When I was in High School, I broke my wrist. The injury temporarily prevented me from doing my ordinary activities, which included soccer, martial arts, and a free-form variety of tumbling colloquially known as “tricking.” I needed something to do, and so I did something which I had not done in a while, and turned on the TV.
What I saw was Criss Angel levitating across two buildings.
Now within circles of illusionists and magicians, Criss Angel is generally looked down upon as a cheap camera-artist. To the uninitiated, however, his work was still pretty incredible. I began learning a variety of card and coin tricks, which were doable despite having a cast on. Some of these I can still perform, although my dexterity is not what it was ten years ago.
Initially, I was picking up books about magic in order to learn tricks, whether it was making coins pass through tables, or changing the color of a volunteer’s chosen card, or any variety of other simple parlor tricks. But reading through the history of magic inevitably brings one into contact with the theory of what magic is. This is no easy subject, as there are a variety of kinds of magic, used for a variety of purposes. Science Fiction author Arthur C. Clark once said that “sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” and while there are clearly some shortcomings in this understanding, Clark’s “third law” touches on a seemingly universal quality of any kind of magic, which is the hidden nature of its workings.
Other magicians concur. Raymond Teller of the Penn & Teller duo says:
Magic is an art, as capable of beauty as music, painting, or poetry. But the core of every trick is a cold, cognitive experiment in perception.
Yet is this always true? Another, different kind of magician explains that magic has as much to do with language as it does with perception and deception:
There is some confusion as to what magic actually is. I think that this can be cleared up if you just look at the very earliest descriptions of magic. Magic in its earliest form is often referred to as “the art.” I believe that this is completely literal. I believe that magic is art and that art, whether that’d be writing, music, sculpture, or any other form is literally magic.
Art is, like magic, the science of manipulating symbols words or images to achieve changes in consciousness. The very language of magic seems to be talking as much about writing or art as it is about supernatural events. A grimmoir, for example, the book of spells, is simply a fancy way of saying “grammar.” Indeed, to cast a spell is simply to spell, to manipulate words, to change people’s consciousness.
Yet there is still a hiddenness in the use of language to achieve changes in consciousness. Language itself is a surprisingly mysterious process, and it is not entirely obvious why certain words and phrases invoke deep emotional reactions from us, especially given the arbitrary relationship between a given word and its meaning. Conversely, there is a surprising degree of speaking (often referred to by performers as “patter”) even in magic which does not appear to be dependent upon language. And of course, the performance of stage magic manipulates symbols, patterns, and images, every bit as much as a painting or a work of writing.
Perhaps the most concise definition I’ve been able to find comes from magician and philosophy professor Lawrence Hass, who defines magic as:
The artful performance of impossible things that generates energy, delight, and wonder.
Even this succinct and precise definition has its shortcomings, but it captures the “hiddenness” alluded to in the other definitions (the appearance of impossibility).
Another curious quality of these definitions is that they describe things which are real. I believe that subconsciously, most Americans walk around believing that magic is impossible and superstitious by definition. “Magic” is often a sarcastic euphemism for what is certain to not happen: “how’re you gonna solve that, Chris? Magic?” People go to a magic show and believe that what they are witnessing is the illusion of magic, of performers composing the appearance of magic, but of course, not achieving the real thing. But this misses the point: magic is the appearance. The illusion is the magic. That the audience feels as if they are seeing the impossible — even if, at the back of their minds, they are certain it must actually be possible, somehow — is the achievement of the changing of conscious states, the creation of wonder, delight, and energy, which is evidence of “real” magic.
Where magic really becomes interesting, however, is when it becomes practical. So far, the descriptions of Clark, Teller and Hass seem to imply that magic is more or less limited to entertainment. But this is not where magic originated, nor is it the role that magic has played throughout the majority of human history. Magic is one of the cultural universals, appearing in all societies around the world, and it arose is every society to serve a practical purpose, not as an amusing past-time. Modern-day magicians sell magic short by pretending otherwise.
I first saw the power of real, practical magic in action through an acquaintance I was privileged enough to meet named Paul Waggener.
Waggener’s magic extends in many directions: music, visual art, writing, combat, and leadership, but perhaps the most demonstrative example of his utilization of magic is his very body. Magicians very commonly dress in strange and striking manners in order to help facilitate the change in consciousness they seek in others, but Paul uses symbols, words, and stories of the impossible (particularly, of men turning into wolves) in order to achieve changes in his own consciousness. He employs these techniques in a practical manner to change his own body, in a manner which, to many, appears impossible. His muscular frame now truly does more closely resemble a wolf, or a mountain lion, or a bull, than an ordinary man… or is that a visual side effect of his tattoos?
He explains more of his philosophy on magic in his book on the subject, where he defines it as Aleister Crowley did:
…the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will.
This definition seems like a deviation from our previous understandings. Where is the impossibility? Where is the wonder? Where is the change in perception? Although it has different emphasis, the meaning is the same.
It just has a bit of an existentialist flair.
In a big world where everything has a mechanistic cause, it can often feel impossible to actually change anything. Depression, cynicism, and nihilism are becoming more common and dominant cultural attitudes because everything has been made “safe,” which often means tamper-proof; unchangeable. It can often feel as though change is impossible, that we are at that horrible end of history where we are no longer agents, and are therefore, no longer really human. Perhaps we aren’t even really alive, or may as well not be.
Although he doesn’t put it in these dramatic terms, it is exactly this feeling which Hass claimed to be combating by demonstrating impossible things which inspire awe and wonder. The creation of energy is the creation of life, in his audience. It is inspiration. It says “maybe crazy and beautiful things can still happen…”
But there is a problem with this performance; the very fact that it is on a stage, that it is acted out as a performance undermines the desired effect. While watching an act, no matter how enthralling it is, we still know that it is an act, for our entertainment and nothing else. It is not something that we could do, and as we exit the theater, we may still carry with us some of that energy we were gifted with, but mentally, we are already shifting gears back into the “real” world; the one where we have no feeling of control.
The practical magic of Paul Waggener does not suffer from this problem. His Wolves are visually transforming in a way that is awe-inspiring, and which creates a feeling of agency in those who observe it.
What makes these accomplishments “magic” is that they are not merely the result of scientific best practices and “mundane” self-improvement strategies. These things certainly play a role, but the achievement of Paul Waggener’s magic appears to be intimately tied up in mysterious practices, dark-looking rituals, and strange symbolism. Intentional appearances to the contrary, these are not the result of evil deeds (I personally find the Wolves of Vinland to be significantly less evil than any political party in America, presently), but the cause of the changes in consciousness which propel the actions which, in turn, achieve the desired outcome.
In other words, you could just go for a run, but most people don’t, even when they tell themselves “I probably should…” It’s hard because you’re still in the same not-running mindset you’re usually in, or worse, the failing at running mindset you’ve developed by telling yourself repeatedly that you ought to run, and then repeatedly not going. It’s much easier to shock yourself out of your normal mindset, and to create a new, “running” mindset with places, images, scents, sounds, and words foreign to your not-running or failing at running mindset. Then you can go for a run… and you’ve used magic to achieve that impossible, energizing change, in conformity with Will.
Another example that readers may be more familiar with: Dr. Jordan Peterson has been memed and mocked for telling grown men to clean up their rooms, as if his audience is just a bunch of over-age children who didn’t listen to their parents. But what’s compelling about Peterson’s prescription (and what this mockery misses) is not the advice itself, but the reasoning behind the advice: that because our environment effects how we perceive the world, cleaning and beautifying our room becomes a transformative act that makes you more powerful. It makes other tasks appear more doable, which makes them actually more doable. Far from being a chore begrudgingly and half-heartedly performed to please ones’ parents, cleaning your room (or your house, or your neighborhood, or your city, or your nation, or your planet) is the preparatory act of a magical performance. It is the ritual that sets the stage for the accomplishment of what previously appeared impossible.
Despite my years of interest and study, I am still relatively new to magic, and not wanting to bite off more than I could chew, I have been experimenting with a form of practical magic of my own. Borrowing from Buddhist monks and their saffron robes (and, if truth be told, from the Rajneeshees of Antelope, Oregon), I bought a pair of maroon shorts and matching shirts. I keep these separate from my other clothes, putting them on only at certain times. Despite their simple appearance, they are priest robes for me; while wearing them, I become a religious caretaker of my house. I allow myself to do chores in ordinary clothes, but while wearing maroon shirt and shorts, I do not allow myself to do anything other than taking care of the house, whether that be mowing the lawn, cleaning the kitchen, fixing an appliance, or changing something in the crawlspace.
The priest clothes are more than mere chore clothes. Chore clothes are half-way there, but chore clothes are utilitarian garments of convenience. We wear them because we don’t mind getting them dirty, but we also don’t mind doing other things while wearing them. The priest clothes are not about dirtiness; they’re about achieving that change in conscious states. They are about changing your home, changing yourself, and changing your relationship to your home.
Incidentally, the introduction of these priest clothes has had a positive transformative effect on my relationship with my wife as well, albeit a mild one. Many men will say that doing too many chores around the house will effeminize you and make your wife respect you less, but I don’t believe they’re getting the causality correct; I think more likely, it is the men who don’t do chores, and who need to be told to do chores, and who then do what they’re told, who gradually appear more effeminate to their wives. There is nothing effeminate about taking the initiative in caring for something that you own. The care itself signals a sense of possessiveness that is actually masculine in nature. In any case, it is something that seems to be a relationship positive to boot, despite not being part of the original intent.
It is still too early to tell what the full effects of the priest clothes are, especially as the basic inventions of a novice only experimenting with magic. But it seems clear that it is surprisingly easy to manipulate your environment in ways that alter your mind in pursuit of worthwhile goals. More interestingly, there does not appear to be a limit to where this skill can take you, within the constraints of time, skill, and experience, of course.
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