Either I picked up The Riddle of Chung Ling Soo by Will Dexter in a charity shop or Allison picked it up for me, but either way it seemed like very much my kind of thing: a history of a weird, obscure subject. In this case, I was aware that Chung Ling Soo was a magician from the late 19th and early 20th century whose gimmick was based on being a “Chinese conjurer” but who was nothing of the kind, and that’s about it.
For all that most stories about William Robinson (Chung’s real name) focus on his “deception” or “double life,” everyone who knew him, worked with him, or wrote about him seems to have been well aware that he wasn’t Chinese; the media just played along with the bit in order to help drum up publicity.
Robinson is also famous for having been killed in an onstage accident in 1918. He did a “bullet-catching” illusion as part of his act, and one of the gimmick guns malfunctioned, actually shooting out a bullet and killing him. This is the sort of central theme of The Riddle of Chung Ling Soo; there have been a number of sensational books and articles claiming that Robinson was murdered or committed suicide, which the author tries to debunk. Along the way, though, we get an apparently comprehensive history of this famous career.
I suppose I was expecting some Jim Steinmeyer type of stuff, and indeed I see that Steinmeyer actually has written a book about Robinson, but instead I got something written in the 50s from a history-of-magic perspective, very focused on appreciating Robinson as a magician. This meant that the book included one thing I wasn’t expecting and left out one thing I was.
The thing I was expecting, but wasn’t there: the book doesn’t even acknowledge the idea that the whole Chung Ling Soo bit is pretty racist. It even mentions criticisms levelled at Robinson by a magician who actually was Chinese (or Mongolian; the author can’t seem to make up his mind), but doesn’t seem to perceive that those criticisms were, you know, actually true. It’s all understood as part of the expected flim-flam of show business, which … I suppose it is? But that flim-flam traded on some corby, even offensive, stereotypes. I’m not convinced, and I don’t think a modern writer would leave that point out completely.
The thing that I didn’t expect was the information that Robinson seems to have been warmly welcomed by the Chinese community, particularly in Australia. Apparently, in an environment of pretty pervasive anti-Chinese prejudice, a white dude performing corny Chinese stereotypes was seen as a pretty good thing, perhaps since at least they weren’t corny negative Chinese stereotypes. Obviously, no one was fooled by his “my dad was a British missionary and that’s why I look like a white guy from Philadelphia” bit, but they seem to have been happy enough that this cheeseball variety act was drawing attention to Chinese culture, even if in a completely distorted way. So that’s interesting.
One thing I did expect and was not surprised to find confirmed, given the hagiographical tone of the work, is that Robinson’s personal life, largely absent in the book, was pretty shady. For example, there are some nice words said about his romance with his future stage partner, Olive “Dot” Path, but there’s no mention of the fact that when this romance began he was already married and had a child who he basically abandoned to go be Chung Ling Soo. I mean, not much is said about his family life, but you’d think his other family would have got a look in. Oh well.
These kinds of book are always fascinating to me, less for the historical information, which is often unreliable except in overview, but for the look at what the author thinks is relevant. There’s something interesting about reading the perspective of a writer so immersed in a particular subculture that they don’t feel like they have to explain why they’ve chosen to take a certain position. I’m not sure if I’m explaining that well.
Anyway, I read it on the train and it was fun, even if I admit I skimmed some of the descriptions of performances.
Yesterday evening I was down in London for a talk by Ian “Cat” Vincent at Treadwell’s Books, the esoteric bookshop in Store Street known for its fascinating and varied lecture series. This shop is definitely in my top 5 things that occasionally make me wish I lived in London before I remember that within a year I would be a helpless, pitiful nervous wreck.
Anyway, the topic of the talk was “Cthulhu, Fiction and Real Magic,” and if you’re familiar with my own Treadwell’s talk you’ll know that kind of thing is right up my street. Or, you know, if you’ve met me, which statistically speaking if you’re reading this blog you have. This is going to be less a trip report and more me just sort of working through the talk and seeing what I make of it.
I was having dinner with much-more-spiritual-person Abi prior to the talk, and generally talking about the premise. It’s something that I find hard to relate to, but also very interesting: not how can people have magical or spiritual beliefs about a made-up entity — obviously, from my skeptical perspective, there’s no way to have magical or spiritual beliefs about a non-made-up entity, although I respect the views of those who differ — but how people can have magical or spiritual beliefs about an entity they are perfectly aware is made up. Abi seems to differ in her view of how many practicing theists actually regard the veracity or otherwise of their religion’s claims as unimportant (I think it’s a lot; she thinks it isn’t), and she should know.
I suppose the model that suggested itself to me was doublethink — that you have to be able to hold two contradictory thoughts at the same time, on the one hand well aware that it says “fiction” on the spine of the book, but on the other hand not handling it with the level of critical detachment that would normally imply. Little do I know of magick, but I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to approach it in a spirit of critical detachment, which is why I would make a terrible occultist.
So, the talk! I think I was probably not in the target audience for the first half — as I commented to another attendee, this was more “Lovecraft for magicians” whereas what I need is “magick for Lovecraftians.” But that’s not anything wrong with the talk — if it hadn’t included this bit, the second part wouldn’t have made sense for many people. The second part, which was about how fictional symbols became an important part of a lot of modern magical or esoteric practices was a lot more interesting. I had never really thought of the importance of Robert Anton Wilson in this context, if only because I am kind of contrary and the people who like Illuminatus! in high school are so fucking irritating about it that I conceived an irrational prejudice against the man and his works. I may be being unfair to them as well: I was a surly, critical youth.
In fact, there’s a lot of connection between theatre and magic in general, isn’t there? I need some Modern Esotericism 101, and in fact I think I actually have the relevant book on my shelf waiting to be read. I am going to be catching up on things over the holiday, so I’ll make that a priority.
Anyway, we were into the interesting bit, and Vincent talked about the idea of treating mythical or religious figures “as real” for magical purposes, which I think I had encountered elsewhere but forgotten about — that is, for the purposes of what you’re doing you treat things as if they exist, whether they verifiably do exist, are the result of ancient tradition, were made up by someone in the 1920s or were made up just now by you. In fact, as I understand it, you treat even things that are honest-to-god real (yourself, the world around you) with the same sliiiiiiiiight distance that you treat other ‘as real’ things with, which allows you to monkey with them in ways you otherwise might not be able to.
I think I had sort of grasped the basics of this, but he put it in a very clear way, I thought, and I certainly came away feeling like I understood that aspect of it better. Before I go on to the big question that this all left me with, let me bullet point some other things I jotted down during the talk:
As an optimist, he doesn’t see True Detective’s ending as a lazy cop-out.
Does this kind of pop-culture esotericism represent a form of cultural appropriation? Some traditionalist groups believe so. He was very strongly against cultural appropriation in the question-and-answer section, but it’s hard to see why given the radical individualism of the belief system he sketched out during the talk. In fact, he quoted at length a bit from Doktor Sleepless that blasted the whole notion of “authenticity.” Not sure how that marries up with liberal scruples about cultural appropriation.
He thinks the Call of Cthulhu RPG (about which I have written at my gaming blog) is important in this story, and I couldn’t agree more. Quote: “there’s no small similarity between a good roleplay session and a guided pathworking.”
“Parts of the Mythos started to leak into the occult counterculture.” I think Lovecraft started to spread into the counterculture generally in the post-war period, and that’s what’s fascinating about the whole thing to me, because he is not an obvious fit at all.
I cannot agree with the idea that Stuart Gordon’s Dagon has a more interesting take on the sexual aspects of “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” In “Shadow,” the people of Innsmouth have voluntarily agreed to mate with monsters in exchange for power and wealth — relative power and wealth, since mating with monsters means they still live in a filthy craphole. In Dagon, nubile young women get raped by monsters. One of these is a legitimately creepy idea, and one of them is the same goddamn thing that’s in every horror story ever. (I’m torn which of these is more sexist: 2/3 of the female characters in Dagon are raped or symbolically raped by monsters, and the remaining one is a monster. But there are basically no female characters in “Shadow” at all.)
Which leads me to the question I asked at the end. I felt like the second half of this talk did a good job of explaining the role that fictional beings play in “hyperreal religion,” but the big question I had come in with was still unanswered: why Lovecraft? Like, why Lovecraft in particular? Is it just because the Cthulhu Mythos is cool? Is it just because magick enthusiasts are a bunch of geeks? Because the whole authenticity-is-meaningless idea is something Lovecraft definitely believed, and yet at the same time authenticity was incredibly important to him — he called it a “comforting illusion” without which nothing would mean anything.
Now I think that what people who put an optimistic spin on Lovecraft in their religious or magical beliefs have done is to add an extra thought onto Lovecraft’s way of thinking about identity, and almost certainly a much healthier one, at least for modern Westerners. In my talk, I summarised Lovecraft’s view of history as “if your past isn’t what you thought it was, then you aren’t who you thought you were, and if you aren’t who you thought you were, you’re a monster at best and nothing at worst.” I then suggested that the chaos-magick take on this would be something to the tune of “if you aren’t who you thought you were, then maybe you can be whoever you want to be.” Lovecraft experienced the identity assigned to him by society as protective, but for some (maybe many, many) people, the identity assigned by society is not protective but restrictive.
Now I know that so far this has mostly been me rambling about my own thinking on Lovecraft rather than properly reporting on the talk, but I think you can take that as an indicator of the quality of the talk! It suggested connections that I hadn’t thought of and showed me a question I’d been perplexed by from another perspective.
I do have some nitpicks, though. In particular, the history of Lovecraft and the Mythos that opened the talk is not quite done yet; some of it seems to have been done from memory and it could use a spot of fact-checking. That’s a minor point, though.
So yeah. Good talk, good questions afterward, Treadwell’s always a lovely place. It was nice to meet Justin Woodman afterward, as well.