Saturday, February 18, 2012

Magic, Modernity and Misgivings

I've been cheerful all afternoon. How could I not be? After all, I watched a movie in which a wood sprite assumed the form of a large, cuddly rabbit with two equally cuddly but much smaller friends. At one point in the movie, all three of them participated in a mid-night voodoo jig around an acorn patch. At another juncture, the large rabbit waited at a bus-stop for a Cheshire-cat bus whose headlights were constituted of illuminated mice....I watched My Neighbour Totoro.

There are imaginations and then there are imaginations - some are morbid, some are mythical, some are magical, some derivative. Miyazaki's stands on its own. His worlds seem to be a happy  marriage of Disney and Lewis Carroll, but retain an integrity and vocabulary that is original. His stories are relayed not so much with charm as with sheer adorable-ness. He makes movies that I (and many millions of others) want to hug.
And why is this? After all, Miyazaki's characters are often too kind and considerate to be true, and acquiescent to the point of lacking agency. They will accept the existence of goldfish with human faces, soot gremlins, troll-sized bunnies and sentient scarecrows. Women can show up in enchanted castles and claim to be cleaning ladies, no questions asked. The ocean herself will preside over the betrothal of school-going children. Why do people who work in hospitals and universities, drive cars, and run errands accept these on-goings? No explanation is offered.
All of this is incredibly illogical and problematic, until you realize that while watching a Miyazaki movie, you have to acquiesce, just as the characters do. You must accept that the magical and the mundane do co-exist, and that modernity has no bearing on this co-existence. Miyazaki's brand of magic is whimsical and wonderful - wizards can wage wars, build peripatetic castles and raise the seas. Spirits can steal your name and turn your parents into pigs. Witches can play with time and space. Nature exerts a force of her own even as she sits cheek by jowl with cities. Miyazaki's magic doesn't have its own logic - it shapes the logic or illogic of the world it inhabits. In this world, people are not conflicted about believing in magic - the question is one of the form in which they will encounter it and what they will gain from that experience.
This is a very different kind of magic than the one brought to life by the Harry Potter books. JK Rowling has created a narrative that is engaging and well-written, and the characters peopling it are hard to leave behind. But the 'magic' in Harry's world lacks coherence.
Witches and wizards carry wands, move around in photos, eat sweets that change colour and illegally rear dragons, but they also have pubs, an inequitable distribution of wealth, trains, sports, music, banks. Their world is the one that is smaller and surprisingly anachronistic. Sure, the curses are cool and there are interesting opportunities to time-travel, stay eternally young and alter one's appearance. But there are also many inconsistencies. After all, why would anyone choose to use owls in the age of e-mail? Why would anyone use the Floo network when they could pick up the  phone and call? And doesn't saying Avada Kedavra take longer than using a gun to fire a bullet?
This brand of magic is neither of the world, nor fully apart from it. It distinguishes and delineates, but it doesn't transform. Moreover, some of it just doesn't work as well as standard-issue modern technology. Within the Harry Potter universe, magic casts a mullioned light on an otherwise boring world. It is a secret just a few are in on.  And it is chiefly a moral and philosophical device - either dark or light, eventually vanquished by love and sacrifice.       
And then there is Neil Gaiman's brand of magic, all about the things that are felt but not remembered, seen but not perceived. It is a magic that resides in the cracks between the conscious and the sub-conscious, between dreaming and waking, between looking at and looking away. Unlike Miyazaki's magic, which is a charming given, this is magic of which people feign ignorance. It is discomfiting, manipulative and worldly - part of the truth of things as we know them now. It accommodates science, technology and all kinds of 21st century vices, resulting in something that is cynical but also resonant.
The idea of the magical is tremendously powerful. It has shaped our desires, been enshrined as the miraculous by our religions and scriptures, and given impetus to our imaginings. But as science renders the marvellous, routine, the space for magic shrinks. It cannot be reclaimed, but it must be re-drawn. Miyazaki, Rowling and Gaiman grapple with precisely this problem, with varying degrees of success. The truth is that modernity is the toughest nut for fantasy to crack.

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