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  • Lex van der steen

On work and magic

I wanted to read a philosophical text on magic, which led me to Giorgio Agamben’s very short essay Magic and Happiness. Agamben argues that magic allows one to be happy and simultaneously be aware of it. This claim responds to “the ancient maxim that whoever realizes he is happy has already ceased to be so”: one is either happy and unaware, or aware and, paradoxically, unhappy (2007, p. 20). Magic is the exception to this distinction and, for Agamben, “happiness coincides entirely with our knowing ourselves to be capable of magic” (2007, p. 21). Agamben draws a distinction between deserving happiness “through merit and effort”, and obtaining happiness through the seeming impossibility of magic, like a spell or a magic ring (2007, p. 19). Magic is able to overcome the aforementioned paradox because “[w]hoever enjoys something through enchantment” is aware that “the happiness that he knows he possesses is not his” (2007, p. 21). The happiness attained through magic “depends not on what one is”, is not a matter of possession and does not result from a certain identity or effort, but depends exactly on something that precedes these explanations: to exist (2007, p. 20). Simply put, magic is the capacity to obtain happiness solely by existing. As such, happiness is the knowledge of our potential for happiness. Hereby the paradox is overcome since ‘the knowledge of one’s happiness’, and ‘happiness itself’ are no longer clearly distinct.

A few days after reading Agamben’s essay, I was looking through some old postcards at a shop. One instantly caught my attention since it reminded me of a movie I had recently seen, and hence I bought it. The image on the postcard concerns an illustration that belongs to a 1910 German edition of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. It reminded me of Hayao Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky (1986), since it depicts a man looking and waving at a flying city. Miyazaki’s island Laputa is an adaptation of Swift’s eponymous island, depicted on the postcard. What can this supernatural phenomenon contribute to the discussion of magic? How does magic play a role for these flying islands? Are the people depicted on the island, the Laputians, happy?

In Miyazaki’s movie, magic plays a role right from the start. The two protagonists meet when Sheeta, in an attempt to flee from pirates, falls down from an airship but is saved by the magic crystal around her neck. While unconscious, she floats down calmly, covered in a blue light generated by the crystal. Pazu, a young boy working in a coal mine, catches her and takes her home. Once woken up the next morning, Sheeta stumbles upon a picture of a floating island, titled Laputa. Pazu’s father, who is already dead in the story, once saw the floating island. Later it becomes clear that Sheeta is a descendant from the royal family that governed the island, and that the magic crystal she wears around her neck has been crafted by the Laputians. Pazu and Sheeta try to flee from both the military, which seeks the powerful, magical technology of the Laputians, and a group of pirates in search for treasures. All eventually end up on the floating island. In the end, Sheeta and Pazu use an ancient magical spell in order to destroy the island and its powerful technology, thereby preventing the abuse of these powers.

What can be learned about magic from the adventure of Pazu and Sheeta? It can be seen that the magic is used to make the island float, as well as to power and activate the robots that maintain and protect the island. Besides that, Sheeta is saved by her magic crystal twice from falling to pieces. Yet, these phenomena do not tell anything about the nature of magic. What can be said, however, is that magic always manifests itself through a physical object, in this case a crystal. At the core of the island, a giant crystal is responsible for the magic that keeps the island floating. Furthermore, Sheeta is able to call a certain magical action into existence by means of the spells that her mom taught her. Magic can thus be summoned by spells. Agamben also brings attention to this by referring to

the ancient tradition scrupulously followed by kabbalists and necromancers, according to which magic is essentially a science of secret names. Each thing, each being, has in addition to its manifest name another, hidden name to which it cannot fail to respond. To be a magus means to know and evoke these archi-names. (2007, p. 22)

The only one in the movie that knows the spells is Sheeta, and thus, following Agamben’s reference, can be considered to be a ‘magus’.

Besides the need for a physical carrier and the possibility of summoning through spells, some dialogues in the movie help to gain further insights in the nature of magic. At some point Sheeta and Pazu are taking a moment to eat after having been chased for a while. Right before this moment, the two had been saved by the magic of Sheeta’s crystal from a terrible fall. Yet, despite having just been confronted with actual magic, Sheeta, in response to Pazu’s filled bag, says “It’s like you have a magical bag that holds everything”! The one that knows magic, the only ‘magus’ in the story, also seems to be the one that does not clearly distinguish this magic from non-magical work (the quick and thoughtful work of Pazu’s preparation). The indistinction between magic and work that in this moment seems to underpin Sheeta’s understanding, is confirmed by the character Uncle Pom, whom the two meet in an old mine shaft underground. Pom mentions that the “rocks speak very softly”, the meaning of which remains unclear at first. Later he demonstrates to Sheeta and Pazu how, when breaking a rock, the former inside parts of the rock reveal a soft blue light because they contain “volucite”, which once “it’s exposed to the air [...] becomes ordinary stone”. Most importantly however, is Uncle Pom’s reaction to seeing Sheeta’s crystal, which he addresses as a “Volucite crystal”. According to Pom, only the Laputians were able to make these crystals out of rocks. This reveals that magic is carried and brought about by a material found in ordinary rock, and can be actualized and rendered accessible by means of a certain craft or work. Here Sheeta’s phrasing of Pazu’s bag as ‘magical’ becomes comprehensible; within the process of turning regular nature into a magical crystal, there is no clear border between magic and its absence, between magical and non-magical work. The volucite was in the rocks all along. The Laputians were probably, like Uncle Pom, capable of listening carefully to nature and its potential for magic.  

Before continuing the analysis of magic as portrayed by Miyazaki, I want to briefly return to Agamben’s essay. For Agamben, happiness involves the reflection upon one’s potential – one’s magical capacity – to be happy solely on the basis of one’s mere existence. As Agamben elaborates elsewhere, this potentiality also always involves an impotentiality: the capacity to not-do something. Only as such potentiality truly encompasses a possibility, a choice. Magic thus exists in the reflection upon a certain contingency, upon the capacity of something to either be or not-be. Whatever is conceived to have a contingent nature, loses its power to appear as a necessity, and thereby loses its power to limit human thought and action. Therefore, magic could be named a ‘power of contingency’. What normally is impossible because of the necessary limits of reality, like a floating island, is rendered contingent by magic, and can therefore be overcome and turned into reality. By means of magic, the necessity of work for the acquisition of happiness is rendered contingent and suspendable.

Yet, as made clear by Uncle Pom’s comments, the magical volucite can only be turned into usable, magical crystals by means of work. Thus, in Miyazaki’s movie, although the distinction between the magical resource and work remains, the actual usage and outcomes of magic cannot be reduced to either work or the volucite. Perhaps then, in contrast to Agamben’s claims, happiness can neither result from only work or only magic, but relies on both and their simultaneous existence. But do the ‘trickery’ of magic and the effort of ‘honest means’ not exclude one another? Isn’t there indeed either one or the other? Furthermore, Agamben solves the distinction between the knowledge of one’s own happiness and actually being happy by showing that happiness lies in an awareness of our own capacity for happiness, exactly insofar it precedes any work or identity. So, the need for work, even in the simultaneous presence of magic, would interfere with this logic and prevent happiness. Are Miyazaki’s characters prevented from being happy because their acquisition of magic relies on work?

Here I would like to bring attention to what Sheeta tells Pazu about the spells her mom taught her, namely that she “had to learn bad ones so the good spells had power”. Uncle Pom hinted towards something similar when he got confronted with Sheeta’s crystal, claiming that “A stone so powerful brings happiness, but also often brings misery”. Uncle Pom acknowledges the relation between happiness and magic, but adds that this same magic is also capable of bringing misery. Sheeta’s comments on the relation between bad and good spells show that this capacity for misery is not just an arbitrary addition, but a necessity for the power of magic. Agamben already revealed the relation between magic and contingency, and in the movie this relation is further brought to light: magic itself is a power that renders the world contingent and thereby overcomes the limits of its actuality. Therefore, magic cannot just be equated with the potential for happiness. Masku, the main villain from Miyazaki’s movie who leads the military and its quest for Laputa, wants to abuse its magical power. In the movie’s story, the floating island Laputa is long abandoned, and the Laputians used to use their magic powers to govern the earth, a scenario that Masku tries to restore with himself as the ultimate ruler. Pazu and Sheeta, in order to prevent this abuse from happening, use a spell of destruction that destroys Laputa and its magical power.

Miyzaki’s movie thus reveals two problems for magic and happiness. First, work is needed for happiness, yet would also prevent one from eventually acquiring it. Second, magic is a power of contingency and its strength can be used for whatever purpose, including misery, destruction and domination. Is happiness unattainable for Pazu and Sheeta? Were the Laputians, despite their magic, doomed to be unhappy?

In Miyazaki’s movie, the island is long abandoned, and therefore reveals only little about the lives of the Laputians. Yet, on the postcard I have bought, there are clearly people present on the island. The image on the postcard depicts a moment in Jonathan Swifts Gulliver’s Travels. In part three of the book, the traveler Gulliver discovers the island and is allowed to stay for a short time. In the few chapters devoted to his time on Laputa, Gulliver gives some descriptions of the Laputians. He first of all mentions that “never till then [had I] seen a race of mortals so singular in their shapes, habits and countenances”. What defines these singular beings foremost, according to Gulliver’s observations, is that “the minds of these people are so taken up with intense speculations” that they are incapable of doing even the simplest of daily tasks. The Laputian “is always so wrapped up in cogitation, that he is in manifest danger of falling down every precipice, and bouncing his head against every post”. Furthermore,

these people are under continual disquietudes, never enjoying a minute’s peace of mind; and their disturbances proceed from the causes which very little affect the rest of mortals. Their apprehensions arise from several changes they dread in the celestial bodies. For instance; that the Earth by the continual approaches of the Sun towards it, must in course of time be absorbed or swallowed up.

Additionally, Gulliver remarks that “I have not seen a more clumsy, awkward, and unhandy people”. The Laputians are thus constantly caught up in intense speculation and occupied with celestial matters, and lack practical skill and insight. What seems to be the matter here is that their control over magic has rendered a direct relation to the actuality of their surroundings unnecessary. What in the first place required a sensitivity of listening to the earth and its volucite, and the practical skill to turn this material into magic crystals, has led to the loss of these abilities and a dependency on magic.

Yet, a lack of practical skill does not mean that the Laputians are unhappy. Perhaps they live the happiest of lives and have left unhappiness in the past of their ancestors (those who created the crystals through work). The same could be said about technology, which can redeem us from the burden of work and turn merit and effort into a sacrifice of our ancestors. Maybe the fact that the Laputains are ‘under continual disquietudes, never enjoying a minute’s peace of mind’ is only a minor flaw of a greater good. However, even if the first problem is overcome and the clumsy nature of the Laputians is understood not to be inherently wrong or problematic, the second problem remains; magic, as the power of contingency, can just as well be used for misery and domination. What guarantees that the power of magic, once brought into the world, will be used for happiness? In fact, that magic can be abused is not only shown in Miyazaki’s movie, but also in Gulliver’s descriptions of Laputa. He writes how the Laputians dominate those living on the ground, and that

If any town should engage in rebellion or mutiny, fall into violent factions, or refuse to pay the usual tribute; the king hath two methods of reducing them to obedience. The first and the mildest course by keeping the island hovering over such a town, and the lands about it; whereby he can deprive them of the benefit of the sun and the rain, and consequently afflict the inhabitants with dearth and diseases. And if the crime deserve it, they are at the same time pelted from above with great stones, against which they have no defence, but by creeping into cellars or caves, while the roofs of their houses are beaten to pieces.

In both cases, magic is accompanied by its abuse. To further investigate the relation between magic and its abuse, I suggest to listen to those that decided to, once and for all, get rid of the power of contingency in hope for a happy ending.

In a dialogue with the villain Masku, Sheeta says that “This is why Laputa died out. There’s a song in my valley. ‘Put down your roots in the soil. Live together with the wind. Pass the winter with the seeds, sing in the spring with the birds’ … You can’t survive apart from the earth”. The reason that Laputa is abandoned when Pazu and Sheeta arrive, and the reason why Masku won’t be able to fulfill his plan according to Sheeta, is because one would not be able to survive apart from the earth. Thus, the clumsy nature of the Laputians is related to their alienation from the earth, and will eventually lead to disaster. Although magic, as the power of contingency, can seemingly break with actuality, with one’s surroundings and with other inhabitants of any kind, those that detach themselves won’t survive in the long run. In its capacity to function without limit, magic inevitably will stumble upon a need that cannot be overcome. The Laputians no longer know how to deal with the limits that determine the world. Their worries about being swallowed up by the sun indicates their desire to overcome all limits. Yet, eventually, they won’t know what to do in the quietness of possibility. Sheeta’s point is, then, that the earth is that which demands to be listened to and to be worked with, and that only this relation to the earth can provide the balance within which happiness can take place. Magic, in the form that allows it to overcome the limit of actuality, reveals itself here as the ability to ignore the calls of the earth. In this act of ignorance, the presence of limits is only made stronger. The earth can only be disregarded for so long. It increases the strength of its cry until magic is forced to return to where it once came from.

How, in light of these conclusions, should the relation between magic and happiness finally be understood? Agamben writes that happiness “awaits us only at the point where it was not destined for us. That is: happiness can be ours only through magic” (2007, p. 21). For Agamben, magic is exactly that which is not destined for us. Yet, at some point in Miyazaki’s movie, Pazu tells Sheeta that, by means of increasingly advanced technology, the abandoned island Laputa and its power would inevitably be found by humanity at some point. What seems truly to be humanity’s destiny is the abuse of magic and an alienation from the earth. Where humanity is heading at, is nothing other than the fate of the Laputians, as Swift and Miyazaki both understood. Once humanity’s destiny is understood as the abuse of magic, Agamben’s claim that happiness “awaits us only at the point where it was not destined for us”, means that happiness awaits us away from the abuse of magic.

Let me return to where magic came from. Uncle Pom revealed that magic, as volucite, resides in all rock, and perhaps even in all of nature. He mentioned that “rocks speak very softly”, yet this same person was overwhelmed by the presence of Sheeta’s magic crystal. It seems as if Uncle Pom’s sensitivity for magic is on another level, on another, higher frequency than that of the other characters. Uncle Pom finds his comfort in a presence of magic that remains only mild, a presence that does not overcome the limits of the earth, but rather is itself these limits. For Uncle Pom, magic is not something that can be found simply by means of inner-contemplation, but is something that needs to be heard and observed in the process of work. Work and magic take place in the same arena. Life, before any identity or task, is always already working, and here, indeed, magic resides. Magic and work hide inside one another, and any glance that sees only one side of this coin, loses balance and falls into abuse.


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