I recently read Lev Grossman’s novel “The Magicians,” a book that’s been on my reading list for quite some time. It’s an engaging story overall, but the most compelling aspect of it to me is that Grossman pulls back the fantasy curtain and creates a world in which magic does not solve the greatest problem: that of the human condition. Unlike the world of Harry Potter, there is no central villain to fight, no epic struggle to galvanize the protagonists and give them purpose. In “The Magicians,” the struggle is with oneself, to find meaning. The students who come to Brakebills to study magic are brilliant, alienated, and often socially challenged. And magic doesn’t fix that. If anything, it drives home the point all the more sharply: no matter how much you may try to look for a change in circumstances in order to escape your ennui and give your life meaning, you cannot fix the brokenness within yourself by looking for a change in the outer circumstances of your life.
One quote from Henry Fogg, the dean of Brakebills, stuck with me even after I had finished reading the book:
I think you’re magicians because you’re unhappy. A magician is strong because he feels pain. He feels the difference between what the world is and what he would make of it. Or what did you think that stuff in your chest was? A magician is strong because he hurts more than others. His wound is his strength.
Most people carry that pain around inside them their whole lives, until they kill the pain by other means, or until it kills them. But you, my friends, you found another way: a way to use the pain. To burn it as fuel, for light and warmth. You have learned to break the world that has tried to break you.
This quote gave me a lot of food for thought. Grossman’s magicians are products of an urban fantasy setting, but these words made me reflect on the relationship of real-life magicians to feelings of pain and alienation, and how we engage with those in our spiritual journey.
Most of us who become magicians, at least in the western industrialized world, probably did so because we felt alienated in some way from more traditional modes of religion–or at least from the mainstream society in which they have their roots. To practice magic, to be an occultist, is inherently transgressive in our culture. And being a magician isn’t like being gay, or transgender, or disabled: it isn’t a marginalized identity into which one is thrust by accident of one’s birth or circumstances. It isn’t even like being born into another religion, like Christianity or Islam. While there are children who are now growing up in neopagan households, they are still relatively uncommon. All of the magicians I know started out somewhere else, and chose that path somewhere along the way.
In order to willingly adopt that transgressive mantle, especially for those of us who remember the “satanic panic” of the 1980s, you have to be hurting for something. Either you desperately want some connection to the divine (what Eliade referred to as “nostalgia for paradise”) and feel like the magical path is a significantly more viable way to obtain it than more “legitimate” or culturally sanctioned spiritual pursuits, or you’re already sufficiently alienated from the mainstream culture that the prospect of facing its scorn and/or censure doesn’t provide enough disincentive to sway you away from going down that path. (It’s also worth noting that for some, particularly those in their teens and twenties, the ability to give mainstream society the middle finger by engaging in such transgression is a bonus rather than a hindrance.) Either way you’re hurting, whether you’re jonesing for encounter with the divine or whether you’re wounded by societal alienation.
That said, I’m not convinced that we necessarily hurt more than others–that our yearning is greater than that of the mystic who seeks union with the divine via a different discipline, than that of the activist who sees the world’s ills and imagines a better society, than that of the person living in poverty who dreams of a life unthreatened by the Damoclean sword which threatens to drop between every paycheck. The difference is that we believe we can do something more about our pain, that we can claim greater agency in the circumstances of our lives as magicians than we could otherwise.
Whether we perform magic to connect ourselves to the divine, to further our own evolution as human beings, to heal a sick relative, to land a new job, or to center ourselves in the middle of a turbulent day, we believe that we are taking the initiative to change our destiny. By and large, I believe those who are drawn to magic like having a greater degree of control over their circumstances. The goals are much the same as prayer, and the Venn diagrams certainly overlap, but for better or worse the magician reaches out and grabs for what they want rather than asking politely and waiting to receive. But there has to be a want to reach out for, a desire to be fulfilled–and this is where the magician “feels the difference between what the world is and what he would make of it.”
So if the magician does in fact come to the magical path from a place of alienation or longing, do those emotions and that pain necessarily make him or her any stronger? Well, like most things it’s probably a tradeoff. But I’ll leave that analysis to my next post on the subject.