Magic, But Not In Black and White

Photo by Hartwig HKD occult has traditionally enjoyed a mixed, often lukewarm at best, reception among organized religions. Chaos Magic, a relatively recently developed postmodern occult tradition which emphasizes the pragmatic use of belief systems, seems unlikely to buck the trend. (Add to that Chaos Magic’s mutual feelings towards religion.) But by taking an objective approach, we can see the issue as not so black-and-white.

In Psychonaut, Peter J. Carroll, one of the founding practitioners of Chaos Magic, takes a nuanced view toward spirituality in general, one that offers a number of helpful insights for anyone willing to listen.

For instance, the section of Psychonaut entitled “Magical Time” begins with this premise: “The celestial bodies which exert the greatest physical and psychic effects on the earth are the sun and moon.” He goes on to downplay astrology, extol moonbathing, and discuss in detail the best times during which to practice magic.

This leads him into a particularly interesting conception of time — as designated by sunspots. Carroll defines sunspots as “intense magnetic vortexes which move across the surface of the sun and tend to appear in large numbers every eleven years.” He describes their connection to the Earth as well:

“Sunspots have unpredictable effects on earth; sunspot maxima are more often than not associated with upheaval and disaster in the affairs of men. Events often move into a crisis phase and great changes begin. The picture is further complicated by a magnetic polarity reversal from one cycle to the next, giving a complete cycle of twenty-two years.[…] The last two maxima occurred in 1968 and 1979 marking the onset of optimistic and pessimistic currents respectively.”

The reader can easily use the strikes of May ’68 in France and the Iran hostage crisis beginning in 1979 to verify Carroll’s information, but therein lies one of the problems with his work: he presents almost everything as factual and conclusive, without really explaining the why of any of it. In this way, he tends to come across as even more dogmatic than the organized religions he opposes.

In an earlier section of Psychonaut, he portrays magic (all magic?) as anti-ideological and opposed to religion, coupling that blanket statement with another one: “Magic’s commitment to the good is reflected in its concern with individual freedom and consciousness and its interest in all other life forms on this planet.”

The seeming contradictions in Carroll’s writing deserve mention, but only as fair criticism. They should not overshadow his unique ideas and their positive influence. For example, he specifically addresses the positive at the end of the “Magical Time” discussion: “A knowledge of astronomical and temporal cycles ought not act as a restrictive influence on magical activity. Rather it should suggest times when such arts may be practiced with more than normal efficiency.”

Accordingly, in terms of the issue of religion, towards the beginning of Psychonaut, Carroll cites the evolution of a spirituality of magic as one of the two most important aspects of contemporary magic work. Again, we can’t simply deal with the black and white.

One of my favorite examples of Carroll’s original thinking comes not from Psychonaut or Liber Null (the volume that precedes Psychonaut, and usually comes printed with it in a single edition subtitled “An Introduction to Chaos Magic”), but in an interview with Vice. While I sometimes have difficulty with Vice‘s detached and hip self-consciousness, in this case, that quality seems to even out Carroll’s dryness, bringing him to a surprisingly personable and approachable level. In response to the question, “Huh?,” he replies:

“We have to remember that our past or pasts only exist in the now, at a particular moment of observation as physical evidence and memory. Any past that could have led to the moment of observation has to be considered, but we can only infer a change to the past when subsequent moments of present go off at an unexpected tangent. You cannot change the present moment, but you can change the “angle” from which the past approaches to modify the future.”

Carroll gives us a lot to consider here, but most importantly in the first and last sentences. The past is relative . . . and what you use of it (the angle from which you approach the present-cum-future) can be changed . . . to match your needs and desires.

Like the sunspots discussion, Carroll brings up the relativity of the past with the intent to use it positively in the present. Here, I find the writer/magician at his best, proving the reading of him well worth the trouble of sorting through his own dogmas.

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About the Author

I like to write, make films, play and watch soccer, meditate, read, and wander. I also enjoy psychogeography, Filipino cinema, craft beer, and strawberry shortcake. You can find me on Twitter and Google +.