In Search of Magic

by Callum Watts

Isaac Newton’s copied diagram of the Philosopher’s Stone

Christmas gets me thinking about magic. Remembering the way I enjoyed Christmas as a child brings me back to a time when I believed in the power of supernatural phenomena. The most exciting piece of magic I performed was writing a message on a piece of paper, addressing it to Santa Claus in the North Pole, and setting it alight so that the smoke would be carried away on the winter breeze and read by him (I thought flying reindeer seemed pretty neat as well). The joy was of taking some of my innermost desires, embodying them materially and sending them into the world through a very practical activity, so that the universe could respond.

The sadness I felt at my loss of belief in Santa came from the realisation that I was living in a solely ‘material’ universe. As a scientifically curious child with no religious beliefs, the last bastion of magic had fallen. This death of magic was deeply disappointing, but this loss is not just at an individual one. In society as in biology, ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. That is to say, I was merely following in the steps of a journey of disenchantment that many secular societies had already been on. 

Max Webber was the first to comment on the way the triumph of science and bureaucracy was melting away traditional beliefs about the power of religion and the supernatural. He christened this process, which is distinctive of modernity, ‘disenchantment’. Science, by reducing the functioning of the universe to physical cause and effect gets rid of the need for explanations in terms of magic and gods and spirits. Likewise, modern bureaucratic systems reduce social life to rationalised processes which become ever more difficult to escape from, and dilute social activities of their traditional meaning in the name of efficiency and process.

The consequences of the loss of magic go far beyond a child’s disappointment over smoke signals in the winter night. Many of our practices of giving meaning to things have a magical basis to them. Philosophers like Habermas have worried about the possibility for solidarity and shared social meaning in the face of disenchantment, and Charles Taylor has explored how spiritual fulfilment is possible in such a dry world. Webber himself thought that it would lead to individual alienation and a fractured society full of competing value systems unable to reconcile with each other. But even at a more mundane level, in every culture magic has played an important role as a tool in the day to day lives of our species. It helps us relate to our environment and interact with it, and allows us to relate to each other across time and space. 

Chris Gosden’s recent history of magic makes the case that human beings have developed three big modes for dealing with the world; magic, science, and religion. Gosden does not treat magic, religion and science competing to replace one another, but rather as constants in the lives of most peoples throughout time. Science creates the abstract third person perspective which allows us to analyse and dissect the world. Religion is about our relationship to gods and trascendental powers. Magic is about our personal participation and agency in the universe. It explores correlations and connections between the human mind and body and things like the weather, passing time, nature and certain empowered objects like tarot cards. These connections can in turn be discerned or even influenced through careful practice. From encouraging a good harvest, soliciting advice or approval from ancestors, curing illnesses, or burning a letter to a magical being during the winter solstice, these customs can solve all sorts of real problems. To this day, most people ‘use’ magic of some kind on a regular basis. It is mostly in the highly secular WEIRD (western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic) countries that magic has faded from consciousness.

Gosden’s key insight is that magic is a natural mode of thought, and is experienced as a highly useful way of coping with the world. This is not the claim that magical thinking shows that magic is real in a scientific sense. Just that talking about energy flows or a kind of mysterious commerce between people, things, places and times is a pervasive feature of human life. This need not commit us to any particular claims which need to conflict with our scientific thinking. And if we just think in terms of the rituals, intuitions, and powers that help us practically deal with our environment, I think we can start to identify things you might describe as magic even in more secular societies.

One place I have noticed this is in conversations about energy. I don’t mean the physicist’s concept, but rather the more elusive idea that recurs in a variety of social contexts that might better be characterised as ‘vibes’ or feelings. This can refer to a place or time, but also comes up with the notion of individual energy or ‘vibe’. The idea that every individual, or at least many individuals, carry with them a set of traits and behaviours which conjure up certain impressions and emotions in others. This notion of someone’s energy is in fact just a shorthand for a set of phenomena too complicated and messy to precisely define during our everyday interactions.

We characterise people as being intense, warm, or of giving off a certain feeling of coolness or anxiety. Whilst this starts as an individual matter, we can see how it can become shared with others, who have similar energy, or have a complimentary ‘energy’. The details of this can pan out emotionally, artistically, or in a whole variety of forms of social collaboration. In each case we talk of a connection, of people being in sync, of people “vibing”. This too gets scaled up. We talk of the mood of the nation, the zeitgeist, signs of our times. We notice the phenomenon of movements motivated by collective anger, hope, fear, beliefs and needs. And here we can talk about the propagation of these energies and the social synchronising of them. 

And we intuit these things independently of any general socioscientific theory of individual or mass psychology, or of knowledge of statistical modelling of mass behaviours. Rather it is an ability and comfort operating in an ‘energy field’, our knowledge of our place within it, and the impact we can have upon it. And whilst we might give scientific veneers to ‘energy’ talk, it seems to me that Myers-Briggs and Rorschach type tests are really of a piece with tarot card readings. Even when we look at societal level, a lot of behaviour which has the appearance of being rational and scientific would look quite quixotic to someone who was not already cultured to a democratic and capitalist way of life. It’s always struck me that Aztec priests, who spent time on top of pyramids trying to prevent the end of the apocalypse through blood sacrifice, would probably recognise the power suited folk in boardrooms sitting at the top of steel and glass skyscrapers gambling on global markets as being their peers. Their charts and figures just as arcane, predictions and divinations just as uncertain, monuments and outfits just as ceremonial and cultish.

Another place I see modern magic is in art, where literal energy in the form of light waves or sound waves is transmitted to us from an object which affects us profoundly in ways we cannot predict. The intensity of the gaze of Van Gogh’s self portrait, the melancholic transcendence of a Billie Holiday song, and the muted joy of a Frank O’Hara poem all have the power to transfix and transport us. Art creates not just an emotional response, but also an intellectual one and a spiritual one, it works on us at multiple levels. Furthermore, as each individual has a different emotional, social, intellectual and spiritual history, it will affect each individual differently. And so we get the feeling of art as powerful objects we pay homage to and artists as bearers of mysterious truths. 

There are plenty of fascinating accounts that neuroscientists, psychologists, sociologists and art critics give us of the way art works. But there is something to the experience of art which still escapes these descriptions, something left over. This is not because it is outside the scope of human science or theoretically impossible to account for, but rather because it belongs to the life of each individual to learn to live with and use these artistic objects, whatever underlying explanation we have of them. It is an experience, both in terms of a subjective impression of a world, but also in the sense of something which gives us practical knowledge on how to live. The most theoretically or scientifically thorough explanation of a work of art still fails to engage with it and that ‘magical’ level.

When engaging with the world in terms of ‘social energies’, art or other similar phenomena, not everything can be usefully translated into science talk without missing something important. I think this remaining ‘magical’ space involves complex interactions between the social, cultural, spiritual and emotional aspects of ourselves and the environment we find ourselves in. This is less a process of thinking but more a skill that we learn through participation in the world, seeing our agency reflected in it in unpredictable and surprising ways, and staying open to certain kind of mystery. Whilst it can come naturally to dismiss all this as insufficiently hard-nosed hocus-pocus, especially to those of us immersed in WEIRD societies, this is a space that can still play an important role in our lives. By remaining open to the instinct and habits of mind which underly it, we may end up re-enchanted with our world, and more content for it.