Mushrooms and tree-hugging…
The book starts with Lyon being intrigued by the proliferation of the Green Man and other obviously pagan carvings on early churches. Making the point that early Christianity needed to incorporate some aspects of existing spiritual beliefs in order to attract adherents, she then goes on to speculate that worshipping, or at least respecting, the natural world and assuming it has some kind of power is at least as rational as contemporary conventional religion. So she decides to start a sex cult.
There is a vein of humour running through the book, which sometimes works but more often makes it difficult to know exactly how seriously Lyon expects the reader to take her arguments, such as they are. She’s clearly superficially knowledgeable of both nature myths and philosophy, and in the early chapters she uses this knowledge quite effectively. She’s humorous about being unable to find willing participants for her sex cult, but is incredibly dismissive of Christianity in general, and Catholicism in particular. At first, I admired the writing and intelligence, though I felt from a very early stage that she hadn’t really thought through what, if anything, she was trying to say.
As the book progresses, she takes superficial looks at various aspects of things that she seems to associate with paganism or nature cults; for example, witchcraft, shamanism, Alesteir Crowley’s beliefs, etc. Half the time I wasn’t even convinced of their relevance to the argument she seems to be attempting to make – namely, that conventional religion is on its way out and we need to revert to some kind of paganism, a belief in a single consciousness, from which some kind of mystical power does (or perhaps doesn’t) derive. It’s possible that I’m over-simplifying – I did lose the will to live fairly early on – but I don’t think so. It all has a hippy, undergraduate feel – drugs and drink seem to feature quite heavily at the points of her ‘insights’. She cherry-picks the bits of philosophy that she thinks give some intellectual grounding to her rather unstructured rambling, but they really don’t. The whole thing is too sloppy and unfocused to shed much light on anything. And, being honest, I never felt she was convinced of her own arguments.
I wondered, fleetingly, at the fact that the two people I have known reasonably well who have been diagnosed with psychotic disorders were, variously, raised by academic metaphysicians or philosophy students at the time of diagnosis. Perhaps overthinking makes you mad. Perhaps mad people are merely thinkers.
Ignoring the clumsiness of the sentence structure, this is her reasoning for why people with psychotic illnesses should seek treatment from shamans rather than conventional resources. One wonders if she considered the possibility that, since she’s spent her life in and around academia, she probably meets a disproportionately high number of academic types, perhaps just possibly skewing the results of her in-depth survey.
Partly, the problem is that she makes assumptions to suit her agenda with no corresponding evidence. For example, she makes a big point about how conventional religion has destroyed the traditional way in which early pagans actively joined in with ritual celebrations (though how she knows they did this is an unexplained mystery – time travel? Mystical messages from the great beyond? Perhaps a tree told her…), so that now they tend to be made up of performers and audience, rather than participants. She, of course, sees this as a loss, so much so that she assumes that’s unarguable.
But I reckon that even if, for the sake of argument, one accepts her assumptions about pagan rituals, lots of people would argue that sacrifices and orgies might not be such a loss, and perhaps our more reserved behaviour is a sign of civilisation – or in Scotland, perhaps just a response to it rarely being warm enough to encourage us to get our kit off outdoors. Also, she frequently repeats that she is an atheist which, therefore, would obviously make her feel like an onlooker at a Christian ceremony. (I’m trying so hard not to say “Duh!”) I’m an atheist, too, but I’m willing to bet that true believers probably feel like participants in their religious practices rather than audience members.
As the book wears on, Lyon rambles around England and bits of Europe in a totally unstructured way, going to visit tree-hugging shamans and attending festivals at Stonehenge and other such trite remnants of hippy culture, where she learns that apparently the best way to celebrate life is to get stoned out of your head. When she started nostalgically bleating on about how Ecstasy had been a brilliant thing in the ’90s for bringing young people together in shared experiences, I realised with a twinge of pity that she really didn’t have a clue it’s the youthfulness that achieves that, not the drugs.
In conclusion, good prose style, some averagely decent nature writing, occasional shafts of humour, but the bulk of it is basically twaddle. As she neared the end, Lyon admitted she’d kind of lost interest in her original aim of creating a new Green Man sex cult. She wasn’t alone.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Faber and Faber.