Last post was kind of a doozy. The salient points:
- magic seems consistently connected to meaning, consciousness, names
- In Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, magic is (eventually) revealed to “work” by virtue of ancient alliances made with the land—the rocks, the rivers, the trees.
- though it wasn’t mentioned last post, but probably ought to be to dispel any possible confusion: There is no other name under heaven by which we can be saved, than Jesus Christ.
OK. So let’s continue this blog’s tradition of imputing eternal truth to works of pop culture (but the right pop culture, reader, and the right eternal truth) and consider Tolkien.
Tolkien had a thing for trees. In a letter to the paper he wrote:
In all my works I take the part of trees as against all their enemies. Lothlórien is beautiful because there the trees were loved; elsewhere forests are represented as awakening to consciousness of themselves. The Old Forest was hostile to two legged creatures because of the memory of many injuries. Fangorn Forest was old and beautiful, but at the time of the story tense with hostility because it was threatened by a machine-loving enemy. Mirkwood had fallen under the domination of a Power that hated all living things but was restored to beauty and became Greenwood the Great before the end of the story.
Thankfully the Jackson movies were faithful to this:
Machines are wonderful things. If you know what you want, and you want it now, and without any fuss or backtalk—well, good news, that’s how machines work—and a certain kind of magic, even more so. Both Sauron’s and Saruman’s methods are oriented towards shortening the distance between wanting and getting. Sauron works through raw power, will, and coercion; Saruman sets up an assembly line to churn out warriors and weapons. They get what they want, as efficiently as possible.
Gandalf, in contrast, spends most of his time riding around and talking: warning, guiding, counseling. Often it doesn’t “work” in that people don’t always do what he wants, as evidenced by Pippin’s misadventure with the palantir.
And this sets up the pivotal question of this post: Which is better, a tool or a friend? If we have tools, do we wish they were more like friends? If we have friends, do we wish they were more like tools?
True magic comes from the first, while the second kills it.
And this isn’t just me moralizing, either! In a way, we already knew this—because we listed some traits of magic in last post. “Unpredictable,” “understands things at our same conceptual level,” “cares about (and has) names,” “has some empathy for us.” These things describe friends, not tools.
To be a magician, therefore, means to be friends with everything, even the (seemingly, presently) inanimate. This is what Christ has done, and is doing, with us dust-creatures, after all.
And like Him, what we really want, at core, is not to control the world, but to speak, be heard, and have it speak back. Tolkien, again, on the elves:
Elves began it, of course, waking trees up and teaching them to speak and learning their tree-talk. They always wished to talk to everything, the old Elves did.
We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words—to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.
Notice how end and means are become one! Friendship is both the means by which magic is accomplished, but also the reason. Someday the curse will be lifted, the scales will fall from our eyes, and the atoms will come running happily, like a dog to a master long away, now returned home.
The author of this blog has for a very long time wished to be a wizard.
(Warning, if it’s not obvious: We’re going far afield here)
Or that’s how I thought about it at first. I soon discovered I didn’t really know that meant.
Did I want to get into the occult? No. Did I want to delve around in old books? Well, empirically, yeah, but I didn’t estimate the chances of old books -> fire from my hands being very high. And who wanted fire from their hands anyway? Sounded like it could go off at the worst possible moments.
I didn’t know what I wanted. I just knew that I was a very big fan of The Lord of the Rings, and A Wizard of Earthsea, and that I played wizards in D&D with my friends.
None of these taught me how to, you know, do magic, but they did teach me some valuable lessons about what to keep in mind if I ever figured it out. The Nazgul taught me that there are things worse than death, and that power could be a trap just like anything else. Earthsea taught me quite a bit (it’s my favorite book for a reason), to the point that I’ll likely devote a later post to it.
At one point I came up with what I felt was a serviceable definition of magic: that which we don’t understand. But then I considered things that we actually don’t understand, like ball lightning, and I realized that didn’t seem like magic to me, so my definition must be off.
Some other miscellanae I collected:
– magic is always connected with meaning somehow. Would-be magicians, or fictional ones, always phrase the effects of their works in human-level terms. They deal with concepts humans are very familiar with: fire, clothing, water, trees, weather, love, motion, animals. No one makes a spell to change the spin of quarks, or to denature proteins!
– names seemed to be a very consistent thread, as did language
– reinforcing the “connected with humans/consciousness somehow” thread, there is a service you can subscribe to called Magic, which consists of 24/7 available skilled human assistants who can do things like order flowers, send emails, book flights, etc.
– in software, something is often referred to as “magic” if it anticipates your needs, somewhat like a good genie
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell
But I think I’ve made a bit of a breakthrough recently. I’ve been watching the BBC adaptation of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, about two men in Napoleonic-era England who undertake to “restore English magic.” I had read the book a long time ago, but the excellence of the adaptation, plus Dr. Charlton’s blog posts (1 2 3), got me thinking about it again.
The eponymous Mr. Norrell is a somewhat timid creature—a landed country squire, ever a bachelor, who likes nothing better than sitting in a corner reading a book, and is likely to describe anything that disturbs his study as “irregular.” Through years of study (and a near-limitless inheritance with which to buy books) he has reconstructed a system of magic which allows him to perform various feats. Norrell’s magic is effective, but wooden; he avoids risk, and is very concerned with magic’s reputation in Society, as it has hitherto been disreputable:
“Mr Norrell,” said Sir Walter, “I cannot claim to understand what this help is that you offer us, but whatever it is I am sorry to say that it will not do. Magic is not respectable, sir. It is not,” Sir Walter searched for a word, “serious. The Government cannot meddle with such things.”
In contrast is the other protagonist of the book, Jonathan Strange, who, having devoured tales of the Old Magic, wants to duplicate (and improve upon!) those ancient feats, and is willing to consort with dangerous fairies to do so. Upon summoning one, he asks it to aid him, saying:
“Such power! Such inventiveness! English magic today lacks spirit! It lacks fire and energy! I cannot tell you how bored I am of the same dull spells to solve the same dull problems. The glimpse I had of your magic proved to me that it is quite different. You could surprize me. And I long to be surprized!”
(Analogies to tame men and tame lions, and what they ought rightly to be, are encouraged.)
Mr. Norrell and Mr. Strange spend a good amount of dialogue wrestling with a question similar to mine, as they argue about what magic ought to be. Norrell wants it to be practical, controlled, systematic; Strange wants it to be wild, wondrous, and spirited. Norrell wants nothing to do with fairies; Strange knows that the greatest English magician ever, the “Raven King,” heavily consorted with them, and wants to follow in his footsteps.
The book is long, and much happens, but eventually Strange finds the secret of what magic is, at least within the world of the book:
“It is not so hard as we have supposed. Tell them to read what is written in the sky. Tell them to ask the rain! All of [the Raven King’]s old alliances are still in place. I am sending messengers to remind the stones and the sky and the rain of their ancient promises.”
The gist is: long ago, the Raven King, having learned from the fairies to speak to the stone, the trees, and water of England, made alliance with them on behalf of all English magicians. That was the source of the magic, and Norrell’s formulaic magic is akin to a child writing letters to distant servants in the hand of a long-dead father, thinking they are spells rather than messages.
I’ll end here for now. Stay tuned!
(First order of business: The King is born, long live the King! But read on)
It can be hard to remember, but “gospel” means “good news.” And that good news is: we’re going to win. Cleanly, triumphantly, gloriously, and unambiguously.
Pay no attention to empirical evidence suggesting otherwise. Life is too short to count anything that happens in it as more than an anecdote.
Accepting ultimate victory as the null hypothesis—something to be believed until disproven—throws present obstacles into perspective. “The problem” is rarely just the problem. Tiger parents don’t worry about their child being denied by Harvard because they want their child to learn surrounded by ivy, but because they see Harvard admission as a determinant of future success or failure.
Remove that threat, by remembering final victory, and setbacks and sacrifices shrink in significance.
“Son,’he said,’ ye cannot in your present state understand eternity…That is what mortals misunderstand. They say of some temporal suffering, “No future bliss can make up for it,” not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory. And of some sinful pleasure they say “Let me have but this and I’ll take the consequences”: little dreaming how damnation will spread back and back into their past and contaminate the pleasure of the sin. Both processes begin even before death. The good man’s past begins to change so that his forgiven sins and remembered sorrows take on the quality of Heaven: the bad man’s past already conforms to his badness and is filled only with dreariness. And that is why…the Blessed will say “We have never lived anywhere except in Heaven, : and the Lost, “We were always in Hell.” And both will speak truly.”
If the present can reach back into the past, I see no reason the future shouldn’t reach back into the present.
This is because it keeps leaping to new and richer axes.
Eternal life means having time to read forever (as new books are forever being written)—but no one in heaven actually does this, or not JUST this, because books are not meant to just be read, but to complement an actual life.
Eternal life means having time to explore (and renovate!) the universe forever—but no one actually does this, or not JUST this, because it is soon found that exploring and renovating are components of the good life, rather than comprising it.
Eternal life means having infinite progeny, worlds without end—but no one actually does this, or not JUST this, because joy requires much more than numbers.
And lest you imagine that it’s just an ever-accelerating parade of Kuhnsian paradigm shifts, leading to future shock—all of this is measured and evaluated in terms of relationships.
There are many different infinities, indeed an infinity of infinities—the natural numbers, all the real numbers between 0 and 1, the set of all possible books, the space of the universe, all possible paintings—but some of them are better and richer than others. It would be a poor life indeed (though infinite!) that consisted of counting the natural numbers.
Heaven is to our conception of it, as the set of all books is to the set of natural numbers. But more so. And the gap is ever widening.
Over at Jr. Ganymede MC has posted an interesting modest proposal. I don’t have much to say about the content itself, but I want to draw attention to G’s reply to another commenter:
The story I read wasn’t about women submitting to men. It was about upper-middle class people “submitting” or adapting to their lower-middle class spouses.
That word “adapting” is important.
If we think of human society as a collection of biological machines, each with their own needs, and able to produce certain outputs, then a lot of things become clearer. You wouldn’t pay your electric bill in grain, you wouldn’t put cat food in your gas tank, and you wouldn’t try and make your dog subsist on lettuce.
Nobody thinks that electric companies, cars, or dogs are “broken” because of this.
Yet we do exactly this to men and women. What man among you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Yet when young men and women ask for mates, don’t we give them products of a factory intended to produce academics and corporate drones?
I came up with a definition for a well-tuned system in the last few years: one that wastes nothing, wants nothing, and is contributing to some larger goal outside of that system.
I think this is also a good definition of a system that has meaning. Being a part of this system necessarily means your contribution is needed and valued (nothing is wasted), and that you’re having your needs met, and you can see your contribution as part of a larger effort toward a worthy goal.
Does that sound like a hard system to construct? It is, frankly. A lot of moving pieces, each with their own needs and outputs. Matching and tuning them so that they feed each other, in the correct amounts, and keeping the system such that it is net-positive, is really hard. Change one piece, and there will be cascading butterfly effects through the system.
One way these systems form in the real world is under evolutionary pressure. Harsh conditions leave little room for waste and inefficiency. Animals are beautiful because they are functional:
What happens if you take away the pressure? Maybe invent a bunch of appliances, removing the need for a lot of the work one gender used to do. Raise the general standard of living such that a high income is no longer quite so obviously necessary, or even necessary at all.
Here’s my theory: winning WWII and the fruits of modern civilization gave us a choice on how to spend them: sex or status. We largely chose, and choose, status. Since the family is the bedrock of civilization, this was…less than a good move.
Reading through MC’s post, what jumped out at me was my meh reaction to Ben Haight.
“But I don’t want to hear another word about next year’s election for as long as I live. Is that alright?”
Ben laughed nervously, “Yeah, that’s OK, sorry for boring you. What should we talk about instead?”
Oh, sure, if you’re a normal person not playing PUA status games, and you bore someone, sure, go ahead and apologize, whatever. But why even talk about the election at all? Did he really think beforehand, “What would add value to this girl’s life—I know, I’ll talk about arcane political stuff!”?
Having the urge to do that, and not doing it, is the beginning of what adapting the pieces to fit looks like. It’s what not filling your gas tank up with cat food looks like.
Ben thinks he wants status, because he’s had it for being smart, and who doesn’t like status. But what he really wants is sex (he’s a dude), but he’s embarrassed by this and won’t admit it to himself (everyone else was too embarrassed to encourage him to seek it, but they err). And certain things—keeping up on politics, for instance—are great for status, and horrible for sex.
This is easy to miss, because anyone around this space knows that status is an attraction factor. But it’s one factor—to steal from Donal:
Looks – Athleticism – Money – Power – Status
Is Ben dressing well? Is he in shape? Does he have control over his finances? Can he exercise control over his environment?
None of these really matter for status in rarefied circles, which are all about thought (Flatter yourself, reader, that you’re as high it gets here on earth, merely by reading this blog. Good show! I say!).
There’s a tendency to regard personal attractiveness as a selfish thing. And it can certainly be used that way. But it can also be a gift.
Are we giving our best to each other?