Several people mentioned this book, and I was intrigued enough to pick it up and read it. In one sense, it’s a light read — I finished it in a day. In another sense, it’s perhaps the most simultaneously delightful, horrifying, and challenging book I’ve ever read.
Religion, mysticism, and magic are intertwined in the modern imagination, but they are actually three quite distinct things. All deal with the unseen. However, religion seeks to contain our experience of the unseen, mysticism seeks to expand our experience of the unseen, and magic attempts to use our experience of the unseen for practical purposes.
This is a book about magic.
Unlike so many other magical tomes, it is neither academically dry, nor froo-froo fluffy. The writing is hard-hitting, no-nonsense, and practical. In addition, White’s asides and turns of phrase are hilarious, and one of his chapter heading-quotes struck me as so funny and so in-tune with the tone of the book, that I have to reproduce it here:
I came here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubblegum. — John Nada, They Live
Here’s the funny thing about magic: often, in fact usually, the “unseen” is plain as day, right in front of you. It is unseen not because it is composed of ineffable spiritual corpuscles that can only manifest on our material plane under a full moon in July; it is unseen because you simply don’t notice it.
Let’s say that you need a trench dug in your front yard; you have a shovel, but your back is no longer strong enough to dig it yourself, and you don’t have enough money to hire someone to dig it for you. So you do magic to get your trench dug.
One of the primary functions of magic is to change your perspective: after working your spell, you suddenly notice, as if for the first time, that your neighbor two houses down owns a backhoe. In fact, you’ve even complained when he parks it on the street. You just never thought to put his skill and equipment together with your need. You go talk to him, one thing leads to another, and in the end he’s willing to dig your trench in exchange for you writing an article about him for the local paper. Or something else equally within your reach. Or maybe he does it for free just to be neighborly.
Did the magic work? Of course it did: your trench is now dug, and had you not done the magic, it very likely would not. Like it or not, that is cause and effect.
Most magic works this way: it’s a disciplined way of messing with your own head to remove the truly formidable mental blocks that keep you from seeing opportunities and achieving practical goals.
One of the first steps, of course, is getting out of the head-space we’ve all been sold. The head-space we’ve been sold is not intended for our benefit. It is intended for the benefit of those who sold it to us, and while this has been argued (by the sellers) to be a win-win proposition, it has never really been win-win, and can no longer even be perfumed strongly enough to disguise the stench of deceit — if you can only see (and smell) clearly.
Seeing (or smelling) clearly isn’t easy, and that’s why magic is so useful.
What I found especially interesting about this book is how much White’s magical advice mirrors the practical advice I gave my sons as they approached adulthood and independence.
In my father’s time, coming out of the Great Depression and into the unprecedented economic stability of the post-War years in the US, the most viable route to success was the slow, conservative route: get a stable job with the government, or a big corporation, marry, have children, send your children to college, retire and enjoy your Golden Years.
That model was no longer sensible even for my generation, coming into adulthood in the late 1970’s, and it was one of the major disconnects between my father’s generation and mine. My father’s model was worthless by the time I needed a model, and he did not understand the world I was entering. He could not really guide me into adulthood.
I recognized this same problem when my own children came of age. My father’s world was literally inconceivable to them. My model of relative success had become useless by 2000, and I barely understood the world they were entering. I could not really guide them into adulthood.
What I did understand, and told them, was that they were entering into a world dominated by chaos, and that if they wanted to plot a successful course through it, there was no formula: they would have to embrace continuous, disruptive change, and to develop the instincts to find opportunity, weigh it, and to either follow it hard, or drop it cold and keep looking.
This is precisely how a Chaos magician views the world, as White describes it. This is interesting to me, because I’d never heard of Chaos Magic.
In many ways, I’ve been a Chaos magician — of sorts — my entire life.
That is why I have to caution that, although I found this to be “light reading,” it’s only because I’ve been unknowingly working with Chaos magic for forty years, trying to see (and smell) clearly, and I’ve come to most of the same conclusions that White has. I read this book like it was an old favorite.
I don’t think most people will see it that way. The first chapter is going to stop most people cold, as it should. I’m not going to try to give a precis here. White does a brilliant job, and I’m not going to improve on it. Buy, borrow, or steal the book and read it yourself.
But I strongly suspect that anyone encountering this set of ideas for the first time is either going to avert their eyes and say (in varying emotional tones ranging from contempt to horror), “No, this can’t be true;” or they will go into a shock of overwhelmed recognition, and will have to take a long walk and get an ice-cream cone or a shot of whiskey (or both) before they continue.
I recommend the book, but with a strong caution: it just might change your life.