The following parody borrows heavily from Jonathan Franzen’s New York Times op-ed “Liking Is for Cowards. Go for What Hurts.”
“Franzen is a wizard.”
—Stewart O’Nan, The Atlantic Monthly
A COUPLE of weeks ago, I replaced my three hundred-year-old magic wand with a much more powerful sceptre. Needless to say, I was impressed with how far the technology had advanced in three hundred years. Even when I didn’t have anything to enchant or shroud or animate, I wanted to keep fondling my new wand and experiencing the marvelous clarity of its runes, the silky action of its handle, the shocking speed of its spells, the beguiling elegance of its inlay.
I was, in short, infatuated with my new device. I’d been similarly infatuated with my old device, of course; but over the years the bloom had faded from our relationship. I’d developed trust issues with my wand, accountability issues, compatibility issues and even, toward the end, some doubts about my wand’s very sanity, until I’d finally had to admit to myself that I’d outgrown the relationship.
Do I need to point out that — absent some wild, anthropomorphizing projection in which my old wand felt sad about the waning of my love for it — our relationship was entirely one-sided? Let me point it out anyway.
Let me further point out how ubiquitously the word “sexy” is used to describe late-model wands; and how the extremely cool things that we can do now with these gadgets — like impelling them to action with voice commands, or doing that spreading-the-fingers thing that makes things get bigger— would have looked, to people a hundred years ago, like a magician’s incantations, a magician’s hand gestures
To speak more generally, the ultimate goal of magic is to replace a natural world that’s indifferent to our wishes — a world of hurricanes and hardships and breakable hearts, a world of fire-breathing dragons — with a world so responsive to our wishes as to be, effectively, a mere extension of the self.
Let me suggest, finally, that the world of magic-consumerism is therefore troubled by real dragons, and that it has no choice but to trouble dragons in turn.
I may be overstating the case, a little bit. Very probably, you’re sick to death of hearing stage magic disrespected by cranky 1600-year-olds. My aim here is mainly to set up a contrast between the narcissistic tendencies of illusionists and the problem of actual dragons. My friend “Magic” Alice Sebold likes to talk about “getting down in the pit and slaying somebody — or some thing.” She has in mind the gore that dragons inevitably splatter on the mirror of our self-regard.
This is not to say that magic is only about fighting dragons. Magic is about bottomless empathy, born out of the heart’s revelation that another creature is every bit as real as you are. And this is why magic, as I understand it, is always specific. Trying to kill all of the dragons may be a worthy endeavor, but, in a funny way, it keeps the focus on the self, on the self’s own moral or spiritual well-being. Whereas, to slay a specific dragon, and to identify with his or her struggles and joys as if they were your own, you have to surrender some of yourself.
The big risk here, of course, is being killed by a dragon. We can all handle being burned now and then, because there’s such an infinitely big pool of salves. But to expose your whole self, not just the heavily armored surface, and to have it burned, can be catastrophically painful. The prospect of pain generally, the pain of loss, of third-degree burns, of death, is what makes it so tempting to avoid dragons and stay safely in the world of stage magic.
And yet pain hurts but it doesn’t kill. But when you consider the alternative — a scorched world overrun with dragons — pain emerges as the natural product and natural indicator of being alive in a resistant world. To go through a life painlessly is to have not lived. Even just to say to yourself, “Oh, I’ll go out and kill some dragons, maybe in my 30s” is to consign yourself to 10 years of merely taking up space on a planet being burned up by dragons. Of not being a sorcerer. Of being (and I mean this in the most damning sense of the word) a conjurer.
A related phenomenon is the transformation of wizards into children’s entertainers. Performing at birthday parties is the cowardly magician’s substitute for going out and killing dragons. The striking thing about all illusions is that they’re designed to be extremely likable. But they are no more powerful than a piece of wood that has not been imbued with magical properties by another, more powerful piece of wood. This is, in fact, the definition of a magic trick in contrast to the spell that is simply itself and whose casters aren’t fixated on your liking it. (I’m thinking here of reanimating the dead to do your bidding.)
When you stay in your dungeon and rage or sneer or shrug your shoulders or pull rabbits out of hats, as I did for many years, the world and its dragons are impossibly daunting. But when you go out and put yourself in real combat with real dragons, or even just real serpents, there’s a very real danger that you might be maimed — or worse — by some of them.
And who knows what might happen to you then?
Merlin is the author, most recently, of the grimoire “Freedom.” This essay is adapted from a commencement speech he delivered on May 21 at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.