On Magic(k), Reality & Belief

Originally published back in 2005CE...

I Digress; or, A Riddle.

One day, some years ago, my sister sent me an email which was entirely written in capital letters. I forget what we were talking about, but I replied to her, pointing out gently that typing in caps is bad "netiquette" & is considered SHOUTING. Nothing serious, I just didn't know if she was aware of the convention.

In reply she expressed surprise that I'd pick up on this - "I always thought you were a non-conformist", she said.

This puzzled me. It really made me think. Because, although I might have long hair, & piercings, & t-shirts with flashing lights on them, there are other ways in which I'm really quite conventional. I am, for example, a real spelling & grammar facist, & I've lost count of the number of times that I've chastised poor, unsuspecting acquaintances for saying that they're jealous when they're really envious. I also have a 9 to 5 job, & a mortgage, & a cat.

I gave it a lot of thought; then the next day I replied with the following question:

"If I'm going to be a non-conformist, does that mean that I should conform to being a non-conformist?"

I don't recall her having a good answer for that. Nor indeed has anyone else to whom I have posed this question had a good answer. Remember this question, for I shall return to it.

Crowley & The Mongoose; or, What A Great Name For A Band

Let it be noted here that I am not much of a fan of Aleister Crowley. He was, ultimately, a riotous old bullshitter, to the extent that his tome The Book Of Lies is, as it suggests, composed entirely of untruths, from the publishing imprint date in the front of the book onwards. While I'm a fan of speaking in riddles, & while it's hard to criticise him when he was being so honest about his lies, something about his approach fails to connect with me.

However, there are one or two pronouncements that he made that struck me as very interesting indeed. In Alan Moore's Promethea comic I recently read that Aleister had been particularly fond of an old joke which, he maintained, when understood correctly, held the secret of magic. The joke is this:

A man is sitting in the compartment of a train. On gets another man, carrying a cardboard box, the roof of which has been punctured to create breathing holes. After a few minutes silence, the first man cannot contain his curiosity any further, & he asks whether the box contains an animal.

"It does", replies the second man, "& furthermore I can reveal that the animal in question is a mongoose".

"If I might ask", says the first, "why are you carrying this mongoose?"

"I shall tell you," replies the second, "even though it concerns a family matter. My brother, alas, has lived a life of debauchery & vice, most particularly succumbing to the vagaries of alcoholism. Indeed, his condition has deteriorated so much that he sees snakes all about him at all times. This is why I am taking him the mongoose, which is a snake's natural predator".

There was silence in the carriage for a few moments, while the first man thought, before saying "But surely, these snakes which afflict your brother are imaginary?"

"Indeed", says the second man, "but this is an imaginary mongoose".

The PR Connection; or, Magic(k) In Theory & Malpractice

"Surely," (I hear you cry), "you don't believe in magic?"

Well, no, but that's because I'm a discordian & we discordians don't believe in anything - or rather, we try not to believe in anything, but we do not believe that we'll succeed in that. Wrong question.

"OK," (you say), "but you're not suggesting that magic works, are you?"

Well, that's a different matter; &, as with so many such things, it depends. It depends largely on what you mean by magic. I might say, for instance, that magic obviously works okay for David Blaine, or David Copperfield, or Paul Daniels, or even that it worked pretty well for the inestimable James Randi.

"But surely," (you whine), "that's not real magic."

I beg to differ.

I propose that magic be defined as: the art of altering what people believe to be the case about the world - either someone else, or yourself. As a for instance:

Consider the case of Coca-Cola. It's a sugary, carbonated, brain'n'tooth rotting drink in a red can. But at some point, some marketing executive came up with the bright idea of putting in the public's heads a connection between Coca-Cola & sex. Advertising budgets of millions, perhaps billions, in whichever currency takes your fancy, are spent on promotional, propagandistic films showing young, beautiful, sexy people drinking Coke. Are they young, beautiful & sexy because they drink coke? Or do they drink coke because they're young, beautiful & sexy? Does it matter?

Once this idea takes hold, its power is frightening. Coke is associated with sex. So perhaps sexy people feel that that's the drink for them. & perhaps someone with little self confidence drinks coke, & feels more confident because of their posession of this talisman of sexiness. Perhaps because they're more confident, & confidence has everything to do with sexiness, they actually become sexy. Perhaps other people notice this, & it reinforces the subconscious belief structure. So Coke has become sexy - hasn't it? That ridiculous association between the sugary, carbonated drink & sex has actually become real in the minds of the public.

Of course, everything these days is sold by association with sex. Razors, cars, diet plans, drinks, foods, clothes. This is not surprising. (To quote Barry Fucking Manilow) - Could it be magic?

The second example that I would cite is the story of How They Got American Women To Smoke. Edward Bernays was the nephew of Sigmund Freud, & when he moved to America after the second world war, he was eager to apply his uncle's ideas to business & commerce. One of the bees in the bonnet of the tobacco industry was the question of how to hawk their wares to the great untapped market of women. They were up against a society which, frankly, just didn't think smoking was very feminine - in fact it was something of a taboo. To the extent that it was illegal for a woman to light up in public.

"Leave it to me," said Bernays, who went away, thought, consulted psychologists, & planned. In 1928, during the Easter Day parade in New York's 5th Avenue, & at Bernays' behest, a large crowd of young suffragettes all lit up cigarettes simultaneously in front of the assembled American press photographers. & the headline in the next day's papers? "TORCHES OF FREEDOM!"

I shit you not. Bernays had made nicotine addiction a symbol of feminism. & sure enough, American women began to smoke.

(To quote Fucking Queen) - It's a kind of magic.

The Reality of Illusion; or, The Shaming Of The True

There is a wonderful story which I've read in many forms over the years. In it, the young Zen student approaches his teacher to say that he has achieved enlightenment; that reality is an illusion. His teacher immediately strikes him on the head, & asks "Who, then, is hitting you?" On hearing this the student thanks his master, for now he is truly enlightened.

The next time some New Age woo-woo tries telling you that "we all make our own realities", try hitting them, hard. When they complain, ask them "Why have you created a reality where I am hitting you?"

None of which is to say, though, that things are as simple as one might like. You can't dismiss the illusions any more easily than you can dismiss the physical world...

Robert Anton Wilson has given the world a fascinating thought experiment; proof that You Have Two Heads. The proof goes something like this: firstly, as most people accept, we can never experience the universe directly. Your experience of the world is mediated through your senses - your eyes detect light reflected off objects, your ears detect sound waves, &c. Secondly, it follows from this that, in a sense, you create the universe, or rather a map of the universe, within your head. Whenever you refer to the universe, you can never even refer to it directly, only ever to the map of the universe in your head. Thirdly, it follows from the previous two points that whenever you speak about your head, which is located within the physical universe, you can only ever be referring to the head which is within your map of the universe, which is in your head. Two heads.

Thinking about this even briefly, one can see that this is, in fact, a proof that You Have An Infinite Number Of Heads. For when you talk about your head, within the universe, within your head, you are actually talking about your head, within the universe, within your head, within the universe. Which is within your head. Is your head hurting yet? Which one?

I myself have expressed it thus in my song Labyrinth:

The Universe Is
In Your Head Which Is Within
The Universe

which is also a haiku. :-)

Someone - & I forget who - remarked that "If reality is an illusion, it's a remarkably persistent one". So much so that I, personally, think that it's entirely reasonable to assume that there is, in fact, some physical matrix of reality, although we can never know it, & although there is no way that such a thing can ever be proven.

What is an illusion, though, is pretty much everything else in our lives.

Take money, for example. What actual value does money have? You can't eat it. You can't clothe yourself in it (practically). You can't build a shelter with it. Conceivably you could melt down coins & forge something useful, like an axe or a knife, but by & large, money has no inherent value. It only has any value at all because you & I both subscribe, willingly or no, to the convention that It Has Value. Because we agree that we will use these tokens as markers of relative economic potential, we invest these pieces of paper with worth.

Similarly leadership, whether by a monarch, a president, or a tribal leader; they have authority because we all agree (?) that this family has been annointed by God to lead us, or that we have elections every few years & whoever gets the most votes gets to tell us what to do for the next few years. It's all based on agreement. It's all imaginary.

So when you're at work, dealing with your boss, that hierarchy that defines your relationship is imaginary. When you're stuck indoors at the end of the month before payday & can't afford to go out, that is an imaginary problem. Those starving millions in what we rather patronisingly call the Third World are starving in reality, for imaginary reasons. The problem is when these ideas are not limited to one person's imagination, but exist in the minds of many millions.

Imaginary problems. Did anyone see where that imaginary mongoose got to?

The Silent K; or, Crowley's False Dichotomy

Whilst Crowley was undeniably brilliant in all sorts of ways (Liber 777 being his crowning achievement, IMHO), the thing about him that really bugs me is that little extra K. He called his craft Magick, to distinguish it from "mere" stage illusion. To my mind, he has done his followers, & the stage magicians, an injustice.

If you go to see a magician's performance, you are in a very special context, which is to say that you know you are there to be fooled. The assistant appears to vanish, or appears to be cut in half. You know that can't be the case, but you suspend your disbelief.

But the dodgy tarot/crystal ball reader is just as much a magician. The trouble is that the magic is really being worked on the customer. If the reader can convince the punter (or even themselves) that they have special powers to predict the future, then that too is a succesful act of magic - just not a successful act of prediction. As I said before at the beginning of this article, magic is all about messing with what people think is the case.

If you think that magic is all about pointing your finger at your enemy & emitting a lightning bolt with which to strike him down, then you're going to be disappointed. If, however, you could create some piece of equipment that let you appear to release lightning bolts from your finger, & if you could make others believe that to be the case - then that would probably make all sorts of dealings with those people easier for you. They'd think that you had some sort of power, & thus might be more inclined to do as they're told. Imaginary, all imaginary.

Similarly, if you can make people believe that you can summon up demons, then wouldn't they be more compliant? & if you could make yourself believe that you can summon up demons...

In Conclusion; or, In Delusion

I've been meaning to write this article for a while now. Reading it back, it seems about half as coherent as it needs to be. It is far from my final word on the matter(s), contains ideas that I'll probably come back to in time, & some on which I'll doubtless change my mind. Nonetheless, I wanted to get these thoughts down.

I've been "theoretically" interested in magic for many years, but none of the systems that I came across seemed terribly satisfactory. I had my own personal awakening aged 23 (which I'll write about soon), but I couldn't even begin to assimilate the experience until age 28, when I discovered Discordianism. At last, thought I, a system that doesn't require you to believe anything silly - or anything at all!

It's been a long journey to this point of understanding, but I can now see that, for me, magic is manifested in music. Music is My Magic(k). That's where I pour my efforts; trying to communicate with people, trying to tell them stories, trying to crowbar ideas into their heads by hiding them within melody & rhythm. Trying to mess with their ideas about the world. We don't have to have money. We don't have to have leaders.

I'm just trying to set the imaginary mongoose on the imaginary snakes that are causing everyone such grief.

"If I'm going to be a non-conformist, does that mean that I should conform to being a non-conformist?"

You remember that question from the beginning? The one that I asked my sister? This is another false dichotomy. The solution, as with so many of these riddles, is to step outside the riddle & understand that when you're being asked to choose between A & B, the answer is often C. Such imaginary problems as these are easily recognisable by the paradoxes they create, such as the one created by that question.

There is no such thing as a non-conformist, or a conformist. Those are words which we've invented to describe types of behaviour, but nobody is entirely one, or entirely the other. In fact, merely to talk of a non-conformist immediately invites a logical contradiction; in order to "be" a non-conformist, one has to conform.

I'm just a human being, who sometimes conforms & sometimes doesn't. I'm free to do either - as is everyone.

Now That's Magick.