Magic Scrapbook

Recreating (and advancing) pk’s censored domains: & / Teaching / Society / Social Epistemology / Cosmology / Magic /
@ K. 2000 09 27

Is any question more important than the question whether or not magic is real? Is any question more unanswerable?

The parent file is the basic, original module. This file strings the updates. None are more important than my “discovering” Jared Diamond’s work.

Initially magic simplifies explanation; eventually magic makes everything equally Byzantine in causal complexity.

2006 03 10 I loved and recommend a film out on DVD which steeps modern society in vain magic: Songs from the Second Floor by Roy Andersson.

Some images: executives at the board meeting of a faltering corporation pass a crystal ball. One can find neither his short-term nor his long-term projections. A moment later a virgin is made to walk the plank. References to a failed male virgin sacrifice are thick: salesmen dump crucifixes as dead inventory, cursing themselves for having backed a loser.

I started reading Frazer in the late ’50s. Through the ’80s I read him the way most people read the Bible: bits and pieces, rereading favorites, some sections still unvisited. Around 1988 I got hold of the single volume version, started from scratch on page one and this time read sequentially to the last page. It wasn’t till that reading that I formed my current view: that our modern institutions embody the same fallacies of the shaman, that government is just as “staged” as religion, that belief in Reaganomics is just as superstitious as belief in rain making.

My first literary expression of my new understanding was my short story, King. We go to school and read Richard II, Richard III … kings and barons vying for kingship. We see a king’s privileges as desirable. We see the assassination of Lincoln or Kennedy as an aberration. Our familiarity with history is very shallow. My story shows an elected king fleeing his people and their “throne” the way he would flee cannibals. The demands of traditional kingship far outweigh any possible privileges. If you were an Inca king, sure you’d take the adulation as well as the extra food, but what would you do when it came time to drive the ray’s sting through your penis so your priests could catch your most sacred blood for some ritual to make the corn grow? Everyone (yourself probably included) believe that you make the sun rise, the economy flourish, your enemies think twice …

I know the reactions to my fiction only from the few cases where a friend was in the room hearing me read it. (OK, I’d hear rumors of a story of mine being passed around among Cornell architecture students. Sometimes a publisher’s assistant would whisper something reverential over the phone, conspicuously off the record. But this particular module, for example, has received intelligent as well as reverential response from more than one state, more than one continent.

My notes to this piece credited my “facts” beyond Frazer to Nigel Calder, England’s great digester and explainer of science. Now thanks to Jared Diamond, I can update Calder’s facts. But Frazer and Calder were more than a good enough truth basis for my “history” — my story is a digestion of science. I am a myth weaver (and reweaver). Responsible myth. Truthful fiction. What has me spinning about Diamond is that he is saying much the same thing that I’ve been saying. And, miracle of miracles, he seems to have all the facts. Diamond has brilliant explanations coming out of his ears. And being an established evolutionary theorist, he doesn’t have to rely on hand-me-downs for his data.

I’ll have a lot more to say about Diamond. Right now I have to revise those notes. My writing here isn’t like an edition of Stephen King: it’s already been polished: he can still revise it if he wants to, but what you’ve got is official. No, it’s more like the display window of a department store. On your way in, the window was composed, looked good. On your way out, both wig and dress are off the mannequin. There’s a guy working there in his shirt sleeves. The accessories have been stripped away. New stuff is coming, but it’s not arranged yet.

As I do this update, I’m going to try something else as well. Till recently, my notes were relegated to a separate file. I wanted the modules to be bite-sized and the load quickly. Now more and more people have faster computers and faster modems. I’ve discovered that internal links are much faster than external. So I’m going to trade a second of load time for several seconds of change load time. As I work, please ignore the redundancies of contradictions among the notes.

(Meantime, also … One or another version of this piece has been mounted now … it must be around four years. Half-way through 1999 I can’t believe I still haven’t elsewhere finished some of its implications. Anyone can see in the privacy of his own mind that what I say, what Diamond says, is true. Yet we still pay taxes, still go to church, still stand still as public media broadcast one hundred manipulated falsehoods for one healing truth … What would happen if we stopped paying taxes, didn’t answer draft notices, tried our own charity instead of transferring our resources to proxies …

I’ll develop this independently in another module(s). Some hints are already in place. For one thing, the Fed didn’t ask: Sam already took your money. Besides, he’s got the bombs, the rifles, the police, the guns … Stop going to church and that’s the end of your career. Stand up … and some bureaucrat will lose your Social Security records.

What if we did it anyway? Then most of us would die. Much sooner. My point is that if we don’t, all of us will die: having first killed everything else complex in the biosphere. Natural law is enough. It’s all we should tolerate. But it won’t support six billion humans.

I still say natural law is our only chance. Survivors would be scattered. Fine. The Tower of Babel was a bad idea.)

I believe we killed the magic when we killed Jesus.

1999 06 06 A while back I promised to develop further my point about the state as the grain side of the magic. My history is simple. Both read and digest Frazer and you will see that it is not simplistic. It’s the essence: an ultimate explanation. Shaman, priest, king: he made the sun rise, the seasons to resume, the rain to rain, the game to die for us … Humans were specialized by gender from the outset: by the time we became talking man, our gender specializations had increased greatly. With magic, the specialization by gender subdivided: there were ordinary men and there were magic men. As civilization became complex, the specialization of the magic men subdivided. Our shaman/priest, sometimes regarded as a “king,” was and remains in charge of the big magic: cosmological things and things of the “soul.” Once we became big time farmers, the king, frequently still regarded as divine, was also recognized as part bureaucrat. He was in charge of the secular magic: war, territory, wealth, food surplus … Eventually, the former promised us immortality in an afterlife. The descendants of the latter are getting closer and closer to promising us immortality in this life: secular salvation in our own time.

Funny: how come then it looks to more and more intelligent people like what we have to look forward to, to look forward to soon, is mega-death. (See

I summarize:

M a g i c
Everyman   Shaman   gods   God   USA

But of course our logic was pitiful to begin with. Humans beget humans more often than mutants; but like does not necessarily beget like. Homeopathic magic is one of our oldest and most basic fallacies. If you think we’ve outgrown it, I challenge you to look around you more carefully. Our confidence in our ability to determine cause and effect started out and continues without basis, the errors of the great philosophers being far more dangerous than the errors of the simple gatherer and hunter. See Ilya Prigogine’s The End of Certainty. The errors compound when our education encourages us to confuse logic with truth. Something can be perfectly logical and yet perfectly false. See Gregory Bateson’s Mind and Nature. It’s worst of all when we imagine, having studied Aristotle, that we do what he said.   Check that: it’s even worse when we imagine, knowing that we don’t do what Aristotle said, that our shaman, our congressmen and cabinet members, do do it for us.

If we wish to survive, especially if we wish to survive amid anything remotely resembling the environment that our species co-produced with the grasses (both begetter and begotten), we are going to have to return to self-reliance. But not as Everyman the Magician; rather as Everyman the Nobody’s Fool.

If you would like to see much of this material echoed in novel form, see Piers Anthony’s Geodesy. Chapter 10, Town, of Vol. 1, Isle of Woman gives us a friendlier example of contact between an early civilized woman and a contemporary nomad male. We’re only too well aware of how much the exception the tale would have been.

2006 04 23 Magic, Magicians: False

If there’s such a thing as real magic, could we know what it is? could we identify it? how would we be sure? (other than by being stupid? not knowing how to test it?)

Thus: if something claims to be magical, if something is said to be magical, assume that it’s false magic: either deliberate illusion or incompetence of sentience.

The magiciansfalse will do anything to distract the gulls from anything real, true, not rigged.


Ceremony is an essential part of magicfalse. The magiciansfalse rely on ceremony to convince themselves and their audience that they, magiciansfalse and their audience (fellow magiciansfalse, apprentice magiciansfalse) are sincere.

I’ll develop this, possibly in an independent module.

2006 08 21 Any day’s news, rumors, experiencess furnishes those onto the ubiquity of magic and superstition the way any breath furnishes the lungs with oxygen. I just noticed several; here’s one: KATHMANDU

Dozens of Nepali women stripped naked and plowed their fields in west Nepal, hoping to appease the gods and get some much needed rain …

About 50 women in two villages in Kapilvastu district, 120 miles west of Kathmandu, resorted to the desperate move at night Friday as days of prayers and Hindu ceremonies failed to bring rains for the parched paddy crop, it said.

“This is our last weapon, we used it, and there was light rainfall,” Nepali daily Rajdhani quoted one of the women as saying.

Although there is no clear religious basis for the practice, some locals believe such a move could appease the rain gods.

2008 05 24 Social reality is not so simple as to divide neatly between con men and gulls. A magician needs assistants for many staple illusions: some assistants will need to understand the trick; many more do not.

I’ve described one way a grand-scale illusionist like David Copperfield can convince an audience that a large object, say a 707 jet plane on the stage, has vanished. Again briefly: the audience is shown the jet. The curtain is closed. Immediately assistants behind the curtain roll the jet off the stage: though some mechanism continues to mold the curtain to the shape of the jet’s nose encouraging the audience to assume a simple cause — the jet is still on the stage — rather than a complex cause — the magician has rigged a devince to make us draw a false conclusion.

Anyway, the assistants back stage rolling the jet off stage clearly are awarw of what’s happening to the jet, but other assistants, possibly genuinely drawn from the audience, and not in on the trick. Many volunteers may be standing in front of the curtain, holding hands as though that proves that the jet can’t have passed between them unnoticed.

Many organizations are like that. In David Grisham’s The Client a young lawyer discovers that not all of the activities of his law firm are legal. Many of the young lawyers in the firm remain unsware of this. All the lawyers ae well paid and given huge perks — fancy cars, free mortages — so that if they do learn some unadvertised facts about the firm they’ll be tempted to play along in order to keep the car, the house, the wife and kids sedated by their profligate plenty. The new comer learns that some new hirees had disappeared. Increasingly he comes to suspect, and fianlly proves, that they were murdered: by the firm. So it isn’t just the perks that keep the lawyers in line.

The partners in the firm all know, they have to. They take orders directly from the owners: the Mafia. But a large number of lawyers can put in 60 and 80 hours weeks for decades just doing what they’re told.

John D. MacDonald’s Condo introduces a lawyer who well on in his career for a profitable firm discovers that all along he’s been window dressing. His firm needs one schmuck lawyer who’s hard working and ethical as window dressing behind which the firm can misrepresent its true nature.

The church, any church will have a few angel-faced priests who really believe that Venus does this, or Kali does that, or that prayer really helps the person praying.

2008 05 31 It doesn’t matter how many truths the magician mixes into his patter while he’s deceiving you: the entire image is still false. It doesn’t matter how many true bricks are in the false wall.

The magician’s patter says, “Here is an ordinary deck of playing cards.” The deck the magician displays at that moment may in fact be an ordinary deck of playing cards. The magican may be holding it up to distract you from the false deck the magician’s assistant is at that moment inserting up the magician’s sleeve using a device that delivers it faster than the audience can notice. The magician’s patter may go on to say any number of true things: “It’s raining outside.” “… my beautiful assistant …” “Gas prices just rose: again.” It’s still a trick the magician is engaged in. There is no real magic; only illusion.

If the magician is a stage magician, it’s harmless: his illusions are advertised as illusions. We pay to enjoy being deceived. But what if the magician is your doctor, your president, your lawyer, your stock broker?



Calder and Diamond work hard both for their information and in their thinking. They’re both great writers. Calder is a science reporter. He contributes a vivid style and fashions excellent parables. Diamond is a data-gatherer as well as reporter. Far more importantly, he’s a well-spring of brilliant unorthodox hypotheses. For style, I’ll take Calder or my own writing any day. But screw style: what he’s saying moves him smack into third place on my all-time great teachers list: right behind Prigogine and Bateson.

But I doubt that either man ever had to spend much time going through what I do to get my data. My own library has been largely inaccessible to me since starting my first novel. As an alumnus both of Columbia and NYU, I have theoretical access to those libraries. But living naked in the woods, writing on a laptop plugged into the cigarette lighter of a wrecked car … how am I to get there? Since 1990 I’ve been in a wreck of a trailer, have electricity, a pair of shorts, and an ISP … But I read my Frazer while still living in the woods, my library in boxes 1200 miles away. Calder’s Timescale was loaned to me by a guy who rented me a room for one week so I could have electricity to organize the various drafts of my first novel on a borrowed Commodore 64.

The capacity for joy is in the individual, not the bank account. In the late ’80s I walked into a Gulf Coast public library to try to find articles by the scientists mentioned by James Gleick in his newly published Chaos. That library directed me to a specialized library in Sarasota. The librarian there was young, beautiful, had read none of it, had none of it on hand, but had noticed some of the names on her hot line. She lived in a home and had a husband, but she started visiting me in the woods, sometimes bringing the husband along. When I wanted to borrow The Golden Bough, she loaned it to me university-faculty style: without paper work. “Keep it as long as you like.” Joy. (As long as I like continues through the present.)

(Since then, a different husband in tow, she’s moved to heading the library at the Ringling Museum. I don’t think the Sarasota Environmental Library will ever get their Frazer back.) (Since then, my library is now in boxes only 3/4 of a mile away: still damn hard to find anything in.)

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About pk

Seems to me that some modicum of honesty is requisite to intelligence. If we look in the mirror and see not kleptocrats but Christians, we’re still in the same old trouble.
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