A Response to Alan Moore’s “Fossil Angels”

I’ve enjoyed many of the works of Alan Moore, ranging from his early work on V for Vendetta and Watchman that I read in at the Carnegie Public Library in Pittsburgh, to his novel The Voice in the Fire, which was a welcome accompaniment on a recent ramble among the cathedrals and tumuli of France.  Thus, I was pleased to read his essay “Fossil Angels,” a work proposing a refocus and renaissance in Western magic.  Moore’s piece addresses a single question to the magicians and occultists of our time:  “does anyone have the first clue what we are doing, or precisely why we’re doing it?”  He does not address this to historians, scholars, or outsiders, but it is possible that a response from another perspective might be useful for the debate.

First,  I regret to say that the foundation for Moore’s position depends upon a highly selective reading of the history of magic.  From the account given in “Fossil Angels,” we might assume that magic entered the Renaissance as a respected practice, that John Dee was typical of the practitioners of his era, and that it was the Age of Reason that brought about the degeneration of magic, thereby leading to the fossilization of magical ritual in the lodge structure, the collapse of chaos magic, and any other number of unfortunate phenomena.  Yet if we accept these as evidence of malaise, it is much deeper and widespread than this.

An examination of magic from a broader historical perspective shows that, in fact, its practice has been marginalized in most societies.  The Mesopotamian anti-witchcraft literature lists an impressive array of curses, based upon the spirits, substance, misfortune inflicted, and place of deposition, all of which an equally impressive corpus of incantations was designed to combat.   Greeks looked askance at the goes, or those who worked with the spirits of the dead, and Roman law prescribed hard labor, exile, or death for those who used love spells, divination, and magical attacks.  This was not universal, of course – dynastic Egypt integrated magic into its religious practice – and it did have its defenders, most notably Apuleius, Ficino, and Agrippa.  Even its proponents realized the necessity of distinguishing their activity from those shady individuals in alleys or dark woods who sold love potions, perforated dolls with needles, and mumbled incantations to call up Hecate or Beelzebub – in other words, the silent majority of those who practiced magic in the raw.  The accounts of municipal and ecclesiastical trials, grimoires and their remnants, archaeological finds, and other sources all attest to the existence of such individuals and rites.

Likewise, no matter our perspective on the worth of John Dee’s workings, it is hard to argue that this brilliant polymath philosopher, mathematician, spy, and magician was typical of his time, or of any before or since.  Perhaps more representative of the time were such individuals as Judeth Philips, who went before a judge in 1594 for bridling a man and riding him about that the Queen of the Fairies might deliver him treasure, or “John Porter,” the author of a compilation of magical experiments dedicated to summoning spirits for treasure and love now preserved at the Folger Shakespeare Library, or John Meere, who used the summoning of the devil to coerce sex from a widow.   Using Dee as a benchmark to define what should  be expected magic is the equivalent of walking into a college art class and asking why the work therein is not comparable to the Sistine Chapel.

Contrary to what Moore suggests, then, magic has rarely been anything but scruffy and disreputable, its goals mired in jealousy and greed and lust.  All of the events and phenomena that Moore deplores among today’s practices have been present for long before the ascendancy of science.  Even if one holds that magical lodges are at best collections of individuals desperately seeking to shore up their own egos with impressive stationery, this is merely a formalization of the grandiose claims and staged trickery that had been part of the shaman’s repertoire for millennia.   Although there have always been those who have stated publicly and with sincerity that magic has a broader significance and purpose, the strength of their voices has often concealed their small numbers.  That is not to say that magic always falls short in intention or outcomes, but when evaluating its overall impact, even the least complimentary parts must be taken into account.

And what of Moore’s solution – for magic to attach itself to some broader category of civilization considered more respectable?  Rejecting both religion and science as possibilities, he arrives at art as a suitable berth.  He makes a compelling case as to the correspondences between artistic creation and occult philosophy, suggesting that a combination of the two might bring about a renaissance in both.  Whether this is feasible or likely can be set aside, as a broader question remains – whether such an alliance is consistent with the character of magic itself, as just described.

Moore’s attempt to place magic within a broader category mirrors that of the historians, Classicists, archaeologists, anthropologists, and others who have attempted to do the same for decades.  Is magic part of religion?  Experimental science?  Art?  Psychology?  Is it a useful term at all?  Would “ritual” be more appropriate, or does this lead us to other difficulties?  Many have simply given up on trying to determine where magic should fit in the study of human belief and civilization.  They quickly quote Frazer and Mauss, or seek a word applicable only in the particular culture of interest, before moving on to the evidence that they find fascinating or thought-provoking.

Why such confusion?  The difficulty lies in the long tradition by which magic became a catch-all for spiritual practices that met with disapproval.  Such practices  could often vary considerably – in England, one unhappy marriage for a king resulted in vast swaths of Catholic practice, accepted for over a millennium, being redefined as “magical.”  Although it might have reached to the highest levels of power, magic has always been associated with the margins, the underclass, the undesirable, the foreign, and the unwanted.   Even from its first use among the Greeks, the word “mageios” applied to ritual practitioners from the East the locals found to be dubious, disreputable, and dangerous.   More recently, the magical image or poppet underwent a reassignment of terminology to become the “voodoo doll,” misdirecting attention toward a standard European magical practice to another continent and another race.   As the concept of magic was designed not to fit into any respectable category, can we be surprised when it does not do so?  And should we try to force it?

Despite Moore’s reputation as an artist who sets himself apart from the establishment, “Fossil Angels” is a call for respectability, acceptance, and legitimacy.  Nonetheless, the qualities and behaviors that he describes as barriers to this acceptance are, in fact, what has been practiced for centuries on the ground.  Practitioners have tried to make divisions for centuries between natural and demonic magic, or between black and white magic (whatever those might be), and they have always come up short in both the eyes of society and in the actual rituals they have performed.  Indeed, the other alternative Moore describes, and quickly rejects, is that of magic lurking in the jungle as prey for more rapacious cultural artifacts.  Is there only beauty and worth in the lion, and not the gazelle?  In fact, it could be argued that magic in the modern world has served as fodder for all manner of other ideologies, thereby coming quite fleet of foot and quick to adapt to new ideas and situations.

In the final analysis, magic does share one quality with many forms of artistic expression:  it gains much of its power from not being taken too seriously.  The fact that others can talk about a piece of creativity being “just literature,” “just humor,” “just theater,” “just a sculpture,” “just a movie,” or – dare it be said – “just a roleplaying game,” allows for freedom and a power that we cannot find in more explicit speech, and that might serve as a flashpoint for censure or oppression if it did.  In many ways, magic is art’s more disreputable cousin, though that does not mean that they should become roommates.  Rather, magic serves to remind us that both the highest of ideals and the basest of motives can exist within a single person, that life is indeed nasty, brutish, and short, but that none of these qualities tells the entire story of humanity.  In the end, our angels might trail their robes in the muck, but they are celestial beings nonetheless.

Published in: on April 4, 2012 at 2:52 pm  Comments (8)  

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  1. […] more info… This entry was posted in GENERAL POSTS. Bookmark the permalink. ← President Obama has Until Thursday to Explain Himself […]

  2. Brilliant observations, Mr. Harms. I think you’re correct in suggesting magic has always been primarily practiced by those who have been marginalized by society — the outsiders, if you will. There’s a reason why only a select few in tribal cultures feel the calling to be a shaman, but not the whole tribe; there’s a reason the streets of ancient Greece were not filled with oracles. I suspect many people do not have the inclination or the use for it, at least directly. After all, why seek out a magical means to accomplish something when often mundane methods are far easier? I think a certain few seek magic to gain a taste of ‘otherness’, something outside and beyond themselves; transcendence, perhaps. I believe this is because magic occupies a liminal space somewhere between reality and consciousness. However, its expression is perhaps too subjective for it to translate accurately to others, or be widely adopted by society as a whole, and this is why it remains on the fringes of society, misunderstood and demonized. This is especially true today when magical concepts, such as ‘sympathies’, appear to the literal-minded as either hopelessly quaint or incomprehensibly abstract.

  3. There’s a fair argument to be made that the role of the magician hasn’t significantly changed since antiquity, only the perception of it. There are still those today who are specialists in their fields, wield esoteric knowledge for good or ill, and through their skills, knowledge, and devices intercede between the layman and the infinities beyond their understanding. The theories and principles that were the foundations of philosophy and science in yesteryear are today considered superstition and false teachings; the modern practitioners of medicine and science have as much claim to the mantle of the magician as any. The perceptual change is a purposeful one, a recent and ongoing phenomenon necessitated as the scientific method continues to battle against pretenders, strange survivals, and contenders like homeopathy, intelligent design, and folk medicines which may or may not have something concrete to offer. We have denigrated the sorcerer to raise up the scientist, and continue to do so today – because the success of science has led many false magicians to take on the mantle of science to disguise their purpose and prey on the belief and ignorance of others.

    Which is not to say there is no room for magical thought in science. The scientific method allows room for spontaneous moments of genius as well as the slow progress of deliberation, engineering will accept what has been proven to work even if the explanation is not complete. We have sometimes forgotten what is useful because we do not understand it, but we do not always throw away what works because we cannot yet explain it – we use it as best we can and work for greater understanding.

  4. Hmm. I do not see any conflation of art and magic. If I can reiterate the Russian Formalist definition of art, it is meant to change how we see the world, whereas magic means to change the world itself, not our perception of it. Art is a lens; magic is more like a lever. Art can end up changing the world, but that is not typically its motivation. I see magic is more like other crafts, like making armor out of metal, tables out of wood, soup out of raw vegetables, clothing out of fiber.

    As for magic always having been transgressive or marginal, in Judaism that has not been the case. The Sages of the Talmud practiced magic. Latter-day rabbis versed in Kabbalah also practiced it. They didn’t do it on the sly, either. And can we say that in traditional societies, the shaman is a marginalized character? Or someone who plays an accepted role?

  5. So Dan, when are you going to review The Courtyard and Neonomicon?

  6. Hi. Long, long time reader, first time caller.

    I think you have a really strong point that magic is best viewed as the something shabby, a dodgy cousin to the private school kids of Art and Science and Religion. I think a lot of the interest in it still exists because it always was and always will be, fringe as fringe can get. And while I right now shudder at the idea of hipster magicians with ironic amulets and retro-staves, I think it’s best understood as an underclass-activity (within a historical, anthropological understanding, at least.)

    But I think Moore has also arrived at a decidedly scientific view of magic in the last few years. He sees nothing supernatural about it, reimagining it as extremely novel psychological experimentation, as performance and play.

    http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2011/06/alan_moore_at_cheltenham.php Here’s something that supposedly records his thoughts, at least until he gets his own grimoire/recipe book on the shelves.

    So I expect that non-magical magical view influences Fossil Angels. A call for wild infusions of novelty, retreat from social issues and spirituality, back into a world of art that’s defined by ad-man collectors, voguish criticism and chilly commercialism.

    As always, great stuff though. In a time where Alan Moore is usually disagreed with by ugly-hearted fans and contempt by corporations, it’s really nice to read someone engaging with his ideas.

  7. […] A Response to Alan Moore’s “Fossil Angels” (danharms.wordpress.com) […]

  8. […] A Response to Alan Moore's "Fossil Angels" (danharms.wordpress.com) […]

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