‘What is the relationship between psychology and modern magic?’ was a question asked of me by a friend recently. There are many ways one could look at that relationship. There is the broad historical relationship between magic (as ‘natural philosophy’) and science in general. There is the general point that psychology is literally the study of the soul and therefore one might argue that ancient and modern religious and esoteric thought has always had something to say on these matters. One might alternatively look at the uneasy relationship between modern experimental (often laboratory based) psychology and psychoanalysis. But, if we stick to the terms of the question in that it’s ‘modern magic’ we’re interested in, we can explore what I think maybe the underlying assumption; that magic is a specialist form of applied psychology.
Frater U.’.D.’. famously defined a series of magical paradigms here in the form of the spirit, energy, psychological, information and meta models (HERE). Although many of the principles that Frater U.’.D.’. ascribes to the psychological model are perhaps more properly thought of as psychoanalytic he does, in my view, correctly suggest that this model has been the favourite of English speaking magicians, especially since the 1970’s. Chaos magic usually considers the ‘core technology’ of magic to be belief-shifting and gnosis and both these principles can be most readily understood as psychological processes rather than the activities of spirits or energy. In this essay the author hints that beyond the traditional chaos magic twin-pillars of belief/gnosis there lies the information model that does not rely on trance techniques and (like anything new) is double-plus good. He also mentions the meta-model, which is pragmatic utilitarianism, and in practice is how many magicians engage with their practice.
My own view is that psychological understanding is a major component in the ontological field within which modern magic takes place. It’s the basic cultural landscape in which our rituals and practices happen. Even people that are adopting a highly spiritist model of magic (and this seems, of late, to have become terribly fashionable) must perforce live in a world where psychology is ‘the Daddy’ now. Our language is shot through with Freudian, Jungian and Skinnerian terminology. Our world is governed by an awareness of human psychology; in advertising, in law and even in those little details of life like the fact that your ATM gives the card back first rather than dispensing your money for (psychologically) obvious reasons. Psychology as a science continues the de-centring process that has been critical in the narrative of the post-Medieval world. In astronomy once we realised that Earth goes round the Sun we lost our position in the centre of the cosmos. Once we understood evolution we lost our place as the pinnacle of God’s creation and became just another animal. Once we began to appreciate that there is both consciousness and then there are all those unconscious processes at work, even our self-awareness was knocked off centre stage.
For magicians this de-centring of the self isn’t such a big problem as we tend to have a much bigger definition of ‘self’ than the narrow sliver of waking awareness we call consciousness. I heard a lecture from Michael Staley (of The Order formally known as the Typhonian OTO) a couple of years ago where he pointed out that magic was a process where the unconscious ‘tides’ were more important than (conscious) will. He suggested that magical acts only really work when they are what the unconscious wants and that the wise magician pays attention (as far as one can to unconscious phenomena) to these tides and attempts to swim with them. For any magickal operation, said Mr Staley, there is the possibility of it working, or not working, or of working in reverse. Pointing out that you’d never use a gun that behaved like this, he suggested that most magick should be about listening to the unconscious and doing its will. In many ways this is what Crowley was going on about with his idea of True Will. Putting aside the more metaphysical interpretations of the Will, Crowley was interested in enacting one’s unconscious drives. His idea was that, unfettered by social restriction, the unconscious would well up, turning every man and woman into a genius, driven by his or her daemon (on the classical sense), and everything would be groovy. Reason was ‘a lie’ and ‘Because’ was ‘accursed’. The apparent nativity of this proposal can be forgiven when we consider that Crowley lived in a world of Victorian prudery, hypocrisy and Freudianism. He understandably imagined that the choking strictures of social convention were what was holding us back from a Golden Age. No wonder he is one of the ‘people we like’ in the famous montage for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the hero of the radical 1960s.
Today we might have a more nuanced view. Aided by the fantastic breakthroughs in neurology, and decades of brilliant experimental psychology, we now have a much better idea of how humans really work. And, while we may still use terms like left and right brain, introvert and extrovert etc, most of us admit to a much more complex and indeed malleable model of the psyche, especially in relation to the social environment.
This malleability is where magic comes in. As well as understanding better how our minds work we have also gone on to develop many more ways of changing them. The number of therapeutic systems which psychology has provided are legion (even if we only stick to those considered ‘main stream’). As agents of change these techniques are magical in that they allow us to change how we see the world and thus (at the very least in a subjective sense) the world itself. Psychology, especially experimental psychology, represents one of the best approaches we have to mapping ourselves, and by having better maps we can better determine where we want to (or can) be. (and of course educate ourselves in how others may wish use these tricks to change our minds for us.)
There is nothing at all wrong about familiarising oneself with ancient maps of the soul. Whether it is the Qabalah, the Nine Worlds or something else that tickles your fancy. But the modern magician should also be familiar with some of the key findings of experimental psychology. Certainly a familiarity with psychoanalytics is essential to understand the work of Crowley, Fortune, Grant, Spare et al. It’s also essential to appreciate some of the most interesting and innovative deployments of magic in the modern age. These include such gems as the psychomagic of Alejandro Jodorowsky or those brilliant TOPY videos with Derek Jarman.
So rather than see psychology as a retreat for magic, a sad admission that ‘it’s all in our heads, we can appreciate it as providing a wonderful new cartographic tool that, in only just over a century, has thrown up a wide variety of technologies for the discerning magician. It’s also, whether we like it or not, the language of the modern (post) industrialised age. As magicians, if we are to be empowered in this world, we must know how to speak this language fluently.