Between truth and magic

How does one go about becoming something that they don’t believe in?

I’ve now spent almost five years trying to answer this question. In my late thirties, a father of four working in a job that mostly paid the bills but didn’t feel like a future, I was in a rut. I needed to find something new and rewarding to do before the rot set in and I was permanently cast as one of those middle-aged grumps who pine for lost youth and resent those who still have it. None of the standard pastimes were suitable because they all meant associating with a group that I already resented deeply – men my own age who had settled into quiet suburban lives. I couldn’t bring myself to golf with them or risk bumping into them at Bunnings while stocking up for DIY projects. Fitting in was the problem, not the solution, so I needed to find my hobby somewhere else.

On a day trip to the country, after much discussion in the car, my son came up with the perfect solution: “Dad, you should become a wizard.” He was twelve years old at the time and fully aware of how realistic his suggestion was. He also knew me well enough to see that the impossibility of it would be part of the appeal. It was a perfect fit, a challenge to take my existing interests and attitudes to their ultimate conclusion. More than just a new hobby, becoming a wizard was now my destiny.

While I fully embraced this new calling, the first thing I had to do was step back and think about what it even meant. What is a wizard? Can wizards exist in the modern world? In my gut I knew the answers to these questions but I struggled to pin them down and articulate them, let alone turn them into practice. I spent many nights pondering in a candle-lit bath, listening to psychedelic rock music and reading anything I could find that might light the way forward.

My early efforts to be more wizard-like were mostly based on what felt right and what felt wrong. Most of us will share a similar image of what a wizard is. It’s a man, probably not young, with a long beard, a pointy hat and flowing robes. He carries a wand that he uses to perform magic, and his home is full of dusty books and a bench cluttered with glass containers of various shapes, each bubbling and smoking in different colours. He’s wise, even if he’s the bumbling type, and he’s always noble and good.

None of this was for me, although I am always open to wearing some of the outfits from the more dazzling end of the wizard spectrum. I couldn’t see myself as a Gandalf or a Dumbledore, piously passing down wisdom to the little folk. I wanted to have fun, and the fun I saw in this came from the mischief of it all, the prospect of bending the rules as far as possible without breaking them. My wizardry would need to be built in a similarly mischievous fashion, taking what suits me from the old traditions as well as from any other fields, ancient or contemporary, whose ideas might fit.

The first place I looked for wizarding ideas was in my record collection. I’ve always been drawn to the psychedelic era of the Sixties, a time of such innovation, exploration and defiance that was so hard to reconcile with the responsible adults that baby boomers like my parents had become. I followed that lead to find stimulation in art movements such as the Situationists and Surrealists. I looked for knowledge in mythology and folklore, psychology and philosophy, ufology and conspiracy theories. No matter how abstract or far-fetched the connection, I was open to learning from any idea that resonated.

For all of the fun I was having finding ways to be more wizardly, I could never really be a wizard until I included magic in my repertoire. A wizard without magic is just an eccentric, as surely as a colander without holes is a bowl. Magic was a threshold I had to cross if I was to continue, so I had to make the choice to believe in it. Reading about it could only take me so far, so I decided to try performing some magic for myself.

My first attempt at performing a magic spell came in the shower. I’d designed a symbol earlier based on what I intended to achieve, and now I stood in the hot rushing water tracing the symbol with my finger in the steam of the glass. I’d adapted the technique from books on chaos magic, a modern approach to magic that strips the elaborate rituals of the past down to their essential elements. While the procedures of chaos magic vary among practitioners, the core ingredients of my technique are the will to succeed, the abstraction of one’s intent and an act of gnosis to charge the spell towards success.

If magic is, as Aleister Crowley put it, “the Science and Art of causing change to occur in conformity with Will”, then belief in the possibility of success is the foundation of any magical act.  It’s a platitude enshrined in our culture, and the moral of nine out of ten children’s stories, that “you just have to believe in yourself”. Magic takes this one step further, requiring practitioners to believe in themselves over and above what we generally take to be the laws of reality.

The next steps allow for the practitioner’s creativity. We could easily be direct about what we hope to achieve from a spell: “I will get money”. However, this alone is not a spell, it’s a wish. It’s also boring. Abstracting the spell’s intent by turning it into a symbol or sigil comes from the work of Austin Osman Spare, a magician and artist from the early twentieth century. I see it as a way of simplifying the ritual element of magic while still maintaining the feeling of doing something special – if magic didn’t feel special, why should we use it over other approaches to problem-solving?

Finally, we charge the symbol with energy through gnosis. This involves altering one’s consciousness, in a sense abstracting the magician’s relationship to the abstract symbol. Magic is a departure from the rational, and gnosis represents a loosening of the grip of logic in order to send the spell ‘out there’, whatever that may mean. There are many potential methods of gnosis, such as entering a trance, getting dizzy, chanting or sexual orgasm. Once charged, the final step is to let it go, leaving it to fate or the universe to decide the spell’s success without lingering on it – “whatever will be, will be.”

That first shower spell hasn’t worked yet. In fact, none of my attempts at spells have worked yet, but that doesn’t stop me from choosing to believe. Maybe my failure can be attributed to something I’ve done wrong in the execution, such as not believing sufficiently in the abilities of my own will. Maybe I need more practice and to fine-tune my technique in order to see results. Or perhaps it’s simpler than that and magic just doesn’t work. The fact is, it really doesn’t matter to me which of these explanations is correct. I’ll continue to do this because it’s fun, and if it ever works then that’ll be a bonus.

I’m not alone in embracing magic and other superstitions. There’s been something of a revival of interest in witchcraft and the occult in recent years, perhaps most visibly in the recent Magic Resistance movement against Donald Trump. Beginning in 2017, a group of witches began casting binding spells with the intent of limiting the ability of Trump and his cohort to do harm through their political actions. The movement quickly grew, going viral online and receiving coverage from press outlets, in turn inspiring many of Trump’s supporters to respond with prayer against such sorcery.

A similar if more outlandish event took place in 1967 when, at the end of an anti-war protest march, hippie demonstrators attempted to levitate the Pentagon in Washington. It’s questionable how serious participants were about trying to make the vast building actually rise into the air, but the event still succeeded as theatre to bring attention to the protesters’ concerns, just as the magical resistance to Trump did.

It seems anomalous that in a modern age of such advanced scientific knowledge people can be drawn to anachronistic notions such as these, but does it matter whether the magic was performed earnestly or not? Is it essential for an act of magic to measurably defy the known laws of nature in order to be considered successful? Is this the motivation for people to attempt to perform magic in the first place?

I did once perform a successful act of magic. It was more than a decade before I started trying in earnest, and it was arguably by accident. On January 1st, 2001, I wore a different hat to work. At the time I worked in a kitchen that required staff to wear chef pants, jacket and apron but let us wear any cap of our choosing. I’d worn a neutral one previously, but on New Year’s Day I chose to wear the cap of my football team, the Brisbane Lions, because I believed that this would be our year. It worked, and the Lions not only won the AFL premiership that season but also won in the two following years, all because of my choice of hat.

Whether my headwear intervened in football history or divined the future or if it was all coincidence, the event holds meaning for me. I’m not asking anyone else to explain it, nor am I interested in explaining it myself. It was a significant experience that I might as well call magic, even if all I can really do with it is say it felt cool.

The psychologist C. G. Jung called such meaningful coincidences “synchronicities”, where two seemingly unconnected events happen to occur in near relation to one another, producing meaning for the person experiencing them. The classic example is to think of someone and then immediately receive a phone call from them – amazingly, I experienced this myself immediately after writing this sentence, a synchronicity on top of a synchronicity. If this isn’t a sign that I’m on the right track then I don’t know what is.

I suspect that the renewed interest in magic and witchcraft comes not from a desire for reassurance or escapism but for inspiration and strength. The world is chaotic, and perhaps it has always been, but the choice to believe in magic is a way for people to reclaim a feeling of control, even if it’s only control of our own personal narratives. I call belief a choice in this context because truth as a concept seems more contested than ever before, which presents us with an opportunity. We can ‘believe’ in anything we like, so long as we have the vision, resolve and audacity to pull it off.

I was able to come around and believe in magic because I came to understand a different kind of truth. To focus on whether magic is objectively real, in the sense of being able to be proven true by science, is to miss the point. In becoming a wizard, I was making a choice to live for experiences rather than explanations. When I embarked on this journey I was looking for something to entertain myself and hopefully restore some balance to my life. Becoming a wizard has given me much more than that. Instead of just a pastime to tide me over from daily grind to daily grind, it’s given me a shift in perspective, helping me to make positive changes in my life and how I interact with my environment. It’s re-enchanted my world. Believe it or not, it worked.

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