Correspondences: On Realism, Magical Realism, and Psychedelics

Dear M.,

I have made it about half-way through your dissertation. Obviously, the scope of your thesis encompasses a great deal more than I could intelligently comment on. As I have been reading through it though, I am struck by a question about what the actual difference between (1) Magical realism and (2) Realism as it has been understood since the scientific meaning of that word displaced the Aristotelian-Scholastic one. I will call this “literary realism” (LR) after you, understanding that this encompasses the philosophical and scientific context from which it emerged. It seems that many people have thought of the second one as a view that confines itself to what is perceptible to the senses (i.e. “empiricism”). MR does not confine its perceptions in this way and instead allows for the play of the imagination to supplement sense-perception. Imagination doesn’t mean unreal. That is precisely the point of contention with empiricism or LR.

I have found myself wondering whether the characterisation above is accurate, however. Perhaps you will permit me to propose an alternate way of understanding the difference between MR and LR and please be obliged to correct any misunderstandings that I may show. Before I try to formulate my theory, I want to draw attention to the fundamental difference between (a) understanding a phenomenon that can be explained by the laws of physics and (b) actions that are motivated by the will of a human being. Admittedly, many thinkers today affirm that there is no difference between these two things but I have yet to see this theory demonstrated without appealing to the very theory that wants of demonstration. Returning to the difference between “events” and “deeds”: I think we can agree that they differ in kind and not merely in degree of complexity.

Now we can return to MR and LR. Their difference, I believe, consists in this: that MR assumes the operations of the natural world to be closer to “deeds” while LR assumes them to be “events.” As I noted above, modern proponents of LR even assume human actions to be “events” and not “deeds”, as I have hitherto employed these terms. I think that the premise that everything is explicable as an event is the fundamental axiom of modern science. Indeed the latter’s development appears to consist in a gradual expulsion of “deeds” from nature and their relegation to the supernatural and finally to the mythological or superstitious. MR, as I noted, does not assume that nature can be explained on the basis of events. The consequence is that every object is experienced, more or less, as an expression or deed of an operative being or agent.

I think this theory has the benefit of fidelity to our actual experience, since we do not perceive either the presence of magic or itself lack through our senses. The notion that empiricism relies on the senses is somewhat misleading—and I am tempted to say “naïve” since its proponents seem to believe what they are claiming—since it suggests that all that is necessary for knowledge is to attend to the senses. This ignores the conceptual activity that is correlative to any sense-perception and, moreover, it does not manage to account for itself. To wit: the axiom that the senses deliver all our knowledge is not something you will ever perceive.


You wrote that your experience of psychedelics reminded you of how ancient peoples would have perceived the world in the past. What do you have in mind here? My understanding is that ancient people would have had a much firmer sense of cognition in its process and not only in its product, and as a result it would almost have been felt as a divine power working in them. Hence phrases like “νους” or “λóγος” or intellectus, or Reason etc. that survive as vestiges or fossils embedded in the language of philosophy, which testify to this experience. At the same time, cognition is, by its very nature, ecstatic, or always going outside of itself to relate other beings and as a result, the active presence of those beings would have also been experienced with much greater potency in their ability to call forth the process of cognition.

Perhaps this sense of energy in perception is also related to not already thinking that one knows what it is that one is perceiving. I believe we all experience something like this as a more or less continuous state during childhood. You noted this later in the same paragraph when you described an “innocence” or “childlike” quality that the experience put you in touch with. The psychedelics seem to disrupt our ordinary habits of perception just enough that we are forced to bring slightly more intention to bear on the process in order to correct for anomalies. In this way, the function of intentionality that is latent in every successful act of perception is artificially brought to the fore. Again, I think children are compelled to invest this greater amount of energy in their perceptual and cognitive activity almost all the time since they still find themselves in the process of establishing those habits which our adult selves then inherit. But every time we wonder about something, we have a glimpse into this state of innocence. Socrates famously argued that Philosophy consists in the preparation towards death. In a similar vein, we might see it as a hearkening back to birth.

P. S. Perhaps this goes without saying but it is possible to abuse psychedelics just like anything else, so the trumpeters of the new entheogenic utopia are “the slaves of backwards spirits,” to employ a Steinerism. More specifically, they are indenturing themselves to Ahriman on one side by submitting their experience to the influence of a material technology or substance, and to Lucifer on the other in their ideal of transcending mundane problems all of a piece.

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