In Defense of the Armchair


Where I do a lot of my magic.

I’m an armchair magician, by which I mean, I have an armchair. Well, actually, it’s a poang from Ikea. Comfy!

For those not in the know, “armchair magician” is a pejorative term for a magician who doesn’t do magic, just theorizes about it, writes about it, and talks about it. But like most pejoratives, it’s used in two ways:

First, it can mean — as I said above — a person with only second-hand knowledge of magic, and no direct experience. Second, it can mean — and more often does — a magician who theorizes.

Sometimes you’ll see, “well, theory is just armchair magic.” As if we shouldn’t, therefore, engage in theory at all, lest we magically adhere to our armchair!

This is an anti-intellectual nonsense. Every single magician has a theory of magic. The practice of magic is what you do: call up spirits, draw a circle, make a mojo bag, burn a candle. The theory of magic is why you do it. Even a folk magician who has never “thought” about magic in any sort of formal, academic way has a theory of magic: there’s a reason she’s stirring that pot. She might think she’s calling on spirits, or saints. She might have some idea that God has a certain position and she occupies another (hey, a cosmology!), or she might have some notion that the physical objects in that pot are doing something in some subtle way. These theoretical ideas are probably very complex, very well-formed, and she may not even be entirely aware of all of them at once.

Other times, I’ll hear people say “I don’t care how my magic works; I only care that it works.” Then they’ll go off explaining what they did: “Well, I made a talisman with the symbol of Jupiter and then charged it with magical energy at the hour of Jupiter by passing it through cedar incense while . . . ” Every single one of those magical acts has a why behind it. Each one represents a theoretical position.

What that attitude often boils down to is, “I have no intellectual curiosity, and I think that’s a virtue.”

I don’t have much sympathy with that. In truth, time in the armchair can translate to being more effective in the circle. The two aren’t mutually exclusive at all. And reading about magic and learning theory can encourage you to act, just as reading a good cookbook can encourage you to get in the kitchen. Yes, you cannot learn to cook by reading cookbooks, or learn magic by reading magic books, but that’s not what they’re for. So let’s stop knocking the armchair and those of us who sit in it, as long as we get out of it as well.


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