Genre Theory for Magicians: Genre and Magic

Theory for Magicians: Genre and Magical Practices 2

So last time, I discussed the general theory of genre from a literary perspective, with some additions from video game theory. The idea here, in the follow-up, is to explore how we can use genre theory to think about magical traditions.

Meaning Networks

The last thing to consider about genre theory itself is that it reminds us no work is ever written or created in a vacuum. People have emotional ideas about what books are, and if there’s a rocket ship on the spine of a book the reader will expect certain things out of it. A work sets up the expectations that shape your “horizon,” but they don’t come from nothing. They come from the history of the genre and are mediated by an interface: the reader, the author, the text, and the tradition interface in a four-way connection that creates the art itself.

Each point in this connection can be messed up. If the reader doesn’t know how to approach the genre, then the text will fall flat. Think of the stories Sam Delany told about trying to teach literary critics in the 70s how to read science fiction. They were some of the smartest people around, and especially when doing reading and criticism, but they couldn’t understand the basic plot of a simple SF story because they weren’t used to accepting that things are different than their own lives.

So one’s exposure to the tradition will shape the way one reacts to the text. And when it comes to magical “genres,” we must remember that as well. Each individual book in a tradition will be different from the others, at least theoretically, because otherwise they would just be copies of the other books. But they all kind of resemble one another, like members of a family resemble one another (that’s out of Kincaid’s model from last time).

Each book or course or class or web site will touch on its tradition in some way, giving the nod to enough genre markers for you to see where it’s coming from (at least, hopefully – if it doesn’t, you may be lost as to how to respond to it).

Magical Genres

Off the top of my head, I can name some traditions that can easily be read as “genres”: Solomonic magic, European folk magic, African diaspora magic, and chaos magic. You’ll find that each one shares at least something in common with some of the others, but we would also all agree they’re different in some way.

For instance, Solomonic magic and chaos magic focus intensely on the individual practitioner. Chaos magic and European folk magic are both extremely result-driven. So on, so forth. I’m not an expert in all of these, so I don’t want to try to characterize them and probably get it wrong.

However, they all differ as well. And what most people do is to consider the tradition, the lineage, of the practice. And that’s one form of genre criticism. If a novel has a space ship, it’s science fiction, because science fiction had space ships. If a grimoire has Solomonic seals, it’s Solomonic, because Solomonic grimoires have Solomonic seals. But what do we do if something tries to innovate within a tradition and the end result doesn’t have anything that’s immediately obvious that appeared in older texts? Just consider it as a mental exercise for now, because most of the time that wouldn’t happen.

So what else makes something Solomonic aside from the use of things that were used in older Solomonic texts? What are the methods used? To simplify a lot, we can say that Solomonic magic uses deals made in a kind of hierarchy structure, getting in with someone at the top of a system in order to be able to make use of all the entities who serve under them in that same system. It’s a kind of magical feudalism, right? If the king agrees to help, then all the lords have to help, and their serfs will go do whatever it is you need done. So if you were to read a book that made no mention of Solomon at all, but it began with a series of preparations to get you in good with a vast and mighty spirit, followed by invoking that spirit to send underlings to support your endeavors.

Now, maybe we need a different name for that genre now, but then again, Metroidvanias exist and many of them don’t look much like either Metroid or Castlevania. Sometimes the names of things kind of ossify, because they’re names, they don’t have to really do anything other than be a clear label or handle for something that doesn’t look too much like another label or handle.

Ultimately, genre is kind of fluid. Not every fantasy novel is about a magic ring. Not every horror movie is about a haunted house. The case studies that follow are, naturally, going to be momentary shots at a moving target, ladles dipped up out of a river that continues to flow even as we stop to drink. The point is not actually to find some kind of hard and fast rule, but to specifically recognize that finding a hard and fast rule isn’t possible, while also avoiding the fallacious belief that “there’s no such thing” or that it’s not worth it to investigate what a genre is and which texts participate in which genres.

Case Study: Hermeticism and Agrippa

This started off, if you remember, when I listened to two experts in Hermeticism admit that while they were certainly capable of drawing a distinction between what is and what is not Hermetic, it was hard to do. So what are the genre markers of Hermeticism?

Let’s go the other way around. What are common things in Hermeticism that are not the genre markers? Well, If Agrippa is Hermetic, then Poimandres is not a genre marker, because Poimandres does not appear in Three Books of Occult Philosophy (correct me if I’m wrong, I’ve only read TBOP once!). Even Nous, that central, aspirational goal of the Corpus Hermeticum and other Egypto-Grecian texts, doesn’t appear, at least not by name.

But both the CH and the TBOP value what does not change over that which does. And both exhort the reader to aspire towards what many Hermeticists call The One – sometimes it’s the Builder, or the Maker, or God, but there’s a One, a unified entity, self-sufficient and unchanging.

That’s also in Neo-Platonism of course, and historians have suggested that Platonism influenced Hermeticism, though it’s a contentious topic from what little I understand. But could we then say, very provisionally, that Hermeticism is something that marries Neo-Platonism with a salvific impulse and adds a dash of honoring the material world as a creation of the One Thing? Let’s say that works, for now. You can see how it’s fluid, because TBOP is also things other than Hermetic, and so it will have markers of other genres in there too.  

We can now turn our attention to The Kybalion.

Case Study: The Kybalion

Please note that I have no interest in criticizing the book itself. I haven’t read it, and I’m admitting that, because I do not intend to say anything about it. This case study is for you to perform, not me. But it’s where we began, last week, so I wanted it to be where we ended. Our provisional genre markers seem to carry some water: the Stobaen fragments are very interested in 1: a neo-Platonic One. 2: rescue from the suffering of mortal existence. And 3: recognizing the world itself is not evil, but a perfect ordering of things. Close enough for now, right?

So. Does the Kybalion evince a neo-Platonic view of the universe, coming from a unified, self-sufficient One? Does the Kybalion feature a salvific impulse, exhorting the reader to find the thread of Nous-like goodness in the world in order to ultimately rise above it? And finally, does the Kybalion model the universe as the wondrous and perfect creation of the One, ready for the contemplation of the subject?

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