The Secondary World of Magical Texts and Traditions

Recently, on the Hermetic House of Life server, we were engaged in a conversation about how exactly a magical text “makes sense.” A friend, Nicholas Chapel, said something I will quote below, but which sort of comes down to the idea that a text should have what he called a “holistic integrity” which can be present even if the text is fragmentary, but which is about whether it “holds up” so to speak.

This gave me Thoughts, as you might imagine. Magical worldviews are a little like maps of the world: they are, to some degree, arbitrary, and therefore they all differ from one another. But they are all representing the same thing: the world itself. And when you’re approaching a magical worldview for the first time, or approaching one outside your own tradition, you have to do so with certain techniques if you want to avoid everything from colonialism to just being kind of shitty to people. Now, normally we’d just call that “being polite” and move on, but I think it will be helpful to dig down into the way that “everything is true” even if two people can have diametrically opposed views of how something like magic works. I’m going to use Samuel Taylor Coleridge and J. R. R. Tolkien to discuss how that works.

What Did Nick Say?

Here’s the full post Nicholas Chapel made. Keep in mind it’s part of an ongoing conversation, and for obvious reasons I’m not going to try to duplicate all of it.

I don’t consider any texts infallible, but I do think that as we approach a given text we can treat it as…integral I think is the word I’m looking for? Possessing a holistic integrity, the default assumption of the text being "whole" or "undamaged" for the purpose of engagement. That doesn’t mean we necessarily treat it as reliable, much less inerrant, but it does mean that we can approach the text and its claims as something that is provisionally true. We can create a mental sandbox, stand up the text and the world it creates inside that sandbox, and see whether it can hold the sand in or whether it leaks out the sides. In this evaluation what we’re looking for is less a measure of truth and more a measure of coherency and internal consistency that we can use–borrowing once again from @cuchlann (they/them)’s writing on genre theory–to establish how well the text fits within our horizon of expectations.

Nicholas Chapel, discord thread

So what we do when we first approach a text of any kind, is to assume it could be true, to allow it to be "provisionally true" as Nick says. They use the image of a sandbox: we set up a structure in a sandbox and see if it holds up as things happen to it, sort of like stress-testing something. He looks for "coherency" and "consistency" rather than "truth," since that’s kind of relative anyway.

To continue the map metaphor from above, this makes sense if you look at maps. They don’t all agree, but they all "hold water" or stand up to the stress testing. The Mercator Projection is really bad at some things, but good at others, and we only use that version of a world map if we need it (ideally, of course: whole works have been written abou the implicit bias of the Mercator Projection and the problems inherent in using it in school textbooks while excluding other projections).

I want to basically offer a different metaphor for the "stress test" phase of things. And that leads us to our authors for the week.

Coleridge and the Suspension of Disbelief

You’ve probably heard the phrase "suspension of disbelief" before. You may be surprised to learn that Coleridge coined that term. Note that he didn’t really invent the concept, just the specific model we’re familiar with now.

Suspension of disbelief works like this: you read a text that is patently false. It’s got stuff in it that you don’t believe exists, like unicorns or something. It’s worth taking the time to make this clear: Coleridge states forthrightly that he’s talking about supernatural matters. In his Biographica Literaria, he says that the idea was for he, Coleridge, to write supernatural and romantic poems, while his writing partner Wordsworth would focus on day to day things and ideas. Coleridge’s goal was to "transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith." Biographia Literaria ch. 14

It’s important to note that this doesn’t say, simply, that the reader chooses to suspend disbelief, because that’s the way we tend to use the term nowadays. It says, instead, that the work takes, from our "inward nature" an interest and truth powerful enough to cause the suspension of disbelief, which is still "willing." The text cannot do it against the reader’s will, but the text still, in some way, does it, in a kind of partnership with the reader.

Why does this matter to a magician, apart from how I really need to write a Literature for Magicians post about Coleridge’s poetry? It’s because the text in question transfers something. It goes to our "inward nature" and procures a powerful enough truth to make us nod our heads and say "yeah, that makes sense." We don’t finish the text necessarily thinking the Ancient Mariner really existed, or that the power of his storytelling means that weird nautical vampires really exist, but while we read the poem we accepted them as "true," which is, I can’t stress this enough, not the same category as "empirically existent."

Now, don’t get worried, I’m not saying magic is all in our heads. Spirits and magic have an ontological reality, never fear. It’s more important to think about the magical models than the spirits at this time.

You read a new model of the world, like Norse cosmology or early Hermetic astrology, and you don’t immediately think that it makes no sense, even if the thing in question is not your worldview. They hang together, in Nick’s words, so you allow them to give it the old college try, so to speak. You give them a chance and they transfer something from the way you see the world already, the way that all humans see and experience the world, and remind you of it. So maybe you don’t think there’s a giant tree that all the worlds hang from, but you do think trees are an integral part of the world’s ecosystem. You find that Yggdrasil speaks to you from that part of your world, and you then understand, a little better, why a tree holds up the world in so many worldviews, not just the Norse (it’s a common feature in circumpolar indigenous models of the world as well).

Next week we’ll follow this up by going even deeper, using Tolkien’s "secondary world" to give magical models their proper due.

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One thought on “The Secondary World of Magical Texts and Traditions

  1. Pingback: Secondary World part 2: Visiting Other Worlds of Magic – G Conley: Magic Arts

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