Knowledge is logic plus magic

knowledge is logic plus magic margy thomas scholarshape

Today's post was originally published in Times Higher Education (free login required). I left the British spelling intact for effect 

My dining table, long piled high with academic articles and books, is now as likely to have tarot cards spread across it. The shelf where I keep volumes on literary theory and scholarly publishing is also accumulating works by astrologers and mystics. And at my window, the sun not only streams through the dozens of sticky notes mapping out arguments for my book-in-progress, but also refracts through a growing collection of crystals that I’ve been told have chakra-healing properties.

Somewhere along the way to finding my place within the scholarly enterprise, I seem to have become a little witchy.

Back in 2012, I finished my PhD in English and took to renting out my brain as a developmental editor. My job was to help clients transform their manuscripts from loose assemblages of claims and reflections into cogent expressions of a single unifying idea. The idea must be precise, yet universal – like "language heals", or "power absorbs wealth" or "death feeds life". These ideas have been thought and expressed countless times before, but they somehow find unique expression in each new work they hold together.

Once you clarify a project’s central idea, that idea tells you what to cut out of the draft, where to expand, and how to rearrange and reframe all the elements into a cohesive unit of meaning that the reader will find compelling. Initially, I understood the process as purely intellectual. And yet, any time I would work on a client project, that pause before the appearance of the unifying idea was like the wait for a divine revelation. I’d feel a mixture of hope, suspense and impatience. Mostly impatience.

I wanted so badly to coax the process along at my preferred speed, and I lived in fear that the ideas would stop coming one day. I’d study advice books and columns for scholarly writers, seeking guidance on how to summon the revelation, but no one seemed to be offering any tools or procedures for this part of the writing process, or even acknowledging its existence. The process resisted all efforts to describe it algorithmically or to hurry it along.

When you’re really stuck, the best course of action is often the one that’s both the most obvious and the most outrageous. My clients had been telling me for years that developmental editing felt like magic to them. So I decided one day, why not try literal magic? Not stage tricks or abracadabra-type spells. More like the magic that artists and healers might do – using intuition to tune in to the invisible energies and patterns of the universe, reading them like a text and communicating in their language.

And so I bought a tarot deck. And then a few more. And I read books on divination, and took a tarot course, and a second tarot course. I filled an entire notebook with interpretations for each of the 78 cards, poring over their rich visual symbols with the same intensity as I would dedicate to works of literature. My apartment gradually began to resemble Professor Trelawney’s attic in Harry Potter. Before long, I was buying lapis lazuli for my throat chakra and having the Sagittarius constellation tattooed on my wrist.

Six years into my practice, what has been the effect of my magical self-education? I’m sensing myself becoming able to more readily detect and articulate the unifying ideas in the manuscripts I work on. I can see that they aren’t so elusive after all; they’ve always been all around us. They are the abstract expressions of our tangible realities. So I no longer fear that the revelations will stop coming, and my work on each new project feels like the laying of another building block in the universe.

I do realise how far-fetched it sounds to claim that tarot is useful in academic research. No peer-reviewed study or academic advice book is going to back me up on this. But the truth is, even the most devoutly empirical among us believes in things we can’t explain – or at least recognises that empirical knowing has its limits.

Posted on June 16, 2019 .