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Magicians, tricksters, and the first good man
A love letter to therapy and healing the father wound through dreams, transference, and sitting in the fire of transformation.
I’m at a Derren Brown show. He invites me on stage to hypnotise me. I am calm and curious. He is tallish and bald and slim. First, he tells me I’m here because I’m looking for a father figure (in him). I am unimpressed and tell him I’ve been working on this in therapy for the last two years. Then he says something about my addiction to Coca-Cola, which also didn’t impress me as I’m fully aware of it. He finally asks me to think about a swimsuit and goes backstage. I imagine a white bikini with red stripes in crumpled fabric, but he comes back wearing a satin black and white one–the pattern is right but the colours and material are off. He then hypnotises me to say a fruit but I say a vegetable on purpose, to prove that he doesn’t have power over me. I feel disappointed but also impressed that he can’t control me. I want to talk to him about how he does it.
I have known a few magicians in my lifetime. Not the Darren Brown kind (I have actually never watched his shows or seen him speak), but the more insidious, who presents as a well-meaning, charming person you might find sitting across from you on a date or even in your childhood home.
The magicians in my life were true masters of disguise–subtle shapeshifters. They put on a delightful show either through their appearance, how they worked a room, or through their well-articulated ideas. They would draw you in with their charm and fantastic stories. Sometimes they would have real, remarkable talents they never fully actualised–an endearing trait that made you root for their act.
In time, however, they would get sloppy. Their performance would lose some of the spark, just like in the dream. What initially felt like magic would prove to be nothing more than a lifeless, well-rehearsed trick. Their fantastic stories would reveal to be wildly exaggerated or magically twisted by selectively leaving out important information. And their magnificent ideas–lifeless incantations obsessively repeated to anyone who would listen, like like a buffoon juggling the same four balls over and over.
Little did I know that this dream, which happened at the beginning of the year, would herald a powerful transformation in my psyche.
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In the tarot, the Magician is the first card of the Major Arcana. He contains the Fool’s infinite potential and the powers to manifest it in the earthly realm.
In his light or upright aspect, he stands for hard-earned skill and mastery of the elements, as well as self-mastery through the inner work that purifies him to become a clean vessel for materialising spirit. In 78 Degrees of Wisdom, Rachel Pollack reminds us that he “is not casting spells, or conjuring up demons. He simply stands with one hand raised to heaven and the other to the green earth. He is a lightning rod”.
Indeed–his hands pointing toward the sky and earth symbolise the Emerald Tablet’s dictum of as above, so below. The Magician reveals that, much like Hermes Trismegistus, he is also an alchemist, a lightning rod for spirit: he is here to fulfil the Magnum Opus, the Great Work of the Self, rather than the ego’s desires.
What’s essential about the Magician is that he intently makes himself into a vessel or lightning rod. This demands intense inner work and, in many ways, is an unattainable ideal–as the Magician himself is an archetype, and not a human, just like Hermes Trismegistus was likely an amalgam of the Greek god Hermes, the Roman god Mercury, the Egyptian god Thoth, and a few living alchemists.
The risk in dealing with the Magician (or any other attractive archetype) is that we may feel tempted to identify with it and possess it. An ego that feels a lack of power can fall into inflation and get stuck at what’s only the beginning of the archetypal journey. This is made obvious in the tarot by The Magician’s placement right at the beginning of the deck, where the Fool is merely beginning his journey and becoming aware of his potential and creative powers.
But the Fool has a long journey into the real world that goes beyond the Magician. While full of potential, he is still uncivilised, uneducated, uninitiated–he is unconscious. He hasn’t yet confronted the important figures that will teach him about the world, help him build an identity, and then initiate him into the great mysteries. He needs to continue the arduous hero’s journey through the cards and go through an alchemical process of transformation, separating out the opposites and reintegrating them.
The Magician is an archetypal story of development
I find it fascinating to recognise the archetypal immaturity of the Magician has strong parallels in an infant’s early development.
Psychodynamic theorists like Donald Winnicott and Melanie Klein wrote extensively about the infant’s early sense of omnipotence. A baby genuinely feels like it creates the breast (and thus the mother) that feeds him: he cries and the breast magically appears!
At that stage, the baby can’t perceive the mother or the environment as separate from him. They exist in perfect, unbounded symbiosis. To the baby, he is god creating the world–reflected in the Magician card’s number 1.
This somewhat delusional state of omnipotence may strike us as gratingly narcissistic when met in adults, but it’s an essential stage in infant development. The role of the “good-enough mother”, in Winnicott’s words, is to facilitate this all-mightiness and then, later on, to begin to fail the baby’s expectations in order to catalyse a necessary process of disillusionment and the emergence of the baby’s own sense of self.
By then, hopefully the baby had internalised enough of the mother’s goodness as an inner experience–a step reflected in the positive archetype of the Great Mother in the Empress. He can tolerate the distress of not having all his needs met immediately and begin to experience the mother’s separateness as a being with her own subjectivity.
If this whole period goes well, the infant can shift from a feeling of godly omnipotence toward understanding his limited creative powers as a human. Moreover, he can experience that others have their own will and power too–he’s not the only one carrying the Magician.
However, early life can be traumatic. While many things can go wrong in the initial relationship and further in childhood, two feel particularly relevant to the Magician.
On the one hand, the mother can fail to facilitate the feeling of omnipotence, leaving the infant to cry it out alone, forcing a feeding pattern, or simply not tolerating the power the baby has over her due to her own narcissism. This can leave the child in a split state, unable to integrate the good and the bad and retreating in what Melanie Klein calls the “schizoid position”, where good and evil cannot co-exist and fantasy fulfils the need for omnipotence.
On the other hand, the mother may do a great job facilitating omnipotence, but then ironically fail at… failing the infant. She may not tolerate the child’s crying or tantrums or may find pleasure in feeling needed, unconsciously keeping the child dependent on her. Such a child may struggle to develop a sense of self and his own creative power, and may go through life feeling like an object or unaware of the limits to his power and other people’s boundaries.
The Magician’s shadow
I share this early development because it reveals not just that we all have the Magician within us, but that we ought to also transform it by learning how to relate with it and recognise it in others.
The Magician’s lesson is that we need to learn how to wield our power and that power itself isn’t always benign. The oneness of the Magician is paradoxically something to grow out of (in its immature, omnipotent state of self-absorption) and to also strive towards through inner work, when one becomes a clean vessel for spirit.
We need consciousness in order to choose what we’re manifesting into the world–otherwise we’re vulnerable to the Shadow Magician, or the Magician Reversed.
“If the ego uses transpersonal energy for its own selfish ends, that is black magic.”
- Marion Woodman, The Pregnant Virgin
The shadow aspect of the Magician tells the story of an ego drunk on the archetype’s power and attempting to possess it for his own benefit. This is the alchemist who, encountering the sacred teachings, uses them to create charms to gain power, influence, and physical gold. For him, the Philosopher’s Stone isn’t an inner journey of soul refinement, but a quest for omnipotence.
He doesn’t want to become like god; he wants to take god’s place–as we see in the Devil Card, imitating the Magician’s posture with his torch pointing down.
Sadly, such an alchemist is himself possessed. The ego cannot support the archetype’s energy and becomes engulfed by it, going unconscious. In Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales, Marie-Louise von Franz writes that someone under this spell can actually appear divine and even perform superhuman acts:
“Analysed psychologically, this is exactly what happens if a human being identifies with an archetypal figure. He gets the life energy and even certain parapsychological gifts, clairvoyance and so on, connected with the archetype. Psychotic borderline cases often have parapsychological gifts–knowing through the unconscious things they couldn’t otherwise know. As soon as you fall into an archetype, or identify with the powers of the unconscious, you get those supernatural gifts, and that is one reason why people do not like to be exorcised or rehumanised again. The loss of those gifts accounts for one of the resistances against therapy.”
She writes that this kind of possession assimilates the ego into the unconscious and slowly dehumanises the person–indeed, without an ego around, there’s little access to values, morality, or the ability to relate to others in humane ways. There’s also no awareness of unconscious contents, which are not inherently good or bad in themselves, but generally filtered by a conscious ego.
We see this perfectly expressed in Voldemort, perhaps the greatest dark Wizards of literature with mummy issues, who, in order to obtain immortality, splits and hides his soul into seven Horcruxes–a process that involves cruel acts toward others.
This process magnifies his powers, but also destroys his humanity both outwardly, in his monstrous appearance, and inwardly, in his psychopathic, hell-bent quest for destruction of everything that’s threatening his omnipotence, which ironically includes parts of himself and leads to his own destruction.
“Much of the evil in this world is due to the fact that man, in general, is hopelessly unconscious.”
- Carl Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul
While Voldemort is an extreme example, we encounter this in smaller doses in real life.
The magicians in my life weren’t great dark wizards or imposter alchemists. They were, however, masters of disguising their acts of power as kindness and love. They knew how to shift blame, psychologically sow you in half and then put you back together with a small gesture. They charmed with their words, but cheated in their actions. They wielded a great power over me for most of my life–and the magician was also in me.
Transference vs the inner Magician
There’s nothing accidental about the co-occurrence of the dream that opened this essay and the emergence of my therapist as an inner dream figure. It’s curious: even though I’d seen him for over two years, I had never recalled a dream of him; there was simply no representation of a positive masculine figure like him in my inner world.
Three days before the Derren Brown dream, I have this dream:
I’m on a group trip. My therapist is also there. At some point he is giving a lecture and I’m trying to take a picture of the waning moon behind him, which is so close to the earth you can see the craters inside as circles of light and shadow.
Around the same time, I began to feel anxious about going to therapy, which I confessed. This led to the strangest therapy session I ever had: sitting across from him, I shared that he felt different that day. I couldn’t articulate how, but he suddenly felt very familiar–like I knew him better than I actually did. The atmosphere felt charged with an unusual kind of magic, as if he was glowing. I consciously knew he was the same man I had seen last week and the week before, and yet I somehow longed for him.
It took me a few days to realise that what I was experiencing was father transference: an unconscious process where we project onto the therapist the qualities of a parent (in this case, my father) and begin to act and feel toward them as if they were that person.
This is, in many ways, the main spiel in psychodynamic therapy: once the therapeutic relationship gets going, the client unconsciously begins to transfer to the therapist their expectations of mother or father. They may idealise the therapist, perceive them as an authority, fear them, resist them, or maybe even act out, trying to elicit the same punishment or humiliation they got from the parent. A good therapist will keep watch for this and not fall into identifying with the projection or denying it, but holding it until the client works through it themselves.
(A bad therapist will take on the idealised projection and use it narcissistically to feel good about themselves; they may start a romantic/sexual relationship with the client; or they would collude with the client and repeat the parent’s behaviour toward them; in all cases harming the client.)
Transference is an entirely unconscious process–so while I probably experienced it before, this was the first time I was aware of it as it happened. It was probably the most uncomfortable I’d ever been in therapy: imagine telling your therapist that you’re suddenly longing for them to hold you in their lap as a father. And equally, imagine them sitting across from you and holding your difficult emotions with the presence and care you never got as a child!
For weeks, I sat with the pain of my frozen longing. While I was aware of my romantic pattern of chasing unavailable men, I had never recognised the emotional pattern that I was addicted to. This was a lonely state of despair anaesthetised by the pleasure of my idealisation of the other, who I endowed with magical qualities.
“Longing, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, is a strong persistent desire, especially for something unattainable or distant. It is related to hunger, wish, yearning, pining. From the early emotional and relational wounds with the absent father, dependency is thwarted and there is no point in hoping and nothing that can be imagined.”
- Susan E. Schwartz, The Absent Father Effect on Daughters: Father Desire, Father Wounds
My inner Magician had kept me addicted to this emotional state and to my own fantasies that perpetuated it. He was my self-deception; my vulnerability to con artists; my inability to stand up for myself.
He made me vulnerable to the shadow Magicians outside of me: romantic partners that would make my friends roll their eyes in exasperation. I would, again and again, be surprised to find myself in relationships where love and intimacy were tabu; where I was insufficient and the other was magical. And if they didn’t create the magical feeling themselves through power dynamics, I would make sure to fabricate it myself.
“Where the relationship between parent and child is one of abuse, physical or psychic, love becomes perversely identified with a taboo object associated with the abusive act. At the centre of an addiction is, in one for or another, a radical betrayal of trust.”
- Marion Woodman, The Ravaged Bridegroom: Masculinity in Women
The four acts performed by Darren Brown in the dream that opened this essay are a great illustration of what happens when you see through the Shadow Magician’s act. The initial high caused by the magician’s control loses all sense of magic when the mechanism of deception is confronted–and it’s not pretty at all.
After all, the Magician in the dream isn’t pulling rabbits out of the hat or an ice cold Coca-Cola from behind my ear (which I would’ve appreciated). He is attempting to humiliate and control me. He uses private, vulnerable information against me; he tries to prove that he knows what I actually think and risks humiliating himself by appearing on stage wearing a women’s bikini (but gets the colours wrong). Since none of these tricks work, he ramps things up further and attempts to hypnotise me to make me say what he wants, but once again fails.
The first good man
The resistance to the Magician in the dream serves as proof to me that a solid ego can risk the suffering of reality and banish the self-deception trickster. The strong foundation of the therapeutic relationship provides enough ego support to access the original trauma and, with it, release the survival mechanisms that controlled the pain for years.
Weirdly, it was no particular intervention in therapy that facilitated this. Merely verbalising my uncomfortable father-lover longing to my therapist served as an exorcism of the shame, terror, and aloneness that felt like “wanting love so much it can seem like an ache in the soul” (Susan E. Schwartz).
This holding led, a few days later, to the spontaneous emergence in meditation of the abandonment pain I felt at my father’s unexplainable retreat from my life at 4 years old–an experience of heartbreak so traumatic it remained outside my awareness for almost three decades.
It was in the empty space left by my father’s absence that the dark Magician entered my psyche.
Meanwhile, the work with my therapist continued and deepened. He supported me through a destabilising crisis with firm holding and (shock!) some much-needed, fatherly advice. My psyche clearly responded to this, as he became more present in my dreams as a positive, fatherly figure:
I’m at my therapist’s house for a session. We’re watching a movie on the sofa and I feel a strong sense of tenderness and being cared for. I remember I’m three months pregnant and tell him that I’m sorry, I don’t think I’m ready to become a mother and I will have an abortion. He lovingly says I should keep it, that it’s time. He tells me that I may believe there’s a certain order to things in life, but my order is different: first have the child, then get married. He leaves me a mixtape with songs that speak about my situation. I play it and go to the kitchen and look into the fridge and oven which are full of food he left for me. I feel a strong sense of his care and love.
The Shadow Magician’s trick is that he convinces us he’s the One: he believes he is God, the totality, the Self, the Truth. As an inner figure, he possesses us. He is omnipotent over the ego and distorts reality in subtle, magical ways. He tells us that it’s for our own good. He gets away with it because there’s not enough consciousness to pierce through his illusions; and not enough holding to contain the pain of reality.
The emergence of the first inner good man (or masculine figure) can change this. His light can pierce through the black magic and recognise power for what it is. He can strengthen the ego enough so it can face the Magician, understand his ways, and finally reverse him to his upright position: not as the One, but as a conduit for it in a lifetime process of refinement.
Thank you for reading. I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences with the Magician in the comments, or any reflections from this essay.
If you’re curious about working similarly with your dreams, join my online community Dreamwork Circle, where you can learn the art of dreamwork and help with understanding your dreams.
And if you felt like this essay is teasing the theme of narcissism–you’re right on the money. This is a prelude to an upcoming, longer exploration into narcissism through some eye-opening views coming from psychoanalysis, Jungian psychology, somatic approaches, and transpersonal perspectives, as well as my personal reflections on it. If you haven’t already, subscribe now to get it when it’s published and share this essay. If you’d like to support these essays, please consider purchasing a paid subscription. Thank you!