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Living Magically in Seven Fictions
A Curriculum, or Something
Living magically is the default setting of humankind. To get us to stop doing it, you have to actively work to train it out of us, and even then it doesn't work very well. Children live magically as a reflex, and a large part of our schooling and socialization works by crushing that reflex.
Even so, most people feel a kind of phantom limb where the magic used to be, a longing where the reflex has atrophied.
What’s most foundational about magic is a worldview — living in a reality where the magic of everything is as obvious as light or air or soil.
To live magically, all that’s needed is to see (to really see, not just tricking yourself) Reality in another way. In my experience, one of the best ways to nudge my view of Reality is through good fiction. So I pulled together a list of fictions that helped me see some of the more deeply magical aspects of everyday Reality. (Then I cut the list in half, cuz it was getting way too long.)
Here are seven stories that I consider part of my own magic curriculum, fictions that crystallized and gave shape to insights I've found important and helpful.
I’ve tried not to give away entire plots, but still, spoilers abound for:
The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss
Dune, by Frank Herbert
X-men (the franchise in general)
The Stormlight Archive, by Brandon Sanderson
Annihilation, by Jeff Vandermeer
The Overstory, by Richard Powers
1. The Name of the Wind
I read this book years ago and honestly remember almost nothing about it — except for the concept of alar that forms the foundation of the main character's (Kvothe's) magical training. Essentially, alar is something like "will-to-belief."
I was enchanted by the exercises Kvothe's teacher gave him to practice his alar. In one, he had Kvothe drop a stone while truly, authentically, believing that the stone would not fall — and also genuinely believing that it would. He had to fully, forcefully, genuinely believe two opposing things at the same time.
In another exercise, he had Kvothe hide a stone with one part of his mind, and then make another part of his mind find it — keeping those parts of himself separate, so that the part of him seeking the stone truly had no idea where it was.
You may be remembering that Fitzgerald quote, "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." In some ways, these exercises are a way of taking him up on that challenge.
The fact that these exercises are the foundation of the magic system in Name of the Wind also say something about the importance of what I call "provisional beliefs." These are beliefs that you can hold fully and genuinely... when you need to believe them, and with the part of you that needs to believe them.
There are some goals you can only accomplish when you 100% believe you can — and it can be hard to muster that self-fulfilling belief, if you're unpracticed at it.
Being reminded throughout this book of the importance of my ability to be both fluid and firm with my day-to-day beliefs made this a powerful story to marinate in.
If The Name of the Wind crystallized the importance of the Will to Believe, Dune emphasizes that you need more than just belief to make things happen.
Yes, there's an ancient prophecy — and that prophecy is the result of a lot of work for the Bene Gesserit's top religious engineers. AND in order for that prophecy to be of any use to Paul Atreides, he still has to win some knife fights and ride a sandworm.
The world of Dune is a world of magic and meaning, but it's a world where those are in place to guide the back-breaking work that needs to be done — not to replace it. (Read that sentence again, and realize that it's a description of our world as well.)
I'm reminded of a non-fictional anecdote, The Battle of Blythe Road. In short, it was a magical duel between the Nobel Prize-winning poet W.B. Yeats and the "wickedest man in the world," Aleister Crowley (as well as their respective magical buddies). Both sides were carrying mystic implements and shouting spells at one another, but do you know how the fight ended? Yeats kicked Crowley down a flight of stairs.
Magic and prophecy and mythopoetics are incredibly powerful tools for guiding, directing, and shaping human Will — but when all is said and done, you still have to use that Will to kick a dude down the stairs.
This one isn't a single work of fiction (though I am partial to Grant Morrison's early 2000s run), but a cast of characters and the tropes that come with them.
To my eye, there's a fairly consistent ethos to my favorite X-men stories:
There will always be people who prefer stagnation to evolution;
There will always be people who only want evolution if they can control it;
There will always be people who will chase and hunt and kill you for evolving.
You have a responsibility to defend your right to transform,
and you have a responsibility to defend Nature's evolutionary energy against being stunted, co-opted, or destroyed.
To read the best of the X-men comics is to be reminded again and again that transformation, evolution, mutation — this process is sacred and precious and must be defended. Not only defended (it's not "Xavier's Fortress for Gifted Youngsters", after all), it must be nurtured as well.
This isn't always going to look how you might expect. If you were imagining "the next step in evolution" for a comic book, you might not include characters like Beast, Wolverine, and Nightcrawler; characters who look more like evolutionary steps backwards than forward. But this is evolution too: not just changing and trying new things, but also reaching backward, re-asserting what matters most foundationally, and bringing it into the future along with everything else.
I'll spare you my full breakdown of this 2016 movie and simply state my takeaway: the aliens are a metaphor for the unconscious mind. The task of the movie is also our task, and the gift of the movie is also our gift: we must meet the unconscious, learn its language, and seek mutual understanding; in return, the way we experience reality will shift.
At the same time, we must navigate and guard against our ego's grasping need for control — represented in the movie by the military. There's nothing our ego won't do to try to shape and control this alien presence, to destroy it out of fear, to limit our attempts to forge an understanding with it.
The unconscious speaks in the language of dream, image, experience, metaphor, and somatic sensation — and if we learn to listen, everything changes.
5. The Stormlight Archive
There's too much to get into here (as you might expect from a 5,000 page fantasy series that isn't even finished yet), but these books actually have a variety of lessons about living magically and living with integrity. Here, I’ll narrow my focus to a single one: Valueception.
In short, valueception is the direct perception of value/virtue, in the moral or ethical sense, but also in more widely existential sense. It's what it feels like when you know what the Honorable thing to do is, or when you know what's True in your heart, or when you sense (not just thinking or reasoning about it, but directly sensing it) Compassion coming through you. It’s also what happens when you can’t put a precise word to something, but you know that it matters.
I'm oversimplifying and watering down the concept of Value, but that's the gist. And in The Stormlight Archive, characters bond to ethereal creatures called spren, which are embodiments of what we might usefully see as different Values. These include honorspren (representing honor, obviously), cryptics (secrecy, hiding, illusion), cultivationspren (creation, life, development), and a host of others like joyspren, gloryspren, angerspren, anticipation spren, (There are also spren for natural phenomena like starspren, rainspren, windspren and the like.)
All of this is central to the plot, central to each character's arc, over and over again. In order to come into their power more fully, each character must more deeply and fully embody the Values of the spren they are bonded with. If they go astray, do what they know is wrong, fall out of alignment with their values, their power begins to wane.
As far as I can tell, this is barely even a metaphor — more like an exaggerated vision of real life. There's real power to people who recognize what Values are woven into them, and who align themselves with those Values. When you act in alignment with your "spren" (or with "the gods you serve" or "the inscrutable exhortations of your soul" or “what matters most” or...), the world opens up to you in ways it otherwise wouldn't. That doesn't mean everything gets easy, or starts to flow effortlessly — but there is a depthful satisfaction in acting from a place deep inside yourself where your power is rooted; and in honing your perception of that place so that acting from there becomes a reflex, rather than something you have to think and reason about.
I've called this book "the greatest mystical text of the 21st century" and I've gotten mostly a lot of weird stares for it. One person strongly agrees with me, the rest mostly just accept that I say shit like that sometimes.
Just like The Stormlight Archive above (and Arrival, really), there's a lot to be learned about imaginal work from this book, but that would be its own entire article. Here, I want to narrow focus to a single lesson: the worlds you enter also enter you.
When the biologist goes into Area X, she accidentally inhales some spores of the area that continue to bloom inside her throughout the book. She describes it as a "brightness" in her chest that pulls at her, that colonizes her with its own wants and urges.
In other words: while she enters and explores Area X, Area X also enters and explores her. This is just as true for this sci-fi book as it is for the worlds we find ourselves in.
If you explore a worldview where the universe is a random assortment of atoms, and all that matters is getting the money and pleasure and status you can squeeze from this brief life — that world will also enter and explore you.
If you explore a worldview where Reality is alive and responsive, and the meaning of your life is constantly negotiated by your relationships to your environment, your loved ones, the currents of Value and Reality that move through you — that world will also explore you.
Whether you're accepting the default worldviews you were given, or exploring new belief systems and ways of viewing reality, the relationship is not a one-way street. When you venture into Reality, Reality ventures back into you. When you walk into delusion, delusion walks back into you.
The lessons of Arrival are applicable here as well: finding a way of communicating with Reality is difficult, vital, important. But unlike in Arrival, there's no pane of glass separating you from it this time. You're in the room together, exposed to one another. It bears deep consideration, what you want to expose yourself to in that way.
7. The Overstory
Read this book, if you read only one thing on this list. There's very little I can say about this book that would convey it strength. Maybe it's enough to tell you that this is the only fiction on this list with absolutely zero supernatural or paranormal elements. No spirits or mutants or prophecies. Simply the people of our world moving through our world — and letting us see it more clearly
One section that struck hard my first time through comes from a video game designer having an epiphany in an arboretum, realizing that the next game he must make is coming to his mind fully formed:
The game will put its players smack in the middle of a living, breathing, seething, animist world filled with millions of different species, a world desperately in need of the players’ help. And the goal of the game will be to figure out what the new and desperate world wants from you.
The bite, of course, is that this is our world. We live in a living breathing seething world, surrounded by life at every turn — and the goal of our lives is to figure out what this world needs from us.
Reading this book is a step in the direction of that goal.
Let's finish by briefly reviewing the lessons I take from these fictions, and what they say about living magically:
The Name of the Wind: Belief is foundational, and beliefs can be both strong and flexible.
Dune: You have to actually train and take action in the world; belief and magic can irrigate your life with richness and meaning, but you still have to do the sweaty backbreaking work of digging the canals.
X-men: Your evolution isn't guaranteed — you have to protect and nurture it.
Arrival: Communicating with the depths is crucial (whether you think of the depths as the Unconscious, the underworld, the ancestors, aliens, your deeper self... whatever).
The Stormlight Archive: Strength and power are drawn from your ability to connect with the Values that are built into your soul. These may not be the same Values that are built into others souls — you ultimately have to trust your own senses.
Annihilation: What you explore also explores you. Don't take this lightly in either direction — neither trying to sterilize your experience (impossible), nor opening yourself to everything (irresponsible).
The Overstory: The world you live in is alive and filled with living presences; it's within your capability to sense what the world needs from you.
Taking all of these together, we start to get a hint of what I think of as living magically:
The world you live in is already alive, already speaking to you, already asking you to communicate with it — the world is inviting you to evolve with it, to believe in it, to sense it's Values, and take action on its behalf in accordance with those Values.
All you have to do is notice that this is all already true; that it all already matters.
All you have to do is let go of the myths that convince you otherwise. All you have to do is let yourself notice how soft and sullen strangeful it is to live like the world is lifeless an random, asking nothing of you and caring nothing for you.
All you have to do is step over the threshold.