Glittering Antiquity

Okay, while I’m at the keyboard and thinking about consciousness and magic, I’ll gripe just a little. (And, by gripe, I do mean to imply a certain lightness to what follows–not a burning critique, just a little grousing.) Why in the world are some folks deadset on making magic and spirits something that emerges from some era untouched by the taint of modernity? I get that, yes, there are a number of cool techniques that have developed in history that got sidelined in the eager march of materialism and that some salvage operations are in order. I get, too, that some of those techniques are connected to specific sorts of spirits and so developing those techniques requires a little face time with spirits we have come to associate with a (more or less) distant past.

However, this last century and a half hasn’t been all about some goose step reductionist materialism. It has also seen some real strides forward in understanding how consciousness operates. While it has been oft-overstated, we should really take into consideration the importance language and communication in the formation of consciousness. It isn’t just what words we have at our disposal or even what concepts we have for articulating the relationships between words to each other and objects in the world that matter. The social fabric in which language exists and develops is also central. Here we find everything from institutions (legal, bureaucratic, military, educational, journalistic, etc.) to styles of presentation (ironic, novelistic, poetic, etc.).

When we start to take that stuff seriously, some important questions come to the foreground. These include things like:

  • How thoroughly embedded are older forms of magical practice embedded in alien social forms? How much did they shape those forms and how eager should we be to resuscitate them?
  • How many of those ancient magical forms are speaking to realities that no longer exist–not just for us, but for the spirits with whom we are attempting to communicate? Why presume that their consciousness has remained stable when ours have not?
  • How much does our concern with consciousness have its roots in thoroughly modern notions of the human being that become possible only in the relatively atomized social world of middle to late modern industrialism? How does this distort not just our sense of the past, but of ‘magical’ practices that developed independently of this concern?

Obviously, we need a language to communicate. This language is going to be embodied, whether or not that is embodiment in clearly linguistic things like words and phrases or more subtly linguistic phenomena like signs and visions. We have no reason to presume, though, that an older form of communication is necessarily a better form. After all, picking up Old English won’t help you all that much with talking to your grandparents.

The obvious answers is that spirits are older and remember the past. I think that’s true enough, but how broadly do we really think that carries? I don’t think spirits are all that different than people in terms of having a lifetime, even if that lifetime may exceed our own. I have stumbled across at least on grimoire that specifies that the sacred signs within it have an expiration date, suggesting that there are changes that occur in the spiritual realms.

Even presuming that the old forms work best for signalling some spirits, do we have any reason to presume that maintaining those forms is particularly ideal? I keep imagining two civilizations coming back into contact, initiating conversation under forms they (falsely) believe to be intact in the other. Sure, that helps to establish that ‘hey, our grandads knew each other’ but after that initial recognition it may make a lot more sense to start figuring out how things are going now.

This is one of the reasons I have come to enjoy the wilder and woolier forms that spiritualist practices have often taken. While I don’t think they are above the sorts of questions that I am asking (AT ALL–many of them are frustratingly naive), they do seem far more willing to embrace spirit contact in the present tense, even when it risks being just kooky (remember, don’t be afraid to be silly). Moustachioed devils, well-meaning ghosts, and space aliens seem as vibrant as anything else and are often strangely more approachable in their modernity.

Their contemporary character makes clearer the role of our own consciousness in forming a means of communicating with the spirit world. We help form the medium through which they are able to communicate with us and so have an important role to play in furthering and developing the clarity of that communication (which is where the ‘don’t try to be silly’ comes back in).

Okay, two posts in one day. That definitely won’t become a habit. I enjoyed the throat-clearing, it’s been a little while that I let myself play a little fast and loose.

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