Yesterday I took part in a pagan ritual. No, I did not dance naked around a camp fire or undertake an invocation of ancient gods. The heathen ritual I took part in was a contemporary university graduation to receive my MBA degree.
The pomp and circumstance of the academic dress and procession seem to be innocent reminders of ancient traditions to add gravitas to the moment of graduation. The ritualistic aspects of the ceremony and the continuous doffing of the at the chancellor are, however, all part of an elaborate pagan ceremony.
One particular moment, the conferring of the degree, can only be described as magical. Not magic in the sense that the ceremony has an ethereal atmosphere, but magic in the literal sense of the word. The conferring of the degree is in its very essence a mystical moment.
All graduands were standing and the Chancellor conferred the degree upon us. Even though she did not use any incantations nor did she invoke any occult forces, the conferring of the degrees is a moment of magic. It is only from that point forward that I could by right call myself a Master in Business Administration. Even those who decided not to attend the ceremony did not escape the magic powers of the Chancellor, as also they had their degrees conferred upon them by the power invested in her.
It seems rather strange that a rational organisation such as a university uses archaic and irrational practices to finalise several years of intense rational work. Although the purpose of academic education is to hone rational thinking skills, the process is concluded in an irrational moment.
Although it might not be sensed by contemporary graduands as being just that, there is no significant difference between the conferring of the degree and the activities of a witch doctor or priest bestowing a blessing.
Given the fact that the vast majority of graduands chose to attend the ceremony, rather than being provided with their degree through the mail, shows that no matter how rational we think we are, we all require a magical and non-rational moments.
Earlier this month, I attended the Centenary Convention of the Australian Society of Magicians. This convention has reignited my passion for performing magic, albeit in a different direction.
The amazing Jeff McBride used the phrase “from shaman to showman” several times during his performances and lecture. The shaman, or medicine man, used to perform a central function in prehistoric and primal cultures and incorporated the philosopher, healer and entertainer. In contemporary culture, these functions have, however, been separated and the philosopher, healer and entertainer are different people and the magician usually only functions as the entertainer, working for children, performing close-up in restaurants or more traditional stage acts.1
Performing magic can be a powerful experience for the spectator as well as the magician and is, in McBride’s words, a “mood altering device”. Experiencing well crafted magic releases positive chemicals in the brain and magic becomes, following Eugene Burger, a way of transcending the human condition, even if it is only for a fleeting moment. In this way the magician becomes a healer.
The magician becomes philosopher by providing meaningful context to the magical experience. The philosophy expressed by performing magic is not about providing a solution to the life’s problems. In magical thinking the world is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be experienced. By providing the spectator with a sense of mystery, magicians can integrate the philosopher back into their performances.
For as long as I can remember, performing magic has been a part of my life. To be more precise, I am an occasional conjurer and use sleight-of-hand and other forms of deception to feign being a real magician. I started adding magic to my life as a schoolboy in the Netherlands, devouring books from the local library and collecting magic sets from the toy shop, attempting to amaze friends and family.
When I started a degree in philosophy, I became disillusioned with magic as an art form. I was no longer able to see the meaning of conjuring beyond the trickery and clichés employed by magicians. Much of magic has a “look at me” aspect and can be an egocentric performance art, without not much intellectual depth.
It was only years later that I realised that my interest in philosophy was strongly related to my interest in magic and that magic is an inherently philosophical performance art. Some of the books on the history of magic I read years earlier describe the connection between magic tricks and divination and other esoteric practices. I began to realise that the ancient shaman, the tribal philosopher, was also a conjurer, a master of sleight-of-hand.
Both the magician and the philosopher have arisen from the same archetypical and historical figure of the shaman. The anthropological record shows that shamans use technical and psychological principles, similar to those used by contemporary stage magicians, to aid their spiritual work.1
I became interested in philosophy as a teenager by reading books about the history of magic that refer to the shamanistic origins of the craft. Snowballing my way through literature, I eventually stranded at philosophy itself—although somewhere along the way the connection between magic and philosophy was lost. My journey has gone full circle, and I am back at studying magic tricks, and this part of my website is dedicated to the quaint performance art.