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Mitch in Brooklyn, 2020. Still by Jacqueline Castel.

Rule In Hell

Trust me, it really is better

The principle of ruling in Hell has been the hallmark of my life.

As a young child and later as an adolescent I often felt ill at ease, locked out of the mainstream of life, uncomfortable, literally, in my own skin.

I had to create a world in which I could experience power and ability on my own terms. And I did. Because of that fact, I wouldn’t give up earlier sufferings for something easier even I could. Doing so would make me less mature, complete, and expressive as a person — and the same is true of you. For that reason, I ask you to consider: the very things that most plague you are the building blocks to your greatest achievement.

__________

My three decades of work as a writer and publisher provide a case in point. I have labored at prestigious places and at low-rent places. The defining factor in my happiness and satisfaction was always freedom. Wherever I had the liberty to most fully chart my own course, I was not only happiest but also most artistically and financially successful. Personally, I have found it easier to function in a dynamic and self-directed way in places that are outside the mainstream. Sometimes far outside. In Paradise Lost, John Milton (1608–1674) famously had Lucifer put it this way: Here we may reign secure, and in my choice/To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:/Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n.

Comic illustrator Steve Ditko (1921–2018), one of my favorite artists, is a prime example. Steve was best known as the co-creator, with Stan Lee, of Spider-Man and Doctor Strange. Today, Steve’s work — mostly in sci-fi, horror, and his unusual brand of Objectivist-themed comics — is the subject of serious critical and cultural attention. An ardent disciple of utopian capitalist Ayn Rand, Steve cultivated a strict ethos of self-direction in his work. He rarely granted interviews and wanted to be understood solely through his work.

Steve was so dedicated to his sense of artistic integrity that he was said to reject lucrative offers from the moviemakers of his characters, turning down sums in connection with the movie vehicles of Spider-Man and Doctor Strange. (Because of artists’ work-for-hire status at Marvel and other comic publishers back in the day, Steve didn’t hold rights to his creations; these offers were gratuities). Steve didn’t like the movie adaptations. Unlike artists who complain only after cashing the check, this artist did neither. Today, the shut-in illustrator who worked for decades in the same cramped Times Square studio in New York City is a legend.

This is all the more surprising because comic fans in the 1970s and 80s — and I was among them — regarded Steve as an old timer whose stiff figures and sketchy drawings (he wasn’t doing his best work then) didn’t fit the more realist bent of the day. What changed? Well, Steve’s status as an icon arrived through rediscovery of the visionary and prolific work he had done at earlier points in his career on little-seen horror, supernatural, and sci-fi comics. In that genre his work was extraordinary. Steve wielded his drawing pencil the way Orson Welles wielded a camera: using extreme close ups, panoramic perspectives, cuts in time and space, combinative shots — things that weren’t seen in comics in the 1950s and 60s. Steve’s depiction of cosmic, magickal, and other-dimensional landscapes in Doctor Strange and other works remain without peer. Here’s the important thing: Steve did his greatest work only when left to his own devices. That’s why his association with Marvel was short-lived. Steve actually did his best work for an out-of-the-way and somewhat disreputable shop called Charlton, a Connecticut-based comic press, which he circulated in and out of at various times in his working life.

Critic Douglas Walk put it this way in The New York Times in 2008:

Ditko drew his first comics as a professional in 1953, developing his haunted, alienated imagery in Z-grade horror and crime series. He quickly formed a longstanding affiliation with Charlton Comics, a Connecticut operation that published funnybooks to keep its presses running, paid the worst rates in the business and let artists draw more or less whatever they pleased.

Charlton was known not only for low rates but also for poor-quality printing, knockoff titles, cheesy licensing adaptations, and short-lived series. For Steve it was creative Valhalla. Because he was left alone. That was the atmosphere in which he thrived. The absence of editorial or quality standards at Charlton — a mark of unprofessionalism elsewhere in the industry — was what a radical self-starter like Steve Ditko needed. He excelled in an atmosphere that lacked oversight, boundaries, or meddling. If you walk into any comic shop looking for published collections of Steve’s work (and I encourage it, whether or not you’re a comic fan) you will discover that his most widely anthologized stories are from his time at Charlton. They are some of the most innovative comics of the twentieth century.

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Like Steve, I have always chosen freedom over prestige. As a young assistant editor I was offered two jobs that bumped me up to full editor: one was at Dell, a popular mass-market house, and the other was at Arcade, an intellectual press that had just published the final book by one of my heroes, social critic and activist Michael Harrington. I choose the former. I simply believed (and rightly as it turned out) that I would have greater latitude at a house where the range of topics was wide open. At Dell I published the first paperback by iconic outdoors writer Jon Krakauer; a bestselling series of novels that formed the basis for the BBC/PBS miniseries Prime Suspect; and the first widely acclaimed book on the “political correctness” controversy. And much else besides.

Sometimes I had no choice in my path. While I was building my career as an acquisitions editor in the mid-1990s I landed a “dream job” at a prestigious publishing house called The Free Press, which was then at the center of a hopeful but unrealized revolution in intellectual conservatism. I worked with several highly regarded writers and nearly everything that we published got reviewed in opinion-shaping publications like The New Yorker and The New York Times Book Review. It was an exciting period. It ended quickly. Despite some early successes, I had difficulty signing up good books, getting in with the right agents, and breaking through.

One June afternoon I returned to my office after lunch and found there were no phone messages waiting for me (a sign of morbidity). I quietly closed my door and laid my head on my desk, knowing that sooner or later I was going to be fired. In less than a year I was.

Realizing that June day that the end was near, I knew I had to look for new work. In the months ahead I experienced a series of tantalizing “almosts” — but nothing bore fruit. I was interviewed for a job at a defunct political magazine called George by its star founder and editor John F. Kennedy, Jr. (a true gentleman who tragically died in a plane crash not long after). One night an inebriated patrician editor offered me a job at a leading political and cultural magazine. His deputy later shot it down over a bizarrely confrontational lunch. I made the final cut for an arts-and-ideas editor at The New York Times, meeting the paper’s executive editor in a closing series of interviews. But they settled on someone with more journalistic experience. It was dispiriting and disorienting to come so close to grabbing the golden ring, while getting nowhere. I was trying to decipher the message.

Realizing that I could not go the white-collar route of relying on contacts and connections, I decided to go blue collar and began applying for openings like any other rookie. I took the first job offered to me, as a senior editor at a New Age publishing house then called Tarcher/Penguin. I immediately liked the publisher, we personally bonded, and, although spiritual interests were then secondary in my life, I felt it was someplace I could thrive. Some of my friends and industry colleagues saw it differently. The house was considered low rent compared to where I had been. One New York publisher disinvited me to a film screening. “This is for industry reporters,” she said, “and they’re not gonna know you from Adam.” In New York, when you fall you fall hard.

I did not care. I determined that it was better to accept an open door and a firm yes, better to work in a place whose raw clay I knew I could mold and where I could chart my own course, than to hold out for a fancier job at a more respectable outlet. I took a Ditkoesque attitude. Or, rather, I took the attitude of Milton’s Lucifer in exile.

My gambit proved right. I quickly grokked to the catalogue of mystical books on the imprint’s backlist and began to discover philosophies, from New Thought to the ideas of spiritual teacher G.I. Gurdjieff, which made a profound difference in my life. Most importantly, I discovered that I not only wanted to publish books on these topics, creating a serious space for quality metaphysical thought, but I also wanted to write about these topics myself. The greatest gift I received in publishing was rediscovering myself as a writer. I found a sense of mission, purpose, and, ultimately, a true vocation. If I had taken the advice of ambitious friends I never would have gone there. I would have held out. I would have been wrong.

The best experiences of my life have arisen from places where I had the latitude to experiment, to fail, to succeed, and to be free. And, interestingly, I later had my own bylines in the publications that used to review the books I published. So, that arrived, too. But it arrived only after I had the opportunity to fashion a vessel of my own making.

I was able to bring a higher level of quality to a field where such quality was needed. New Age publishing has never been known as a fount of intellectual excellence — but why not? Why couldn’t you bring the same standards of seriousness and integrity to metaphysical literature as to any other kind? There is no intrinsic barrier. I worked to create an environment where some of the best minds in occult, mystical, and self-development literature could write seriously and be taken seriously. “You’re the only editor I’ve ever had,” author Whitley Strieber told me, “who I didn’t suspect hung up the phone and started laughing about the UFO nut.”

I opened this essay with a quote from Paradise Lost. Now I quote from the Talmud on a related point. In the Talmudic book Pirkei Avot, or Ethics of the Fathers, which is constructed largely as a question-and-response between masters and students, a student asks: “What is the right path for a man to follow in life?” His teacher tells him, “Go to a place where there are no men, and there strive to be a man.” Go to a place where you are needed. Where your presence can be transforming. Where you are tested by an absence of conventional support.

I have written about a popular exercise that I call the 10-Day Miracle Challenge. But whenever I have described this exercise, I have omitted one detail. When I first arrived at the title I worried that it sounded a little corny or sensationalistic. Maybe the title of my latest book, The Miracle Habits, is too. But I believe in making bold promises, and in backing them up. I do not believe in hedging. On occasion I have been accused of engaging in provocation, something I have no interest in as an end to itself. But I have also discovered that ruling in Hell — going your own way without regard to convention or respectability — produces surprising outcomes. In many ways, they are the best outcomes because they arrive without compromise.

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In the pre-lockdown days of early 2020, my significant other and I got invited to a reception for the opening of a new exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, one of the world’s premier art museums. The invitation came from one of the exhibit’s curators, whom I had met briefly before. A lot of hustling and jostling goes on at these events, so I wasn’t initially sure whether to even approach him to say hello. At the shoulder- to-shoulder reception he spotted me from across the room and his face lit up smiling. We worked our way over to say hello. He told me excitedly how he had been working with the 10-Day Miracle Challenge and he had experienced breakthrough results in the past two days.

Believe me: this was not a setting where “miracle challenges” constituted the cocktail-tinkling conversation of the evening. But there it was. I had made no effort to be impressive or appealing in any literary manner in my choice of title or exercise. But to hell with it, I told myself — it’s what I believe. That sincerity of effort led to acceptance and even admiration in a place where I once couldn’t have imagined myself standing. Today, he and I are collaborating on the reissue of a classic work of metaphysics.

Here we may reign secure, and in my choice. Follow your choice. Miracles don’t come from artifice. They come from untrammeled selfhood.

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(This article is adapted from the author’s book, The Miracle Habits, July 2020.)

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"Treats esoteric ideas & movements with an even-handed intellectual studiousness"-Washington Post | PEN Award-winning historian | Censored in China

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