19 August 2006

Black heart

I know a bunch of folks who practice Anderson Feri Witchcraft. Without attempting a long description of Feri that will only reveal the murkiness of my understanding of the tradition, let me quickly gloss it for my uninitiated readers as being rather different from the let's-hold-hands-and-love-the-Goddess variety of witchcraft you may have heard a thing or three about. “Feri” is pronounced like “fairy,” but these are not goofy folks who want to grow up to be Tinkerbell. Judging by the Feris I know, I'm pretty sure that “Feri” is actually fire spelled sideways.

Case in point: a central image in Feri art and liturgy is the Black Heart of Innocence. A Feri proverb goes:

How beautiful is the black, lascivious purity of small children and wild animals

That's some fierce poetry. The Black Heart reflects the deep, spooky directness and power that small children, wild animals, drunkards, madmen, and Zen masters sometimes demonstrate—undistracted by fear, memory, or convention from pursuing their pure desire. Feri is largely about cultivating the Black Heart in yourself without getting lost in being childish, wild, drunk, or mad ... or having to shave your head, either.

Heartsdesire has been thinking about the Black Heart, and she makes a beautiful observation.

Pirates are often referred to in folklore as having black hearts. They, too, partake of something like anarchism, in rejecting the social norms and rule of law. But this isn't anarchy, either: the ship is always guided by someone. Pirate ships were said to be governed by a ruthless democracy. The legendary pirate captains held their captaincy by consent of their crews, and it was a captaincy that could be revoked and overthrown at any time by the crew. A meritocracy. For sailors who had decided to reject the rule of law of their society and find a life as outlaws and rogues, this was their form of self-rule, a rough democracy of the sea, honor among thieves. I don't altogether know how this relates to the Black Heart of Innocence except to say that I'm intrigued by the idea of sovereignty that is earned through merit, and by outlaw honor and radical authenticity, and that all these things are parts of the folklore and history of piracy, but they also have a distinctly Feri feel to them.

That's part of a longer little essay where she tries to weave the spiritual ethic of the Black Heart together with the social and political ethic of anarchism together with the romantic image and historical reality of the pirate.

Real historical pirate society had, as she says, a fascinating egalitarian/anarchist ethic. Contemporary anarchists often draw upon that history. Creepy pædophile anarchist Hakim Bey famously kicks off his monograph Temporary Autonomous Zone by talking about pirates.

The sea-rovers and corsairs of the 18th century created an “information network” that spanned the globe: primitive and devoted primarily to grim business, the net nevertheless functioned admirably. Scattered throughout the net were islands, remote hideouts where ships could be watered and provisioned, booty traded for luxuries and necessities. Some of these islands supported “intentional communities,” whole mini-societies living consciously outside the law and determined to keep it up, even if only for a short but merry life.

Some years ago I looked through a lot of secondary material on piracy hoping to find a study of these enclaves — but it appeared as if no historian has yet found them worthy of analysis. (William Burroughs has mentioned the subject, as did the late British anarchist Larry Law — but no systematic research has been carried out.) I retreated to primary sources and constructed my own theory, some aspects of which will be discussed in this essay. I called the settlements “Pirate Utopias.”

Bey's monograph has inspired a number of fancies. The seductive legend of imaginary anarchist utopia Port Watson on the island of Sonsorol has piracy in its history ...

Around the middle of the 17th century, Sonsorol was invaded by pirates from Sulu who called themselves Moros (“Moors”, i.e. Moslems) even though their crews included Sea Dyaks, Bugis from the Celebes, Javanese and other “lascar types.” Their semi-legendary admiral, Sultan Ilanun Moro, settled down with some of his followers—who thus became an island “aristocracy” of sorts.
... and, with a wink, in its founding as an anarchist haven ...
Now the pirates of old lived virtually without authority—even their captains were virtually mere first-among-equals—and they created lawless “utopias” or enclaves financed by stolen wealth. The two young friends decided that since Sonsorol could never produce any real wealth, they must follow the pirate path—admittedly the way of parasites and bandits rather than “true revolutionaries”—and steal the energy they needed to fund and found their utopia. The bank robber robs banks “because that's where the money is”, but the banker robs banks and even his own depositors with total legal impunity. The California dreamers decided to go into banking.

And I've noted before that perhaps the best-known child of TAZ is undoubtedly Burning Man, which is an intricate waltz between anarchy and community ... and interestingly is awash in pirates despite taking place in the desert.

Those pirates of the playa bring us to the shared dreamland of swashbuckling pirate movies and stories, full indeed with “blackhearted pirates” living wild and free.

Blackhearted as pirates may be, we are unable to resist casting them as heroes at least as often as villains. Consider one of my favourite little pirate movies, Nate and Hayes, featuring a young Tommy Lee Jones (!) as an almost completely fictionalized version of real historical pirate Bully Hayes. Early in the picture, he is captured and interrogated by Spanish authorities. He tells them this:

You're asking if I was a pirate. Sure, I was a pirate. I sought fortune and glory without respect for any man's law. But not without morals and standards. I never cheated an honest man. I never killed anyone who didn't have it coming to him. I never pillaged, and I never raped.

The rest of the picture tells a story which demonstrates those ethical principles in action. The pirate, when cast as hero, respects neither law nor property nor social convention, and lives a life dedicated to personal freedom in word and deed (and style!) ... but nonetheless has a fundamental integrity in his or her goodhearted selfishness that—in our swashbuckling dreams, at least—makes things work out for the best. This archetype reaches its apotheosis in Johnny Depp's dizzy, daring, delighful Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Carribean.

And who could possibly be a better embodiment of the Black Heart of Innocence than Captain Jack Sparrow?

Update: Elfwreck offers another view of Jack Sparrow as the embodiment of the Black Heart, over at Rune Soup Gordon White offers a rather different esoteric meditation on the Pirates of the Caribbean films, and I follow up at length.


Anonymous said...

Could not resist the pun:

Jack Sparrow has the "The Black Pearl of Innocence"


Jonathan Korman said...

The pearl beyond price!

Anonymous said...

I'm pretty sure that “Feri” is actually fire spelled sideways.

I like that. The name Feri is both a plague and an endless source of symbolic and serendipitous word-play. You have added a new layer to the multiple-entendre of the name.

d a r k c h i l d e said...

I must re-read your post at length later in the evening when work requirements have been satisfied and I'm free to engage my mind on my own time. (Ah…the corporate fetters) But I was immediately inspired to also not that Setians often consider it appropriate to say "May the Black Flame of Set burn brightly in your inner heart." I know that "black hearted" is often said in terms of one's personal development on the Path of "Becoming." and what else is the Setian principle of "Xeper" than that Becoming? For me, the Black Heart is a way of critically thinking of something while still being able to authentically and mindfully experience it. Instead of maintaining a healthy distance of scientific method, one can partake of it without being swept away from it. This also links interestingly into the Buddhist principles of "dependent arising". Things come and go. I may feel bliss and enjoy it…but I try not to cling to its memory when it passes.

I'm going to re-read this later, and follow the links so I can ponder further on this "Black Heart" idea in this wonderful fall month of October.