A Better Question

by on November 29, 2011

Essays Issue 1 Nonfiction

There’s a remarkable video in which a couple of white guys, Belgians, I think, are hanging out in the rainforest waiting to make contact with a group of Papua New Guinea tribesmen. This is sometime in the late seventies. The tribesmen were apparently one of the last untouched peoples of the world.

Can you imagine? For better or worse the Westerners had about ten thousand years on the hunter–gatherers: ten thousand years using markets to allocate resources, ten thousand years using the written word to accumulate good ideas—enough to make them aliens, basically, visitors from an incomprehensible future.

It’s worth watching the video if only to see the look in the tribesmen’s eyes the first time they see and touch the Europeans, their camera, matches, mirror, tape recorder, knife—each simple object overthrowing in its own way a lifetime’s worth of thinking about how stuff works and what might be possible. Watch as the tribesmen sing and play instruments and then a moment later listen to the whole thing played back to them. Imagine what they must be thinking, what must be happening inside a mind that’s never heard (or even conceived of) recorded sound.

There’s something oddly endearing about the whole thing. Partly because it’s nice to see others marvel at our gizmos, ones as plain as matches and mirrors. But mostly I think it’s because we delight in delight, if only because genuine astonishment and scenes of seeming magic, of the kind a muggle might find at Hogwarts, are so uncommon in our world.

It’s worth asking why that might be: what is it about “our world” that makes delight, particularly among adults, so unusual? Is it that we’re short on magic? Are we jaded?

I think the first thing that ought to be said is that, yes, the world we live in isn’t magical. That’s the price of our Enlightenment: we know now there are physical laws that can’t be broken, like the laws of thermodynamics, which say that energy cannot be created or destroyed, and rule out so-called “perpetual motion machines,” and, in general, guarantee that there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch: that the universe on the whole doesn’t want to do interesting things—that on the whole it wants to decay into states of higher and higher “entropy,” the disorder of random heat.

So “interesting things,” like Harry Potter’s Golden Snitch, can’t be willed into action with a magic wand, because in the real world there are costs associated with snitch-like intelligence, dynamism, and precision, costs that stem, ultimately, from the overcoming of disorder by energy. Indeed, the closest you’d probably come to a real-life snitch is a hummingbird, whose snitch-like behavior is driven not by magic, but by biomechanical machines (brains, muscles, lungs, wings, etc.) a thousand times more sophisticated than anything humans have built, machines that must be fed constantly with high-energy foods lest they run out of molecular gas and die.

That is no doubt the source of magic’s appeal: the most wonderful things are simultaneously easy to imagine and implacably difficult to make real—which is like the dictionary definition of “tantalizing”—and magic cuts straight to the good stuff. Trouble is, in so doing it elides all the bits that matter, the work that would bring it to life. That’s what makes it fantasy—and why it leads so often to disappointment.

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