Sunday, January 4, 2009

A Whimsy On Magic

What comes to mind when the word “magic” is heard? Merlin putting the sword in the stone? Harry Potter waving his wand? David Blaine tricking stupid people into thinking he can levitate? Magic, noun-the art of producing a desired effect or result through the use of incantation, gesture, or other means. When we hear “magic” we think of the seemingly supernatural effects we are incapable of, not the seemingly supernatural effects we deal with on a day-to-day basis. Magic is alive and well and integrated into our everyday lives.

A young man has met with an elusive old hermit on the streets of London. This hermit, a bearded and disheveled beggar, is supposedly going to train him in the arts of the occult. He says to the hermit, “teach me some magic.” The hermit asks for a fiver. The young man rolls his eyes and gives him a five-pound note, which the hermit uses to buy fish and chips. The now-angry young man exclaims “Aren’t you supposed to be teaching me something?” to which the hermit, contentedly munching on his fish and chips, replies, “I just traded a piece of paper for vital sustenance. How is that not magic?”

But, you say, currency has an agreed-upon value. There’s nothing magic about that. Wrong. That is the very definition of magic. Magic is evoking physical actions from people via shared belief using seemingly inert materials. There are actual cases of people being condemned to death by local priests/witch-doctors/shamans and subsequently dying. Much in the same way that the communal belief in the power of a curse can kill someone, it is our communal belief in the strength of our economy that helps make it strong. Why should I provide you vital sustenance for that piece of paper? Because I know I can trade it to someone else. Alright, I'll accept that, but why should I put my pieces of paper in the local bank? At any given time a bank owns, at most, 10% of its assets in hard currency. It is the belief in the strength of the bank that allows it to exist, if we didn’t believe our money was safe we would withdraw it en masse only to find it wasn’t there (which happened during the Great Depression).

Not only this, but the physical presence of these pieces of paper has a nigh-supernatural effect have on our behavior. I think to Abbie Hoffman’s infamous 1973 prank of scattering hundreds of dollar bills on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. These wizards of finance, many of whom so wealthy they could bathe in such bills and set fire to them every day of the remainder of their lives, trampled one another to grab them. Trading was shut down, and visitors were not allowed into the NYSE again until a glass barrier had been installed.

And that is not the only form of magic that we encounter on a daily basis. Performance, too, is itself a form of magic. Think back to our earlier archetypes, Merlin and Harry Potter using their robes, incantations, and wand gesturings to effect change. Is this not precisely what a performer does? Performers put on their magic garments (costumes/uniforms), intone the magic words (sing poetry, speak rhetoric), and gesture appropriately with their magic wands (props, musical instruments) to effect enormous change within their audiences.

Think to the last concert you attended where the band managed to get the audience jumping and screaming. Think of the historical orators who could take ordinary docile men and women and whip them into a lynch mob or an army capable of conquering Europe. Think to the godlike power of theater* and its extension/enhancement, film, in its ability to evoke involuntary spasmic breathing (laughter) or involuntary tear-duct malfunction (people can be made to feel empathy for images on a screen!)

By moving and speaking the performer brings about a seemingly magical change in another. No, we cannot hit someone with an enormous blast of psychic power by putting our hands together and screaming “KAMEHAMEHA” (though this would be hilarious to witness in an actual fight), but most societies have at some point through oratory and nationalist rhetoric persuaded their citizens to needlessly endanger their lives by charging into battle against opponents they have no quarrel with to enrich a handful of people they will never meet. Which sounds more absurd to you?

*-a theme explored in plays as early as The Bacchae. The connection is made explicitly in The Tempest, where the magic of Prospero (seen below) is directly linked to the magic of the stage.


  1. "But, you say, currency has an agreed-upon value. There’s nothing magic about that. Wrong. That is the very definition of magic. Magic is evoking physical actions from people via shared belief using seemingly inert materials."

    I like this definition of magic and will ponder it to come up with other examples. I like the analogy with music, too, and the comparison with the Bacchae. In these latter two cases performers use words, themselves the hallmark of civilization, to evoke the primordial from man.

    It is a sad thing to me that rhetoric no longer seems to have this power. When is the last time somebody whipped followers into a frenzy by pure oratory? Obama comes the closest in my memory, but he isn't the frenzied type. He tends to whip people into a state of fairly rational discourse, which isn't nearly as fun.

    “A man does not have himself killed for a half-pence a day or for a petty distinction. You must speak to the soul in order to electrify him.” -Napoleon (And you know perfectly well how I know this quote)

  2. The most recent American orator like that, who actually got a bit of flak for her crowds, was Sarah Palin, though that wasn't so much her oratory as it was her crowds being hateful and fearful to begin with.

    Information dissemination has changed, we're no longer force-fed single lines of thought in large group gatherings. We have a dizzying variety of sources from which to choose, and the information is consumed and digested at our leisure. Plus, the staggering amount of diversity in this country precludes a lot of the racism of yestercentury (ie no mainstream sources are portraying the extermination of the Asian race through bacteriological warfare as a good thing or stating that blacks are biologically inferior to whites anymore).

    It's a good thing that frenzied oratory no longer works, look at the historical purpose it served. Rallying lynch mobs, inciting hatred of Jews, and instilling xenophobia and nationalism are the first things that come to mind. In the 21st century where the problems that confront us (climate change, nuclear proliferation, resource scarcity) are planetary and require global solutions, nationalism is a dangerous, diseased legacy.

  3. I generally agree with you, except that I believe high rhetoric and oratory is not so unrelentingly negative. Like you said, it has many horrible purposes. But it can motivate for good or evil.

    Cicero used his enduringly famous gift for oratory to try to save the Republic in the face of tyranny.

    Churchill's rhetoric helped save the world.

    A handful of American presidents since then have had the same gift and have used it at times for good. JFK inspired us toward the moon. And perhaps Obama, whose oratory is powerful but muted, may also lead us toward such global aims.

    Every gift may be used for great evil or great good; rhetoric is no different.

  4. I demand a study with a control before I will hail rhetoric as a social power

  5. I believe I specified "frenzied" oratory for a reason, as you pointed out earlier Obama's rhetoric, unfrenzied as it is, inspires rational discourse.

    There actually have been studies determining the effect of phrasing and delivery on people's reception of messages, I don't have PsycINFO access at the moment or I'd look for a few.

  6. Fair enough. But frenzied and unfrenzied rhetoric are brothers, not cousins. Even Obama's, rational though it is, appeals strongly to emotion as well. You know what Obama folks are like. Frenzied, obsessed, emotional in their devotion to his rationality. I find it rather curious.