Walter Benjamin once said that a child’s first experience of the world is not his realization that “adults are stronger but rather that he cannot make magic.” The statement was made under the influence of a twenty-milligram dose of mescaline, but that does not make it any less salient. It is, in fact, quite likely that the invincible sadness that sometimes overwhelms children is born precisely from their awareness that they are incapable of magic. Whatever we can achieve through merit and effort, cannot make us truly happy. Only magic can do that. This did not escape the childlike genius of Mozart, who clearly indicated the secret solidarity between magic and happiness in a letter to Joseph Bullinger: “To live respectably and to live happily are two very different things, and the latter will not be possible for me without some kind of magic; for this something truly super-natural would have to happen.”
Like creatures in fables, children know that in order to be happy it is necessary to keep the genie in the bottle at one’s side, and have the donkey that craps gold coins or the hen that lays golden eggs in one’s house. And no matter what the situation, it is much more important to know the exact place and the right words to say than to take the trouble to reach a goal by honest means. Magic means precisely that no one can be worthy of happiness and that, as the ancients knew, any happiness commensurate with man is always hubris; it is always the result of arrogance and excess. But if someone succeeds in influencing fortune through trickery, if happiness depends not on what one is but on a magic walnut or an “Open sesame!” – then and only then can one consider oneself to be truly and blessedly happy.
This childlike wisdom, which affirms that happiness is not something that can be deserved, had always met with the objections of official morality. Take the words of Kant, the philosopher who was least capable of understanding the difference between living with dignity and living happily: “That in you which strives toward happiness is inclination, that which then limits this inclination to the condition of your first being worthy of happiness is your reason.” But we (or the child within us) wouldn’t know what to do with a happiness of which we were worthy. What a disaster if a woman loved you because you deserved it! And how boring to receive happiness as the reward of work well done.
- Giorgio Agamben, Profanations