Feel Better

The Magician (i): It Is Sad, But It Is What It Is

The archetype of the Magician, at least how it is presented in the Rider-Waite deck is a beguiling and seductive figure, as well as a potentially hopeful one. I think this is because the archetype encapsulates or drives in some way our fantasy notions around change, transformation, transfiguration, and renewal. 

The magician stands between us and the second law of thermodynamics, or entropy, the law of Failure, that states that everything which exists in a somewhat closed system (which if you think about it, includes literally everything, for it is also the nature of our universe) is, whether we like it or not, on course to becoming over-evolved, over-complex, disordered, irreversibly damaged, and finally ceasing to exist. Our human animal species is currently in the throes of a catastrophic reckoning with entropy. It is sad, deeply sad (for us) but it is what it is. 

Our biology is an entropic system: we are worn away by life and die from it, but this is also the case with our mental states, with buildings, cities, civilisations, and most crushingly for the human animal, relationships. These too shall pass. Which is to say: these too, no matter how sturdy and inviolable they once appeared in our eyes, may find themselves wrecked by the kind of change we would prefer to avoid: that of disagreement, disunity, friction and strife. 

The magician stands confident and upright in front of a Golden Yellow background, the symbol for boundless, indeed infinite possibility. The infinity symbol, that loopy, horizontal eight which hangs suspended over their head like a pretzelled halo. This one means business! 

Human animal progressivism, technology, competency, gumption, ambition and our fierce will to power are all displayed in this pose, one that I associate with John Travolta on the famous poster of Saturday Night Fever (1977), an important childhood film me, where Travolta twists his lithe body – attired in a white polyester two-button single-breasted suit, with 28-inch flared trousers, and 4 inch disco platform boots- into a shape suggestive of someone offering themselves as a conductor for lightening or some other numinous exchange: be it the lightening of electrostatic discharge, metaphysical en-light-enment, or just the magic of strutting your stuff on a dancefloor that lights up in red, yellow, and blue in rhythmic responsiveness to whatever music is being played. Where do you go when the record is over…is printed on the top of this iconic poster. Where, fellow human animals, do we go at this point in our history where the needle of entropy is now spinning round and around the run-off groove, that part of the LP where which spins endlessly, playing nothing but static. 

The magician archetype, wherever it is to be found, appears to be channeling the transformative powers of nature itself (that which as if by magic turns caterpillars into butterflies, seeds into plants and trees, as well as gametes, our owns organism’s reproductive cells transformed through sexual fusion into new living beings). 

In trying to describe the shade of yellow that suffuses this card, I discover that it is known as Safety Yellow, or Schoolbus yellow, for it was in 1939, that this colour was alighted upon as being the most noticeable to the human brain, even more so than our own red blood when it spills from our veins into the world. This is because the wavelength of this colour lies exactly between two other wavelengths (red and green) that have evolved to stimulate the greatest number of photoreceptor cells in our eyes. This hue of golden yellow, or schoolbus yellow sits equidistant to these other wavelengths, resulting in double the amount of transmission to the brain. 

It is perhaps no surprise that this is the colour that calls to my eyes this morning when I look into the sun inching its way up over the rooftops, a golden yellow that has been absent, both literally and metaphorically, from my spot on the globe for some weeks now, this place where I reside in my concrete suburban box that I call home, surrounded by other homogenous grey dwellings, everyone’s front garden (apart from mine) torn up to make a driveway for their cars. 

I walk. And blend no doubt, into all my nameless neighbours, the grey, gloomy-faced suburban folk, traipsing disconsolately off to work in their get-by jobs, trudging back home with supermarket shopping or a take-away, everyone staring at the pavement as they walk from work back to this this no-place, this backend suburb of a once-great, now dying city. 

George Bradley, in his poem, The Sound of The Sun, one of the poems I recite on my exercise bike, asks me to “listen closely some morning” (maybe a morning like today) “when the sun swells /  Over the horizon and the world is still and still asleep”, to listen for that  

faint noise so far inside your mind
That it must come from somewhere, from light rushing to darkness,
Energy burning towards entropy, towards a peaceful solution,
Burning brilliantly, spontaneously, in the middle of nowhere

How much use to us is the magician archetype in the winter of our seasonal discontents, both inner and outer? On the tarot card, we see a midsummer figure, surrounded by roses and lilies of the valley, all in bloom. The sorcerer is equipped with the “tools” of their trade, the pentacle of materialism, the cup of emotion, the sword of reason, and the wand of creativity – standing before us as if offering these up to the viewer as tools for transformation, magic objects, for bettering our selves and the world. 

But what of that energy burning towards entropy? Is the magician making a promise in flagrant opposition to our so-called “laws” of nature, of physics, of what we call reality, of entropy. Does the magician face down entropy by saying: I can transform anything, any substance, any human animal trait, any struggle, any dissolution you might experience in yourself or the world, into a “peaceful solution”? 

Well of course that’s what they’re offering, and because it is such a sublime gesture, we tend to call this transformation “magic”, which arrives in our modern dictionaries as a word with proto-indo european roots denoting: “to have ability, to have power.” The power to produce a “peaceful solution” with the wave of a wand, or some poetic utterance (a spell) perhaps? 

It is no wonder that we seek magic (from ourselves and from others) when we feel dis-abled in some way and powerless. In these wintry months, I have felt in the consciousness I call myself dis-abled to some extent, and certainly disempowered, by low mood, by what I guess we could refer to as a kind of psychological entropy, which was once called melancholy, but now we refer to as depression. I wake up with no great desire to see the day through. But of course see it through I do. Maybe reciting to myself those line I love from Frank O’Hara’s Lunch poem Adieu to Norman, Bon Jour to Joan and Jean-Paul which goes: 

the only thing to do is simply continue
is that simple
yes, it is simple because it is the only thing to do
can you do it
yes, you can because it is the only thing to do

Perhaps my mood and how it shapes the way I see the world at present is no surprise in these gloomy days of winter and hysterical geosociopolitical upheaval. The Extended Mind Thesis which has got some traction in psychology and neuroscience of late, suggests that consciousness and cognition is not just a closed, shut-off process happening in our individual brains but that mental as well as emotional processes are part of the fabric of the world in which we inhabit. Extended Mind theorists explain this through four E-words: embodied, embedded, enacted and extended. 

Who we are is an EMBODIED process, as much as a cognitive one,taking in the whole nervous system and all our viscera attached to this. Consciousness is also EMBEDDED: shaped and adapted to external environments, and our relationships. It is ENACTED not just through our neural processes, but also through those things an organism does, like sharing dark thoughts on social media, or blamey texts with someone we are out of sync with. But most of all, consciousness is EXTENDED into our environment. When we are in nature with our beloveds, we see, think, and feel differently than when trapped in a messy flat with a sick child and the rain coating our vision in dark wet streaks of disruption and collapse, in entropy. 

I think what I’d like to explore in the next few episodes is the kind of magic that we are called upon to do every moment of the day. The magic (the power, the ability) to deal with this strange perverse experience of human consciousness, one that is riven by conflicting drives, by all sorts of unconscious processes (both neurological and biological) that we have almost no way of steering towards a comprehensively enduring “peaceful solution”, no matter how hard we try. For that would entail becoming different creatures would it not, and how does one do that if other than through magic? Which of course our minds tell us is possible, we the creature who has spent a few thousand years doing an amazing PR job on ourselves as a species. We can do no wrong because we see no wrong in what we do, in how we respond to the world around us. 

There is an incredible image which I discovered in a 2016 paper in the journal Nature on the evolutionary roots of human grumpiness, peevishness, and aggressive reactivity, our often hidden but no less present fight-flight natures. It shows a sun-like circle, its rim made up by the names of 1,024 of our fellow mammals, with all their accompanying phylogenetic entanglements measured from time immemorial to now. Light grey lines extend from each species towards the centre of the circle. The colour grey indicates an absence of lethal aggression, whereas yellow to dark red shows the opposite. It is probably no surprise that of our 1,024 fellow mammals, it is our category, the Primates, where this violent, often times lethal yellow and red cuts through the grey announcing our combative will to power, our need for dominance over others, especially non-human creatures, and even over certain parts of ourselves. The majority of mammals on this circular chart, display no, or very little, phylogenetic lethal aggression. The writers of the paper suggest that primates, especially us Homo Sapiens are such an outlier, because of our inherent sociability as well as territoriality. When was the last time someone annoyed you, frustrated you, triggered some fight-flight response in you, after their attempts to maladroitly connect or reveal something through language, to exercise their social connection in a way that was picked up by your nervous system as a threat to your well-being? I suspect you may have instances of this on a weekly or even daily basis. How to find a peaceful solution when we carry a nervy, often warring  system, put together over millions of years of evolution, and now carried deep within our largely unconscious being? 

And how is a professional magician, or wizard, or shaman, a role I too play for my fellow human animals, that of therapist or counsellor, how is this fool with a magic wand, a sword, a cup, and a pentacle shape printed onto a beer mat supposed to assist the modern human mind, manifested from a primordial mammalian brain, to reach all of its culturally-set and sanctioned goals? Most of my clients want to be better versions of themselves, in ways that often strike me as a ring-tailed lemur telling anoter Lemur, a therapist lemur, about how they would like to become an antelope. The latter is of course a biologically peaceful creature. The former, being a primate, isn’t. This from a National Geographic article: 

“Lemur females are dominant and aggressive,” says Christine Drea, an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke University. Males fight each other, females fight one another for control, and females fight males “because they can. They’re pissy little gals,” Drea says. 

How does someone working as a therapist assist modern humans, including oneself, to cope with the fact that we are creatures who are not as sweet and lovely as the PR for our species (written of course by us) would like us to believe. That we are fundamentally, it would seem, conflicted and conflicting entities. That we carry around minds which can produce states of consciousness in which webs of symbolic meaning (mostly born through language in packages of thought) might be stripped away simply because the weather is grey outside, or we ate too much pasta last night, or someone said something we didn’t like in a text message, or in a state of face-to-face agitation. How does the magician, both that archetype which we carry within ourselves, and seek out in others for assistance, manifest the transformations that our minds expect, sometimes even demand of those selves, inner and outer? 

And maybe at an even more essential level, what kind of magic might be required to transform our conscious perceptions of suffering our conscious selves, suffering the occasional bouts of meaninglessness in our mortal animal lives, transforming these into states of enduring positivity and meaningfulness, without it seeming like a temporary patch-up job, or a magic trick, also known as an illusion? 

Abracadabra, let’s see where this takes us.