by Paul Buhle
Kinney, Jay: The Masonic Myth: Unlocking the Truth about the Symbols, the Secret Rites, and the History of Masonry, New York: Harper One, 222pp, $15.95.
(Swans - June 14, 2010) Jay Kinney has been one of the more remarkably, if not necessarily mysterious, observers and critics of American popular culture for some decades now. He abandoned the Middle West, first to New York and then westward to join the Bay Area-based Underground Comix movement in 1972, and became, in the next decade or so, one of its most intriguing editor-artists. One long-running satirical series of comic anthologies, Young Lust, outlived the object of its satire, the mainstream comic book Young Love, and was full of laughs, with artists as distinguished later on as Art Spiegelman and Kinney's co-editor Bill Griffith, of "Zippy the Pinhead" fame. Toward the end of the 1970s, Kinney co-edited Anarchy Comix, a title that remains the best satire around and sometimes about the anarchist worldview.
And then something peculiar happened. Back in 1973, he had already edited a comic with the great title, Occult Laff-Parade. A decade later, Kinney was a sometimes editorial worker on CoEvolution Quarterly and did a special section on politics and religion. By Fall '85, he had launched GNOSIS, a magazine devoted to mysticism within the Western religious traditions. Read closely, especially in later years when he turned over the editorship (while remaining the publisher), the magazine had an oddly conservative quality, as in politically conservative. Kinney-watchers (including myself) had an inkling that he had returned to the Republicanism of his forebears -- like so many other 1960s types, including me, he had shifted left, bypassing liberalism, but unlike me, seemed to have wavered back toward the right. He was also a notable of sorts in the Gnostic church that seemed, at least to me, historically close, if not in the present, to the traditions of Spiritualism, briefly a major American denomination in the 1840s-60s and one linked closely through its major personalities to free-love, socialistic ideas.
Then Kinney fooled us again. When GNOSIS folded, he set out in fresh directions, including more work on the Co-Evolution Quarterly, for which he did some all-time great illustrations, but for which he also edited a special issue, in 2000, on the merger points of political left and right. For want of a better word, he was a Libertarian intellectual. And, we soon learned, a Mason!
I forgot to add that in passing, he joined (if anyone can "join") and did some helpful work with the Church of the Sub-Genius, the marvelous satire of evangelism that emerged during the early 1990s with bouts of "devivals" and speaking in tongues, hilariously. So there is something poetically proper and also very funny about Kinney being an almost straight-faced historian of Freemasonry.
He provides in The Masonic Myth an extremely accessible treatment of the circuitous history through all kinds of twists and turns of religion, repression, rise of capitalism, rise of the U.S., and so on, of what turns out mainly, if not exclusively, to be a "friendly society" whose passwords and rituals provide a structure for social relations. In Catholic countries especially, it seems to have been more subversive, although in ways that do not conform to any left or right categories. And everywhere, it remained somehow always a do-it-yourself sort of mystery religion and practice in the most vernacular ways. The particular interpretation of the mysteries suited the local believers, or better, ritualists. The supposedly secret words and symbols meant something to them.
Kinney's analysis works on several levels, because he explores the organizational history, including that of several factions and of a number of countries, alongside the popular myths and images that have been fodder less for conspiracy theories than films and best-selling books in recent generations. His account is, by turns, explanatory, funny, and weird.
This is mostly a story of Renaissance search for learning -- including the belief that precious secrets of ancient society had been lost or disguised along the way-hardened into an organizational structure by the nineteenth century. Thereafter, Masonry became a highly popular, essentially Protestant movement of sorts, binding together chunks of middle classes (with some exceptions above and below) in social terms. Split-offs, factions that lasted for generations, i.e., until recent mergers, seemed based upon egos and national differences of temperament more than anything else. Community spiritedness was neither socialistic nor fascistic but moderately conservative, in most instances. The prominent minority of Masons involved in the Shriners, sporting fezes -- little conical hats with tassels -- and driving around on little motorcycles, seemed strange to outsiders like myself, but part of Protestant life otherwise devoid of mystery and of opportunities for men to spend so much time away from their wives. These Shriners were, in truth, the only Masons we outsiders ever observed.
Not much melodrama here. What a disappointment to learn that Masonic halls do not have a secret passage into a chamber of wonders or horrors, that Masons never did turn base metals into gold or rule governments and social movements through secret manipulations.
I am not quite convinced on this last point, although it needs to be made more modest. Interviewing old-timers of a leading local industry in Rhode Island, a retired plant manager told me that without joining the Masons, nobody ever reached management level. Why? The workers were virtually all Catholic, white ethnics, while the Protestants were a small percentage of the state, but included (for over 200 years, i.e., until very recently) the entire ruling body. Masonry symbolized the power-networking here and in many communities across the country, played a role like that of Kiwanis or "the Jaycees," Junior Chamber of Commerce. As one historian of friendly societies observed, when there's no blood-based aristocracy, there is a natural yearning for titles, and these coincide with interests, often with business interests.
And sometimes other interests. In the English-speaking Caribbean of the early twentieth century, offshoots of the Masons (and for that matter, the Salvation Army) were a training ground for small businessmen destined to become socialistic, nationalist leaders against the remnants of colonial power. I suppose this proves that organizational forms can be adopted to practically any ends.
One of the considerable values of this book is Kinney's analysis of why Masonic membership has fallen so rapidly, thus why many of their halls are now rented out to whatever group wants them, and even with that financial help, often falling apart. The Masons have had relatively little luck among younger generations, including the younger relatives of staunch members. Largely, of course, for the same reasons as bridge clubs, bowling leagues, the Moose, and other social settings: the men of younger families stay home with their families, watch television or some other behavior, rather than going out to meetings. The story is not over, of course. There are still millions of Masons and plenty of large buildings. The fire seems to have gone out, but in an era of growing social crisis, who knows?
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About the Author
Paul Buhle retired from college teaching to produce radical comics fulltime. His latest include Studs Terkel's Working, A Graphic Adaptation [reviewed in these pages], The Beats, A People's History of the American Empire (aka an adaptation of Howard Zinn's classic) and a pictorial biography of his childhood hero, The Art of Harvey Kurtzman. Buhle is working on his ninth comic book. (back)