Wednesday, July 1, 2020

(M: tAs)Tradition Book: Cult of Ecstasy

A minor, but persistent obstacle to my enjoyment of Tradition Book: Cult of Ecstasy was the prominent position of a certain Lee Ann Milner. There's nothing wrong with this character, exactly, but she's shown up a few times throughout these Mage fictions and every time she has, I've got some serious "this is a PC from someone's home game who has somehow made it into canon" energy from her. She's a real Tanis Half-Elven type, if you know what I mean.

So our major viewpoint character in this book is the "grown up" ecstatic - the one who doesn't do drugs, and is in a committed monogamous relationship with a guy who doesn't even sex magic, and who enters a state of higher consciousness through incense and meditation. This is perfectly valid, of course, but it speaks to a trend I've noticed in the revised tradition books - they often feel like a rebuttal to stereotypes. The Akashic Brotherhood aren't all martial artists, the Celestial Chorus aren't all Christians, and the Cult of Ecstasy aren't all drugged-up orgy folk.

At its best, this tendency leads to fuller, more nuanced Traditions, ones that invite you to explore hidden corners of mysticism you'd otherwise not consider. At its worst, it obliterates what makes the Traditions distinct and makes your choice of character seem kind of arbitrary. Tradition Book: Cult of Ecstasy doesn't quite hit either of those extremes, not consistently, but it does manage to stick fairly close to the arithmetic mean between the two.

The result is a decently useful book that occasionally loses the plot when it comes to ecstasy as a religious concept. I'm not privy to a lot of behind-the-scenes information about these mage books, but I suspect that the first Cult of Ecstasy book was written from a personal religious perspective, whereas this one is a lot more secular. As of Revised edition, the Ecstatics have been abstracted into "pleasure mages."

It's not a concept that is 100% successful, especially since the book still wants to include pain, exhaustion, and intoxication as ecstatic practices. The confusion is not just limited to Lee Ann's suburb-ready praxis or the book's occasional "this shit is dangerous" timidity. You've also got the extraordinary claim that the Cult was inspired by Aristotelian ethics.

And I don't know. I guess "happiness is the highest good" can sound a lot like "pleasure puts you in contact with the divine" absent the clarifying context of the rest of the man's life and philosophy, but it is absolutely not the case that Aristotle would "be terrified by what the Technocracy's made" except perhaps in the sense that he'd not approve of them fighting for the Union in the American Civil War. Modernism has its share of problems, and the Technocracy has certainly worked its share of horrors in pursuit of its ideals, but Aristotle was familiar with the brutality of the Greek world and he energetically defended the worst of its excesses.

It's probably just a product of its era, though. Tradition Book: Cult of Ecstasy can be weirdly pro-capitalist in ways that its characters would not realistically agree with. At one point, it unironically suggests that ecstasy can be found "even in repetitive work, hard labor, and the simplest menial tasks." And that's not . . . wrong, exactly, but it does miss the point as to why that might be the case. The best and most hopeful aspect of the Cult of Ecstasy as a Tradition is the way it promises to liberate one from the pursuit of middle class respectability. I mean, imagine hooking your soul into the live wire of the divine and then being told "survival and prosperity depended on responsibility and personal, managed risk."

Yes, the words are vague enough to be broadly true, no matter the context, but really becoming a religious mystic should be approximately nothing like starting a small business (which does make the sample cabal based around a respectable small business seem especially out of place, but what are you going to do). I think the worst thing you can say about it is that it's mired in the priorities of late 90s America (Prohibition was almost as big a deal as WW1!).

There are good things here too. While I don't agree with all its conclusions (it has certain . . . old fashioned ideas about the negotiability of people's boundaries, even if it does ultimately center consent), it takes its ethical questions seriously. Also, it strikes a nice balance between specificity and flexibility when it comes to discussing ecstatic magical practices. Reading this book will make Ecstatics easier to play, even if I suspect it takes you farther away from understanding real-world ecstatic mysticism.

Ukss Contribution: Zeitgeists, the class of spirits that represent specific periods of history. The intriguing thing about them is that I don't think they necessarily represent real periods of history (two of the examples are The Burning Times and The Age of Reason) so much as people's stereotypes about history, but even that's a very usable idea.

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