Monday, March 7, 2011

Victorian Magic and "Science"

One thing that keeps on fascinating me, no matter how many times or where I see it, is the Victorian dyad of science and magic. That was the time of the emerging Industrial Revolution. That was the time when mankind was tapping into previously unimagined forces. Electricity. Steam power. The Iron Horse. I’ve been learning about the Revolution since 9th grade history class, but I think it’s only now that I’m beginning to appreciate the power it had. Today we have the luxury of looking back on locomotives, or telegrams, or the first dreadnoughts as quaint or old-fashioned. But in a world used to wooden sailing ships and letter-carriers, of the horse-drawn coach as the fastest form of transportation on land that didn’t involve a Paul Revere, what must it have been like?

We live in a world that has become jaded with regards to miracles. I’ve noted before that we don’t really appreciate this power. With the proper coordination between parties, I can speak to someone on the other side of the world as if they were standing right next to me, even see their face when I talk to them. With motivation and money, I can transport myself from here to anyplace in the world near an airline hub within twenty-four hours. If you extend that to a week, I can go anywhere on land except the top of a mountain. Human civilization, learning and reading and writing, used to end immediately when the sun went down. Now I can continue the daytime indefinitely, through the use of artificial suns. I can reproduce any sound or video that I have access to, I can scribe any words that pop into my head.

We take these things for granted. How often have you heard people complain when ‘their’ Internet took too long to download a picture, or when ‘their’ wireless carrier dropped a call, or when ‘their’ public transportation system was late or broken? Say rather, the network they used or the transportation hubs through which they passed. We each like to think that we are wizards ourselves, in command of these marvels we communicate with. In truth, there are forces of mercantilism and power generation beyond our capacity to imagine that work to bring these wonders to our homes. Marx called it “the fetishism of the commodity”. Today, it might be better referred to as the fetishism of a lifestyle.

But I digress. The Industrial Revolution was more then just an advancement in technology. It changed the way people thought about power, and about their relationship to Nature. Far from being buffeted about helplessly by forces beyond our control, we could for the first time harness those forces for our own will. Instead of running from the storms, humans had captured lightning and made it their servant. Despite the science behind the new era, might it not have seemed like wizardry to an unprepared audience? Despite the engines and machines that produced these marvels, might this new way of living-of thinking-have crossed over into the spiritual, into some higher plane of human knowledge or existence? Might these supposed scientific advances have inadvertently harnessed…magic?

That’s what the best novels of the period did, foremost among them, Frankenstein. What is that allure of Frankenstein, you might ask? For me, it has always been the image of the monster leading Frankenstein on his hopeless chase through the snowy wastelands of the Arctic, on his way to the heretofore unexplored roof of the world. There is a spirit of discovery buried within the bleak scene, a fire to explore the last frontiers. Back when the edges of the map were penciled in and some waggish cartographers wrote Here there be dragons in the undiscovered countries, that spirit of discovery was still alive. Frankenstein’s chase is part of that spirit. His is a world of magic and monsters, where science has only the most tenuous hold on the forces it attempts to harness. That is what the best period films attempt to capture. Sherlock Holmes came so achingly close, but failed in the last extremity of its attempt to catch it. And a film like The Prestige, which obscures the very nature of science and magic better then any other film, might just have it.

I once read a critic’s description of why he didn’t enjoy The Prestige. “I don’t mind going to see a science-fiction film,” he said, “Just tell me that I’m seeing one beforehand.” While I appreciate the sentiment voiced by that critic (Nolan’s transition from science to magic is rough if one does not look for it in advance), I think that he has ever so slightly missed the point. Obfuscation, smoke and mirrors, layers and layers of trickery and magicians’ games… that is the genius of the film. Because beneath all of the layers, hard and shining like some exotic metal, is the real magic of the film, waiting for the covers of deceit to be stripped away and its true nature to be revealed. This movie does not become a science-fiction flick at all, Mr. Critic. It was a magical one from the beginning. Within it, the magician (and supposed lord of artifice), is blinded by a deeper level of magic, cheap tricks replaced with an elemental force that he can neither comprehend nor penetrate. That’s the caged beast toiling at the center of every device. That’s the force that drives the new world. Magic.

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