Magic revisited


I wrote here about my inability to feel ‘the magic of reality’ that some people claim to feel. Even so, I am loathe to give up the search for a little magic, so here are one or two places one might look.

We only have five senses and these are tuned to detect only certain kinds of information out there in the world. The rest passes us by. This means that a large part of reality is invisible to us. Just like in the Jules Verne novel in which a group of people journey to the centre of the earth, burrowing down, out of sight of people on the surface of the world, so there are things happening all around us of which we are unaware.

Could this be construed as magic? It’s a bit of a stretch. When we think of magic we tend to imagine ourselves pushing through thick coats in a wardrobe to come out on the other side into a mysterious winter landscape. The thought of unseen magnetic fields around me is more nausea-inducing than awe-inspiring. My idea of magic is to rip up the floorboards to find miniature people scurrying around beneath my feet, not high pitched radio waves that my ears can’t detect.

Perhaps a different approach is to see our lives from an unusual perspective. The close-up point of view tends to be habitual and leads us to take things for granted. When we take a step back, we remember that seemingly permanent things will soon be gone. Your mum, dad, brothers and sisters, nephews and nieces and all your friends will all soon be ash blowing around some crematorium gardens. Bearing this thought in mind helps you to appreciate their company a little more. But it is hard to keep this thought in mind and you soon go back to taking people for granted. Their annoying habits which you forgave for just a moment start to irritate you again.

Then how about taking an even bigger step back to see things from a God-like perspective? You could imagine the earth from a vantage point high above and see all of history and the earth’s future laid out below you. First you see life itself begin and evolve and then watch as some species go extinct. Continents slowly drift apart and come together as in a dance. Mountain ranges rise up and are eroded. You see the sun swallow up all the planets in our solar system and the Milky Way crash into the Andromeda Galaxy. You ruefully grin as you see the universe expand until its energy and matter are so thinly distributed that there is nothing left to see but blackness. Then it’s over. Forever. It’s an interesting perspective and as Charles Darwin wrote about his view of evolution, ‘There is grandeur in this view of life’. Grandeur maybe, but magic?

Another possible source of magic is love. When you’re in love the world seems a better place and every day feels like Christmas Eve. It’s as though you were on the cusp of finally discovering what life is for and why you’re here. The problem is that it never lasts. Also, as you get older, you fall in love less and less. Still, at least you might find some temporary magic if you manage to fall in love once in a while.

Some people find travel magical. I travelled quite a bit when I was younger but not any more, at least not for pleasure. Now all I see are shiny airport lounges where I watch people with a compulsion to eat, drink or buy something, anything. Also nowadays I feel about flying as Samuel Johnson felt about sea travel: like being in prison but with the added danger of drowning. To me a person in exotic clothing is no longer a fascinating example of the world’s rich tapestry but a prospective migrant to multicultural, welfare state Britain. Or the person most likely to go berserk at 29,000 feet.

And even when I was young travel wasn’t always that great. When I was 19 I set out with the intention of walking around Britain for 6 months. After 6 weeks of being rained on (I went from October to December) I just wanted to go home. Six weeks of travelling alone had rendered the prospect of seeing one more town, one more hotel room and a few new strangers cold and unappealing. It seemed to me that there was more warmth and interest at home.

Even so, I still look back with nostalgia at nights like the one when I travelled from Cologne to Berlin. I had been working in a factory in Cologne for 6 months; Cologne was the first big city I came to on the ferry train from England so I stopped there. While in Cologne I remembered seeing a picture of a street in Berlin that had fired my imagination. I also liked The Saxophone Song by Kate Bush which begins,

You’ll find me in a Berlin bar in a corner brooding
You know that I grow very quiet when I’m listening to you

So I decided to move to Berlin. On the night train all the people in my carriage were asleep. It was about one O’Clock in the morning and I went outside into the corridor and slid open one of the small windows. It was snowy outside and I leaned out into the darkness and felt the freezing air. I had just turned 20 and was living alone in a foreign country and my future seemed to promise adventure and romance. On nights like that I really did believe that life was a bit magical.

door in wall

Finally music, literature and art might offer glimpses of magic. There are Victorian Christmas scenes, stories of enchanted forests, folk tales, shadows, firelight, candles, old sepia photos, T.S. Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’, E.T.A. Hoffmann’s The Golden Urn, H.G. Wells’ The Door in the Wall, Concierto de Aranjuez by Rodrigo, The Long and Winding Road by Paul McCartney, Hijo de la Luna by Mecano, Night Porter by Japan, A Song for Europe by Roxy Music, the paintings of Kasper David FriedrichAtkinson Grimshaw and Arthur Rackham. the movies The Lover and Homo Faber (or Voyager) and the children’s stories like The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, Stig of the Dump and The Never Ending Story.

And, of course, there are those Proustian moments when suddenly something transports you back 30 years to a time when you were still full of hope and cynicism hadn’t yet settled upon you. Philip Larkin best describes those feelings in Love Songs in Age. But nostalgia is always magic tinged with sadness. It’s as though a sudden memory triggers the release of two powerful chemicals, one sweet and one bitter which then race through your veins and make for your throat. For an instant you get the sense of a hidden dimension so full of depth and meaning that, were you allowed to go there now, you would drop everything and go forever. The contrast with your present flat existence is so great and the sense of loss so awful that for a moment you just want to cry. Yet deep down I know the past was just as flat and lacking in meaning as the present.

Despite this there is something about the act of looking back itself which brings into being another dimension and thus a sense of depth. And though we are admonished not to live in the past, the bitter-sweet emotion that arises when we contemplate a past tragically and irretrievably gone forever is one I could easily become addicted to.

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