Mage: the Ascension, the special K, and Me
“Magick, in the context of Aleister Crowley’s Thelema, is a term used to show and differentiate the occult from performance magic and is defined as “the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will”, including both “mundane” acts of will as well as ritual magic.”
To say that Aleister Crowley is polarizing is to engage in epic understatement. He is revered and reviled, considered at turns a master and a fraud, a hero and a monster. What cannot be denied is Crowley’s tremendous influence on metaphysical theory, the history of mysticism, and the events of his time. Adding a “k” to the end of the word “magic” (one of several alternate spellings of the word from when uniformity was more, erm, optional) was one of the smallest things he did, but in another way one of the most important.
The word “magic” is, like a lot of words in the English language, a mess of alternate definitions, a few bordering on the contradictory. Magic is sleight of hand, superstitious nonsense, evil powers granted by demons, divine favor granted by heaven’s agents, a natural force to be harnessed through training/ritual/mechanisms of the proper methods…you get the idea. This is not simply a matter of one word with many meanings, but a word whose meaning is furiously contested.
Word meanings always drift, but “magick” still bears Crowley’s definition for the most part. What made it both unique and useful is that magick-with-a-k is the perfect Unified Field Theory of humanity’s various mystical arts. Martial artist defies gravity to run three stories straight up? Change in conformity with Will. Spirit-talker calls on a divine messenger for insight? Change via Will. Wizard draws a pentagram in the air and conjures a good old fireball? You know where this is going.
Mage: the Ascension took the idea that there were people who could actually do this and ran with it to amazing, thought-provoking, and delightfully gonzo places. What if there really were thousands of people around the world – the Awakened – who could actually change reality through working their will? How could you get from that to our world, or at least the inky World of Darkness version of it? Their answer was the Ascension War, a conflict between differing ideologies for the nature of reality itself. For those unfamiliar with Mage, the Council of Mystic Traditions and the Technocratic Union are the public faces of this conflict, wizardry and faith against science and reason. Meanwhile, the insane Marauders represent utter chaos far beyond the idea of liberated magick of the Traditions, and the Nephandi espouse, for lack of a better term, evil as a philosophy.
Over the last few years, the Technocracy has become problematic as a concept. The idea that science is a conspiracy of the New World Order has gone mainstream among some groups, and that’s not cool. In Mage, the New World Order is actually a conspiracy created by the scientists, which has a certain amusement factor, but it’s become a drawback to the setting. However, the rest of Ascension remains a powerful commentary on how a handful of people from the society with the most weapons and wealth decide what reality looks like for everyone else. Folk beliefs are crushed under heel, at first by “one true faith,” and then by powerful cynics glaring down from their ivory towers. Conformity and uniformity become ideals at the expense of the human spirit. Arbiters who refuse to acknowledge their own self-interest create a monopoly of reality that literally attacks those who use proscribed methods, then maintain mechanisms that blocks access to acceptable resources to billions to maintain said monopoly.
Worse are those who profit from dividing and conquering. Imagine the most cruel, selfish, heartless people you know, then imagine them with the power to alter reality itself. They’re not responsible for bigotry based on race and gender – that would be too easy – but they’re experts at pointing out how simple it is to gain wealth and power from hatred. Pollution? It’s someone else’s backyard, and someone else’s generation will have to clean it up, so why risk profits today? War may be hell, but that hell is worth countless billions of dollars, and it keeps the “right” people on top, so what’s wrong with a few thousand of “them” dying to maintain order in the world? All it costs is a conscience. And a soul. Meanwhile, spirits of cruelty and hatred stand back and gape and wonder if they’re obsolete. Ladies, gentlemen, and others, meet the Nephandi. They’re the ones winning the Ascension War.
Alas, the noble resistance is far from perfect. Wizards, priests, and witches who used to wage war on one another have been forced together by a common enemy. They, in turn, have formed alliances with a variety of willworkers who use diverse mystic arts and sciences. As of the most recent edition, enough mystics have gotten sick of the original Traditions that they’ve formed their own alliance, with none of the baggage but all of the dysfunction and a tiny fraction of the resources. To say that these Awakened are fractious is to engage in laughable understatement. Sometimes it seems that getting enough mages to agree on a course of action is as tough a battle as fighting the Technocracy or the Nephandi.
If all this sounds grim, well, it is a classic World of Darkness game. Yet there is hope. In Mage, you are one of these Awakened, with the power to change the world. Whether you’re an old school Traditions mage, a reformer within the Technocracy, a budding leader of the new Disparate Alliance, or a self-Awakened Orphan with no faction to call your own, you can make a difference. All you need is the Will to try.
It won’t be easy, of course. The forces arrayed against heroes of all sorts, whether of action or activism (or both!), are great and terrible. No faction talks to any other, every great power holds its secrets close, and ugly conflict is a tragic way of life in the shadows. It’s an uphill battle where the hill is covered in booby traps, and the enemy holds the bottom of the hill as well as the top. In spite of all the dangers, there are real victories to be won, even if hope is fragile.
I found Mage at a time in my life when I was rediscovering myself – or, perhaps, truly discovering myself for the first time. I’d already had my first real world mystical experiences, though I make absolutely no claims to having ever performed the “impossible.” I’ve never mistaken it for reality, but Ascension was a revelation. As an idea – as art that reveals – very few other works have had as much of an impact on my own creative efforts as Mage: the Ascension.
Perhaps the most important message of Mage isn’t about magick, however, or belief, or even power – at least not directly in that last case. Ascension is an artistic model designed to remind us of one very important truth: we’re all faced with vast, enormous, largely impersonal forces that are so much more powerful than us that we can feel powerless…but we’re not. Maybe we can’t defeat the Technocracy, Marauders, or Nephandi, but we can still make a difference. If we have the courage and will to do so, every one of us can still change things. Maybe those changes will be small, but every difference we make adds up. The counterpart to Awakening is the Consensus – the collective belief that decides reality – and even though science is “what is still true even when you don’t believe it,” society is what we create by consensus. That consensus can change, and while each of us may be a single drop in the storm, you never know which drop will be the one to break through the barriers of old.
I started this entry before Election Day 2016. I have no intention of making this a political platform as a rule. It is nevertheless undeniable that retrograde forces, in America and around the world, have been emboldened this year. Anger, hatred, and cruelty have won their greatest victories since the fall of the Soviet Union. Tyranny, censorship, and bigotry are on the rise. And so this message has become more important, and more powerful, than ever: we can change the world. Everyone can. With that power comes tremendous responsibility. Sometimes, it seems like the real fight is between the forces of stasis and those of corruption. Yet the history of the last two centuries prove that’s not true. Sometimes, we go backwards, but two steps forward and one step back is still one net step forward. One person can make a difference. A group of people can alter the course of history. All of it starts with the will to make change. That’s magic – and magick – anyone can believe in.
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