G. K. Chesterton.
Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Magic by Chesterton

Sometime ago I got on the mailing list for the Washington Stage Guild, but even when I lived in Reston, I never got around to going to one of their plays. Now that I live even further from DC my chances of talking my wife into a day trip to DC to see a play are roughly the same as those of Earth colliding with Mars tomorrow. I got a brochure for the summer season, and in August they’ll be doing Magic by G. K. Chesterton (aka Immenso Champernoon to readers of Back to Methuselah. Look at the picture above, and you can see why Shaw picked that name to use in a lampoon.)

Given the odds of getting to DC, I read the play in a volume of the Collected Works.

The crux of the play is the idea that the existence of real magic counters the scepticism of the atheistic rationalist. The characters consist of a Duke, who seems to be given to free association, and who always contributes equal amounts to both sides of an issue, a conjurer, a girl who believes in faeries and magic, her rational, atheist brother, and an Anglican minister who pretty much doesn’t believe in anything.

The conjurer in the course of the play performs a series of tricks that the girl’s brother is unable to explain in rational terms. He ultimately confesses to the girl that he had recourse to actual malevolent spirits. The inability of the brother to achieve a rationalist explanation for the apparent magic drives him insane.

I suppose at this point it would be proper to discourse upon cognitive dissonance. What strikes me, however, is that this exemplifies something that used to be popular in some scientific and mathematical circles some years back. This is collapse theory. The Scientific American, probably in the ‘70s, had an article on the interaction of stresses upon objects. When the stresses became too great, the object would collapse in unexpected ways. When the internal stresses upon a person, and here I’m extrapolating from my dim recollection of the article, become too great upon a person, for example when two belief systems come into conflict, the person suffers an inner collapse, and, assuming his survival, ultimately chooses one belief system or the other. This happens in The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler. Ernest’s experience in jail, his physical and probably mental collapse, and his exposure to freethinkers, all culminate in his rejection of his old faith, and his tolerant scepticism. There is a similar kind of collapse, if I recall correctly, in Orwell’s Clergyman’s Daughter. In Magic, the collapse has a remedy that involves the conjurer in a renunciation of his magic powers, and in an attempt to convince the collapsed patient that reality is just as he had believed, rational. This being the only way to restore him to sanity.

If you can get to DC to see the play, let me know how the performance was.