Saturday, October 02, 2021

Parsha with Chana

 I've decided to write meditations on the weekly Parsha at my new substack, 'Parsha with Chana.'

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Sunday, February 21, 2021

Here is Real Magic

 This is an excerpt from 'Here is Real Magic' by Nate Staniforth. It's also the best thing I've read lately. (The one thing you need to know to understand what you are reading is that he is a magician.)

Every night onstage I witnessed a tension in the human spirit between our longing to revel in a mystery and our impulse to destroy it. I came to see the modern resentment toward magic as a clue to some larger struggle in our culture, like a small ripple in a pond revealing the monster lurking just below the surface of the water.
One night in New Jersey a group of people gathered at the front of the stage after the show for pictures, and a woman in the group kept insisting I tell her how one of the illusions was done. I think she was a reporter for the college paper- nineteen, I'm guessing, and not even trying to be nice.
"Why are you doing this?" she finally asked.
"What do you mean?"
"It's all fake," she said. "I know it's fake. So you can tell me how you did it."
I wanted to explain that magic is fiction. Like a writer of fiction, a magician does everything possible to make an illusion feel real in the moment. Good books feel real. Good movies feel real. Good magic feels real, too. I wondered if she was upset with J.D. Salinger for inventing Holden Caulfield, as if any of the power of Catcher in the Rye depended on its being the story of an actual teenager.
But she was having none of it.
"So why can't you tell me? If it's not real, are you just keeping it a secret because it makes you feel powerful?"
"Do I look particularly powerful to you right now?" I asked. This was not going well.
"Whatever," she said. "I'm just going to Google it." And she walked away.
I'm just going to Google it. There. In one sentence she had identified something new in the world- some new way of seeing things, or of thinking about things. Here was the cynicism of our modern age, and I despised it. Information is now so easy to find that few of us are strong enough to resist the temptation of presuming we already know more than we actually do. Our worldviews are still built on the foundations of our own limited understanding, but we now live under the dangerous illusion that they are reinforced and supported by all the knowledge that has ever existed. If I don't have the answers now, I can find them, the thinking goes, and without even noticing we shrink our world down to the size of our certainties.
Here is a blind spot in our culture, created both by the habitual, almost systemic mistaking of information for understanding and by the assumption that a complete understanding of anything can be attained with enough information. This view of the world reduces everything and everyone to bits of data- some known, some still unknown, but all knowable- and reduces wonder to a mere absence of information, as if the simple brute fact of our own existence isn't mystery enough to keep you up for a week if you really consider it. "Oh that," we so easily say about anything we don't understand, "I'm sure we have that all sorted out." And in doing so we insulate ourselves from any facts, opinions and ideas- those pesky things- that ask us to venture away from our own reality.
I suppose we have the right to remain ignorant, but we are in the world. And in the world, our actions have an impact on others, so assuming that you understand something you don't becomes an ethical issue more than an intellectual one. There is a danger and maybe even a violence to the belief that you already know something- or someone- completely, when you do not, and will not, and cannot. Knowledge does not allow you to understand the world. Knowledge dispels the illusion that you understand the world.
To be sure, I don't have magical powers, and the college reporter was right that my show was, in one sense, totally fake. So are the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. So are the pirates in Peter Pan. Tinker Bell isn't real either. But the universe is not made only from facts- take, for instance, kindness, loyalty, love or wonder- and treating information as the only thing that matters makes it impossible to see the rest.
-pages 61-63