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The Inverted Magic of the Literal World

Just as myth and metaphor contain magic, so too does literal or concrete language come with its own brand of ‘inverted magic’. Everything comes with some sort of magic! A statement like this presents difficulties inasmuch as we don’t really believe in ‘magic’ anyway, and if we don’t believe in magic then neither are we going to believe in the inverted variety…



We don’t – by and large – believe in magic because we are already very much in the grip of literal language and its inverted brand of magic. Literal communication has its tendrils sunk very deeply into our brains at this stage. It has established its dominion, for all that this ‘dominion’ cannot be said to be worth very much, literalism being by its very nature entirely impoverished. What could be more impoverished than literalism?



Literal language chokes the very life out of us (metaphorically speaking, that is). Literal language and literal thinking has dumbed us down to the point where we can’t understand anything worthwhile any more. In our cleverness, we have become entirely obtuse. A child would get it, but we don’t. We don’t (and can’t get it) because we think everything is to be understood in a literal, face-value way. We think that the whole world is made up of literal, face-value facts and all we have to do is memorize them or otherwise store them so that we can have them there if we need them. This is what we understand to be ‘education’ – the eradication of mystery, the eradication of magic. If we can do that then we will be sure to be very pleased with ourselves indeed. We can then consider ourselves to be properly educated!



The truth is that the literal word is a pestilence, even if we cannot see it as such. It brings an accursed pestilence to the land just as it brings a cruel impoverishment to our hearts. All this is due the inverted magic of literalism, the inverted magic of the rational mind! We imagine that because we are so-rationally orientated we ‘know what’s going on in the world’ (just as children don’t) but this is just our conceit. What’s going on in the world is that our literal language (or our ‘concrete thinking’) has proliferated like an algal bloom and crowded out everything of a non-literal (or non-metaphorical) nature. Our sadly concrete way of understanding everything has resulted in the creation of an exclusively mechanical world – a world that is only fit for mechanisms.



Inverted magic is therefore a kind of a ‘dark enchantment’ that causes us to think that there’s no such thing as magic in the world, that there couldn’t ever be such a thing. It’s not that we go around saying out loud that ‘there’s no such thing as magic in the world’ to each other. That would be ridiculous – we don’t believe enough in magic to say this. It never occurs to us to say this because it was never a viable proposition in the first place. It was never on the cards in the first place that we’d feel a need to say that; the word ‘magic’ has been degraded and sentimentalized so much (by adults with no trace of magic left in them) that it no longer means anything. The word has become harmless, de-potentiated, ineffectual, anodyne…



The notion of dark enchantments and their sinister effects is of course eminently familiar to us through many legends and fairy tales. The tale of Sleeping Beauty is probably the best known to us in the West. In one version of the story (Little Briar Rose) not just the princess but the entire community surrounding her falls deep into magical sleep. We might also think of the White Witch in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Myth and metaphor can contain the notion of inverted magic, but this cannot happen the other way around. The Infinite Game can happily contain any number of finite games but there can never be such a thing as a finite game that contains a genuine reference to the Infinite Game – if it did then it would itself be a manifestation of the Infinite Game!



The literal world is like sleep (or ‘is’ sleep, in a metaphorical way) because when we enter it nothing actually happens (even though – to us sleepers – things seem to be happening). All action is necessarily redundant in the literal realm – every ‘change’, every ‘transformation’ is only ever the superficial appearance of such. There can never be any genuine instance of transformation because every apparent ‘change’ was already inherent in the starting-off point. How could this be otherwise? If we start off with a literal statement then how can we ever expect to get somewhere else? What are we ever going to be able to do with that literal statement? What leeway for re-interpretation is there? What possibilities for deeper insight could there ever be here?



All action, all mentation, is necessarily redundant in the literal realm. As soon as we see this it become strikingly clear that this couldn’t ever be any other way. ‘Literal’ means that you’re pinned down forever; it means that that the meanings which we have been given are the ones that are going to stand. The whole point is that the meanings we have been given are going to stand! That’s what the word ‘literal’ means. The freedom for things to mean otherwise than what they are officially designated as meaning is a freedom that does not exist in the equation. ‘Literal’ means ‘no change’, therefore. Literal meaning is the dark enchantment that freezes life and when life is frozen (or static) it is no longer life…



This process of solidification or concretization is very well illustrated in the way that the intuitive way of reading or understanding the Bible was explicitly prohibited in favour of the prescribed way. According to the Bible scholar Elaine Pagels in Beyond Belief, ‘epinoia’ is banned by the early Church Fathers in favour of ‘dianoia’. Epinoia is a ‘knowing’ that comes about as a result of what we may refer to as Divine Intuition, whilst dianoia is the officially prescribed type of knowing. Greg Mackie in his discussion of Elaine Pagels’ book Beyond Belief, explains this extraordinarily significant shift of emphasis in the following way –


The problem was that spiritual Christians still interpreted those four gospels—including John, one of their favorites—in myriad, often allegorical and metaphorical ways. For instance, Valentinus claimed that the story of Jesus’ cleansing of the temple is really (in Pagels’s words) “a parable showing how, when God shines into our hearts, he shatters and transforms what he finds there in order to make us fit dwellings for the holy spirit” (119). Such metaphorical interpretations could wander far from the original material; at times, spiritual Christians would interpret scripture in ways that flatly contradicted the literal meaning of the text.


So, Irenaeus needed to add a second step to his answer: Now that he had a set of orthodox writings, he had to develop an orthodox method to interpret those writings. The method he proposed had two aspects. First, he said, the interpreter should adhere to an essentially literal interpretation of scripture: Irenaeus “declares that, wherever possible, one must discern the obvious meaning; and wherever a certain passage seems ambiguous or difficult, one’s understanding should be guided by those passages whose meaning seems clear”. A later bishop, Athanasius, called this basic approach dianoia, which Pagels defines as “the capacity to discern the meaning or intention implicit in each text”. This stance was disdained by the spiritual Christians, who regarded their own metaphorical interpretations as a higher understanding.


Epinoia, we might say, is ‘knowing from within’, whilst dianoia is ‘knowing from without’. Epinoia is personal to us, unique to us, whereas dianoia is by its very nature general, the same for everybody… In the literal realm, therefore, one’s own knowing is forbidden and the only type of ‘knowing’ that is permitted is generic knowing, knowing that is provided equally for all by the fixed external authority. What the early Church fathers did not appear to understand was that the moment it became compulsory to understand the Bible only in the officially-approved way was also the moment when all the light in it was extinguished! The moment we read the Bible in a literal way is the moment the Bible dies – there is no such thing as ‘a literal truth’. In the same way, the moment we understand the world in an exclusively literal way is the moment the world dies (to us, anyway). The literally-understood world is not the world – it is a caricature of the world.


Joseph Campbell is making the same point here in Goddesses: Mysteries of the Feminine Divine (p 101) –


Gods are metaphors transparent to transcendence. And my understanding of the mythological mode is that deities and even people are to be understood in this sense, as metaphors. It’s a poetic understanding. It is to be understood in the same sense as Goethe’s words at the end of Faust: “Alles Vergängliche ist nur ein Gleichnis” (“Everything transitory is but a reference”). The reference is to that which transcends all speech, all vocabularies, and all images. I think of the more prosaic style of thinking about these references as theological rather than mythological. In theology, the god is taken as a final term, a kind of supernatural fact. When the deity is not transparent, when he doesn’t open up like that to the transcendent, he doesn’t open up to the mystery that is the mystery of our own lives.


Every literal (prosaic) message that comes our way is an invitation to enter the ‘frozen’ world of literal descriptions, the world with no seasons and no mystery, the world that never changes or opens up to anything else, anything bigger, or more expansive. In practice it turns out to be ‘an invitation that we can’t refuse’ – as soon as we read the message we become frozen or fixed. Our world becomes frozen or fixed and so do we. We enter the ‘psychostatic world’ without ever realizing that any transition has occurred. The message in question works as a ‘Trojan horse‘: what happens is that in reading the message (which is to say, in ‘making sense of the message in the way which it is meant to be made sense of’) we accept the context of interpretation without seeing that we have, and this context (this framework) is what ‘freeze-frames’ reality. The framework ‘turns everything literal’ the moment it is adopted.



The type of life that goes on within the framework (by reference to the framework) is life that can never go beyond the framework. Life that can never go beyond the framework is not life, since the FW itself is not a living thing. The FW is no more than an arbitrary cut-off point – a cut-off point (or limit) that doesn’t actually exist, but which we pretend does exist. It is as if we duck down low every time we reach a certain point in the corridor, habitually bending down to avoid an obstacle that isn’t there. Or rather it is like a square that has been chalked onto the pavement that we believe ourselves to be confined to, and not only do we believe ourselves to be confined to it, we believe the inside of the square to be the whole of what is possible. In other words, we act as if the particular limited way which we happen to understand ourselves and the world we live in were a ‘fixed-and-final meaning’, even though this is not at all the case…



What the FW does is itself a form of magic – it just happens to be the sort of magic that is against life, the sort of magic that shuts life down. Literal language contains within it the sort of magic that ‘turns truth on its head’, so to speak. This is ‘inverting magic’ – the type of magic that turns truth into something ugly, something violent, something that can be used to hit you over the head when you start asking too many questions! This is ‘truth as a prison’ rather than ‘truth as something that will set you free’. The question we could ask ourselves is therefore “What sort of so-called truth is it that can hold us prisoner? What sort of truth is it that can make us miserable instead of happy?” Would this type of so-called ‘truth’ not be better described simply as ‘a lie’?







Author: Nick Williams

Nick Williams works and writes in the field of mental health and is particularly interested in non-equilibrium states of consciousness, which are states of mind that cannot be validated by standardized experiments or by reference to any formal theoretical perspective.

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