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ADAMAGICA: Magic and Iconolatry in Film

The following text was presented at the Princeton Conference on Magic and Cinema, 11 March 2006.

When we look at the sad, often ridiculous, lives of the great ceremonial magicians, it is obvious, in any conventional sense of success—wealth or happiness—that magic doesn’t work.

But no sooner do I think this than I think (maybe the way we often think when we ponder the deeds of certain Catholics and Protestants and Muslims): if they act so brutally with religion, what on earth would they be like without it?

The tragicomedies of an Aleister Crowley or a McGregor Mathers, the high tragedy of Giordano Bruno—maybe these are the best outcomes that could be made from the karmic clay with which each began. At least we know their names—their names for a blessing!

Does magic imbue each life—Crowley or Bruno, Kenneth Anger or Michael Powell—with this sense: my life has meaning. There is a work, and I am for it, I live for that work and that work is my life. “Determin’d, dar’d and done!”

Were these great men, grandees of the image, just fooling themselves? Yet who among the still living or the safely dead would we dare label self-deluded? Isnt such a conviction—My life has meaning!—exactly what gives a person the sense of being what we call happy?

Magic is what the mind comes back to time and time again to right itself.

The images on the movie screen last a lifetime—I mean they’re always there, once seen they’re here forever. They are really what we mean by here—the mind as intersection of all its experiences, naked now in the prepared moment. Samskara, the shaped clay ready for the kiln.

Images seen order the viewer’s experience into paradigms of meaning and passion and grace.

When I sat in the movie theater, nine years old, watching the newsreel while I waited for the second feature, I saw suddenly the living corpses of Buchenwald totter towards me. The image, images, entered me and dwelt among me—eskênosen, the Gospel would say, they set up their tabernacle in me and they live here, here, still. Defining me.

We are defined by what we see. Blake: “He became what he beheld.”

And then I found myself thinking of the great Nobel Prize winning biologist Max Delbrück. He was brown from chemotherapy, dying, tender, witty, skeptic as ever, when I sat with him at our last dinner together, years after I had left Cal Tech. I had come back just to give a poetry reading. We were dining, just the two of us alone in the vast and otherwise deserted faculty club, marmoreal as a mausoleum. Max spoke about the final obligation that he felt—towards the animals and towards poetry, towards the strange life that passes from one to the other, through the text, through the reader. With his last strength, he had committed himself to traveling to New York to lecture on Rilke’s Duino Elegies, the animals and us, the interweaving presences in the world. Last dance of this great biologist, at the threshold of the real ecology: the interwoven lives of humans and animals—and angels.

How those Sufi angels of Rilke must have vexed him! Yet greeted him thereafter.

I had seldom seen a happier man than this dying scientist.

7. So science doesn’t work either, any more than magic does.

He was dying and we all do die. Science or no science, magic or no magic, we die.1

And Darwin and Goethe and Einstein and Freud never stopped a single war, not even for a single day.

So nothing works.

That’s what we are privileged to remember. War, poverty, anger, disease, indifferent lovers, ingrate offspring, hatred, greed—science doesn’t touch them. Art makes use of them a while, then scoundrel Time sweeps them all away.

Nothing works.

Yet we have come to this aporia: how do we know that these things don’t work?

How do we know what horrors we have been spared, thanks to the energies and clarities and “Mental Forms” generated or composed by scientists and magicians and visionaries? Unknowable, but thinkable.

And that is the exact definition: Unknowable, but thinkable = magic.

Like the equivalent definition: Unthinkable, but sayable = poetry.

Nothing works. But everything works, whatever it is that sustains that luminous shadow—can I call it that? A man like Crowley—or Delbrück—or Freud follows day by day, as if the illuminating sun were always behind him, showing the shape of him on the way. And the shadow of what he is stretches before him, long, long, pointing to what he must become.

Magic (even Magick) tells us we are all “Men of Destiny”—which is not so different from what the Buddhadharma tells us: every living thing has Buddha Nature.

Turn from people and their ways a minute, think of things.

Things do not tell, things do not sin.2

The essence of our subject today:

Magic takes the story out of the story

and leaves the images.

The images are what “comforts and helps” us and heals.

These are the eye-mages that Brakhage talked about long ago,
take the story out of the story

and the thing will save you

Escape from the family tragedy of the Pronoun Family

I, and you, and he, and she

and what they do to each other,

The image has of course terrors enough of its own
(Pascal and Borges and Robbe-Grillet and Beckett).

take away the clamor and terror of the pronouns
and the image teaches

awakens us, heals us, begets something in us.


I found myself moved by a picture in a catalogue, a picture of a picture on the cover of a book of pictures. But for all that remoteness from the living woman who once caught the eye of the camera, or perhaps because of it (it is too early in our study to trouble with causality) the image made me think. And thinking about what the picture showed, and what it means to show, and how I read the showing, I understood all at once, with a great metabolic excitement, that pondering the picture offered me a new way to read the world.

Take every picture as a religious picture.

Here is the argument: every icon is an Ikon, every visual image is an icon of the truth.

In that sense, take every image as a sacred image.

Inspecting, feeling an image, we can learn the truth that way, perhaps the truth scattered by Set through all religions, intact in none.

Not ‘all religions are one.’ Rather, all religions have some.

All pictures are holy.

“Holy pictures” (sounded like holypitchiz) we used to call them when I was a child and cared about those things, a lot, always uneasy between the art form (often trashy) and its intention (often exalted). But I saved the pictures, put them where they seemed to belong—in missals, or lives of the saints.

The saints are those who showed us themselves. That is, showed us how to be.

The pictures were for example a pale vapid pink and greeny painting of Saint Therese the Little Flower, that cute Norman girl who embodied the deepest sense of Buddhist compassion, and who said to Christ, Give me all the pain of the world so I can take it away. Or a black and white snapshot of Father Alfred M. Rudtke S.J., who had baptized my friend not long before the priest’s death. Or a funeral mass card for my cousin Doris, no picture of her just her name and death date, but instead of her there was a picture of Our Lord, on a silvery crucifix, a prayer to say for her. So all these were holy, Saint Therese, Saint Rudtke, Saint Doris-hidden-in-Christ, pray for us.

All made sacred by the informal but effective canonization of having their pictures looked at.

Looking at a picture is worshipping it.

As Swann worshipped all his life Vermeer’s View of Delft, so we worship all too briefly perhaps our canonical images of rock stars and close relations, old friends, a snapshot of Gandhi pinned to the wall, or Ezra grumpy-holy in his gondola beside Olga.

The example that got me thinking this morning, where this all began, was a photo by Diana Scheunemann. Is the woman in the picture experiencing orgasm or faking it? Once the question is asked, it starts to ask itself: what is the difference?

What is the difference between a picture of a man dying on a cross, say, or a picture of an actor acting a man dying on a cross?

Can the picture tell the difference?

And what is it in us that can tell the difference, or thinks it can? That is the Magic Factor, the energy in us that somehow, simply, knows.

What is the difference between regarding (worshipping) an image of something doing something from regarding an image of something pretending to do something?

Is this just a cavil, a place where religious doubt creeps in?

Don’t we in fact worship what the picture tells us?

So when I look at Diana Scheunemann’s image of a woman, grimacing her gasp of ecstasy as her soaked body amuses itself with the gushing hose or waterspout, I see the Virgin Mother of the world, her pleasure pouring life into the world, her anguished ecstasy our cosmos, all we have and are and know, at just this moment spilling out of the excess of her self-awareness. Her orgasmic cry is the aleph that begins us—everything that comes into existence comes from the overmeasure of her self-knowing.

We are the part of herself that spills out of knowing into being.

Kurt Seligman, “Untitled”. 1939-40 Private Collection


Seeing beyond the world

When the initiates of the Eleusinian Mysteries were all enclosed in the dark, possibly even underneath the ground, at a certain moment in the ceremony they suddenly experienced an intense bright light. The priest of the moment, the epopt, held up or showed them something. Something they saw. This revelation was called the epopteia, the showing forth. It is not known for sure what was shown or what they saw—because the initiates kept their vows of secrecy. For fifteen hundred years or so these mysteries were practiced as the central focus of Athenian, later pan-Hellenic life, and ultimately the most ‘fashionable’ religious practice of the whole Roman Empire. It was so to speak the great pilgrimage of the Classical world, its Hajj. Millions were initiated, but the secret was kept.

There are many surmises about what was shown. I am not here concerned with that. What interests me at this moment about Eleusis and the whole praxis, is that something was seen. And that visual event, that instructive pleasure, transformed the lives of the initiates profoundly and evidently permanently. No doubt the experienced was supported and interpreted by the ceremonial context and the inevitable (priests are priests) commentaries. But what was seen is what confirmed the experience and the transformation the initiate experienced and went on experiencing. We can always look back on what we have seen. We carry in our brains a superior emulsion for such archival preservation of the image.

It’s time for me to venture my own guess about what was seen in the dark. Maybe it isn’t what the initiates saw that matters. But that they saw. That some special kind of seeing was going on. Some special mode of showing, full of light and sound and movement—perhaps a pantomime of the Goddess in the afterlife, perhaps just a woman made out of light. The very fact of seeing in this unknown and unprecedented way told the initiate that there’s more to the world than we see at first glance. Eternity opens from now. We are told that the initiates no longer dreaded the afterlife. No one knows what combination of shamanic craft or psychoactive drink or dramaturgy had such profound effects on so many. Some sort of poesis, some imaginative act. Some technique of enlightenment. What was true there may have been what is true in every art, in every renaissance: the technical is the revelation.

What we do know is that the initiates would say one thing: I have seen.

We study the image to understand. To understand what induces in us the visual pleasure—that is the whole ground of art, no other.

Aesthetics presumably goes arid or bleak as it drifts away from that. Concentrate always on pleasure. That is what art gives. That is what art is.

Voluptas docet. Pleasure is our sole instructor.

Now this is the main point: the main pleasure in seeing an image is seeing something one has not seen before. Simple as that.

And that is the ground of magic. The lowest apprentice magician, Faust’s famulus in the early Faustbook, wants to learn magic so as to see the girls of the town dance naked in the courtyard, just as, a millennium or more before, young Lucius wanted to peer through the wall and see the witch at play.

And the highest magic too summons vision: to welcome the knowledge and conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel, to use the beautiful formulation of the Golden Dawn tradition.

We do magic to see what we have never seen. In the simplest terms, magic shows us the invisible.

Whether it’s done with magician’s silks and mirrors or with archangels and incantations, magic is one thing. Magic tricks the eye into seeing what is not really there, just as art tricks the eye into really seeing what is there.

Prestidigitation and Highest Ritual Magic differ in methods, and style, but not in aim: the transformation of the ordinary. They are both true magic. As is cinema, QED.

What the motivation is, of course, will be immensely different. Not so much depending on the ‘level’ of magic (as if to make a dove fly out of a handkerchief were somehow lower than making you hallucinate a deity) as on the moral niveau of the magician.

Magic makes us see. And when the icon it produces for our inspection moves, it becomes intensely more powerful. Seen becomes scene. The whole complex of images in transformation, movement, locks in the mind. Becomes a kineme, I’ll call it, a complex elapsing of images in time.

It stays in mind. It has become a product of alchemy: solve et coagula. The fixed image has been made fleeting, the fleeting scene is fixed as a single complex kineme in mind. The fixed movement which makes live mercury into solid gold.

We go to movies the way the ceremonial magicians picked up their grimoires and stepped into their magic circles. We go so we can see in the dark.

And what we see is what we’ve never seen.

Kurt Seligman, “Untitled,” 1939-40. Private Collection

PART FOUR: Therefore:

That’s why the most powerful artistic force in contemporary film is special effects. That is what people really want to see. And it is proper of them to want this and pursue this. This is the science of the invisible. FX rules!

This is a terrible announcement to make, especially to an aging generation weaned on the tepid adulteries of Cassavetes and The Graduate, as if a film is supposed to be one long bullsession in a bar or shrinkarium.

Whereas: Plot is nowhere. Plot failed us long ago.

The most powerful artistic force in contemporary film is special effects—any kid knows that, and that’s also what the pure Blakean eye of desire wants to see, see, see. Books can be read, stories can be told.

So now it is time for us Magicians to liberate Princess Kinema from her long enchantment to Demon Storyboard.

The most powerful artistic force in contemporary film is special effects—take away narrative and show: something happens.

No simpering pronouns, no triste histoire – instead the purity of the technical. Special effects instead of special pleading. And the obsessions of memory spell out in optical printing (as in the astonishing magical ending of Jennifer Reeves’ Chronic, where optical process transforms psychological narrative into psychic fact.)

When film shows,

it ‘says the names of things’

it lights up the corresponding signatures of energy inside us:

this is magic.

Think of the magical intensity of Miyazaki’s backgrounds, textures, details, as over against the vapid banality of the drawing of his ‘human’ characters in their sentimental stories. His films are the clearest evidence of the tension between bland narrative foreground and the intensity of the thing observed, described, transcribed. He dares to steal the nuclear power of a blade of grass or a raindrop to fuel the sentimental narrative.

(Yet in honesty I have to ask if the storyline is not a necessary evil, a psychic permission Miyazaki gives himself to care so visually about the where and what his characters move through, so that the story serves like the vague poems that somehow managed to stimulate the great songs of Schubert, or Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.)3

So here I am in a cold spring stuck with Japanese animes and special effects—that is what is left of Eisenstein and Dreyer and Brakhage. Yet they are enough. They renew us in the act of seeing, renew us for seeing more. Seeing better than we saw before – the way Brakhage was such a great propaideutic force in cinema, made us see because: he gave us nothing else to do with ourselves in the movies but see.

I have, as you can tell, been carrying on for years against narrative in film. At best, narrative is a provocation to reveal glimpses of the future or the interior, or to reveal the suddenly seen unseen glory of the obvious. (Tati’s Playtime, Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog come to mind.)

History comes to our aid:

After the Renaissance, after the exalted magics of Ficino, Pico, Paracelsus, and Bruno, especially Bruno, obit 1600, we witness a decline of magic.

The conventional view is that magic gave way, slowly, clumsily transformed into, the experimental sciences.

I propose instead this model, that magic hid itself, but coincidentally with that occultation, and made possible by it, began to flower as the theater, and then, (especially after the shutting down of the playhouses in England during the Commonwealth, and during the reign of the Inquisition in Spain) renewed its life in the development of prose fiction.

That is, magic, which is always concerned with making the invisible visible, now comes to public service as making the unreal real, making the imaginary actual, giving ‘a local habitation and a name’ to things unreal. Creative magic.

So we see on the stage the transformations of Bottom’s Dream, or read in Don Quixote the imaginary world become real enough to make an old man tilt at the sheep, and real enough to make us weep at that old man.

The novel for the next four hundred years takes over the shape-shifting tasks, creates the Novus Ordo your dollar bill talks about.

It is to fiction that we look for magic, that is: for the deliberate and conscious estrangement of the obvious, the revalidation, the renewal of the things of the world. The transformations leave the tip of the magus’s wand and flow from the tip of the pen: Nashe, Deloney, Cervantes, Defoe, Swift, Sterne, Walpole, Smollett, Voltaire, Diderot, Mary Shelley, Hogg, Novalis, Tieck, Hoffmann, Willkie Collins, Lefanu, Balzac, Poe, – we see the common world transformed into what it really is.

The magic continues in Hawthorne and Melville, Flaubert even in his Saint Julian or his Salammbo. And it is only when the novel leaves off treating of wonders, miracles, adventures—the changeful stuff of magic—when the novel goes quiet, and takes up its careful beautiful study of the endless chimerical dimensions within the small man, when it gets all quizzical and beautiful like Henry James, only then does magic have to take leave of fiction, and go out to rise again on its own. The psychological studies of the Brothers James, the sociological ventures of Zola and Ibsen4—they parch the soul that yearns for wonders, and so by contrast they bring high magic back. Eliphas Levi walks through the streets with the Goncourts, Mme. Blavatsky can be sniffed at in James or Wharton.

And by the end of that century, magic arrives fully clothed in all its delicious lies and lunacies and awkward truths, Yeats, The Golden Dawn, Theosophy, Steiner’s Anthroposophy, the export of all that to America where the mentalists and spiritualists had made the ground ready for such new (but often stodgy) conceptualizations of the raw beauty and power of magic. Where it will flower in Arcane California, and Robert Duncan will write the greatest magical poetry since the Renaissance.

But by that time public magic has worked its way into the newspapers with uncomprehending stuff about the Great Beast, and shocking stories about Himmler’s lunatic rune-meisters. So true magic has slipped away again.

And where it flees this time is into the next evolutionary step of Divine Invention: the film.

Of course Méliès and Lumière, of course the radical practical magic of 24 frames per second equaling a human calmly walking past. Of course the rocket to the moon, of course the stop and start camera that lets clowns appear and disappear. We must never forget the historical truism: _Movies begin by being part of stage magic shows, and go on imitating stage magic ever after._5

The beauty of stage magic, all that business of elephants and mirrors and trapdoors and veils, is that it reveals another truth of magic. Now you see it, now it is. Magic is ontology. Beings are only insofar as they are perceived. Esse est percipi.

And soon enough they’re imitating the lost cosmological energies of Bruno—gently, calmly: the British of the 1930s with The Man Who Could Work Miracles or The Shape of Things to Come. Then the noisy genius of Mr. Disney, who magicks us still with the fumbling but strangely effective magician in the so-called Magical Land of Oz—it’s a Wizard we’re reminded, not a little girl that roots that film to the sad weird tender history of western magic, all fraud and mirrors—but the fear is true, the love is true.

The camera lies, but the image tells true: that is the essence of magic.

No clearer sense in commercial film of that magic than Michael Powell, his version of the Tales of Hoffmann, say, or the patriotic extravaganza of Stairway to Heaven.

And it is not of course the narrative. The narrative of Stairway to Heaven is embarrassing to a degree unparalleled except in Frank Capra. The magic lies in the autonomous image that deserts its stupid story and flies directly into our minds and lodges there, like Dante’s Love, spreading his banner and ruling us.

Tricks as simple as Robert Helpmann’s hand plucking colored candle wax from the candles and having them turn to jewels in his hand, or an invisibility made visible like the stalking black leopard of Cat People whose movement is terrifyingly present though her form is never seen—we see movement by movement. Tricks as complex as the multiplied villain of the Matrix films, dissed as they are by esthetes, reveal the poverty of aesthetics, and the robust, outwelling creativity of magic.

But why? Why does magic work? I want to conclude by raising some questions I think radical, that need answers more from political analysts, economists, and neurophysiologists rather than from the usual suspects—analysts and theologians—who typically are heard from on these matters. Any academic study (in the best sense of the word) of magic must engage deeply and exactly with questions like this:

1. What is an image?
2. What does an image make us see?

3. How does an image make us see?

4. What happens to us when we see an image?

5. Where is the image stored, and how is it revived?

From the great mental struggles and researches of Giordano Bruno, of which I suspect you will hear much from other speakers in this symposium, we learn the world is built of image. And thus of magic, in this precise sense: having once seen something, you can never unsee it.

To unsee something would be to unmake the world.

The world is what we have seen. And Bruno is careful to warn us: to control the images people see, is to control the world. We need the study of magic in our time to produce something like Bruno’s masterpiece, Lo Spaccio, where the bestial (read: conventional) order of the zodiac (read: the world) must be renewed by new images.

Perhaps by special effects.

Robert Kelly, March 2006

1 The sage and the poet and the scientist and the man of affairs – in the later Renaissance, all of them are painted with a skull on the desk, sometimes even with long poetic fingers trailing with eerie familiarity over the ivoried skull on their writing table.

2 Compare my poem of 2 February 2006:

Would be a scholar
of that lunacy

till the thing breaks

and the sky gets
tired of our stories.

Story is sin.

To tell
what happened

or what you want to be or begin.

I am the sin
telling the sin.

You are sin.

At midnight they revel

wretched in the park

no sound understands them

I can’t tell you who they are
or what they claim to want,

that would be telling

and all telling is a sin.
And they themselves

don’t know who they are.

They don’t know
is enough of a story.

And I have sinned.

3 Thinking along this conciliatory line, I am braced by a beautiful phrase by the poet Geoffrey O’Brien, who in his NYRB review of a collection of Val Lewton films speaks of Joseph Cornell’s East of Borneo as “nineteen minutes of mesmeric suggestiveness, a dream vision of what remains of movies after their stories have gone.”

4 Typified for instance in the volumes of Lynn Thorndike’s magisterial study of eighty years ago, History of Magic and Experimental Science, or in Singer’s studies of Paracelsus.

5 Interesting that throughout the government direction of the arts in the USSR, film found its way to magic and wonder only through treatment of folklore. The same route that the German Romantics had followed to escape the inexorable rationality of the Enlightenment became the way through the penny-plain austerities of Socialist Realism and beyond into splendor – the work of Parajanian/Parajanov, the great Armenian-Russian director contains magnificent examples of this liberation.

6 Consider for instance the remarkable Magic Bricks from Pathé in 1908. The magician assembles and disassembles bland substances, forming a wall on which an image forms, moves, a strangely beautiful child appears and then is unpieced as the wall is taken down by the same magic wand that built it. There is an intimate convergence of stage magic, movie magic, and the ‘real thing,’ the sudden apparition of the magical child, wistful, her hair wafting, her eyes yearning for the world into which she must be born.


Robert Kelly


The Brooklyn Rail

JUN 2006

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