This week I had the opportunity to be engaged in an examination of a doctoral thesis at Oxford University and was once again seduced by the sheer magical qualities of the city. The venue for the examination was within easy walking distance from the train station, but far enough away for me to get a real sense of the city, with its spires, yellow buildings, quirky doorways, and delightful streets, shops, and greens.
Beyond enjoying the examination and catching up with colleagues and friends, I also had the good fortune of walking to the station the next morning and passing by the Bodelian Library. I walked through the gates, which are part of a high fence topped by the heads of ancient philosophers with their imposing and slightly menacing gazes.
As I wandered through the squares and courtyards in the early hours of the morning, I was struck by two things. On one side of the square was a doorway marked Schola Metaphysicae and on the other, there was a small sign advertising a special exhibition called Magical Books.
What better place on planet earth for the Academic Magician to find himself!
Here, bracketed within a square that has been on this site for hundreds of years over which the footsteps of thousands of scholars have passed, I was standing and taking in the majesty of this space and the ideas that it communicated.
The exhibition featured the great works of magical fiction inspired by Oxford, such as the works of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Susan Cooper, Alan Garner and Philip Pullman, as well as ‘books and manuscripts that contain the myths, legends, and magical practices on which these Oxford-educated authors freely drew for inspiration.’
How wonderful to acknowledge the magical traditions at Oxford and inspired by Oxford. The city is also home to Deborah Harkness’ Discovery of Witches, part of the All Souls Trilogy; itself a tale of mystery, fantasy and intrigue based on a magical manuscript entitled Ashmole 782.
This framing of the square was important to me, since the Schola Metaphysicae symbolises thousands of years of philosophical investigation into all matters that lie ‘above’ (or perhaps beyond) the physical world (Aristotle first wrote the Physics and then the Metaphysics) and the exhibition celebrated all things magical that continue to inspire wonder in our minds.
My own work on philosophy and magic finds solace in this space that was inadvertently framed for me on Tuesday morning. I thought about the imaginary worlds of Tolkien and Lewis that fascinated me as a young reader, but also the imaginary worlds of Plato (The Republic), Machiavelli (The Prince), More (Utopia), Dante (Inferno), Hobbes (The State of Nature) and Rawls (The Veil of Ignorance) that have been so influential in my academic work as well as my own version of performance magic.
Magic, wonder and thought can come together through performance in ways that address fundamental questions about how we know what we know and why what we know matters for the pursuit of the good life. Performance magic can disrupt our sense of what we know and provide alternative pathways to understanding the human condition, and in my own performances such a perspective allows me to address the sources of knowledge, the world of ideas, the nature of the state and human motivation, free will, morality, justice, human rights, and practical wisdom.
Some say the moment on Tuesday morning was pure chance; the product of a few extra minutes on the way to the train station. But the magician in me thinks otherwise.