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I’ve been studying a topic that I never thought would interest me: Satanism.
Wait. It’s not what you think. Let me be clear. There is no actual tradition of Satan worship in the West. Being a tradition, on par with a historic faith, requires a discernible family tree of institutions, liturgy, canonical works, and sanctioned beliefs. Satanism in the West has none of this. It is, alternately, a historic accusation hurled against whomever is outside a dominant belief system; a misnomer, such as the absurdly hyped “Satanic abuse” panic of the 1980s; or an artistic and experimental system harnessed by impresarios and seekers, and highly individualized to their personal outlook.
Enter Anton Szandor LaVey (1930–1997), founder of the Church of Satan in San Francisco in 1966, and arguably the most famous “Satanist” in history. Journalists once thrilled to the claims and exploits of the goateed and shaved-headed LaVey, who mythologized his past as a carney, hobnobbed with celebrities like Jayne Mansfield and Sammy Davis Jr. (the performer recounts his flirtation with Satanism with admirable candor in his memoir, Why Me?), and provided endlessly good copy.
For instance, there was the time in 1969 when Anton told a credulous reporter from The Wall Street Journal the entirely plausible — and completely invented— story that he, in caped Luciferian splendor, had played the role of Satan in the horror classic Rosemary’s Baby. The phony claim gets repeated in the press to this day.
I had once written off Anton as a showman and gifted musician with a instinct for the (virtual) kill. I saw his theology as little more than a secularized bastardization of British occultist Aleister Crowley, with a side of Ayn Rand’s Objectivist ethics and will-to-self thrown in. I was wrong.
As I recently discovered in cultural critic and occult explorer Carl Abrahamsson’s stunningly insightful forthcoming study Occulture, Anton had a more fully developed philosophy than I had realized, and he wrote with a depth and wit that has gone under-appreciated.
To clarify Anton’s belief system, he neither believed in nor worshipped Satan as a literal entity. Rather, he defined Satanism as the instinct and ethic of radical non-conformity. To him, Satanism existed as the countercurrent to crowd mentality, and the pushback against the human mass of group-thinkers who, historically, are responsible for most earthly catastrophes. In Anton’s eyes, the Satanist, rather than being a force of malevolence, is history’s rebel, romantic, and freethinker — but with a razor’s edge of self-determination, which might be best summarized in the statement famously (if loosely) attributed to Ayn Rand: “The question isn’t who is going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me.”
But Anton could not be called a Randian Objectivist, since he also believed in the power of rite and ritual, practices that were anathema to the hyper-rational capitalist Rand. Nor was Anton in line with the mystical outlook of his aesthetic antecedent Aleister Crowley, whose ceremonial magick and philosophy of living from the True Self is captured in the occultist’s celebrated maxim: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law. Love is the law, love under will.”
Rather than comparing Anton to past or contemporaneous figures, I would describe his outlook more as Positive Thinking Weaponized. He took the creative ethic of America’s positive-mind philosophy — specifically the idea that thoughts are causative — and married it to a sense of thoughtful hedonism and unfettered creativity, augmented by the power of ritual, pageantry, and self-invention.
Anton believed that well-wrought fantasy — intensified through costume, set design, and even life-sized dolls (he was a philosophical pioneer of virtual reality) was superior to settling for unsatisfying sexual relations, or mediocre outer experiences. He Disneyfied the occult, in the profoundest sense. He called his invented worlds “total environments.”
Anton is best known for his mega-selling and enduringly popular paperback The Satanic Bible, which is a favorite of aspiring Satanists, metal-heads, and witches who aren’t hung up on being “understood.” But I am more enamored of his slender book of essays, The Devil’s Notebook. A penetrating piece is “Ravings from Tartarus,” in which he addresses the oft-repeated question: “Why doesn’t my ritual seem to have any effect?” As an unabashed explorer in occult realms (I call myself a “believing historian”), I approach this question with interest. Anton’s answer: “Because it matters so much to you.” As a fantasist, Anton believed that a magickal rite, ritual, or incantation should immerse you in feeling satisfied that you have gained the thing wished for. (In this regard, sexuality and self-sexuality were core tools in his system.) And, then, once you experience the longed-for sense of satedness, you drop the matter. “Burn every bit of desire out of your system,” he wrote, “and then, when you no longer care, it will come to you.”
If you don’t experience satisfaction, your fantasy or ritual must be performed again. Or, you must find another way of diverting yourself from morbid and futile distraction with your aim. Again, Anton:
How can one avoid caring? There are many tricks which can be employed. Creativity is one. When you are in the process of creating something your brain must function on a creative level, not on a rote or repetitive one. Your mind cannot be possessed by one thing and yet entertain new thoughts — unless the object of your creation happens to be in the likeness of your obsession. Here we find an ideal combination, for if the hands can create a facsimile of the desired objective with such dexterity as to be convincing then it is as good as done.
The Devil’s Notebook also contains practical advice, delivered by man who, as an accomplished showman, author, and entrepreneur, had plenty to give. Anton repeatedly demonstrated his ability to wrap the media around his middle finger. In “Duck-billed Platitudes,” he reinterprets old maxims including, If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again — which he called, “A sure way of making a pest of yourself. Better: ‘If at first you don’t succeed, wait and see what happens. If nothing happens, try a different approach. If still unsuccessful, try someone or somewhere else.’”
I have often said that the spiritual seeker must never consider himself “above” any philosophy or idea. To possess ersatz seriousness, or a wish for respectability, suffocates radical inquiry. Rediscovering Anton LaVey has deepened my sense of what I owe to my search: absolute experimentation. The devil made me do it.