The magician’s question: not “does it exist?,” but “does it work”?


MF Doom in “Bookhead.” Not relevant, really, to what I’ve written below, but it feels right to put it here, and magic is all about how things feel.


I’ve mentioned elsewhere that my main interest these days is magic and magical styles of thought. Starting with my 2009 essay “Taboo: Time and Belief in Exotica,” I have slowly moved away from a fairly narrow rationalism to an appreciation of alternate rationalities. Now, a skeptic of the Martin Gardner variety will snort at that last sentence: “there is no such thing as an ‘alternate rationality.’ Something is either rational or it isn’t. And belief in magic isn’t rational — which is to say, it’s not worth a tinker’s damn.”*

To which Ramsey Dukes might reply, first, that such an is-it-or-isn’t-it binary is intellectually impoverishing, and, second, who said anything about believing in magic? A magical result (for example, a successful tarot reading) is something that manifests in an individual’s experience. You don’t need to believe in your experience; belief is what you need in order to accept propositions that you cannot experience, like “Jesus is the son of God” or “consciousness is solely a property of the brain.” The first proposition is religious and the second is scientific, but Dukes wants us to consider what things these forms of thought have in common. One of these is a concern with what something is rather than what it does.

You probably have never heard of Ramsey Dukes. Only occultists read him, it seems, and not all of them by any means. But his book S.S.O.T.B.M.E. Revised: An Essay on Magic was one of the most pleasant surprises I had all in all the years of research I did for my book Dig. Here was a mathematician who did graduate work with John Conway at Cambridge in the 1960s and who used his precise, logical, well-trained mind to think seriously about something I was pretty sure didn’t exist.** (Or, in the two-proposition self-cancelling structure I have come to recognize as typical of us intellectual moderns, it is something that doesn’t exist and is in any event very terrible and wrong.)

Ramsey Dukes is a pseudonym, the magical persona of Lionel Snell. Actually, though, Snell comprises a whole community of personae: Ramsey Dukes, Liz Angerford, Ambrose Lea, Adamai Philotunus, and the Honorable Hugo L’Estrange, an urbane Satanist delighted by the Thatcher government’s perfect realization of his Satanic values. In his first books, especially, Dukes attributes all his best ideas to the brilliant but obscure British magician Lemuel Johnstone—who turns out to be yet another alternate persona. All this is easy to figure out now, in the internet age, but would have been a good deal more tricksterish back in the 1970s, when Dukes’s S.S.O.T.B.M.E. and Thundersqueak were first published.

He is also the author of a book with the absolute best title in literary history: Blast Your Way to Megabuck$ with my SECRET Sex-Power Formula: And Other Reflections Upon the Spiritual Path. That’s a good one to leave out in the bathroom for when company comes over. It’s worth noting, as Dukes does on the first page of the title essay, that he doesn’t actually have a secret sex-power formula and has never successfully blasted his way to megabucks. A strain of amused disappointment runs through Dukes’s work: at a certain point, he realized that no-one is going to get rich by writing intellectual books on the occult. New-Age and true-believer types aren’t going to like the “intellectual” part, and intellectuals aren’t going to like the “occult” part. Books like Dukes’s don’t get reviewed in the New York Times.*** Nevertheless, in a painfully funny essay on his career as a writer on weird and marginal topics, Dukes writes about an experience that is surely familiar to pretty much all writers of academic books:

The next step after writing the book that no-one will publish is to publish the book that no-one will review or buy. A certain sympathy with publishers is thereby gained. […]

As a book salesman, the nicest discovery is to find that bookshop staff do not frog-march you out by the scruff of the neck and demand in a loud voice before others present why you are wasting their time with such a pathetic and unsalable item. The vast majority are really quite friendly and quite prepared to give you a chance, on sale or return. So you love them so much that, when you creep back in disguise months later and find none are sold, you feel guilty about having betrayed their confidence in you […]

I recall visiting a big London bookshop and feeling almost drunk with joy to find my books had at last gone from the shelf. I sat down by the ornamental pool that the shop featured in order to savor my bliss — an attractive pool only spoilt by the litter that floated in it. Then I saw that the litter was my books. […]

“Publish and be damned” holds no meaning for us cranks, for we are well and truly damned by birthright.****

Anyway, there’s a lot more to say about Dukes’s ideas — Dukes is to my own thinking about magic what Lemuel Johnstone was to Dukes — but for now I want to dwell a while longer on that interesting distinction between what is and what works.

There’s a good interview with Dukes/Snell that touches on this point. The interviewer asks how someone like Snell, with his mathematical training, could interest himself in magic. Here is the response:

Oh, now that’s easy … If I tell a “rationalist” or people in the current scientific culture [that] a good way to do vegetable gardening is to speak to the fairies and ask them where you should put the plants—[to] get [their] advice, in other words, [like] what Findhorn did, where they spoke to the devas—the response tends to be “but there’s no such thing as fairies, they don’t exist. You can’t do that. They don’t exist, show me them, where do they live?”

Now when I was studying maths, our maths teacher came in one day and wrote on the board “let I be such that I squared= -1.” And for the whole rest of the first lesson we were all saying “but you can’t have a square root of a minus number, it doesn’t exist!” He said, “well think of it as another dimension.” [We responded] “OK, another dimension, which direction is it, where is it, you know, tell me this dimension”—all the sort of things people would say if you said fairies might exist in another dimension. So basically, we refused to co-operate because the square root of -1 doesn’t exist. But the mathematics thing is, well who cares whether it is exists or not? The thing is, does it work? So you start working as if it exists, and I emphasize as if, because that’s the magical formula: you act as if something is true, you act as if the tarot pack really was the wisdom of the ancients.

And the mathematician finds that not only does it work—you can create a mathematics on what they call imaginary numbers—but, the amazing thing is, it turns out to be utterly fundamental to the way the universe works. You know, electricity and all that sort of thing depends on these “imaginary” numbers. And you realize that that has gone on throughout history, because actually numbers don’t exist any more than fairies and yet our whole economy is built on them. So as a mathematician I wasn’t hung up on whether these things exist or not, but the question for me is, “do they work? Do they get you somewhere?” And our mathematics master, because we did maths and higher maths, we also had to do physics in those days, and when we went off to do [this] he said “oh, you’re off to the folklore department now.” He was very scornful about these scientists with their insistence that they would only work with things that existed! He said “that gets in the way of sheer logic.” So I see it as really quite fundamental to my magical thinking, the fact that I learned that what matters is whether something works, not whether it exists or not.

I suspect that a lot of musicologists will sympathize with this point of view. After a few drinks, a lot of us might find ourselves saying (at least among friends) “who cares if this analytical structure/socio-cultural dynamic/interpretive lens/whatever is ‘really there’ in the music? It feels right to me. It makes sense of the music. It yields insight. I don’t give a damn if it’s ‘what the composer intended’ or if it’s the one, true, privileged meaning of the music. I don’t even think there is such a meaning. It works for me, and if it works for you too, then that’s enough, because the name of the game here is meaning, and if I’ve increased the net amount of meaning in the world we share, then I’ve done my job.”

To deny magical thinking as a serious mode of thought, or to repress the recognition of it in our intellectual and everyday life, is to remain ignorant of how thinking really works. As Dukes writes at the beginning of S.S.O.T.B.M.E., “we might all think more clearly if we knew what we were doing.”

*I think this is a pretty realistic touch. Movement skeptics really do say things like “not worth a tinker’s damn.” Their favorite words — charlatan, mountebank, humbug, crackpot, etc. — have a fusty, empire ring to them, as if their blog comments were dyspeptic letters to Punch circa 1905. This is interesting, though for reasons that go beyond the main point of this post. Movements are set in motion not only by shared ideas but by shared images of the self. For all that skeptic movementarians would indignantly refuse to acknowledge that their ideological commitments are based in anything other than pure reason (or for that matter that they even have ideological commitments), they are inspired by their ideal skeptical persona, an anglophilic image of the donnish destroyer of illusion, the bibulous terror of the common-room, the Darwin’s-bulldog type armed with Olympian irony and sturdy common sense. That is what they admire; that is what they dream of being. Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, the real heroes of organized skepticism, can lay claim to their leadership of this movement for reasons other than their Englishness, but their Englishness accounts for their iconic (rather than merely representative) status.

**Now that I think of it, Dukes is exactly the kind of clever and sardonic Englishman that movement skeptics want to be, though from their point of view he would doubtless appear much as Professor James Moriarty appeared to Sherlock Holmes, a monstrous perversion of intellectual talent.

*** More’s the pity, as he is one of my favorite writers. I long to write an essay-review of his works. Are you listening, mainstream book review editors? I work for cheap. Very, very cheap.

**** Ramsey Dukes, “On Writing and Publishing: A Crank’s Progress,” in What I Did In My Holidays: Essays on Black Magic, Satanism, Devil Worship, and other Niceties (Mandrake, 1998), 195. Another pretty impressive title and an excellent thing to leave out when your kids have their friends over.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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2 Responses to The magician’s question: not “does it exist?,” but “does it work”?

  1. Toad (Twitter: @ToadInTheWoods) says:

    You’re onto something, here and in the Sun Ra posts…and I suspect a lot of other places, once I make the time to read more of your posts. I felt someone needed to mention what seems obvious–that you’re onto something.

    Magical practice, which is to magical thought what dinner is to a recipe, holds some problems for me…I’m not intrigued or enchanted by ritual or costume, for one thing–I come to the edge of magic as actually practiced and it turns me off, though I think there’s something there. Also, I seem to suspect that magic without entheogens doesn’t often happen. People don’t do it when they’re sober. As a depressive, and some other stuff that goes under blah blah blah, psychedelics are no longer an option for me. It seems to me that magic without mind-altering substances–or put a somewhat different way, magic in the cold, raw light of the morning rather than in the depths of dreamy midnight–doesn’t work. You wake up the next morning and you realize you were just being silly…again.

    Not to be a downer, because I do think you’re on to something. I particularly like the link to your Exercise no. 3 (from 2009, wow, I’ve got some catching up to do) that pops up at the bottom of this piece–that exercise seems like a pretty good recipe for some magic of a sort. Someone once said that old ways don’t open new doors, and magic–if one could somehow find a way of doing it so that it doesn’t evaporate in the morning–would be a way to open a new door.

  2. philphord says:

    Hi Toad —

    Thanks for reading! A couple of thoughts:

    Magical practice : magical thought :: dinner : recipe … this is a way of paraphrasing “the map is not the territory.” I generally agree that the map is not the territory, or that *thinking* about a practice is not at all the same as doing it. That’s the whole point of my “exercises” and the avant-garde word scores that stimulated my interest in this stuff. I write a lot about this kind of thing in my book, particularly in the last chapter; I call such practices “technologies of experience.”

    However, I am not so sure that magical thought differs from magical practice in this menu-meal way. At least not always. After all, thinking is itself a practice, and the experience of thought is itself an experience. I once heard an interview with Jeff Kripal (a comparative religion scholar who writes very well about such matters) where the interviewer bluntly asked him if he pursued any magical practice, and Kripal responded by saying that, for him, scholarly writing and reading were magical practices. At the time I thought Kripal was just being noncommittal, but I think he was onto something. It’s probably how I would answer the question. Magic, for me, is inescapably about interpretation.

    As for entheogens — I have limited experience with them. Don’t trust ’em, though I think people who use them should be left in peace. But I know a lot of folks experience some pretty surprising things stone cold sober. Consider that art is a mind-altering substance, too! The example of Sun Ra is instructive.

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