Eighty years ago an adventurer in a parallel epoch arrived in Haiti with the intent to document his impressions unbiased by the polarizing attitudes of his day. W.B. Seabrook is a little known member of the lost generation. While Hemingway was making his literary mark in Paris, the epicenter of Western civilization, Seabrook explored colonialism’s collateral damage; Arabia, Haiti and Africa, with a passion for the occult that led him well beyond the pale of acceptable taste. One could craft a respectable resume for this gifted writer, a war hero gassed at Verdun and recipient of the Croix de Guerre, a New York Times reporter, contributing writer to Cosmopolitan and Vanity Fair as well as author of eleven books. Yet a full reporting reveals a man immersed in life’s extremes however measured. He indulged in cannibalism, sexual adventurism, and his books address witchcraft, Satanism, sorcery, and voodoo as well as a harrowing personal recount of his extended stay in a mental institution.
In the 1920’s Seabrook inculcated himself in Haiti’s culture at the time when this ‘free republic’ was under military rule of the United States. He travelled easily between the American power elite who lived as princes in the impoverished country, the black and mulatto aristocracy stymied under the thumb of Washington D.C., and the country peasants whom he befriends with warm affinity. He infiltrates each sector to explore how the pulse of voodoo and black sorcery resonate in thatched huts as well as the Presidential Palace and recounts his experiences eloquently in The Magic Island.
I am hesitant to draw too many parallels between Mr. Seabrook and myself. I have no intention of eating human meat, seeking a psychiatric commitment or committing a drug induced suicide, which Mr. Seabrook did in 1945. Nor do I presume to turn a phrase with his insight and grace. Still I find a consonance of perspective in our adventures here. Both Seabrook and I come to Haiti to witness rather than to judge; to accept the country rather than try to change it, to value what Haiti has to offer rather than condemn it for what it lacks.
Although the names and details change, Haiti vs. US circa 1920 and Haiti vs. US circa 2012 recount the same story. Fiercely proud of its independence, Haiti is reduced to the pitiful embodiment of that well-worn lyric, ‘freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose’. Set apart from a world run by white men, Haiti is so racked by poverty and corruption that it becomes their ward. At the beginning of the last century the marines played governess here; in this century it is the hundreds, thousands of NGO’s and missionary organizations who keep the dependent nation afloat. Like medieval fiefdoms of goodwill they each lend a hand, but lack the encompassing ability to teach Haiti to swim on its own, let alone discover the wind that could fill its sails. Seabrook’s succinct summation of the American occupation ends by acknowledging, ‘Our attitude now in Haiti is superior, but kindly.’ Unfortunately that same sentiment is widespread today.
The Magic Island includes fantastic descriptions of Voodoo rites and customs which Mr. Seabrook, simultaneously reporter and ready participant, presents with the same legitimacy of any world religion. The climax of his night long blood baptism centers around a young virgin and a goat channeling each other’s sprit, chanting in each other’s tongue, merging their identities before the sacrificial knife slashes through the goat’s throat, sparing the girl, to release the baptismal fluid. Anyone who knows the Old Testament tale of Abraham and Isaac must recognize the parallels. The point for Seabrook is not whether Christianity or Voodoo is ‘correct’ but in acknowledging that each satisfies a fundamental craving that eclipses mere survival. Humans are driven to link our past, present, and future selves; to bond with our ancestors, to shape the context to our existence and envision continuity for those to follow. “I believe in such ceremonies … in some form or another they answer a deep need of the universal human soul.”
As Seabrook describes the details of Voodoo practice, which include dedicated ritual structures, elaborate vestments, long simmering concoctions and sacrificial livestock, I marvel at the sacrifices poor Haitians make to expend their meager resources for spiritual pursuits. They remind me of the medieval serfs who lived in squalor while erecting Gothic Cathedrals. Those with the least among us are the most heavily invested in the life after this.
Seabrook accepts everything he encounters at face value, he explains what he can through reason, ascribes the faith to the rest, and does not speculate on motivation simply to present a tidy tale. When the Haitian President Antoine-Simone installs his daughter, a Black Sorceress, as First Lady in 1910, legend describes a midnight rendezvous where a military guard presents itself for inspection and after a convoluted dance, she anoints one soldier to have his heart removed, which she carries off on a silver tray. The story is reported without the soldier’s perspective. Is it a tragic story of an unwilling victim or, the celebration of a Jihadist-style martyr destined for eternal glory? We have no clue.
Seabrook is a man ahead of his time yet trapped by it. When he describes Voodoo rituals working themselves into frenzy through ethereal spirits, sexual passion, drugs and hypnosis, his hallucinations are straight out of the 1970’s. Yet, he is appalled by the sensuality of male dancers and admits a deep personal discomfort with male sexuality. Ultimately he does not differentiate energy derived from drugs and alcohol from energy bestowed by the spirits, for he does not want to elevate one and diminish the other. “We live surrounded by mysteries and imagine that by inventing names we explain them.”
As a person always seeking to find Haiti’s contributions to the wider world, perhaps the most surprising discovery in The Magic Island is that zombies originated in Haiti. The tales of the walking dead are fantastic, most serving in chalky silence, a few fomenting a path back to eternal rest. Yet, in the context of this extraordinary book the idea that zombies exist in a parallel reality plane is not too wide a stretch.
Voodoo is not a regular part of my Haiti experience, the evangelical crowd does not tinker with it. Riding home one midnight with Gama we come upon a group of eight people draped in white, standing in a circle around an altar of flowers and objects and candles at a street intersection. I am reminded of those altars people erect in the US to commemorate roadside accident victims, though this is both more elaborate and more ephemeral. Gama acknowledges it is voodoo, but he does not want to discuss it. “Have you ever been involved in voodoo?’ “No, I am a church goer.” “Do you have any interest in it?” “No.” When you are Gama, when you believe the direct channel to God runs through the prophesies you accept and the tongues you speak, there is no need for other paths to the supernatural. But when you are me, a heathen voyager on this magic island, all forms of mysticism are equally fascinating, and equally welcome.