Saturday, June 19, 2010

the limits of magic

ArchdruidReport | There’s a rich irony that one of the few contemporaries of Hitler who could match his understanding of the nonrational was Mohandas K. Gandhi. Gandhi was not a reasonable man, either, but his mind rose as far above the level of reason as Hitler’s sank below it. In many ways, the task of prying loose “the jewel in the crown” of the British Empire from its overlords was a more astonishing feat than pulling Germany out of its post-1918 death spiral, and Gandhi did the job without any of the institutional tools Hitler relied on to work his magic. The spectacle of the largest empire in human history forced to submit to the gentle will of a single elderly mystic may be taken as an example of the positive potential of magic; the cataclysmic failure of the Twelve Year Reich show just as clearly its potential downside.

The difference in results unfolded partly from the moral distance between the two enchanters. Ethics are as important in magic as sanitation is in surgery, and for the same reason; neglect either one and you can count on things going septic. Still, there are also differences of means and ends, and these bear directly on the theme of this essay. In order to accomplish his purpose, Gandhi needed only to affect the thoughts and decisions of people in Britain, India, and any other countries that might influence one or the other. His work, in other words, was ultimately a matter of causing changes in consciousness, and that was something that symbolic action could and did accomplish.

Hitler, for his part, started out working on similar lines. To bring his vision of a triumphant Germany into reality, he had to cause changes in the consciousness of the German people, on the one hand, and in the minds of the leaders of other European nations on the other, and the magical knowledge he got on the fringes of the Vienna occult scene proved more than adequate to that task. Once he went past those goals to pursue the fantasy of military conquest, though, he passed out of the range of effects that could be accomplished by changes in consciousness, and into a realm that depended on the hard material realities of oil, steel, and geography. Once he crossed that line he was doomed; magic can transform a failed state into a unified nation, but it can’t make a world empire in an industrial age out of a modestly sized European state with few resources, no petroleum, and no defensible borders.

All this is simply to say that magic, like any other tool, is very well suited to carry out some jobs and completely useless for others. If the troubles faced by an individual or a community are primarily a function of consciousness, magical methods can be extraordinary effective in dealing with them. If the troubles that have to be faced has its roots in the world of matter, though, there are hard limits to what magic can do. You can’t use incantations and rituals, for example, to put oil in the ground if it was never there in the first place, or if the oil fields have already been pumped dry. You can’t even use magic to run a successful coal-to-liquids program if the net energy of the technology you’re using is too low; Hitler’s regime did its level best to accomplish that, with some of the world’s best scientists and engineers, the substantial coal reserves of occupied Europe, and an unrestricted supply of slave labor – and the Wehrmacht still ran out of fuel.

These examples are particularly relevant to the present, because the movements led by Hitler and Gandhi both had plenty in common with revitalization movements. Both emerged in response to drastic social stresses resistant to any more practical or reasonable approach – the post-Versailles near-collapse of Germany on the one hand, the economic and social burdens of British imperial rule over India on the other. Both drew heavily on symbolism, incantation, ritual, and the rest of the hardware in the magician’s toolkit, and both became mass movements characterized by the wild enthusiasm and millenarian expectations common to revitalization movements everywhere. The success of Gandhi’s project and the failure of Hitler’s thus points up, among other things, the difference between what a revitalization movement can do and what it can’t.