Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Spiritual Aesthetics: Part II

I ended the last post with the possibility that deo's sense of irony is justified, and magic is merely a kind of "fooling ourselves" to achieve pragmatic ends. However, I find this conclusion to be unsatisfactory, not exactly inaccurate but imprecise. Last year, I tried to tackle this issue by thinking about chance and coincidence and how we endeavor to "make meaning" from such apparent chaos through things like repeated ritual and intentional aesthetic action. While deo speaks of Paganism as "an inherently literary perspective"--insofar as it "moves the heart and stirs the soul" through the performance art of song, dance and ritual, as well as its living mythology--when I talk about aesthetics, I means something a bit different. (It may be that "aesthetics" is not even the best word, but I'll continue to use it for now.) For me, magic and prayer, and Pagan spirituality more generally, have less to do with the aesthetic experiences of the person viewing art, and much more to do with the experiences of a person making or creating art, the artist himself. From the time I began studying magic, it has always struck me as deeply involved with metaphors of art-making and creativity. Indeed, this is one reason why I sought out an "alternative spirituality" in Druidry, a path that acknowledges the experiences of the artist and bard, the poet and performer, as powerful metaphors for a life of Spirit.

Art & the Unconscious

One thing an artist knows for sure is that media put up resistance. A musician may imagine a melody silently in his own mind, and then sit down at his keyboard or guitar and discover that a particular chord progression or auditory effect simply will not work as he first conceived, while others fall into place as he experiments and explores the instrument. A sculptor may begin with a lump of clay or rock, intending to create this piece or that, and find that as the work evolves, it has a kind of "will of its own," a shape that wants to speak or move in its own way, regardless of the maker's original goals. Many artists and creative makers of all kinds have experienced that strange thrill of seeming to channel a "greater will" or inspiring vision, of feeling something "take over" and lead them to create works more deeply or complexly significant, more subtle or substantial, than they had first imagined. Instead of overcoming this media resistance with practice (as a good scientist might design ever more accurate experiments to test her hypothesis), the more experienced artists learn to trust this relationship with the medium of their art, listening as much as acting, following as much as imposing as the work takes form.

There are two ways (at least) to understand this relationship between artist and medium. One is to understand that the mind, especially the planning, conceiving, theorizing role of the mind, tends toward abstractions, while physical reality manifests in particulars. Hence, any time we make something, we are trying to move something from the mind (where it exists as an idea, an abstraction) into the physical mind-external world, where it absolutely must manifest as a particular. Even these ideas that I'm communicating right now are expressed through the particulars of each word, sentence, paragraph--that is, in the particular linear text as I'm writing and you're reading it. (As an example: I rewrote that last sentence several times in an attempt to express my intended abstract idea clearly, each time getting closer as the particular words changed; meanwhile, my idea itself became clearer as a result of this rewriting and struggling towards articulation. I'll talk later on about why this is important.) In short, every time we endeavor to move abstractions into the realm of particulars, we're bound to experience a kind of resistance, almost like a bottle-neck effect, a focusing or narrowing down (but also, because of the infinite interrelationships possible among particulars, an unexpected blooming or expansion when we make it to the "other side").

Another way to understand this relationship is to look at the mind itself. Most people are generally familiar with the concept of a "conscious" mind, and a "subconscious" or "unconscious." When artists talk about "being inspired" or feeling guided by some wiser voice, we might consider this to be an expression of their subconscious mind asserting itself. The unconscious mind is believed to be the heart of what people might call "intuition," the ability to sense or recognize patterns and to respond to them with more fluidity and flexibility than the deliberate control of the conscious mind. When making art or tapping into the creative capacity in other ways, the artist may begin with a conscious, deliberate idea or goal, but it is the unconscious mind--the aspect of himself that can intuit patterns and navigate the complicated traffic-jam between abstraction and manifestation--that guides him towards the final artistic expression.

Now think again, for a moment, about the activity of prayer or spellwork. We determined that these acts are different from the scientific experiment, in which an experimenter controls variables and incites chains of reaction exclusively in the mind-external world. Instead, magic and prayer rely on a paradox of "willed surrender," in which the practitioner both takes deliberate action and releases an intention into the chaos of the world, to be worked out by some "higher" or farther-reaching being or energy.* We can see, now, that this activity is startlingly similar to the activity of making art and then sharing that art with others.

The artist, like the supplicant or magician, formulates a goal or pursues an idea or concept. He does so by engaging with particular media and structuring that engagement in particular ways: he may have a lucky paintbrush or pen, a studio or office set aside and dedicated to his artistic work, even a few unrelated mundane routines (like washing dishes or sitting on a park bench counting the number of passers-by wearing hats) to ease him into each creative session. As a result of pursuing his creative goals, he encounters complications and messiness, in other words resistance, which shape the way in which his intentions manifest (utilizing these nonrational or nonsensical activities often busies the conscious mind, freeing up the subconscious to deal with this resistance more competently). At the same time, he finds that with a patient "willed surrender" to the process, the end result of his labors may provide greater insight than the original abstract goal could have encompassed. Once "released" into the world, performed or published or in other ways provided with a larger public audience, the work of art may also affect people in ways that the artist couldn't have predicted.

These similarities make art an excellent metaphor for certain aspects of the spiritual life, such as prayer and magic. And like all useful metaphors, the more we explore the comparison in depth, the more clarity it brings to some sticking points that crop up in discussions, of magic in particular, in the Pagan and Druid communities. One stumbling block is, for instance, the urge to define "magic" in such broad terms that the concept loses a lot of its practical meaning. People have often done this with art, as well, insisting that "anything can be art," especially if it's pretty and moves people. But this definition neither distinguishes artistic works from sentiment, propaganda or coincidence, nor provides a useful understanding for the aspiring artist about the actual creative process of which a given art object is merely the end result. Those studying magic for the first time may encounter similar difficulties when confronted with explanations that portray magical practice as either anything that "feels enchanted," or as the head-games of psychoanalysis blurred and complicated with mystical language. Beginners may become frustrated when broad, flimsy definitions fail to give them a working grasp of how to hone and improve their skills; they may even throw their hands up and declare the entire endeavor pointless.

All of this, of course, leads us back, again, to the problem of irony. When we find ourselves working with inadequate definitions and flimsy metaphors, can we "fake it 'til we make it"? Is this somehow disingenuous, or merely pragmatic? In the next post, I'll continue to explore the metaphor of art and aesthetics to see what it may bring to light with regards to this nagging trouble.


  1. * As Graeme reminded me in his comment on my previous post, it is important that we not take for granted what exactly I'm referring to when I say "prayer" and "magic." Most people will not have much difficulty accepting a standard image of prayer (i.e. somebody closes their eyes, maybe kneels or clasps their hands, maybe lights a candle, and, most importantly, intentionally addresses deity, the Universe or whoever in a traditional or improvised manner). But people in the Pagan community seem to be a bit squeamish about defining magic in a similarly straight-forward way. Soured on Hollywood/Harry Potter images of magic as strange flashing lights and spectacular immediate results (or trying to dissociate themselves from "fluffy bunny" Neopagans who are attracted to such ideas), they shy away from associating magic with anything too "flashy" or too much of a spectacle, transforming it instead into something more like "being good at getting results." I discuss the problem with this kind of definition in a response to Graeme. In short (and returning to the metaphor of artistic work), certainly many things can be done as magic (just as many things--from flash mobs to installation art--can be done as aesthetic works), but this still leaves us the problem of defining what exactly magic is so that we can distinguish stuff-as-magic from mere... stuff. Whole books could (and have) been written to provide such a definition. For now, I hand you over to the irrefutable Terry Pratchett, who writes in Lords and Ladies:

    "Then there is the witches' explanation, which comes in two forms, depending on the age of the witch. Older witches hardly put words to it at all, but may suspect in their hearts that the universe really doesn't know what the hell is going on and consists of a zillion trillion billion possibilities, and could become any one of them if a trained mind rigid with quantum certainty was inserted in the crack and twisted; that, if you really had to make someone's hat explode, all you needed to do was twist into that universe where a large number of hat molecules all decide at the same time to bounce off in different directions.

    Younger witches, on the other hand, talk about it all the time and believe it involves crystals, mystic forces, and dancing about without yer drawers on."

  2. And now I'll have to put pTerry back onto the to-be-read (again) list.

    You were right in your previous response to point out that magic must have a degree of intention to differentiate it from the everyday. But it makes me wonder if there aren't some people who are so in tune with the universe that they cannot help but be magical in all they do. Just a thought. I'll not say anything now until you finish the series. Fascinating stuff, though.

    Do you know Arthur Versluis's book The Philsophy of Magic? I'm not altogether convinced by his central argument or by the emphasis on Hermetic tradition, but it does cover some interesting ground.

  3. Wow, Ali, this post might be my favorite of all time. Just to be clear: not my favorite post of yours, my favorite of all time. Absolutely excellent.

  4. Graeme,

    "But it makes me wonder if there aren't some people who are so in tune with the universe that they cannot help but be magical in all they do."

    I've wondered the same thing, though from a different perspective. My mother, for instance, has such a strong will that it seems she manages to transform the very air around her--but often in stifling, oppressive ways. Her imagination has always struck me as incredibly powerful, but she tends to imagine very negative things about the world, always dwelling on anxiety and the worst possible outcomes. Several years ago, after two years of unemployment when her company laid her off, I sent her a very simple "job spell" package in the mail (a small satchel with a few stones and gold coins to "charge," a blessed candle to burn and a prayer to read--this was back when I was experimenting with the witchiest type of spellwork ;). She read the prayer and burnt the candle, not bothering with the rest, and within a week had met an old acquaintance who got her an ideal job working for a lovely non-profit organization. She raved for months afterwards about how it was exactly the kind of job that she had always wanted but never believed she could find, and so much better than the job from which she'd been laid off. It makes me wonder, if a candle and prayer can accomplish so much, what she could make of her life if only she believed good things could happen more often...

    Speaking of Arthur Versluis, I randomly remembered him the other day when discussing Emerson's essay, "Nature," with someone (Versluis published a book with the essay and his own commentary on it, The Hermetic Book of Nature). I noticed that The Philosophy of Magic was listed under his "other published works," and now that you've mentioned it, that's enough synchronicity for me to look into it. :)

  5. Jeff, thanks! :) Not like that puts any pressure on me for the rest of the series or anything... which has already been giving me tons of trouble! ;-p O well. There will always be more time to work at saying what I mean and grasping the meaning of what I'm trying to say.

  6. Hi,
    I just discovered your blog via recent posts to Metapagan - and immediately added it to my RSS feed. You write with both precision and elegance about that trickiest of subjects, the theory of magic.
    (You might find my own gropings towards this concept - a series called 'Guttershaman' - interesting, or at least amusing!)

    I especially like the 'willed surrender' concept, which seems to me related to Taoist concepts such as wu-wei.

    Thanks - I look forward to reading the rest of your posts.

    Cat Vincent

  7. Ali,

    I'm sure you've been told you are an amazing writer, but I'll say it again.

    "You rock!"

    Your analogies with art are very accurate, I think.

    Was it Michelangelo who said that he didn't sculpt a piece of art, bur rather just removed the outside pieces until what was trapped within could escape?

    Maybe magic is like that? Maybe we need to "remove the outside pieces" (noise, distractions, mundane space if you will), in order to let what is within escape?

    Boy it's fun thinking out loud like this. Keep em coming!