A Lesson in Practical Magic

Up to this point in our discussion of the intersection between peak oil and magic, we’ve mostly talked about what doesn’t work. That couldn’t be avoided, since the misunderstandings of magic that run barefoot through contemporary culture have to be dealt with before it’s possible to make sense of anything more substantive.

Still, I hope that by this time my readers have grasped that magic is not a substitute for technology, a way of making an end run around environmental limits and the laws of physics, or for that matter a means of forcing society as a whole to deal constructively with the rising spiral of crises that dominates the emergent history of our time. It’s an old and subtle craft that deals with the interface between consciousness and the universe of our experience, using the buttons and levers of the nonrational mind; it has remarkable potentials for good and ill; and some of those potentials have quite a bit to offer in the face of peak oil. Now that the misconceptions have been more or less cleared away, we can get down to the details of practical magic.

There’s a significant parallel between the material we’re about to cover and the “green wizardry” of the Seventies appropriate-tech movement that we discussed at such length a little while back. The key to green wizardry is that it starts with the individual; instead of pursuing vast top-down changes, the organic gardeners and renewable-energy wonks of the Seventies put gardens in their own backyards, solar water heaters on their own roofs, and insulation in their own attics. In the same way, the effective practice of magic begins with the individual student of the art, and works outward from there.

How to begin, and how to work outward from there, varies from one system of magic to another, and very often from one teacher to another. Since the purpose of this blog is to discuss peak oil and topics related to it, rather than to offer a course in magical training for beginners, I’m going to skip most of the technical details here; those who are interested can find them in the standard textbooks of the art. It’s more useful for the present purpose to give the context in which those details find their place and have their meaning, and that might best be done by introducing you, dear reader, to one of the more colorful figures in the entire history of magic.

If I say that Joséphin Péladan was a French conservative of the 19th century, nearly every person who reads that phrase will misunderstand it; the English-speaking world has never had anything like continental European conservatism, and even in Europe the conservatism of Péladan’s time is all but extinct. If I go on to say that he was one of the leading lights of the Decadent movement in French literature, the author of lushly erotic and wildly popular novels, as well as a dandy and an esthete who out-Gothed today’s Goths a hundred and twenty years in advance, my readers may have some difficulty squaring that with my first comment; and when I go on to explain that he was at one and the same time a devout if eccentric Roman Catholic and a significant figure in the Paris occult scene of his time, I trust I will be forgiven for listening for the distant popping sound of readers’ heads exploding.

Péladan was all of that, and quite a bit more. He’s the man Oscar Wilde was imitating when Wilde went strolling through London in velvet clothes with a drooping lily in his hand. Péladan claimed descent from the ancient Chaldean sages, sponsored a series of Rosicrucian gallery shows that came within an ace of changing the history of Western art, and ran an occult order that had no less a figure than Erik Satie as its official composer. (Fans of Satie’s early music will recall his Sonneries de la Rose+Croix; those were written for the meetings of Péladan’s order.) “Do you know what is meant by the expression ‘That man is a character’? Well, a mage is that above all,” Peladan wrote, and he certainly was.

All the colorful details, though, were in the service of an utterly serious purpose. Péladan belonged to that minority of late 19th century thinkers who recognized that the European societies of their day were headed for disaster. More clearly than any of his contemporaries, he understood that what was facing collapse was not simply political or economic, but the entire cultural heritage—aristocratic, Christian, Latinate—that linked the Europe of his time with its historic roots in the ancient world. What set him apart from the sentimental conservatives of his time and ours, though, is that he recognized that this heritage was already past saving. “We do not believe in progress or in salvation,” his Manifesto of the Rose+Cross announced to a mostly bemused Paris in 1891. “For the Latin race, which goes to its death, we prepare a final splendor, to dazzle and make gentle the barbarians who are to come.”

His work as an operative mage and a cultural figure focused on that theme with the frantic intensity of a man who knows he’s going to lose. His core work of magical theory and practice, Comment on devient mage (How To Become A Mage, 1892), contains not a single magical ritual. Its theme, to borrow a typically ornate term from his writing, was ethopoeia—the making (poesis) of an ethos, one that would enable individuals to stand apart from the collective consciousness of their time in order to think their own thoughts and make their own choices. “Society,” Péladan wrote, “is an anonymous enterprise for living a life of secondhand emotions”—and the particular emotions on offer, as he discussed in some detail, are not picked at random. Ioan Culianu’s description of modern industrial societies as “magician states” that rule by manufacturing a managed consensus by the manipulation of nonrational lures would have been music to Péladan’s ears.

His unwavering focus made How To Become A Mage the most detailed text of its time on the fine art of freeing the individual will, sensibility, and understanding from bondage to unthinking social reactions. It was very much a book of its era, full of references to current events, and it also uses the utterly Péladanesque strategy of infuriating the reader by poking as many of those social reactions as possible. Liberal, conservative, radical or reactionary, every reader of Péladan’s treatise could count on finding a good reason to throw it at the nearest wall, and the effect would be even stronger today, since the cultural differences between Péladan’s time and ours would step on a whole new layer of sore toes. In spare moments, I’ve gotten about halfway through making an English translation of How To Become A Mage, but it’s purely a private hobby; it’s hard to imagine a more unpublishable book.

Still, the same theme appears throughout the literature of the 19th century occult revival. Partly that’s because everybody in the occult scene read Péladan, but it was also because the 19th century saw the emergence of the first generation of effective mass media and the foreshadowings of the mass movements and political thaumaturgy of the century to come. An extraordinary range of magical literature at the time, and right up through the Second World War, assumed as a matter of course that contemporary European civilization was, as we now like to say, circling the drain.

Whether “the barbarians who are to come” would be domestic or imported was a matter of some discussion—Péladan himself thought that Europe would eventually be conquered by the Chinese, a theory that seems rather less far-fetched today than it did in his time—but very few people in the occult scene doubted that they worked their magic in the twilight years of a dying civilization. Of course they were quite correct; the old cultures of Europe, in every sense Péladan would have recognized, died in the trenches of the First World War; the forty years from Sarajevo in 1914 to Dien Bien Phu in 1954 saw Europe’s nations flattened to the ground by two catastrophic wars, overwhelmed by cultural change, and reduced from the status of masters of the planet to pawns in a game of bare-knuckle politics played with gusto by the United States and the Soviet Union.

All this made Péladan’s lessons more than usually relevant, because the catastrophe he foresaw had a clear magical dimension. Read contemporary accounts of the way that Europe stumbled into war in 1914 and it’s hard to miss the weirdly trancelike state of mind in the warring nations, as vast crowds cheered the coming of hostilities that would cost millions of them their lives, and left-wing parties that had pledged themselves to nonviolent resistance in the event of war forgot all about their pledges and swung into step behind the patriotic drumbeats. The collective consciousness of the age was primed for an explosion, partly by the thaumaturgy of any number of competing political and economic interests, and partly by the rising pressures of intolerable inner conflicts that, in magician states ruled by a managed consensus, was prevented from finding a less catastrophic form of expression.

It took an extraordinary degree of mental independence to stay clear of the trance state and its appalling consequences, but that was one of the things the magical training available in those days was intended to do. Péladan was inevitably the most outspoken of the period’s occult writers on this subject, as on so many others, and filled a good many of the 22 chapters of How To Becone A Mage with advice on how to open up an insulating space between the individual mind and the pressures that surround it. Many of the same points, though, are made in quieter ways by other writers of the time, and in the instructional papers of magical lodges of the same period. All this advice is aimed at the social habits of another time and has not necessarily aged well, but the basic principles still stand.

The first of those principles is to limit and control the channels by which the mainstream media and their wholly owned subsidiary, public opinion, get access to your nervous system. Now of course that raises the hackles of quite a few people nowadays. When I suggested two months back that those who wanted to reclaim some sense of meaning from today’s manufactured pseudoculture might consider pulling the plug on popular culture as a good first step, I fielded the inevitable responses insisting that popular culture was creative, interesting, etc., so why did I have such a grudge against it?

It was a neat evasion of my point, which is that contemporary mass-produced popular culture exists solely for the purpose of emptying your wallet and your brain, not necessarily in that order. In terms of the classification I’ve suggested in recent posts, popular culture is a vehicle for mass thaumaturgy; it works, as mass thaumaturgy always works, by inducing you to think less and react more. Thus, in the strictest sense of the word, it makes you more stupid. I don’t think any of us can afford that right now.

One point Péladan made that remains valid today is that spending time among a crowd of people whose minds and conversation are utterly conditioned by popular culture is not noticeably different from getting your popular culture firsthand. If anything, it’s even more of an issue these days than it was in his; I suspect most of us have had the experience of hearing a conversation between two people in which every single word spoken was a sound bite from some media source or other. There’s no need to become a hermit, but it’s a good idea to choose your crowds with some care.

Steps such as these will cut down on the influence that the mass thaumaturgy of our time has over your thoughts, feelings, and decisions. Still, the empty space has to be filled with something better, or there won’t be much of an improvement; this is the second of the principles I mentioned earlier. That’s the perennial mistake of Romanticism, the notion that all you have to do is fling aside the fetters of social expectations and do what comes naturally. The problem here is of course that “what comes naturally” to every one of us is the product of a lifetime spent absorbing social cues from the people around us and the media directed at us, all of which triggers a set of unthinking and unconscious reactions we share with our nonhuman relatives: social primate see, social primate do.

Being who he was, and living when he did, Péladan phrased that dimension of the work in terms of art, music and literature, and that’s certainly one of the available options. If you happen to be a dandy and an esthete, and live in a city with good art galleries, concert venues, and the like, you could do worse than to follow his recommendations—he was particularly partial to Renaissance paintings, German classical and romantic music from Bach through to Wagner, and Shakespeare’s plays—but I don’t recommend copying him and Oscar Wilde and strolling down the streets with a lily in your hand. Their wives clearly had to put up with a lot. (You didn’t know that Wilde was married, did you? Her name was Constance; she was an initiate of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the most influential magical order in late 19th century Britain; and yes, she did have to put up with a lot.)

Still, that’s only one option, and the last thing you should do in this sort of practice is rely on someone else’s notions of what ought to feed your mind. “’Fear the example of another, think for yourself,’” wrote Péladan; “this precept of Pythagoras contains all of magic, which is nothing other than the power of selfhood.” As I suggested in the earlier post mentioned a few paragraphs back, the important thing is simply to choose things to read, watch, hear, and do that you consider worthwhile, instead of passively taking in whatever the thaumaturgists-for-hire of the media and marketing industries push at you. What falls in the former category will vary from person to person, as it should.

All this seems relatively straightforward, and indeed it’s quite possible to get to the same decision by plain reasoning starting, say, from the shoddy vulgarity of mass-produced entertainments, and going from there to the realization that there’s much more interesting mind food to feast upon. That making such choices also makes it easier to think clearly would in that case be merely a pleasant side effect of good taste. The operative mage in training does the same thing deliberately, not just to think clearly but to feel and will clearly as well. As the training proceeds, however, those effects begin to reveal another side, which is their effect on other people.

Péladan hinted at this effect in How To Become A Mage, though custom in the occult scene back in his time didn’t favor spelling out the details. “Do not look for another measure of magical power than that the power within you, nor for another way to judge a being than by the light that he sheds To perfect yourself by becoming luminous, and like the sun, to excite the ideal life latent around you—there you behold all the mysteries of the highest initiation.” What he did not quite say is that “the ideal life latent around you” is in other human beings, and that—especially in times of cultural crisis—stepping outside the lowest common denominator of the mass mind has an effect rather like induction in electrical circuits; put another way, it can be as catchy as a lively new tune.

You can catch that tune, so to speak, from a person; you can catch it from a book, which is why Péladan wrote his 22 novels, each of them exploring some aspect of the relation between the initiate and a corrupt society; you can catch it from other sources, the way Rainier Maria Rilke did from a statue of Apollo; you can also catch it all by yourself, by climbing out of collective consciousness for some other reason and discovering that you like the view. Now of course far more often than not, those who step out of the collective consciousness of their society promptly jump back into the collective consciousness of a congenial subculture, which from a magical perspective is no better—thinking the same thoughts as all your radical friends is just as much secondhand living as is thinking the same thoughts as the vacuous faces on the evening news—but there’s always the chance of getting beyond that, and some subcultures make it easier to get beyond that than others.

Does this seem vague and impractical? If so, dear reader, I would encourage you to glance back over the history of the peak oil movement. Fifteen years ago, next to nobody anywhere was talking about the hard fact that global oil production was approaching hard planetary limits. Ten years ago, there were people talking about it, but they were voices in the wilderness dismissed by all right-thinking people. Five years ago, the idea that an archdruid would take an active part in a national and international conversation on the future of industrial society might have made a great idea for a comedy skit. This year—or, more precisely,a few weeks from now—the archdruid in question will be speaking at ASPO-USA’s annual conference in Washington DC, practically in the shadow of the Capitol. Five, ten, and fifteen years from now? We’ll see.

Many factors contributed to the remarkably fast rise of the peak oil movement, to be sure. Still, from the perspective of an operative mage, it’s hard to argue against the idea that the induction effect Péladan didn’t quite mention—the magical equivalent, to be precise, of personal example—had at least some role in it. As for the deeper implications and applications of that effect—well, here again, that’s a subject for next week’s post.


On a note that Péladan would have appreciated, I’m delighted to announce that Rise & Fall, a modern dance piece choreographed by Valerie Green and performed by DanceEntropy, will have its premiere at the Baruch Center in New York City on January 20-22, 2012. Regular readers will remember that Rise & Fall is partly inspired by my book The Long Descent. Further information about Rise & Fall and its companion piece, Inexplicable Space, can be found here. I’d encourage any of my readers who will be in the NYC area then, and enjoy modern dance, to take it in.