Thinking about magic


The entirety of my Saturday was consumed reading The Storm of Swords, the third book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin. It is a work of fantasy but it is written in a jaded, starkly realist style that grips you not so much in wonder but in disbelief. I don’t usually read this genre and I don’t usually read a thousand pages without pause, but last Saturday I did. Now I am shaken, cynical, and yet deeply enthralled by the world of Westeros and the unceasing politicking and in-fighting of its elites. It is a world where magic has been long presumed dead and yet is unspoken of, feared, as it slowly reenters the world through its margins.


This in complete contrast to our world in which the adventures of a boy wizard came to a close this past weekend. Harry Potter is in reality a small thing, yet is a powerful reminder of the significance of story. And magic. This is what atheists, freethinkers, and all other anti-establishment forces fail to understand about the human condition. It is simply insufficient to annihilate ideas; they must be replaced. And for them to be accepted they must be seen true but not only in the realm of logos or reason but even moreso in the realm of mythos or magic. This is what the Sages of old intuited, hence parables, koans, and analects. Science has a long way to go before becoming sexy, but perhaps they can pick up a thing or two from Rowling. But then they’ll have to develop their own mythology, their own legend, and there’s the trouble. They steer away from all semblances of religion not so much as a matter of principle but as a matter of pride. Thankfully magic, and its sole property to inspire awe, is a good reminder of what we really only are in this world.


As I was having my hair cut this afternoon, I saw a most curious sight. To my left was a child, barely four, with an iPad. From the corner of my eye, I observed how he worked the machine. Did he conform to my preset image of a child non-melodically hammering on the capacitive screen with his uncoordinated hands? Not quite. His fingers had the command of an adult and the grace of a maestro. He slid only where he had, and not once did he fumble with the OS as he switched from app to setting to app. It was impressive. I was in awe. And then my mind fumbled forward and hurried. What will this child be like in ten years? As I caught him type phrases, I wondered if he will ever still write with a pen on paper? What will his notion of a book be? His horizon is already infinitely wider than mine was at his age. I could not see what his world will be like. Perhaps I can find comfort in the words of the great Tagore, “Don’t limit a child to your own learning, for he was born in another time.” Comfort, but with equal parts hope and dread. Sounds like the recipe for a spell.


“Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called The Pledge. The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course… it probably isn’t. The second act is called The Turn. The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you’re looking for the secret… but you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn’t clap yet. Because making something disappear isn’t enough; you have to bring it back. That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call The Prestige.”

From The Prestige by Christopher Nolan


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