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.