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Witches, scandals and sham guilt

How permanent are the puritanical elements of our society? Where did our sense of enchantment go? What does it mean to be magical? Rivka Galchen’s latest novel Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch (2021) and Shola von Reinhold’s debut novel LOTE (2020) are semi-fictional revisitations of historical records that spill into these questions of our present moment.

While Galchen’s story is set during the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, a time of economic and spiritual anxiety, von Reinhold sets her enfolded stories between the present and the interwar period of 1920s London—eras of echoing uncertainties. Both novels coalesce fact and fiction to points of indiscernibility, shedding nuanced light on societies of cruelty, and both, along the way, bring us into close contact with strong-willed protagonists who oscillate between optimism and dread. Both authors contend with societal impulses toward punishment, dispersing their authorial voices in a refractive manner, giving portions of themselves to their characters, becoming as real as they are imagined.

Galchen’s story is largely delivered through first-person testimony from Katharina Kepler, an illiterate elderly woman from Stuttgart, Württemberg, accused of witchcraft in 1615—charges that led to her imprisonment for fourteen months at the age of seventy-four. It is not happenstance that she was targeted, given the excommunication and subsequent attacks on her son, the astronomer Johannes Kepler, by intolerant Lutherans.

From the beginning of her account, dictated to her legal guardian and neighbour Simon Satler, Katharina denies being a witch while revealing, less consciously, that her unfiltered candour gets her into trouble. She is chastened by one daughter-in-law for expressing opinions that are ‘too dark,’ yet the world they inhabit is filled with shadows, with explicit horror. While spinning wool with her other daughter-in-law, Gertie, we’re informed of the execution of a pastor’s wife, burned at the stake after packets of explosive gunpowder have been tied around her neck. The gruesomeness is sharpened here as Gertie is knitting a doll’s dress for her six-year-old daughter, who stands to inherit a life under constant scrutiny and threat. Yet Katharina chafes against Gertie’s assertion that they are living in hard times: ‘I thought the times were not difficult enough, since people still made time for telling lies.’

Katharina’s other son, Christoph, has a more damning take on the hypocrisies and corruption driving his mother’s persecution, describing her accusers as ‘The guild of rumormongers. The society of theft-by-accusation.’ He continues: ‘People are stupid, sure, they’re ignorant, yes, they’re greedy, okay—but these people are fine with basically murdering her if it suits them.’

As the narrative shifts from Katharina’s account to letters demanding her imprisonment and, importantly, the exacting of financial compensation, a sequence of contradictory depositions deliver vehemently garbled claims against Katharina’s character. Galchen unpacks the absurdity and precarity of the accusations, one insisting Frau Kepler transformed into a blackbird and another accusing her of behaving ‘more like a man in her out-and-aboutness.’ The line of questioning in the depositions also makes clear the biases of the prosecution: ‘Do you have insight into Frau Kepler driving away her husband?’

The novel is attuned to our current climate of tyranny, hysteria and promiscuous purgings, as well as the timeless malice of authority figures and their lackeys. The Ducal Governor Lutherus Einhorn, allegorised by Katharina as ‘the False Unicorn,’ is a particularly obdurate villain. In the leadup to Katharina’s imprisonment, she’s given a brief reprieve at the baths at Ulm, where she encounters a Dr Pferinger, former assistant to an executioner, a sympathetic man who has reinvented himself as a witchdoctor of sorts. Here Katharina confesses in detail her desire for revenge on her accuser Ursula Reinbold (Reingold) whom she tags ‘the Werewolf’ and how she would go about it. This reveal is crucial. Avoiding a sanitised portrait of a ‘good witch,’ Galchen presents us with a character who is also vengeful, wilful, and comically strident. Like the doctor, she, too, is aware of dualities within herself and others, recognising delphiniums as plants ‘capable of good and evil both.’

The novel refers to Kepler’s Somnium (The Dream), in which Katharina is allegorised as a sorceress-hustler, Fiolxhilde, who sells packets of herbal potions to sailors and learns astronomy from ‘some daemons she knows.’ (Daemons, distinct from demons, are inner spirits and divine forces.) Galchen makes apparent that witchcraft was common practice in the seventeenth century, and Katharina’s trial-and-error experimentation in herbal medicines reflects the reality of living in a period of high infant mortality rates.

Katharina is indeed a practicing witch, and the derivations between the practice of witchcraft and of scientific experimentation become increasingly apparent. Science as we know it today, is in essence institutionalised magic. And just as scientific efforts are subject to error and failure, so too is curative magic. Katharina is despondent and self-blaming over the loss of a beloved granddaughter, whom she conjures in a vision during her trial. Despite her despair, she has no tears to shed for her audience of accusers, who demand an admission of guilt and a display of repentance. Her apparent indifference is her defiance—a refusal to capitulate, to accept the timid, broken life her enemies would impose upon her.

While Kepler mounted a substantial defence of his mother, her release came after protracted jail time, and she was never officially off the hook: her accusers vowed to take the law into their own hands upon her return to village life, meaning she could not return to her home. Katharina’s hopeless plight moves us to consider the estimated 50,000 people, mostly women from lower ranks, who were burned at the stake during the Counter-Reformation and the European religious wars. Katharina Kepler’s aunt who raised her was one such woman. Galchen, in the Acknowledgements page, provides a link to Johannes Kepler’s legal defence of his mother. In this remarkable document, translated by Pamela Selwyn, he meticulously crawls through the brambles of contemporary witchcraft law, and attempts to defame Katharina’s accusers, writing that Ursual Reinbold ‘produced all manner of mendacious, mostly ill-willed witnesses, wholly partisan and driven by irreconcilable envy.’ (The word ‘envy’ appears in the document several times.)

Galchen allows a glimmer of meditative goodness to show through the gloom, granting Katharina an ability to look past a doomsday pastor speaking of a world in decline, to a magnolia tree in full bloom through a church window. Katharina’s capacity for tenderness prevails in her sentientism: her closest familiars being two cows, Chamomile and LittleHammer, who have ‘none of the stored viciousness of cats’ and keep her grounded, even if they may take a few steps backwards on her approach:

Some fear a backward walking animal—I myself have done so in the past—but I do my best to avoid superstition, which can be difficult to separate from the quiet knowledge with which we are born and that sometimes reminds itself to us.

It is perhaps this ‘quiet knowledge’ of her kith that she imparts onwards to her kin, for while this is a sad and bitter story, it was through this dark time of his mother’s trial that Johannes Kepler published Harmonices Mundi (‘Harmony of the World’), observing with scientific exactitude the geometrical foundations that articulate the paths and patterns of celestial bodies.

Tensions between the drab and the dazzle of cosmic drama play out in von Reinhold’s LOTE. The title, as we come learn, refers to an esoteric society of literati elites affiliated with the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and inspired by the myth of the lotus-eaters. It is a group comprised of ‘the brightest’ of the Bright Young Things from the British Modernist literary scene of late 20s/early 30s, namely Stephen Tennant and his companions: Marchesa Luisa Casti, Richard Bruce Nugent, Nancy Cunard, Lola Montez, and Arke Drumm. Drumm is linked to Hermia Druitt, a Black, Queer high priestess-princess-poetess-hustler who is the iconic centre of the story, a benevolent daemon-doppelgänger-alter-ego. Hermia and her comrades are haunted by a history of slavery, racism, homophobia and persecution. The residue of the Oscar Wilde trials is close to the bone, necessitating the group’s underground nature.

The narrator connecting these historical dots is Mathilda Adamarola, a timeless ‘90s child and redacted persona, jettisoning various identities and living situations, trailing her own spiral of noms de guerre (‘From Mathilda to Morgana, Morgana to Mona, Mona to Temi, Temi to Sadie’—and so on.) Passing from one identity to the next is not just playtime for Hermia or Mathilda, but a pragmatic survival strategy. Early in the book, Mathilda takes an internship at the National Portrait Gallery in London, sifting through historical archives to fill a vacuum, an absence of Black figures within a sea of white Bohemian aristocrats and socialites. In Hermia Druitt, Mathilda discovers a kind of tangible apparition of Black and Queer majesty, through which Mathilda’s own desires and projections are made manifest. The author gives Mathilda, and the reader, a first encounter with Hermia clad in armour:

The two on either side flaunted heraldic robes, whilst the central woman wore emblazoned pieces of armour over a fine mesh of chainmail. She had on a coronet, around which her hair was brushed into a commanding nimbus.

Captivated, Mathilda removes the photograph from the archive, claiming it for herself.  Theft and deception are construed as justifiable actions throughout this story, wherein even Mathilda’s colleague-volunteer Agnes takes it upon herself to rescue treasures that might otherwise be lost to a vast warehouse for eternity. Viewed through Mathilda’s lens, shoplifting and ‘dine and dash’ tactics are a form of self-administered reparations. Between states of rapture that Mathilda calls ‘Transfixions,’ she maneuvers her way into a cultish and corporatised artist residency, occupied by all-white members and founded by Garreaux, an elusive middle-aged male artist. Garreaux has drummed up a movement called ‘Thought Art’ with an objective to incinerate the creations of its unquestioning pupils as acts of self-negation. (Think Baldessari meets Metzger’s Auto-Destructive Art meets Guy Debord’s Situationist Movement meets Futurismo.) The ethos is anti-aesthetic, anti-beauty and ‘anti-gaze;’ a ‘tectonic mascness’ that proclaims neutrality and the death of the author—and happens to be completely at odds with Mathilda’s pursuits. One resident, a Jenny D, is described as having the priggish glare of a ‘Witchfinder General.’

Residencies are typically a microcosm of society writ large—brimming with talent, sprinkled with brazen self-promoters. Mathilda is the odd one out, forgoing orientation meetings and choosing to remain in her room, indulging in lucid dreams and fantastical teleportations. She dresses with eccentric flamboyance, in stark contrast to the residents’ uniformity. She embraces enjoyment, burning through her weekly stipend on fancy meals and whimsical cocktails such as the pousse-café. She resists the impositions and projections of whiteness, laden as it is with guilt, shame and disavowal. Mathilda enjoys on behalf of a history of those who could not, those who had to live in their fantasies more than in their brutal reality. 

In a recent interview with Dana Hoey in BOMB Magazine, Arthur Jafa said:

Black and formerly enslaved Black people were conceptual artists because they lived, significantly, in their heads. All the fantasizing about running free … was in their heads. The idea that the thing doesn’t have to be materialized for it to be real, for it to have affective and catalytic capacity in the world, seemed obvious to me.

Mathilda’s continuous need for escapism (and to an extent Katharina’s need also, particularly during her imprisonment) challenges what truths can be committed to when even rationalism takes on a kind of mythological ideology. Mathilda refers to herself as ‘spiritually démodé,’ unfashionably nostalgic for a time of excess, contrary to present day preoccupations with minimalism and monasticism. A quick upchuck in a trash can on route to a group meeting says much about her visceral rejection of Garreaux’s thought-policing.

When Mathilda finds herself in the home of Erskine-Lily, an ‘Escapist-Luxurite,’ an explication of the ‘System of the Luxuries’ unfolds as a story within a history of the ransacking and humiliation of Black ancestors who conceived of the ‘universe as decoration.’ For Mathilda, objects, particularly of vintage ilk, are not mere symbolic trappings but illuminating signifiers of history. At one point Mathilda comments on ‘the delusion of ethical consumption being effective anti-capitalism.’

It’s here that cynicism and borderline nihilism get the better of her. When she is confronted by the notion that beauty is corrupt and bound to Europatriarchy, she is consoled by her friend Malachi:

Black people consuming and creating beauty of a certain kind is still one of the most transgressive things that can happen in the West, where virtually all consumption is orchestrated through universal atrocity.

Statements like this from Mathilda’s immediate circle of companions are too sweeping and vague to be convincing, however, Mathilda is at her most clarifying when she defends any doubts about the existence of her idol:

Western society’s inability to picture people of colour in Europe prior to the Windrush, even fantastical individuals like Hermia, is pernicious: it is not an uncommon tendency amongst historians to find the prospect of Black lives outside of familiar narratives implausible.

A crucial point made in LOTE maintains that Black and Queer excellence triggers white envy and thereby erasure. By the story’s end, von Reinhold has more than hinted at the ultimate scandal of all, the blanching of Queerness and Blackness through archival practices governed by white people. But Hermia’s biography merges with Mathilda’s through the unapologetic manner in which she/they choose to live. One of LOTE’s many passages of elevated description involves a radiant and rainbow-flecked tincture forming the peacocking stage of alchemy, whereby the oily black contents of an alembic flares opalescent. This transcendental moment is signalled by the book’s cover art, lifted from the illuminated manuscript Splendor Solis of 1532–1535, showing a peacock suspended in the bulb of a crowned teardrop flask.

Lavish ornamentation can serve as seduction and weaponry, as well as a catalyst for euphoria, embracing aestheticised experience as emblematic of meticulous labour and ‘purposefulness without purpose,’ and thus, both pain and pleasure. Instead of calling for outright revolution, she opts for languor, spontaneous frenzy and heightened attentiveness to details. A decadent pacifist, Mathilda checks out in order to check in with matters of the spirit, to see beauty as restorative and not narcissistic. She considers such checking in and out more appealing, more daring, more radical, than anything else currently on offer.

Katharina and Mathilda/Hermia are supremely witchy in their own right—there are no flying brooms, yet no shortage of occult concoctions and whimsy to go around. Neither novel presents a moral rationale or a new utopian guide to live by, nor a practical solution to societal stagnation or unassailable superstructures—that’s not what we can ask of any author or narrator. The lessons we can garner from these books involve finding solace through strong, defiant personalities that bind and transcend the particulars of time and place.

 

Addendum:

Motivated by LOTE to do my own ‘rigorous’ research on aestheticism, I stalked von Reinhold on Instagram, naturally enough. They posted a photo of Jaye Davidson as the alien Egyptian sun god Ra, from 1994’s Stargate. Davidson, discovered at a wrap party for Derek Jarman’s Edward II, rose to fame as Dil, the transgender co-star of The Crying Game. When Dil graces the stage of the local bar, she is truly bewitching—a divine Lotean Transfixion. Davidson soon recoiled from acting after receiving too much unwanted attention, but he fleetingly appears in Robert Leacock’s Catwalk, the ultimate document of ‘90s decadence, wherein Davidson quips about the modeling hustle: ‘It’s all whorin’ isn’t it, it’s all work for money—it’s the only reason anyone works… We want the money… But I’d rather not be filmed pickin’ the fish with my fingers.’ Another scene shows Davidson in the midst of the fuss of fans and paparazzi, signing autographs. The resemblance between von Reinhold and ‘90s Davidson struck me as just slightly uncanny. That’s the curious, digestivo effect of LOTE: no detail is too arbitrary—one can’t stop the compulsion to make connections.

 

Image: James Spader and Jaye Davidson in Stargate

 

Overland’s Friday Features project is supported by the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund. 

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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JC Holburn has work published in Art Agenda, The Brooklyn Rail, Cordite Poetry Review, Fence, Filthy Dreams, Full Stop, Stillpoint Magazine and Topical Cream, among others. Her chapbook, Dribs, is out now via Pitymilk Press.

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