Hammertime Day 6: Mantras

by radimentary

This is part 6 of 30 in the Hammertime Sequence. Click here for the intro.

I’d like to demarcate the line between the two natural halves of Hammertime (fast and interactive vs. slow and introspective) with an experimental post, more reflective than actionable.


The seed of this post was planted in my mind by a conversation with Zvi. In said conversation, he invited me to read the rulebook of Mage: The Ascension and take it as literally as possible. The particular magic mechanic that struck me from Mage was the Paradox phenomenon, which (roughly speaking) causes magic to backfire in the presence of Muggles.

When it is performed ineptly, or is vulgar, and especially if it is vulgar and witnessed by sleepers, magic can cause Paradox, a phenomenon in which reality tries to resolve contradictions between the consensus and the Mage’s efforts. Paradox is difficult to predict and almost always bad for the mage. The most common consequences of paradox include physical damage directly to the Mage’s body, and paradox flaws, magic-like effects which can for example turn the mage’s hair green, make him mute, make him incapable of leaving a certain location, and so on. In more extreme cases paradox can cause Quiet (madness that may leak into reality), Paradox Spirits (nebulous, often powerful beings which purposefully set about resolving the contradiction, usually by directly punishing the mage), or even the removal of the Mage to a paradox realm, a pocket dimension from which it may be difficult to escape.

The upshot is not dissimilar from the rather commonplace observation that extraordinary people seem to distort the reality around them and also have a difficult time imparting their reality-distortion field to others.

My foray into the fantastical world of Mage led me to consider taking other mechanics of magic more seriously. Among the infinite variety of ways the human mind might break the laws of physics, only a very few magic mechanics have lasted in the public imagination. Again and again, fantasy writers return to the incantation: words that effect transformation by their mere utterance. What is so psychologically fascinating about incantation?

And if a single utterance can effect magic, what might the repetition of words of power accomplish, over the course of many years?

Day 6: Mantras

Epistemic status: true story.

I was not a particularly well-socialized child growing up, but even in sixth grade I knew there was something wrong with her. She was a bit standoffish, her hair a bit too bushy and disheveled, and she spoke with the cadence of a lost soul. If she had a name, it must have been something like Elphaba. I couldn’t place it at the time, what exactly was wrong with the girl. Only now, more than a decade later, can I give a name to her intensity: that uncommon ability – inimical to the instincts of all sixth graders who desire to fit in – to take ideas seriously.

I only ever had one conversation with the girl. I don’t recall what class it was in – some discussion group, perhaps, for a play of Shakespeare’s far above our reading level. While the teacher popped out to grab dry-erase markers, some eight of us sat around the round discussion table fidgeting as sixth graders are wont to do.

Then, somehow, the girl to my left transfixed me with her gaze and spoke:

Girl: Memento mori, memento vivere.

Me: Sorry?

Girl: It means, Remember that you are going to die. Remember to live.

[long pause]

Girl: Memento mori, memento vivere.

Surely, such a conversation must have been bracketed by benign chatter. Perhaps I triggered it with a bout of adolescent nihilism. Perhaps we led up to it by a meditating on “To be or not to be?” or “Alas, poor Yorick!” Then again, knowing that girl, perhaps not.

I never saw her again. As far as I know, she completely vanished after the sixth grade.

Memento morimemento vivere.

I cannot say how many years those words haunted me. I can say, however, that in the dark of countless middle school nights I was tormented by the shadow of mortality. That in the light of day memento vivere stirred in my heart a frantic energy to rise to the occasion and battle the injustice of being itself. That I repeated these words under my breath as I pondered questions of philosophy such as “Does teleportation kill the original copy of you?”

That half a decade later, when the girl’s voice had subsided into distant memory, I decided for some inarticulate reason that Memento was my favorite film before its opening credits finished rolling.

How many years did memento mori haunt me? You might say that the rest of my life, from the point of that conversation, has been a quest to recover words of such power from thousands of novels, manuscripts, songs and videos. Mantras to remind me of the direction of my transcendent dream. They speak now.

Everything can be made radically elementary.

That which can be destroyed by the truth, should be.

People can stand what is true, for they are already enduring it.

The purpose of mathematics is to advance human understanding.

People become who they are meant to be by doing what is right.

Modern people cannot find God because they will not look low enough.

The line between Good and Evil runs through the heart of every human being.

But I, being poor, have only my dreams. So I spread my dreams beneath your feet. Tread softly on them.

There’s a naive rationalist in me calling me a sucker for falling hook, line, and sinker for Deep Wisdom. To him I have only this to say: whereas by repeating these mantras I am filled with a renewed energy and direction for life that lasts for many years, he would have come away with only a vague cynical smugness. So who’s winning now?

I have the sense that the mantras I repeat under my breath are imbued with my deepest values and serve as a solution to the Control Problem in myself: to cheaply propagate those values to future copies of me across the span of many years.

Daily Challenge

Share a favorite mantra and what it means to you.