real magic

i was reading chesterton’s essay “the ethics of elfland” to refresh my sense of how to approach nature and found in it also a refreshing vision of what the real definition of magic is, or should be. he writes:

“the things i believed most then, the things i believe most now, are the things called fairy tales. they seem to me to be the entirely reasonable things. they are not fantasies; compared with them other things are fantastic… i felt in my bones; first, that the world does not explain itself. it may be a miracle with a supernatural explanation; it may be a conjuring trick, with a natural explanation. but the explanation of the conjuring trick, if it is to satisfy me, will have to be better than the natural explanations i have heard. the thing is magic, true or false.”

what is magic, after all? something that doesn’t exist, like a dragon. why is a dragon more magical than a bear? because bears are real and dragons have never existed. but why should that be a point in the bear’s favor? after all, what is the greater magic, existence or non-existence? we don’t call someone with an imagination magical, but someone who can create things that didn’t exist before. it is existence itself that is the magic. besides, are you sure than dragons do not exist? what is a dragon, after all, except a patchwork of the characteristics of a handful of other animals. imagining a dragon is not a work of creation, but re-arranging. an iguanas frame. a birds wings. fire where it doesn’t belong. to be quilted of bits of other real things does not make for magic. or if it does we must be consistent and call mrs. dalloway, romeo and juliet, and huck and jim magical creatures as well.

it seems an important thing to rescue the word “magic” from meaning simply “what does not exist.” why? because the world we live in is swimming in magic and pushing the word “magic” down into the bog of childrens faerie tales simply robs us of our ability to see it. it does not grant the “real” world dignity by separating it from fantasy. it would be better to raise it all up, so that what we think of when we think of the real world is nearly indistinguishable from what we think of when we think of faerie tales.

in this sense the ancients saw the world more truly than our own modern eyes. the sun used to rise because a chariot pulled it across the sky. storms were the anger of a mighty god. it rained because the good heavenly powers had achieved a victory. the mistake that we moderns have made was not to learn science, but to believe that after it had taught us the nature of something we had exhausted it. as if by increasing our knowledge of something we automatically decrease our wonder at it. science is merely the investigation into the machinations of a great magic. it is delving into the mysteries of a great spell-caster.

our mistake has been to believe that, though the universe often operates like a machine, that it is one. a bear is more magical than a dragon precisely because it is real and it is just a certain way. the fact that a bear is anything at all is the real magic.  the fact that we call it “normal” is only a failure of imagination on our part. it is a mistake to call it a miracle when jesus turns water into wine and call it “nature” when grapes do it.

if magic is only “what does not exist,” then all the magic will slowly leak our of the world and it will take the wonder with it. science should disclose the magic to us, not steal it away. wonder only increases with understanding. even if you get used to something, there is no normal. we are surrounded by powerful spells like gravity, birth, humor, the tide, and sunlight.  the world is not a machine some creator hung in the cosmos and departed. it is a crystal ball god bends over and pours his work into.

two quotations to close. the first by chesterton, the second by walt whitman:

“i felt and feel that life is as bright as a diamond, but as brittle as the window-pane; and when the heavens were compared to the terrible crystal i can remember shudder. i was afraid that god would drop the cosmos with a crash.”

“miracles” by walt whitman

“Why, who makes much of a miracle?
As to me I know of nothing else but miracles,
Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan,
Or dart my sight over the roofs of houses toward the sky,
Or wade with naked feet along the beach just in the edge of the water,
Or stand under trees in the woods,
Or talk by day with any one I love, or sleep in the bed at night
with any one I love,
Or sit at table at dinner with the rest,
Or look at strangers opposite me riding in the car,
Or watch honey-bees busy around the hive of a summer forenoon,
Or animals feeding in the fields,
Or birds, or the wonderfulness of insects in the air,
Or the wonderfulness of the sundown, or of stars shining so quiet
and bright,
Or the exquisite delicate thin curve of the new moon in spring;
These with the rest, one and all, are to me miracles,
The whole referring, yet each distinct and in its place.
To me every hour of the light and dark is a miracle,
Every cubic inch of space is a miracle,
Every square yard of the surface of the earth is spread with the same,
Every foot of the interior swarms with the same.
To me the sea is a continual miracle,
The fishes that swim–the rocks–the motion of the waves–the
ships with men in them,
What stranger miracles are there?”

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