Wednesday, July 15, 2020

(M: tAs) Tradition Book: Hollow Ones

I suppose my quest to read every single Mage: the Ascension book was bound to get me here sooner or later, but it's astonishing how you can know something is inevitable and still be completely unprepared for when it happens. I now have to explain to you exactly what the Hollow Ones are.

The wrong answer is that they are "the goth Tradition," but of the various succinct answers, that's probably the least inaccurate. Though if I were to judge by this book alone, I'd probably say that they're "the Tradition White Wolf wants to fuck." The male gaze is thick in Tradition Book: Hollow Ones, and if I've learned nothing else about our viewpoint character, Mark Moon, it's that he's an admirer of Penny Dreadful's rack.

Oh, okay, one of the writers is a woman and thus I can't be entirely certain where the perv factor is coming from. It may just be that when you've got a faction of sexy goths, one of the draws is that you can, indeed, be a sexy goth, but if that was the goal, it was not articulated well.

Transparent pandering to fetishes and niche 90s subcultures aside, Tradition Book: Hollow Ones is attempting to do something with the organization. Not necessarily something that should be done, but it has its ambitions. If we take the book at its word, then the Hollow Ones are "the Romantic Tradition."

We probably shouldn't take the book at its word, however. The problem is that romanticism isn't an occult niche, it's a literary theme, one that is dead-center in the heart of Mage: the Ascension. One of the characters in the book attempts to describe the Tradition: "We're kind of a combination of Cultist of Ecstasy and Akashic Brother, with a pinch of Dreamspeaker and a shake of Verbena . . ."

That too is the wrong answer, but it gets at something. When we talk about the primacy of the individual, the favoring of passion over reason, and the virtues of beauty and nature, that could describe something like 8 of the 9 Traditions, with a near-miss on the 9th (probably the Virtual Adepts). It's probably not a coincidence. Much of our modern pop-culture occultism comes from exactly the same time period as the romantic movement. When you combine that with Mage's peculiar grudge against all of modern philosophy, romanticism becomes so ubiquitous as to be invisible. How this interacts with the game's postmodern ambitions is an exercise for someone who is capable of deeper levels of criticism.

I suppose you could make the argument that individual Traditions can foreground different aspects of the game's overall makeup. The Celestial Chorus deals with religious faith, the Dreamspeakers with being torn between two words, the Euthanatos with moral responsibility, and the Hollow Ones with romanticism. It's superficially plausible, but a few of the Traditions really make you stretch for it. Assuming it's true, though, how does Tradition Book: Hollow Ones stack up?

There's a character named Mysry. This doesn't really have anything to do with anything, except that if I'm truly expected to go full-on romantic here and embrace the moral value of aesthetics, then I might as well indulge my cattiness and point out that for aesthetics to actually count as a virtue, the aesthetics in question have to be good.

Ooh, okay, that may have been over the line. But in my defense, Tradition Book: Hollow Ones doesn't really engage with the idea that it's possible to cultivate taste. I think it's a preemptive defensive reaction. On multiple occasions, characters in the book make it a point to "refute" the "myth" that the Hollow Ones are snobby. Which is a shame, because their snobbishness was one of the best things about them.

The main character, Mark Moon, starts the book as a housing-insecure street artist, but later on his connections within the Hollow Ones get him a full-time job - as a dishwasher at a restaurant. Awakening to the mystical truth behind the material universe, gaining power over energy, chance, and time, and joining an international occult conspiracy - that's enough to get you onto the lowest rung of capitalism. It's a blind spot in the Mage setting, especially with Revised. People don't really use magic to make their lives better.

Which sort of short circuits the Hollow Ones as an organization. There's a long digression where Mark tells Penny about his ideal lifestyle and describes this overly precious fin de siecle rustic artist fantasy and it's almost embarrassingly basic, but it's also exactly the sort of thing the Hollow Ones would recruit off of. Join us and you can be the sort of aristocratic dilettante who writes poems about your horse and gets involved in wars that don't concern you.

Unfortunately, focusing on opulence and decadence would require the Hollow Ones to have standards and the book is not quite up to the task of squaring that with their theme of individualism. It comes close when the conversation turns to the topic of "posers," but I'm not clear if the authors were even aware of the hypocrisy. You are a unique, beautiful individual and no one on heaven or earth can judge you, but also, you've got to look cool while you're doing it.

There's probably something there. Magical artists who work wonders with their creations, but who pore the bulk of their artistic inspiration into making their own lives the greatest creation of all. By shaping their whole existence into the aesthetic, they can live heroically and thereby bring heroism out of the ideal and into the world. The Hollow Ones are those mages with the courage to live as a template for the men of a new age.

Putting a pin in the fascist subtext here (to quote the book "atrocity does not necessarily equate to a lack of romance"), that is sort of what Tradition Book: Hollow Ones is trying to do. Except that it fails. Probably because, in order to ignore the fascist subtext ("so much superstition, heroism, tragedy, and beauty permeates the Southern [antebellum] culture") it has to be incredibly shallow. The Hollow Ones have a sort of motto "We are Beings, not Doings. Don't do it. Be it."

Which . . . isn't . . . really . . . a thing. I guess you could cite that as justification for drawing similarities between the Hollow Ones and the Akashic Brotherhood, as the narrator did in the "external relations" section, but such a comparison positively reeks of an old-fashioned orientalist understanding of "Eastern mysticism" . . . that coincidentally was at its height during the historical period from which the Hollow Ones draw their inspiration. Maybe this Tradition can be defined as "people who, when asked what they think of the Victorian period, answer with references to sexual mores and ghost stories, and not, you know, the most rapacious imperialism the world has ever seen."

Or maybe their "don't do, be" philosophy is really just an excuse not to do shit. They want heroism without achievement, as if simply wearing some offbeat fashion was victory enough against the Technocracy (a near paraphrase). Despite the book's protestations that most goths are in their 30s now ("now" = 2002), there was a big sense of the unearned arrogance of youth running throughout the text. Maybe the Hollow Ones are people who are so insecure and desperate for identity that they commit to a cosplay lifestyle to fill the void. And maybe because they're mages, that actually sort of works. Certainly, the alternative seems to be that they are a group who centers their identity around a pattern of consumption and quite wrongly believes that this could ever be radical under capitalism . . .

But is there something mystical in that? Could you anchor not just a worldview, but a whole Tradition, equal in power to organized religion, alternative science, or the mystery of death itself, based on nothing but weaponized shallowness?

Tradition Book: Hollow Ones is betting you can.

Ukss Contribution: Well, one of the advantages of being shallow is that you can take an idea completely out of context and repurpose it however you want (something that's brought up explicitly in the paradigm section), so a good deal of Tradition Book: Hollow Ones is cool shit that easy to steal. I'll go with magical face makeup that blocks telepathy. Technically, it's just a focus and they couch it in more mystical terms than that, but it's pretty nifty as a magic item nonetheless.

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