Why is the publication of The Varieties of Magical Experience important at this moment in history—that is, how does it relate to today's news headlines or connect to contemporary questions or issues?
With the rise of militant Islam in various regions around the world and also within the context of the recent media coverage given to Dr. Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens in the international "atheism versus fundamentalism" debates, I think we have to confront the inherent dangers associated with fixed belief systems. When a person adopts a religious belief system as an article of faith, they are basically drawing a boundary around how they perceive the world. If they embrace some sort of divine revelation or exclusive sacred text that defines their belief system, they are unlikely to consider other spiritual perspectives that may challenge their position. Nevertheless, I think we are now in a position to move forward to a situation where science and spirituality can begin to move closer together. The scientific study of near-death experiences is just one example where the medical monitoring of altered states of consciousness provides profound insights into the nature of spiritual experience. Understanding the experiential dimension in shamanism and visionary forms of magic can also help us with this type of understanding because in their own way, they too are pointing towards the sacred aspects of the human condition.
What drew you to the topic of The Varieties of Magical Experience? How does the topic relate to you personally?
I had long been aware that there was no magical equivalent to William James’ classic text The Varieties of Religious Experience, but I also doubted that writing such a text was something I could undertake by myself. With this in mind I asked Lynne if she would be interested in collaborating on such a project, and I was delighted when she agreed. We drew up a contents list and decided to write different chapters that reflected our interests and specializations. Because our writing styles are somewhat similar the fusion of texts is relatively seamless. I have been researching and writing about the Western esoteric tradition for around forty years, and I am pleased that Lynne and I were able to collaborate on a project that I think should have relevance for some time to come.
What did you learn in the course of your research; what discovery surprised you the most?
One of the things that is emphasized most in the Western magical tradition is the nature of human will—will is utilized in order to make things happen both in the physical world but also within the magical dimension—which in turn involves altered states of consciousness. Now that we know more about quantum physics, it is clear that intentionality itself is fundamental to the very nature of existence – from the sub-atomic level through to the physical realm in which we find ourselves. One discovery that has been important to me is that the emanationist principle in the Jewish Kabbalah—the idea that consciousness eventually produces form – is also an idea that is emerging as fundamental in quantum physics. The emanationist concept is discussed in The Varieties of Magical Experience in the Gnosis section of our book.
What challenges did you face in your research or writing?
I think our main challenge in writing this book was to present complex ideas simply and lucidly. I hope we have succeeded with that, but of course it is up to the reader to decide…
What do you want readers to learn from your book?
I’d like readers to realize that the study of magical experiences is not the same as the study of superstition. I can’t speak for Lynne here, but I am not at all interested in superstition, which in my view is based on misplaced information and false cues. High magic, on the other hand, is the experience of sacred realms of awareness, and poets and artists attracted to the magical traditions—especially in the West—have drawn on this dimension to inspire their creativity. How many university students studying Western literature are taught by their lecturers that William Butler Yeats was also a ceremonial magician?
If your book inspired one change in the world, what would you want it to be?
That the universe is essentially a place of mystery and the realities we consider tangible are not as solid as we think they are. Quantum physics teaches us that at the sub-atomic level matter consists mostly of space. If more people realized this they may have a different take on life.
Where might others focus their energies in following on your work in this area?
Some academics currently specializing in the study of magic and religion have begun to mount a concerted argument against the usefulness of "insider" (or "emic") accounts of spiritual and magical realms of awareness. Personally, I feel this approach is totally misguided, and readers of The Varieties of Magical Experience will soon appreciate that Lynne and I greatly value insider accounts. After all, where do authentic religious and magical experiences actually originate? The answer can be found by exploring the psyches, or "consciousness," of the practitioners and devotees themselves. If we move beyond the analysis of belief systems to the actual essence of religion and magic, we often find ourselves entering a domain characterized by profoundly transformative spiritual experiences. These are experiences associated with altered states of consciousness, not intellectual conceptual frameworks imposed by theoreticians at a distance. I think this debate will continue in academic circles for some time to come.
Nevill Drury is an independent historical researcher whose specialist interests include modern Western magic, shamanism, transpersonal psychology and visionary art. Apart from The Varieties of Magical Experience, his most recent publications include Dark Spirits: The Magical Art of Rosaleen Norton and Austin Osman Spare (2012); Stealing Fire from Heaven: The Rise of Modern Western Magic (2011); Homage to Pan (2009); The Dictionary of Magic (2005); and The New Age: The History of a Movement (2004). He also edited the multi-authored Pathways in Modern Western Magic (2012). Nevill received his Ph.D from the University of Newcastle, Australia, in 2008 for a dissertation on the visionary art and magical beliefs of Rosaleen Norton. Born in England in 1947 but resident in Australia since 1963, Nevill has worked as an international art-book publisher, lecturer and magazine editor. His books have been published in 26 countries and 19 languages. Website: www.nevilldrury.com