What is magic? Is it illusion? Is it card tricks we’re talking about here? What’s at the bottom of the hat when you take out the rabbit? Nothing? Everything? There isn’t any real magic, of course; everything in the universe can be explained. Well, everything except the universe itself. That just sort of, you know, happened . . . like magic. So it’s real! But then is there anything like magic besides magic? Wouldn’t that be a tautology? What if we’re talking about God? Or is God beyond language? Aren’t we just talking about religion? Of course we moderns mean psychological archetypes, don’t we? Or is this the new age, spirituality and personal transformation, Wiccan astrology courses? Or maybe it’s right in front of us? Maybe the words on this page exhibit a kind of magical telepathy by which thoughts are transferred from one mind to another across time and space. That’s happening, right? Should we investigate the paranormal, the supernatural? But then didn’t we decide that all ghosts are sociological specters hiding among the skeletons at the museum? It must be metaphor, the shared dream space of reality, linguistics as modern shamanism, right? Or is it magic magic, by Merlin’s beard! But then where is my letter from Hogwarts? Is magic reserved for children? Is it merely the residue of collective fairy tales and ancient fictions which we, the adults, have forgotten? Or is magic the real application of power, space travel, quantum mechanics, genetically modified organisms, Hiroshima?
The word “magic” is hard to trace back to a definitive origin. For the ancient Israelites, magic was any mystical rite meant to interact with gods other than Yahweh. They believed, but they did not partake. Similarly, Christians in the middle ages used magic as a pejorative term to distinguish rituals outside of their own tradition from those within the established orthodoxy (a large part of the reason why the aptly named trading card game Magic the Gathering had to stop making all those Satanic cards). There’s even an early section of the Quran in which “the devils disbelieved, teaching men magic and such things that came down at Babylon” (Abas). It would appear that there’s something alien about magic, something dangerous. It is both belief and disbelief, depending upon your angle. Variations of the word abound in ancient Greece to describe the Magush, the Magikos, the supernatural power of the foreign wizards of the Persian army, and then the Greeks later incorporate this mysterious word into their own mystery religions, unable to resist the enigmatic secrets of magic. Indeed every human culture the world over has a concept of magic, the term often translated into English as a substitute for druidism, shamanism, spiritualism, and every other -ism in which humans interact with an “other” world. Even Sir Isaac Newton experimented with alchemical notions of magic alongside his natural investigations (alchemy itself being the foundation of modern science).
Let us say then at the very least that magic is the process and/or power by which humans interact with that which is outside the realm of the familiar. In this context magic is also the perception of a mysterious, special meaning of things which classifies them as being beyond the mundane. But what’s wrong with the mundane world? Why must we attempt to contact any worlds beyond our own, be they religious or scientific, mythological or merely exotic? Perhaps it is simply human curiosity at work, but perhaps the search for special meaning is of a much graver importance after all. In psychology, the psyche itself is in a constant state of tension between meaning and emptiness. From meaning we derive our purpose and our joy, and from emptiness we derive our meaninglessness and, consequently, our anxieties, fears, and depressions. We strive to imbue the thing in itself with meaning in order to imagine we have some reason to exist, but we’re postmodern and, worse, we know it. There is no inherent meaning and God is dead. According to Jung “there are no longer any gods whom we can invoke to help us. The great religions of the world suffer from increasing anemia because the helpful numina have fled from the woods, rivers, mountains, and animals, and the God-men have disappeared underground into the unconscious” (Jung 18). Are we totally fucked?
Perhaps. To someone a hundred years ago it would seem that we were the keepers of actual magic. We fly through the sky in metal tubes, speak to each other from thousands of miles apart, and access the entirety of human knowledge in an invisible cloud. We have access to more power than ever imagined in human history. We are hackers, de-constructors, heirs to the infinite possibility of radical technological change. Add to this the ticking clock of ecological oblivion and we even have unifying purpose as a species—survive! But instead of recognizing the epic nature of the world we live in, we lament that we are part of the Facebook generation, that we are slacktivists, that we are hipsters. And why shouldn’t we be? We want meaning so badly that we choose to refuse to believe in it even as a possibility. Detach yourself through irony and criticism, and there is no painful reality check when your world fails to live up to your dreams. Point out that everything’s been done already, and you don’t have to do anything. What we do manage to do we do without asking why, and since postmodernism refuses to tell us, our doing is left without meaning.
No wonder we struggle to believe in magic! All that exists, we say, is the rational, the real, the capitalist pursuit of a digital group hug, the death of religion, the limiting of concepts to definite boxes, and the limiting of the complex organism that is the human being to questions like “what do you do?” (as if one’s career might locate the self amidst the fathomless variation of experience). The true danger is that this probably isn’t news to anyone. The meaninglessness of life is a modern fact, not a problem to be solved. It’s normal. Yet the alchemist’s cauldron hungers for the shredded fuel of normalcy, not because we’ve been given permission to do magic but because it is our birthright, as it was the birthright of those who painted the cave gods by firelight forty thousand years ago. We are jaded, we are bored, and we cannot see the real magic happening before and behind our very eyes, but we are not lost. To see the possibility of magic is to move towards the numinous experience of the other beyond being, what Rudolf Otto promised would lead us to “strange excitements, to intoxicated frenzy, to transport, and to ecstasy,” (Otto 12-13). I am talking about a shared religion whose core texts are contradictory doctrines and whose symbol is always just out of view, just past the peripheries. I am talking about magic.
But we still don’t know what it is, let alone where to find it! The problem here is language. We struggle to find “real” examples of magic in the world and yet we constantly use it in comparison and description: it happened “like magic”; I had a “magical time”; it’s “lost the magic” for me, and so on. Without a definitive category of thought, magic slips between the cracks of the logical boundaries of the psyche. We are trying to use language to talk about a concept whose very nature eludes linguistic limits, and while its effects may be readily apparent to us its source remains hidden amidst a jumbled mess of concepts. Yet while this vague feature of the word magic might appear to be a weakness, it is also a strength, allowing magic to evade preconceived paradigms and flirt with disparate systems of discourse. Magic is not only fluid enough to describe the workings of multiple systems of thought but powerful enough to untangle the mess, to unite this multitude into an “architectonic connection of coherence” (Schopenhauer 11).
To study magic, then, is to study everything in relation to everything else, to reawaken one’s curiosity towards this ineffable mystery within oneself and the external world by uncovering the connections. We may study however we like, using various systems of signs, structures, scientific methods, languages of art and academia. We may call our field by any name, but we must remember that the name is only a lens beneath which we focus. The more one studies one thing, the more apparent the connections between that thing and all other things become, and the more illusory the distinctions. More and more it appears that all things emanate from one another in a mutual harmony of co-creation. This type of thinking requires the accumulation of knowledge about the objects under scrutiny, but more importantly it requires a special kind of awareness—not thoughts themselves but the space in which thoughts exist. This magical awareness can be equated with an active, mystical participation in the manner in which we process and interact with our entire life.
Continuing along this mystical vein, we revisit an old cliché at the heart of all mystical understanding, the knowledge that all is one. While this may be true, knowing what a thing is supposed to mean is very different from understanding it on a gut level. Clichés are actually very helpful in that while we “know” what they mean we generally tend to ignore them as meaningless sayings. This happens because we’ve heard them iterated in far too many iterations. It’s the same as saying the sky is blue. We know. Fortunately this means that when we inevitably learn the same lesson ourselves in our own unique way, the cliché takes on a familiar yet hitherto unforeseen significance as a colloquial symbol whose secret meaning belongs only to the self-initiated. This ancient perception that all is one is a basic precept of the Eastern traditions of Buddhism and Hinduism. It might even be the linguistic reversal of the sorrow of Western psychological emptiness as compared to the joy of Eastern mystical emptiness, the great liberator! We can even point to the more personal Abrahamic religions’ aspirations to be “one with God.” Said another way, we are a part of a Oneness that encapsulates all things, excluding nothing. According to Meister Eckhart, “the difficulty lies within the man for whom God has not yet become everything. If God were everything, the man would get along well wherever he went and among whatever people, for he would possess God and no one could rob him or disturb his work” (Eckhart 8).
This is the oneness spoken of in acid trips and mystic sermons, in rituals and revelations. When your Big Word becomes all things, you may begin to deal with contradictions, for the world is contradiction. Even those things you don’t understand or agree with become a facet of reality to be included in the totality of all things, thereby enriching your worldview without destroying it. When all things are taken to be part of the object of magical enquiry and influence, then and only then is one able to delve into the contradictions between real and imagined, good and evil, moment and eternity. These are the places sought by postmodern deconstructionists, the sublime tradition in thought and art, and ancient metaphysical dialogues. This perception might seem like a daunting task, but keep in mind that a great deal of mystical men and women have had epiphanies concerning this very topic and then spent the rest of their lives trying to explain it, often coming to the conclusion that it is, unsurprisingly, unexplainable. It is not so much a moment of understanding as it is an endless attempt to continue to question, to answer, and then to re-question. We do not need the immediate flash of revelation, only the openness to believe that it might be possible to believe. Through this openness we give voice to the unknown.
Once we are listening, we may begin to hear whispers of the magical interconnectedness of all things within and without our psyche as a tangled skein of thread. This allows us to begin to pull and play with the strings behind the scenes. But more often than not the treasure of one system is the trash of another. We may be open to new information, and we may believe deeply that all is one, but we are only human, and sometimes that Oneness might not feel quite big enough for everything after all. Paradigms that seem too incongruent to assimilate become the death of innovation and collaboration. Where we have attempted to cross over into another mode of thinking we find concepts that threaten to change our understanding of that which we know. It is then that we turn back to where we feel comfortable, and it is then that the magic dissipates. How might we press on into unknown areas of thought with courage and determination? Can we simply decide to believe something radically new while simultaneously letting go of all we hold dear? Doubtful. And anyway, why should we have to get rid of the old to make room for the new? We’re only using a fraction of our brains anyway, right? Isn’t there another way?
There is. Are. Two things: playfulness and imagination. As a child is able to imagine that she is a pirate on a ship in the middle of the ocean, she does so playfully. That is, she does so without losing her sense of personal identity in a schizophrenic crackup. She knows that she both is and is not a pirate without short-circuiting in light of the apparent contradiction. It’s serious, but she’s only playing. We can still do that. We must! We have to be able to play with the world as being both real and non-real, seeing a thing for what it is and what it could be, what it isn’t and what it should be, as the form in which we perceive it and as a representation of an infinite energy beyond human perception, impossible to believe, yet real enough for us to interact with. Follow the rabbit. Take the red pill. Live truthfully under imaginary circumstances. Believe that “a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the Stars” (Whitman 31). We are working with the kernel of magic within all things, something so real you have to imagine it.
But the ability to swim between concepts without drowning is equal part imagination as it is sense of humor, for if we take any concept too seriously we risk remaining stuck in one system that, though it allows us to probe deeply into one discourse, may limit our interaction with another. Magic is easy to have a sense of humor about, since we all know when we grow up that magic doesn’t exist. Yet it does, doesn’t it? What is the discovery that particles are entangled at the quantum level with no apparent explanation but an example of magic? How can we find a mate for whom we forsake all others by chance occurrence? Where does the sublime ecstasy when contemplating the night sky come from? Who is the secret auteur of our nightly dream cinemas? Why do these questions amaze and confound us? It is not so much that there is a supernatural force in the world but rather that there is a supra-mundane appreciation for mystery within our own psyche. And if, according to Schopenhauer, “all that in any way belongs or can belong to the world is inevitably thus conditioned through the subject, and exists only for the subject,” then what we are talking about is an ability to hack our own psyche so as to allow meaning and magic to flow into our daily lives (Schopenhauer 19).
Magic then is an attempt to construct a vocabulary rich enough to penetrate to the metaphysical core of the mystery of being, yet fluid enough to interpret and integrate the systems of others so as to create a magically meaning-laden pathway within which new and old information alike may commingle in a revolutionary confluence of psychic material. We need not use each other’s words, for if we are able to interpret and respond by replacing words that we get stuck on with words which resonate for us, there can be no end to the conversation. It should be noted that these are not the machinations of a well ordered, logical world. Then again, in our evolution as a species, we have sought to become overwhelmingly ordered, logical beings. Why not push against this trend a bit? Let’s see if we can get to the big, dark, mysterious, opaque places to which language and art allow us to go without attempting to tell another the “real” or “right” way to think about these things. Let’s have a sense of humor. Let’s build a box fort on mars. What we gain is the ability to translate the personal spaces of others into our own language. It is a giving over to the other’s Other, “something one can also feel when one thinks that even if there were nothing, the fact that ‘there is’ is undeniable,” (Levinas 48). And this is the true magic—the magic of transformation. When we are able to transform our systems of discourse into new modes which incorporate the systems of others, when our personal identity is not bound up in the concrete application of knowledge but rather in an adaptive, evolving education that will last a lifetime, we come to understand that magic is not a thing to be possessed but rather an event to prepare for. We will never find magic. Magic will find us.
Abas, N. and Atwell, E. “Quran Chapter Al-Baqra(2), VerseNo. (102).” Web. 19 June 2015. http://www.comp.leeds.ac.uk/nora/html/2-102.html
Blakney, R. (1957). Meister Eckhart a modern translation,. New York: Harper & Brothers.
Jung, C. (1976). The symbolic life: Miscellaneous writings. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Levinas, E. Ethics and Infinity. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 1982. Print.
Otto, R., & Harvey, J. (1958). The idea of the holy: An inquiry into the non-rational factor in the idea of the divine and its relation to the rational. New York: Oxford University Press.
Schopenhauer, A., & Payne, E. (1966). The world as will and representation. New York: Dover Publications.
Whitman, W., & Haas, R. (2010). Song of myself, and other poems. Berkeley: Counterpoint.