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Interview with Patrick Dunn

By Thomm Quackenbush

Patrick Dunn is a college instructor and Pagan author of Postmodern Magic who dares to suggest that doing magic should be fun and that words have power. Obviously he is off his rocker, but just how much? As he allowed Xen to interview him, very. It was also suggested that he is part of a conspiracy to keep witches from becoming informed and thereby become competition, so he is a lot saner than most in this mad world.

  1. I just finished reading your first book, Postmodern Magic. In the introduction, you discuss making a deal with a friend that he would teach you fencing in exchange for you teaching him magic. I was wondering how your fencing lessons are progressing? What about his magic lessons?
    He taught me the basics and then got a better job at another university. We still talk now and then, but I think his grasp of magic far surpassed my grasp of fencing. I still have all the gear hanging in my closet, mocking me, but I haven't actually picked up a foil in quite some time. I blame my dissertation, which I'm currently finishing, and the job search, both of which take time away from more enjoyable pursuits. Like poking my friends with pieces of metal.
  2. I note that you spell magic without the "k," a spelling initiated by Crowley and widely adopted by many Pagans to distinguish what they do from prestidigitation. Why do you stick with the traditional spelling?
    I feel that context can differentiate magic and prestidigitation in most instances. I doubt anyone's going to pick up my book and think it's about card tricks. One of the main reasons I don't use "magick" is because Crowley originated the spelling. While I have absolutely nothing against Crowley or his system of magick, he was thoroughly modernist in attitude and approach: every symbol has a meaning, and it's one meaning, and there's a script and you follow it and you get results, tick tock. Moreover, for Crowley and many people who knowingly or not follow him, magic is mechanistic and even physical. There's a magical energy, it obeys physical laws, and mind's something else entirely. It's all quite gnostic.
    I, on the other hand, am a panpsychist: matter arises from mind, or perhaps as Spinoza suggests, from some third underlying substance (he called it God). Symbols therefore don't have one meaning, but infinite meanings, and there's something kind of funny about the idea of a script for magic. So I differentiate my more postmodern approach from Crowley's modernism. Of course, I'm not saying the modernist approach doesn't work or that the postmodern approach is better; I'm just saying that the postmodern approach is different and might appeal to people like me.
  3. A critic of yours stated that your book put them off all Llewlynn books forever because it was so basic. The same critic also intimated that this was to prevent less experienced mages from becoming competition. How would you answer this critic?
    It's pretty clear that my book didn't meet this person's needs. I'm not sure it's fair to reject every book from my publisher because my book disappointed him or her, but everyone is free to do as he or she likes. I agree that some parts of my book are perhaps a bit basic for some people, but I wanted the book to be useful for a large range of people, and that meant not leaving anyone in the dust. Plus, since I'm reconceptualizing quite a few old sacred cows of magic, it seemed prudent to revisit them from the ground up. I did my best to write the sort of book I wanted to read, which meant including a lot of things I thought were pretty new and original. Of course, many of the techniques and exercises in my book are simple and basic, but it's exactly these simple and basic exercises that I, in my own practice, return to again and again. I don't perform a full evocation every day, but I do introspect almost every day.
    As for some conspiracy keeping less experienced mages from becoming competition -- I'm afraid I don't belong to this conspiracy. I did belong to the invisible college for a while, but I'm on probation for excessive visibility right now. I'm not sure what this person thinks magicians are competing for. It's not as if magic is a limited resource. As far as I'm concerned, the more the merrier, as long as the government doesn't start licensing it or something. I hope this reader finds the sort of book that he or she is looking for, and I'm grateful that he or she bought and read my book as part of the search. Many other readers have found something useful in my book, and I like to focus on them simply because I can help them, while I clearly can't be of any further service to this particular critic.
  4. What advice would you give to a Pagan author looking to publish? Did you just "have the authority to define yourself"?
    Step one: Write something. Of course, what you write has to be grounded in actual, real practice. You've got to have something to say. I know that one thing I'd like to see more of is more thoughtful pagan theology and personal experience. Not everything needs to be a how-to book. Also, consider what you know besides paganism and magic -- is there a way that your knowledge of, for example, psychology can inform paganism? Finally, read a lot, and not just occult books. Poetry, fiction, the sciences, philosophy -- it's all part of plowing the field so that a book can sprout up. But yeah, all of the above is a way of gaining that authority.
  5. At the moment, there is a court case in Florida because a judge proclaimed that two divorced Wiccan parents cannot expose their child to religious belief out of the mainstream. Given this case and cases like it, what do you see as the future of Pagans in America?
    I wrote in my book that I felt America was opening up to Paganism and to the occult in general. That section was written before September 11, 2001, and I left it in out of hope. I'm now cautious about my former optimism. America seems to be moving closer and closer to a type of soft-core theocracy. Still, I find it hard not to be hopeful, particularly because I come into contact with young people almost every day, and I see the inherent good in them and their strong commitment to being open and accepting of other religions and ways of life. They're our next wave of leaders, and I have faith in them to right the current wrongs. As for this case specifically, I strongly suspect it'll be overturned if it hasn't already.
  6. In addition to being a Pagan author, you are an English professor at a college. Does one inform the other? Which would you prefer: A roomful of English majors or a roomful of Pagans?
    I actually haven't attained the rank of professor yet. Until recently, I was an instructor, which is quite a bit lower on the rank ladder. I'm looking for a professorship right now.
    I'd say one definitely does inform the other. My study of the occult has taught me that students need freedom to learn, and that trying to force education is like trying to yank on a sprout to get it to grow faster. This insight, of course, is consistent with Rogerian non-directive teaching, which I've adopted as my usual classroom method. From the other side, being an instructor in a college classroom has helped me learn how to present information in ways that diverse students with different learning styles can absorb. I also think that my study of literature has made me a better writer, but that's a matter open to debate.
    Which would I prefer, a room full of pagans or English majors? I'm not 100% sure. The advantage to talking to a room of pagans is that I don't have to give them a grade. That seems trivial, but it dodges so many problems I have with power and student self-esteem (and, to be honest, teacher self-esteem -- it's miserable to stand before a group of people who know you must judge their work). On the other hand, in teaching English courses, I get to teach a subject I dearly love without having to defend it from skeptics, and I'll tell you, that's pleasant. Plus, teaching English majors pays the rent.
  7. Aside from your own book, what books would you recommend to other Pagans or the curious? What books guided you?
    I love Jan Fries' Visual Magic, and of course there's Donald Michael Kraig's Modern Magick, to which my own title is a small homage. I strongly recommend Phil Hine's work, all of it. He's got a compassion and a humanity -- in fact, all of these authors do -- that I've come to believe is essential in magic.
  8. What was your favorite book as a child?
    My bedtime stories as a child came from Stephen King. I think that tells you something right there about my upbringing. If I had to choose one favorite book, I vividly remember finishing Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain and crying because I realized that Twain had died long ago and would never write a new book. But really, that's cheating -- I loved all sorts of books. I read everything, even the backs of cereal boxes (including the ingredients!).
  9. Have you yet had any strange reactions to your book? If so, what were they?
    I expected some professional upheavals, but as of yet my colleagues who know about the book haven't really been anything but approving.
  10. What do you see as the relationship between science and magic?
    This issue is controversial, and I come down pretty solidly in the minority position, which is that science doesn't have a whole lot useful to say about magic. I'm not thrilled by attempts to explain magic using quantum physics or chaos math, because most people doing so don't understand the scientific theory adequately (I know I don't -- my math stopped at intro to calculus). I think there are probably some things science can explore in magic, but I'm not sure how much use such exploration would be.
    I want to clarify that I'm not anti-science. I don't think creationism should be taught in lieu of evolution or any such thing. I think science, as a method of gathering and organization knowledge, is of enormous value. But science cannot address meaning.
    I think magic is more akin to art than to science as we now think of it. When Crowley wrote that magick was the art and science of causing change to occur, "art" and "science" meant something somewhat different from what they mean now. "Science" meant "organized knowledge" and "art" meant something more like "technology" or "applied knowledge." I think magic is more like making a painting or singing a song or writing a poem. Sure, you can study a song, painting, or poem scientifically, but making one requires the leaps of intuitive thinking and self-expression of an artist.
    Of course, my opinion is just an opinion, and I wouldn't militate against those who want to use science to explore magic. If you've got a background in science and magic, then by all means, I can't wait to read your results. As for me, I'm pretty comfortable with what Keats called "Negative capability" -- the acceptance of the unknowable.
  11. In your book, you talk a lot about magic being a fundamental enjoyable act. Have you encountered any resistance to this idea?
    I had a friend who used to become physically ill after doing magic. I've since lost touch with him, and so I don't know if he's read the book. Some people also have the opinion that magic is really, really hard. I haven't heard from them yet either. I'm certainly willing to entertain disagreement.
  12. You mention spirits giving you information you did not want and of people getting, and pardon my phrasing, psychically bitch-slapped for seeking to literally join with gods. Would you like to speak of either of these experiences?
    Spirits have given me information about people I cared about that at the time I'd rather not have had. If I get any more specific, I'm afraid I'd embarrass someone. There are several examples of the second problem, including one where the demented individual killed himself. I think the whole account is somewhere online, by an eye-witness. Examples of such hubris that I've witnessed first hand are much less dramatic, mostly ending with "and he still lives in his mother's basement, and has developed clinical depression" and so forth.
    I hate to imagine people gasping in Lovecraftian horror at these stories; they're just not that interesting. That's the thing about hubris: it's self-destructive, and not even interestingly self-destructive. You want to see interesting self-destruction, you need to look at writers, not occultists: look at William Burroughs or Kate Chopin or Ernest Hemingway. Actually, William Burroughs is a bad example there, since he speculated somewhere that his occult hubris (chiefly evocation without proper banishing) led to his shooting his wife in the head. Mostly, though, trying to do something stupid like become a god leads to nothing more exciting than garden variety mental illness.
    I'd rather people focus on the value of magic, the way it creates a structure on which we can hang, not just knowledge, but meaning. It also gives us a chance to enter into conversation with the universe itself, and therefore become full participants in constructing the meaning of our own lives.

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