Wednesday, August 21, 2013

What is Magic(k)?

1. "Magick is the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will."
 Aleister Crowley Liber Aba

I am taking Crowley as my start because his definition is likely the most influential one, followed closely by others that build on his idea but add the importance of altered states of consciousness as in Chaos Magic's M = w + i + g (Magical act = will + imagination + gnosis) as presented by Frater U. D. . I am also starting with Crowley because I think that his definition is fundamentally inadequate but nonetheless allows me to build to the point I wish to make.
Crowley's definition has been influential largely because it satisfies a sense of rationality and even scientism by purging magic of it's superstitious and religious elements. It offered, as Crowley saw, a path to the goal of religion by means of the method of science. As he made very clear, all actions are magical actions. But this left unanswered the question of what was distinctive about those actions traditionally considered magical. What is, in fact, the difference between reading the newspaper or summoning spirits and engaging in divination?

Putting Crowley aside, the answer seems to be the role of the miraculous (i.e. the magical) in magic. Magic is the achievement of seemingly impossible outcomes. This, indeed, ties into one of the basic characteristics of the Great Work, the expansion and development of the self. Through magic humanity becomes divine to the extent that it can achieve things previously thought beyond it's power.

Let's return to the definition. Two main things stand out. Change and Will. Magic derives from the drive to change, to change the world and the self. But, I would suggest, it's real goal is change at a basic level, a change in the nature of what is possible. This amounts to changing the world in a global sense even through a small action. When I predict the flip of a card perfectly accurately without tricks I have extended, for myself and those witnessing my action, the boundary of what is possible and thus the limit of what exists as actual or potential. Existence has become richer. This far surpasses any limited goal of, say, earning gambling winnings.

2. Magical change is a change in what is possible.

So, despite limited immediate goals, all successful magic makes the previously impossible possible. The role of the Will here reveals the extent to which a change in the world is always a change in the self. When I partake in an event of making the impossible possible I also expand the horizon in which my will moves and the boundaries of what I previously thought I was.

3. Every magical action is an increase in freedom.

But this is freedom understood in a specific sense. Freedom is always assessed in terms of certain contexts of non-freedom. The terrain of our potential actions are limited by various preexisting structures. Notice, for example, that my every action is necessitated by some previous set of concerns, needs and motivations. These define me, for the moment, and so my action is only free in certain limited senses. But the truly magical action, in expanding the boundary of the world and my sense of self, frees me as well from the structures which previously defined me.

4. Every achievement of will is the discovery that my will was other than I thought.

This is why achieving our will is always impossible, no final satisfaction of the will is possible. Magic, then, is always an event in which both the world and the self are made fundamentally different. Despite appearances, then, magical actions are never strictly speaking intentional. Rather, we should speak of magical events in which we find ourselves and our world becoming different rather than speaking of ”magical actions”. Let us rework our original definition with the previous considerations in mind.

5. Magic is an event in which what is possible and actual in the world and for the self becomes greater.

From this perspective the distinction between discovery and change is an empty distinction. Finding that my conception of what I am and what the world can be is wrong is the same, experientially, as having made these things different.

6. Therefore, an increase in possibility is an increase in knowledge and vice versa. To change is to discover, to discovery is to change.

It remains to be asked whether such events are, in fact, possible and if so how. In this regard it's useful to consider the idea of "reality tunnels" as discussed by Robert Anton Wilson and the related idea of synchronicity as developed by Carl Jung. To accept the possibility of magic as I have described it we need only accept the following propositions:

7. What we know of the possible and impossible is limited and fallible.  The obvious is always dubitable.

This is easily attested to by the history of human thought and even the limited scope of our own lives. Humanity, collectively and individually, is consistently thrown into states of confusion or wonder in discovering that what were once firm boundaries are, in fact, only the previous limits of human thought and action.

8. The world responds differently based on how we address it.

This is the heart of Robert Anton Wilson's discussion of "reality tunnels". The assumptions we hold about reality, and the habitual actions in which these are embodied, cause the world around us to appear in certain ways. What we look for we see, our expectations structure what fulfillment and failures are open to us. For Wilson this means that reality is plastic, it is molded by our actions and anticipations. The philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend discusses this same idea in terms of a conversation. We are all in conversation with the world around us and, like any conversation, how we address the world dictates to a large extent how it responds. This does not mean reality is simply subjective, simply dictated by our beliefs and actions, but rather that it is a partner with whom we participate and for whom our behavior is partially determinative. This view necessitates, for Feyerabend, the acceptance of the idea of Regional Ontologies. What is real, what is true, differs depending on time, location and action but not just upon our mind or will.  

9. The world's response is meaningful, i.e. purely "natural" or "coincidental" events become meaningful by fitting into human anticipations. 

This is the heart of what synchronicity is for Carl Jung, meaningful coincidence. Someone calls you just as you are about to pick up the phone to call them. Money appears for you just following the performance of a ritual to gain income. Someone begins singing your dead grandmother's favorite song just as you are thinking of how much you miss her. These are just purely nature and not particularly unlike events, until they are understood in terms of their meaning within your life. Phone-calls, receipt of money and people singing are not particularly magical but they become so when they happen at the right time in the right place. Synchronic events are actually rather common and it is our projection of explanatory structures for why they happen that gives rise to most religious and occult beliefs. We assume, but don't know, that the random song is a message from the living spirit of our grandmother.

The practical magical methodological question, then, is how to increase the occurrence of synchronicity and direct its power. This is where the gnosis or trance of Chaos Magic comes in. By changing our reality tunnel, through changes in what we expect and how we behave, the world responds differently and synchronically to us. This is the heart, for example, of Carlos Castaneda's Toltec Sorcery. By changing what he calls consciousness and attention we change reality itself. But, as my above considerations should suggest, this point can be easily overstated such that "reality" becomes just a private projection. This is an ultimately inadequate conception.

But ultimately these considerations, while sufficient, are not as far as we can and must go. Synchronic events are, as it were, the lowest level of magical phenomenon. It is beyond this that I wish to explore. Away from the unlikely (but common) possibilities of synchronicity and towards the true manifestation of the previously impossible in more dramatic magical events. For now, however, what has been said will have to suffice.    

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