The Magical, the Mythical and the Mental

A couple of posts ago, I did a brief summary of the Integral Consciousness which included some preliminary definitions of the Magical, the Mythical and the Mental. In this post, I want to expand on those definitions and sketch out how each plays an active role in modern life and society. We might tell ourselves that we don’t believe in Magic and Myth, but they are pervasive in our world. By denying their existence, all we do is relegate them to the unconscious from where they bubble up and manifest in negative form. Only by taking them seriously can we learn how to integrate them properly, the first step on the path to the Integral Consciousness.

The Magical

One of my favourite Bill Hicks comedy routines is the one where he talks about the use of sex in advertising. He describes the “ultimate television commercial” featuring nothing but a beautiful naked woman being associated with a brand name. It’s funny cos it’s true. The use of sex in advertising and marketing is so common these days that there’s probably few people left alive who remember a time when it was different. But the truth is that the gratuitous use of manipulative tactics has only become commonplace in advertising in the post war years.

One of my favourite random finds a number of years ago, which I’ve mentioned before on the blog, is the 1923 book by Claude C. Hopkins called “Scientific Advertising”. As the title suggests, Hopkins was doing empirical experiments in advertising, making him a practitioner of the Mental Consciousness. But it was not just the behind-the-scenes activities that were part of the Mental. Hopkins states in the book that the advertising executive’s job is to appeal to the consumer’s rational faculties. One of the main ways to do that is to provide factual information in the advertising itself. He explicitly says that a good advertising executive should verify the facts before presenting them to the consumer.

This made some business sense in the world of 1923 when the general public was, by modern standards, incredibly information poor. An advertiser who provided reliable information would have won trust and that would have turned into financial reward via repeat sales. That was how you got to the top of advertising back then. Hopkins assumes that the consumer is a rational agent and the advertiser’s job is to provide them with appropriate information for them to make a rational judgement.

Edward Bernays

If this sounds hard to believe to modern ears, it’s because sometime between 1923 when Hopkins wrote his book and the 80s and early 90s when Bill Hicks was doing his stand-up routines, advertising changed from being fact-based and appealing to the rational mind of the consumer to being manipulative and appealing to the irrational. How did that happen? If we were to sum up the answer in a single person it would be Edward Bernays, Freud’s nephew who moved to the US and got into advertising.

The connection with Freud is no coincidence here because what Freud discovered, although he wouldn’t have thought it about in this way, was the Magical. To the extent that modern advertising is based on Freudian psychology, it is actually a form of applied Magic. When Bill Hicks called modern marketers “Satan’s little helpers”, it was this incorporation of the irrational via Magic that he was referring to. (In doing so, Hicks betrayed his Christian heritage because the Church had for millennia suppressed Magic by associating it with Satan).

One way to think about modern psychology is that it’s the Magical and the Mythical viewed through the lens of the Mental. It was the attempt, fashionable at the time Freud and Jung were working, to achieve the same level of clarity and certainty in relation to the psyche that physics had achieved in the material realm. That attempt was always doomed to fail because the Magical and Mythical are entirely different realms not amenable to the methodology of the hard sciences. We would do better, I think, to de-Mentalise them i.e. remove the veneer of science and call them by their real names: Magic and Mythic. Then we start to deal with them on their own terms.  

This doesn’t mean that Freud and Jung were wrong. On the contrary, in Civilisation and Its Discontents, Freud sketched out a theory of the development of civilisation using concepts that have become well-known in the culture, including the Oedipus Complex, Eros and Thanatos. Freud saw the repression of desire as being built-in to the structure of civilisation. But if we reframe this idea in terms of Magic, we might say that civilisation is built on the Magical. Here’s how that looks.

Man is an animal and like all animals has certain instinctual drives of which one of the most powerful is the sex drive. Let’s call all these drives and instincts by the generic term “energy”. As anybody who has lived on a farm or spent time around groups of animals knows, the physically largest animal is not necessarily the alpha of the pack. Often an even much smaller animal can be the top of the pecking order. If raw physical power is not the determinant of dominance, what is? The answer: energy. A smaller animal often has more “spirit” than a larger one and wins the top position that way. Even in the brute force world of the animal kingdom, “energy” (spirit) seems to trump “matter”.

In Freudian terms, it is this energy which society represses. But let’s take a more neutral approach and call it control. Society is predicated on the control of innate energy (drives and instincts). To take just one example, every society has marriage rites and sexual norms, these work to focus the sexual energy of the population in a way that ensures the stability of society. But focusing energy is practically the definition of Magic. Therefore, society is built on Magic. The marriage ceremony is one ceremony among many which takes energy and directs it to a certain purpose.

What Edward Bernays discovered was a way to manipulate energy for the purpose that his customers were paying him for; namely, to get consumers to buy products.  Sex was an obvious tactic because the channelling of the sex drive is foundational to society. Moreover, the Victorian era had an extreme form of control of sexual desire and so there was a whole lot of built up sexual energy waiting to get channelled somewhere. The baby boom was just one direction for it. In fact, it might not be an exaggeration to say that the whole of post war pop culture was predicated on the use of that energy. Elvis was decent singer and Marilyn Monroe a decent actress, but pretty sure their artistic skills were not the main drawcard.

The recent turn towards the darker energies of fear, dread and death (Thanatos) also makes sense from this perspective. As Hicks alluded to, the blatant use of sex in advertising and pop culture has been taken almost as far as it can go short of putting full-scale porn on billboards. Combined with a huge liberalisation of sexual norms, there’s simply no more sex energy in the tank. Thus, the advertisers, public relations people and politicians have turned to the darker Magical energies of fear, dread and terror to wield control. It’s almost certain they are not doing it “on purpose”. They just do whatever works and that’s what works at the moment.

In general, we can think of Magic as any activity, ceremony or structure that manipulates energy. Examples in modern life are the aforementioned advertising and marketing, music (especially loud and rhythmic music like rock’n’roll and electronic dance), sporting matches and any kind of group activity involving large numbers of people such as a Trump or Obama political rally, drug use including performance enhancing and recreational drugs, religious or quasi-religious ceremonies such as marriage etc.

A great deal of modern public discourse is also Magic. A good example is trolling, which has become all pervasive in recent years. The point of trolling is not to communicate and exchange ideas, it is to “get a reaction”. But that reaction is energy. Trolling achieves the involuntary release of energy on the part of the victim.

Again, Trump was the master of this. He trolled the entire US media establishment. That was Magic on a grand scale. His banning from social media platforms was an attempt to shut down the effectiveness of the Magic but it’s not hard to see that many are having Trump Withdrawal Symptoms now that the object of their hatred (energy) has been taken away. The FBI’s recent raid of Trump’s home is an example. Apparently, they just can’t help themselves (or they may be ensuring he does not get to wield his magic again in 2024).

Finally, we shouldn’t get the wrong impression here. Magic is not necessarily bad. In fact, it can be a great source of pleasure. To paraphrase Nietzsche, a world without Magic would be a mistake. Magic is the foundation of music, sex, romance and many other enjoyable activities. The point is to recognise it for what it is so that when Magic is being performed on you, even from somebody who doesn’t consciously know what they are doing, you are able to deal with it and perhaps even utilise it yourself.

The Mythical

If Freud re-discovered the Magical, it was Jung who re-discovered the Mythical. His Red Book is probably the ultimate document of modern man in search of his soul. If the Magical is primarily about energy, the Mythical is primarily about image. Jung’s experiments with active imagination are a prime example of this. The Red Book is full of encounters with biblical characters; the Mythical archetypes that resonated most strongly to a man raised in a religious Christian household in the late 19th century. Psychology’s interest in painting, dreams, psychedelic drug experiences and vision quests also fit this pattern of a focus on the image.

The Mythical is also about cycles and so any kind of attunement to nature belongs here too. Even in modern cities, which are otherwise removed from the cycles of nature, we nevertheless create the regular cycle of the working week while the seasons are marked by proxy through sport (football in winter, some form of bat and ball in summer).

The “grind” of the work week captures some of the pessimism which marks the Mythical Consciousness; the feeling of being trapped on a hamster wheel, stuck in a loop with no way out. Life and death are perhaps the ultimate cycle that defines the Mythical. In both the Old Testament and Homer we find a pessimistic (some might call it a heroically honest) attitude to death which differs from the Magical and the (Christian) Mental in presupposing that death is the end of the line. Even the greatest of heroes are humbled by it. Christianity was revolutionary partly because it offered a way to break out of the cycle.

The Mythical’s focus on imagery is primarily evident in modern society in the form of television and film. As an actor friend of mine once said: films are just dreams. Although the content of film and television might not have explicitly mythical content, ultimately they are images on screens. Poetry and literature fall into the same category given that both stimulate the imagination and facilitate visualisation. Standard narratives that are baked into the culture are part of the Mythical. Thus, The Plague Story belongs here as does the Devouring Mother as a Mythical archetype.

David Lynch is perhaps the ultimate exponent of movie as dream

Psychoanalysis, especially that which focuses on dream and imagery, belongs to the Mythical. Jung had his patients create their own mythology through visualisation, painting and writing. One of Jung’s dissident followers, James Hillman, realised the onanism inherent in such activities and attempted to get around it by removing the Ego from the picture and reconnecting with the collective elements of myth. Jung had already presupposed this to a certain extent but he took the idea of the archetypes in a different, and I think more fruitful, direction with his collaboration with Wolfgang Pauli. But that’s a subject for another post.

Pursuing the Mythical from the point of view of the modern Ego is a dangerous activity. Even Jung thought he was going crazy at times. The reason is because the Mythical, like the Magical, requires the suppression of the Ego but the average modern Westerner is so wound up in the Ego after two millennia of pursuing it with vigour that lapsing into an ego-less state constitutes a form of terror. That’s partly what a “bad acid trip” is all about. In our materialist society, much of mental illness gets attributed to physiological disorders and treated with medication. But the modern concept of mental illness grew out of the tradition which traced the underlying issue to Magic (through Freud) and Myth (through Jung). It’s no accident that mental illness correlates very strongly with drug use and social isolation.

Jung pursued his active imagination experiments in a closed room by himself. But he was a married man with a vibrant career and social life. From that foundation, he was able to experiment with a more pure form of the Mythical without going nuts. For younger people with a less developed Ego or people more socially isolated, such “experiments” are dangerous. It’s an outcome we are seeing more of these days with the so-called mental health epidemic. Isolated people stuck at home watching movies and television are over-indulging in the Mythic without knowing it. Throw some drugs into the mix and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. Nevertheless, like the Magical, the Mythic is not inherently bad or good. It depends on how you use it.

The Mental

Although modern society was built on the Mental Consciousness, we see mainly its decadent aspects these days. The formative elements of the Mental – logic and dialectic, monotheistic religion and empirical science – no longer play a role in the everyday lives of the average Westerner. We still “believe” in science but science was never something to be believed in. That was the whole point. Science was about truth even if that truth happened to go against belief. Socrates was made to drink the hemlock because he broke with the beliefs of his society. That the single individual, whether as philosopher, scientist or prophet, could be right while the collective was wrong was one of the foundational concepts of the Mental and distinguished it from the Magical and Mythical.

In the Mythical, words are abundant with a variety of meaning, a feature which natural language still holds to this day. One of the first requirements of the Mental Consciousness is to remove the ambiguity from words so that their meaning can be fixed and placed in clear and stable logical relations. If words can be replaced by mathematical symbols, all the better. This precision is the strength of the Mental. Whereas the Mythical is based on polarities of meaning that, from the modern point of view, go round in circles and never achieve anything (aka circular reasoning), the Mental Consciousness is directed. It leads somewhere. It gets to an endpoint. The spatial metaphors here are valid because vision is the primary mode of the Mental while for the Magical it is hearing and the Mythical is about imagination. One way to think about the Mental is that it seeks clarity

The law is another example of the Mental. Again, we are used to seeing it in its decadent modern form of legalese; an indecipherable maze of jargon designed to increase the social power of lawyers and bureaucrats. But once upon a time the law brought clarity to the jungle of informal relations that constitutes normal human society. The law was also a way to restrict the power of the executive. We saw an example of a lapse into that old world during the last two-and-a-half years. The law was overridden as governments imposed arbitrary and often contradictory rules by diktat. Gone was any pretense of reason and logic and the idea of explaining things rationally. This was replaced by gaslighting, appeals to emotion and brute force, all indicative of the Magical.

Apparently it was safe for Djokovic to play last year but not this year

Tennis player, Novak Djokovic, has found himself on the losing end of this dynamic twice in the last year. He was famously kicked out of Australia on the purely arbitrary decision of the then Immigration Minister after having won his initial court case showing that he had followed the rules while the government had not. This month he will miss the US Open despite the fact that he was allowed to play the exact same tournament this time last year.

That this should be affecting sport is fitting because sport is another manifestation of the Mental Consciousness. It’s all about rules. If the rules changed in the middle of the game because the referee suddenly decided he didn’t like them, sport would become exactly the kind of farce that public health pronouncements have been recently.

All of these developments are indicative of the weakening of the Mental Consciousness in western societies. That weakening can also be seen in the sorry state of modern science and philosophy. The ability to logically reason through an issue was the highpoint of the first iteration of the Mental seen in Ancient Greece and then later on in the scholastic era in Europe. It was then followed by the discovery of the scientific method where logically reasoned hypotheses were empirically tested. It was this combination of logic, maths and empirical investigation which has quite literally created the modern world.

Tycho Brahe’s empirical investigations of the heavenly bodies were later invaluable to Kepler who did the hard maths; a combination of logic and empiricism

These two developments were the crowning glory of the Mental. With corona, both were relegated to the sidelines. We had people who claimed to be scientists insisting that testing was not required while pursuing arguments that were clearly illogical at first and then empirically wrong as things unfolded. Science was replaced by dogma. Phrases like “100% safe and effect”, “trust the experts”, “listen to the science” have nothing whatsoever to do with the Mental Consciousness. They belong to the Magical. They are mantras whose purpose is to focus the will. The Mental does not care about the will. A scientist might wish for an outcome as much as they like but logic, reason and evidence are the arbiters. This does not mean the will has no role. In takes willpower to get up every day and go to the lab. But, unlike Magic, will is not the determining factor for the Mental Consciousness.

Interestingly, there is one way in which the Magical and the Mental feel similar and that is the question of focus. To do Magic properly and to engage in extended empirical testing requires focus. But the focus of the Magical is to empty to the mind, at least to empty it of everything except the single point of focus. The Magical retains the single point of focus until it is no longer required. Meanwhile, the Mental is exploratory. It moves. It gets from point A to point B. Is it a coincidence that the modern West invented railways? I don’t think so. I think it was the external manifestation of the Mental Consciousness which must always be going somewhere. Moving. Progressing. Again, we see this in decadent form in the modern West where pie-in-the-sky, hail Mary projects are launched time and again at enormous expense. This is the Mental Consciousness’s desire for movement at any cost.

The focus of the Mental is its strength and also its weakness. It leads somewhere but that somewhere now takes the form of hyper-specialisation where experts know more and more about less and less. They end up down the rabbit hole of some sub-sub-sub-discipline unable to connect their work back to a larger, more holistic meaning. This kind of solipsism has always been a risk of the Ego-driven Mental Consciousness. If the Magical and Mythical are about an egoless state which is inherently connected to the “world”, the Ego of the Mental can all too easily wander off into the forest of abstractions and end up isolated and alone with no way back. In this way, the phrase mental illness has an interesting double meaning.

Summary

Although for clarity’s sake I have analysed them separately here, in everyday life, the Magical, the Mythical and the Mental are all mixed up to a certain extent. Even the most disciplined team of scientists are still human beings with emotions and dreams. The trick is to ensure that the emotions are not driving results that must be predicated on logic and evidence and, conversely, that logic is not suppressing emotions and dreams that are valid and need an outlet.

What is required is Integration. That’s what Jung was getting at with the concept of Individuation but the problem with that concept is in the word individual because, as Jung himself knew, the focus on the individual is itself a problem of the Mental Consciousness. We need to get over the Ego without abandoning it altogether. Otherwise, we slip back into irrationality. There must be an integration between the Ego and the collective and also back into time. That’s what the Integral Consciousness aims for. More on that in a future post.

7 thoughts on “The Magical, the Mythical and the Mental”

  1. Have you seen the documentary “The century of the self” by Adam Curtis. I have encountered Bernais through it with his “Torches of freedom” campaign, encouraging women to get lung cancer…I mean smoke cigarettes.

    Regarding the integral consciousness, it seems like the 19th century Germany was going into this direction of integrating ego and collective while also looking in the past. A lot of inventions were made, a collective German spirit was the basis for the creation of the German Reich. Momuments for historical/mythical figures were errected.

    The AfD, our so called right-wing party are already trying to use these monuments for magical rituals again. They met at the Kyffhäuser Monument which depicts the legendary German emperor Barbarossa (and emperor Wilhelm the first), who will at some time in the future raise from the dead to lead the Germans back to glory.

  2. Lots of great examples here, Simon! Can’t help relating it all back to what else I’ve been reading lately. The mental urge for progress seems to me embodied in astronomy’s quest to move ever onwards & outwards to the far reaches of our solar system & beyond, yet the mythical rears its head in the process. Take official naming conventions: e.g., objects in a 1:1 orbital resonance w/ Jupiter, or ‘Jupiter trojans’, are named for characters from the Trojan War; objects in a 1:1 orbital resonance w/ Neptune, or ‘Neptune trojans’, are named for Amazons from Greek myth; plutinos are named for mythological figures associated w/ the underworld; colles (hills) on Titan (Saturn’s largest moon) are named after characters from Tolkien’s Middle-earth… So it seems some scientists might read fiction… 🙂

  3. Secretface – yeah, I’ve seen The Century of Self. I’d like to rename it The Century of Magic :). Here’s an interesting question, if nations are founded on magic, when Germany united to a single country it may follow that the amount of magic required was drastically increased. Perhaps that’s why independent city states seem to be the most fruitful in terms of culture. They are better able to balance out Magic with reason. In any case, connection to the collective and the past should entail an honest appraisal of the virtues and vices of past societies. What we get these days is one side of politics saying everything was great in the past and the other side saying the opposite.

    Shane – good point. Planetary cycles are perhaps the ultimate embodiment of the Mythic. So, the Mental had to believe we were going to break out of them. This raises an interesting question of what an Integral Astronomy of Astrology would look like. I’ll have to think about that one.

  4. Simon – where do you think reincarnation, the belief in, the philosophy of, fits in your schema? I mean, it’s essentially cyclic, isn’t it, which connects it to the mythic, but one of the goals of cabalistic magic is the creation of a vehicle in which to travel consciously beyond the point of death, but then cabalistic magic is integrally linked to the planets, hence their cycles, but it’s, you know, about practising magic.

  5. Shane – that gets tricky. The stereotypical eastern religious version seems straightforwardly cyclic. I’m no expert on the matter, but I did read once that at least some Indigenous Australian tribes had the idea of multiple spirits or souls, one of which would reincarnate. But another spirit could linger around indefinitely and yet another would go to what we might call heaven/hell. Interestingly, there was another which was called the “shadow” in the indigenous language and which corresponds quite directly to Jung’s shadow.

    In relation to magic as a practical activity, I think it spans across the Magical (energy) and Mythical (imagination).

  6. Secretface – A drastic increase in the amount of magic needed to enchant a diverse population like all the German speaking countries in the 19th century seems likely. This would also explain the non-stop barrage of propaganda (magic) nowadays to keep an even more diverse global system together. Without the magic (or maybe a more local form of magic), I would expect the system to fold pretty quickly.

    How do you honestly appraise the virtues and vices of past societies? Every policital side would claim for themself that they are doing the honest appraisal. As you said, in the current situation you would get two different “honest” appraisals (Team Blue vs. Team Red). Who will be able to combine these two views into one?

  7. Secretface – yeah, one of the extraordinary things about corona was how the propaganda was almost identical across different (western) nations. I don’t think it was centrally planned but it was certainly mimicked. You can explain that as budget cutting by media organisations i.e. they don’t have enough money to produce their own content anymore. But it also fits to the concept of the Magical. As for history, there’s no unbiased opinions but any decent historian will include the good and the bad.

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