Friday, May 22, 2015

Conjuring in the House of Mirrors


The last two posts here on The Well of Galabes have sketched out a rough history of the ways that ideas about the sources of magical power have changed over the last two and a half millennia in the western world. That sketch could have been expanded to the size of a good-sized book by widening the focus in space and time, to cover the equally complex evolution of occult philosophy in other parts of the world and in all those millennia before the ancient Greeks got into the story. The wider focus has its lessons to teach, to be sure, but we’ve covered enough ground to make the points that I want to discuss here.

The first of those points is simple and straightforward, and flies straight in the face of one of the most deeply rooted prejudices of contemporary occult thought. The prejudice in question is the belief that there has to be one and only one true occult philosophy that all real initiates have taught since the dawn of time. I’m thinking here particularly, though by no means only, of the Traditionalist movement, which has been having one of its periodic revivals of popularity in recent years. Traditionalist philosophers such as Julius Evola claim that all valid spirituality has its roots in Tradition—always with the capital T—and like to draw a hard line between the teachings they like, which are in accord with Tradition, and those they don’t, which are either mere misguided goofiness or the products of the sinister forces of Counter-Tradition, which plays the notional role of Satanism to Traditionalism’s One True Church.

So far, so good—but what exactly is this Tradition? Read Evola’s Revolt Against the Modern World or any of his other major works, and when you get past the dogmatic posturing and the denunciation of rival views, what you’ll find is exactly the same sort of freewheeling pastiche of concepts from early 20th century popular culture that Evola himself condemned so savagely in other occult writers of his day. If you know your way around such intellectual pop-culture standards of the time as Friedrich Nietzsche, J.J. Bachofen, and especially Otto Weininger’s hugely popular though now forgotten Geschlecht und Charakter (Sex and Character), you already know more than you think you do about Evola’s ideas. While Evola’s books are worth reading—even, or especially, if you don’t share his fondness for jackboots and stiff-arm salutes—his ideas are anything but timeless Tradition. Quite the contrary, they represent a specific, personal, historically conditioned take on things.

That’s true, in turn, of all the other contenders for the title of Timeless Wisdom of the Ages. If any one small-t tradition has a claim on that status in the Western world, it’s Neoplatonism, and that’s just because the Neoplatonists played so large a role in occultism from late Roman times through the end of the Renaissance. Even so, there’s nothing timeless about Neoplatonism; it evolved and adapted, flowed and changed, absorbed and was absorbed by other teachings over most of two millennia. Check out the esoteric teachings of China or India, and you’ll find exactly the same thing: not a petrified idol but a living, flowing movement of ideas in history.

The irony here, and it’s a rich one, is that exactly this point could have been learned from a good many of the small-t traditions of Western esoteric spirituality, Neoplatonism among them. As Plato himself pointed out in no uncertain terms, it’s crucial not to mistake eternal realities for experiential phenomena or vice versa; no matter how carefully it’s drawn, no circle is the Circle, the transcendent principle of which every existing circle is an expression; nor does the ability to draw a more or less exact circle depend on being given access to some privileged lineage of circle-drawing. The same points are just as true of spirituality; no tradition that has to put up with the inconveniences of actually existing is or can be identical to the ageless wisdom that stands eternal in the heavens; nor do historical lineages confine that wisdom which, as an expression of the living Spirit, notoriously “bloweth where it listeth.”

That’s the first point that unfolds from the history surveyed in the last two posts. The second is, if anything, even more controversial: that this living, flowing movement of ideas in history isn’t headed toward some one and only one true occult philosophy of the future.

The notion that human knowledge progresses toward some kind of perfection in the future is hardwired into most contemporary thinking. It’s an important expression of the faith in progress that provides the modern world with its established religion. Like every other established religion, it raises a sprawling superstructure of faith on a very modest foundation of fact: in this case, the broad general tendency for certain kinds of technical knowledge to build up over historical time. Human beings know, for instance, a great deal more about how to grow vegetables than they knew ten thousand years ago, or a thousand years ago, or even a century back; surviving agricultural handbooks from Roman times contain some very useful tips, for example, but a competent organic gardener these days knows quite a lot of things about enriching the soil, countering pests, and the like that Roman gardeners simply didn’t know.

That tendency isn’t inevitable or invincible. History is full of examples of technical tricks that were lost, for a time or forever. An entire technology of gearing and mechanical computation, best known by way of the famous Antikythera mechanism, vanished at the fall of Rome and hasn’t been completely recovered yet; the famous “Baghdad batteries” among other anomalous remains show that electricity was discovered in ancient times, and then lost until the eighteenth century. (I’ve long suspected that a careful study of the literature of alchemy would turn up a fair amount of basic electrical knowledge if it were carried out by someone solidly familiar with the relevant chemistry and physics.)

For that matter, nobody nowadays has any idea how ancient Hindu blacksmiths made the famous pillar of iron in Delhi that’s been soaked by thousands of years of monsoons without ever showing a spot of rust, or how the Inca managed the astonishing stonework of Cuzco and Macchu Picchu. Knowledge can be lost, knowledge has been lost, and there’s every reason to expect that, when today’s industrial societies are pushing up metaphorical daisies in the graveyard of dead civilizations, a great deal of what passes for common knowledge these days will vanish forever.

The history of magic shows both processes—the tendency to build up an ever larger accumulation of knowledge, and the temporary or permanent loss of large parts of that accumulation—at least as clearly as any other field of knowledge and practice does. If anything, where magic is concerned, the losses are far more striking than the buildup. Ancient Egypt had, by all contemporary accounts, an immense body of magical ritual and technique, but almost all of it vanished long ago, leaving scholars and occultists alike to puzzle over the fragmentary remains. The ceremonies of the ancient Greek goetes, the rites and lore of the old Druids, the rituals of the Eleusinian mysteries, the incantations of the Neoplatonist mages, the practices of folk wizards across early medieval Europe: all of it is gone forever.

What we have, when we look out over the wreckage of the Western world’s magical past, is a vast wilderness of ruins, in which the occultists of the last few centuries have traced out a few pathways and raised up a handful of modest shelters out of the fallen fragments of ancient temples. Here and there, inscriptions are still readable, and it sometimes happens that those of us who go digging in the ruins are able to clear the debris from another such inscription and add to the slow recovery of knowledge. Of the overall plan of the site we still have no certain conception, though there’s no lack of speculation on the subject, and too many dogmatic claims; whole regions of the ruins remain unexplored, and their relationship to the better-known portions can only be guessed at; as often as not, when new discoveries get made, they don’t add to the existing body of knowledge, but rather replace some part of what we thought we knew, which then has to go out with the trash.

Even if magical knowledge were cumulative, in other words, we’re nowhere near the point at which some kind of unified field theory of magic could be put together. So much has been lost, so many whole fields of occult philosophy and practice still have to be recovered or reinvented from scratch, that even if such a theory was possible, we’ve got centuries of hard work ahead before enough of a knowledge base can be amassed to bring such a project within reach. Still, that far from minor difficulty simply sets the stage for a much more serious difficulty, which is that magical knowledge isn’t cumulative; it’s not the kind of knowledge that moves toward one best answer.

In his brilliant little philosophical handbook A Guide for the Perplexed, renegade economist E.F. Schumacher pointed out a crucial distinction between two classes of problems, which he called convergent and divergent problems. Convergent problems are those that have a single right answer, and inquiry into convergent problems naturally converges on that single answer; the longer you pursue the work of inquiry, the more the data constrain the range of answers that will fit, until—in a phrase made famous by Sherlock Holmes—having excluded the impossible, what remains is the truth. Convergent problems are the natural fare of modern science; they’re what the scientific method is meant to tease out of the murky haze of data, and the successes of modern science have encouraged a great many people to think that all problems are convergent in nature.

The difficulty with this confident belief is that it doesn’t happen to be true. There’s another class of problems, which Schumacher called divergent problems: problems that have no one right answer. Divergent problems are by and large problems of value, while convergent problems are problems of fact. Put another way, convergent questions ask about the properties of perceiving objects, while divergent questions relate to the properties of perceiving subjects. Thus the convergent problem asks, “what is the world?” The divergent problem asks, “what should I do about it?”—and for that latter question there’s no one answer that applies in all cases and to all those who ask it.

It’s become popular in recent years for rationalists of a certain stripe to insist that convergent problems are more important than divergent ones, or even that those branches of knowledge that are subject to convergent solutions are the only kind of knowledge that matters, while those that present divergent problems are somehow illegitimate or irrelevant. This is nonsense—popular nonsense, at least in an age of fashionable abstractions, but nonsense nonetheless. What you should do for a living and whom, if anyone, you should marry are divergent questions; the answers that emerge from inquiry into them differ necessarily from one person to another; but how you answer these questions has a far greater impact on your chances for a happy and productive life than any merely convergent question.

Philosophy, now that it’s succeeded in spinning off the quantitative sciences into orbits of their own, has finally gotten most of the way back to its original purpose as a set of tools for responding to divergent problems. It’s a routine gibe of rationalists these days that philosophy isn’t “real knowledge,” since it doesn’t progress. This is precisely the same sort of idiocy as denouncing a hammer because it ‘s not a very good saw. Philosophy doesn’t converge on a single answer, which is what rationalists mean here when they talk about progress; it diverges along with the problems that it studies, so that it can provide the widest possible range of options for individuals who are trying to make sense of their own intuitions of meaning and value, and apply those to the task of living a happy and productive life.

Two completely different philosophies can work equally well, in turn, because there’s an inherent feedback loop that comes into play any time you turn sustained attention on your own sense of meaning and value, or any other property you have as a perceiving subject. That feedback loop, interestingly enough, is the same one that Erwin Schrödinger discovered when poking at quantum particles: you can’t observe the phenomenon without changing its behavior. Adopt any philosophy that doesn’t clash unbearably with your basic intuitions of meaning and value, and that philosophy will reshape those intuitions in its own image. The value of a humanistic education, in turn, is that it provides the individual with the necessary breadth of raw material—philosophical, literary, artistic, cultural—to transform those basic intuitions into foundations for the rare but necessary quality we call “wisdom.”

Occult philosophy is a branch of philosophy, not a quantitative material science. That may seem too obvious to need stating, but the repeated calls for a definitive theory of magic make it clear that some people, at least, don’t seem to have gotten the memo. What differentiates the various systems of magic from each other isn’t that one is “more advanced” than the other, or for that matter “more traditional;” it’s that they unfold in a divergent manner from different postulates and different cultural frameworks, and thus appeal to different people. What’s more, the feedback loop mentioned above slams into high gear once magic enters the picture, because the technical methods of magic reshape the activities and content of the mind far more powerfully than the practices of ordinary philosophy do.

One interesting consequence of this last detail is that every theory of magic provides a precise and accurate description of what magic can do—for those people who adopt that theory of magic. That’s just as true of the rationalist theory that magic is superstitious nonsense, by the way, as it is of the most rarefied theurgic Neoplatonism or the most up-to-the-elbows-in-mud sort of robust folk sorcery. The rationalist believes that all magic is mere superstitious nonsense; his whole philosophy of life supports that belief, and so if for whatever reason he attempts to perform magic, the results he gets will be precisely those you would expect from mere superstitious nonsense.

What’s more, if someone else casts an effective whammy on him, his perceptions of the situation will continue to support his belief that magic is mere superstitious nonsense; he’ll simply slam facefirst into a series of random disasters, in which he’ll be able to see no pattern or meaning whatsoever. Now of course this means, among other things, that he’s very sharply limited in terms of potential responses; since magic doesn’t exist for him, he can’t very well dispell what’s been tossed at him, turn it back on its sender, or do any of the other things that less rigidly restrictive theories of magic permit as a matter of course. Of course that’s exactly the point; the philosophy you accept determines what you can perceive as well as what you can do, and if the thing you value most is living in a completely material, rational, magic-free cosmos, that price might well be worth paying.

The same principle, in turn, applies to every other theory of magic. Since magic is the art and science of causing change in consciousness in accordance with will, the particular approach to magic that you embrace will have profound effects on what you perceive in the universe around you, and what you can do in response to the things you perceive. If you believe, like most chaos magicians, that gods and spirits are simply forms established by the human imagination, then it’s probably a safe bet that the only gods and spirits you’ll meet are those that your imagination has created. (If you insist on imposing that view on them, after all, why would any other kind of god or spirit be interested in talking to you?) If you start instead from the presupposition that gods and spirits are real, independent, conscious beings, your chances of encountering those gods and spirits who do in fact act like real, independent, conscious beings—and who thus know things you don’t, for example, and can teach them to you—go up sharply. The same principle applies to every other dimension of magical theory.

Nor is there any Archimedean point from which it’s possible to dive into, and back out of, all other magical systems—a claim that some chaos magicians have made from time to time. If your theory of magic defines, say, the existence of deities as a feature of a worldview into which human beings can choose to enter and leave, then you can have that experience, too, but the deities you’ll experience will be the kind who can inhabit a worldview created by you, and the realm they inhabit will be a worldview rather than a world. Embrace a more traditional view of deities, and you may just find yourself encountering something a good deal more robust, not because you’ve created it but because you’ve opened yourself to interaction with it, and encouraged it to open itself to interaction with you.

The operative mage is thus to some extent—but only to some extent—conjuring in a hall of mirrors. It’s crucial to be aware of the ways that magical theory constrains magical perception and action, but it’s at least as crucial to recognize that the things we don’t perceive can still exist. A commonplace of occult theory has it that the magical universe is more complex and multidimensional than any human mind can possibly grasp, and so every mage, and every magical theory, chooses a handful of the available options and works with those. That limitation, like most limitations, is a source of strength, not of weakness. Some of the best martial artists you’ll ever meet are those who know just a couple of punches, a kick or two, and a few blocks, but know each of them very, very well.

Magic works in the same way, and this offers a solution to the implied conundrum explored in the last two posts. Where does magical power come from? Every one of the places from which the magical systems we surveyed draws it, and infinitely many more beside. Does magical power come from outside the human mind, or from within it? Both, of course. Magic is everywhere; magical forces surge and flow through every atom of matter, every cubic Angstrom unit of space, every picosecond of time. It’s purely a question of where you, yourself, as an operative mage, want to tap into the flow of power, and what you want to do with it—and that, as already hinted, is a divergent problem rather than a convergent one.