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Magic and the Machine: Living in an American Age of Techno-Wonder and Unreason

The more uncertain our future seems, the more Americans retreat into magical thinking.
 
 
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[A longer version of this essay appears in "Magic Shows," the Summer 2012 issue of Lapham's Quarterly, and is posted at TomDispatch.com with the kind permission of that magazine.]

As between the natural and the supernatural, I’ve never been much good at drawing firm distinctions. I know myself to be orbiting the sun at the speed of 65,000 miles per hour, but I can’t shake free of the impression shared by Pope Urban VIII, who in 1633 informed Galileo that the earth doesn’t move. So also the desk over which I bend to write, seemingly a solid mass of wood but in point of fact a restless flux of atoms bubbling in a cauldron equivalent to the one attended by the witches in Macbeth.

Nor do I separate the reality from the virtual reality when conversing with the airy spirits in a cell phone, or while gazing into the wizard’s mirror of a television screen. What once was sorcery maybe now is science, but the wonders technological of which I find myself in full possession, among them indoor plumbing and electric light, I incline to regard as demonstrations magical.

This inclination apparently is what constitutes a proof of being human, a faculty like the possession of language that distinguishes man from insect, guinea hen, and ape. In the beginning was the word, and with it the powers of enchantment. I take my cue from Christopher Marlowe’s tragical drama Doctor Faustus because his dreams of  “profit and delight,/Of power, of honor, of omnipotence,” are the stuff that America is made of, as was both the consequence to be expected and the consummation devoutly to be wished when America was formed in the alembic of the Elizabethan imagination. Marlowe was present at the creation, as were William Shakespeare, the navigators Martin Frobisher and Francis Drake, and the Lord Chancellor Francis Bacon envisioning a utopian New Atlantis on the coast of Virginia.

It was an age that delighted in the experiment with miracles, fiction emerging into fact on the far shores of the world’s oceans, fact eliding into fiction in the Globe Theatre on an embankment of the Thames. London toward the end of the sixteenth century served as the clearinghouse for the currencies of the new learning that during the prior 150 years had been gathering weight and value under the imprints of the Italian Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation in Germany. The Elizabethans had in hand the writings of Niccolò Machiavelli and Martin Luther as well as those of Ovid and Lucretius, maps drawn by Gerardus Mercator and Martin Waldseemüller, the observations of Nicolaus Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, Giordano Bruno, and Paracelsus.

The medieval world was dying an uneasy death, but magic remained an option, a direction, and a technology not yet rendered obsolete. Robert Burton, author of The Anatomy of Melancholy, found the air “not so full of flies in summer as it is at all times of invisible devils.” To the Puritan dissenters contemplating a departure to a new and better world the devils were all too visible in a land that “aboundeth with murders, slaughters, incests, adulteries, whoredom, drunkenness, oppression, and pride.”

Thinks Tanks of the Sixteenth and Twentieth Centuries

In both the skilled and unskilled mind, astronomy and astrology were still inseparable, as were chemistry and alchemy, and so it is no surprise to find Marlowe within the orbit of inquisitive “intelligencers” centered on the wealth and patronage of Henry Percy, “the Wizard Earl” of Northumberland, who attracted to his estate in Sussex the presence of Dr. John Dee, physician to Queen Elizabeth blessed with crystal showstones occupied by angels, as well as that of Walter Raleigh, court poet and venture capitalist outfitting a voyage to Guiana to retrieve the riches of El Dorado.

 
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