The Magical Choice: One Witch’s Musings upon Existentialism
The study of magic is, by and large, the study of paradigms. The Witch — by whatever title she or he may adopt — steps beyond the default worldview presupposed by the surrounding society, and instead cultivates a unique paradigm which resonates with her or his deepest intuitions. This line of inquiry constitutes an ever present challenge for the practicing Witch. Our sisters and brothers who practice Chaos Magic may well find this interpretation of magic resonates with their approaches. For the Chaos Magician, paradigms are tools which the enlightened soul can adopt and abandon at will. Dancing from one worldview into the next, ever light of step, the Chaos Magician draws from some particular paradigm what she or he requires before moving on. Key to this approach is the conviction that all paradigms are merely artificial constructs by which we organize and render intelligible an essentially ineffable cosmos, yet herein we discover the key dilemma of Chaos Magic: If all paradigms are ultimately expendable, then where can we hope to ground the very conviction all paradigms are expendable interpretations? Thus presented, the argument becomes paradoxical, which may prove no obstacle for the practicing Chaos Magician — or for the Mystic, should we care to explore beyond the boundaries of the purely rational.
Still, the rationalist inside me, who has yet to surrender all hope for an intelligible universe, questions whether Chaos Magic simply sets up one meta-paradigm that encompasses all other possible paradigms. My concern here is simple: If the meta-paradigm thus proposed resolves into an essentially existentialist position, and I fear Chaos Magic indeed reverts back into existentialism, then how do we overcome or sidestep — or even incorporate — existential angst into our magical paradigms?
Allow me one step back. For those less versed in postmodern philosophy, existentialism proposes that existence precedes essence. That is, there is the world, eternally cold and mechanical in its manifold operations. These operations are pure existence, subsisting without reference to meaning or essence. Essence is what we add, the significance which conscious thought projects into the mechanical process. This essence can be thoroughly uplifting and optimistic — witness Soren Kirkegaard’s essentially Christian answer to the existentialist question! — yet whenever one takes up the mantle of existentialism, there lurks the spectre of nihilism. If all the universe is cold, mechanical process, devoid of any meaning apart from what we decide, then there can be no intrinsic meaning subsisting within anything. The universe simply grinds along, oblivious towards even the possibility of some deeper meaning. This scenario, as presented by existentialist philosophers like Sartre and Camus, becomes the source of existential angst, the pervasive and disquieting suspicion that any significance or teleology to things remains, at bottom, false.
It may remain possible that the Chaos Magician can refer all lesser paradigms back towards one primary reality which has meaning, transcending the merely mechanical. Certainly the irrepressible ebullience of Discordian thought suggests the possibility of one such meta-paradigm. Still, the question of whether reality is truly devoid of meaning — apart from what we add — remains.
This question turns especially vexing if we regard magic as something essential — that is, an essence — as opposed to something purely mechanical. If magic consists of the meaning we add into otherwise purely mechanical motions, then magic seemingly has no truck with reality at its most really real. (I recognize that if you do not perceive magic as the art of paradigm bending, I may have long since lost your attention, and if you regard magic as straightforwardly mechanical process, then existential angst constitutes no threat towards your magical paradigm. For those few readers as crazy as me, or for the morbidly curious, I shall continue this line of inquiry just a little further.)
While I am not deeply opposed to the existentialist project, I do regard their central proposition as essentially misleading. To assume that existence precedes essence means to assume an unobservable existence, for all observation imparts some meaning or essence, however slight and however poorly articulated. We simply cannot observe without becoming drawn into the connection between observer and observed. We are inexplicably entangled with the things we observe, and from this entanglement we derive the essence of the observed. Indeed, we might just as well say this entanglement — the way we think and feel about the observed — actually constitutes the essence in question. And there can be no unobserved existence.
Let me reiterate this point: There can be no unobserved existence. To say an existence is unobserved constitutes a manifest contradiction, since the supposition of the existence in question is itself an observation. Moreover, everything exists precisely by the virtue of being observed, by itself in the barest sense if nothing else. (For those familiar with my metaphysical views, my pantheism does allow for other forms and degrees of perception, but these I shall pass over presently in the interests of constructing the simplest argument possible.) Within everything there is essence, both the essence from self-perception and the essence from an outside observer. Existence and essence are forever and inescapably entwined, just as every being has both material and spiritual aspects. (Indeed, existence and essence are respectively much the same things!)
If spiritual essence always and everywhere coexists with perceived existence, then our next set of questions must revolve around what kind of essence we will or should intermingle with matter. Essence, consisting of a qualitative connection between observer and observed, depends in large part upon the choices we make when interpreting our world. Kirkegaard makes this very point in Works of Love when he suggests we are forever confronted with the choice between belief and mistrust. Love, argues Kirkegaard, is unique among the virtues in this: Love can only thrive within us when we believe in — indeed, unconditionally presuppose — the presence of love within others, from the first moment clear unto the last. Forever the mistrust endemic to nihilism raises the terrible possibility that there is no love within others, and whenever we choose this mistrust, we remove from ourselves the very possibility of finding love. Believe, and we find love, perhaps within others, yet more crucially — more gracefully — within ourselves. The tension between these two possibilities, between which we are eternally poised, lies at the root of existential angst.
Something of this same dilemma confronts the practicing Witch, I should think, for the quality of being magical, much like the quality of being loving, turns precisely upon finding without that which we seek within. To be magical means finding the magic inside those things around us, discovering the connections of meaning and correspondence which empower our spells. I’m not unaware that this position seemingly inverts the traditional formulation of the “Charge of the Goddess” — though in seeming only! Near the end of the Charge, the Goddess observes, “If that which you seek you find not within yourself, you will never find it without.” These are powerful words, words which counsel the Witch to look inward for genuine power and wisdom. To suggest we should seek the magical in the world around us, should we hope to discover the magic within, seems at odds with this Wiccan saying. Still, the choice to discover the magical inside things is itself a choice which dwells within the Witch, the same choice between belief and mistrust which Kirkegaard proposed nearly two hundred years ago. Magic is an essence, and essence depends upon the relationship between observer and observed that we ourselves choose. “Seek and ye shall find,” says the Christian. “As above, so below,” answers the occultist. And so our world takes shape. Seek love, and you will find love within. Seek magic, and magic you will surely possess. Seek the coldly mechanical universe, of course, and this you’ll find, as well.
Kirkegaard suggests we have no more reason to doubt the goodness within the world than we have to believe in things life-affirming, and I see no reason to doubt this essentially hopeful position. Indeed, the Chaos Magician can happily accept this argument, and then skip between the two positions as she or he desires, perhaps a little more mindfully than most everyone else who blend belief and mistrust in daily life. Still, this paradigm bending fails to escape the spectre of angst that existentialism suggests, and while I’m hesitant to jettison this pervasive sense of angst entirely, I am eager to arrive at workable terms with this metaphysical uneasiness. My solution returns to the central issue of ontological primacy. Simply stated, does existence precede essence? As an idealist, I simply don’t grant matter any existence independent of our ideas of matter. (Taking a page from George Berkeley, “To be is to be perceived.”) Furthermore, I believe every perception includes some qualification, some interpretation — in sum, some essence. Therefore, I cannot grant that existence precedes essence in any meaningful sense. This break from existentialism, however, becomes perhaps the greatest boon for the Witch, because every last sensible thing thus becomes pregnant with the possibility of magic. With every interaction, indeed with every bare perception, there arises the question of essence, whether this especial thing is something magical. And to this question, we Witches can answer with a resounding YES!
The nihilist will suggest we are simply fooling ourselves, choosing to make meaningless qualifications of an impersonal and mechanical universe. They will argue the underlying angst of existentialism points towards the one great truth, that everyone ultimately suffers alone within the cold void of reality. I don’t suggest we should remove all doubt about the nature of things, for such not only blinds us against genuine interaction with the world, but also removes the very emotional urgency which gives our Craft its power. In truth, the nihilist perceives reality through filters just as obscuring as those adopted by their magical brethren; the nihilist cannot cheat around our fundamental inability to grasp directly the ineffable nature of reality. All reality — everything that is — constantly forces us to choose between belief and mistrust, between the magical and the mundane, and this choice speaks most of all towards what we seek within ourselves. I choose to walk with belief, to walk with the magic around and within me. Such is the choice — and the power — of the Witch. And so with this choice I leave you, my dear readers.
©2009 Grey Glamer
Edited by Sheta Kaey