Gnosis

Here is yet another in an ever-lengthening sequence of posts on magic. Here are the previous installments: one, two, three, four, five, six. I’m almost done with this series, whose final post impends. Next time, I will loop this long, long train of thought back into an idea I started thinking through a year ago and then left hanging. I’ll leave it vague, but for now I’ll say, if my planned resolution of this very long-range structural dissonance works it’ll be like

hail mary tireThough right now, subjectively, writing about magic feels like driving endlessly in the dark at very high speed.

lost highway

I have ended up describing magic in terms of “xenorationality,” a strange rationality within the bounds of a separate reality defined by those that participate in it. From the beginning of this series I have suggested that Ramsey Dukes’s as if is the “open sesame” we utter at the threshold of this reality.  I have also been arguing all along that magical thinking is utterly commonplace and everyday (“you’re soaking in it“), and yet you might have noticed that my examples of xenorationality are pretty far from everyday: a ritual to summon a ghost, a militant hippie commune, giving pro wrestlers the finger. If you go further back through my series, you might remember my fictional example of Ivy, a woman whose experience of augury convinces her to leave her lover. In every case, there is some kind of intensity that goes beyond the mild business of driving the morning commute, getting take-out Chinese, etc.

Dramatic examples make for a vivid argument, but it’s important to remember that magic can be experienced anywhere, in the humblest of places. Your order of take-out might have a fortune cookie whose message is eerily apt to your present circumstances, for instance, and you won’t have to make any particular effort to experience it as meaningful.

All the same, there does seem to be a connection between magic and states of special intensity, and that’s what I’m writing about today: not magical thinking in everyday life, but a purposefully magical act. So far, what I’ve written about might make you feel that magic isn’t as nutty, spooky, and louche as you had originally thought. But maybe your first impressions were right. There’s a limit to how far anyone can go to make magic work within a rational framework. As Wittgenstein wrote, at a certain point explanations come to an end*, and that end will come a good deal faster for a magician than it will for Wittgenstein.

In order to describe the way belief is held in ritual, I’ve had to appeal to the special mental state that makes it possible for the magician to divest her awareness from the “objective reality” that ordinarily constrains our thoughts and actions. Ritual can induce this state, and someone who enacts a ritual can summon a daimon without being troubled by the thought that daimons don’t exist. Psychoactive drugs can work as well: the White Panther Party’s unilateral secession from the consensus reality was fueled by heavy drug use. So too can states of intense emotional excitement: throwing myself into a frothing sea of furious, mulleted, lumberjacketed Northern Ontarians allowed me to experience the transparently bogus spectacle of pro wrestling as a real sporting contest.

Some magicians call this special mental state “gnosis,” and I’ll use the word to signify the altered state in which the magician works. Let’s say that the magician — I’m getting tired of writing about a purely hypothetical magician, so let’s say it’s Ivy, again — Ivy, being born into our post-Enlightenment, wised-up age, doesn’t really believe in daimons.** So for her to perform a magical act, it is as if she takes her disbelief in daimons and places it in a safe-deposit box. Now, I wrote last time that this is not a matter of saying “I don’t believe in daimons but will pretend that I do, at least as long as I’m waving this wand around.” This would maintain a distinction between subjective experience and objective reality — subject-object dualism, in other words — which is not what she is after. So Ivy works to forget she ever put anything in her lock-box in the first place.

If Ivy in gnosis eliminates the distinction between in-the-box and out-of-the-box, then obviously there isn’t a box at all. And it is possible for the negations to continue further: there is neither a box nor is there not a box. In this account, Ivy’s gnosis leads her to what Christian mystics might call the “cloud of unknowing.”*** At which point my metaphor dissolves entirely and what goes on inside Ivy’s head remains opaque to rational discourse. But that’s just for Ivy. If I talk about a magician stashing her disbelief in a lock-box then I’m still assuming a dualism, an in-the-box and an out-of-the-box. If the distinction doesn’t exist for Ivy, then it exists for us, and we presume we can gain true knowledge of an objective situation within which Ivy maintains a subjective and to some degree deluded point of view.

But I presume no such thing. I want to understand magic from its own standpoint and not from academic’s customary historicist/ironic point of view, as weird shit that silly people used to believe and even sillier people believe now. If I take that line, I have almost nothing intelligent to say about magic at all: the rationalist daimon pops up and makes the subject disappear, so we are no better off than before. So I can’t assume that Ivy’s reality “in there” is invalidated by ours “out here.” Indeed, from a magical perspective there is really no “out here” or “in there,” just different “in heres.” What I am characterizing as the irreducible plurality of our various “in heres,” none of which can assume a privileged standpoint vis-à-vis the others, is what Robert Anton Wilson called “reality tunnels” and what Ernesto Laclau meant by “ideology.”

Although this idea has some provenance within postmodern cultural theory, it remains a hard thing for us to wrap our heads around. It’s not something anyone can prove. The very concept of “proof” assumes a subject-object dualism. Remember what I said before about how the Hermetic symbol of the rational intellect is the sword: to understand a thing, you must make a cut and separate it from what it is unlike. Magical thinking, by contrast, tends to be holistic rather than separative.

Well damn, this “gnosis” seems pretty complicated. How does Ivy get to understand it? She doesn’t “understand” it as a thought, she practices it, she attains it. In short, she must change her consciousness, not simply furnish her consciousness with a new idea. So she does a ritual, or she takes psychedelic drugs, or she whips herself into an emotional frenzy by dervish dancing or, I dunno, going to the Sudbury Arena to watch wrestling.

Or she can just meditate, though that’s much less exciting than blood sacrifice and orgies in robes and interesting hats, which is what people always seem to associate with magic. However, the problems that contemplative science has encountered trying to understand mental states in meditation are the same as those that we encounter when trying to say something intelligent about gnosis. Academic knowledge is underwritten by the possibility of third-party confirmation: if I say that I perceive something, it has to be the sort of thing you can perceive as well. But if I start talking about a state of experience in which the duality of subject and object disappears, there is little chance of third-party confirmation, unless the researcher works his way through a certain experiential process himself, whether through meditation, magic, yoga, drugs, or some other “technology of experience.”**** At which point it does not become third-party knowledge, but rather another first-party knowledge held in plurality with others. The published scholarship I’ve found that tries to address this problem is unconvincing, at least to me.*****

Gnosis marks the point where rational explanations end. If you want to keep going—if you’re asking, but how does gnosis hide the magician’s disbelief? what does the magician really believe?—you’ll have to try it yourself.

Now for academics this can hardly be satisfying. I can imagine a dialogue between me and a skeptical academic:

PF: The magician can forget her own disbelief and act as if daimons are real.

SA: How does she forget her own disbelief?

PF: She enters a special mental state called gnosis.

SA: OK, but how does that mental state manage belief?

PF: It just does. I dunno, try it yourself.

SA: So you have no explanation.

PF: There is no explanation. I’m not holding out on you. There’s just no point to this conversation any more, because I’m talking about something experiential, and as I wrote last time, experience and explanation are two different things.

SA:A phenomenon for which there is no possible explanation is by definition a magical phenomenon. So what you’re really saying is, the way a magician does a magical act is by a magical act. It’s a tautology.

PF: Well, you’ve got me there. As I say, at a certain point explanations come to an end.

You can ask someone to tell you what gnosis is like, but magicians are notoriously unwilling to talk about this kind of thing. And even if you get one to talk to you, you won’t learn what you really wanted to know.***** Again: explanations are not the same thing as experience.

This post doesn’t really contribute much to the final tying-up I promised in the first paragraph of this post. Perhaps it doesn’t contribute anything at all except confusion. But I felt I needed to write it, because it’s important to keep in mind that magic is weird. For academics, it a constant challenge not simply to assimilate it to our habitual subject-object ways of seeing the world. Not everything is easily conformable to the forms of knowledge acceptable to academia, and magic is something of a limit case. “Nothing human is alien to me,” boasts the humanities. Prove it, says magic.

When I first starting reading and thinking about magic, I had one question that kept coming back to me, and you may have the same question as well: how can people think they’re doing magic — real, supernatural magic — in an age where no educated or rational person can possibly believe in such things? I mean, little kids can say they want to be Harry Potter when they grow up, but adults? So I have focused on the negative side of belief — how a self-described magician in this day and age handles disbelief. This is just a way of keeping things simple. Obviously, there’s much more to magic than suspended disbelief.

Where things get interesting is when we start asking about what magicians do believe, or maybe more to the point how they believe. Ramsey Dukes made an interesting point about this in a recent comment: in a magical style of thought, belief is a gift we bestow on ideas, an investment in them, rather than a “recognition that the belief has been earned by proof.”

There are magicians whose belief in their gods and gurus is every bit as fanatical as that of any more mainstream kind of fundamentalist. I look back over my recent writings and see myself saying “the magician does this” or “the magician says that” and I have to remind myself that there are many different kinds of magicians, just as there are different kinds of artists. But again, I have in mind someone like Ivy, a thoughtful child of a skeptical age, who must figure out how to play with strange and archaic ideas of daimons and augurs while remaining in commerce with the modern world in which she lives. Such a person would have to manage a kind of double-jointedness of belief, an ability not only to put away disbelief but to assert powerful positive beliefs while holding them in a state of play. Dukes (again) writes about this:

We all recognize the power of absolute belief — fanaticism can move mountains — but we see that it is a power that tends to rule the believer. Magic is more concerned with ruling over power than being ruled by it. The struggle is perhaps to “beef up” our carefully chosen beliefs by making the unconscious accept them as absolute, but without handing over control in the process.

It is because of this confusion about belief — the heavy associations which linger in the word — that I have wondered about finding an alternative or replacement concept. Instead of “believing in” some idea, might we not “delight in” it? or “rejoice in” it? Or perhaps it is better to kidnap a dated phrase and say “instead of believing in ideas I am going to dig them.” So the answer to “do you really believe in spirits?” becomes “no, but I really dig them!” [Dukes, “Paroxysms of Magic,” in What I Did In My Holidays, 61-62.]

As someone who wrote a book called Dig, I naturally respond warmly to the latter suggestion. And the sense in which hip culture used the word “dig” is almost exactly the sense that Dukes gives it in this context. As I write at the beginning of my book, digging isn’t just liking, it’s about getting involved. Or participating, to use a word I have been leaning on lately.

Next time, dig Philip K. Dick digging the universe.

*“Erklärungen haben irgendwo ein Ende.” Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), 3.

**Dukes makes the counterintuitive argument that most magicians don’t really believe in what they’re doing:

Magic … inherits unconscious skepticism from Science. Just as the “open minded” Scientist is deep down a total believer in material reality, so also the “gullible” Magician deep down does not really believe in anything. When astrologers, for example, get together one of the commonest conversational gambits is “last week I had Saturn pass over my Mercury and — it’s absolutely incredible — my car broke down three days running!” Ritual magicians can be heard saying “we did this healing rite and — it’s absolutely incredible — next time he went to the doctor there was no sign of the tumour.” Can you imagine a group of chemists getting together and saying “I put this litmus paper into the acid and — it’s absolutely incredible — it changed colour”?

As I explained in my second volume of essays — Blast Your Way To Megabuck$ With My SECRET Sex-Power Formula — what so many unevolved Magical thinkers are trying to do is to convince themselves of the reality of a Magic which, deep down, they do not believe can really exist. In the Science sector an open, skeptical mind is a virtue that one aspires to, in the Magic sector it is an inner emptiness one seeks to fill with meaning. [Dukes, S.S.O.T.B.M.E. Revised, 45-46.]

***I am describing a kind of magic that is most widely associated with Austin Osman Spare, but this negative-dialectical style of dismantling an inhibiting rationalism goes back to the Mahayana Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna.

****This is a term I coined for my book, where I argue that the habit of assimilating experience to propositional meaning is so thoroughly ingrained that we somehow need to remind ourselves of the difference. If we care to explore this difference, we need tools by which we can experience our experience. If that makes any sense.

*****See for example Jonathan Shear and Ron Jevning, “Pure Consciousness: Scientific Exploration of Meditation Techniques,” in The View from Within: First-Person Approaches to the Study of Consciousness, ed. Francisco Varela.

******However, at least a couple of anthropologists have tried. One robust recent attempt by an academic to speak from within magical consciousness is Susan Greenwood’s The Anthropology of Magic, which I strongly recommend. This book also has a good discussion of Lucien Lévy-Bruhl’s notion of “participation,” which is implicit rather than explicit in what I’ve been writing but which is really important to understanding the difference between rational and xenorational thought.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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