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Book Review: My Years of Magical Thinking

My Years of Magical ThinkingWe live in an age of enchantment. Over the last thirty years or so there has been a gathering tide of interest in magic, from popular culture to the academy. Esoteric and Pagan studies are both rapidly expanding fields, and magic, far from having declined or been relegated to the marginal or countercultural, is now increasingly being shown to be a key influence in many aspects of contemporary culture, from the arts to the sciences. Indeed, many of the key figures associated with the so-called Age of Enlightenment have been shown to have had a deep engagement with the occult, ranging from Descartes’ interest in Kabbalah to Newton’s writings on Alchemy. 1 Magic is being celebrated and explored in ways undreamt of by those who uncritically accepted Keith Thomas’ pronouncement in the 1970s that magic had “declined”. Rather than attempting to explain away or banish the occult back to its supposedly marginal status, there is an increasing focus, in a wide range of disciplines – from history to cognitive neuroscience – to explore magic’s affects and possibilities. Surfing the crest of this occultural zeitgeist comes Lionel Snell’s new book, My Years of Magical Thinking.

Lionel Snell, has, over the last forty years or so, proved himself to be one of western esotericism’s most able and provocative contemporary thinkers. Difficult to categorize, always taking a wider perspective than the all-too-often narrow myopia of occult commentary, and wonderfully irreverent in his offbeat titling. Disclosure: I first met Lionel in the early 1990s – he gave me some very useful advice for tackling a vexing problem and we have been friends ever since. This has made reviewing My Years of Magical Thinking harder than usual.

Lionel’s first book, (written under the pen name ‘Ramsey Dukes’) SSOTBE (“Sex Secrets Of The Black Magicians Exposed”) was published in 1974, and was followed, in 1977 with Thundersqueak – a work that has come to be seen as influential in the development of Chaos Magic. His later books include Words Made Flesh (examining virtual reality), The Good The Bad The Funny (an extended essay on the value of thinking in ‘threes’); Blast your Way to Megabuck$ with my SECRET Sex-Power Formula, What I Did in MY Holidays, Uncle Ramsey’s Little Book of Demons, (on the value of ascribing personhood to everyday objects) and How to see Fairies. He was one of the first authors to write extensively about the works of Austin Osman Spare in the occult journal Agape and penned the darkly humorous ‘A Satanist’s Diary’ column for the foundational occult journal, Aquarian Arrow.

Lionel’s latest work My Years of Magical Thinking is aimed more at a general reader than the dedicated occult genre. Broadly, it is an argument for the power and relevance of magical thinking and its impacts in contemporary culture. It is as much personal autobiography as well as a biography of Lionel’s “four cultures” model of thinking modalities, as Lionel explains how his thought developed, and the various influences on his ideas. Much of the book is taken up with the various evolutions and explorations of Lionel’s four cultures – Art, Science. Religion and Magic – the tensions and interrelationships between these modalities or styles, their limits and often fuzzy boundaries. In dancing between anecdotes, personal reflections, and his attempts to deal with the contradictions between his own emerging interests in the occult and the rather magically-arid period of the 1950s, Lionel builds a case for the relevance of magical thinking as a particular style – a modality of engagement with the world. Eschewing a formal definition of ‘magical thinking’ – he instead focuses on what he sees as key qualities, among which are a kind of pluralistic playfulness towards absolutes; a willingness to go with what “feels right”, a heightened sensibility towards both finding and responding to patterns and a pragmatic orientation of “if it works, do it”. Of course, the beauty of magic is that almost anything can be made to work.

When these ideas about magical thinking were first presented (in SSOTBME, 1974) they were rather radical. Over the years, more attention has been paid to the magical perspective. For example, Ariel Glucklich, in his 1997 book The End of Magic, points out that: “the effectiveness of a magical rite is measured not by objective standards of success but by the quality of the experience engendered. This is an extraordinary experience, to be sure, but it is altogether natural.” 2 Similarly, Susan Greenwood’s The Anthropology of Magic (reviewed here) stresses the relational, analogical and acausal aspects of magical consciousness. Lionel, however, makes the bold claim that magical thinking should be thought of as post-scientific (as opposed to pre-scientific).

To go down the route of magical thinking in the way that Lionel describes it necessitates the cultivation of a different approach to ideas. I found myself, at varying points in my reading of My Years of Magical Thinking having to remind myself that Lionel is not attempting to “do” history or analysis, and that the core ideas of this book were formulated in an age prior to the kind of fact-checking that the internet has made comparatively easy nowadays. In some ways, this is both a strength and weakness of the idea of going along with “what feels right” – which can often come across as a type of confirmation bias. Lionel’s model of orientations divides reason from feeling and places magic towards the “feeling” orientation – but where do such “feelings” come from? The Right-brain v Left brain analogy that Lionel uses just doesn’t work for me. I might say that it just “feels wrong” on the basis that many years ago, as part of my psychology degree, I read the original research material on which this right-left brain division was based, and came away highly skeptical of the whole notion – so my own experiential bias can be said to influence my immediate “gut reaction” whenever I find someone using that particular notion to support an argument for something. But I began to see that Lionel was making a point about how ideas can support each other – which is a point he returns to time and time again within the discussion of the four cultures as orientations around a compass rather than fixed boxes.

A question that recurs throughout is that of “Whatever happened to the Enlightenment?” That name accorded to a historical process which, according to the popular narrative, banished all forms of magic and mystery into the dustbin of superstition, leaving only a disenchanted, disconnected world of rational logic. As Amy Hale explains it: “Western Europe was full of life, festivals, fairies and pixie dust until the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution steamrolled the Age of Reason onto the entirety of Western Civilisation. After this point in history, people stopped having fun, the pixies packed up and left, and people literally saw in black and white until the Romantic movement inspired people to return to the emotional authenticity of their primitive ancestors and start believing in magic – again.” 3

It is this cry, according to Lionel, that is posed in order to bewail events such as the rise in new age thinking, the persistence of astrology, the refusal of people to cease to pay attention to religion, the assumption being of course, that this sort of thing – according to those of an excessively rational cast of mind at least – should have withered away by now.

But did it really happen like that? Since the 1970s, this rather narrow focus on the supposed triumph of reason has come under sustained critical scrutiny from a variety of quarters. Just because Enlightenment philosophers criticized the Church, doesn’t mean that they stopped believing in God. By the same token, the magical interests and influences of key figures associated with the Enlightenment narrative – such as Newton’s alchemical writings or Descartes’ interest in the Kabbalah – are becoming increasingly studied. This is something I thought was a missed opportunity in MYOMT – it might have been interesting to pose the question of why this Enlightenment narrative persists in the face of all the mounting evidence that it is a fable, on a par perhaps with the idea that the British empire was essentially benevolent or that the Victorians were sexually repressed. Can we not consider this Enlightenment narrative itself to be a magical theory?

The book is a timely release – as evinced by current concerns over “alternative facts” which has prompted an increased interest in the way ‘magical thinking’ shapes political beliefs. Lionel does try and address these kinds of issues in the last section of the book. The attempt to discuss Brexit and Donald Trump’s “alt facts” approach to truth-telling is interesting – as he himself admits, these examples seem to be the very embodiment of what he has been advocating – the importance of “feeling” or “effectiveness” over facts. Are Trump and the British Brexiteers to be considered as “magicians” or are they, ultimately, blunderers who are unleashing forces they cannot control? Lionel leans towards the latter view, but it was my feeling that he is uneasy with the argument, as he himself admits. Magic and neoliberalism have become increasingly intertwined as we progress into the twenty-first century (as have science, art, and religion) and Lionel is attempting to address some complex issues here.

Perhaps the best way to approach My Years of Magical Thinking as Lionel himself suggests, is a thought experiment – an exercise in personal reflection and the cultivation of the ability to choose between different sets of rules and to suspend the kinds of judgement, according to criteria such as truth, goodness or elegance – which we all too easily fall into. Lionel’s litmus test is that they should “offer a feeling experience that is somehow bigger or more whole” – the move towards wholeness characterizing, according to Lionel, the magical thinking “culture”.

This has been a difficult book to review, not only due to my friendship with Lionel but also due to the way the reading exposed my own biases – I found myself continually clashing with Lionel’s assertions and examples – to the extent that at one point I found the whole book to be so annoying that I struggled to say anything positive about it, until I managed to re-orient myself to it – to come at it from a different angle, as it were. Having said this, I do “feel” that My Years of Magical Thinking is not without its problems. For one thing, some of the discussions do come across as rather dated. For example, in section 20.2, in discussing the problem of “style” he writes: “Academia is also a supreme example of a society dividing itself into elite groups bound by a common culture or “discipline”: groups that defend their boundaries against all neighbours with the utmost diligence and scorn for “interdisciplinary” processes” (p153). This may have been true thirty years ago, but Interdisciplinary Studies has been growing in popularity since the 1980s (see for example this analysis in Nature)

Another example which I found rather grating is that I very much came away with the impression that whenever the subject of “Religion” comes up, Lionel is actually referring to Christianity, particularly as many of the examples he gives of religious behaviour: a horror of magic or idolatry, a wish to preserve an original “revelation”, the importance of belief, an inability to deal with ambiguity or pluralism etc., are all things familiar from Christianity. Even his core etymological framing of what religion does – that religio is derived from re-ligare (meaning to bind together or to link together) – is a Christian understanding of religion (courtesy of the 3rd century theologian Lactantius). As Lionel uses this framing of religion to bring both political ideologies, sports and some features of science into the “religion” category, I can’t help but wonder how different MYOMT might have been if he’d used a pre-Christian etymology of religion which stresses orthopraxy over orthodoxy.

Lionel is also over-fond of setting up hypothetical scenarios in order to give an illustration to a point he’s trying to get across. Sometimes these work well, but all too often, they tend to fall apart. In the last section of the book – where Lionel takes his theory out into the real world, he attempts to deal with online trolling – something he admits he’s had little experience of – and goes on to explore a hypothetical scenario in order to try and shed some light on the issue. His conclusion is to posit online trolling as – possibly – performing a kind of necessary trickster function (albeit a cruel one). Speaking as a former participant and moderator of online forums though, this just reads to me like a weak and obvious cliché.

Similarly, when he asserts (in a discussion of “the problem of style” across the four cultures) that “I am sure those devoted Nazis who swallowed the entirety of Nazi philosophy would be horrified if they realised the extent to which the masses were drawn to Nazism by its sense of style – the uniforms, the symbolism, and the many stylistic touches in a movement that was, after all, headed by a would-be artist.” My immediate reaction was more-or-less “No Lionel, they wouldn’t be.” Style was at the very heart of the Nazi project- a political system which after all controlled artistic & graphic styles down to the level of individual typefaces (Martin Bormann famously denounced the font Fraktur as “Judenlettern” and banned its use) and had their uniforms produced by the luxury fashion house BOSS.

These are minor examples perhaps, and I think it would be a mistake to dismiss the book as a whole on their basis, as I do feel that My Years of Magical Thinking has a lot to offer a reader. Thus far, it only seems to have been reviewed by occultists – not its target audience. I’d be very interested to see what happens when it starts percolating amongst the nonspecialist audience it’s aimed at. It’s also a book that should be offered to first-year students of the esoteric academic disciplines as an exercise in thinking about magic in different – and provocative ways.

Find out more about Lionel Snell’s ideas:
Ramsey Dukes on Youtube
Runesoup Podcast
ramseydukes.co.uk

Notes:

  1. see The Chymistry of Isaac Newton
  2. Glucklich, Ariel The End of Magic (Oxford University Press, 1997) p169
  3. Hale, Amy, White Men Can’t Dance: Evaluating Race, Class and Rationality in Ethnographies of the Esoteric in D. Green & D. Evans (ed) Ten Years After Triumph of the Moon (Hidden Publishing, 2009).