What We Mean When We Say Magic

“The larger the island of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of wonder.” -Ralph W. Sockman.

Magic is a slippery word. Does it refer to a trick or a glimpse of something deeper? This simple question has always puzzled me. This little essay is my attempt to nail down why that is. I want to talk about what we mean when we say magic.

But first let me tell a story.

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Witches and magic in Salem

Salem Witch

Salem, Massachusetts is in love with witches. It took three hundred years or so for them to come around, but they’ve fallen in a big way. I spent some time in Salem this weekend, and I can attest that, in addition to the various museums and tours, the “witch on a broom” motif is everywhere, including the local newspaper.

While it’s no big surprise for a town to embrace whatever helps its tourism receipts, two things do jump out at me. One is that I grew up in the Bible Belt (North Carolina), so the whole idea of a town embracing witchcraft is amusing and encouraging. It’s hard to imagine a witch museum in Branson or Pigeon Forge. The other surprise in Salem is that there seems to be so much in the way of “serious magic”. I apply this term very loosely to a New Age-y collection of people who call themselves witches or wiccans or pagans or simply working-stiff astrologers and chiromancers. The point is that the witch is not the Other to be mocked, even in a light-hearted way, but rather a pillar of civic life. Breadwinner and boon bestower, she is celebrated. Which is all rather odd when you consider that this is so only because a handful of people wrongly labeled as witches were tortured and murdered here three hundred years ago.

This brings me to the magic stores. I’m fascinated by these stores. Some of them are cynical and tacky, but others are quite serious. They are packed not with hocus-pocus tricks, but with books of spells and crystal balls and scrying glasses. The magic spells in these books offer what you might expect: money, power, true love. But do they work? I didn’t try any, but consider this. If they did work, if they were potent, demonstrable, and consistent, then they wouldn’t belong in a spell book. Because they wouldn’t be magic anymore. Lightning, eclipses, magnetism, these things once belonged to the magicians, but scientists took them away.

This is one of the essential characteristics of magic. It is not simply unreliable; it is by definition unreliable. The whole experience of visiting the magic shop thus reduces to a problem in aesthetics. I find this very liberating. If you like it, you like it, full stop. If you think the crystal ball looks cool, you should buy it. It’s not a vacuum cleaner. There’s nothing to test, nothing to verify. Does it work? Of course it doesn’t work. Or rather, its charms work inasmuch as it charms you. De gustibus non est disputandum. That’s the real trick.

Tattoos Sacred and Profane

You may have heard about Engrish.com, the site that tracks amusing abuses of the English language in Japan (“Let’s happy and feel the lucky!”). But what about the view from the other side? Are Americans abusing Asian languages by any chance? Yes they are, and whereas Japanese have a knack for zany T-shirts and signs, Americans prefer to make their mistakes in the form of permanent tattoos. Tian Tang, an engineering student who lives in Arizona now but was born in China, has a site called Hanzi Smatter that is dedicated to airing the kinds of mistranslations, mistransliterations, and textual nonsense that pass for Chinese in American pop culture. Recently he’s been getting some high-profile press:

Cool Tat, Too Bad It’s Gibberish – New York Times
Indelibly lost in translation – Los Angeles Times

The whole concept of what people look for in a tattoo, and what constitutes magical writing, has fascinated me for some time, so I collected my thoughts in the somewhat longer ramble below.

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Strange machines and Wunderkammern

Quick: which is more important? Reason or wonder?

Don’t tell me you need more information… just answer the question. Which is more important? And which is more powerful? They clearly have a tangled relationship. Science fiction authors and scientists are always quoting each other. Arthur C. Clarke, quoting himself, famously conflated magic and technology: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

I just finished reading a gift from my sister-in-law, an odd little book called Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet Of Wonder by Lawrence Weschler. Actually, the book isn’t so odd… it’s the book’s topic that is odd: The Museum of Jurassic Technology. The cabinet of wonder is the museum, a bizarre and disordered little museum on a nondescript street in Los Angeles. But the more nonsense you read about it, the more sense it all makes. Wonder is the fountainhead of reason.

Wunderkammern, or rooms of wonder, were the sixteenth century predecessors of museums. In modern terms, they were eccentric collections of tchotchkes and oddities from the natural world thrown together with, ideally, a sense of style.

Like this: Athanasius Kircher takes us from here to here, where we learn about these and this which eventually takes us to Arthur Ganson’s Machines (make sure you watch Wishbone Man walking, that tiny tireless Sisyphus). And from Wishbone Man it is a short stroll to here.

Red Sox take the prize

The rest of the country is way past baseball by now (did I hear something about an election of some kind?), but happy Boston is still wallowing in sloppy postcoital bliss. In fact, it took a dedicated Red Sox fan to call the Series interesting at all. To the untrained eye, all the action this year took place in the two League Championship Series, whereas the World Series itself was a comparatively dull affair. But your Red Sox fan wasn’t going to be suckered into thinking the series might actually end in a four-game sweep, no sir. For him, right up until the last pitch, right up until the ball was snugly in the first baseman’s glove and the last out was officially recorded, there was the agonizing and strangely potent possibility of a stunning reversal of fortunes.

But all that is in the past now, and we learn once again that history is not physics, and that precedents are powerful, but not all-powerful. There do exist heroes strong enough to break the spell and release the castle from poisoned slumber. Part of their magic is to insist there is no magic, just as test pilot Chuck Yeager always dismissed the notion of the “Right Stuff” as so much nonsense. We know better.

For all the joy in Mudville these days, I’m sure some people will get perversely nostalgic for the Curse. After Game 4 ended, I went to read what the St. Louis Post-Dispatch had to say about the series, and I was struck by the similarity between what I read there and the piece written by Boston Globe sportswriter and Curse fetishist Dan Shaughnessy after three straight losses to the Yankees in the ALCS (Red Sox on brink of elimination as Yanks pound them, 19-8). Here’s what he has to say on October 17th:

For the 86th consecutive autumn, the Red Sox are not going to win the World Series. No baseball team in history has recovered from a 3-0 deficit and this most-promising Sox season in 18 years could be officially over tonight. Mercy. … The first Fenway game of this much-hyped series could not have been more disastrous for Boston. The Sox embarrassed themselves with poor base running, inept pitching, and dubious managerial decisions. By any measure, it was an ignominious defeat as the locals succumbed without much trace of competition or honor. At least the 2003 team, the Grady Bunch, took the Yankees to the limit. That the Sox could play this poorly after the yearlong competition (on and off the field) between the century-old rivals, staggers the New England mind.

There’s your hinge of fate. Something happened on October 17th, God knows what, and here we are today. But I get the distinct feeling that old Dan Shaughnessy will miss writing stories like this one.