Saturday, September 5, 2015

Magic and Eugenics

Robert Fludd's depiction of the mind

Dear Readers,

Thank you once again for your continued patience during my extended sabbatical. It has been far longer than I had originally intended, but life is always full of surprises. Though this blog has been quiet lately, things have been very productive on my end. My sabbatical is coming to an end, but before I begin my next book review I wanted to bring up something I have been thinking about for a while; something I've noticed in the magical community and also within pop-culture, that is, the concept of genetic magical aptitude.

In recent years I have noticed a common theme whenever magic or the occult appears in pop-culture. In the past it was usually demonized and portrayed as as a dangerous contagion one caught by reading the wrong books or associating with unsavory characters. Today it is glamorized (and highly fictionalized) to the point of looking more like comic book super-powers. What was once a skill attained through rigorous study, internal exploration, and personal sacrifice is now often portrayed as something people are simply born with (or not), like a mutant power, and full of various pyrotechnics. Magic is too often the sole domain of "chosen ones" or charmed family lineages. Is this a reflection of the increasing gulf between the "have" and "have nots" in our society? Are we too focused on physical/racial differences? Could this be a metaphor for rising inequality in the West? Or is this an indicator of society's willingness or desire to experiment with bio-engineering and trans-humanism?

In pop-culture it seems that magical powers often come about as a result of a "magical puberty", that is, magical abilities that spontaneously appear during the teen years. Regrettably such experiences are usually lacking any initiatic circumstance, rite of passage, or personal sacrifice; powers simply appear like strange hair-growth -- a birthright, nothing more.

In other cases characters are given supernatural status to explain their gifts: vampires, werewolves, the demon-possessed, etc. But again, it keeps going back to a racial perspective. Only those of a special breed or supernatural predisposition can perform magic, leaving it out of reach for everyone else. Allow me to give you a few quick popular examples:

Harry Potter -- While it is an obviously fictionalized world of witches and wizards, its influence on actual magical communities cannot be ignored. I have often heard various Harry Potter terms and concepts (Potterisms) adopted by so-called serious magical groups. It sounds ridiculous, but popular culture is a powerful medium, perhaps even one of the most powerful. The Harry Potter stories are certainly charming and entertaining, but unfortunately J.K. Rowling's world is one where people are either born witches or they are not. It does not matter how smart or clever one is; you either have it or you don't. Witches and wizards are basically a super-race that lives outside the normal confines of the mundane world. Regular people, "muggles", are physically unable to engage in magic and relegated to a lower class. Now, her stories may emphasize the inequalities and evils of caste systems, but it still offers little hope to those on the lower rungs of society.

The Dresden Files - The series' main protagonist, Harry Dresden, is a wizard who uses his powers to solve various murders and mysteries. The popular novels are fun detective-noir stories set in a world where magic is a reality, but only to a select few. Unfortunately, here again we have a magical caste system. Harry's father was a lowly stage magician, but his "real" magical powers come to him via his maternal line. In the novels Harry increases his magical aptitude through study and experience, but he still gets his basic abilities through his special genetic inheritance. Again the message: You don't have to work for it, it's handed to you at birth.

Television shows like: Salem, Sleepy Hollow, Game of Thrones (including the books), GrimmSupernatural, Penny Dreadful, and American Horror Story (Season Four - Coven) all portray witches and other magic practitioners as being born with their powers and as a separate class/race of humanity. Not born a witch? Don't bother -- you aren't one of the chosen.

Still, it is not all bad. There are a small minority of current occult/magic fiction writers that are extremely creative, knowledgeable, and write from experience. In my opinion, top among these would be Richard Gavin, Patrick Rothfuss, Reggie Oliver, and Ron Weighell. In most of their stories magic is accessible by all, for better or worse.

So it begs the question, could all this be intentional? Is it too dangerous in our culture to imply that "regular folk" could just pick up a book, and given enough study, actually become magically adept? That was the fear during the "Satanic Panic" of the late 1980s. It was believed that young people were putting their souls at risk by reading "dark books" or by listening to heavy metal. Perhaps many of today's writers are simply are not very creative, preferring to simply follow current trends. Or perhaps our increasingly restrictive society does not want to empower people too much by making them aware of their true potential. Instead, magical power is held out of reach and reserved for an imaginary genetic elite, or is portrayed as something so fanciful that most would not even entertain the idea that it could be real. The reality is that is magic is everyone's birthright, given a little study.

This unfortunate theme appears again and again throughout pop-culture, especially Young-Adult fiction. It is so ubiquitous that it generally goes unnoticed. If the theme remained within fiction and entertainment it would be a non-issue, just another literary trope, but art is a powerful force that can affect our society for tremendous good or ill. Ironically, it could also be a sign of growing disenchantment in the world. People want to see magic in the world, but most think it is impossible, never realizing that magical ability is within all of us. They see magic, if possible, as an evolutionary game of chance; you either have it or you don't, determined like some kind of magical phrenology. Nothing could be further from the truth.

What is perhaps more disturbing is the built-in common plot device of pre-destination. What are we saying about personal choice in the world (or lack thereof)? Characters are stuck with their abilities much like they are stuck with their eye-color. They are born a witch/wizard thus removing the element of choice, personal will/desire, and ambition. It misses the whole point of what magic is really about. Magic is about willfully causing change in the world or within oneself (though one could argue there is no difference between the two). Someone born a witch/wizard is robbed of that crucial choice. Magic becomes a natural involuntary action to them, like breathing -- its already in their DNA -- there is no choice, no directed will.

I feel this a very negative message and very dis-empowering, promoting notions of genetic superiority (or inferiority). Additionally, powers are often phrased as "gifts", implying that powers are typically dropped in one's lap rather than being hard-won though intense study and one's own achievement. In so doing it cheapens the skill. Why work hard or seek something greater when it all comes down to genetics and choice breeding?

While this sentiment appears most often in entertainment, recently I have noticed it more among magical communities. Misunderstood notions of having "witch-blood" is concerning. I have come across this and similar concepts in countless conversations and online posts. This term is generally used to refer to a spiritual connection between people, not a literal blood-line or genetic link. Again, just as with religion, it is the literalists who create most of the problems. Of course there is something to be said about natural ability; someone who stands 5' 4" will have a tougher time making it into professional basketball than someone 6' 7" tall, but it is not impossible. Some things are naturally harder for some than others -- we all have our strengths and weaknesses -- but rarely does it disqualify people altogether. One need only look at the amazing physical feats disabled people have achieved in recent years to see that limitations are usually only in one's mind.

Recently I met with a group of people involved in the Spiritualist movement. Most were very advanced trance-mediums. A few of them had startlingly impressive psychic abilities. They knew specific details about me that would be impossible for them to know (and yes, I know how cold-reading works. This was not it). While we may disagree on the mechanics behind how it all works or where the information is coming from, the phenomena remains very real.

I joined them for a seance and later for a table-tipping session. What I found most intriguing was their healthy perspective towards their abilities. Most striking was their humble attitude -- a rare trait in magical circles of any tradition. All present felt that there was nothing special about them; they were just like everyone else. Furthermore, there was no talk or boasting of magical lineages or who was trained or initiated by who. All their abilities came through training and hard work. They all believed that anyone could do what they did given enough training. patience, and time. I believe them.

However, in my experience this seems to be the exception rather than the norm. Instant-power, or power-through-birthright/lineage, attitudes are a prevalent and a hard-wired feature in our culture, sadly. There has been a de-emphasis on hard work and earned achievement. Instead, we prefer short-cuts -- anything quick and easy with instant results. And what could be more easy than being born with a magical silver-spoon in one's mouth? However, what's more unfortunate is the number of people who believe they have a ceiling to their abilities when really they have the power to reach the stars.

I welcome comments and discussion from my readers.

B. Balkan