Sunday, December 8, 2013

Of Mystery And Magic


I was never a magician, but as a youth I planned on becoming one. I was never more than a magician’s assistant, but I was a faithful one. My older brother was a magician, and in his younger days I was his helper. As his assistant, I was let into the secret of how each trick was done. But before he told me, I was made to swear the Magician’s Oath, which goes: "As a magician I promise never to reveal the secret of any illusion to a non-magician, unless that one swears to uphold the Magician's Oath in turn. I promise never to perform any illusion for any non-magician without first practicing the effect until I can perform it well enough to maintain the illusion of magic."

Sort of silly, perhaps, but I took it seriously. Secrets used to mean something back when. Today, there is no such thing, it seems. A quick look on the internet can probably tell you the secret of any trick you’re likely to see on stage or off. But I never told a single magic secret. Our very first performance was probably my biggest temptation. We performed for the Brownie troop for my school, and every girl in my fourth grade class was suddenly interested in me, wanting to know how the doves appeared from a flaming pan, or how they disappeared just as quickly in a collapsing box. Perhaps it was a sense of duty, perhaps it was simply a desire to keep trade secrets. Or perhaps even at that young age I had some appreciation for a sense of mystery.

I won’t try to analyze my motivations as a child. But reflecting back on it, I still appreciate the idea of mystery and the guarding of secrets. It’s not that people don’t have a right to know the truth, but knowledge should be gained with a little bit of effort, not with a click of a mouse. Anything that is gained too easily is never properly appreciated. The receiver of truth must have the proper reverence for it in order for it to make its mark. And perhaps the world is better off when keepers of the secrets make sure they are given to those who can properly appreciate and respect them.

Something similar can be seen in the martial arts. Anyone who is interested can learn how to break an arm these days. A generation ago, a martial arts instructor had an interest in teaching a moral code as much as fighting techniques. An instructor would not advance a student who did not show the proper respect to his teachers and fellow students. I’m not sure if such a thing exists today, but surely much of the tradition has been stripped from the training.

If my examples of magic and martial arts aren’t convincing, then let us use romantic love as an example. Anyone with access to the internet can learn in graphic detail how babies are made. But this teaches little about the proper attitude towards creating life and nourishing it. The great mystery of love can easily vanish in the light of cold truth, as indeed it seems to have. If we look too closely into things, we can explain away all that might otherwise be beautiful and magical. Maybe it is not a matter of looking too closely, but a matter of how we look at things. If we look with reverence upon the things we should hold sacred, or magical, we can appreciate them for what they are. If we lack the reverence, we may also miss the magic. It seems that we are living in an age without magic, and I find that a pity. Without a sense of mystery, without a true sense of reverence for wisdom earned through effort, we risk abandoning the very things that have made us who we are, as individuals and as a society. Perhaps as individuals we won’t really notice, but I fear that as a society we shall all suffer from the lack of appreciation for mystery.

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