moral, and can’t smell dirty, Home asks: what happens when ‘Die consciously as a witch’ is a moral?
Well, heroes are disasters. The writing exists outside the discourse that defines it, just like porn is excluded from debates about it. Its states of matter exist inside other states, hence the occult nods . Forms of prohibition are mechanical, lust becomes dirt and a deflected mood of blurred out emotions where symbolic symbols are to be read literally, stranding people in space and time. Love trumps all this, and appropriates the version of reality it disinvests. The Tarot again signals all this.
What’s Home’s motivation? From one angle the characters aren’t characters. The writing doesn’t write. The author didn’t make a book out of it. It’s neither shallow nor profound but flat, something altogether different. It’s literally the surface. ‘… a pure wedge in the universe’ like when a joke is just another harbinger of doom. But then the magic inflects it elsewhere.
It’s a direction. It’s premature. A restless innocence takes over the matter at hand. There’s a longing not an imposition. Nihilism of the image becomes a supreme loving exploitation. It’s a satire played for keeps and for real, with a straight face. It lovingly parades a wrong language with wrong intentions. It answers the question in terms of being neither underground nor exploitation. If your witch is both your love and your moral then you learn this: ‘Betray whatever you love to save it.’
Finally, it’s about asking you to Send Cash for all the failed beauty, failed art, failed life, failed living in our failed planet, done in the language of a card game played under Blake’s shining devillish stars. Brilliant.