Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Magic 101

Two big-ass Duncan's Wacky Ideas posts in the one day... there must be something in the water. And, no, it's not LSD. This is actually an interview a Religion and Philosophy Studies student at Georgia State University asked if I'd be up for, in relation to his thesis on quantum interconnectedness and sympathetic magic. I thought it might be interesting, even if it does prove that I'm a nut-job.


For the record, what is your name?

Hal Duncan.

Many would say that “modern magical practice,” as spoken of by people like Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Phil Hine, and those others counting themselves as “modern magicians,” rests in an idea of the manipulation of language as a way to manipulate concepts and thereby dictate perception and interaction with the world.

a)Do you think that if there is a “magic,” then it rests in this kind of manipulation?

b) How would you define a magic in which you could believe?

a) I think it would have to. I'm an atheist, nihilist, existentialist, materialist, when it comes down to it, albeit with an idiosyncratic view on materialism which doesn't preclude the irrational, the indefinite and the downright chaotic, so any theory of magic that requires a spiritual / material distinction, that posits it as an appeal to supernatural entities or incorporeal agents active in a "higher" realm, doesn't hold water for me. If magic were to exist, to me it would have to be a natural phenomenon.

I wouldn't make a distinction between language, concepts and perception here, as I think all three are part of a single system. Perception involves the modelling of received information through relationships of arbitrary symbols, what some would refer to as qualia maybe, but what I would call aesthemes (in parallel with the phonemes and morphemes of language). Conception involves the creative recombination of those aesthemes and one aspect of conception is that it fires off the "inception" of actions -- interactions -- which are themselves perceptible. So the whole process is a feedback loop in which the language(s) of sensation function as the key mechanism for translating and thereby transforming that little part of the cosmos (perhaps artificially) isolated as "me" and the slightly larger part of the cosmos that it interacts with.

Since the idea of magic is that this "me" can interact with the cosmos by means other than direct physical manipulation and thereby achieve effects which seem to violate causality, it would have to, I think, be a result of that essentially linguistic process of perception>>conception>>inception>>perception.

b) I would define it as interacting with the cosmos at point A so as to create a manipulative effect at point C, which appears indirect, non-physical and / or acausal -- i.e. lacking an obvious connecting line B. If a medium of force, a line B which is simply not yet found, could be theorised and tested for such that those effects might be shown to be in fact direct, physical and causal (i.e an empirically falsifiable hypothesis), I'd be as happy to believe in magic as I am to believe in gravity. Practically speaking, if you could show that some sub-atomic particle was, like the graviton, exchanged between matter, but also interacted with the sub-atomic activity in neural systems, functioning as a mechanism of information exchange, then you have a medium by which my desire at point A can be communicated to you at point C. That might well be a theory of magic I could believe in. I want X to happen; you, without even knowing it, make it happen. It would essentially be positing an actual physicality to Jung's idea of the mass unconscious, which is an intriguing speculation. I'm not sure that kind of theory covers the full scope of magic as people imagine it, though; it doesn't allow for manipulating the activity of non-sentient systems, which would require an exertion of force in a way that I'm quite sceptical of.

In the absence of that sort of unknown but discoverable medium of connectivity, a theory in which the line B was untestable but rationally formulated (in the way that some highly speculative theories of cosmology can be expressed quite coherently in maths or physics but can't ultimately be tested-for), if it modelled the behaviour of the system well (and assuming that we could find sufficient examples of A-to-C activity to require an explanation), then that would be something I was willing to at least entertain. Even if I wasn't willing to believe it on faith, I wouldn't actively disbelieve, since absence of proof is not proof of absence.

A more abstract theory of magic which comes out of mysticism and which I'm not entirely averse to is one in which we have a deeper underlying connectivity -- as in the idea of the Quantum Universal Interconnectedness Principle or the theory that the universe has an implicate order like a holograph, where each fragment contains an image of the whole. In this idea, the deep structure might result in a basically atemporal and therefore acausal patterning. It wouldn't be so much that A causes C by way of line B, as that A and C are, at a deeper level, the same event seen from different perspectives.

While this is entirely speculative it appeals to me immensely, I have to admit.

In your novel, Vellum, you seem to employ an understanding of sympathetic magic (“a thing that is like a thing is or can affect the thing”). Did you study J.G. Frazer’s Golden Bough, in order to correctly apply this theory?

Did you read any other modern treatises on magic? If so which?

I've had The Golden Bough on my shelf for years as a reference book, dipping into it regularly -- though never actually reading it cover-to-cover -- so that is part of where my familiarity with the notion of sympathetic magic comes from. From other works of comparative mythology such as those of Joseph Campbell, or even just a general familiarity with anthropology, it's not hard to pick up the essential idea. I read a lot of this stuff pretty fast and loose when I was in my early twenties, trying to synthesize ideas from various sources. To give you an idea of where this all comes from it's probably easiest to list some of the relevant books on my shelf: James Gleick (Chaos); Fritjoff Capra (The Tao of Physics); Steven Mithen (The Prehistory of the Mind); Julian Jaynes (The Origin of Consciousness); Carl Jung (The Science of Mythology; The Spirit in Man, Art and Literature); Joseph Campbell (The Masks of God; The Flight of the Wild Gander); Migene Gonzalez-Wippler (The Santeria Experience).

Add to that an interest in the occult -- Kabbala, Tarot, the I Ching -- which led to me reading works (which I can't remember the name of, unfortunately) by or about Aliester Crowley, W.B.Yeats, Madam Blavatsky, Jack Parsons, Terence McKenna, Robert Anton Wilson, and so on, and this gives you the context in which the ideas I work with in Vellum originated. The idea that "As above, so below", which is deeply embedded in much of this seems to tie in very much with the principle underlying sympathetic magic.

The principle of quantum entanglement is described as a state in which two or more objects must be spoken of in relation to each other, such that the operations performed on one can be said to have an effect on the other(s). Do you believe that there is a meaningful similarity between the principle of sympathetic magic and that of quantum entanglement?

If so, is this similarity a driving force in your work?

I certainly think there's a similarity and that it's interesting, but I'm not sure if the meaning is more a product of our pattern-hungry nature than anything else. When I came across the idea of QUIP for the first time it made a lot of sense to me and as a writer of strange, speculative fiction it fired off a lot of hypothetical answers to questions raised by supernatural claims. What I mean is, leaving aside the notion of magic as a force -- manipulating the activity of non-sentient systems -- for a moment, if you could scale the effects of quantum entanglement up to the required level could it be seen as the mechanism for exchange of information, or as a deep-structural connectivity that makes that unnecessary? Does it mean that information encoded at point A doesn't have to be transferred to point C, but is actually already there?

In essence, this would mean we're networked to an information-rich inner structure within the cosmos -- I'll call it the Mainframe as an easy shorthand. If this were so, then a lot of weird anomalies which we otherwise have to deny as impossible or explain with intricate -- and, I think, implausible -- spiritualist conceits can be made sense of. Rather than rule out every alleged instance of telepathy, remote viewing, ghosts, reincarnation, precognition and so on as frauds or delusions, can we treat them objectively as empirical data to be theorised? If my thoughts at point A are as much located in the Mainframe as they are in my head, then you at point C have instant access to them since your thoughts are also equally located in the Mainframe. You can, it seems, read my thoughts. You might equally well access information in the Mainframe that allows you to visualise a place you cannot see directly, to reconstruct past events and their participants and superimpose that on your perception of the place where they occurred, to reconstruct and experience as your own the memories of a person who died before you were born, and perhaps even -- if the Mainframe is as temporally co-located as it is spatially co-located -- access information pertaining to events that have not yet happened. All of these phenomena would have a unifying physical, albeit acausal, explanation which could probably even be limited to an unconscious level of access between different conscious beings.
To get to sympathetic magic, however, you have to go an extra step and postulate that we as clients are able to perform operations within the Mainframe that are more than just data-retrieval. Sympathetic magic would have to be seen as a sort of command protocol in which our desires can be codified, where the Mainframe has a system or systems which translate those command protocols into physical activity.

This brings us firmly into the territory of religion and mysticism, but it's a fascinating territory to explore, and this is exactly what I'm trying to do in a lot of my fiction. Subsitute "the Vellum" for "the Mainframe" and "the Cant" for "command protocols" and you have part of the underlying metaphysics I'm playing with. Where the religious would tend to personify the Mainframe as a God or as a pantheon of gods each with separate functions, I prefer the mystic's depersonalisation of that, the treatment of it as a non-anthropomorphised deep structure rather than a conscious being. In dealing with the ramifications of that level of connectivity as an atemporal thing, I'm also drawn to the idea that this localised "me" might be only one part of a distributed system of "me", that a localised event might be only one part a of distributed system.

What works on modern ideas in quantum mechanics, if any, did you read, in preparation for your work on Vellum?

What I haven't already mentioned, I can't really remember, I'm afraid. Most of my initial reading was done so long ago and in such a jackdaw manner (scavenged from wherever and quickly woven into the nest) that I can't think of individual titles and authors now.

The Jungian conception of the Collective Unconscious and the archetypes, therein, would seem to allow that these symbols and forms can be mapped onto any person, just so long as the proper conception of self is employed. As an author, is there the temptation to map too much of yourself into a story, and do you see a danger of too much of the story mapping itself onto you?

Too much is never enough. That might sound glib, but what I mean is I think there should be no half-measures if you want your fiction to address the unconscious on a collective level rather than simply model your own personal psychology -- the relationship between your conscious and unconscious, and the subject-specific relationships between the various archetypes that constitute that unconscious. It's not that the latter is less worthy. There's a lot of great fiction where writers are mining their own neuroses and psychoses, bringing their own variants of the archetypes to the surface to be manifested as avatars in characters, then set into interaction with each other. And this makes for powerful writing because as often as not the psychodrama that results is one we can't fail to recognise. It's also one which, in the differences between the relationships of the archetypes in that author's psyche and the relationships of the archetypes in ours, expands our understanding of those archetypes' full potential. It's also, however, easy to use those archetypes quite shallowly.

So, suppose I recognise seven key archetypes: the Persona, who for me is Reynard, the writer and voice of reason, an ideal self-image; the Id, who for me is Jack, the firestarter and voice of passion; the Anima, who for me is Phreedom, the female principle; the Self, who for me is Puck, a puer aeternus, the classic Inner Child; the Ego, who for me is Seamus, the social being who has to deal with reality; the Shadow, who for me is Joey, the cold, dark force of opposition; the Mana, who for me is Don, the old soldier, made stoicly wise by hard experience.

You can use these characters quite superficially to construct a Star Wars style "Hero's Journey" where the wish-fulfillment hero is a cipher for the Id and the villain is just a cipher for the Shadow, and so on. This type of use is common in genre and over and above entertaining the reader, it can be, I think, a map for both writer and reader to get to a certain state of mind. The forms here are well-established conventions. The map is already drawn and so both writer and reader can navigate their way through this manifestation of the collective unconscious with ease, though without really addressing it. The archetypes simply go through a little dance, fighting and fucking, at the end of which the story is basically a picture of the relatively stable and desireable psychological state. In terms of magical terminology, you could call this the "Right Hand Path"

Taking this further, however, breaking from established routes like the Hero's Journey and trying to map the wilder territories, deliberately going off the track and into the wildwoods where the monster's lurk -- where it ultimately becomes about accepting and integrating the Shadow rather than defeating it (because the defeated Shadow is only really repressed and will therefore always return) -- this can be the start, I think, of Jung's process of individuation. It might simply be a rather disfunctional display of the writer's fucked-up mentality, a fictional manifestation of their internal struggle -- and as such it can be powerful and profound as outlined above. But to make that work as a map of the collective unconscious requires, I think, absolute commitment, because you have to deconstruct yourself as completely as possible, not just negotiate a truce with your demons but take them apart and see what makes them tick, find the aspects of each archetype that would be demonic to others even if its a positive force to you. In terms of magical terminology, you could call this the "Left Hand Path".

This is where failure becomes a matter of not mapping enough of yourself to the story, I think, where those absences and blind spots paradoxically function as negative spaces which continue to define the story largely in terms of your personal psychology, the disacknowledged aspects of it. It's like giving the reader the map but holding back half of the key so that it only partially makes sense to them. By putting yourself in there as wholly as possible, carved open and laid out for scrutiny, you're providing them with the full key, or at least as much as it's possible to give.

Again in practical terms, you need to show the personal nature of the archetypes as you present them, how that relates to an individual psychology and how these avatars relate to the archetypes in their impersonal indefinite states of potential. I try to do this by playing multiple avatars off against themselves as well as each other, exploring permutations and potentialities, while at the same time grounding that in some intensely personal experiences.

Would you find it accurate to say that, in the act of writing, one taps into the collective unconscious to drag out the archetypes necessary to properly affect the perceptions of your readers?

It's not necessarily the case. Much writing has little or nothing to do with the archetypes at all, never mind using them in a project to, well, fuck with the reader's head. But that is something that's going on in a lot of heavily archetypal fiction, I reckon. I think of those seven archetypes outlined above as common to us all, and I think many psychological states can be viewed as surfacings of (our own personal versions of) those archetypes. In narcissistic rage, for example -- that irrational wrath at something as trivial as a traffic jam -- it seems to me like we're seeing the world through the eyes of the Shadow. For that moment, it's our flip side that's in control (hell, we even refer to it as "flipping out").

With archetypal fiction you're offering the reader views of your fictive world and by extension the real world through the eyes of your versions of the archetypes. In identifying with those characters, in the resonances of those characters with the reader's own versions of the archetypes, it's possible that they're going to be at least temporarily looking at the fictive world and the real world beyond through the eyes of not just your avatar but through the eyes of their own avatar of that archetype. Indeed, in the immersive experience of reading, if your written avatar is functioning as their identification figure for the duration of the experience, then with luck you might actually be giving them a view they're unfamiliar with, offering a new angle on and from-the-viewpoint-of their own unconscious alter egos.

What are the ways in which you, as a writer, feel that you can/should/want to affect the world? What is your quest?

All fiction is, I think, capable of altering a reader's worldview. You can be cynical about such statements, scoff at the idea that a book can really have any significant effect, but I don't think this is an overly-optimistic, self-serving inflation of the value of fiction. Quite the opposite. If this wasn't the case you wouldn't have propaganda. The Bible and other scriptures wouldn't have the power they have, and half the world's religions would be out of business. Not admitting of this power leaves it in the hands of the Right, who know fine well that you can shape society with the right stories. So I think it's important to recognise that writing can affect the world through its effects on the reader, if only to ensure that you're not affecting the reader in a way you wouldn't want to -- reinforcing easy stereotypes, expressing dodgy subtexts -- and better still so you might actually try and counteract some of the conservative and reactionary messages readers are receiving from elsewhere.

To that end, much of my aim is focused not so much on shaping people's worldviews but on the idea of unshaping them, attacking stereotypes and moral absolutes, trying to wedge a crowbar into the cracks in people's minds and jimmy them open. I think you have to have a sense of... humour and perspective about exactly how much effect one book or one writer can have, so quest is a bit too grandiose for my liking -- a bit inflationary and egoistic -- but, fuck it, there's something to be said for the Quixotic holy fool, setting out to save the world from what might be windmills but might just as well be giants. So, taking these insane ambitions with a cellar-full of salt, I want to write a bestselling book that rewires people's heads, something that takes a sledgehammer to the doors of perception and gives the reader the map to what's beyond.

If I could, if it's possible, I'd like to write a book that would sell even to a reader who was a full-on motherfucker of a bigot -- a homophobe, a racist, a sexist. I'd like to draw them in with a rollercoaster of a ride, pull them through Hell and have them come out the other side rooting for every underdog they used to hate. Or in a real -- a practical -- sense, I'd like to write a book that some downtrodden kid in Nowhere Town, Idaho or Killmenow, Scotland might read and find some hope in, suddenly see that going Columbine on their classmates asses is not the only option. I'd like to put even just the smallest hole in the wall around that kid's dying soul, just enough for them to see the light on the other side and realise that no wall is totally invulnerable.

And that's the sort of magic I definitely believe in.

Again, with respect to those who work in fiction, today, drawing directly upon the things in which they believe, how much does your work stem from your personal beliefs?

Directly, intensely and thoroughly. Bearing in mind that I'm a nihilist / existentialist and my most passionate belief is in nothing, that we die and that's the end of it, that the universe is devoid of any essentialist pupose, and so any beliefs over and above that are temporary and contingent, theories more than beliefs, I do reckon that if you're going to make a choice you may as well throw yourself into it with passion. My brand of nihilism isn't that pissant ennui stuff where the lack of intrinsic purpose means that any option is met with a lacklustre "why bother?" Fuck that shit. If you're a bona fide nihilist, you should be asking yourself "why the fuck not?"
That whole attitude informs both Vellum and Ink. It's what they're about and it's my attitude to writing them. If you're thinking of writing a 400,000 word Cubist fantasy diptych that strip-mines the Jungian unconscious and has "people die" as it's core message, then you sure as hell better throw yourself into it, and you sure as hell better be sincere.

What are you reading, at current?

Jeffrey Ford's short story collection, The Fantasy Writer's Assistant.

What is your favourite colour?

The colour of sandstone in the early evening.


Interesting aside:

So I'm three quarters of the way through this interview, past the bit where I go off on a big riff about quantum interconnectedness as potential explanation for things like memories of past lives -- not in the regressive hypnosis sense (priestesses in Atlantis and bullshit like that) but as in those cases where it's some infant blithely talking about a past life recent enough that their previous family may actually be traceable. I've always found this the most interesting of all those weird phenomena, as it's the most testable, and it was after reading about Phil Dick's post-pink-light experiences with speaking koinos Greek and such that I started kicking ideas around inside my skull about whether such things might not just be a matter of information access rather than the soul transfer of reincarnation (cause, well, I don't believe in the soul.). Data-mining, basically. Anyway, these old ideas are now kicking around in my head again because of the interview when I take a break to grab some grub and switch on the TV. Flicking channels after a cartoon, I'm just about to go back to the laptop to finish off the interview when this Channel 5 documentary comes on called "The Boy Who Lived Before", about a four-year-old kid from Glasgow who remembers a past life on the island of Barra. And of course it's full of the sort of verified descriptive facts that make such things awfully compelling (but with contradictions that one might argue point to exactly the sort of reconstruction job I'm hypothesising, where it's information being downloaded by the rememberer rather than a "soul" being passed on by the dead-and-gone).

I shit you not.

Synchronicity or what?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Random Interjection "Hmmmm where has all the Rum gone". Arrrrrrhhhhhh

5:49 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this, because it means I don't have to copy and past the whole thing.

I'm glad you enjoyed the questions. I certainly enjoyed the responses.

8:13 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Madam Blavasky, no less. Theosophy, and White Magic, and Alice Bailey! Hmmm... you studied this stuff, Al? Really? Intriguing. You familiar with Rupert Sheldrake's writing?

Sean Wright

8:57 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

> Synchronicity or what?

Beware the Mainframe!

11:01 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Anonymous: I drank it.

Damien: No worries.

Sean: Well "study" is a bit strong for my dabbling, and it was a good ten years ago that I was reading this sort of stuff. I'm not that familiar with Sheldrake, I'm afraid, other than second-hand.

Ben: But what if it's been feeding me all these crazy ideas all along? I owe it a book deal.

3:30 pm  

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