Magic, Mystery, And Illusion

Woody Allen Magic MysterySharon and I went to see Woody Allen’s delightful movie last night called “Magic in the Moonlight.” I highly recommend the movie, just perfect for a late summer evening.

Coincidentally the movie is a thoughtful reflection on mystery, the very theme I’ve been exploring in these columns lately. How can we imagine, in our secular world, that there is such a thing as spiritual mystery? Is there anything beyond the physical world? Is there anything not explainable by the rational mind? How could God actually exist, then, if we have a material explanation for everything?

In the context of a lovely love story, this movie addresses all of these questions and more. Without giving away too much of the plot, we encounter the renowned magician of the 1920s, the magnificent Wei Ling Soo. He makes elephants disappear on stage. The only problem is the magician himself does not believe in magic. Magic is a fraud. Everything has a physical explanation, he believes. Anything approaching mystery is a lie. The movie even invokes the authority of Nietzsche, who pronounced God as finally and firmly dead. Nietzsche, as we know, announced, with his thundering hammer blow of nihilism, that there is nothing beyond the hard reality of the material. Every spiritual prospect is an illusion in the end. We must rid ourselves of such illusions.

But our magician hero, named Stanley Crawford (played by Colin Firth), is an unhappy man. He is a hard man, highly disdainful of others, most of whom he regards as simpleton suckers for fraudulent magic. He brings wit and charm into the lives of everyone, but he brings hardness as well. His knows his own success is built on sheer hypocrisy. Cynicism is the tone of his life.

The key turning point of the plot comes through the loveable Sophie Baker (played by Emma Stone). She proceeds to bring something bright and joyous into the lives of so many people. She brings, surprisingly, something utterly beyond material hardness. The turning point is when our hardened hero Stanley falls in love with her. Hard for him to admit or talk about, but he falls in love! What’s up with this? He finds himself stammering around this feeling he can’t wholly explain?

We feel the cynicism that lurks beneath the bright surface of these luxurious lives. It is pure Nietzschean. But there is love! Imagine that. Because this love is bought against such relentless cynicism, it is believable love. It is beautiful love in the end. This love is not to be explained. It is beyond understanding. If we can get beyond our own jaded suspicion of mystery, love turns out to be life-altering mystery.

One more thing. God is introduced into the movie through a moving prayer by our hero. To his own surprise, Stanley prays that God, whom he has never believed in, would save the life of his dying aunt. The prayer is moving. But then our hero suddenly catches himself. The notion of a benevolent Father is surely pure bunk. This faith that God might rescue his aunt is all just ridiculous. How could he have ever been so stupid as to pray? He is slipping, he thinks. He must gather himself back into the hard cynical man he prides himself to be.

The New Yorker film critic David Denby asks why Woody Allen needs to write “tirade after tirade . . . all with the same idea—that nothing exists beyond the palpable and the real?” Perhaps, says Denby, “Stanley is trying to convince himself of this truth, and Allen may be, too. We have certainly thought of him as a twentieth-century skeptic in a world devoted to illusion. Yet he knows that ‘realism’ is limited, an ungenerous and arid view.”

This movie, says Denby, “expresses a longing to believe in the supernatural, and an equally powerful longing to disbelieve in it.” Yes, this is precisely the tension in which our secular world lives. We long, as we have been saying, to wake up in utter amazement, as Abraham Heschel says, that anything exists, that everything exists, that love exists, that God exists. And yet, so the teaching of our secular world goes, we wake up with an equal desire not to be duped, not to be stupid. These things really don’t exist, do they?

Well, we’ve got to choose, don’t we? And here’s the deal: It is a choice. In Allen’s movie we go part way there. There is love that pushes against bitter realism. Love will certainly soften the edges. There is after all something that transcends hard realism. And yet in the end we settle back into that unbearable tension. Too bad.

Allen can’t go all the way, but the movie leaves us with the question: Is there anything or anyone who might sustain this life-altering mystery of love? Well, for believers, it is ultimately the God of love who sustains that mystery. It is we, against the tough odds of cynicism, who must trust this ultimate mystery is not a fraud.