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Varieties of Magic

by David Rollow

Humans—homo saps, us—appear to have always had a desire to get control over their environment, which threatened their survival. The first group to have any brains got the hell out of Africa (we are coming to understand) in a single migration, in response to some crisis bigger than the Irish potato famine, more than 100,000 years ago. All of us on the planet today, even Australian aborigines, descend from that original flight. Other research has suggested that the group that first entered Europe consisted of only about twenty families, so you can see in both cases how tall the odds against survival were for these mutants, yet they survived and here we are.

This story is usually told, with drumrolls, as the triumph of technology, with technology in the role of the triumph of science. As a devotee of the Whole Earth Catalogue I harbor no objections to technology, which gave us things as useful as the shovel, and not only my iPhone. (The subject of this essay is magic, and the iPhone will come back later.) But from the Whole Earth Catalog I learned that magic is among our necessary technologies.

For when science fails to give us control over some aspect of our lives, we have always turned to magic. Scientists other than Freeman Dyson usually insist that this is folly, but that has never stopped anyone, and the survival of magic in any form suggests that it isn’t really useless.

Magic is real. Jung’s idea of synchronicity is a modern sophisticate’s way of slipping the harness of causality in the service of magic’s continued existence, but magic doesn’t need C. G. Jung.

YouTube has made it possible to follow the developing careers of great bluesmen, and in regard to magic, Junior Wells is an interesting case.

His great song, “Someone Done Hoodooed the Hoodoo Man” puts into perspective what love is all about from the standpoint of the blues. It’s magic. Screamin’ Jake Hawkins meant it when he sang “I put a spell on you—because you’re mine!” Muddy Waters meant it when he said his mojo was working, and so do I. Blues songs are often magic spells. The great collection of floating verses that make up the blues and other American folksongs is a catalogue of potent magic, as Bob Dylan realized, presciently, when he was about 19 and first began his larcenous career as a singer-songwriter.

Don’t the moon look pretty mama
Shining across the sea.
Don’t the moon look pretty
Shining across the sea.
Don’t my gal look fine
When she’s coming after me.

This kind of thing, he was quick to realize, is strong stuff—and it was there for the taking at the time. Junior Wells early in his career wrote dangerous stuff.

When a girl reach the age of sixteen,
She begin to think she’s grown.
That’s the kind of woman
You better leave alone.

That’s an example, of course, of the blues as The Truth, but when you know life’s truths you need protection, if only from yourself.
You oughta see my pillow
Where she used to lay.

You need a mojo hand, a monkey paw, a John the Conqueroo. (A powder made from the St. John’s-Wort plant, which is rubbed on the feet to provide magical protection against evil spirits on your journeys in spirit land, meaning night, back doors, women’s kitchens, full moons, all that sketchy stuff.)

I don’t doubt that Junior Wells wore some kind of bag of protective strong medicines around his neck, hidden under his shirt, but what you see when you watch the YouTubes is that he started out as a small, innocent-looking, vulnerable young man who had a powerful voice and who, as he grew successful, began to dress more and more like a pimp as a way of protecting himself.

That is one thing magic does. I lived for several years in a neighborhood where many people were from the Caribbean and Central America, and there a cigar by the curb was as likely to form some kind of construction to fend off the Baron Samedi as to be someone’s burned-up, discarded stogie. Smoke is good for magic. It casts a veil between everyday life and the other world that operates by magical rules. I used to see, besides the cigar-votives left for the Baron, Santeria candles left in the park around Jamaica Pond, glass tumblers full of wax that had pictures of saints printed on them. The candles were for sale in the local supermarket, the Hi-Lo. Now I wish I’d bought some as “art,” but at the time they were a little too scary for that, because people left them beside the pond with bits of dead animals—chickens, usually—and you have to take animal sacrifice seriously. (Greek mythology and the bible are full of these animal sacrifices. In the Hebrew Bible we have Abraham ready to sacrifice his son. In the Argonautica, an animal sacrifice on safe landfall is a prelude to a terrifying sight: the Argonauts fall to their knees as Apollo walks by, indifferent to their presence, and on across the surface of the water, indifferent as well to that.)

I have the evil eye, according to a Greek who used to be my neighbor. He spit every time he saw me, to ward it off. Another Greek friend taught me a Greek phrase to scare him with, which I once had the opportunity to use; afterward he always crossed the street when he saw me coming. That was effective magic. I’ve unfortunately forgotten the words. As to my evil eye—it makes people stumble as they are walking toward me, particularly young women. It is a malevolent trait I wish I didn’t have.
The reason we’ve always needed magic, and still do, is that the world is sometimes a terrifying place unreachable by science. Magic, which is all about “power” in the sense that the John the Conquerer Root contains a power in its powder, is for use when causal efficacy is denied us. Our ordinary tools work just fine in the world of causation, or science, where the laws of nature gradually unfolded themselves until Galileo was able to write that the book of nature was written in the language of number, which meant that it was no longer the Word of God. But nature did not come wholly under our control, and it’s still a whole lot bigger than we are. We need to ward off things we can’t understand enough to gain causal power over them, like the weather.

Think again of those first and (apparently) only migrants from Africa. Something had grown them a cortex and, walking upright with hands freed for tool use, with the added feature of an opposable thumb, hominids spread all over the globe. They sound like a wild genetic experiment to me. But their numbers were small and the forces arrayed against them were gigantic. The toolmaker could achieve a lot with handaxes and bows and arrows but for fending off the spirits magical powers were all they had.

Among the great modern magicians was Sigmund Freud, who posed as a man of science, a “godless Jew” engaged in explaining the hidden reaches and powers of the mind. Anyone who has ever been cured of depression knows that psychoanalysis is magic, and Freud’s mythography of the mind is a map of the spirit realm if ever there was one. Its powers have abstract names: repression, reaction, displacement, condensation, distortions of all kinds. They are magic powers all the same. Symptoms of mental disorder are formed magically: a traumatic experience in childhood leads to what he called “conversion” and the painful event is transformed by magic into something manageable, such as a compulsion to wipe down every horizontal surface.

Many, if not all, of our drugs are magic. Alcoholic beverages above all, which accompanied the migrating humans everywhere they went, but also distillations of mushrooms, the aforementioned powders and potions, and other commonly self-prescribed drugs. Nepenthe, the drug that Helen of Troy administered to the weary Greeks after they had burned Troy down. Nepenthe was an opiate, they say. A real power, not magic. But the effects are magical.

These have the power to bring us into contact with the other dimension where magic rules. What we find there is not always power and seldom control, but the practice of magic can be of use to the imagination as it develops in us from childhood, when we can see fairy castles in the rotting trunks of trees, to adulthood, when it becomes domesticated in the kitchen. Who would deny that cooking is magic? Chefs are magicians of food. Cooking things so they taste good is as magical as anything can be.

But what magic mainly does is provide protection against powers so great that we have no other power over them. Clothes protect us, not only from the hostile elements abroad on our uncomfortable planet, but from each other. I have lived so long in Boston that I own three blue blazers. The one magic implement I learned of in childhood that I’d still like to own is a cloak of invisibility. My clothes perform the same service for me that Junior’s pimp gear performed for him.

My iPhone is a magical
implement in my pocket.

The question on every eager reader’s mind is probably “Does magic work?” because the message of enlightened modern science is “Of course not!” But as we saw, Freud cloaked himself as a scientist and performed efficacious magic using a kind of quasi-hypnosis that enabled his patients to dredge up in incantatory language the imagery of the unconscious portions of the mind, magic spells.

That was, in some way, the same kind of incantory language as runs through poetry in English, one voice, as if one poem:

Goe and and catch a falling star
Get with child a mandrake root

Did not the same poet, two hundred years later, write

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure dome decree
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Down to a sunless sea.

You don’t think language is magical? It can save your life, it can change other people’s. Robert Frost, in one of his most famous poems, Mending Wall, tells a story of magic at work, first outside the poem, then within it. Each spring he and his nearest neighbor walk out to repair the stone wall that defines the boundary of their property, separating them and, evidently, protecting them from each other. Damage to the wall over winter is first described as due to mundane causes. Hunters have breached the wall in places so they can get around freely to kill their game. Hunters have never been respecters of boundaries. However, Frost and his neighbor find other gaps in the wall where stones have fallen for no apparent reason. Some of the rocks are round and stay in place only if they turn their backs and say a magic spell. This takes the poem around a turn. Perhaps they were moved by elves, Frost mischievously suggests. His neighbor is spade minded and will have none of it. “Good fences make good neighbors,” he says, a saying he learned from his father. Frost is put out and makes a mild attempt to mess with his neighbor’s head. Perhaps they don’t need the fence; the pines on his neighbor’s farm, and the apples on his, are different enough that there is no way to encroach on one another’s territory. But then he sees his neighbor coming toward him from the shadows of his pine forest, carrying a big rock that he holds with both hands from the top, as if readying to use it to crush his skull. This is the gap that opens within the poem.

He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make
good neighbors.”
This, too, is a spell.


Metaphysical Times
Volume X number 2
Summer 2015


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