So, what's the difference between madness and true magical thinking? It's a question that needs to be asked. For me, it's simple: the difference is the result. Usually, it's the only yardstick we have at hand.
It's funny- people seem to muddle through on the edge of complete incompetence all around us and everyone lets it slide. It's not until a person begins to commit thought crimes -- ie., they begin to question commonly-held assumptions on the nature of Reality -- that their own competence is called into question and held to much higher standards than their peers.
Meaning that if you challenge the dominant reality paradigm you will receive an invisible but yet indelible scarlet letter on your forehead, and the most pathetic, most incompetent, most imbecilic people will be free to mock, ridicule and harass you with utter impunity. On the contrary- they'll be rewarded for upholding the sacred virtues of conformity, tedium and entropy that the Serious™ people want to blanket the world in.
But once in a great while a magical thinker somehow transcends all of that and is accepted into the Invisible Pantheon. This can be a curse- this pantheon is filled with people whose works are admired and praised yet utterly ignored. Aspiring Serious™ people find it necessary to purchase the works of these thinkers primarily as a kind of magical talisman that will bestow on them the Badge of Seriousness, which signals to other strivers that they are fit sexual partners, employees and dinner party guests.
So when you see copies of Finnegan's Wake, Pet Sounds and There Will Be Blood on someone's shelf, don't be surprised if they look remarkably new and un-consumed. And whatever you do, don't point out that art is meant to be experienced and understood, not simply purchased. There is no greater faux pas in middlebrow circles than questioning the magical powers of status-minded consumerism. I'm not remotely kidding.
Many magical thinkers only reach the Invisible Pantheon once they're safely dead and are no longer at risk of saying inconvenient things about Reality. Critics will praise their work and compare it to other safely-dead Magical Thinkers, though only in the context of literary criticism or anthropological observation. Philip K. Dick is one of these, you see him compared to Borges a lot, as if Dick needs the Argentine's posthumous endorsement to be taken seriously by Serious™ people. Dick's religious obsessions are particularly inconvenient, but enough Serious™ critics have granted him absolution on this count that it's overlooked.
Dick's transformative experience- the 2/3/74 event - is generally overlooked by Serious™ people, though it's often recounted with the requisite sadness, headshaking and tut-tutting. Poor soul, had a schizophrenic break, don't you know. Must have been all that mystical bullshit that did his head in.
Wait: before we go any further, let me let Erik Davis tell us what the 2/2/74 experience was exactly:
It was February of 1974, and the American science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick was in pain. The man whose darkly comic novels of androids, weird drugs, and false realities stand as some of the most brilliant and visionary in the genre had just had an impacted wisdom tooth removed, and the sodium pentathol was wearing off. A delivery woman arrived with a package of Darvon, and when the burly, bearded man opened the door, he was struck by the beauty of this dark-haired girl. He was especially drawn to her golden necklace, and he asked her about its curious fish-shaped design. "This is a sign used by the early Christians," she said, and then departed.Now, magical beams of pink light might seem like the definition of pathological delusion, but speaking as a parent I can tell you there's no result more important than the life of your child being saved from a painful death from an undiagnosed ailment. We can question the agency of the beam- it could well be a manifestation of Dick's own unconsciousness, which detected that there was something not quite right with Christopher but Magic doesn't like to operate like that. In order to deal with Magic you have to speak its language and deal with it on its terms, not yours.
Like many an acid casualty (Dick himself preferred amphetamines), Dick also picked up strange signals from electronic devices, and for a time he received "die messages" from the radio....But Dick's paranoia could turn itself inside-out and become divine intervention, and once when listening to the Beatles' "Strawberry Fields Forever," the strawberry-pink light informed him that his son Christopher was about to die. Rushing the kid to their physician, Dick discovered that the child indeed had a potentially fatal inguinal hernia, and was soon wheeled into the operating room.
Yet, at the same time Magic has a funny way of tailoring itself to its audience- for religious people it calls itself Miracle or Revelation. For Ray Kurzweil it calls itself the Singularity. For so-called skeptics, it's Anomaly, which needs to be promptly but quietly deleted and the deletion meticulously covered up. Dick was a bit all over the place in his religious heterodoxy, but knowing how words work he left a record as to what Magic felt like:
"March 16, 1974: It appeared - in vivid fire, with shining colors and balanced patterns - and released me from every thrall, inner and outer.Dick knew his religious history and called upon it to describe his experience, which essentially was the experience he'd been working up to for years prior. Same goes with Alan Moore- he didn't suddenly go from being a stockbroker to a magician. He'd been playing footsy and making googoo eyes at Magic for some time before taking the final plunge. But Dick had been a basketcase prior to 2/3/74 and if it was a psychotic break like the Serious™ people would have us believe it was the strangest psychotic break I've ever seen. This was an integrative experience for Dick, not the disintegrative collapse you'd associate with psychosis. Dick cleaned up his act, and got his house in order leading to having his work optioned by Hollywood.
"March 18, 1974: It, from inside me, looked out and saw the world did not compute, that I - and it - had been lied to. It denied the reality, and power, and authenticity of the world, saying, 'This cannot exist; it cannot exist.'
"March 20, 1974: It seized me entirely, lifting me from the limitations of the space-time matrix; it mastered me as, at the same time, I knew that the world around me was cardboard, a fake. Through its power of perception I saw what really existed, and through its power of no-thought decision, I acted to free myself. It took on in battle, as a champion of all human spirits in thrall, every evil, every Iron Imprisoning thing."
2/3/74 produced results, both of the psychic kind (Christopher's hernia) and the take out the garbage and balance the checkbook kind. I realize this doesn't fit with the narrative put forward by the dominant paradigm, but neither is it unique. Not everyone ends up like Jack Parsons- his wanking buddy certainly did pretty well for himself. Jung had a nearly identical experience to 2/3/74 and it inspired him to change the face of popular psychology. He was no less a magical thinker than Moore or Dick - or Parsons, for that matter- and the only downside for him seemed to be dodging the brickbats of the Guardians of Mediocrity (that's mainstream academia for those playing along at home).
Whatever guise it takes, Magic can often produce some positive results for its suitors, providing they don't try to bend Magic to their own will. From my reading that always ends badly, for all involved.