Author: Campbell, Bruce

Indistinguishable From Magic

Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law states “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” We have witnessed this in this history both ancient and recent as societies at disparate levels of technology collide. The Native Americans surely thought the Europeans’ technologies (their great ships, metallurgy and weaponry) were magic, and more recent anthropological discoveries of isolated tribes bear this out – imagine if you’ve never even encountered electricity and somebody whips out an iPhone!

We live in a civilization now that is nearly devoid of magic. Indeed, our whole philosophy since the Renaissance rejects the notion altogether. The scientific method, applied in careful experimentation by very bright people over the last half millennia has driven a logical stake through of the heart of magic as a concept. If you can’t explain something, you can assume that somebody else could, or failing that, someone will discover the explanation eventually. We seem to inherently believe that all things are understandable and explainable, even if we don’t understand them, or can’t explain them.

The very notion of magic was a convenient end in itself. How does passing that magnet through a coil of wire produce electricity? It must be magic. Case closed. For thousands of years, this was a perfectly reasonable explanation, and no further discussion was necessary.

This view provided a interesting mixture of comfort (Didn’t need to waste time being too curious) and fear (If someone can do THAT magic, what else might they do?). I’m glad that viewpoint has passed into disuse. But there’s another aspect to magic that is positive and pleasurable: the sense of wonder.

Wonder is an everyday occurrence when you’re young, if you care to remember. Santa Claus, fireworks, Disneyland and even your uncle “stealing your nose” provided a neverending stream of wonder. As you get older, and wiser, though, wonder starts to be harder to come by. Harder, but not impossible,

This last weekend, I went to a Dinner Show at a local Magic Club here in Martinez. I’m not a big “magic” fan, but having talented illusionists ply their trade in close quarters will revive your sense of wonder. These guys were good – it wasn’t just pulling coins from your ear. To have such adroit prestidigitation performed right under my noise was, in a word, wonderful. I had a chance to speak with some of the magicians and some audience members afterwards, and I commented how much I appreciated reliving the delights of being amazed, and feeling a sense of wonder.

“You know”, one fellow in the audience said to me. “Magic is very similar to what you do, as a musician. For those who don’t play music, watching and listening to good musicians is pretty much like magic.” And I realized he was right. How many times have I been amazed when I saw some great musicians perform? I remember one night in Grass Valley, I was in a very small jam that happened to include Eric Uglum and standing so close to that guy, and watching and hearing him play, had my jaw dropping and gasping in amazement. I’m no stranger to the guitar – been playing the darn thing for over 40 years – but Uglum’s approach and deftness was a wonder to behold.

So, a sense of wonder is not just for ignorant pre-Renaissance peasants and the very young. You just have to know where to look for it. I strongly suggest frequent bluegrass jams and occasional trips to magic clubs.

Posted:  8/31/2011

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