Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Spiritual Aesthetics: Part IV

This series of posts is, in some ways, an excellent example of the on-going creative process I have been discussing. Publishing each part before I've definitively finished the series as a whole, I find myself often back-tracking and returning to previously discussed ideas in order to clarify before I can move forward again (for instance, I found in the last post a need to continue the in-depth exploration of aesthetics that I had begun in Part II); however, each return, each clarification, is guided by my overall original goal to explore the role of irony in both art and spirituality. Although I had intended Part III to be the final post in this series, in which I finally reached that goal, it reached its natural conclusion (and reasonable length) without arriving. This time, though, I mean to get there.

So: irony. Let's get right down to it.

Irony in Creative Practice

We left off in the last post having developed two fairly useful working descriptions (with handy-dandy diagrams!) of both the scientific and aesthetic creative processes. Plenty of you have probably anticipated where this discussion is headed and have already been pondering the way in which magic, prayer and other spiritual practices fit these models, so I won't belabor some of the more subtle implications here. Abiding by my previous supposition that aesthetics offers a more satisfying metaphor and enlightening comparison for such practices than the scientific method can provide, I would point out what to me seems to be the essential point of clarification, which is: a "work of magic" is not the same as and cannot be identified with either the ritual act or objects of the magical working, or the resulting experiences of the practitioners or recipients of that work. Like a work of art, which cannot be equated merely with either the art object or the experiences it produces, so too does the "magic" itself exist in some kind of difficult-to-define space in between, drifting in and out of potential, acting on and shaping experiences in a mutual exchange.

This new way of understanding the actual "work" of prayer or magic, I believe, resolves the main stumbling block that leads to a sense of irony; it also brings us to a new understanding of what exactly that irony is that deo and others have such difficulty in overcoming. If we look again at the diagram of scientific method, we see that in the place of the more internal and subjective "experience" in the aesthetic process, instead we have "results" in the external world, quantifiable and verifiable through repeated experiments. The relationship between experiment and results, in other words, is always clear and causal in only one direction; whatever the hypotheses that led to the experiment or the conclusions drawn from its subsequent results, the scientist can at least rely on a linear and consistent relationship between the two mind-external aspects of the one-way cycle. But disrupt this cycle, and the whole process falls to pieces.

The difficulty that deo perceives in magical work is precisely the disruption of this causality. Magic and prayer, if they are to mimic a well-constructed scientific experiment, should not only have "results" (rather than mere subjective interpretations of experience) but those results should proceed in a relevant and repeatable manner from specific activities incited in the world beyond our own minds. But the reality is that magic does not work this way at all. At one point during podcast episode #38, deo jokes that the only time two identical spells ever produce the exact same results are if both of them fail to work. (Of course, if we consider art rather than scientific experiment as the more helpful metaphor for magic, we quickly come to understand that spells (and prayers) can fail to work in almost as many ways as they can succeed, depending on the cultural and historical contexts, for instance, and the individuals involved.) Insisting that there is a relationship between magical "experiments" and their "results" similar to the one we find in science, without being able either to describe how that relationship actually works or to produce intended results with any consistency, pushes us into the realm of the ironic, where the disjoint between reality and our expectations or beliefs about reality are distinctly at odds. In short, our sense of irony arises when we correctly perceive that a "work of magic" is not reasonably identified with either the act or the experience, but we willfully ignore this perception because we have no satisfactory alternative explanations.

Since I have provided one, I seem to have once and for all solved the problem of irony.

Just kidding! Actually, by turning our attention once again to art and aesthetics, we discover a plethora of further insights into the matter. Take the concept of "dramatic irony," for example. In dramatic irony, the relative ignorance of the characters in a story is played against the broader knowledge of the audience. The tragedy of Oedipus, for instance, is tragic precisely because we, as an experienced audience familiar with the story and "in" on earlier events forgotten by the protagonist, can see the tragedy coming and the ways in which, with a slight turn of circumstance, it could be prevented. Of course, dramatic irony must be artfully done in order to be effective; a character who is simply too silly or too apathetic to struggle towards knowledge is unlikely to capture an audience's attention. Indeed, it is precisely those characters most concerned with seeking knowledge and awareness (though often they look in all the wrong places) who best provoke a sense of dramatic irony. This is because irony as an aesthetic device not only works with, but calls attention to and relies on the distinction between the "art object" and the audience's experience of it. Rather than seek a linear causal relationship between the two, they are deliberately put into tension with one another. One aspect of this tension is that the art object is governed by its own internally-consistent "rules" and their results, so to speak (these may come from the physical nature of the medium, as mentioned before, as well as established cultural conventions, etc.), and yet the audience engages with these causalities subjectively and imaginatively, as veritable "outsiders," sometimes even seeking (as in dramatic irony especially) a way to circumvent them.

Another example of irony, which can be turned to either tragic or comedic effect, is verbal irony. Here we have an exciting overlap between aesthetics and magic: the ancient Celtic use of satire. To quote (shamefacedly) from Wikipedia: "The essential point is that 'in satire, irony is militant'. This 'militant irony' (or sarcasm) often professes to approve the very things the satirist actually wishes to attack." Once again, we have a deliberate tension cultivated between the art object as apparent praise or celebration, and the artist's intention and audience's experience of just the opposite. The "work" of art and its satirical nature relies on and exists within this disjoint or disruption. The ancient Celtic bards utilized this tension not only for aesthetic, but also for magical purposes. That is, they engaged in magical practices (in this case, composing poetic verse) with an inherent sense of irony, a willful disconnect between action and result (one that usually echoed the faults and failures of the subject of the satire) that in a scientific experiment would have rendered the process meaningless.

I think that modern practitioners of magic and prayer can take heart from the example set by these bards of old, approaching their spiritual work comfortable with their own sense of skepticism and even with a bit of humor. While a "fake it 'til you make it" approach to the scientific method fundamentally compromises the cycle of discovery, the give-and-take nature of aesthetic creativity provides us with an approach to spiritual practice that is more stable, and thus more flexible (as John M. Greer always says, a Druid takes two opposites in tension and seeks to resolve them not by settling for a compromise, but by finding a new, third aspect; that is essentially what this whole series has attempted to do). So what if, for now, your experiences of the power of magic are shaped mostly by your own expectations, or your prayer requests are themselves manifestations of conflicts and obstacles of which you are only subconsciously aware? The fluid relationships between these three aspects of spiritual work ensure that any honest, persistent effort made in one direction will ultimately engage and reaffirm all three.

Note of possible interest: For the last three or so paragraphs of this post, I've had an increasingly intense sensation of deja vu which has made it difficult to finish writing. Has anyone already written this before (or have I)? On the other hand, this may simply be because I'm tired and have contemplated these ideas to near exhaustion over the past week and a half. I hope this series has been interesting. I now return you to your regularly scheduled spontaneity.


  1. First thoughts, as I want to go back and read it all again, but this is exciting stuff. The model you posit for magic also explains why different cultures and people from different times would see things as magical when others do not. It also works equally well for cultures in which magic is accepted and cultures where it is not. That is, it is not dependent on everyone believing in magic. There is a lot of head-ology there, but something else.

    PS - I don't recognise the final paragraphs as other than your own. They seem like yours. Is there anything you've read recently that may have imprinted?

  2. Yeah, I have a good half dozen pages of notes about various tangents which I started to go off on, implications of the aesthetic-magic model, and then had to reign in because otherwise I'd be writing this series forever. ;) I'm really interested in doing some research to explore, in particular, how the idea relates to what we know about examples of ancient Celtic magic (the satire being one example, but also looking at things like the "Song of Amergin" and such), and then how it relates to different kinds of magic being practiced today, specifically in the Druid community. JMG had that book on magic come out last year (which I only ever read half of ::sheepish::), and I think Philip Carr-Gomm has a book on English magic coming out soon as well.

    Also, if I'm to keep exploring this subject, then I feel obligated to make a serious hands-on study of some of the magical techniques as well. I've stared up my almost-daily meditation again and hope to look into incorporating some magical work somewhat as an experiment of sorts (but in the artistic sense of experimenting with a new medium, not in the scientific sense ;)... I don't know, in general I'm enthusiastic about the whole spectrum of possibilities here.. :)

    As far as the deja vu... really, the impression I got was literally one of having already written the paragraphs, having experienced the process of articulating and putting down just those words with all the pauses and rewrites that accompanied them. For some reason, I located the "memory" several years back, before I had even really read much on magic. So, who knows? It was an odd sensation, and it made me feel like I wasn't clearly expressing my enthusiasm and excitement over these ideas towards the end.... but anyway. All in a day's work. :)

  3. Ah. Right. Sorry, misunderstood you on the deja vu thing (it's a change in The Matrix, you know). Perhaps at some point in the future, your magical working will send you back into the past.

    The whole Celtic magic thing really appeals to me. I have always been fascinated by the crossover into Christian Grail mythology and how much of the magic is extremely subtle. Peter Berresford Ellis gives a very brief overview with reference to other sources in his book 'The Druids'.

  4. I'll have to look into that book (been meaning to read it anyway ;). I'm curious if there are parallels between a culture's art and its magic. You talk in your book a bit about the relationship between language and metaphysics, for instance, and I think it was Miranda Green who wrote (in "Gods of the Celts" I think?) about the rather abstract/symbolic nature of Celtic depictions of their deities and of their artwork more generally. I wonder if this relationship extends into the magical work of the culture (or, if there's little to go on in terms of historic records, how a modern Druid might shape a specifically Celtic style of magic based not just on its mythology and such, but on its aesthetic sensibilities... if that makes any sense).

    Anyway, lots to think about. I may have buried the lead on this series, though, as comments seem to have died off. ;)

    And I'm sure you're joking about the backwards-in-time thing, but I did once read in some book on witchcraft about a spell to "travel back" to your childhood to act as a guide to your younger self. Weird. I feel like... that would be... well, weird.

  5. I think there is probably enough archaeological and historical material to tease out a general sense of the shape of magical work and of how that relates to the culture in general. The one is so embedded in the other, that any aspect of the culture is going to be reflected in other aspects.

    One of the problems with the whole figurative depiction debate is that it is still not absolutely clear whether this is just a reflection of what has been so far found by archaeologists - and if it is accurate to what extent later, more accurate figurative depictions are the result of developments within the Celtic world or increasing influences from outside. All that said, the very way in which celtic people responded to influence (and almost always made their interpretation uniquely Celtic) speaks a great deal for the coherence and power of their metaphysic.

    Intricate knotwork, as you know, has a powerful meditative influence on those who create and on those who observe. The very shapes, the twisting and weaving, the hint of naturalistic forms within the abstract cannot, in my mind, have been anything other than an 'artistic' expression of a more fundamental way of viewing the world and working with the world. Magical practice would, I think, have been (in its own way) very much like knotwork.

    Ha. I can't imagine myself as a youngster ever having paid attention to what some stranger came to tell him. And what would I say? Ah. Well, I can think of a few things. But then I wouldn't be what I am today (miserable old curmudgeon).

    On a more serious note, I know there are physiological theories about deja vu, but I wonder if it is not some latent tapping into what seers have more control over. Not so much time travelling as getting glimpses of other times. Seers have, perhaps, a wider range; most of us just get tiny glimpses into the memories of our future selves?

    Right, better get some coffee before my head implodes.

  6. Hi Ali,
    Have you done much reading on anthropological theories of magic? I'm thinking in particular here of Stanley Tambiah and the concept of the "persuasive analogy" (I think the paper I'm thinking of is called "Form and Meaning of Magical Acts" but it's been a while) I'm also thinking of writers like Fritz Graf, HS Versnel, and, um, maybe Marcel Mauss. Ooh, and Chris Faraone. That should be enough to start with. :)

    Some of these are anthropologists and some classicists; none, as far as I know, deal specifically with Celtic themes, but they all have thought-provoking things to say about magic, some of which share the same kinds of themes you're getting into here.

    If you're interested and want some real references, let me know and I'll check my notes.

    looking forward to the book!

  7. Very nice indeed. I can't comment on other cultures, but your model matches my experience of magic extremely well. Magic and art come from very much the same place, if not exactly the same. For example, it has happened more than once that a fictional character who I thought *I* was creating developed a life of his own, and then I realized I had "tuned in" to an actual entity from the Otherworld.

    I would just add one note on the magic vs. science distinction. I suggest that the science model is actually identical to the magic model -- i.e. the objectivity of science is an illusion, and scientists create their results just as an artist creates art, but without realizing it.

  8. Jeff, I've had similar experiences with writing, except not exactly with Otherworld beings. There have been times when I wrote a short story or a poem, and later events in real life seemed to match up eerily close to what, in the original piece, had been metaphor or "made up" details. I've often wondered if there is an aspect of either magic (bringing such things into being) or divination (having somehow picked up on some "higher mind" perspective) involved on these occasions, but they don't happen as much now, probably because I don't write as much creative work as I used to.

    As far as the scientific method model, that was one of those tangents I had to reign in on. Especially when it comes to quantum mechanics, it seems obvious that there is some blending of "mind-internal" and "mind-external" going on. But on the other hand, the modern scientific approach with its dualist assumptions has produced enough concrete results with enough consistency that I think it's fair to accept that, for most practical considerations, the model for the scientific process is distinct from the aesthetic process. Just the fact that we've been able to discover equations to reliably predict events (not only Newtonian physics, but even those areas that seem most susceptible to "mind-internal" interference, like quantum mechanics) seems to put it into a different category of activity from art. Still, there is some overlap (there has to be, since it's a human activity and human beings, whether they know it or not, exist beyond a strict mind-matter dualism); and even in art, you see people working on "craft" or "technique," experimenting with medium in an almost scientific way at times, testing new skills to see how they turn out.

  9. Nettle--I forgot to say thanks for the book recommendations, so... thanks! :) I have done a bit of research into anthropological theories of magic, back when I was working on my college thesis on ritual theory more generally, but I don't think I've read much from any of the people you specifically mention. I'll definitely have to look into that.

    And anyway, I'm not sure about writing a book on this kind of wide, sweeping topic yet... I'm thinking of just getting my feet wet with a collection of essays and "creative nonfiction memoir" pieces first, to see how I handle the challenge of producing a book-length manuscript. We'll see how that goes. ;)