Saturday, March 11, 2006

What is magic?

A few nights ago, I was up late reading and surfing channels, when I came across one of my favorite movies from the thirties, I Married a Witch. This classic romantic comedy, features attractive performances from Veronica Lake (I love that hair!) and Frederick March. It is the film that inspired Bell, Book and Candle, starring the delectable Kim Novack, and the t.v. show Bewitched, with the also delectable Elizabeth Montgomerry.

At the age of nine, I fell in love with Elizabeth Montgomerry. Our relationship would not have worked, however, because of the age thing. I think that she was responsible for my first erection, though I am not sure, since my classmate Linda (with the really cool glasses) may have an equally good claim to that honor.

I saw I Married a Witch again, for maybe the tenth time. Afterwards, I pondered the "magic" (you should forgive the expression) of this movie, reflecting on our need for romance, illusion, connection and meaning. Magic is what we are sorely missing in our individual lives -- but also nationally -- right now. For some reason, George W. Bush does not inspire the nation's sense of magic. John F. Kennedy did. I think that Senator Hillary Clinton has some of that good magic, a little bit of "star quality" that we need so desperately. During this dismal season -- when many "undead" IRS agents walk the night -- a little stardust wouldn't hurt.

What is it that we mean by magic? Why is it so desperately desired now? Is this yearning for extraordinary adventures associated with our craving for aesthetic experiences? Religion? Politics? If so, then should we be frightened and wary, or welcoming of this human appetite? Why is it that, when we think of magic or witchcraft, we think of women? See Lois Martin, The History of Witchcraft (London: Pocketessentials, 2002).

Magic is defined in Webster's Dictionary as: "... any mysterious power or phenomenon which defies analysis or explanation," and also, "the art or practice of producing illusions ... by sleight of hand." That explains the association with women (for men, of course, but also in the general culture). Women can merely glance at men and cause them to stutter or spill mustard on their new neckties from Brooks Brothers -- they cost a fortune, by the way, those neckties -- and women can otherwise disrupt the rational balance in the universe. It may be something about their perfumes. (See "Raymond Chandler and 'The Simple Art of Murder.'")

More seriously, this definition points to the emotive meaning of the term. I don't believe in the supernatural. I accept the natural importance of emotions in our most seemingly dispassionate, logical cognitions and everywhere else in human life. Empathy and feeling as well as judgment (judgment consists of the right balance of feeling and reasoning) are crucial in politics and morality. Courtrooms are theaters of emotion and the pulpit is also a stage. Of course, traditionally, development of these mysterious faculties was discouraged in men, even as it was encouraged in women. Women were healers and bringers of life-wisdom; they attended us at birth and death; men hunted and went to war. Fortunately, all of these roles have now been called into question.

Women in earlier centuries needed to understand feelings because they could not simply resort to violence to resolve conflicts. Much as they might like to do so. They were craftier -- those who are denied power usually are -- and also more urgently in need of compensatory fantasies. (Fabio? You must be kidding!) Hence, the feminine appreciation and talent for expressions of "fine" feelings in art, along with the feminine concern and dominance in romance and relationships, even in mysticism. You may think of Bernini's "St. Theresa in Ecstasy" at this point. This led to American women's superiority in the "genteel tradition" (Santayana, Paglia) of aesthetics, usually at the cost of power in the more "manly" realms of business and politics. See Louis Auchincloss, A Writer's Capital.

Emotions and feelings, like sex and love, are both desired and feared -- as, indeed, are women by most men. It was often the best women who were most quickly turned against and destroyed by pre-scientific communities, often by other women, when crops failed or calamity struck. Think of the Salem witch trials. See

Some men actually like women, preferring their company to that of men (that's me), struggling to be as verbal, witty and passionate as their female friends, and as the women who become their companions and lovers tend to be. Some such men are artists. Some happen to be gay and others happen not to be gay. Some are intellectuals or performers, very few are powerful or successful in business. Most such men prefer marginality and are, sadly, also as unstable, high strung and as prone to despair as the women they love. I think John Lennon was one of us. Kay Redfield Jamison quotes Byron: "I doubt sometimes whether a quiet and unimaginative life would have suited me -- yet I sometimes long for it."

A conventional or scholarly (perhaps, an overly "masculine") view of "magic" suggests that this is a word for primitive science. When things cannot be explained in a "rational" way, people resort to occult "nonsense" and talk of spirits. Mystery and ambiguity will all be done away with soon; we will "control" things, with science and technology. Many women are skeptical about this view. I am not surprised that a woman wrote Frankenstein. Bear in mind that there is masculine and feminine, man and woman, in each of us.

Some may object that women are as rational as men, as concerned to do away with mumbo-jumbo and to find cogent explanations for phenomena. This is exactly my point. For we must then wonder whether what we consider "rational" and how we go about deciding what is "mumbo-jumbo" is infected with our sexist notions of reality and truth, so as to be in need of expansion and revision. If we look at history, we will find that some women labelled as witches in previous centuries, were doing the closest thing to science available in their societies. They were the most empirical and practical people in their communities, experimenting with home remedies and cures, learning about the child birth process, in order to save lives. What we call magic and intuitions are eminently practical means of discovering truths about the social world of relationships and meanings. (See "John Finnis Against Non-Cognitivism in Ethics.")

Many women continue to absorb this dominant male ideology defining rationality as something exclusively instrumental and material -- instrumentalism is a helpful view in some areas of life -- for example, in the design of weapons or SUVs. There is some truth to this traditional view of magic, but most of what is interesting about magic in human life is untouched by this explanation. Magic has to do with the effort to explain intuition, love and compassion, for the paradoxical and indestructible strength of gentle, self-giving, grace as well as chance or the unpredictable, so that it cannot be grasped in such rationalistic terms. This does not make it New Age drivel (which I detest) nor is it "irrational" or "unnatural." Most human societies make room for concepts of what is magical or unexplainable, for imagination, myth and mysterious forces to be propitiated. Once again, one is reminded of the IRS. See Ronald Hutton, Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), a work which I have not read, but from which Ms. Martin quotes in her essay.

Science explains action and reaction, cause and effect. Magic is, as Colin Wilson suggests, the science not of the past but of the future, since it accounts for that "action at a distance" that is emotion. (See "George Santayana and the Mysteries of Quantum Physics.") Magic is the quantum mystery or witchcraft in a woman's eyes and lips that can defy the laws of gravity, raising the temperature in a room, causing us to float or melt. Magic is the ability to discern the cause of human suffering in another, and a willingness to spend time and energy in dissipating that suffering -- without expectation of return -- through laughter or the introduction of beauty into the life of that afflicted person. It is the part of us that dries the tears of others -- especially children's tears-- with humor or the gift of a flower. Magic is the world of children and of those who care for them. Much to my surprise, I find that in my forties, I am a "Gilmore Girl."

Magic was not the science of the past. It is the science of the future. I believe that the human mind has reached a point in evolution where it is now about to develop new powers -- powers that would once have been considered magical. Indeed, it has always possessed greater powers than we now realize: of [intuition,] premonition of danger, second sight, thaumaturgy (the power to heal); but these were part of its instinctive, animal intelligence. ... humankind has been busy developing another kind of power related to the intellect, and the result is Western civilization. ... unconscious powers have not atrophied, but they have "gone underground." Now the wheel has come full circle; ... intellect has reached certain limits, and it cannot advance beyond them until it recovers some of its lost powers.

These new powers may require novel metaphors. For instance, we may prefer to think of nature as no longer a "woman to be subdued" (Francis Bacon), but as an organic whole that contains us and in which we participate. See the film Mindwalk. Wilson goes on to say:

[Magic is related] to the ecstasies of the mystics or the great poets. In his mature poetry, Wordsworth is "at one" with nature in a quite different sense from the hippopotamus dozing in the mud.

Self-consciousness can be used for the development of man's (or woman's) instinctive EMOTIVE powers, as well as those of the intellect.

The poet, the mystic and the "magician" have this in common: the desire to develop their powers "downward" rather than upward. In the "Symposium," Socrates expresses the ideal aim: to do both at the same time -- to use increased knowledge to reach out towards a state of instinctive unity with the universe. [Perhaps we can say the same of science.] In the two and one half thousand years since then, civilization has been forced to devote its attention to more practical problems, while the artists and mystics have continued to protest that "the world is too much with us," and that triumphant homo sapiens is little more than a clever dwarf. If man is really to evolve, then he must develop depth, and power over his own depths.

Maybe one way for the evolution of humanity to proceed is with a greater turn to the feminine.

Memory and homecoming are ultimate purposes for the magical unity, the alchemical synthesis, sought in witchcraft, as metaphor. Please read The Chymical Wedding and June Singer's Androgyny as well as Jung's writings on alchemy and the Tarot, also Updike's The Witches of Eastwick. The magical restoration that we desire comes from our human aesthetic and religious capacities. In other words, we need more than business or professional "success." Many people discover this when it is too late. See Robert Downey, Jr.'s performance in Restoration.

There is also a political component to this yearning for wholeness and unity with others. We feel a disconnection and fragmentation in national life, alienation and division from one another, that makes us less capable of resisting terrorism and other dangers that we face. The fault lines are clear and familiar, we were reminded of them with the Katrina disaster: race, poverty, deprivations of education and other misfortunes, divide us from one another.

Great political leadership at this historical moment would seek to tap into those sources of community in our art and culture, in our collective memory, providing us with redemptive and restorative meaning in solidarity. This is something that Winston Churchill was able to provide for the British people at a critical point in their history. Lech Walesa did the same for the Polish people in their struggle for freedom. Americans need such leadership now.

We may find inspiration in Professor Richard Wolin's work examining Walter Benjamin's "aesthetics of redemption" as well as in the tradition of Jewish secular messianism, which links with Christianity but also with Islamic sufism. Antisemites get upset at any suggestion that Jesus was a Jew, but I am pretty sure that such a claim is, as scholars say, "well-founded." It is unlikely that the historical Jesus ("rabbi, messiah" are words used in the Scriptures) resembled Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The messianic idea tended to catalyze the Jewish imagination in times of unprecedented hardship or catastrophe, such as the expulsion from Spain in 1492, in whose wake the Lurianic cabala was composed. As Scholem reminds us, "Jewish messianism in its origins and by its nature -- this cannot be sufficiently emphasized -- is a theory of catastrophe. [It] stresses the revolutionary, cataclysmic element in the transition from every historical present to the messianic future." The neo-Kantian Ernst Cassirer viewed all such reliance on myth and supernatural imagery as historical regression. It is clear, however, that at unusually trying moments in the life of the Jewish people, when the traditional, rational content of Judaism failed to address their true spiritual needs, the messianic idea provided a crucial element of cultural and religious cohesiveness. Through it alone could Jews seemingly render comprehensible -- and bearable -- historical experiences of disproportionate severity.

Americans today yearn for cohesiveness and meaning. Symbols are one mechanism for achieving such meaning. The nation is torn apart from within and menaced from without. We are too often distracted from crucial questions of meaning and purpose -- and from our current struggle against terrorism -- by petty vindictiveness and the politics of personal destruction. We require a magician, a good witch or warlock, to cast a spell that will transform our hostile political climate, into a moment of calm determination, leading us to the achievement of true community, respecting the fundamental individual freedoms protected in (and by) the Constitution. Most especially, we need to protect freedom of speech when we disagree with speakers.

If Bill Clinton is the Harry Potter of American politics, then perhaps Senator Hillary Clinton may be thought of as our Hermione Granger. Maria Callas -- a witch and a powerful one -- spoke of finding her characters always in the music. America's true community is found in the Constitution, which is the "score" or glorious music of our history, the "source" of our political magic as a people. (See "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.")

There can be no fear of a magician seeking to invoke powerful political forces for evil, if we rely on the guidance provided by the Constitution, which is also our lamp in the dark forest. (You should feel free to select the metaphor that appeals to you.) "Use the force," Senator Clinton. Inspire us, give us a little bit of hope, and you will win our hearts and minds.



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