Self-Images and Open Minds

Ignaz Semmelweis (1818–1865) was a Hungarian obstretician working in Vienna. In his time, fatal childbed fever was a common cause of death, though more common in some clinics than others. Semmelweis’ big discovery happened when he instituted a policy of washing hands between patients or between autopsies and patient care. Comparing mortality rates shortly after the policy, mortality rates at his clinic were down from a staggering 18,3% to 2,2%. He concluded that hand hygiene had been a cause of many unnecessary deaths.

Semmelweis’ discovery was ignored and/or ridiculed by his peers. Even his wife believed he was losing his mind. But why would educated, competent doctors ignore such staggering data? The philosopher Nomy Arpaly believes that this is because the doctors were lacking in open-mindedness. Open-mindedness, here, does not mean being egalitarian or accepting of other lifestyles. It simply means being receptible to new information.

Being able to receive new information can be hard, especially when that new information is contrary to our self-image. Imagine being a doctor in Semmelweis’ time – a good doctor, someone diligently invested in the well-being of his patients. You see yourself as a healer of great learning and skill. The symbols and rituals of medical practice, such as the Hippocratic oath, bolster this self-image, as does the way townspeople tip their hat to you in respect of that skill.

That self-image will have served you well. At times when facing a difficult case, you have relied on your self-image as a preventer of death and an enemy of illness. It has been your shield, when you needed one, and a spine, when your resolve was wavering. Yet it is now faced with a challenge: that goddamn fool Semmelweis is claiming you have not prevented, but caused unnecessary deaths by something so trivially simple as not washing your hands.

That the information is not sinking in is probably partly due to defensiveness. But to a large extent, it just strikes you as wildly implausible. And it’s implausible simply because it’s so at odds with your self-image, to which you are so invested.

For Black Magicians, we consciously build our self-images, and voluntarily invest in them emotionally. In our magical practice, we evoke dark imagery, associating it with ourselves. Much like a doctor relies on the lab coat and the archetype of the healer, we draw on archetypes like Set and Satan, donning our black robes to boost this signal with a physical cue. And this practice serves us well.

But like the doctors at Semmelweis’ time, we too are prone to becoming slaves to, rather than masters of, our self-image.

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Example: Sister Babalon may have built a self-image of herself as a potent money magician, partly out of early success (after she invoked Mammon, she a great job and inherited a house) and partly out of need (she had a habit of getting in debt, and needed to break that negative cycle by creating a positive self-image). Empowered by this early success, she decided to quit her job and found her own start-up. But now the repairs for the house she inherited have eaten up her savings and she’s failing to get anyone to invest in her business. Her self-image as the Infernal Daughter of Mammon may get in the way of her realising she’s out of her depth.

Example two: Brother Infernus sees himself as a solitary person who has made a clean break with his past (his family never was too fond of him; but that is no longer relevant, and he’s Willed himself not to care). His self-image is that of an Isolate Being on an empty moor, unhindered by other people. This self-image has helped him make informed and authentic choices about how he wants to live, and he’s stopped keeping in touch with his drainingly distant and passive aggressive father. Yet after news of his father’s death reaches him, he gets very irritable, snapping at his coworkers and even at his cat. His self-image as someone unaffected by his family may prevent him from realising that he needs to mourn.

The key here, and one of the true marks of a competent Magician, is to be able to construct a strong self-image, invest attention and affect on it to make it work, yet remain unattached to it. Like a snake, the Magician must be able to constantly shed their skin. Constructing a potent self-image is the easy and fun part; constructing one that not just you, but others believe in, is still fun and not too hard. Maintaining this state of non-attachment is difficult. It’s also epistemically hard: how do you know if you’re maintaining the necessary distance?

These three indicators work for me. In them, those who study Remanifestation may find the Word applied into practice.

  1. A sense of Runa prevails in the presence of non-attachment. When you look inside yourself, do you feel like you know everything there is to know about yourself? Or can you find an abyss of the unknown, aspects of yourself you are struggling to name let alone understand? The latter, to me, is a sign of having space for growth and new Insight. If you’re able to define yourself with perfect objectivity and accurate imagery, make sure you’re not defining an object and an image.
  2. In a state where attachment to the self-image is too strong, emotions of frustration, anger and irritability arise, and you may not know why. Outwardly, you’re ticking all the boxes of the life you want to lead; inwardly, something pisses you off. Listening to your body may help: do you notice yourself clenching your teeth or tensing your shoulders a lot? You may feel like you’re trapped. Time to shed that skin.
  3. If you’re using past deeds to define and justify yourself without complementing them with future Quests and questions, you may be attached to an outdated self-image. The Germanically-minded may wish to consider the hero Beowulf here. In boasting that he’ll beat Grendel or die trying, he makes reference to many a past deed. But he also references other sources of power that give him credence that he may succeed, and he acknowledges that he doesn’t know how fate will turn out. His fate is still a mystery to him. The past should be where the Magician draws power from, but the proper locus of the Magician is in the maelstrom of the unknown, and continuity is achieved through constant change.

I’ve experienced all three; your mileage may vary, as always. How about you? How do you tell if you’re still the master of your self-image?

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