Double review and tribute, Isaac Bonewits, Real Magic and Real Energy, Part II

If I went a little overboard on detail describing the contents of Real Magic, it’s because I think that most readers won’t really want to buy it; they’ll want to get Real Energy and know a bit about how Bonewits’ theories and approaches varied and developed over the course of his life. So this part will contain a little less summary and a little more comparison and contrast. I do think Real Energy is a worthy successor to Real Magic and is in fact a better book and a much better text for those interested in magic or energy of any kind.

The major way in which Real Energy is better than Real Magic is that Phaedra and Isaac together take an entirely different approach to situating their discussion with respect to what non-magicians think, know, and believe. First of all, I have to give this book credit: they have “Physics Police” who have not only cooperated with the authors to make sure the authors don’t say anything ridiculous when trying to explain difficult concepts in modern physics, but also contribute their own stories about how physicists can be magic users and vice versa, without compromising anyone’s scientific, religious, or ethical standards. In fact, the Bonewitses take a much more agnostic tone towards the “reality” of the metaphysical phenomena they seek to catalog and describe. Isaac has an appendix in which he presents an impassioned argument against “scientism,” that is, making science into a religion in which only the material and materially explainable has any reality or validity. And the Bonewitses do raise the possibility that “…our ancestors weren’t ignorant fools after all, but merely the victims of insufficiently sophisticated measuring devices. Or not.” (59)

The emphasis here is that although the Bonewitses are as interested as anyone in understanding the scientific roots of metaphysical energy and its uses, they are sticking firmly to Bonewits’ Law of Pragmatism. If it works, even through a placebo effect, or in some way that we don’t understand, then it’s useful, and useful is good enough. Useful is “true enough” for certain situations, in effect. This is a refreshing view because it invites scientific investigation but does not tie its value to the results; magic users will go on using magic whether it is validated by double-blind trials or not, and that actually opens us up to do better science than if we felt we had to get results, at any cost. At the same time, it places sufficient value on science that a superficial understanding isn’t allowed to cover up ignorance; no one in this book is asserting that quantum mechanics says we make our own realities just by thinking about them, or anything like that. QM isn’t a substitute for fairy dust, and those who respect both science and magic can do a better job of either, or both, than someone determined to mix the two, the way that the younger Isaac Bonewits came across in Real Magic.

The intro also contains a lovely overview of metaphysical terminology from around the world going back thousands of years; it’s valuable, to the self-respecting magic user, to know that chakras originate from a different system than the idea of the etheric plane, and that neither of them is the inspiration for acupuncture or Qi Gong, for example. A spoonful of history makes reasonable eclecticism possible, even if it doesn’t always go down well, and the Bonewitses have a great handle on the kind of cultural and situational awareness that makes eclectic discussion a skillful art rather than collage done by a color-blind five-year-old high on rubber cement. And a lot of this book is a collage, a primer on metaphysical systems that encourages the reader to draw her own conclusions about what needs further investigation, and whether there are underlying or overarching coherences between systems.

The book also covers Bonewits’ Laws of Magic, and discusses the difference between thaumaturgy and theurgy. The rest is divided into two parts, one on energies that come from the environment and the other on energies that come from people and spirits. Both Western and Eastern approaches to energy are included; one of the best exercises – yes, there are exercises! – is making a ball of qi. The exercises are few and far between, but carefully chosen and skilfully written. The discussion of psychic talents includes Isaac Bonewits’ theory of the antipsi powers, including ones like catapsi, which is best described by the metaphor of broadcasting static; it interferes with the conduct of any and all other psi powers. Whether or not one thinks parapsychology has had any success in proving psi theories to a scientific standard, the overview is fascinating reading and raises interesting possibilities. Yes, Virginia, crystals are covered, as are ghosts, feng shui, and auras, in addition to more standard Western fare like lunar and solar cycles and the four classical elements.

The penultimate chapter describes ways to raise energy. This chapter is a fantastic overview, with ideas to get would-be energy workers started, but also with descriptions of the pros and cons of each method, and necessary cautions. Finally, the concluding chapter has a summary in chart form of the authors’ current views on the many types of energy discussed in the book. The Bonewitses sum up by reiterating that so much is unknown that it’s most important to keep learning, keep studying, and keep increasing our understanding. They speculate that dark energy/dark matter will be found to be related to some of the topics they discuss, but they emphasize that it’s just “where we’re placing our bets.”

Where I’m placing my bet is that this book is worth getting for anyone in the magical community. For beginners, it’s the perfect introduction. For experienced people, it’s a worthwhile brush-up, one that may encourage you to expand your thinking and even reconsider your relationship with physics. Isaac’s thinking clearly developed over the intervening 30-odd years, and that maturity makes this work a much more valuable contribution than his initial, impassioned, and impractical treatise. Finally, a tribute is in order: Isaac’s work for our community is invaluable, and some of it is summed up in this readable little gem that lets readers take advantage of his years of experience. For all you did, Isaac, thank you.

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About Literata

Literata is a Wiccan priestess and writer. She edited Crossing the River: An Anthology in Honor of Sacred Journeys, and her poetry, rituals, and nonfiction have appeared in works such as Mandragora, Unto Herself, and Anointed as well as multiple periodicals. Literata has presented rituals and workshops at Sacred Space conference, Fertile Ground Gathering, and other mid-Atlantic venues. Literata offers healing and divination services as well as customized life-cycle rituals. She is currently completing her doctoral dissertation in history with the support of her husband and four cats.
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