The Magic Killer Formula

I’ve learned that there is one thing that can kill magic.

You might think a few things to yourself at this point. First of all, what do I even mean by magic? When I talk about magic, I am talking about wonder. I’m talking about imagination and a variety of human emotional responses to that practically limitless power.

So with that working definition in mind, how can something like magic get destroyed? After all, energy can neither be created nor destroyed. But that’s just it: I’m not talking about something that can be completely obliterated: if such a thing is even possible.

Magic as I see it can’t be destroyed, but it can be killed. It can die and leave a corpse of some sort behind: an empty pattern or a shadow of what it once was.

But what can kill something like magic?

You might think it would be reality. Reality is gravity, social structure, obligation, physical health, and consequences for any action taken or not. Yet that isn’t enough. In fact, magic can complement and even thrive in such an environment: accentuating and making art from the mundane. It can even make you see reality in a whole other way if you let it, or empathize with what you see and feel.

No. Reality by itself can’t kill magic.

However, try injecting an amount of irony into magic. I don’t mean a little bit of it: that just adds some cleverness and some poetic justice to the flavour if you are good enough. Now, try adding a lot of irony to the magic on your Petri dish: to the point where it even needs one. Usually this is a particular substance distilled from reality and it is like an anaesthetic: capable of creating enough emotional detachment to remove any hint of sensation.

How about a little irony, Scarecrow?

All joking aside, the irony at that point is still small because it is a distillation, but it worms its way into magic’s heart: into the core of it. Very slowly, but surely you will get to the point where the organism mutates. It starts to shrink and shape into a more definite shape: like the aforementioned Petri dish or other container. If you didn’t put too much irony into the mixture, then it still has a chance. It can look at itself and laugh at what it sees. It subverts itself but still has the potential to expand out again and become stronger for it: more multi-layered. Parody is still magic and if you can keep it at a point where the irony allows for comedy and reflection as well as a certain levelheadedness, then it’s all still good. After all, a little bit of cyanide or Iocane powder over time supposedly builds some resistance to such within a subject.

It’s when the cynicism in the cyanide develops that you have to watch out. At first, it all seems very well and good. The mixture you’ve made seems even more clever, even more biting, even more … cold. And then, even when it goes out of control it is so incredibly casual and smarmy that you don’t even see that anything is wrong.

The fact that it breaks things down, and takes things apart isn’t in itself bad. There are plenty of essential acids that do the same thing. However, it never stops and it rarely stays in its container if you keep feeding it. Pretty soon it begins to roll its eyes at anything it can find. It likes to “make fun” of any kind of enthusiasm, any form of passion, any vitality or life that it can find. The reason I put “making fun” in quotation marks is that this form of cynicism–the corrupted remnants of magic–doesn’t even remember what fun actually is, never mind the fact that it no longer has the capacity to make it.

It reaches a point where nothing is good enough for it anymore. It calcifies and stratifies into something with a hard outer shell and, pretty soon, even the most valid forms of expression or emotion are worth nothing more to it than objects of derision. Think about that for a few moments: a valid emotion as a human being means nothing–not even spit and garbage–to this form of cynicism that calls itself “sophistication.”

However, “sophistication” has a secret. Behind its calcified armour and its twisted barbs is the place where its heart used to be: a brittle core. You might think it is empty now, but that isn’t true. Instead, at the core of what this irony-infected magic has become is shallowness, immaturity, and above all else: fear.

Late-stage cynicism or sophistication need not be a terminal condition however. Take just a tincture, a small drop really, of a really strange natural marvel (which even now I hesitate to call an antidote) known as hope and you will see results of some kind. Of course, it might be too late and if you don’t add enough hope, the substance will only invert into its own hole and it will not really come back from that. In fact, it will pretty much die.

But–but–if you mix hope with wonder, enthusiasm, and general interest, then perhaps those barbs will soften, the carapace will begin to fall away, the mass of it will expand again, its temperature will rise, and it will be more malleable, more … open to suggestion. Of, if you’d like, dead magic is just like some kinds of dry flowers I once saw. If you submerge them in clear water, they will at first sink and then rise to the surface again as whole and vital as they once were.

Also, and more than coincidentally, the magic resulting from this form of rejuvenation is reported to be exquisite, if not outright extraordinary.

7 thoughts on “The Magic Killer Formula

  1. I don’t know, Lev Grossman did a pretty good job of injecting irony into magical version of New York in The Magician. He fused a Harry Potter-like magical university with a puddle hopping Narnia, and populated it embittered students who drank, got high, had sex, and fought in dysfunctional relationships. (Though the follow up, The Magician King, wasn’t as good.)

    Corey Doctorow’s Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town also manages this to decent effect.

    1. Well, that’s just it. Like the piece states, if you put enough irony into something, or just the right amount (whatever that is), then you can make something unique. These stories sound really intriguing actually and I think I heard about Grossman’s The Magician somewhere as well.

      So in terms of stories, you can definitely find that right amount. With Life and attitude though … I suppose that is more debatable.

      1. I guess I’m just confused by your post then. You seem to be describing many of the systems embedded in urban and postmodern fantasy (irony, cynicism, skepticism), but cautioning against writing it?

      2. It’s not so much that I’m cautioning against writing any of those systems (irony, cynicism, skepticism) as well as urban and postmodern fantasy elements at all. It’s rather, if anything, I’m more cautioning against putting *too much* of those elements into fantasy or any genre or subgenre. The problem is that my idea of *too much* is ultimately my opinion.

        I actually wasn’t even aiming at a discussion of genre at all, but just imagination itself and that fine line between adding realism and some interesting tones to the expression of it (if they can be separated) and an all-out dismissive attitude towards it that can be seen as sophistication.

        It really also doesn’t help that I have a bit of a facetious and kind of fictional tone throughout this whole article as well: which, like my The Funnies article, can be confusing. But I hope this clarifies at least something. 🙂

      3. When you say magic, it immediately invokes fantasy (no pun intended), and magical realism, which is a popular genre right now (The Night Circus, etc.).

        Oscar Wilde said, “it is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious.” Ditto for writing, or cautioning against “too much” – it’s only too much if it becomes tedious.

      4. I can see how “magic” can invoke those genres in that context, though I also gave a working definition of it as an impulse of imagination outside and in addition to genre.

        I really like that Oscar Wilde quote, btw. I think it makes both our points.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s