Be afraid, be very afraid - a liberal meditates on Halloween

This Sunday saw the celebration of Halloween. For those unfamiliar with its history here is how the Encyclopaedia Britannica sums it up:

In ancient Britain and Ireland, the Celtic festival of Samhain eve was observed on October 31, at the end of summer. This date was also the eve of the new year in both Celtic and Anglo-Saxon times and was the occasion for one of the ancient fire festivals when huge bonfires were set on hilltops to frighten away evil spirits. The date was connected with the return of herds from pasture, and laws and land tenures were renewed. The souls of the dead were supposed to revisit their homes on this day, and the autumnal festival acquired sinister significance, with ghosts, witches, hobgoblins, black cats, fairies, and demons of all kinds said to be roaming about. It was the time to placate the supernatural powers controlling the processes of nature. In addition, Halloween was thought to be the most favourable time for divinations concerning marriage, luck, health, and death. It was the only day on which the help of the devil was invoked for such purposes. These pagan observances influenced the Christian festival of All Hallow's (that is to say All Saints) Eve.

Halloween is viewed by many of us today as either as an evening of more-or-less harmless fun or as a generally minor irritation to the smooth running of a regular evening. But as a contemporary event with real theological/philosophical/social importance to our liberal secular culture, well, no. But I think an examination of Halloween reveals something of great importance about which we should be, as I say at the end of this address, and entirely in keeping with the Halloween theme,”afraid, very afraid.”

In his most recent work A Secular Age Charles Taylor notes that pre-modern societies included in their make up a complementary "play of structure and anti-structure, code and anti-code" and that this "either takes the form of the code's being momentarily suspended or transgressed; or else . . . the code itself allows for a counter principle to the dominant source of power; it opens the space for a complimentary 'power of the weak'" (Charles Taylor: A Secular Age, Harvard University Press, Cambridge Massachusetts 2007 (pp. 48-49). He goes on to note that it is "as though there were a felt need to complement the structure of power with its opposite." (ibid. p. 49).

Here Taylor is pointing to the simple fact that the pressure of such codes needs to be relaxed from time to time if only to enable us to let off steam now and then. I'm sure all of us would understand the straightforward psychological need for this. But Taylor quickly points to another aspect which is that, were the code "relentlessly applied", it would drain us of all energy and that "the code needs to recapture some of the untamed force of the contrary principle." In other words structures and codes valued by a society were interdependently related to their opposites.

So, to turn to Halloween, it's celebration in pre-modern Western European cultures seems to fit into Taylor’s idea of an existence of a code, structure, anti-code and anti-structure; for those cultures God's good world really did suddenly become filled with bad ghosts, witches, hobgoblins, black cats, fairies, and demons of all kinds. Satan was perceived to be a real leader of a real anti-structure to heaven (i.e. hell) and he and his minions were going to have their day, or rather their night. Strange though it might seem to us today the temporary, yet subjectively real presence of a dark anti-code and anti-structure in people's lives, served not to over turn or truly to threaten God's code and structure but, instead, to reinvigorate and strengthen it. All Hallow's Eve and its reign of darkness could, it seems, be said to have helped people commit deeply to God’s code and structure and understand why the structure should be upheld by their society.

Of course, this code, structure, anti-code and anti-structure also presented significant barriers to societal change and I, for one, am very glad that it was challenged and, for the most part, overturned in our own cultural context. Exploring this is, perhaps, for another address another day but what I will say here is that the old way of viewing the world was challenged and that challenge opened up our culture to the ways we now view the world.

Given this you might be tempted to say that surely nowadays Halloween is simply to do with having a bit of fun - the letting off of steam bit of the equation - with only the merest fictitious frisson of the dark side? After all as a culture for the most part we don't any longer believe in ghosts, ghoulies and things that go bump in the night, let alone the idea that Prince of Darkness and his minions would really be carousing through our communities on a certain night of the year. Such beliefs are not for us (a la Wallace Stevens) “necessary knowledge, required as a necessity requires.” As Taylor observes, in our modern secular context "anti-structure is no longer recognised at the level of the whole society, and in relation to its official, political-jural structure" (ibid. p. 50).

The chief reason this is so is because, from the seventeenth century onwards, western philosophy and science became increasingly concerned to develop universal perspectives and from them to derive ideal codes by which the greatest number of people - ideally all people - might live. In other words as a Western European and North Atlantic culture we began to seek a world view that contained everything and which, intentionally, left no real possibility (nor need) for an anti-code and anti-structure to keep things in balance.

As Taylor notes:

The idea that a code need leave no space for the principal that contradicts it, that there need be no limit to its enforcement, which is the spirit of totalitarianism, is not just one of the consequences of the eclipse of anti-structure in modernity. That is certainly true. But it is also the case that the temptation to put into effect a code which brooks no limit came first. Yielding to this temptation is what helped to bring modern secularity, in all its senses, into being (ibid. p. 51).

Let me clarify this point of Taylor’s. Modern secular culture is founded on its yielding (not always consciously) to the temptation to brook no limit to its own absolute principles. It may have used and, indeed, continues to use the language of inclusivity and diversity as it has grown and developed but, because it has come to believe (as a necessity requires) that outside it's own ideal forms and principles, there really is likely to be nothing you could meaningfully call supernatural (i.e. beyond the natural), it has become, in a technical sense, a certain kind of totalitarian world-view.

But, as we know from other historical examples, every sustained attempt to suppress absolutely divergent voices leads, eventually, to some kind of societal break-down or even revolution. Fortunately our culture realised this and it attempted to address this problem by encouraging anti-codes and anti-structures to move into into what has been called the domain of the private. Taylor notes:

The private/public distinction, and the wide area of negative freedom, is the equivalent zone in these societies to the festivals of reversal in their predecessors. It is here, on our own, among friends and family, or in voluntary associations, that we can 'drop out', throw off our coded rules, think and feel with our whole being, and find various intense forms of community. Without this zone, life in modern society would be unlivable (ibid. 52).

For at least a couple of centuries this strategy worked remarkably well but, increasingly, the dangers of this private/public distinction are revealing themselves all over the place and it is this that concerns me today. Although this very modern private space for anti-structure offered and still offers undreamed of creative and liberating possibilities it has also brought with it "hitherto unexperienced dangers of isolation and loss of meaning" - dangers which we just didn’t see coming.

These hitherto unexperienced dangers are not just playing out in the discrete lives of individuals but also now more widely because it is vital to realise that it is in this very modern private fantasy space that the new violent religious fundamentalisms are enabled to grow and strengthen and as well as other countless problematic activities and lifestyles.

As they grow some of these neo-anti-codes and structures, are coming to believe that they can themselves replace in toto prevailing secular codes and structures - violent radical Islam being but one obvious recent contemporary example.

But, as I hope you can see,  such neo-anti-codes and structures are not really functioning in our wider culture as genuine anti-codes and structures which are, in some way, in meaningful balance with their opposites because, dangerously, they are tempted to see themselves as perfect codes that also need no moral boundaries and so also brook no anti-structure. As Taylor sums up, they are "anti-structures to end all anti-structures" and that their dreams, if carried through, will turn into a "nightmare". This is, surely, a good reason for we moderns to be afraid, be very afraid.

Now I simply don’t have a society-wide response to this fear - which I’m minded to think is real and not imagined - but I do think that the default reactive and unreflective position of our governments in Europe and North America is not at all helpful. In their fear they seem to be responding in ways which only encourage the growth of "anti-structures to end all anti-structures" and, by default, their ‘clamp-down’ security driven responses serves only to strengthen themselves in ways that seem to me to be dysfunctional and repressive, ways that are increasingly impacting negatively upon us all. 

What we can do, however, is use the fear I have outlined in a more therapeutic, reflective fashion.  Those of us who, as a necessity requires, can no longer believe in the pre-modern modern world-view that allowed a creative "play of structure and anti-structure, code and anti-code" to work in the first place certainly need to start having a conversation about how we might help create a modern-secular society which has at its heart a its own way of balancing creatively the play of many competing beliefs and lifestyles without yielding once again to the temptation to brook no limit to its own absolute principles. That is, I know, a long and difficult conversation to have but we avoid it at our peril.

So to conclude, because we believe, as a necessity requires, that there are NO evil spirits loosed from the dark regions below the earth who are threatening the rule of a transcendent God residing in heaven above, the Halloween we will experience tonight holds for us no theological/metaphysical fears at all. However, Halloween should, in its post-theological shadowy form, cause us to look very anxiously over our shoulders for a socio-political monster at least as scary as anything our forebears could imagine. Somehow we have to pluck up courage to meet this monster in its various guises and find some way to talk with it and, in the spirit of Jesus’ teaching to love our enemies as ourselves, even genuinely to befriend it.


Yewtree said…
You make some excellent points here - but what you have elucidated here is not the only meaning of Hallowe'en. Of course, the ghosties and ghoulies aspect is the most prevalent one, but there is also the older set of meanings, of reconnecting to ancestors (both spiritual, as in people we admire, and genealogical, as in family). Commemorating those who have died (especially those who are excluded from commemoration by mainstream churches, such as AIDS deaths) is a really important functiuon of All Souls / Samhain. Also, the original Celtic festival of Samhain celebrated liberation from oppression.

Some psychoanalysts say that the custom of dressing up as demons, witches etc, is a way of externalising the shadow aspect of the psyche and making it laughable and therefore manageable. This custom actually comes from the old Scottish and Northern English custom of guising (which gave rise to the American Trick or Treat).

However, as you point out, many folk customs represented an inversion of the normal hierarchy (Saturnalia, boy bishops, Lord of Misrule, etc) and actually these served as a safety valve to allow the normal hierarchy to continue; so they were not necessarily a good thing.
Dear Yewtree,

Your point is, as always, well made. Thanks. You are right to point to other meanings of the day we have come to call Halloween for they are very important and in many cases offer us helpful and (healthful) alternative ways of thinking about (and imagining) our world.

So, to clarify - in this post I was only exploring and thinking about the day as it has come to us through a general Christian perspective. A perspective which we both know is not without significant problems!

Thanks again.
Yewtree said…
Yes, I realised that's what you were doing and I particularly liked the bit about the safety valve for authoritarian systems actually perpetuating them, because I have often thought that myself. Sadly there are still fundamentalists out there presented saccharine alternatives to Hallowe'en because they do not understand its real meanings (either Christian or Pagan) - so it's helpful to explore all its meanings in order to correct that view, which sadly is becoming more prevalent.
Andrew Bethune said…
Interesting to read your comments on Hallowe'en, Yewtree. And particularly your reference to 'guising' which was a regular Hallowe'en activity in my home town in the south of Scotland in my childhood. We didn't make anything of All Saints Day, nor the concept that Hallowe'en represents the end of the pagan year. I do seem to recall, however, that children used to go guising at Hogmanay as well - the last day of our modern year.

We made our lanterns out of what we call turnips in Scotland (they are swedes in the south of England). I can't quite get my head round code/anti code etc. Nor can I remember what my evangelical Christian paremts made of guising and how they related it to their version of the Christian faith. But they did allow us to go guising - knocking on doors of friends and neighbours, performing a short entertainment for them such as a song, telling a joke or a story, and receiving a gift (usually food) from them in return.

I would love to see our Unitarian communities recovering a sense of drama, and using the seasons of the religious year in a creative way to explore important things about our lives. We need to think about stuff, sure - but I'd like to see us involving all our senses, and parts of our bodies other than just our brains, in our religious practices.