Magical Thinking

Wood, night, imagination, dream.  These are the coordinates of the second form of sight, which is best described as magical thinking.  It is the mode of being that belongs to visionaries, astrologers, “Wise women,” and poets.  It conjures up a world animated with energies and spirit forces; it finds correspondences between earthly things and divine. The eye that sees in this way rolls “In fine frenzy,” as Theseus says, glancing “from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven.” It “bodies forth/ the forms of things unknown” “Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing / A local habitation and a name.”

Magical thinking answers a deep human need.  It is a way of making sense of things that would otherwise seem painfully arbitrary – things like love and beauty. An ugly birthmark on a baby would signify a fairy running off in the night with a human babe, replacing it with a changeling child, or sexual chemistry between two people would occur because of a love potion.

In the age of candle and rushlight, the nights were seriously dark.  The night was accordingly imagined to be seriously different from the day.  The very fact of long hours of light itself confessed a kind of magic upon midsummer night.  This is the night when magical thinking is given full rein.  For centuries, the summer solstice had been a festive occasion celebrated with bonfires, feasting, and merrymaking.  Night is the time for fantasy and for love, the time in which your wildest hopes may be indulged but your worst nightmares may have to be confronted.

Always a man of the theatre, Shakespeare lives in a world of illusion and make-believe that hits at deepest truths; he knows that his world is fundamentally sympathetic to those other counter-worlds which we call dream and magic.  Shakespeare simultaneously reminds us that we are in the theatre (an actor is always in disguise) and helps us to forget where we are (we willingly suspend our disbelief). In that forgetting, we participate in the mystery of magical thinking.  With Bottom himself, we in the audience may say, “I have had a most rare vision.”

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