Welcome back to The Trenchant Edges, a weekday newsletter where we Tilt at weird windmills and hope they don’t tilt back.
Estimated reading time: 5 minutes, 49 seconds. Contains 1165 words
Today we’re exploring a fairly thorny edge: The line between natural and supernatural, Material and magic, belief and disbelief. It’s a line
Do you believe in magic?
This seems like a simple question but the assumptions hidden in the words believe and magic make it a little more complicated than at first glance.
If we take magic to mean the exercise of some supernatural power to rewrite the world to an individual’s whims (as opposed to stage magic) and belief to mean an emotional attachment to some idea felt to be true, the answer is no.
But that answer is misleading.
I might also say magic isn’t real but it works anyway.
That looks like a contradiction but it’s not.
I don’t believe in anything supernatural, but I suspect much of the high weirdness of the world is quite natural when understood correctly.
Materialists make a big stink about desacralizing the mythic and strange. Even the likes of Carl Jung covers the weirdness in psychobabble about a collective unconscious and archetypes.
This outgrowth of the rationalist project makes keen sense: It’s anti-clerical/antitheistic, designed to break the power of the formal church. Good intentions.
The cost to denying all the mythic dimensions of life is ennui and nihilism.
But neither of those are the infinite voids they appear. If one leans into the void instead of runs away from it you find that nihilism itself is fairly finite and small.
On the other side of nihilism is art. Not in the cope sense of existentialism, this is not a philosophy. But in the felt-realization of the unreality of the world as invitation to play the game well.
Poker’s fake too, but it’s plenty fun.
Put another way: If you’re alive, you’re going to experience the consequences of your actions anyway. So why not attempt to live better than you were?
What does this have to do with magic?
I tend to think most magical systems are a kind of groping in the dark trying to understand how a higher order totality of factors interact and express what Alfred North Whitehead called, “The Formality of Actually Occurring.”
A handy visual for how I imagine this comes from the Japanese video game Katamari Damacy:
A Katamari is a little ball that things stick to and you roll it around to collect stuff and make a bigger ball to collect more stuff.
It’s a very satisfying game as you slowly roll up tiny things all the way up to whole solar systems.
If we abstract it a little further, to a conceptual ball of fundamental laws (whatever they are), we’ve got a rolling mess of events ordered carefully, but apparently randomly.
So if you want something to happen, it’s got to fit in the vector and intensity of that rolling ball.
Magic, thus, is more an attempt to align with different sets of higher-order laws using art as a medium than a Dungeons and Dragons style Creation Ex Nihilo.
Whether my assumptions are any better than anyone else’s is a matter of debate, but this is the only set of assumptions consistent with all my experiences that doesn’t just dismiss them all out of hand.
It also has the handy quality of rendering the question of, “Is magic real?” meaningless by shifting the emphasis from some personal sense of agency in events to an alignment between desires and outcomes.
Among other binaries this destroys is free will/predestination by viewing choices as an emergent quality of the totality.
If you ever wonder why I’m not bothered by being an antimaterialist who mostly uses materialist frameworks this is a hint why. ;-)
Dualistic binaries only exist in the human mind. They’re training categories. Practice to get a person up to speed with the basics before they can be made more real by highlighting contradictions and letting real-world mess in.
How Does This Relate To What We’ve Been Discussing?
I wanted to have this little digression because it’s kind of essential to understand how Terence McKenna saw his scientific and public intellectual work.
“Nature loves courage. You make the commitment and nature will respond to that commitment by removing impossible obstacles. Dream the impossible dream and the world will not grind you under, it will lift you up. This is the trick. This is what all these teachers and philosophers who really counted, who really touched the alchemical gold, this is what they understood. This is the shamanic dance in the waterfall. This is how magic is done. By hurling yourself into the abyss and discovering it's a feather bed.” -Terence McKenna
Less as a public service than as an act of ontological terrorism: Hand out the key to the door outside to as many people as possible.
In some ways he was naive about the concequnces of doing this willy nilly, but that’s what happens when you let the chaos in. It’s freeing and dangerous. You’re liable to get hurt along the way. Or at least have a rising global enthnonationalst movement.
Terry has a phrase I rather like: the felt presence of immediate experience: Feeling directly what you’re feeling in any moment.
It sounds like it should be obvious and easy, but anyone who’s meditated realizes that we direct our attention everywhere else but on awareness itself. Getting the bodymind out of itself.
Much healing and wisdom becomes accessible simply by feeling the felt presence of immediate experience and getting into the flow.
Tim Leary, less helpfully, put it as, “You’ve got to go out of your mind to come to your senses.” Literally true, but it comes off as more of his glib bullshit.
Your bodymind, for whatever its individual flaws, is the process of 3-4 billion years of evolution. There’s a lot of information encoded there if you’ll just listen.
This is the kind of sensible thing most of the people I know who have pushed far into the edges of consciousness come back with.
And there are pratical advantages to it as well: The master life script of USAians involveds starting work in the 20s and then having a massive crisis from living unconsciously in the late 30s or early 40s.
We’re kind of directed to get lost in the ebb and flow of work over years. It makes us much easier to control and we end up denying the very agency we wanted to live with.
Regardless of the metaphysics in play, avoiding that kind of lifetrap is something magic is quite good at helping people avoid just by getting them to think about what they want a little more often.
We’re creatures of habit, ultimately, and most of free will is developing the suite of habits you want to have so they rebuild you in the direction you wanted to go.
Among other things, that’s the very point of this exact newsletter for me. ;-)
Anyway, I’m out of tea and breakfast so it’s probably time to hunker down and get to work.
Be seeing y’all tomorrow.