Transcript of Episode #108 of the OEITH podcast, The Limits of Magick, exploring the shortcomings of “belief-shifting”, and the politico-spiritual problems in assuming the individual creates their reality.
Magick and spirituality: these are the things that interest me the most, the things that I’m most passionate about. And I think they also offer the best antidote to some of the ills that beset our culture and our time, and that beset life in general, really. But, on the other hand, I wouldn’t recommend them to anybody.
If people are already practising magick and spirituality then, fine, we can have a conversation. And the reasons for my not recommending magick and spirituality to anyone are probably clear because, over previous episodes of this podcast, I’ve talked about experiences and states of mind that have been terrifying, challenging, really unsettling. The pursuit of magick is attended by all kinds of risks and a real danger of significant harm. That’s why I can’t recommend in good conscience that anybody should take it up, and maybe that’s part of why in these podcasts I don’t really address myself to beginners, but I always feel like I’m speaking in the presence of somebody who’s already following a spiritual path, who has already started on this journey with me.
I don’t think there’s much in these podcasts that is likely to welcome or ease a beginner in. My hope is that anyone who’s a beginner to magick and is listening to this will be prompted to think carefully about what they might be getting into. There’s a contradiction here, isn’t there? On the one hand I’m saying that spirituality and magick are important ways of addressing the difficulties that life confronts us with. But on the other hand, I’m saying that maybe we shouldn’t go down that route because a potential means by which we might deal with life’s difficulties can also in itself bring us to harm.
There’s a kind of tangle here, a kind of knot, and it’s this I want to explore in this episode, which amounts basically, I think, to the limitations of magick and spirituality, because if they can present problems then that means they can’t solve all problems, and so where does that leave us as magicians or mystics?
It seems ironic. I’m recording this on a bank holiday in the UK. It’s a beautiful day outside, and I’m out in the countryside, but on this day when I’m recording an episode about the things that lie outside the control of magick and spiritual practice, everybody in the vicinity seems to have decided to mow their lawn today, and every light aircraft in the South of England seems to be wanting to fly overhead at the moment, and the cat wants to make a guest appearance too! And all of these things are completely outside my control.
One of the first glimpses I had into the limitations of magick came fairly early on. I was reading Robert Anton Wilson’s Prometheus Rising. The book includes some exercises for the reader to do, and in one of these exercises Wilson asks us to visualise a coin, visualise the coin really, really vividly – a quarter of a dollar or a fifty pence piece – and then go out looking around the streets for the coin and see how long it takes you to find one. And then he suggests that we come up with a hypothesis for how we found the coin, like “selective attention”, or that our mind caused the coin to appear in the universe. And, on formulating each hypothesis, we go out again, see how long it takes us to find the quarter, and compare the time taken for each hypothesis to produce a result. Wilson writes that the reader will absolutely not understand this book unless he or she does the exercises given at the end of each chapter. Well, I was fairly new to magick at the time and quite assiduous, so I took Wilson at his word, and I made the experiment. I visualised a coin and I went out looking for the coin, and guess what happened: I didn’t find one.
I repeated the experiment on numerous occasions, and I still didn’t find one. And the conclusion I drew from this was I don’t think Wilson had ever tried that exercise. It’s the kind of thing that, as magicians, we assume would work. What he’s describing there is belief-shifting, the fundamental premise of chaos magick: that by changing our beliefs we can shift our perception, and therefore bend reality; produce results from that actually in reality.
When we read it on the page, we might be persuaded that something like that would work, but when we practise it in actuality, I think we’re very likely to discover that it doesn’t. The reason I didn’t find any fifty pence pieces when I tried this was because there weren’t any there. There weren’t any there to be found. Belief-shifting is all well and good, but it has limits and the limit is reality. Truth: you’re not going to find a fifty pence piece in the street, no matter how much you believe you will if there isn’t one there to be found.
As a consequence of this experience, personally I really don’t like seeing practical exercises in books on magick, because it always gives me the suspicion that the author hasn’t really done those exercises. What they’re writing there is just a theory, just their thoughts, but dressing it up as an exercise conveys this sense that it’s something that’s bound to happen if you do it, but actually it isn’t bound to happen, because nothing’s bound to happen.
We can believe that belief-shifting will find us coins in the street, but unless we know there are actual coins out there in the street then the idea that belief-shifting works is just itself a belief. It’s not our belief that produces the coin, it’s reality, and there aren’t necessarily always coins there to be had. Ideally, we would want to gain access to that reality, that truth itself; to know whether the coins are out there and where they are. But, of course, the fact that we don’t know is why we resort to magick in the first place.
Belief-shifting can’t give us access to that reality. The best it can do is make us feel a bit happier with regard to that reality, I think, help us accommodate reality a little bit better. I think that’s the best we can hope for from it. Primarily for these sorts of reasons, I don’t tend to do much sorcery these days. But a few months ago, I did find myself casting a sigil for something that I wanted.
In one of the jobs that I do, there are performance targets, and I hadn’t been in the job long and I was still in a probationary period, and I wasn’t hitting some of these targets, and if I didn’t hit them then certain measures were going to be taken, etc., etc. But also, at the same time, hitting these targets would have entailed me working in a way that didn’t sit comfortably with me in terms of my personal values. So, there was an apparently irresolvable conflict there, and things were coming to a head, and I decided that perhaps some magick could sort this, so off down to the shed one night I went and I cast a sigil. Nothing spectacular about the ritual. But the next morning I logged on for work as usual, only to discover that the particular system that we depended on was down. It was down across the board. Down for everybody. This meant that all of us had to resort to pen and paper in order to work that day, and one of the corollaries of this – without going into too much detail – was all my performance indicators were met because of that and, spookily enough, the system came back online about five minutes before the end of my shift that day.
Often, I’ve noticed this kind of thing can happen with magical workings: you get a dramatic result, which is rather short-lived. So, I thought to myself, well, you know, maybe that day is all that I’m going to get; maybe that’s it – that’s the result. But at the end of the month, I had my usual team meeting with my manager, and he started off the meeting with: “Wow, Duncan. What have you done? You’ve hit all your targets this month! You know, whatever you’ve done it’s really worked. Well done!”
I was not aware of having done anything different at all from what I had been doing over the months, and I had to quickly make up some practical things I’d changed over the weeks to account for the improvement in my stats. I just said something really vague about “keeping a closer eye on timings”, and “being more concise in my notes”, or something like that. But, again, it wasn’t anything I’d made any conscious effort to do at all. And, of course, I didn’t say that I suspected the main reason for the improvement in my stats was that I’d gone down to the shed one night and done a magical spell.
Well, I’d got what I wanted from that working. The intention had been realised. I’d hit my targets without having to take any conscious effort on my part. In my view, magick never causes anything to happen. The system going down at work was a synchronicity. There was no causal connection there, but it was a very striking symbol perhaps that created a meaningful sense that things were about to change. Maybe something had happened at an unconscious level. Maybe I was making an effort, and the efforts were precisely those I found myself struggling to explain to my manager, but because I wasn’t aware of them it had felt like they were effortless. Quite possibly that’s the case. In any event the overall outcome is the same.
But really, when I took a step back and looked at it, I was in a situation where I either did what the job demanded of me, or I lost my job. I’d basically shifted my attitude, so that it felt I wasn’t doing anything different but, of course, in reality I must have been because the statistics had changed. The magick had really been about just adapting or accustoming myself to reality.
I was listening to a podcast recently and someone was describing some of the magical work that they had done and Saint Expedite had helped them out of a horrible situation, and then Santa Muerte had helped them out of something horrible as well, and then they’d worked with Goetic spirits that had also helped them out of difficult situations. And I found myself thinking, well, this is somebody who has a lot of difficult situations in their life and it’s good that they’ve got these spirits to help them with those, but maybe what would be better would be if they didn’t have those difficult situations at all! And I don’t think the magick that I’d done was any different in that respect. It had helped me adapt to a particular situation, but it would have been better, of course, if I wasn’t doing a job that sometimes demanded of me to work in ways that weren’t entirely consistent with my personal values. But, as we’ve seen, reality sometimes offers us only so much in terms of possibilities for change, and sometimes it might offer nothing at all, and when we reach that point maybe, when the possibilities for change offered by reality are completely zero, maybe that’s when we die.
At certain points in life, we come up against limits; things we just cannot get around. I think it’s fair to say that, working as a counsellor, one of the areas in which this is often encountered is in the domain of feelings. We might be confronting some sort of issue or situation which is bringing up difficult feelings that feel overwhelming, unbearable, and people sometimes ask me if I can give them a “technique” or some sort of “tool” to deal with what they’re experiencing. It tends to be younger people who ask for that kind of help, and my feeling is that this is probably due to the influence of CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), which has had a massive impact on the way we think about therapy and how it works, but also a much wider cultural influence, I think, on how we think about our inner mental life.
Part of the fundamental approach of CBT is that our patterns of thinking influence how we feel, that thinking precedes feeling, in other words. So, if we can change our thought-patterns then we can change, or at least mitigate, the feelings that arise as a consequence of them. And, of course, there’s some truth to this, and it can be a helpful approach. We can exercise a certain degree of control over what we think and how we think about things. But one of the distinguishing characteristics of feelings, of course, is that we don’t get to choose them. We don’t get to determine what our emotional reaction to a situation is. We can learn ways to manage it, or ways to mitigate it to some degree. But if we’re pissed off about something then we’re pissed off, and if that’s how we feel about a situation then we can find ways to be less pissed off about it, but it’s highly unlikely, I think, that we’ll ever react to that same situation with happiness.
Do thoughts always precede feelings? Well, no, of course not. A little bit of self-reflection soon reveals that that’s not the case, and the fact that we don’t get to choose our feelings is part of the wonder of them. Our feelings about things are part of what makes life worthwhile and because we can’t fool ourselves with regard to our feelings (to the degree that we can with our thoughts and reflections) they’re important indications of what’s actually true for us, what’s actually true in our experience regarding a particular situation or in a particular moment.
When people ask for a tool or technique to help with feelings, I think that what they’re signalling there is they’re up against something that feels absolutely overwhelming, unbearable, and understandably they just wish that it would stop. Like I said, CBT can be helpful, it can help mitigate things, but it also contains a problem. I’ll illustrate this with a quotation from one of the creators of CBT, a guy called Aaron Beck. He argued that, in depression, “the individual’s cognition is distorted and out-of-step with his or her context”. So, if somebody’s depressed, from this perspective, then that’s necessarily because they’re not thinking straight, and they need to change the way that they’re thinking in order not to feel depressed rather, perhaps, than those feelings of lowness actually arising from some sort of circumstance that warrants them. And this is the heart of the problem, I think, that CBT, despite its reputation as an evidence-based, scientific kind of therapy, it actually ignores the possible impact of reality on people’s lives; the fact that, in reality, something might be happening or there might be some sort of cultural or social context that warrants the emotional response. CBT can sometimes do this thing where it turns around responsibility for a person’s feelings on to them. It says: “you’re feeling like this because you’re thinking about this thing wrongly” – as if we should always be thinking about things in a way that makes us feel the best possible. And in this respect, I think, CBT has a lot in common with certain approaches to magick, this idea that we can use magick to belief-shift our way out of a reality we don’t like into one that makes us feel better about ourselves.
Now, as magicians, we might justify to ourselves that we’re not doing this, because the entities, the spirits, that we’re working with, have nothing to do with psychological processes. They’re real. And my response to that would be to take the position that I’ve described in previous episodes which, I hope, avoids an over-psychological approach to magick and accepts the reality of spirit, but puts the emphasis on relationship. Material things are real, and spirits are real, and our interactions with all of them are necessarily determined by our relationship with them. We may not regard our magick as being about belief-shifting as such but, instead, as having interactions with real entities, yet nevertheless there will be a certain type of relationship there, so the question arises: are we entering into a sort of relationship that really just seeks to mitigate or improve or distract from the overwhelming, unbearable situation that we might be confronting? In other words, are we just asking the god or goddess or whatever entity it might be for a “tool” or “technique” to fix our feelings for us? And there’s another problem here which, I think, is something that also carries over into magical practice, which is the huge extent to which CBT has been embraced by the culture in general, by capitalism, and neoliberalism in particular. The idea that the individual can take total responsibility for the reality in which they find themselves might be something embraced by magicians, but it’s also lovingly seized upon by our current economic system. For example, I happen to know somebody who is doing a particular job and things were very stressful, and they hit burnout, so they had a few days off, signed off by their doctor with stress and anxiety. On their return to work they had a meeting with their manager and the discussion was all about what this person was doing to ensure that they wouldn’t reach that point again: you know, what they were doing at home; how things were at home; whether they were exercising; what they’re eating; were they doing things to reduce their stress level; had they considered seeing their doctor for medication. The question of working conditions and the current workload didn’t come up at all.
Neoliberalism loves this idea that we’re all completely responsible for our own emotional responses to conditions that we live in, because it chimes perfectly with the neoliberal project to make us all the agents of our own self-exploitation as workers, as producers, and as consumers. The messages being given to us in our culture these days are basically that if we’re not happy, if we’re not productive or performing, then there’s something wrong with us; we need to do a bit of “mindfulness” to reduce our stress levels, or eat properly, drink less, optimise ourselves, lead a better life regardless of the fact that there might be limits on what our reality enables us to achieve in those directions.
There’s a wonderful short book by a philosopher called Byung-Chul Han, a book called Psychopolitics, in which he lays bare the psychological dynamics in play in neoliberalism today. He says: “Everybody is an auto-exploiting labourer in his or her own enterprise. People are now master and slave in one. Every class struggle has transformed into an inner struggle against oneself.”
Our culture, it seems, has kind of manoeuvred us into a position now where it doesn’t even have to force us to do things in the way that was necessary perhaps in earlier epochs. We just simply tend to assume these days that if we’re not happy then that’s because we are the ones doing something wrong, as if it’s up to us to always be able to find happiness in the conditions of our culture and society.
The wonderful Mark Fisher has a response to this in his book Capitalist Realism. He says: “We must convert widespread mental health problems from medicalised conditions into effective antagonisms. Affective disorders are forms of captured discontent. This disaffection can and must be channelled outwards, directed towards its real cause: capital.”
Fisher’s book is all about how we don’t seem capable anymore of thinking of any kind of alternative to capitalism or neoliberalism. We’ve reached a point where there seems to be a consensus that capitalism is the only system that works. And maybe that’s true, but if it is true then it’s only true to the extent that it works in order to generate what we have, what we see around us. It “works” in the sense that it gives us what we’ve got. But I very, very much doubt that what we’ve got is the only thing that we can have. Fisher also makes the point in his book that capitalism has a dirty secret that it is always trying to hide, which is that, one, it destroys the planet and, two, on its way towards doing that it causes widespread, so-called mental illness.
The neoliberalist project of making the individual responsible for their own discontent is neoliberalism’s own form of magical thinking. As magicians, we have to be wary: the ability to bend reality to realise our intentions through magical workings may seem like an expression of freedom, but we always have to be questioning this, I think. Like the sigil that I cast, that I described earlier, the realization of that intention made my life easier. But by ensuring that the performance targets were met it also served the interests of the company I was working for. It can seem like we’re acting in the interests of our own freedom, but we live in a neoliberalist culture and such a culture is now specifically organised to make it seem as if what’s actually in others’ interests is somehow in our own, such as zero hours contracts, for instance: it seems like it offers us freedom, but it’s the employer who’s benefiting most.
There’s another wonderful book I came across a few months ago called Technic and Magic by a philosopher called Federico Campagna. In that book he outlines two distinct paradigms, the “technic” and “magic” of the title. Technic is the paradigm that we’re currently in, but Campagna looks forwards, optimistically, to magick as possibly offering us a forthcoming paradigm.
Technic is basically based upon viewing everything in the material world as a potential resource. So, you might look at a group of trees, maybe, and from the perspective of technic you see a lot of wood that you can appropriate and use for something. Magick, on the other hand, is about meaning and, through entering meaning, transcending the material world. So, you might look at that group of trees and see a place where you can connect with the energy of Mother Earth, perhaps, or you might see a grove that’s fitting to dedicate to the worship of the god Pan. It’s not what you can do with the trees that matters; it’s what they mean, what they signify, represent, and the realms of meaning into which that can take us.
I think psychogeography is a realm where we can really see this transition between technic and magick, and what that entails under advanced capitalism. The environment around us these days is almost all given over to particular functions. The features of our landscape are defined by their purpose, their instrumentality. I recently enjoyed a book called Car Park Life by the psychogeographical writer Gareth E. Rees, in which he explores car parks. These are the kinds of spaces we would tend to overlook because, well, they are car parks. They perform a specific function and presumably that’s all there is to them. But psychogeography is all about reclaiming the meaning of these spaces from this overriding sense of their function or instrumentality. Rees sets about exploring various car parks around the UK, focusing on the meanings that he encounters in these places. What do car parks tell us about how we live today? What sort of people do we find there and what sort of interactions are happening between them? What else is going on in these places other than the parking of cars? What sort of stories come out of these places?
So, Rees, and all psychogeographers, I think, are making this transition away from technic and into magick, focusing on the potential for meaning that these spaces provide, and resisting the function that has been imposed upon them and that might also be imposed upon us when we enter into them. Rees is particularly fascinated by supermarket car parks, and there’s this very interesting passage in the book where he visits one of the supermarkets attached to the car parks and something happens. There’s a twist. There’s a turn.
“I can never get over the omnipresence of ham,” he writes. “How can so much of it exist simultaneously? Where are all the pigs for this ham? There should be pig farms spread across every inch of the country just to keep this amount of ham flowing, or secret chambers beneath our cities where pigs boil and perpetually, whirring blades turning their corpses into wafer thin slices. How can there be enough for everyone, everywhere all the time? Not only ham, but the chickens, the peas, the prawns, the cucumbers, the milk, the bread, the pasta sauces, and biscuits in all their endless brand varieties. ‘This cannot continue,’ I think, pushing my brimming trolley to the sound of a Boy Zone ballad. ‘We are doomed, and we deserve it.’”
And that twist and turn that’s happening there, I think, is Rees coming up against what is the limit of technic. It has a limit. Capitalism presents itself these days as the only possible reality, the only system that could possibly work for us, that could provide everything that we have. But that’s exactly what Rees is presenting here. Supposing, for a moment, all our needs are being met by the system as it stands: there’s something horrifying about that. There is always going to be suffering and we can never get away from it, whether it’s the suffering of the pigs and all the animals that are bred and slaughtered to stock the supermarket shelves. Whether it’s the suffering of the shoppers in the supermarket, feeling guilt and horror like Rees does, contemplating the unsustainability of our current mode of living. Whether it’s just the deadness, the boredom that comes with having a sense of our needs being met, because even having everything we want is still a form of misery.
For technic everything is a means to an end. Whereas for magick things potentially are endlessly meaningful. As I’ve suggested, reality places limits on human freedom, on human happiness. Human experience has a specific form, so it’s finite. Now, in my view, and in my experience, we all carry a spark of the divine in us, and therefore it’s possible to enter states that provide a perspective that’s beyond the human, where desire and suffering completely drop away. But because we’re human we always come back to the human, which means that those states tend to come and go.
The last time I was really ill, I had pneumonia, I think – the doctor didn’t seem too sure – and I was really quite poorly for quite a long time, and during that time all the ability to access non-dual states that I developed over the years completely dropped away. It all just vanished, which was absolutely awful at the time, and I was left with just pure human suffering and a desperate wish to escape from it. But there was no escape. All I kept thinking of, at the time, strangely, was Christ on the cross, crying out: “Father, Father, why have you forsaken me?”. And it seemed, in a way, strangely as if it were somehow right and proper that everything I’d been relying on would desert me. Otherwise, if we’re taking refuge in something else, we’re not really embracing what it means to be human.
Remembering those words of Christ on the cross really helped me at that time, but it wasn’t help that in any sense reduced my feeling of suffering to any degree. And this takes us into what magick really has to offer us: meaning. Whereas technic always strives to fix reality, to somehow find an end to human suffering, magick recognises that you can’t do that. Reality is reality. But we can find meaning in suffering, and if we can find meaning in it then we can bear it.
Neoliberalism works hard to convince us that if we just work harder, do a bit of mindfulness, keep fit, develop our “resilience”, then we’ll be okay, and technic tries to persuade us that we can save ourselves by developing new, sustainable forms of technology. But what we’re also seeing, especially in the light of the pandemic, I think, is people also flocking in their droves at the moment to magick. There’s a real resurgence of interest in magick and the occult because to a lot of people, perhaps, it’s looking suspiciously as if things are screwed up beyond all reasonable repair. Magick can maybe offer tools and techniques to take the edge off things a bit, so we can belief-shift ourselves into a reality that feels a bit more comfortable, maybe. But many magicians, I think, sometimes hit patches when it feels as if the freedom that magick brings us isn’t enough, as if it’s not really freeing us at all. But through engagement with spiritual practices, through interactions with spiritual beings, even divination, sorcery, magick also has the potential to really engage with reality as it is, because reality is a certain way, regardless of what post-modernism would have us believe. It has a bedrock to it. It has limits. It has a nature, and part of that nature is that it’s bendable, changeable, to a certain degree, by which I mean that altering our beliefs can change our perception of it, although of course it doesn’t affect reality itself.
Magick also offers us techniques, then, for trying to meet reality head-on. What we’re pretty soon confronted with when we practice meditation, yoga, or other spiritual practices is that we have limits. The human form, the human mind, these have a specific nature, and part of that nature is the unavoidability of suffering. It’s that spark of the divine that gives us an awareness of something other that having a human form doesn’t equip us to contain and maintain.
Technic, as we saw, always tries to fix things. Magick, on the other hand, recognises, accepts the reality of human suffering, of human limitation, and tries instead to render that meaningful. And so, there’s another really interesting idea that Federico Campagna puts forward in his book on technic and magick, which is, because of those differences, they suggest different ethical frameworks.
Technic, with its emphasis on fixing suffering, is often very preoccupied with the notion of avoiding harm, partly in an attempt to distract or divert us from the fact that suffering is inevitable. Whereas magick, with its impulse to accept suffering and try to render it meaningful, it can tend to run headlong into it, in order to really embrace it and to try to make as much sense from it as it can. The way Campagna puts it is that whereas technic seeks to minimise harm, magick on the other hand seeks to maximise opportunities for salvation, opportunities to really get to grips with suffering and try – hopefully succeed – to make some sense of it.
That’s two very different ethical perspectives. From the side of technic, magick looks harmful, freakish, reckless, likely to destabilise and do people psychological harm. But from the side of magick, technic looks constricting, limiting, ignorant, namby-pamby. As magicians, we’re constantly going to find ourselves caught between those two different ethical frameworks. Technic, of course, is the dominant paradigm in the everyday world and most of the time the ethical framework of not causing harm makes total sense. Of course it does. It’s common sense. But within that framework the idea of maximizing opportunities for salvation – there’s no frame of reference for that. From the perspective of technic it simply looks like pointless, reckless behaviour.
Probably we see this most clearly being acted out in the debates around the use of psychedelics, and that brings us back to one of the points I made at the beginning that although I think magick is one of the greatest antidotes that we have for dealing with the human condition, at the same time I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody because of the risks it carries. Like I said, I think every magician is caught between these two contradictory ethical frameworks of technic on the one hand and magick on the other. Inevitably, I think, magick hurts us. It’s bound to, because it sets out to instil a sense of meaning into our experience and hurt, pain, suffering are parts of our experience that really challenge this notion that we live in a meaningful universe.
I doubt that there’s any serious magician who hasn’t gone through crisis after crisis of having to deal with the sense that what they’re doing is all rubbish, and magick doesn’t really work, and maybe materialism and scientism are correct and we do live after all in a world devoid of spirit where the only meaning is some kind of fantasy that we dream up inside our heads. Even the most proficient magicians are beset by periods of doubt and despair, because there are no limits to the suffering that life can throw at us, and with each fresh bout of suffering we’re faced with a new challenge of how to make sense of that, how to make that meaningful, because every experienced magician knows that belief-shifting your way out of that, changing your own perspective to adapt to it, isn’t really meeting head-on the fact that reality sucks and unfortunately the reality really is real!
It’s often commented how marginalised and oppressed groups of people have often developed magical systems as a means of resistance, but whereas those systems of magick may indeed have enabled the practitioners of them to face up to oppression in a meaningful way, none of them ever ended that oppression. If we take the recent example of the witches against Donald Trump, I think we can say they scored a marvellous success in the fact that Trump didn’t win a second term. Although it’s easy to forget now, there was a long period where that second term was looking inevitable. And, on the flip side, we could say that the alienated and disaffected supporters of the alt-right who helped Trump into power in the first place, with Pepe the Frog and other forms of meme magick was also, for them, a striking magical result. But despite helping him into power, the reality was that, well, Trump was Donald Trump, and despite helping him out of power, regardless of the witches’ best efforts, we still live in a reality, unfortunately, that isn’t immune to appearances in the future of leaders like Trump. (In fact, there are some countries that are still suffering under the leadership of people like him.)
The anti-magical forces that I’ve talked about in this episode – technic, capitalism, neoliberalism, and even poor old CBT – what it seems they’ve all been working so hard to achieve is the elimination of the sense of the Other. The dominant story of our current conditions of existence is that if we experience mental suffering then that’s due to our own faulty thought processes, rather than anything outside of ourselves, anything that might be construed as real. Postmodernism has encouraged us to believe that there’s no such thing as reality or truth, that all there are these different perspectives that are equally valid; there’s no meta-narrative, we’re told, there’s nothing outside the story. There are only the stories that we create, that we tell ourselves; there’s nothing Other. Whereas, in magick, of course, there are indeed all sorts of countless dimensions beyond what we perceive and what we can talk about: spirits, the divine, paranormal entities. There’s very much a sense of things that cannot be expressed and that lie beyond human experience in a realm that is very much Other.
Without a sense of the Other we can tend to collapse back into ourselves and become depressed, and that’s when we might get one of those crises I spoke about earlier, where we’re full of doubt and a sense of meaninglessness, because it feels like we’re not in touch with anything beyond ourselves, and that feeling is precisely a defining characteristic of the contemporary culture of neoliberalism.
The philosopher I mentioned earlier, Byung-Chul Han, has written a whole book on this called The Expulsion of the Other. He writes: “Only eros is capable of freeing the I from depression, from narcissistic entanglement. In itself Eros, of course, is the Greek word for “love”. From this perspective the Other is a redemptive formula. Only Eros, which pulls me out of myself and towards the Other can overcome depression. The depressive performance subject is entirely detached from the Other. The desire for the Other, indeed the calling or conversion to the Other would be a metaphysical antidepressant that breaks open the narcissistic shell of the I.”
When he talks about “the depressive performance subject” there, what he’s talking about is what we’ve all become under neoliberalism. We’ve all become obsessed with self-optimization, with making ourselves as good and as perfect as we can possibly be in order to fulfil the criteria of being good human beings that contemporary media forces upon us. But in the process of policing and controlling and exploiting ourselves, we collapse in on ourselves, we lose any sense of an external force that might be doing those things to us that we do on its behalf against ourselves, and in that way we lose a sense of the Other, and in that way we can become depressed and locked-in, just seeing life as some sort of treadmill where we have to keep making ourselves better and better, but not having any real sense of meaning for why we might be doing that.
That sense of meaning comes, Byung-Chul Han seems to be suggesting, from reaching out for another, cracking open the I, the self, in an attempt to connect with something beyond ourselves, something that’s there, that’s real.
In the mystical experience of merging with the divine, which we explored in the last episode, there’s that sense of looking into the eyes of the goddess or some other divinity and in that gaze that looks back at us recognizing ourselves. But this is an opening, I think, an infinite opening, because in the mystical experience we recognise ourselves as Other. We wake up to the fact that what we really are is something that we had never conceived of. That isn’t conceivable. The mystical experience is, perhaps, taking the realization of the Other as far as it can go. So far that it joins up around the back and self and other become completely indistinguishable.
Magick, I think, is that impulse to try and embrace the Other. It’s impossible to do that, in one way. It’s impossible to do that whilst we maintain a conception of ourselves as a separate, individual ego. We embrace the Other ultimately when we transcend that, go beyond it, into something that’s beyond a human experience.
Magick is a spectrum, I think. What I’m talking about here is very much the mystical end of that spectrum, but there are also forms of magick that borrow from the paradigm that I’ve contrasted it against, following Federico Campagna. Some magick is more like technic: it’s instrumental, it sets out to fix things, so that we don’t have to step outside the life that we’re currently living, and that’s not without value, of course. Why wouldn’t we want to find a simple fix for things if we can? But, sadly, to come back to that Robert Anton Wilson exercise that I talked about near the beginning, if there aren’t any coins that have been dropped in the street then, no matter the amount of belief-shifting that we do, we’re not going to find them because they’re not there.
As magicians, inevitably we will, from time to time, perhaps, find ourselves looking for things, hoping for things, that aren’t there, that reality cannot provide, and maybe having to face up to the fact that in this situation, if we merely adapt ourselves to it, then perhaps this is not really freedom. What might be more freeing in these instances, although it certainly will not keep us safe from potential harm, is to reach out to the Other, to reach out towards reality and, by taking our own best shot at trying to make meaning from it, to confront the pain, the suffering, that’s always going to be there regardless of all our magick.
Anyway, that’s what’s been on my mind this week, and if there’s one thing to take away from it maybe it’s this: that the next time you fall into the Abyss, you won’t be on your own.