Sunday, June 21, 2015

What Magic Can't Do

There’s another important lesson to be learned from the way that ideas about magic ebb and flow with the tides of historical change. The various systems of magic we’ve surveyed over the last three months have all based themselves on differing ideas of where magical power comes from, but they also had different ideas of what magic can do, and what it can’t.
It’s astonishingly unpopular to mention this latter point—that there are things magic can’t do—in some circles these days. The psychological theory of magic discussed last month has as one of its corollaries that what you can accomplish is limited in part by what you think you can accomplish, and in the minds of the excessively enthusiastic and gullible, this gets stretched into the claim that what you can accomplish is limited only by what you think you can accomplish. That was the sort of thinking that drove the giddier end of the New Age scene into any number of failed prophecies: the logic was that if they all just believed strongly enough that the world would suddenly turn into the utopia whose imminent arrival they’d been fruitlessly proclaiming for decades, why, it would have to happen. Right?

I call this the Tinkerbell Theory of magic: you can do anything if you just believe! It’s a seductive notion for those who don’t know much about magic, because it happens quite often that we do limit what we can accomplish by our inability to believe in ourselves, and so people who embrace the Tinkerbell Theory whole hog do quite often find themselves able to do things they never thought they could. Unfortunately they then overgeneralize from that experience and try, for example, to make a real estate bubble inflate forever, and that sort of thing never ends well.

Thus it’s crucial to remember that magic has limits. There are things it can’t do. That seems to be true of magic as a whole, and it’s certainly true of any given system of magic, which has strengths and weaknesses that depend on the particular sources of power on which it draws, and on the technical means it offers for working with those powers. Every system of magic, unfortunately, also tends to be cluttered here and there with extreme claims that can’t be justified by experience; some of these are simple misunderstandings rooted in a lack of occult knowledge, while others are cynical sales pitches meant to extract money and other favors from the gullible. 

The grimoire magic of the late Renaissance and the early modern era offers good examples of both kinds of unjustified claims.  This was in large part because the grimoires emerged in the middle of the western world’s first wave of mass market publishing, when letterpress printing for the first time made books widely available to people of fairly modest economic means. Since most of the participants in the new, greatly expanded market for books had the equivalent of a high school education, to begin with, the subtle philosophical distinctions common in earlier magical literature were routinely garbled, and magical effects that are actually quite easy to obtain got misinterpreted in a variety of absurd ways.

For example, quite a few of the spirits who could be conjured up by following the instructions in grimoires were reputed to be able to teach various academic subjects. The Goetic spirit Marax, for example, who is described in the Lesser Key of Solomon and a variety of derivative works, has among his functions the ability to teach astronomy.  I admit to a great fondness for the image of a classroom full of seventeenth-century undergraduates taking in a lesson on the moons of Jupiter from a demon who looks like a bull with a human face, but that’s not actually what’s being discussed here.

One of the things that magic can quite reliably do, in many people, is awaken an aptitude or talent for some particular field of study. In the Middle Ages, there was an entire branch of magic known as the Notory (not “notary”) Art, Ars Notoria in Latin, which was for the use of students and aimed at exactly this goal. The practitioner of the Notory Art would carefully draw out a specific, complex pattern in ink on paper, and then concentrate on it once each night while reciting an incantation. This process would awaken the sort of enthusiasm for, and intuitive understanding of, a specific subject of study that makes learning it an easy and pleasant task. Those of my readers who prefer a purely psychological theory of magic will have no problem figuring out how such a process can make use of known psychological reactions; those who prefer other theories can just as easily find their own explanations for why it works—but the important point is that it does work.

Doubtless that’s what invoking Marax was supposed to do, too. I’ve occasionally wondered, in fact, if the grimoire tradition may have absorbed at least some of its imagery from offshoots of the Notory Art. The ornate images of demons given in the Lesser Key of Solomon and elsewhere have a great deal in common with images from the old Art of Memory, which was used extensively by medieval and Renaissance scholars to memorize learning, and they’re also reminiscent of telesmatic images, which are symbolic forms constructed in the imagination for a variety of magical purposes. It wouldn’t be the first time in the history of magic that a set of images or practices invented for one reason was put to use later for some completely different end.

In much the same way, the powers of many of the other goetic spirits make perfect sense if they’re understood in context, and perfect nonsense if they’re taken with the kind of gosh-wow literalism that late Renaissance and early modern readers, like too many of their modern equivalents, liked to bring to the grimoires. If you want to summon the spirit Bathin to transport men from one country to another, or Malphas to build a tower, that’s certainly an option, but it won’t exempt you from having to pay for air fare for the men or laborers and building materials for the tower. The point of the magic is to set in motion the sort of cascade of favorable coincidences familiar to every operative mage, where obstacles remove themselves and everything falls into place, as people still say, “like magic.”

So much for the misunderstandings; let’s go on to the crassly cynical sales pitches. There were plenty of those in the grimoire literature, too, though most of them have vanished from sight—you’ll have to look long and hard these days to find a copy of Faust’s Threefold Harrowing of Hell, or any of the other fake grimoires mass-produced by unscrupulous publishers and sold to the clueless. Like their exact equivalents in modern New Age literature, these focused with laser intensity on getting demonic spirits to hand over cash: lots of it, right now, because I want it, that’s why.  Those of my readers who watched the movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory in their misspent youth, as I did, may recall Verruca Salt, the gloriously archetypical spoiled brat who gets turned into an oversized blueberry.  Her attitude is more or less the one found in these grimoires, and of course in their New Age equivalents as well.

That I know of, people who tried to conjure demons from the depths of Hell to become filthy rich using Faust’s Threefold Harrowing of Hell or its many equivalents didn’t get turned into giant blueberries. On the other hand, the results of their efforts were by and large about on a par with those of all those New Agers who plunged into the late real estate bubble, convinced that what they’d learned from The Secret would enable them to bully the cosmos into giving them money they didn’t earn. There are two things to remember about this sort of cheap manipulative pseudomagic; the first is that it doesn’t work, and the second is that it’s normally laced with doublebinds meant to trap the user in the psychology of previous investment, so that each failure simply becomes another reason to double down. I got to see that in action during the implosion of the housing bubble in 2008 and 2009; I suspect plenty of mages got to watch the equivalent during the economic crises of the seventeenth century, too.

The fact that Faust’s Threefold Harrowing of Hell hasn’t gotten much attention from occultists in recent centuries points up one of the features of magical history that materialists of the Neal deGrasse Tyson stripe insist cannot, must not, and therefore does not happen: occult traditions, like other fields of human knowledge and practice, discard claims that consistently fail. You’ll find plenty of people these days breaking out the Lesser Key of Solomon, using its incantations for a variety of purposes, and getting results. You won’t find many people insisting that they can conjure up the spirit Malphas and get him to build an actual physical tower, all by himself, without benefit of construction crews—and the very few people who make such claims generally find out in short order that the standard response from operative mages is, “Glad to hear it. Now show me.”

You do get extreme claims unhindered by such responses in what’s left of the New Age scene, which is why scientific materialists of the Neal deGrasse Tyson stripe love to talk about the New Age scene and finesse the difference between that and serious occultism.  It makes a great straw man, not to mention a great opportunity for the self-righteous preening they’ve borrowed from more overtly religious forms of fundamentalism. I’m not sure they’re aware that they’re going to have to find a new straw man before long, though.  The New Age movement managed to slam straight from The Secret into the 2012 fiasco, and the double impact sent it into the spiraling decline that normally swallows pop spirituality movements in this country; sales of New Age books, CDs, seminars, and so on have been dropping steadily now for most of a decade. Those of my readers who are familiar with the long twilight of Spiritualism and Theosophy will have a pretty good idea of what comes next.

The historical rhythm of serious occultism is rather different, and I’d like to bring in a narrative at this point from a different slice of magical history. It begins with Hiram Butler, a sawmill worker turned occultist in the late 19th century. He was a student of that force of nature, Paschal Beverly Randolph, who deserves much more attention than he generally gets these days, and will play a central role in my book on Victorian sex magic if I ever have the time, and a contract, to get that written. Randolph was the first African-American occultist to punch through the color line that dominated 19th century American culture; he was also arguably the most innovative occult thinker of the nineteenth century, the guy who invented the system of sex magic that’s central to Gardnerian Wicca, the Ordo Templi Orientis, and many less public magical orders and traditions as well.

Butler, though, apparently didn’t take to Randolph’s genial enthusiasm for healthy sexuality. What interested him in Randolph’s system was the idea that the force that manifested itself in sex was the fundamental force of the cosmos—our old friend the astral light, in fact—and also the basis of biological life. He chased this theme through a galaxy of occult traditions from around the world, and came to theorize that if the sexual force could be redirected away from its obvious expression, via strict celibacy along with other means, it could be put to use in a process of biological regeneration that would result in physical immortality. The only question was how exactly to accomplish the necessary redirection and transformation—and that, in turn, Butler and a circle of students set out to work out by the only available method, that of conducting systematic experiments on themselves.

Those of my readers who don’t know their way around early twentieth century American occult literature may never have encountered the theory that rigorous celibacy plus some specific set of disciplines will enable those who practice such a regimen to live forever. Those of my readers who do know their way around that literature, by contrast, will have seen that tune played in just about every imaginable mode and key. Many of the occult teachers of the era adopted some form of the theory, and pursued their own researches into the possibility of making it happen. Others rejected the theory, and more and more of them rejected it as it became increasingly clear that the theory just didn’t work.

Claims of physical immortality, after all, are subject to a fairly rigorous form of testing.  If you want to prove such a claim, you have to refrain from dying, and this the practitioners of Butler’s system in all its various permutations never quite managed to do. It was one thing when Butler himself died—after all, he was an early investigator of what everyone admitted was an extremely demanding and complex practice. It was quite another when the other members of his Esoteric Fraternity died one by one, and the members of other lodges and organizations that were attempting the same thing met the same fate, expiring in the ordinary way from old age and other natural causes.

The end of the road came in 1954. That’s when Paul Foster Case, the last major American occultist to embrace a variant of Butler’s theory, died anyway. Case’s version of the theory can be found broadly hinted at in the pages of his book The True and Invisible Rosicrucian Order, and expounded in detail in the pages of the correspondence courses of the occult order he founded. His exposition was a bravura display of occult scholarship—but it still didn’t keep him from expiring in the usual way. As far as I know, every surviving esoteric order in the US that still retained elements of Butler’s theory either quietly dropped it thereafter, or stuck it in a series of lessons for advanced initiates with a cover note saying something like “This is a bit of traditional lore, make of it what you will.”

On the off chance that any scientific materialists know about Hiram Butler at all, they’re likely to see the tale as simply one more example of how silly occultists can be.  That evades an interesting point, because the process by which Butler’s theory was taken up, explored, and finally rejected is exactly the same as the process by which scientific theories undergo the same treatment. In today’s physics, string theory is pretty obviously completing the same trajectory. The darling of speculative physics a couple of decades ago, it’s being dropped by many physicists now for exactly the same reason Butler’s theory was dropped by occultists the better part of a century ago: it doesn’t yield the promised results. Another few decade and it’ll land in the same drawer of discarded theories as phlogiston or, say, all those land bridges that had to get animals and plants across various oceans in the days when continental drift was still dismissed as crackpot pseudoscience.

That is to say, occultism, like science, is cumulative in nature; it grows by discarding theories and techniques that don’t work and embracing those that do. To say that a field of study is cumulative doesn’t mean it’s going anywhere in particular.  As I pointed out in last month’s post, it’s high time to let go of the notion that the history of magic is some kind of arc of progress toward the one true unified field theory of magic, and I suspect sooner or later our scientists are going to have to deal with the fact that the history of science isn’t destined to end in a complete theory of everything, either—a point that was made by Thomas Kuhn a good many decades ago, but has been carefully ignored by true believers in the ersatz religion of scientism ever since.

A cumulative field of study is simply one that tends, over time, to correct many of its errors and build up a collection of useful technique and theory. It can also lose ground, if the transmission of knowledge from teacher to student is disrupted by outside factors and worthwhile things don’t get passed down.  As last month’s post noted, the occult traditions got clobbered by exactly this process in the wake of the scientific revolution, and we’re still putting the fragments back together. I’ve written in a variety of places now about the serious risk that the same thing could happen to modern science in a big way as modern industrial society slams facefirst into the planetary limits it’s ignored just that little bit too long.

One implication of the cumulative nature of magic is that a program of research can be successful in a broad sense even if its primary purpose turns out to be a dud. The geologists of the eighteenth century who spent their spare time combing Europe for evidence of the Biblical flood failed to find it—more precisely, the things they found, and mistook as traces of the flood, turned out actually to be abundant geological relics of the last Ice Age. Nonetheless their researches turned out to be of immense use, not least because once Louis Agassiz pointed out what moraines and other glacial features meant, all that data lined up in support of the new glacial theory.

In the same way, the occult research program that followed the announcement of Hiram Butler’s theory didn’t succeed in the narrow sense. As far as anybody knows, that is, nobody managed to avoid death by means of the procedure he sketched out.  In the broader sense, though, it yielded a bumper crop of knowledge about the way the nervous system and the endocrine glands respond to various magical practices. The resulting knowledge can be found in textbooks of occult anatomy such as Manly P. Hall’s Man: The Grand Symbol of the Mysteries; the resulting practices form an important part of the stock in trade of many current magical lodges and schools.

Another implication of the cumulative nature of magic is in some ways even more important: since most current magical techniques have documented origins and histories, it’s possible to check out their results. If you want to know what results you can expect from a magical system, in other words, all you have to do is find out what happened to other people who practiced it in the past, or are practicing it right now. A lot of the people who lost their shirts in 2008 and 2009 after sinking their net worth in real estate on the assumption that The Secret would make them rich would have stayed solvent if they’d taken the time to notice that the only person getting rich off The Secret was the author of the book. On the other hand, a teacher who lives up to his or her teachings, a school that’s largely staffed by people who lead sane and largely untroubled lives, or a tradition with a long track record of producing well-adjusted, capable, and creative initiates, is probably going to be able to teach you something worth learning.