Sunday, August 04, 2013

Devilishly Ambiguous Magical Words . . .

Magic Rules!
Image by Sophia Foster-Dimino

Emily Croy Barker -- author of The Thinking Woman's Guide to Real Magic -- writes in "The Rules of Magic" (New York Times, July 27, 2013) that in dealing with magical wishes, one must beware of ambiguous language:
"I WISH I was rich," says the little boy, just as most of us have wished at least once in our lives. But this little boy has a magic talisman that grants wishes. Instantly, right in front of his distraught siblings, he is transformed into "an elderly gentleman, handsomely but rather dowdily dressed, who was looking down at them through spectacles and asking them the nearest way to the railroad station." He can't understand why he finds himself surrounded by unruly children and instead of enjoying his newfound wealth, he heads to his office in London, presumably to make himself still richer.

This sly twist on what at first seems to be a fairly straightforward wish appears in E. Nesbit's 1907 children's classic "The Enchanted Castle." Any lawyer will tell you that vague or ambiguous language is an invitation to trouble. With wishes, as with contracts, it is wise to stipulate the details: exactly how you'd become rich, as well as how rich you'd like to be.

As disciplines, magic and the law are usually considered to have little in common. One is mystical, otherworldly, associated with phenomena that reason can't comprehend; the other is anchored in the affairs of this world and at least aspires to be governed by logic and principle. And yet, as literature shows us, if you want to dabble in magic safely and successfully, it helps to have the advice of a good attorney.
In my view, a good attorney is 'good' only if there's a good judge with the authority to pronounce a binding ruling. The 'magical' contract story often assumes that the 'ambiguous' character -- namely, the one who seeks advantage through ambiguous wording -- gets to provide the authoritative interpretation:
One of the most common forms -- most humans being nonmagical themselves -- is the power that comes from striking a bargain with a magical being. This is where a properly vetted contract is particularly important. Spirits and demons tend to have good legal minds, and while they will usually abide by the terms of an agreement, at the time of signing they are under no obligation to point out provisions that might be unfavorable to the other party. Dr. Faustus might have avoided a lot of trouble if he'd had a lawyer go over his contract with Mephistopheles, explaining carefully the consequences of each clause.
This is the point upon which turns my story, The Bottomless Bottle of Beer, for Mr. Em -- i.e., Mephistopheles -- lacks the authority to unilaterally rule on a contract's meaning after it has been signed, for the meaning depends upon what the contract could reasonably have been believed to mean at the time of its signing.

This requires a metaphysically authoritative judge who can discern the justifiable ground upon which a particular interpretation rests, or fails to rest, but as things turn out in my story, even the devil needs such a grounding to avoid a "might-makes-right" challenge to his own authority . . .

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