The Brooklyn Rail

APRIL 2023

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APRIL 2023 Issue

Harry Smith: American Magus

Paola Igliori ed.
Harry Smith: American Magus
(Semiotext(e), 2022)

Harry Smith was an adept, a great artist, filmmaker, painter, anthropologist, musicologist, charlatan, liar—possessed of tremendous charm and an equally tremendous rage.

I first came to this book with the intention of simply lifting everything that I found to be authentically Smithian. I realize now that would be as impossible as separating Smith’s interests from each other, as if I could lift the occult instances from the film work, or his collections, etc. Indeed, there seems to me a definitive magical quality in all his doings, even the most scholarly. His awareness of the larger significance of images and patterns and their historical appearance (and ahistorical entitlements), creates significance in the least of his actions. Post-mortem Harry Smith is apparently no less of an involved affair.

William Breeze writes in his essay, In Memoriam:

Aleister Crowley remarks in Eight Lectures on Yoga that “the artist is in truth a very much superior being to the Yogi or the Magician… It is not for us here to enquire as to how it should happen that certain human beings possess from birth this right of intimacy with the highest reality, but Blavatsky was of this same opinion that the natural gift marks the acquisition of the rank in the spiritual hierarchy to which the student of Magick and Yoga aspires.”

Like Crowley, Smith had an aversion to elitist Magical learning, and any other manner of intellectual selfishness. Smith wasn’t merely officially degreed. Donald Weiser, for example, respected Smith greatly for his actual mastery—what he was. Smith, certainly in his later years, seemed to believe that that’s about all that could seriously be said to be of interest in magic, or in any other field, for himself and generally; which is to say that the purpose of anthropology for example lies in a revelation of intimacy, as opposed to the sciences surrounding its discovery. That’s a rather touching reevaluation of the onus of anthropology from an influential lifelong anthropologist with a deep interest in history. Smith says in an interview with John Cohen, when asked about trance and music:

Is that what the doctor is trying to cure me of; breaking into dance and speaking in tongues? I don’t think it’s particularly valuable to investigate that. The thing that’s interesting in those places is the personality of the individual, because the major message that has to be brought across to people is that everybody is thinking the same, although the stuff that is passed down or inherited determines the things that are thought about. The thought processes are all the same. The study of local trance dances doesn’t really fit the existing situation as far as music exists in different parts of the world. It’s more important to let other people here know that Africans can produce good music, than it is to study the history of these things. These problems are eminent to the survival of mankind. Soon they’ll be fighting about who owns the moon. A direction has to be given to types of studies. What was this in connection with?

Smith recorded many non-professionals, and did not seek to get the best possible recording of say, Peyote rituals, but the most personal, in which a singer with intelligence of themselves might transmit the most essential, most effective patterns.

Smith’s biography as it emerges in these pages is riddled with holes and conflicting information, plenty of it created by himself. Smith’s invention of himself echoes an attitude that has since become common, though it’s almost never done as consciously and with such purpose besides by magicians and charlatans. Smith’s history, his invention of himself, is as subject to multiple interpretation as any historical event. It is as much imagination as it is identity.

Any kind of assemblage or utilization of data would ultimately have been an imaginative interpretation for Smith, or at the very least he would acknowledge its potential political implications. Though his methods were notoriously precise and scientific, I think the deepest layer of significance, beneath the most ancient trackable pattern that might exist in speech or painting or textiles, is that there is no originary record. These issues require continual invention, and for that reason humanity rather than mere business drives the world forward. His ethos seemed to be that you can start anywhere, and you should start now.

Smith’s work incorporates a high degree of chance, and with chance there’s inevitably destruction in the loss of possibilities. Smith’s life-long dedication to studying parallel patterns and his willful urging of synchronicity (a phenomenon in the field of chance), is one means of considering the way in which he sublimated destructive processes into his life. There is an intelligence in his infamous outbursts of rage.

Chance also has its influence on the legacy of Smith’s work. William Breeze recounts:

Sadly, Smith’s paintings are little known and never shown, due in no small part to his ambivalent attitude towards his own work’s survival. Throughout his life he destroyed with one hand as he created with the other; that his work survives has been largely through chance or the intervention of friends. Many films are lost or destroyed, and the original negatives of most no longer exist. He once rolled the original of a hand-painted film, representing years of work, down 42nd Street. He eschewed selling his work; although broke and fighting eviction, he told one hopeful collector to call Holly Solomon. It was a ruse; Smith had no gallery, nor did he want one.

Many essays in this book mention Smith’s need for total control. Clearly, in the exhibition of total control, we also witness its total loss.

The presence of the people in these essays and interviews makes the book. Smith cannot be found without them, no more than his magic could be dissected from his other interests. As these people share their inner records, those which were so largely governed by chance and are now mostly theirs, we can see that Smith’s methods are an ontology.

Smith’s openness to “randomness and parallel patterns,” which Ginsberg and Paola Igliori agree is the key to understanding his work, determined not only his works but his being, and his relationships. The precious quality that imbues his collections of rotten eggs and other people’s garbage sparkles in these interviews, too. His presence is in the structure of this text, much as it haunts the lives of those he met, and many that never met him.

The conflicting information about Smith’s life, the lore, all of it, forms a scintillating outline of the man as he existed in several dimensions at once: a view as thoroughly cosmic, human, hilarious, and weird as was the man himself. It’s charming that the name of this book is Harry Smith, because indeed it is.

Though I’ll be exposing my predilections, I think the best thing I can do for this book is to drop a few tantalizing quotes. There is far more to be said, and in this book one will find a trove of information about Smith’s paintings, films, collections, and way of being that I haven’t touched on at all, that’s of high interest to any artist, but the purpose of this review is hopefully to charm rather than to fully represent.

In parting I wish to add that Smith’s personal influence on many important poets including Gerrit Lansing, Peter Lamborn Wilson, and Robert Duncan (to name only a few of those whom I’ve known in life) has, as far as I’m aware, never been seriously explored. Of course they’re all dead now, along with many of the contributors to this book. While this goes beyond the purview of American Magus, I feel the need to point out Smith’s contribution to American poetics—though that is perhaps sadly all that will be said about it.

From the interview with Dr. Joe Gross:

He kept having fires; wherever he’d be there’d be a fire. I don’t know if he caused them when he was drinking but he smoked a lot, not just pot, but cigarettes, of course. So at one point he had been burnt out; his stuff was out in the street and he was wandering around, and I said, “Harry, why don’t you just leave the stuff at my office, my apartment; it’ll be safe!” So he brought some films and books and I don’t know what the heck else and I put them in one of the closets in my office. Then a few weeks afterwards, I went out for some Chinese food and came back within an hour, and when I came back the street was filled with fire trucks, literally like three of four fire trucks. This was sort of an East Side, near Fifth Avenue, apartment. And I got to the door and I said to the doorman, “What’s happening?” He said, “Oh boy, wait until you get to see your apartment.” And I thought he was kidding. I get to my apartment and the whole place was incinerated. And Harry’s stuff, of course, had burnt up. The fire started in the closet where his stuff was. It was very mysterious. I couldn’t imagine how the fire started there. The only logical thing, if you want to use logic for the illogical, was the possibility that there was a light in the closet and some electrical connection, and it burnt up. Harry, strangely enough, took this with great equanimity. I mean, it’s almost as if he expected something like that to happen. I can’t describe how astonished I was, and chagrined, of course: more of Harry’s stuff lost. Anyway, that’s life with Harry.

From the interview with Rose Feliu-Pettet (“Rosebud”):

He would usually have a parakeet and it was always named Birdy! And when Birdy would die it would be wrapped in tin foil and kept in the freezer! When he lived in the Chelsea at some point, in this very crowded room, he had rigged up a very elaborate amusement park for the mice that were his fellow inhabitants. There were little walkways, there were rope ladders, there were ramps, there were tiny wheels. Food was placed on these things to encourage the mice to come out and amuse him. You’d be sitting in this room talking and there’d be mice darting up and down the rope ladders and sliding down the ramps and wandering around on the tabletop. And he was very happy with their company, because he loved them, and he would usually have an individual, generally a white mouse, who he’d keep as a pet, and who would always be called Mousy! And he also had a series of Mousies wrapped in tin foil in the freezer. He loved these things dearly. They were very important to him. He would go on about how they were the only creatures who kept him company in his solitude; when all his friends were gone, Mousy was there. It was very sad; it would make me weep sometimes, and I would promise to be more conscientious in visiting him.
I once took him to my parents’ home. I announced that I had met the man that I wanted to marry, the man that I loved, and I brought home Harry, which was a terrible, terrible surprise! He was drunk and proceeded to locate my mother’s cooking sherry and get even more drunk. Then he accused her of being Hitler in disguise! He said he’d seen through her, that he recognized her, and that she couldn’t hide herself from his clear vision! She was Hitler! This distressed her more than words can say.

From the interview with Lionel Ziprin:

Well, he had lots of American Indian stuff. But then the spirits came, hundreds of them. Now who, how they came about I don’t know, the whole underground… thieves and some that only stole dragons, but only from museums, because they could go through walls. But they were very respectful in the house. I didn’t hang out with them. I didn’t know who they were. They started graffiti; where the people died they’d graffitied the walls; that was before graffiti appeared outside. They would bring the spirit books, in Hebrew, Latin, French, which I have locked in places; some were written while unconscious on the floor, totally unconscious of what they were writing. Then there was an invasion of the spirits, but they were all connected to Harry. They talked more to me. I don’t know how that happened. Well, they’d talk more to me because Harry would never give them a nickel (laughing). They all wanted a nickel. A bronze Buddha from the 12th century for twenty cents. What did they need it for? (laughs). So here’s the bronze Buddha. I said, “The police are going to think I’m a fence. They’re going to come in here.” We’re starving on Avenue D in an apartment and he’s got four thousand, twenty two thousand dragons, mainly dragons, royal five-clawed dragons, and Buddhas, and Joanne is screaming, and diamonds are rolling on the floor. I said, “Get this stuff out! The cops are going to come. I’m going away for twenty years. How do I get all this stuff?” I said, “I don’t want it in my house. I don’t want all these people in my house!” (Especially since the captain of the Tactical Police Force, George Mould, became the landlord.)


Tamas Panitz

Tamas Panitz is the author of several poetry books, most recently The Country Passing By (Model City 2022). Other books include Conversazione, interviews with Peter Lamborn Wilson (Autonomedia: 2022), and The Selected Poems of Charles Tomás; trans. w/Carlos Lara (Schism: 2022). He now co-edits the journal NEW, which he co-founded. He is also the author of a pornographic novella, Mercury in Lemonade (New Smut Series: 2023). His paintings and stray poems can be found on instagram, @tamaspanitz.


The Brooklyn Rail

APRIL 2023

All Issues