Thursday, 2 January 2014

Magic or Science/Logic/Rationality/Normality?

In Neil Gaiman's The Books Of Magic IV (New York, 1991), the Phantom Stranger tells Tim Hunter that he can choose magic or:

"...the path of science, of rationality. Live in a normal world. Die a normal death. Less exciting, undoubtedly. But safer." (p. 41)

This statement needs to be unpicked and unpacked quite a lot. Science, rationality and normality are far from synonymous. Ancient philosophers were rational but science is a historically recent empirically testable application of rationality. Normality means what we are used to experiencing whereas pure reason and empirical science are neither normal nor unexciting. If anything, science is metaphorically magical.

Mr E says that, when magic left the thirtieth century:

" and logic and cold rationality held illimitable dominion over all." (p. 17)

Logic is simply the kind of consistency between propositions without which we would not succeed in saying anything, whether about science or about magic. Is rationality, i. e., a logical connection between premises and conclusions, "cold"? It can coexist with appreciation of acknowledged fiction, myth, art and aesthetic experience. So I think that both the Stranger and E articulate a false dichotomy.

The Stranger does a better job in Volume I (New York, 1990):

"Science is a way of talking about the universe in ways that bind it to a common reality. Magic is a method of talking to the universe in ways that it cannot ignore.The two are rarely compatible." (p. 41)

(He says "rarely," not "never.") I accept the modern scientific view that scientific discourse does not bind the universe to a common reality but discovers its already existing common reality. However, The Books Of Magic is a fantasy in which magical practitioners are imagined to exercise far greater power over nature than they do in the real world. The distinction between "...talking about..." and "...talking to..." is a good one.

James Blish's black magician, Theron Ware, defines magic as control of demons and demons as fallen angels and adds that scientists do not know that some of the forces controlling nature are Persons. In The Books Of Magic II, a magician explains that "black magic" is a misconception of the magic of the dead. It should be "necro-," not "nigra-." All that any fiction writer is obliged to do is to make his premises, however fantastic, reasonably clear. Blish succeeds admirably. Gaiman, in The Books Of Magic, pulls together many different fictions so the boundaries are sometimes blurred.

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