Magic: Is It Another Four Letter Word?
In my most recent article for Reality Sandwich, “Magic: It’s More Than Just Finding Parking Spaces,” I discussed the stigmas or problem issues that surround the use of the word “magic” and the subculture of the occult, and I pointed out that until these stigmas are dealt with decisively, magic will never be rehabilitated. One commenter pointed out that it might be easier to say, “willful intentionality,” instead of saying, “magic,” because of all the baggage associated with the word. This leads me to ask, “Is magic another four letter word?”
Within the occult subculture, it could be argued that magic isn’t a four letter word, but I’m reminded of a recent incident where I overheard a description of a social networking meetup for local occultists. “We get together and hang out. We’ll talk about our jobs, or something fun we want to do, or plan when we’re going to go out and dance. We don’t about magic or any of the magical work we’re doing.” The passion that this was exclaimed with and the emphasis placed on not discussing magic at the meet up demonstrated an odd kind of attitude about magic, even from people who practiced it. It was as if people who came to such an event shouldn’t discuss magic, because it has no place in everyday life. Magic had become a four letter word.
While there is a lot of baggage associated with magic, another question I asked in the aforementioned article was about what the benefits of magic are, and in light of that question, I am going to use this article to address what those benefits are and why we shouldn’t treat “magic” as a four letter word.
One of the benefits of magic is that it provides access to alternate ways of knowing, ways of experiencing reality that fall outside the conventional approaches, such as religion, materialism, or science. Alternate ways of knowing incorporate techniques such as chemognosis, meditation, sex magic, ritual magic, energy work, but can also draw on disciplines outside of magic. The recent focus on semiotics and memetics is an example of practices from non-occult disciplines that have influenced magical practice.
Another benefit of magic is that it provides access to a variety of resources that fall outside the traditional spectrum of reality which we’re conditioned to believe in. These resources can include gods, angels, and demons, but also include cultivating our natural gifts, which may fall into disuse if not cultivated. A non-linear awareness of space/time, or the conscious manipulation of the physiology of the body is an example of accessing resources that fall outside the traditional spectrum of reality, but another example can be the intentional use of writing or collages to shape reality in a particular manner. By conventional standards, it would be argued that writing can’t directly shape reality. However, there are plenty of cases where writing has shaped a person’s life or events. William S. Burroughs and Ernest Hemingway are two examples; one knowingly did it and the other didn’t, with tragic consequences for him.
Magic also provides a person the opportunity to find answers to the spiritual questions s/he asks. Praying to a god is one way to find the answer, but the magician can also create the answer by his or her own efforts as well. And magic isn’t applied only to spiritual questions, but also to the practical concerns that can arise in living life. Utilizing magic to help you through a financial rough time or for healing a disease would be an example of a practical concern.
One could argue that everything I’ve mentioned above could be filed under “willful intentionality,” but would most people even understand that or know what “willful intentionality” meant? Certainly magic has its baggage and is sometimes a four letter word, but there are many associations with it that are positive. Many people have benefited from practicing magic and incorporating it into their lives. And many people, including yours truly, are proud to talk about magic with others, as well as practice it daily, instead of attempting to treat it as something you only deal with during special events or holidays.
Willful intentionality doesn’t have the negative associations, but it doesn’t have the positive associations, either. Another comment made to the aforementioned article was that if we were going to rehabilitate magic, it’s not a question of rehabilitating the term; it’s about rehabilitating how that term is used. I think this is an accurate point to make, and yet also a semantic one, because really what it points to is the need to rehabilitate the varied definitions of magic. Certainly, examining the definitions is important. It provides us an idea of how people understand the term as well as their own agenda for defining it in a particular way. But the application and processes also need to be considered carefully. When we do that, we aren’t just looking at magic from an abstract perspective, but also considering it from an experiential understanding of it.
Magic isn’t a four letter word. But how it’s been used and how it is understood has not always portrayed it in the best light. There is a lot of cultural and religious baggage associated with the word and even though it is marginally more acceptable now than it used to be, magic may not ever be free of that baggage. This may not matter to the occult subculture at all, but it does matter if we ever choose to take the concepts and practices of magic and present them to a more mainstream audience. At that point, “willful intentionality” may be the best choice of words to explain how those concepts work (or not, as I don’t think magic is just about an application of will and intent), but in the process we will have to lay out many of the underlying assumptions and beliefs inherent within the word “magic.” It makes for a semantic challenge, but also necessarily may force us to consider anew just what the benefits of magic are, as we share them with a broader audience than just the occult subculture.
Taylor Ellwood is the author of Space/Time Magic, Inner Alchemy: Energy Work and the Magic of the Body, and Pop Culture Magick, among other works. You can visit his blog at http://magicalexperiments.wordpress.com/ and his website at http://www.thegreenwolf.com/.
©2008 by Taylor Ellwood
Edited by Sheta Kaey