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Magical thinking

July 31, 2012

If there were an eternal duel between Science and Religion (there’s not), then Magic and Art, respectively, would be their cynical seconds, wanting their man to win only so they can see the other man lose, and becoming fast friends as they both stand off to the side. Of these four, Magic is maybe the most misunderstood, and certainly the most reviled, so I thought it would be interesting to group together some links that each, in their own way, have something to say about its relation to the other three. (Also I still have something of a backlog of links to post and this will help clear away five of them.)


First, a review from the New Humanist on a new book by Bruno Latour called On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods. It’s always fun to watch new atheists complain about postmodernists, and vice versa. It’s like watching Science attack Art because it mistakes it for Religion while Art tries to convince Science that it’s actually Magic because that would be so much cooler. Anyway, the review is actually for the most part straightforward summary; one gets the sense that the reviewer expects his readers to know how wrongheaded, though interesting, what he’s describing is without him having to say so. I doubt I think much of Latour’s views on the nature of belief, judging from the last few paragraphs, but the following is an interesting idea:

In Latour’s sense, however, the original “believers in belief” are not gullible theists but mainstream atheists – like Russell and Dennett, for instance – who consider themselves to be blessed with critical knowledge based on solid facts, while other people, blinded by superstition, cling to beliefs that have no support outside the misty realms of make-believe. But who in this great brawl is really believing naively? Not the religious believers, according to Latour, but the modern atheists, afflicted as they are by the “naïve belief … that ignorant people believe naively”. Indeed the much-loved contrast between the so-called “facts” that provide a foundation for enlightened knowledge and the “fetishes” that animate the beliefs of fools is itself a superstition – a delusion which Latour proposes to commemorate with his new hybrid word “factish” (or faitiche in French, where his wordplay works better). A factish, in short, is what happens when our own “facts” turn out to be fetishes, and the “fetishes” of others turn out to be facts.


Second, an article in the newest Lapham’s Quarterly about W.B. Yeats and the occult. I’d known about Yeats’ occult preoccupations, of course, but hadn’t realized the extent to which Yeats took them seriously. If you like Yeats’ poetry it’s an interesting read.

When Yeats arrived in London in 1887, the vogue for spiritualism was at its height, and the young poet was immediately sucked into the vortex. The implications of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution had sunk in and were undermining basic assumptions of the established social order. In 1867 Matthew Arnold had heard the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of the Sea of Faith in retreat, and cults sprang up to fill the gap, to satisfy those who, like Yeats, were searching for something to believe in beyond the material world.

I find particularly interesting the stuff linking Yeats to Isaac Newton, who apparently shared his interest in hermetic wisdom. The conclusion he draws is insufficiently drawn out, but it implies, I think, a lot about the science-magic-art triad:

If the greatest mathematician of postclassical times believed himself to be the modern exponent of the teachings of Hermes Trismegistus, and performed alchemical experiments in his laboratory in Cambridge, then readers of Yeats may wonder the less at the poet’s passionate devotion to hermetic revelation. Yeats’ credulous acceptance of the incredible is at the core of inspiration.


I always think of Yeats and J.R.R. Tolkien as similar in many ways; both mythopoeic, both nationalist, both traditionalist, both resistant to the scientific worldview. The biggest difference, perhaps, is their views on magic; Yeats was fascinated by the occult, while Tolkien was an ardent Catholic. So, which I read this post at The Atlantic by Alan Jacobs about Tolkien’s views on technology and their influence on modern fantasy literature, I wonder what would have happened if Yeats had become the father of fantasy literature instead. Now, as Jacobs rightly points out, Tolkien basically equates technology with dark magic, which poses problems for any fantasy writers who want to be less hostile to modernity. This is, I think, one of the central tensions in fantasy literature: it wants to be pro-magic, because magic is cool!, but wants to be anti-science, because it’s instinctively traditionalist. It’s a problem in a lot of art, I suppose, but it’s more obvious in fantasy than anywhere else:

Which raises some questions: Is fantasy intrinsically hostile to technology? That is, was Tolkien simply drawing out what is already there in the genre? Or has he limited it in unnecessary ways? What would a fantasy that embraces technology look like? Arthur Weasley’s fascination with Muggle tech in the Harry Potter books is simply comical — though a great source of fun in the books. I’d like to see a writer imagine what technologies would arise in a fictional world where magic rules but is not the only game in town. Is that too much to ask?


For the record, though, I think Jacobs misreads Harry Potter if he thinks that technology only shows up in Harry Potter through comic characters like Arthur Weasley. I’d argue that Weasley’s fascination with Muggle tech is funny mainly because it puts a spotlight on the fact that “magic,” in the Potter-verse, works exactly like technology, which means there’s not room for a serious opposition between magic and technology; and, in general, there’s not room for a serious contrast between the wizarding world and the muggle world; the books portray the wizarding world as exactly like the muggle world, just vaguely cooler. This is one of the biggest problems with those books, in my opinion: they take the magic out of magic. That’s the point my fourth link makes, in fact, a post from a blog I follow by J.S. Bangs, which tries to draw a distinction between “personal” and “impersonal” magic. In essence, impersonal magic is closer to science, personal magic is closer to art:

What’s notable, though, is that in all of these cases magic is impersonal. It doesn’t depend fundamentally on who you are or who you’re dealing with. Magic, like science, works the same for everyone. So I settled on the terminology of impersonal magic to describe these systems.

We can contrast this with personal magic systems, in which the identity of the magic-user is crucial to the working of magic. In Lord of the Rings, Gandalf says the Elvish word for “fire”, strikes the wet wood with his staff, and a fire starts. The other characters could talk Elvish and swing sticks around all night and not get anything other than splinters. Gandalf’s magic works the way it does not because he’s tapping into secret forces which anyone could invoke, but because he’s Gandalf.


This seems to me exactly right, and I think offers an interesting alternate view of the argument this article, from the journal Anamnesis, makes about the place of techne in Tolkien’s ouvre. The author there says that Tolkien does not condemn technology per se, but rather suggests that:

We might therefore reconsider the doctrine, epitomized by Henry Ford, that every man should have access to every innovation.  Perhaps those of us critical of technology’s effects on human life should consider the possibility that the fault lies not always in technology per se but in the utter lack of discrimination regarding who uses it and how.  It should give us pause that ordinary Americans now wield powers comparable to those of a wizard, powers for which they are neither morally nor intellectually prepared.  It may be that the wanton use of such powers is precisely why so many concur with Saruman’s view that one best understands the world by breaking it.

This is probably fairly close to Tolkien’s views on technology and the corruptions of modernity, but I’m not sure how close it is to what we find in his literary works. If it’s right that Gandalf isn’t able to call down fire on his enemies because he has secret knowledge, but  “because he’s Gandalf,” then there’s no parallel between that and good or bad uses of technology; the implicit argument isn’t that technology should be rationed according to a natural hierarchy of deserts, but that the natural hierarchy of abilities should not be tampered with.

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