Gathering the Magic: As Above, So Below
By Stefan Lindberg on October 23rd, 2009 · Filed in General Magic · Comments not available just now
"You sharpen the human appetite to the point where it can split atoms with its desire; you build egos the size of cathedrals; fiber-optically connect the world to every eager impulse; grease even the dullest dreams with these dollar-green, gold-plated fantasies, until every human becomes an aspiring emperor, becomes his own God... and where can you go from there?" - Al Pacino, The Devil's Advocate (1997)
"He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze into an abyss, the abyss gazes into you." - Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)
Let us continue our meditation on a few select Magic cards. Last month, we looked at the card Stasis as an analogy to society - what is known as adopting a macroperspective. This article, however, will examine the microperspective, gazing into the depths of ourselves. It is not a task to be taken lightly. Our world is full of quick fixes and probably doesn't need another personality test, self-analysis tool, or other excuse to indulge in navel gazing.
Last month's article discussed obsession with things of the outside world and how to look past their transient nature. But it's just as easy to get obsessed with yourself. Whether one becomes too self-absorbed in a positive (mania) or negative (depression) manner, the result is the same. Like Narcissus, you become transfixed by your reflection and ultimately unfree. Again, the answer to resolving the issue is to look past the surface of the reflection, to dive into your inner world as Benthic Explorers. Can Magic help us explore this inner microcosm?
What's in a Name?
You may have noticed that some cards in Magic are almost exact copies of each other, despite being printed in different - often even opposing - colors. And of course, the names are different as well, but that's pretty much it. Let us look at this pair to begin with:
When we see a pair like this, we might wonder what their fundamental idea is, since it appears it can be expressed in terms of two opposing colors - red and blue are both valid colors for representing the underlying concept. The motif for both is a Magician, who represents inner acts that come to affect the outer world. Thus, we are dealing with the mind. How can it be characterized in terms of the tension that span between these two polar opposites?
The "wateriness" of the mind has been discussed previously on Gathering the Magic. The mind is like a vessel, filled with things that sometimes bubble up to the surface, drift like clouds as they pass your consciousness or fall on you like sudden rain. But it is also akin to a fire, a passion, when you feel truly interested in something. The mind is both rational and irrational at the same time. Sometimes you behave orderly, having planned everything down to the last detail. Sometimes you simply act, perhaps through a sudden flash of insight. It's both fire and water, both red and blue, and this is what the two wizards are pointing to.
Now "prodigal" can both mean to spend recklessly (this is red) or to hold in abundance (this is blue). Then we have a sorcerer and a pyromancer. The sorcerer derives his power from the source, whereas the pyromancer derives it from the fire of his mind. This is simply what the words mean. Both are seats of power (demonstrated in the Magic universe by the fact that they can deal damage), but they are different in quality. If you've read the previous articles, you may remember the discussion on concentration and focus in the first article. That's what this is about. The seat of mental capability that comes from focus (the prodigal sorcerer), and the one that comes from concentration (the prodigal pyromancer).
Archetypes, Types, and Stereotypes
Above, we haven't so much analyzed the cards as the common space in between them. In the Between, we find what the two are both pointing to, without being able to illustrate it directly on a piece of cardboard. This is the realm of archetypes - a set of eternal concepts or principles found only in the world of ideas. For example, the Magician, who is the keeper of the First Arcana of the Tarot - that of concentration and focus. The myriad of individual, artistic representations inspired by this archetype can be called types. This would be the Prodigal Sorcerers and Prodigal Pyromancers of the world.
A stereotype arises when we mistake a type for an archetype. To get an idea of what this may be like, imagine that you always wanted to go on a vacation to see Hollywood. As you approach, you see these big, white letters up in the mountains that spell out "H-O-L-L-Y-W-O-O-D". So you assume that those white letters are what it's all about and set camp for the night right behind the first L. Then you go home the next day, confident that you've seen Hollywood. Yet, there's this empty feeling that you've forgotten something that you can't quite put your finger on.
This theme might ring familiar from last month's article, and we'll continue to explore it here from another angle. Stereotypes is exactly what the card Stasis represents, illustrating the sterilization of society and human creativity. You might say that the previous article was about the Hollywood-signs we often mistakenly set camp at. This month however, we look not through the type towards the stereotype, but through the type towards the archetype. And we won't find that in the hustle and bustle of the outer world, but within the inner realm of ideas.
To this end, let us revisit something discussed in the first article of this series: Chess. We then talked about it as a mental exercise for the warrior caste, but now we're ready to see what the game as whole represents in the microperspective. The two sides, the black and the white, represent the forces that compete for your will. I'm not necessarily talking about having a little angel on your right shoulder and a little devil on your left, just simply the fact that chess illustrates a battle of wills. When you make a decision, only one side can prevail. Having two kings is an anomaly and one must fall - this will be the outcome of the decision.
Even as you play the game, each move can be thought of as its own inner chess game. "Should I do this or should I do that?" - will the white king or the black king prevail? It's kind of like the card Shahrazhad, in that you're playing a subgame in your mind that affects the outcome of the real game. Every time we chose, make a decision, we play this subgame in our mind. How do we decide something? Do we decide to decide, or do we simply... decide? One way to characterize the process is to contemplate the different chess pieces. The pawn plans carefully to reap rewards later. The rook moves with determination, but takes a while to get going. The knight springs into action. The queen combines the styles of the bishop and the rook, and becomes powerful and cunning as a result. In the personae of the chess pieces, different styles of decision making and leadership are revealed.
Knight and Day
Has the struggle between good and evil become a stereotype? Very often, it seems to me that the portrait of Good in fiction is only a mirror image of the Evil portrait - they differ only in the color of the chess pieces as it were. The roots of this stereotype go deep into fantasy fiction and role playing games. In the extreme, slaying goblins is considered good because they have the [evil] descriptor, whereas the goblins are considered evil for attacking the humans who have come to exterminate them in order to save this or that hostage.
In a fictional framework, the stereotype seems harmless, but it breeds a kind of thinking that disseminates into everyday life. "Kill the spiders to save the butterflies" seems like a perfect logic until you realize that you have become the spider you sought to kill. From the naive understanding of the good and evil dichotomy comes conclusions such as thinking that a dog that bites a human is evil and should be punished. Or even more abstract - the idea that punishment is a fitting response to what we consider to be an evil act. This is still a very fundamental idea in our legal system, though the more civilized man has become, the more the legal system shifts from revenge to constructive solutions.
This is not to suggest that there isn't such a thing as real forces of good and of evil; I'm simply refuting the idea that they are mere mirror images of each other. If anything, the naive dichotomy between good and evil is in itself evil because it permits one human being to treat another like vermin. But wherever we find a stereotype, we now know that we can look in the other direction through the type towards the archetype. Because the White Knight and the Black Knight are real, as long as we understand that they are Hollywood-signs rather than Hollywood itself.
If the more neutrally embodied chess game is a symbol for your inner conflict and decision making process, what are the Black and White Knights? To rephrase the question, what (in terms of mental processes) represents the "evil" dichotomy between good and evil on the one hand, and the "good" Trinitarian synthesis on the other? The answer is Choice and Creativity. There is a peculiar expression in our language - "freedom of choice." If you go to a fast food restaurant, you can choose if you want a hamburger or a cheeseburger. If you go to vote, you can choose if you'd prefer this or that party to run your country, and so on. Freedom of choice has become a mantra of our time. Everything has a menu, and all these options are supposed to make us happy and "free." In fact, everyday life is so saturated with choices that choosing has become a chore. We will gladly pay various brokers, go-betweens and middle men to simplify life and make the options less overwhelming. At least that's another option we have!
The problem with choice is that you probably have more options than the ones on the menu - life is rarely that black and white. But out of convenience, we sometimes allow a menu to replace our normal ability for creative action. True freedom comes not from choosing as such, but from being creative - whether the action you took was on any given menu or not. The best decisions you've taken in your life have probably been motivated by a creative effort on your part. This is the picture of the White Knight of Creativity. He emerges on his prancing horse from the Swamp of Options, his sword held high having slain the false god of Freedom of Choice!
The Black Knight speaks for himself saying that battle, the inner chess game, is its own purpose. Keep on choosing between the stereotypes, keep confirming the superiority of The One Menu over your inner potential for creativeness. Behold, the table is set with a feast to reward your complaisance. Don't make any waves and you might make it to the grave with a minimum amount of embarrassment. Choosing is its own purpose, no questions asked - such is the nature of the Black Knight.
Options and more options isn't the hallmark of freedom and creativity. Quite the contrary, creativity presupposes a limited environment - that is your raw material, what you've got to be creative with. Make the most of the hand of cards that life dealt you, as they say. In fact, it's kind of like draft.
Humans in the making!
Isn't it remarkable that you can use Magic cards as proxies for the microcosm and macrocosm? If you're a reader of this column, you may find that you've developed a sort of x-ray goggles over the course of reading these articles. You can still pick up a Lightning Bolt and simply see an instant that deals 3 damage to target creature or player. But you could also choose to put on your goggles and really see The Lightning Bolt, an archetype spread across the field of fantasy fiction. Does it speak to you? Different people will reply differently, simply because they are not the same at their heart and core.
Figuring out who you are and what you're all about is an important task for most people. Being able to look past these images towards an archetypical level is harder still. But maybe your interest in Magic can give you a jump start. Here's a fun and simple exercise that you can do to practice symbolic thinking while exploring your inner world.
1) Begin with the first impression of you, as represented by a Magic card. This could be your first impression of yourself, but better still is to ask your playgroup. This is the outside you - a mask, though it may differ as social situations shift. It doesn't matter if it's a caricature, as long as there is some shred of truth to it.
2) The next card is about your past. If you'd pick one card to represent what your life has been about so far, what would it be? You can go for an overall theme, or single out a significant event that changed everything. More symbolic or abstract cards can work well here. Perhaps there's a particular color that stands out, and you can begin there.
3) The third card as you draft yourself is about your future. If you'd venture a guess, what does the road ahead look like? What is your calling or your "thing" as it's called today? Global enchantments can be a promising starting point. Pay special attention to the actual name of the card here, if possible.
4) What is your source of strength? What ultimately gets you up in the morning? Try to think of something more profound than the promise of coffee... Whatever your power source, you may find an accurate representation for it in lands, artifacts, or the more elemental-themed cards in red, blue, and green.
5) The last pick is determined by the previous four. Try to unveil what they are all pointing to - spread them out in a cross pattern with a hole in the middle and try to find the missing puzzle piece. The result should be something like a mirror image. A mirror image isn't "you," but it points to you in the same way that you point to something. This card should point in that same direction. For the most accurate result, don't force this pick. Let the first four brew in your subconscious as you sleep on it, and you can finish the exercise the next day. If you can't find anything suitable, why not take the creative out and make this card yourself from scratch, using the other four as inspiration?
Your inner Magic draft is something to return to from time to time. When contemplating the cards, you may find that simple details suddenly speak to you - card names, type, color, art, and flavor text might assume an almost prophetic nature as you reflect on the cards, your life, and the world you live in. One day you may find yourself thinking "Meh, that's just the Ertai in me talking," and then you will have learned something important about yourself. Feel free to share your picks in the commentary thread, if it's not too personal. If you show me yours, I'll show you mine.
Learning to see the difference between a symbol and what the symbol stands for, the difference between the Hollywood-sign and Hollywood itself, is an important achievement indeed. The symbolic point of entry for this column is Magic, but truly the world is full of other things that, through the power of analogy, can tell us a great deal about the microcosm and the macrocosm. Since ancient times, this principle has been summarized by the formula: As above so below - as below so above. The same principles or archetypes are at work, only the names or types change as we examine different systemic levels.
These last two articles have been meditations on Magic cards, contemplating how they relate to the macrocosmic and microcosmic perspectives of our time. Hundreds of other cards are more than worthy of such meditations, but now you, dear reader, have developed the skills to continue this quest on your own. The short exercise described above is enough to get you started, but the possibilities are endless. Magic could become your new tool for creative analysis of many things in life, not just the cards themselves.
The ability to look beyond things, towards the archetype or essence, is a protection of sorts from being obsessed with what lies at the surface - be it with yourself or with stereotypes of the outer world. Next month, we'll look at an archetype in the Magic sense of the word, examining the essence of a well known deck archetype, and what reflections on such things might have to offer. With that, I bid you a good harvest!
By Stefan Lindberg on October 23rd, 2009 · Filed in General Magic · Comments not available just now