Chapter 1: What is Magic?


Conjurers and Mediums – Concept and Consensus – Parapsychology and Magic

What is magic? Magic is a conjuring set from a toyshop. 27 magical tricks.

Tricae again is Latin and means nonsense. The Roman is not impressed.

In English the relevant word is “conjuring”, -ing denoting a lighter note; conjuration is something else. Originally it meant a conspiracy, in our cult ure supposedly with the devil: the pact that gives the warlock his powers, and later the undefined “formular” that makes things happen that conflict with the laws of nature.

The “conjurer” of our time is a descendent of the medieval trickster. His show again represents the remnants of the Mystery plays, as does modern drama.

Our ancestors would watch our living room dramas with wonder. Their predecessors are the magical rituals, which are public since they apply to the whole of society.

In the Catholic Church they are limited to the mass, and the actual Mystery plays assume a purely didactic function. Here the old game about every man could be made available to the mob. It could thus be warned against eternal damnation in the shape of the devil and his helpers greed and piggishness, manifested through masks.

The cosmology of the Middle Ages was still spiritually dynamic. Eternal forces fight over the human soul, personified by the intervention of Jesus Christ. They can be found in easily understandable pictures in among other things the Tarot cards: pope and emperor, scapegoat and devil, death and judgement.

The appetite of the masses for these popularised mysteries was insatiable; and where the Church left off, the trickster would pitch his tent. He was the popular art of the time, a very simple and essential form of art. He shared strength with the pornography industry of today, which makes money on human needs that “real” art does not dare discover.

Here too we find the origins of the modern actor: illusion. The Mystery plays were not illusions, although they could sometimes make use of illusions, such as when the priests spoke through hollow idols.

These were illusions of the same type as when we learn from a picture in a book. The picture is an illustration. It is not a real horse; it is an illusion, but not a fraud.

The world of the trickster is similarly a picture of the real world, but as opposed to that of the priests, it is a distorted picture. In this way the conjurer comes into existence as a distorted picture of the true magus, who is feared by the masses. This pseudomagus may amaze, but he is harmless.

When you shake him, the eggs and pigeons fall out of his outfit. We find this duality in his card, the magician or the juggler.

When Schiller and Ibsen had removed the plot from the Mystery play, he was left without a stage. So he put on a suit and tie and started to perform in restaurants.

The greatest of them all was Ehrich Weiss, the son of a rabbi from Appleton, Wisconsin. He called himself Harry Houdini and was contemporary to a new type of conjurers: the spiritists.

For about a century Religion had been defending itself impotently against Science, which was gaining ground rapidly. It was an unequal struggle. Religion had lost its spiritual weight and degenerated into church-going, and Science was a rash little kid that felt that in its cuckoo clock model of the world it held the key to the universe after millenia of obscurantism.

Both religion and science were Cartesian. After the fall of scolasticism, a certain Descartes had started to doubt everything apart from his own reason. It told him that there was only room for the spirit as a soul inside the chest; and from then on this plastic aura became the object of everyone's interest.

Could it be weighed? Could it be photographed?

If we are to believe the photographs of spirits (and as we know, photographs cannot lie), its appearance has changed rather a lot during the last century. Originally it looked almost like gauze, and emanated from the unspeakable parts of elderly ladies. The Kirlian-photographs have added colour to the phenomenon: a complete little light show.

But it is still nice and round, and still sticks to living (biological) creatures, whose soul it is. If these creatures feel unwell, it immediately feels unwell too. It is apparent from the photographs that it is possible to have a distinctly unwell abdominal soul, not to mention if one has cut one's finger.

Spiritism was supposedly the first attempt to make the supernatural fit into the new naturalness of natural science. When spirit ceases to be an ocean and is replaced with soul allotments, the world goes down the drain, natural, supernatural, and unnatural.

Man becomes alone in a hostile and dead world, trapped inside his own skull. Only death transcends this limitation, which accordingly must happen by the soul leaving the body (whatever that means – it is more or less equivalent to saying that a falling stone leaves its fall).

The inspiration came from a certain Emmanuel Swedenborg. Swedenborg was a scientist of the eighteenth century, whose speculations about the immortality of the soul attracted the attention of certain “angels”, who from then on visited him on a regular basis and revealed to him the architecture of the heavens (and of hell).

The ritual death of the Mysteries became “contact” with the dead in Spiritism. This is always established through a medium, who in a trance experiences something reminiscent of the medieval phenomena of possession.

The possesing entities are, however, always interpreted as departed spirits of friends and relatives. The materipetal, which seeks manifestation at all costs, is quite willing to play these games.

Spiritism is often traced back to a case in the state of New York, where a homeless spirit in the best Gothic style lamented its untimely death to the later inhabitants of its house. “Murder most foul”, as the spirit says in Hamlet. Not long after this, rappings in code were heard in the houses of many of the family's acquaintances, and soon there was not a self-respecting household in the area that did not have its rapping spirit.

Naturally the female members of the original family, Leah and her two daughters, Margaret and Kate Fox, remained the most popular. As the first mediums they toured with great success, although others picked up the trick from them.

The spirits submitted willingly to the restrictions imposed upon them due to their unexpected success: from now on table legs had to rap, indeed it was preferable if the table at which the medium and her audience were seated performed a veritable table dance. The prototype is known from innumerable films.

“Is somebody there? One knock for yes, two for no.”

The departed can also speak through the medium. There will often be a “control”, who functions as a switchboard operator of the hereafter. Thus Mrs. Smith gets to talk to her departed husband, who reports that he is well, and say hello to the kids!

This of course is a case of two impulses in opposition to one another. On the one hand the modern religiously impoverished person supposedly suffers from a desperate need for transcendental experiences.

To this must be added the panic fear of death that is a consequence of the individual no longer finding himself as a leaf on the ancestral tree. The attention is shifted from the family and its spirit and survival as the essential, to the individual, who must seem hopelessly mortal and lonely. When now the departed address themselves to you and promise you Eleusian prospects, it is on the one hand hard to refuse.

On the other, the modern world picture is extremely primitive. The gods and spirits of former cultures are unthinkable within it, and the burden of proof lies with Spiritism. From a modern perspective a truly possessed person is nothing but a deranged individual.

As good Cartesians we distinguish between the physically and psychologically true: that which one can knock oneself against, and that which is only imagined. Ultimately consensus becomes the criterium of reality, that is the modern world picture.

In our active sense perception we carefully preclude “the supernatural”. Our conceptual world does not include it, and therefore – since reality is conceptuality – it does not exist.

The notion of the world as “something out there” and us “in here” in our heads, is extremely tempting. It is one of our dearest and most precious concepts, and there is no reason to discard it.

The only problem is that we cannot discuss concepts by way of the very same concepts. If we do so, we end up in the same situation as the barber who shaves everyone on the island who does not shave himself. Does he shave himself?

It is meaningful to enquire whether a ball or the earth is round, but not whether the word “round” is round. This is the mistake we make when we try to prove supernatural phenomena in the manner of the parapsychologists.

Trained as they may be in the use of gramme scales and pocket watches, they lack an essential philosophical background that would make them ask themselves what exactly they are doing. We cannot satisfactorally explain and prove the supernatural within our usual conceptual world, exactly because we by “supernatural” mean that our conceptual world cannot contain it.

This can be hard to understand because our conceptual world is reality. In this conceptual world the paradox has been outlawed: a cat is either dead or alive. But at the same time our clinging to this conceptual world inevitably leads to paradoxes as soon as we leave a narrow circle – the local world which the concepts were made for, and which they have grown out of through a kind of conceptual natural selection.

Let us take the concept of infinity. It is given that for instance a stretch of road cannot be finite and infinite at the same time. Let us say that I start travelling East. At the same time my brother gets into a rocket and flies to the moon.

When he returns I am still on the road, and I could theoretically remain there. However far my train runs or my steam boat sails, I will never reach the end of the Earth, wherefore I may reasonably conclude that the Earth is infinite.

But then my brother tells me that he has seen the Earth disappearing like a beach ball in the black sea of the universe. The Earth is not only finite, it is – seen from the outside – of extremely modest dimensions. I am now in a position to prove that my brother is lying. The premisses are highly simple:

1. Nothing can be both finite and infinite at the same time. 2. I have established that the Earth is infinite. 3. My brother claims that the world is finite.

Conclusion: My brother is lying.

Or in the version of classical science: 1. Solar eclipses cannot be caused by both the moon and a celestial dragon. 2. We have established that solar eclipses are caused by the moon. 3. In the old days it was believed that solar eclipses were caused by a dragon that ate the sun and vomited it up again.

Conclusion: In the old days people were superstitious.

Or to put it differently: fertility rites do not work, because fertility is caused by climate and not by strange words and dance steps. So what is wrong with my reaction to my brother's story?

The trouble is that my conceptual world is limited. I cannot imagine that the world is round, and hence I cannot imagine any other way of travelling than to follow its surface.

The concepts that I have fit my needs. And what is more, I can have them confirmed at any time.

But then my brother can simply tell me that the Earth is round. He can show me a ball and say, Look, this is the shape of the Earth. No, because the Earth simply cannot have that shape.

I place a penny on top of the ball. All is well.

I place a penny on the bottom side of the ball. It falls off. If the Earth were round, then everyone south of Paris would fall off.

Will my brother deny that things fall downwards? Perhaps he thinks that they fall upwards, is that it? Does my brother feel like trying with the crockery?

The only possible answer that my brother can come up with now is that my concept of “down” is limited. I understand it in an absolute way which it cannot bare.

Down means towards the centre of the Earth. Outside the Earth the concept is meaningless, except perhaps relative to another planet; and it cannot be used on the earth as a whole.

This, however, will hardly affect me very much. We are not talking about concepts or words here, I will say.

We are talking about real crockery that really falls, and real people, who live on a real earth. Perhaps he thinks that all this is a hallucination?

The example may seem far-fetched, but in actual fact it is not. William Shenton believed to hid death in 1971 that the Earth was flat, and he had his own cunnning way of proving it. If the Earth really were round and rotating, all transport problems would be solved.

Let us say that we want to transport a cargo from New York to Madrid. All we have to do is to send it up in a ballon and wait till Madrid has been moved to directly under it by the rotation of the Earth. Then the balloon goes down, and the cargo has arrived without using a drop of petrol.

The whole world laughed at this argument. But how many people laughed because they could see through it – that the balloon would fare equally to the ball we play with in a train: it does not fall to the ground in the next compartment? The ball and the balloon have from the beginning the same velocity as the train and the Earth, respectively. And how many people laughed because “everybody knows that the world rotates”?

Reality – the real crockery and the real earth, is our conceptual world. We got it by residing in a certain part of the universe. And it holds water and is demonstrable as long as we do not go anywhere else.

It is meaningless to talk of a reality abstracted from our conceptual world. It is not meaningless to say that it exists; that is a premise for us being able to talk of concepts that relate to it. But it is meaningless to talk of it. Because we can only talk of it through concepts; and when we do so it is no longer the virginal Ding an sich, but exactly our conceptual world.

As we have said, this is no great problem as long as we stay at home. This, however, was what the physicists did not do when they persisted with their questions about what things are made of. They discovered that things are made of the substantive “thing” plus a substantive for each thing plus an amount of adjectives.

All this may seem like solipsism, but is not in the least so. That reality is psychological does not mean that it is objective.

As we have said, objectivity is based on consensus. Reality is objective because its concepts are shared.

Concepts belong to language, and we use language for talking to one another. This is exactly why we confirm and prove the indisputable reality of the indisputable reality to one another.

The problem does not arise until we meet people with other conceptual worlds. The concepts are reality, so people with other concepts must be superstitious or mad.

They are put in psychiatric wards, not because we want to supress their opinions about the world, but because they simply cannot cope in the world, which consists of our opinions about it. It is sometimes the case that such a psychiatric patient would have had a better chance of being accepted in another culture, but in the majority of incidents the case is simply that his conceptual world is disfunctional; that it has broken down in the same way that a heart or a lung can stop working.

When we say that it is disfunctional, we mean that it does not work. Not only in our culture, but in general.

It follows that we cannot discard a conceptual world, however exotic it may seem, for being deranged. For it is the experience of science that the most deranged models are often the most functional. We can, however, discard it for being impractical.

This can of course be determined according to two different yardsticks. If it is impractical in any cultural context, the case is settled.

If it has functioned in another culture we must, on the contrary, ask ourselves whether it would not be a good idea to adopt it to a certain degree. This is the position of qualified occultism.

The case presents itself differently to the spiritistic medium. She experiences – if she is not among the fraudsters, who of course are a majority – a separate reality/conceptual world; but she is not – exactly because it is a conceptual world – able to communicate it. She can have the most incredible visions while the audience supresses a yawn.

This does not mean that it is an “inner” experience or any similar nonsense. There are only inner experiences; everything comes into being within the psyche and is projected out as physical.

Her “control” is as physical as the three-legged table at which she sits. But he and everything else in the experience is incommunicative.

The conclusion is that she must produce something communicative or go out of business. This is where the objective, that is communicative manifestations come in: rappings that cannot merely be heard by one member of the family or perhaps the entire family, but that can be taped.

In the first case we are dealing with an audible hallucination; in the second, mass suggestion (folie … deux, trois, quatre, etc.). The third, however, is a case of objective reality, and, of course, humbug. It is the modus operandi of parapsychologists to discard subjective reality – which remains subjective because no one can be bothered or has the courage to widen their conceptual framework – and try to accept the objective humbug.

The spiritists were of course not late to comply with the demands of the time, and “physical phenomena” were part of any good show. Tambourines floated in thin air, and ectoplasm gushed forth in great quantity.

The medium spoke through a funnel in the darkness. If this funnel was detected by more astute members of the audience, it would naturally have to be interpreted as just as ectoplastic as the brooms that from time to time made the chanteliers swing. The best results were achieved when the medium could go into her cabinet, from which children's voices and various domestic utensils would subsequently emanate.

It was here that Houdini created sensation by imitating these conjuring tricks and even improving them. Magic could be exposed and Science sleep its beauty sleep for almost another half century. The mediumistic phenomena can, on the whole, be classified into two categories according to the state of consciousness of the medium. One thus talks of trance mediums and clairvoyance mediums.

Trance is a sort of sleep during which entities (“departed”) gain access to the medium's body. This means in more psychological parlance that psychological dynamics that are usually suppressed are given expression. To the clairvoyance medium they merely show themselves, and she can describe them to the bystanders. The trance medium experiences and remembers nothing of her “possession”.

When clairvoyance is to be “demonstrated”, it is of course preferable that knowledge is disclosed about something that the medium could not have found out by any natural means. Such “telepathy” is a reality if one understands what it is.

Telepathy is implicit consensus. The agreement which makes us see the “same” tables and chairs is not pronounced.

We do not constantly need to inform each other that now I see a chair, don't you? What it means that something is a chair – the knowledge that enables us to see a chair (and not a spot on the retina) is so old and established and implicit in our sense perception that it seems to us like a new sense perception.

The tool of the sense perception is not regarded as a sense perception or at all as a reality. This is Bohr's cane.

It was a favourite example of Niels Bohr's that there is a difference between feeling a cane and feeling with a cane, as when we prod at something. The effect is of course even more obvious when we use our hands or eyesight.

If I take an object into my hand in order to examine it, my dirty nails will never enter the picture. The cane would likewise disappear if we always used it. Therefore reality is not seen as our conceptual world projected onto an abstract outer world; the world seems to possess properties like space, time, substance, and causality, in itself.

Let us suppose that we cane-men meet a non-cane culture. Firstly this culture will see something which we do not, namely a cane.

Secondly our worlds will be completely different. The cane people will, for example, not understand the concept of weight, since they cannot weigh in their hand. Weight will be an esoteric quality to them, like mana is to us.

Furthermore this quality will have full consensus. Despite the fact that it does not exist for us, the Cane-less will at any time be able to agree on it. And what is more, it is an unpronounced agreement. When the Cane-lesses go on holiday, the adults will carry the heavy suit cases and the children the light ones.

They do not even need to talk about it. This is – to us cane people – telepathy.

Also within a single culture the pronouncing of an unpronounced consensus may chock. We tell each other more than we think, because our definition of reality is consensus, that is what we are told. Therefore a great part of other people's messages to us is interpreted as our own sense perception.

Whoever makes it clear to himself that these messages are messages, can pronounce them and thereby assign them to someone else, whose “thoughts” he seems to be reading. With this background it is not difficult to understand that everyone in a demon-culture sees the same demon (as we see the same table), or that people who have made themselves conscious of this can seem to us telepathic.

Unfortunately these phenomena come under the naughty label of “psychological”, which parapsychologists decline to have anything to do with. They therefore stipulate experiments in which “psychological telepathy” is precluded.

A playing card lying face down on a table does not reveal its colour by any implicit consensus. Accordingly it is impossible for anyone to do anything but guess at it. These guesses are then applied to inscrutable statistical formulae, which is about as productive as making statistics over the frequency of bread falling buttered side down.

It is only with the latest technology that Einstein's theories of relativity can be proved. Let us take as an example his claim about the time dilation for an object moving with great speed relative to an observer. We now imagine an Einstein supporter of 1905 who feels obliged to prove the special theory of relativity.

He synchronises his watch with that of a helper. His assistent now gets onto Siemens and Halske's train, which moves with the mind-boggling speed of 200 km/h. After having driven backwards and forwards in this technical wonder for a week, he gets off at the same station, where his professor has been patiently waiting.

The world holds its breath in suspense. The moment of truth: will the two watches show any aberration?

Einstein himself would presumably be quite unmoved. He would probably not even bother to read the newspaper report the following day. How can he be so indifferent?

Well, good old Albert knows that even if the obliging assistent had travelled with a velocity of two hundred thousand km/h, the time dilation would still be in the area of one hundredth of a second, which his pocket watch would hardly register. There are therefore two possibilities.

1. The two watches show no aberration. 2. There is an aberration of a couple of seconds.

In actual fact the two results come to one and the same thing, because in the latter case the aberration will either be caused by the inaccuracy of the two watches or by the obliging assistent having tampered with his in order to please his old professor. The experiment is fundamentally wrong and the result therefore uninterresting. Such an attitude, can, however, expect a very poor reception by the Professor and his assistent and their many followers. We may imagine a conversation of the following nature:

The Professor: The theory is verified! Albert: No, it isn't! The Professor: Yes, an aberration has been found. Albert: Then the watches are faulty. The Professor: No, they have been controlled. We let them run for a week in the same cardboard box, and there was no aberration. In our choo-choo experiment the aberration was around three and a half hours. Albert: Then either you or your assistent has cheated by tampering with his watch.

The Professor's change of attitude is understandable. No matter what he says about the reliability of his method and assistent will be spurned by sour old Albert.

Albert does not even offer any arguments for his position. He does not say: No, I once had such a watch, and I know that they are unreliable. They suddenly skip a couple of hours. Or: Your assistent is an ex-convict.

His argument is chocking for a serious scientist: there is no time dilation, because there cannot be. Consequently the result is caused by inaccuracy or humbug. The conclusion: Einstein does not believe his own theory of relativity!

So we forget about Einstein and all his sour remarks. He is probably just envious because he did not get the brilliant idea of the choo-choo himself.

His theory, however, is all right. Until the assistent is found in the neighbouring town with five aces in his cuffs. He contritely confesses all his sins, including that of the choo-choo.

And then we all of a sudden find ourselves in the awkward situation of seeing the theory of relativity disproved! Well, it was humbug, wasn't it?

For almost a century now, parapsychologists have experimented with pocket watches and choo-choos and a veritable army of helpful assistents. Our criticism will hardly be received more graciously than old Albert's.

That is except for an ill-concealed wonder that we, who actually believe in all that rubbish about time dilationand demons, reject proofs of our own claims. We can't be real scientists.

The “natural” world is our conceptual world. Where it gives out or meets a different one, we talk of the “supernatural”, and here it is of no use to come running with our concepts once again.

Our conceptual world is not only natural; it is “real”, the only reality to us, since concessions to any other realities would lead to contradiction. And each conceptual world must neccessarily be consistent in order to function. A system of mathematics in which two plus two is both four and five is useless to us. All further calculations would be made impossible in advance by such an inconsistence.

Is four plus four eight or ten, or maybe six? If two times two is five, is five divided by two two or two and a half?

It was this discovery that made Bohr talk of complimentarity. In the world of atoms our conceptual world no longer functions. We are forced to invent quite a few new ones; even – as it will turn out – an infinite amount. The same is the case with the conceptual underworld which we have christened “the supernatural”.

Concepts from the respective conceptual worlds are not mutually consistent in any traditional way; light as particle, light as wave. It is something we have to learn to live with. Because these are only concepts; and concepts are the only things we can use for talking, which is why they are so hard to talk about.

The foundation of the natural is fundamentally “supernatural” – the motive to create the world in a conceptually practical way. We create the apple in order to “see” the apple and eat the apple. This motive or biological driving force is transcendental to the world and nature, and is therefore supernatural in all cultures.

This, however, does not mean that it is not conceptually available; it just isn't in our culture. In other cultures it manifests as gods and spirits that are as “physical” as our living room furniture.

The failure of parapsychology lies in its unfortunate attempts to make the supernatural natural, to “explain” supernatural occurences. A demon needs no explanation of this sort; it simply represents a different set of concepts.

These concepts are equal in stature to those of the “natural” by reason of their superiority in their own field, the which can be loosely described as the biology of reality, that is, not the biology of the kidneys or liver, but the anatomy and physiology of reality, as sure as reality is, if not an organ, then at least the product of an organ: a product of the human brain. If we go from describing the colour of an object to weighing it, then weight may seem an esoteric property compared to the more eye-catching colour; but it is still a mistake to search for the transcendental four and a half kilogrammes in the solar spectrum.

Parapsychologists, like other people, go wrong because they have not understood and digested what a concept is. They live in an Aristotelian world of observable objects independent of observation (contradictio in adjecto, if I ever saw one), that have discernable properties worthy of study. While the physicist Nobel Prize winners let themselves be photographed for Billed Bladet, declaring that, “I have also changed to Plato!”, the ghost hunters are still trampling around in the old causae.

What is magic? Not conjuring, of course.

But the phenomena investigated by parapsychologists invariably remind one of conjuring and mind-reading tricks. They also represent a naivisation caused by the attitude of classical science towards magic or towards reality as a whole.

But there is a difference between witchcraft and slight of hand. Magic is a consciousness of and acting with the world that is not tied down by our culture's narrow “scientific” consensus.

The magical viewpoint is that of modern physics: that an observation is only significant relative to an observer. It invalidates the efforts of traditional science to bring about the objective observation – observation abstracted from observer, sandwich without bread.

The world is not a garden wall but a dynamic, continuous creation. Its basic principle is not mass effect but experience. The world is as much soul as it is matter. Not the soul of the Cartesians, shut up between their ears, but the soul of all things, since the foundation of all things is soul.

The deeper reality of an object is not a molecular structure – that is only our yardstick – but a desperate need to exist. When we discover this lust for existence within all things we ourselves begin to exist, and the dead reality's heart starts to beat.

We begin to understand. This understanding is the heart of magic.



This text is an extract from the book "Magi" (Magic).
COPYRIGHT © Erwin Neutzsky-Wulff and Borgen Publishers, 1986
Translated by Robin Wildt Hansen.
All Rights Reserved
First published 1986 by Borgen Publishers.
This text may under no circumstances be resold or redistributed for compensation of any kind, in either printed, electronic, or any other forms, without prior written permission from Borgen Publishers.
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