Developing Magical Consciousness
A Theoretical and Practical Guide for the Expansion of Perception
- ISBN: 9781138078697
- Published By: Routledge
- Published: October 2019
Susan Greenwood’s Developing Magical Consciousness: A Theoretical and Practical Guide for the Expansion of Perception is a fascinating, ambitious, and challenging book. The volume is ambitious because Greenwood attempts both to develop a bridge of communication between Indigenous worldviews and “rationalized Western cultures” and to offer “an alternative mythological framework for developing a Western magical perception” (1). The work is challenging because Greenwood draws upon her own magical consciousness throughout the book in ways that are often (and perhaps unavoidably) opaque to the reader, despite her careful descriptions of her magical insights and processes. The crux of Greenwood’s argument involves a distinction between two coexisting mentalities: a disenchanted, rational, and analytical mentality that she associates with Western modernity, scientism, and rationalism, and a magical, analogical, imaginative mentality that she associates with contemporary Indigenous ways of knowing and with premodern and contemporary magical approaches. Greenwood contends that magical consciousness is a panhuman orientation that is complementary to logical thought processes (xv). Drawing on the work of Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, she posits that all humans share a psychic unity of two co-existing mentalities: a mystical mentality and a rational logical one (49).
The book is divided into three sections. In the first section, Greenwood outlines a possible bridge of communication between Western logical thought and the magical consciousness that she associates with Indigenous peoples. The chapters in the first section outline the core thesis of the book and contain several helpful theoretical interventions. She explores magical consciousness through the lenses of shamanism, psychic indigeneity, “It-thinking,” symbols, and magical analogies. For Greenwood, the shamanistic perspective entails a mediated worldview, according to which nonhuman beings possess agency, vitality, and spirit (71). Psychic indigeneity refers to the magically infused perception that Greenwood, following Lévy-Bruhl, argues is common to all humans (72). It-thinking refers to a variety of thought that occurs in meditation, trance, and dreaming states without the agency of discursive reasoning and active consciousness (73). Greenwood describes symbols as portals for accessing the spirit world through the imagination and analogies as non-verbal body-mind connections with other animate and inanimate beings in an interrelated cosmos (78-79). Taken together these five connected processes constitute magical consciousness as Greenwood describes it.
The second section of the book involves an in-depth exploration of William Blake as a model for the shamanistic perspective and magical consciousness. Greenwood describes a Western cultural amnesia that she views as a causal factor in the devaluation of magical consciousness and the rise of scientism and rationalism in the West. She argues that following Blake’s example and integrating contraries (feminine/masculine, heaven/hell) can help create a holistic worldview and a reconnection to nature. The final section provides several case studies that outline the applied process of magical consciousness as Greenwood describes it. The first chapter in this section focuses on Western health professionals who use dramatic re-enactments and ritual re-framing to treat Aboriginal Australians struggling with addictions. In the final two chapters, Greenwood provides a detailed account of her own attempts to further develop magical consciousness in two of her students.
Greenwood describes herself as a shamanic practitioner and, in her 2015 article The Owl, the Dragon and the Magician: Reflections on Being an Anthropologist Studying Magic, as a “very eclectic solitary shamanic witch” (The Pomegranate). Throughout Developing Magical Consciousness, she draws upon her own magical experiences, including connections with animals and spirits, both as illustrations of the magical consciousness she describes and as explanations for some of her insights and arguments. For instance, Greenwood describes her interactions with several magpies in Australia as a means of forming a connection with the Australian land and its beings. She links these interactions to prior experiences with magpies in England and her feeling of being a part of the Magpie Tribe, which she experienced in a “mystical mode of mind” (50). Greenwood explores her felt connection to the magpies in both prose and in a series of original poems.
The magpie episodes serve not only to illustrate Lévy-Bruhl’s concept of participation—the emotional associations between persons and things in contact with a non-ordinary spirit reality—but also to provide background for her own reasoning and arguments. By including these and other personal examples of magical consciousness, Greenwood generously welcomes readers into her own research and thought processes. To my mind, this openness is both helpful and informative. Often scholars conceal the hunches, insights, and serendipitous realizations that drive their academic research. By describing these in detail, Greenwood allows the reader to glimpse the complex and sometimes contradictory intellectual, emotional—and in this case magical—work that takes place behind the scenes of formal academic research and writing.
Greenwood is clear that her book demands something of the reader that most academic works do not: an openness to magical, analogical, and imaginative thinking. As she puts it, her book is an example of “anthropology from the heart rather than the head” (1). But the dreams, visions, and magical connections Greenwood generously describes necessarily depend upon her own unique imagination and magical consciousness or the imagination of the individuals she describes (77). As a result, even readers who are open to the processes of magical thought may not be able to fully understand or appreciate the specific experiences she includes. For example, while the book contains many evocative photographs taken by Greenwood that serve to illustrate some of the magical connections she makes, it is not always clear how or why a given image represents a logical (non-magical) idea or experience rather than an analogical or magical one.
I am unsure whether Greenwood is successful either in her attempt to create a bridge between Indigenous and Western modes of thought or to rehabilitate Western magical consciousness. Nor am I convinced that the “essence of magic” is the variety of panpsychic communication between humans, animals, and spirits that Greenwood describes (xiv). Nevertheless, scholars studying contemporary neopagans, shamanism, and Indigenous ways of knowing will find many helpful theoretical perspectives in Developing Magical Consciousness. Scholars, students, and magical practitioners of various sorts will also encounter many fascinating accounts of Greenwood’s particular take on magical consciousness at work. If readers accept Greenwood’s central claim that both logical and magical consciousness are required for a full appreciation of the world, this book provides a masterful example of the interplay between these two forms of consciousness at work.
Ian Alexander Cuthbertson is instructor in the Humanities Department at Dawson College in Montréal, Quebec.Ian Alexander CuthbertsonDate Of Review:March 31, 2023