In his rather amusing Screwtape Letters, Christian apologist C. S. Lewis writes that Hell’s greatest achievement would be a “materialist magician.” That’s rather flattering of him, actually. It gives me a warm feeling inside.
It is not difficult to be a “materialist magician” if you have an understanding of what “magic” is and how it works. Indeed, atheism, materialism, and sorcery go very well together, the way strawberries compliment champagne. If you were to put me in a room, for example, with Richard Dawkins and Pope Benedict, I can guaruntee that two of us would find common ground, while the third would remain convinced we were both going to Hell. You do the math.
Naturally, we are not talking “Harry Potter” here. Before we go any further, it might be useful to define our terms. A definition of “magic” that would satisfy everyone from Yanomamo tribesmen to comic-book writing sorcerors like Grant Morrison and Alan Moore would be this; “the idea that ritual action produces specific results.” Essentially, magic is what prayer (“the idea that ritual action moves spiritual beings to produce specific results”) might look like after Ockham took his razor to it. It cuts out the middle-man. This is not to say that magic does not occassionally include the participation of spiritual beings, but the fundamental difference is that the magician is telling the spirits and not asking. In other words, the magician is the cause of the change, and not the spirit. This is significant because for prayer to work, the spirit must literally exist. It must have objective reality to hear the supplicant and grant the wish. For magic to work, the spirit need not “really” exist at all. Rather it can be understood as a symbolic device, an aspect of the magician’s own consciousness, or a pleasant hallucination. Indeed, the magicians who get themselves into trouble are the ones who start to believe the spirits are real. It’s a rookie mistake, but a lot of people make it.
The other rookie mistake is to expect too much from magic. The people who “do not believe in magic” are invariably those who A) never tried it, or B) tried it expecting the wrong effect. The shy, pizza-faced nerd who stands in a magic circle, chanting for the girl-next-door to fall madly in love with him, will inevitably become one of those who do not “believe in magic” when his spell fails. He will probably never understand what he did wrong.
To understand this, let’s first be clear that magic can be divided into two broad categories; the practical and the psychedelic. The two are not mutally exclusive, and often cross paths. By “psychedelic” we mean “a mental state characterized by heightened or altered perceptions,” from the Greek psyche or “mind” and delos or “manifestation.” By practical I mean something intended to produce a specific result. Where people usually fail in magic is concentrating too much on the psychedelic elements, losing sight of the practical.
Again with our nerd. After reading some New Agey books, he stands in a seven-sided heptagon drawn in green chalk on his basement floor, on a Friday night, scattering rose petals. He is calling upon Venus, the goddess of love, to deliever the girl-next-door to him, and the book said all those elements (the number 7, the color green, Friday, rose petals) are sacred to her. He recites some incantations, declares what he wants (“…I want Becky to notice me”), and then sits around on pins and needles waiting for the lovely Rebecca to dump her jock boyfriend and go head over heels for him. The problem, of course, is that all his ritual actions are geared towards the psychedelic experience of Venus, and have no real connection to getting into Becky’s knickers. He will achieve neither because he failed to differentiate between the two.
What he should have done was stew around for a week without jerking off, letting his libido build up to painful levels. Then on whatever night he decided to set aside for his magic, he should engage in some ritual activity that recreates the effect he wants. Forget Venus; our geek should vividly recreate in as much detail as possible mind-blowing sex with the girl of his dreams. Let him verbally describe all the naughty things he’d like to do with her, or draw pictures of them, or even just concentrate intensely on them in his mind. Let him wank off until he can’t see straight, until ever ounce of his pent-up emotion and frustration is expended. Then he should burn all the ritual materials, put Becky out of his head, and act as if he already had her. Done properly, Becky should be out of his system. If she should suddenly see him in a new light, wonderful. But if not it shouldn’t matter. He has scratched that itch. The real power of ritual magic is not in external effects, but in internal ones.
Now, there are certainly tricks of the trade--a cocktail combination of applied psychology, cold reading, and chicanery dubbed by the late Anton LaVey as “Lesser Magic”—our nerd could use to get closer to Becky and make her notice him. But ritual magic is meant to affect the subject, not the object. This is where most people get confused. Used in conjuction with each other, these two sorts of magic can have surprising results. But to rely exclusively on ritual magic to affect your object is a sure path to frustration.
It is this critical misunderstanding that spawns the whole “black” and “white” magic nonsense. A great number of practicing magicians out there whole-heartedly believe it is wrong or “evil” to do things like cast love spells or throw curses. They advocate only magic that helps or heals others. They have spectacularly missed the point. Down through history, magic has been the last recourse of the downtrodden, the held back, and the repressed because it gets negative emotions out of your system. You cannot take a gun into the office and blow your idiot boss away, but there is nothing wrong with fashioning a voodoo doll of him, visciously and vividly dismembering it while reciting all the horrible things you want to happen to the man. It is percisely this sort of thing that magic works marvellously for. It purges the system, and if some tragic accident does befall the rotter, so much the better!
It takes a certain type of personality to do this, of course. If you are not the type of person able to engage in an unihibited release of emotions, magic is not for you. But in reality, magic demands nothing from you that Mardi Gras or really good sex doesn’t. You just have to let yourself go within certain pre-defined parameters.
And there is, of course, the odd coincidence factor. Looking back, I think I can safely say that magic has appeared to reproduce objective results for me roughly 75% of the time. Naturally, such results may have occurred anyway, and I only attach importance to them because of the ritual connection. Further, I have seldom relied on ritual alone, prefering to follow ceremonial magic with positive action. But I’ve never really felt the need to dissect these things, and am comfortable with “happy coincidence.” And though I have had some extraordinary encounters with “spirits,” I have never seen anything to convince me that I am not dealing with projected elements of my own psyche (On some occassions I was tempted to go the opposite way, as one autumn when a “spirit” delivered messages to me in a complex numerical code. Never good with numbers myself, it took me some time to decide whether I was in contact with “something” or whether I had tapped into some part of my head that could produces number puzzles spontaneously. Ever a fan of William of Ockham, I decided the latter was probably the case).
Perhaps what Lewis meant about the materialist magician being Hell’s greatest achievement is that such a fellow would have no use for God. Armed with science to explain how we got here, and magic to fill the gap of “making us feel better” that prayer is supposed to, the Old Boy becomes a bit irrelevant. One can have all of the weird and wonderful fruits of mysticism without really being a mystic at all.