I will be honest: approaching “the occult” from the perspective of a millennial has led me on a long and painful path of misunderstandings. Not all of them have been unproductive, but I would lie if I told you that I haven’t suffered from them. Inside each millenial occult worker, there are two wolves: the self-care Tumblr witch and the mom-it’s-not-a-phase LaVeyan satanist. I have no interest in shaming either of these trends; many of us have all been that person, at some time or another in our lives. It’s hard to identify the exact reason why these two approaches are so prevalent; while sharing a vague notion of self-empowerment, they differ radically in their psychological and political outlooks. LaVeyan satanism, at least from my perspective of a teen growing up in a small town of a catholic country left in the dark of all aspects of innovative global culture, was a clumsy way of reclaiming my identity from oppressive religious structures. Being edgy, listening to crappy power metal and not believing in God were the only ways I felt I could participate in what I perceived to be a kind of spiritual community that was not entirely monopolized by religious authority. This does not mean we should excuse any well-educated adult for engaging with that sort of shit. The Satanic Bible is not even bad; it’s plain and shallow just like any other self-help book. The aesthetics and politics behind the various flavors of pop satanism are a different story; it is but a short step from LaVey’s moronic individualism to actual social Darwinism, and the same goes for the Satanic Witch‘s (hetero)sexual allure that easily transforms into the most distasteful objectification of female bodies. Tumblr has hosted (and by large still does) one of the widest digital communities of young people interested in magic in the broadest sense of the word. While there is a variety of content, I would say that Tumblr has crafted its peculiar brand of spiritualism, focused around practices of self-care, arts and crafts, and bullet journaling. This approach has gradually seeped into more mainstream media; the vague notion of witchcraft as a tool of feminist empowerment is not something I find particularly offensive or wrong, but social media infrastructure often does not encourage people to take their time to study and think about complex topics. On the contrary, it rewards a kind of superficial clout-chasing that has hurt me more than it has helped me learn. This has been explained beautifully by Peter Grey in his Rewilding Witchcraft (go check it out if you haven’t already):
There is no halting the decline of the initiatic witchcraft traditions of Gardner or Sanders nor the collapse of neopaganism. The reason? To use the correct mimetic formula: Because Internet. People are having their needs met by the online simulacra of witchcraft. […] But ultimately traditional witchcraft and ‘dark fluff’ are a product of and a reaction to postmodernism, they are seeking something authentic in a culture devoid of values and meaning but approaching it from opposite directions. Neither of these paths have an answer for what is happening. Tradition cannot help us because these circumstances have never occurred before, dark fluff cannot help us because it only seeks to exploit the symptoms of the crisis in the sphere of the individual, their endless promises of power are empty.
The fact that young adults like me get involved with esoteric philosophies and practices has, of course, nothing to do with discovering hidden truths about nature or the world, unlike it might have been for a young Agrippa or Dee. One could argue that we have too much of truth and that we are looking for the exact opposite, something unspeakable, essentially irreducible to the all-encircling semiotic of capital – a way out, a cloud of unknowing. Speaking in signs is all we can do; so we adorn ourselves with arcane sigils, weave myths of fallen gods, raise deconstructed chants to the beats of synthetic drums – anything to break free, but somehow we keep coming back, orbiting the same unbreakable truth, again and again, running in never-ending circles. There is no easy answer. I often feel like we have been tragically let down by generations before us, and, at the same time, that we are now too old to even complain; if no road has been paved for us, we should have opened one by now. Mistrust for tradition is the least that could be expected from my generation. None of us wants another council of boomers lecturing us after having fucked it all up before us. Although many of us who develop an interest in the occult choose to walk alone, we have been smart, and able to select unexpected teachers and initiators from our cultural past, present, even future. We have trained ourselves to trust none; to read everything, to compare sources, to learn on our own, to always double and triple-check. What we are lacking is not authority or direction, but we are certainly lacking community.
Moving from the suburbs to the – relatively big – city for me has meant that community has been simultaneously easier to find and harder to maintain. One thing I found especially asphyxiating has been the artification and projectification of all things. In many cultural circles, genuine interest for a topic either becomes a kind of performance or becomes unworthy of attention. It is easy to see how “Let’s meet up and summon a spirit” can become a sort of situationist exploit rather than a genuine spiritual experience. I’m not saying that the two are necessarily incompatible, but art by its nature speaks over things, over-codes experiences, domesticates them into self-referential circles. Working long hours and worrying constantly about the future pushes us to make all activities productive, even when it comes to our time together; this simply leaves no room for authentic communal experimentation – not even for the radical sorcery of getting to know each other. The only way to make something truly powerful and innovative is to study together and talk to each other; I am convinced that we have not done either of these things nearly enough, but it’s not as straightforward as it seems. Again, social media does more harm than good; collective work of any significance requires true commitment, but it is easier to commit to something that requires no effort and provides instant gratification. I have a confession to make: I, like many of my fellow millennial occultists, have not, and possibly will never, be initiated into any kind of religious tradition. I believe that the work of valuable authors lives beyond dress-up and circle-jerking, and if your secret involves us being subservient to a confused idea of authority – be it God, ancestors, our True Will, it’s all the same – then we don’t need your secret. The problem is not that organized religions hold a monopoly on truth – again, we have too much of it – but that they hold a monopoly on spiritual community.
A point could (and probably should) be made that for someone that is not even remotely English, like me, studying esoteric doctrines can be slightly alienating. English esotericism is incredibly self-referential, always speaking of itself with itself. Although everything belongs anywhere in our globalized world, I feel that there should be more room for different practices and perspectives, not exclusively the form of historical exhumation of ancient local folklore. One of the things that unsettled me the most about approaching witchcraft was that I could not find any romanticized, ancestral time or space to connect with. This is a sentiment I share with many other young people. Grandma’s nursery rhyme against malocchio, although certainly powerful sorcery, is not enough to build a sense of ancestral belonging, especially because the history of Italian women is so full of brutality and suffering that we all wish we could leave it behind. If this wasn’t enough, Italian local “pagan” folklore has easily become the excuse for esoteric fascists to certify Italy’s supposed Thulean whiteness. Particularly for countries like Italy – the idyllic land where English poets and magicians retreated from the civilized world – this fixation for ancient rural traditions overlooks the reality of widespread urbanization and social change. Italy is no longer the dreamland of peasant witches for English gentlemen to conquer, but one of the most densely urbanized areas of Europe, disfigured by industrialized animal agriculture and expanding city outskirts flooded with garbage. (Valerio Mattioli’s Remoria provides the highest example of Italian contemporary sorcery: the ancient splendor of Rome is mirrored by the centripetal forces that expand chaotically outside the heart of the city.) Our sorcery is impure, punk, and decaying; there is no longer Diana running through the woods, only Venus Cloacina, Our Lady of the Sewers.
People will always be touched by demonic intelligences, regardless of their affiliation to this or that tradition, especially in these times of global change. For us that have had the privilege to channel these voices from beyond, we know that we will always be unworthy: wounded, broken, always trying and failing to put the pieces together. It may take more than a lifetime to make sense of a single sentence received in a dream; still, no one knows better than ourselves. Ora, lege et labora.