“The trouble with humans is, we’re all too symbol-minded.” Jolane Abrams.
What do I mean when I say that I’m a magician? What is magic, anyway? And what kind of person goes around believing in it these modern days?
Definitions of magic are many and wide – even if I stick to using those of practitioners rather than anthropologists and such. (A very interesting recent consideration of this by Taylor Ellwood appears here. )
Rather than rehash that debate, I’ll offer my very rough working definition – magic is the means by which some observers can use and manipulate the patterns they observe to change the world.
For me, magic has always been about seeing and making patterns – connections between events, people, symbols, myths. What would be mere coincidence for someone who is not a magician can be a rich signal from Fate to one who is – or, depending on the timing and the mindset of the mage, just an amusing synchronicity. Pattern-making is the core of the oldest magical theories – from the Law of Similarity onward.
There’s a technical term in psychology for faulty pattern recognition – apophenia. It’s the sort of word used to dismiss conspiracy theorists and ‘schizophrenic’ points of view. The problem with that of course is, what exactly is ‘faulty’… especially if that pattern can give rise to a magical action which results in actual change in the world. (And of course, who gets to define faulty.)
Pretty much all human thought, by definition, is about manipulation of symbols. Language is made of patterns of symbols interacting – and if the language lacks a symbol for a concept, it can’t express that idea. Most people, most of the time, do not question the symbols they use, or the patterns made by them. They only rarely question whether the symbol-set they inherited is a faulty pattern or not. To do so isn’t just frowned upon, it’s immensely difficult to do – because the person doing so is trapped by their own language. (I’ll be talking a lot more about this in later posts.)
Large and sucessful patterns of symbols (Richard Dawkins’ memeplexes) have great power, even over those who do not actually consider themselves a part of them. Religions, scientific models, the amorphous thing we call culture… these things shape us, define most of what and how we think.
One way to look at the difference in perspectives could be:
Religion insists on a single pattern for the world, declared by their prophets. To be a member of a faith, you have to stick to that single pattern. If you contradict the pattern, you’re out – or become the prophet to a new religion.
Science claims to define the underlying pattern of the world, and tries to test that pattern. Some parts of the pattern get changed, slowly, when a new variant on the pattern which fits their observations comes along (and enough scientists actually agree that the new pattern is better).
Culture is the mix of old patterns from religion and science, home and abroad, myth and fiction and fashion – the sea in which our ideas swim. This changes constantly, influences all within its range to varying degrees.
Magic uses patterns of all the others and makes up ones of its’ own, mucks around with them and uses the result for its’ own ends.
(I’m aware this is a gross oversimplification. Among other things, there’s a lot of crossover between religion and magic – and the black sheep of both called mysticism. There’ll be more on this as Guttershaman continues.)
Of course, some patterns work better than others, in some circumstances, for some people.
Which patterns work best for magic? Usually, ones that have an emotional resonance for the mage. This wash of emotion is the fuel – or perhaps better, the catalyst – for the magical act. Emotional patterns are rarely logical or organised… and can come from a relatively pure interpretation of a belief system/culture/memeplex, or a hodge-podge of seemingly (to the outside observer) unrelated influences, or anything inbetween.
And it doesn’t seem to matter where those patterns come from, or even if those patterns are (for want of a better word) real – sometimes, they just work.
(I think it’s this emotional subjectivity that particularly offends Rationalists on the one hand and religious types on the other. Both insist that their dogma is an objective truth and that to oppose it or treat it as less than The Complete Truth is just a form of stubborn rebellion, sin, or mental illness. They of course miss that their own beliefs are just as subjective and emotional as the mages – and usually a lot less flexible.)
(This, no doubt, would be the point that a rationalist would point to modern technology and say something like, “this is the proof that our theories are the right ones! Our machines work and we understand why!”
To which I would say… religions made all sorts of nice kit too – churches, books, powerful mind-altering songs and chants – and they were certain they knew why theirs worked, too.
Basically, I think the modern dogmatic rationalism comes from a massive dose of insecurity on the part of its adherents. They know on some level just how recently magic and science were part of the same world-view and hate to be reminded of it. The rest is an understandable fear that the achievements of the ‘Enlightenment’ will be lost as fundamentalist religion tries to regain its stranglehold on the world – and there I have some sympathy.)
Aside from all that of course comes the question of how magic works. What those ‘means’ I mentioned earlier are.
My own view is I have no bloody idea how it works.
I have some theories – tested in practice – on how it can work… But underlying that is a distinct feeling that however we attempt to describe the working of magic, it relies heavily, perhaps completely, on metaphor and simile, on patterns of symbols – and that those metaphors change depending on the ideas and myths available at the time.
I think that’s one of the more interesting aspects of being a magician in these heavily interconnected days. Rather than our range of myths-and-metaphors being limited to the local religious practice (or crude rebellious inversions of same, i.e. Reciting the Lord’s Prayer Backwards) or our immediate cultural influences, a modern mage can find the whole range of human thought to work with, to create patterns from. Or at least the bits that got put in books or online… (Of course this has always been true to a degree – culture absorbs foreign ideas constantly, and magicians are creatures of their culture. But modern communications makes that mixing faster and more complex.)
For example, it’s fairly common for mages these days – as I did above – to use meme theory as a basis for magical models (and oh, how I’d love to be a fly on the wall when the arch-rationalist prophet Dawkins hears about that!). It’s a handy tool, to be sure – and the point that meme theory is in itself a meme has a nice recursive aspect, always a plus in magical theory. But it’s just another pattern, another metaphor.
The question then is… a metaphor for what? What do these symbols actually symbolize?
I’m kind of old-fashioned about this. I think the thing which a magicians patterns and metaphors try to describe/work with/approximate is the Numinous, The Ineffable, the thing which is beyond/before words or symbols.
It has no name, so I call it Tao.
(Coming up on Guttershaman: More on the word Shaman. Where religion, science, mysticism and magic meet – and usually have a row. Words and symbols, and what may lie beyond them.)
(And something about movies and comic books. Just because.)