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October 22nd, 2010

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03:59 am - What Is Magic For?
This is the question that Alan Moore asks in his fascinating essay Fossil Angels (which is in two parts, part 2 is here).
In talking about modern magical practice, Moore says:
Has contemporary western occultism accomplished anything that is measurable outside the séance parlour? Is magic of any definable use to the human race other than offering an opportunity for dressing up? Tantric tarts and vicars at Thelemic theme nights. Pentagrams In Their Eyes. “Tonight, Matthew, I will be the Logos of the Aeon.” Has magic demonstrated a purpose, justified its existence in the way that art or science or agriculture justify their own? In short, does anyone have the first clue what we are doing, or precisely why we’re doing it?
This is an exceedingly good point and one that I think that all magicians, occultists, and similar metaphysically inclined weirdos like myself should seriously consider. Moore's answer is clear, he demonstrates fairly well (at least to me) that magic is neither science nor religion, and then says that what is should be is art. This is hardly a surprising answer given that Moore is an artist. After some consideration, I think that is clearly a valid answer, but far from the only one.

Of course, before discussing this further, it's also worth considering what Moore means by magic. He doesn't discuss that in this essay, but I discuss several of his essays where he does discuss this here - the sort form is that his focus is on the existence of a non-physical reality of inspiration, imagination, dreams and wonder inhabited by both visiting humans and other non-human inhabitants that could be called gods, ghosts, demons, angels, spirits, and suchlike.

In any case, I think that he's largely correct both about the limits of the effect of magic on the world and also about it not being religion. It's certain true that Wicca and the other "Earth Religions" has had an impact on environmentalism and feminism, but in part, they have done this by becoming more mainstream, and also more focused on being religions and less focused on magic. However, there are also several potential answers that Moore ignores. The most obvious one is personal enlightenment, which may not have large-scale social impact, but can have profound personal and local impact, and it seems a fairly worthy and impressive goal. Also, while clearly a work in progress, I'm reminded of the single best explanation for otherkin that I've ever read. However, it's also as much about magic using people as people using magic.

I'm also not nearly as convinced as Moore is about the futility of using magic to directly change the world. I firmly believe that he's correct in that most of what people attempt to use magic to accomplish is either futile, drastically unethical, or both, but from my own experience, I certainly think that there are a variety of goals for which magic is well-suited. It's also certainly possible to speculate on what changes magic may have accomplished – events don't come with convenient labels listing their causes. However, the first thing to realize is that if magic can actually be used to directly affect the world, a whole lot more people than the tiny fringe of serious occultists are almost certainly using it – via deliberate or unconscious prayer, positive affirmations, keenly focused emotion, and a variety of other means. Whether or not this actually occurs is something that can at best be taken on faith, and finding proof would seem to be exceptionally difficult.

Of course, one thing to consider is that there's a difference between what effect magic has on the world, and what effect people who consider themselves to be magicians have on the world, and the answers to those questions need not be the same, and I expect that most magicians (like almost all other people) have very little effect upon anything other than their immediate surroundings, but I also don't see this as a problem in need of a solution.

In any case, this piece also includes some of Moore's declaration of the corruption and artistic bankruptcy of the modern day – declarations that (like all similar such declarations made throughout human history) say far more about Alan Moore being a certain sort of middle-aged man, than anything in the world, but this and the various similar bits of foolishness don't detract from an excellent essay that asks worthwhile questions.

As an oddly coincidental side-note, I just read a link posted by amberite to someone else's answer to what magic is for, which is also well worth reading, and both larger and not all dissimilar to Moore's
Current Mood: thoughtfulthoughtful

(8 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:October 22nd, 2010 11:39 am (UTC)
A modern version of alchemy is what attracts me most. Not lead into gold. Refining of the physical vehicle, creating conscious connections within one's internal and external ecosystem, listening to dreams and bodily clues to make changes to one's diet & supplement regimen, while working to enhance the placebo effect.

Secondarily is doing the work of a storyteller. To be able to impart lessons and ideas to people who may be resistant to hearing them.
[User Picture]
Date:October 22nd, 2010 01:03 pm (UTC)

I'm Still Formulating My Thoughts on This. . .

I have come to believe that different types of magic have different purposes. Hermetic magic, at least in the tradition I'm studying in, has the explicit purpose of balancing the soul and personality, and drawing closer to the Divine. It's about trying to perfect (or at least improve) one's spiritual condition. To me, that's a religious goal. Similarly, the kind of magic taught by T. Thorn Coyle is far more about promoting personal spiritual growth than it is about causing change in the external world (at least as I understand her work).

On the other hand, I have a good friend who is a hedgewitch. Her kitchen stove is her primary altar, and she uses magic to bless food and ease the little rough spots of life. Both are valid forms of magic but with very different purposes.

The other thing that comes to mind is that Neo-Paganism has become synonymous with "magic users" in recent years, but that's not an automatic connection. It's entirely possible to be Pagan and to gather with others and do liturgical ritual, ritual that builds community and honors the gods, without doing the kind of magic that is intended to cause external change in the world.
[User Picture]
Date:October 22nd, 2010 06:24 pm (UTC)

Re: I'm Still Formulating My Thoughts on This. . .

It's entirely possible to be Pagan and to gather with others and do liturgical ritual, ritual that builds community and honors the gods, without doing the kind of magic that is intended to cause external change in the world.

Absolutely, I've seen this happening a lot recently, and I think it's part of neopaganism (and Wicca in particular) becoming a larger and more mainstream religion (a process that is IMHO good for Wicca and for most Wiccans, but which also makes it vastly less interesting to me).
[User Picture]
Date:October 22nd, 2010 02:46 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the all of this thought food, including the Otherkin link, specifically. It's very similar to many of my views on the subject, including the phrase "personal mythology" and the spectrum of people caught up in it, for worse or for better or for "unwitting" or conscious and deliberate.
[User Picture]
Date:October 22nd, 2010 03:16 pm (UTC)
I'm rather in the camp of "personal refinement" as well, and I'm glad to see other Hermeticists commenting around here because that's more where I'm going with myself nowadays. I don't tend to talk about it too much because I have more skeptical friends than spiritually-inclined ones, but. *looks shy and pokes toe at floor.* To me, that's what magic offers-- it's not so much about being able to do cool stuff here and now, or even the experience of any particular ritual, as the feeling of making progress and the hope of perpetually transcending above and beyond my wildest imagination of what I can be.

I really like the article on Otherkin that you linked-- while I don't really consider myself 'kin, it seems to jibe with the people I'm close to who do. And, myself, I have always been fascinated with being just slightly not-quite-human-- not necessarily in any visible way, but in some verifiable way, like being of another recognised species (this was sort of what motivated me during my Star Trek fandom as a kid)-- precisely because, I think, it seems to offer the opportunity for an unprecedented ability to grow and transform and not stay within the "well-known" human limits that society assumes we all have.
[User Picture]
Date:October 22nd, 2010 10:50 pm (UTC)
We've been saying essentially the same for a few years now - but as a very esoterically mixed hoursehold we have some interesting discussions.

Prayer and worship are the not the same this as magic, even though a great deal of magic involves a fair amount of prayer and worship...

The "problem" is that there are great many people (generally in the Wicca and Contemporary Pagan/Shaman camps) who are doing sometimes great and sometimes not-so-great jobs of prayer and worship and not happy with the results they are getting because it doesn't operate anything like the magic they are told is out there (assuming that they are even moderately well-informed).
[User Picture]
Date:October 23rd, 2010 10:03 am (UTC)

magic of politics and religion

What I find saddest in Moore's essay is the firm rejection of magic as a way of changing the world, and the related rejection of magic as a component of religion and of politics. If you want to see magic transforming the world, religious magic is the place to look, and the magic of mass politics is another. I think that one of the great sources of trouble for the US in the past 30 to 40 years is that most of the serious world affecting magic is being done by conservative Christians. If you want to see magic shaping the world we all live in, and not just shaping our own minds, look at what the Evangelicals and the Pentecostals have accomplished in the recent past. The world magic on the left is just a shadow of its former self (consider the protest to levitate the pentagon).

Moore's rejection of magic as religion and politics (or rather politics and religion as magic, magic as a technique of religion and politics) is of a piece with the profound failure of imagination of the Left that has left us bereft of a clear and shared vision of a better world and the idea that we can get there by collective will. Wolven's post is better in that respect, being fully aware of the ways in which the making of a new culture is a profoundly magical act (or rather the product of a multitude of shared and connected magical acts), but that aspect remains marginal rather than central.

There is conscious world magic on the left (the Radical Faeries, some factions of the environmental movement, feminist Wicca (as you mention), some components of the anti-globalization movement)), but they are mostly marginal and marginalized within the broader left politics. Intriguingly, I think that it could be argued that the extent to which those various conscious world magics are not marginalized are roughly proportional to the degree to which each of those movements has been successfully in working towards societal transformation.

Voting is magic, a ritual act that has essentially no chance of having a direct real-world effect (how many elections are decided by your vote? basically none), and yet millions of people participating in this magical ritual together decide the election. Volunteering to get out the vote is a magical act of greater power (again, the people you influence to vote will not decide the election, but if enough people get out the vote, then a close election can be swung). But these acts of magic still lack a greater vision of a better world. Only with a clear vision of a better world can we undertake the great magic of creating movements for political and social change.
[User Picture]
Date:October 24th, 2010 10:35 pm (UTC)
I'm still working through the essay, but so far I think your read on this -- in particular, the effect that magic has on the individual and within communities -- is pinging pretty loudly.

OTOH, I really, desperately don't want to put this all down to psychodrama.

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