Magic is Real, in the Past

17 10 2012

I recently listened to an old episode of Radiolab about memory. I was struck by the capricious nature of memory as described in the program. Remembering something, they say, is not like playing back a tape. It is actually a a reconstruction of the event being remembered.

This is a weird concept, especially in the digital age, when we take for granted the capacity to record and play back any visible or audible event with perfect accuracy. We expect our memories to work the same way. Even when memory is suspect (we’ve all forgotten things, or remembered things differently than someone else) we can compensate by externalizing memories. We can look at old photographs, read old journals, re-watch movies, and virtually re-live past experiences.

But what did memory mean to cultures with no photography, and no mass literacy? How does a society conceive of the past when all their histories are maintained by oral tradition and abstract art?

As any art historian will tell you, pre-modern artists were not too dumb to paint in a lifelike way; they just weren’t interested in doing so. One might say they understood the folly of Pygmalion (which my drawing teacher Joseph Mann was fond of citing). The map is not the territory. A work of art is a representation, not the thing it represents. So if a culture doesn’t care about lifelike recordings, what is their understanding of the past?

I’m speaking in wooly generalities here, but it’s a blog post, not a dissertation. Ancient cultures had a wide array of myths and legends– magical tales. Today we intuitively understand the universe to be predictable. It can be dumbfounding, sure, but it works according to rules that can be understood through study and exploration. It’s hard for us to imagine someone truly believing in magic. But if we had no records to go on apart from stories that had been passed down for generations, stories that had been imperfectly copied from one teller to the next, stories that inevitably alter, perhaps growing ever more colorful and outlandish…wouldn’t those stories seem as real as our photographs? Even if we’re aware that the stories change over time (again, ancient people were not idiots), they are our best tool for understanding the universe. And if our best tool is fluid and abstract, we might sense that it reflects a fluidity in the universe. Unlike a photograph, which reflects concrete, predictable reality.

Or–this is even better (and it’s really where the Radiolab thing comes in). Suppose you live in this world with only fluid, mythic histories, and you have an outlandish experience, like, say, being struck by lightning. And every time you recall that experience, you recreate it slightly differently, until it becomes an encounter with a monster or a spirit. That memory is just as real and reliable as the weight of a rock in your hand at the present moment. And then, you hear a story from someone else about magic elves. Why wouldn’t you believe it?

Magic cannot happen in the present, but it can happen in the past. For ancient peoples, magic was constantly going on in the past, as evidenced by both personal and ancestral memory. Boom! All ancient mythical stories are now true. You’re welcome.

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