Gathering the Magic: The Road to Awe
By Stefan Lindberg on September 24th, 2009 · Filed in General Magic · Comments not available just now
Life is just one damned thing after another. - Elbert Hubbard (1856-1915)
He's always chasing the pot of gold, but when he gets there, at the end of the day, it's just corn flakes. - Morty in "Click" (2006)
Having introduced the philosophical depths of Magic over the course of three introductory articles, Gathering the Magic now turns to contemplate individual cards, using the perspectives outlined previously. The protagonist of this month's article is Stasis, though a few other cards will be mentioned in passing to illustrate the context. If you happen to own a copy of the card, please take it out from your binder and have it at hand as you read the article. The real deal is a more worthy object for your attention than the digitalized rendition below, but the latter is nevertheless adequate:
A few things are readily apparent: the name Stasis, and that the card is a global, blue enchantment. We also note its effect and the artwork. Alerted to the presence of hidden wisdom in games as discussed previously on Gathering the Magic, we are urged to look deeper into these things.
Etymology and Context
The name stasis is of Greek origin, literally meaning standing still. This immediately identifies Standstill as the modern heir to Stasis. I can assure newer players that the common feeling of hopelessness associated with your opponent resolving Standstill was just as real in the golden age of Stasis decks. Though the mechanisms are different, the overall feeling with both is that you are not free - you can't take meaningful action. You're damned if you do and damned if you don't.
However, the modern everyday use of the word comes via medical Latin, denoting that the normal flow of a bodily liquid has ceased. For example, hemostasis, the stasis of blood, which could for example be the result of an artery clogging up. This is called atherosclerosis, which signifies that the once supple blood vessels have become dense and hard from fat. Occlusion of blood vessels cuts off the oxygen supply to the tissues causing necrosis or tissue death. So we have shown that, from a medical point of view, stasis can lead to death, much like a game tends to die down once Stasis hits the table. But to find the general link and principle at work, we need to look a bit deeper.
What is death? And what is life? Life is a particular form of activity which can be likened to the card Regrowth, though the "growing" is not necessarily apparent to the casual observer. A living body maintains its form despite the fact that its constituents are continuously crumbling. Eventually, every cell will have been replaced in the body. It's no longer the same body, from a purely materialistic perspective, but the form of the body is maintained by the ongoing process of life. Death is the lack of such activity, causing the body to degrade. Death is the cessation of the processes of life - the heart stops beating in cardiac arrest, the activity of the brain ceases, respiration disappears. Death is the lack of growth and activity. Death is stasis.
Enchanted by the Blue Mage
Isn't death black's piece of the color pie? It surely is - black even has the skull as its symbol. But black deals with corporeal death, including snuffing out the bond between body and soul. In short, the black mage's domain is the physical world. He gets to decide what this or that lump of flesh will do; reanimating it, controlling it through pain, paralysis, and so on. The mind, soul or spirit is secondary - if it gets in the way, the black mage simply banishes it from its physical interface (the body), thereby rendering it powerless.
The domain of the blue mage, however, is primarily the non-physical world. Thus it follows that the death we're talking about here, medicinal analogies aside, isn't a corporeal death but a death of the mind or spirit. Stasis, the cessation of meaningful action, doesn't deal with the sclerosis of your body, but of your soul. Such is the terrible nature of the blue enchantment, that you lose access to your freedom to act, your free will. And you may not even notice.
What IRL examples can we find of such stasis? Meyou recently wrote an excellent article about Magic addiction. I have nothing to add to that topic in particular, but I'd like to invite you to examine the analogy between addiction and the card Stasis. There is no untap phase and there is an upkeep cost. What does this mean? The lack of an untap phase means that you are basically stuck. Your mana, your energy, does not replenish. You can't take meaningful action and your life becomes stagnant, because you are essentially spellbound. The upkeep cost means that you must keep spending resources to fuel the addiction - time, money, attention etc. - until you run out, or simply refuse to pay the upkeep cost.
But "addiction" (in the strict sense used in Meyou's article) isn't the only example of the doings of the blue enchantment. To broaden our understanding, we turn to the puzzling artwork.
A Global Enchantment
At the center of the artwork, we find a painter's palette. It's hard to say if it's in the foreground or background, because it seems to be hovering in thin air, above a balancing board. On the left side of it we find a clown-like figure that appears to be drowsy - perhaps he's a drunkard. On the right side of the board sits a kneeling, blind-folded Anubis-like figure. Anubis, god of death and mummification, is holding up an object similar to a CD - a red or golden disc or orb reflecting light of some sort. Yet, the background is dark where Anubis sits and the waning crescent moon in the background tells us that night has already fallen.
Intentionally or not, this picture shows us the entire world, or rather the state of stasis that it is in. What are the two balancing entities that give rise to our modern society?
1) Fear. Of death, ultimately. This is the blind-folded Anubis.
2) Diversions from 1). This is the clown or drunkard.
With these forces defining the space for mankind's creativity (the palette), it becomes detached from reality (hovering) and we paint for ourselves an illusory world where death is hidden away. The elderly and dying are sent away to some place where they won't disturb our everyday life, euphemisms are used to spare children and adults alike from even thinking about death, the slaughtering of animals is hidden behind neat packages at the supermarket and white table cloths at restaurants, and so on. And diversions, endless arrays of diversions (including Magic), are produced from the "detached palette" of human creativity, to ensure that we will never turn inward and contemplate... Isn't there something important that I want to do, out of my own volition, before I die?
The price we pay for hiding away the perhaps unsettling fact that we die, or the slightly distasteful fact that we must kill and eat other organisms while we live, is that we create mental and emotional sclerosis for ourselves instead. Ignoring the reality of "black death" creates the artificial "blue death" as a reaction. When we turn a blind eye to death, we also become blind to what dies within ourselves while we are still physically living. Very tragically, life becomes transformed to death, stagnation, stasis. One damn thing after the other. And then you still die, at a loss for what life really was.
The Mummy's Curse
Let us return to Anubis. Has it ever occurred to you what an utterly strange practice mummification is? The ancient Egyptians were a highly magical, ritualistic and spiritually minded people. Why take such care of the corpse post mortem? Wouldn't the Pharaoh be more concerned of the well being of his spirit than his old, decaying body? To shed light on this conundrum, here's a quote from one of my favorite movies, The Fountain (also referenced in the title of this article). In the words of the Grand Inquisitor:
Our bodies are prisons for our souls. Our skin and blood, the iron bars of confinement. But, fear not. All flesh decays. Death turns all to ash. And thus, death frees every soul.
At first glance, this statement presents the idea that life is confinement and death is freedom (from the perspective of the soul). At second glance, it suggests the mechanism for this; all flesh decays... and thus, death frees every soul. Could this mean that if the flesh doesn't decay, the soul isn't freed? Of course! That is the basic premise of life support machines. Or cryopreservation - the mummification of our modern society (fear of death at work again).
However, the mummy was never meant to be thawed. But if, like the Grand Inquisitor, the Egyptians believed that spiritual existence was preferable to physical existance, their goal would not be to stop death, but birth. And stopping birth, growth, and life is what we now know as stasis. So the purpose of the mummy was to keep the Pharaoh's spirit in a state of stasis, out of the reincarnation loop. An ambition similar to the strive for Nirvana in Theravada Buddhism. Permanent retirement from Earthly duties—such was the Pharaoh's reward.
Prepare for Assimilation
Speaking of life support machines and diversions, I recently had a chat with a friend who's into artifical intelligence. The AI community talks about the singularity - the point in time where computers will have surpassed our intelligence level and become unstoppable. I suggested to my friend that this day might have already come.
The problem with how the "rise of the machines" is sometimes depicted in fiction (for example in Bladerunner or Terminator) is that the machine intelligence is similar in quality to our human intelligence. In our arrogance, we assume that computers must somehow be overall better than us in order to control us, forgetting all too easily how small children or even house pets can manipulate us - indeed how we manipulate ourselves.
But if this "Machine entity" isn't humanoid, how would it then manifest? Its mechanism of action may very well be reversed, so that rather than have machines become human to control us, humans would instead become more machine-like. In fact, it would be exactly like the card Memnarch. Through blue energy, this installation wizard reformats humanity into its own image, turning us into machines (or artifacts, to the Magic player). Then it assumes control over us.
Consider for a moment what a fantastic position of power the Memnarch of our society wields! It has humans to take care of it and procreate it - human assembly workers that will freely and gladly devote years of their lives to learn how to make more intelligent machines. It has infiltrated every level of human interaction, and created networks where mentally enslaving floods of information can spread, thereby diluting and hiding the important bits.
Memnarch, the stasis machine, isn't just computers and the Internet - it's all forms of media hype, entertainment overload, incessant shopping, and so on. Everything that makes human activity more and more machine-like. Examples of machine-like activity include amassing things (whether virtual treasure in a MMORPG or useless crap that the media wants us to buy), processing vast amounts of information (with little concern for meaning or depth), optimizing things, and quite simply being busy. One damn thing after the other, in the continuous search for the pot of gold. If you get bored by the essential sameness of everything, a new New Thing (TM) will surely be within arm's reach to razzle-dazzle you for another high. Anything to keep you from actually dealing with the anxiety over life and death, and asking yourself what you really need.
In this manner, our souls are gradually hardened, mechanized through sclerosis, so we may become a loyal set of biological robots to maintain the Borg collective. Like it or not, we're already in the Matrix, generating the power that the Memnarch stasis machine needs for sustenance. Addiction to Magic is one thing, but what about being a slave to our modern way of life? A life where you never need to be bored, never need to reflect on anything profound, perhaps even a life where you never need to die.
Yes, eternal, corporeal life is a more likely goal for Memnarch than annihilation of humanity in the flesh. Forget about humanoid robots with miniguns. We have the potential to be the loyal minions of Memnarch and must not come to bodily harm. The artifact creature or indeed the lich—the direct opposite of the mummy—is the ideal here. The mummy binds the being to the spiritual plane, whereas the lich binds the being to the physical plane—the plane where the material wields some power over the spirit. A mankind without a beating heart—a mankind in stasis—is the most preferable from Memnarch's perspective.
Lichdom or mummification, undeath or unlife—both states are static but neither is truly human. To be human is to be simultaneously mortal and immortal, moving dynamically between the chores of everyday life and the infinite perspectives of the universe. A solemn remembrance of death and its role in life keeps us human, serving as a potent vaccine against the Stasis Machine.
It's because we refuse to look Death in the eyes that we spend so much of our lives chasing after things that seem insignificant to us when we are lying on our death beds—like Magic cards and tournament wins. The diversions and pots of gold that seemed important at the time turn out to just be cornflakes at the end of the day. The problem with calling this escapist behavior an "addiction" in general is that it's not at odds with society. On the contrary, it's even encouraged. And most definitions of addiction require the addicted person to be somehow socially dysfunctional.
How can we tell what is healthy? We can certainly use society's norms to define what is normal, but not what is healthy. Smoking, drinking and obesity are quite normal, but that doesn't mean they're healthy. What about working jobs you hate for forty years so you can buy stuff that others have decided that you need—is that healthy? If a part of our society is sick in some fundamental manner, using it as the tape measure for health will make individuals equally sick. The need for everybody to be the same also stems from fear. There's a difference between being well-adapted to society and being healthy.
A society in spiritual stasis is the image conveyed by the artwork of Stasis. A landscape in darkness with the reflecting disc of Anubis and the waning crescent moon. The moon represents wisdom and the eternal mystery—and only a tiny, waning sliver remains in the world of the Stasis Machine. The dazzling disc is the artificial light that man has created himself—as a bleak copy of the true sunlight. To play around this blue enchantment means to be prepared to take a good, hard look at death, life and the society we have created for ourselves. To accomplish this, we must at least temporarily avert our eyes from Memnarch's radiance, just like the blind-folded Anubis has done. Many people who have been on the brink of death but survived have changed their lives as a result, surrendering to the bliss of doing what they feel is truly important. It's as if facing death had given these people the gift of true life. That's why confronting stasis and death is important.
By Stefan Lindberg on September 24th, 2009 · Filed in General Magic · Comments not available just now