Tuesday, June 19, 2018

j. Reads "The Enemy Within: 2,000 Years of Witch-Hunting in the WesternWorld"

This post originally ran awhile ago. While I move some things around and clean up a bit, please enjoy me being mad at terrible history.

Now that I'm more-or-less moved into a new place, one of the first things I did was pick up a library card and all of the books the librarian wouldn't physically restrain me from borrowing. Among them is The Enemy Within: 2,000 Years of Witch-Hunting in the Western World. This book has some pretty good Amazon reviews, and I could use some more (not Tudor) history, so I was all set to dig it.

Unfortunately, I have to agree with one of the three-star reviews -- this book seriously lacks sources. What it does have are mentioned in the bibliographic commentary without any real indication of what was used where. I have read and enjoyed other works of non-fiction whose sources were a bit thin on the ground before, so that alone wouldn't be enough to impede my enjoyment.

What did impede it was some of the very, very strange logic presented right from the beginning. To wit:
"However, the explanatory power of European cultural tradition carries only so far. For witch-hunting was, and is, a cross-cultural, transhistorical phenomenon-- an attacker, a killer, of women almost everywhere. In present-day Africa as well as the Far East, among pre-modern Native Americans no less than pre-modern Europeans, witches have been "found" mainly among women-- sometimes overwhelmingly so. There must be a reason that goes beyond the cultural and historical.
And there is: enter the psychological."

I need to make a checklist for this.


  • Turning huge swathes of geography into cultural monoliths. Check.
    Please, Mr. Demos, tell me what "Native American" culture is like. Tell me how many separate tribes in Africa had witch hunts that were predominantly woman-targeting. I'd like to see some things to back this up, it seems like a fascinating subject, but all of your sources for this chapter seem to focus conspicuously around Europe. Sure, the book focuses on western Europe, but why make claims about other geographic areas and not bother to support them? Am I supposed to take your word for this?

  • Leap of logic. Check.
    "There must be a reason that goes beyond the cultural and historical." Why? It would be stranger to think that Western Europe had somehow culturally and historically cornered the market here -- as though other cultures weren't also capable of independently developing  social and economic conditions that provide the environment for a woman-targeting witch hunt. 

  • Evo-psych. Check.
    Why is evolutionary psychology always used to justify the most ridiculous wank? Seriously. I'm sure it's a fascinating science with hundreds of thousands of hours of legitimate research poured into it, but literally the only times I ever see it trotted out are to explain that slut-shaming is good and feminism is going to destroy humanity as a species.

After a few more paragraphs about how we're all psychologically conditioned to hate women from birth because they feed us ("According to current developmental theory, the roots of such feeling lie buried deep in our psychic bedrock; they reach back, indeed, to our first experiences of life.") we're treated to:
"[T]he woman-accusing-woman aspect of witch trials is worth underscoring; for this, more than anything else, undercuts arguments centered on simple patriarchy."


Again, why? It's more than logical that a rigidly economically stratified, patriarchal society where women's chief route to power and autonomy lay in marrying and burying wealthy husbands wouldn't exactly foster a spirit of cooperation among its participants. Why is it at all surprising that women would accuse other women of witchcraft? How does that -- plus a heaping helping of "don't-worry-about-it-we-can't-help-but-hate-women-because-of-titty-psychology" -- somehow absolve the society that surrounded them?

I really did want to enjoy this book. I tried to. Unfortunately, I found myself giving up on it all too readily in exasperation every time I picked it up. When I got to the point where I realized I was essentially hate-reading it, I put it down entirely. It's entirely possible that John Demos is setting up for some brilliant conclusion that ties everything together in a way that isn't some kind of weird pseudohistory cobbled together from faulty logic and wanly apologetic, half-assed notions about psychology, but I'm not sticking around for it.

Life's too short for bad books.

1 comment:

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