Read Part 1 HERE
My primary aim is to formulate a workable definition of the word “Magic”, mainly through an exploration of other such definitions, which is a much more complicated task than it may seem at first. The word has meant many different things to different people, and all of its meanings are always complex, often ambiguous, and usually obscured by secrecy and esoteric language. Yet I shall provisionally define Magic as an area of human activity which lies at the intersection of Art, Science and Religion, and their cultural and material expressions, but which is also distinct from them. This is, of course, a very general definition, but I shall elaborate upon it and attempt to use it to draw together other more specific definitions of the word.
Furthermore, I will use the concept of Magic to attempt to deconstruct the idea of an objective, external reality apart from our experience of it. This is not to say that such a reality does not exist, but rather that it does not really matter (to me, at least) whether Magic is “real”, or whether it creates objective effects in the world, so long as it creates changes that are at least subjectively real.
From this perspective, there is no substantial difference between magic “tricks” and “illusions” and “real” Magic. “Magic tricks work because humans have a hardwired process of attention and awareness that is hackable. By understanding how magicians hack our brains, we can better understand how the same cognitive tricks are at work in advertising strategy, business negotiations, and all varieties of interpersonal relations.” (Macknik & Martinez-Conde 6) Though speaking about stage magic, I think this statement is equally applicable to “real” Magic, because both are based on methods of “hacking” the human mind and brain in ways that affect the subjective realities of those involved.
In fact, I think that the greatest difference between these two forms or styles of magic is that “tricks” are designed to be performed before an audience, whereas “true” magic is generally secretive, and meant for the exploration and development of the inner self. However, unlike purely mystical endeavors, “Magic is about what you bring BACK from the Shining Realms of the Uberconscious. The magician dives into the Immense Other in search of tips and hints and treasures s/he can bring home to enrich life in the solid world. And if necessary, fake it till you make it” (Morrison 16). That is, even “true” magic involves “tricks” and “sleights of mind”, and also has an audience of sorts, even if it is only yourself, an audience of one. It is about creating and witnessing change and truth, both internal and external, and in any form. This is also arguably what artists and scientists attempt to do, as well as those mystics who have produced some record of their experiences, although their means and ends are all very different.
The entire creative output of humanity might, in this light, be read as the records of countless explorations of the realms of Inner Space, maps of that territory which cannot be mapped, for it is infinite and ever-changing. Consider that every piece of technology, every work of art, every object ever created by humans has its origin in the imagination. The atomic bomb and all its deadly siblings were once only a dream, a figment, an idea, and now there are not only many arsenals stocked with such weapons, but their physical reality has shaped the socio-political culture of the world, and therefore the minds of the people who participate it, in incalculably profound and powerful way.
But before we discuss in more detail what magic is about, let us return to the attempt to define what magic is. Aleister Crowley, “Magic’s Picasso” (Morrison 16), said that “Magick is the Science and Art of causing change to occur in conformity with Will”. He used an archaic spelling which added a “k” in an attempt to distinguish it from stage magic, but I will not use this spelling except when quoting directly, since as I previously explained, I feel the distinction is not a useful one, at least for my purposes.
But moreover, this definition could describe almost any human action, including the simplest of ‘spells’: closing and opening your hand, for example, or speaking a word. Both are causing change to occur, in conformity with your will. It could also be applied to essentially all human technology. Technologies are essentially ways to cause change to occur in conformity with Will, based on our deep and developing knowledge and understanding of the physical world. It would also apply to less direct methods of causing change, those which rely on indirect influence. For example, almost all uses of language can be understood as an attempt to cause change through influencing the minds and therefore the actions of other human beings: those who hear or read your words. Some have said that magic is a technology using non-physical means to effect the world, but it seems to me that one might just as easily reverse the statement and say that material technology is a form of magic which uses physical means to create its effects. The third of Arthur C. Clarke’s famous ‘Three Laws” is “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”, and its anonymous converse, known as ‘Niven’s Law’, is “Any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology.” Both, I think, are equally true.
Another interesting and potentially useful definition of magic to consider at this point is as “methods of causing coincidences to happen. By defining a need, focusing on it, using ancient [or modern] symbols… a pattern is created. That pattern is first made in the world of imagination and creativity… but by speaking a spell or working a ritual, it is brought into our world” (Green).
Now, consider for example the many ways we have devised to kill one another. Among the Australian aborigines, there is an ancient cursing practice known as “bone pointing”. Take a kangaroo bone, carve a point at one end, drill a hole through the other, then tie a single strand of the victim’s hair into it. This bone-wand is then pointed at the victim, usually before a public audience of bystanders. According to anthropologists such as Dr. Herbert Basedow (who described the practice in his 1925 book The Australian Aboriginal) the victim almost always falls ill and dies within days, unless administered to by a Nangarri, or medicine man. Whether the effect is “real” or some sort of psychosomatic reaction based in cultural expectation (there have been similar explanations of other magical practices such as the creation of a Zombie in Haitian Vodoun culture) does not really matter here, for they are just as dead either way. What matters is that the action of making and pointing the bone triggered a reaction: it is a symbol of death coupled with the desire to cause it, and the ritual of creating the bone, and the action of pointing it together trigger a change, a ‘coincidence’ which results in the death of the victim.
There is a multitude of examples of such curses, and in cultures throughout the world, mysterious deaths and illnesses have often been attributed to witchcraft and sorcery. But consider also simple material technologies: a weapon, a stone spear, say, or even a gun. Both of these technologies could be interpreted as forms of magic, using the above definition. The desired coincidence is that the spearhead, or a bullet fired from the gun, should “coincide” with the internal organs of the victim, injuring or killing them. The pattern, brought forth through the means of symbol, is the design of the weapon: a schematic for a gun’s assembly, or the orally transmitted knowledge of how to shave a stone’s edge until it is sharp enough to cut flesh. In either case, the weapon must first be imagined and described using symbols before it is brought into our world. The actual shaping of the stone, or the assemblage of the firearm, can be read as the ritual, the spell which brings the magical, imaginary object into reality, leading up to the moment at which the trigger is pulled or the spear hurled, the moment at which the original desire: death, is brought into being, and the ‘spell’ is completed. If the spell works, the target dies or is injured. The physical technology of a spear, a gun, a nuclear bomb, or any other device, deadly or otherwise, can be read as the necessary means of manifestation for the Magic, the path by which it arrives in the world.