Language and Magic

I am a little excited to see discussions undercutting notions of a language instinct a la Chomsky seeping out into semi-popular culture. In part, because if we ought to jettison the language instinct, we ought also to jettison ideas like the collective unconscious formulated by C. G. Jung. What makes one untenable makes the other untenable, too.

While it was Jung’s thesis of a collective unconscious that first drew me to his work, it has become the one feature of his work that I have come to actively dislike. While his work on psychological types has tendencies in that direction, subsequent work by others has greatly mitigated that. His artistic-mystical work, the stuff we see in Liber Novus? That still glows hot. But cardboard cutouts buried in our brain matter that provide models for spiritual experience (which is, unfortunately, where a good bit of Jung’s archetypal writing goes)? Ugh.

What is emerging in its place is a model of language (and also culture) that provides us with better tools for appreciating our numinous experiences. It puts language firmly back as an organic dimension of our everyday life, one we acquire through our remarkable capacities for both mimesis and generalization. Looking backward it also allows us to see the origins of language among early hominids in a similar context, as emerging alongside their mimesis of their world: landscape, gesture, flora and fauna. (three good links there)

The thing with being good at mimesis is that it makes capable of profound receptivity and we can’t turn that on or off. The same faculties that make us capable of turning the curve of a hill into a letter and a grasshopper into a moral exemplar, make it easy for us to be overwhelmed by the flashing of the sun at dawn or the rumbling of the heavens. These things aren’t quite the numinous in and of themselves, but they can be the shuttle that carries the threads of the numinous into our lives.

That receptivity doesn’t go away because we have found a way to articulate painfully precise dictionaries of meaning. Our cutting-edge information technologies, which depends upon that carefully calibrated dictionary of meanings, has been most widely used to form social (mimetic) connections with each other and fueled passionate consumption of theatrical productions (blockbuster cinema and tv series).

Just like thunder, things like television aren’t the numinous. They do possess the capacity to carry the thread of the numinous, though the danger here lies in the scale of human media. They, unlike the natural world, are often scaled to nestle into our habits and hold our attention such that we don’t break from the medium to dwell upon the message. Still, they don’t prevent the transfer and they can provide ready-made vessels in which to develop that message.

While I think the ready-made must eventually be discarded for the more intimate encounter between ourselves and spirit, I doubt any of us ever fully free ourselves from it. We re-use and re-purpose. Whether that form is extracted from Netflix or a grimoire, an archaeological excavation or a photo on a news site, the structure and demands of the encounter with the numinous are similar. Spirit begins by laying hold of our Body of Fate, in all its messiness, not by handing us a well-organized guidebook or dictionary.

This is where poetry begins, no doubt, but like so many human crafts, it begins on this side of the numinous divide. If we dwell too long with it, we will wander away from the message and into the medium, which is not wrong, but different. I often suspect that getting lost in the medium is one of the pleasures and privileges of life. On the other side of the numinous, we pass into invisibility and dwell more closely with death. Sometimes a necessity, but care ought be taken not to fetishize it.

This is one of the places where the mystery and magic happens, in the simultaneous expansion into life and death, eternity and temporality. If we only follow the guidebooks, if we only do the coursework, we dwell more and more on the side of the temporal, missing out. We should spend some time with the guidebooks, but like a good tourist, we should hope to find ways to get just lost enough to find that piece of the trip which will be ours to carry.

Or, to choose a more romantic metaphor, we can spend all day circling the Grail Forest, reading the stories, exciting our imagination, but unless we dive into the wood, confront the confusing terrain, we never see the grail.

This is where I locate the potency of witchcraft, too, in the sometimes dull but dogged wearying of meaning and praise from dirt and branch, blood and bone, sap and stone, book and dream. It is working toward the mute foundations of our experience because thati is also where we find something else putting their hands on the process, the work with the spirits, to redispose the stuff of this world to release what is otherwise only latent within its inchoate and semi-choate structure.

And it isn’t just about the bare bones, but about our bare sociality, too. It is about reworking the signs that compose our thought and world, for the sake of another one. It reveals some of the dark and mysterious dimensions of our world, not the smooth infinity of the heavens, but the recalcitrant eternity of a world arising within it.

There is also along this margin the work of imitation, the mime and mimicry in mimesis.

Okay, this has been a little bit of rehashing, but I am starting to see something of a direction taking shape out of this repetition. Populus as a root. Substitution as the means through which beings pass from one world to another. One things go down so that others can go up, which is what so many of the Sumerian netherworld myths with dying gods and goddesses are about.

One thought on “Language and Magic

  1. Pingback: Getting Axial: Magic, Spirits, Responsibility | Disrupt & Repair

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