January 6, 2012


       The word mana comes from Polynesian (first used in English c 1843) and is defined as "a dynamic power dwelling in and flowing from certain individuals, spirits, or things, and capable of producing great good or evil," or "power achieved by ritual means; prestige; authority," or "a concept of life force, believed to be seated in the head, and associated with high social status and ritual power."  According to the Britannica Concise Encyclopedia, it is "Among Polynesian and Melanesian peoples, a supernatural force or power that may be ascribed to persons, spirits, or inanimate objects. Mana may be either good or evil, beneficial or dangerous, but it is not impersonal; it is never spoken of except in connection with powerful beings or things."
        Mana is an important concept in certain religions, but I'm thinking of it not in any technical theological sense, but in its role in fantasy.  The fantasy connection is obvious, since mana is one model for how magic might work in a fantasy world.  In the on-line fantasy role-playing game World of Warcraft and other games of its ilk, mana is the cost of casting spells.  A magic-wielding character has a certain amount of mana, and each possible spell costs a certain amount of mana.  That's probably the most common usage of the word mana these days: if you have enough mana, you can work magic.  If you don't have enough, you need to get more.  In World of Warcraft you regain mana by waiting for your supply to slowly replenish itself.  If you don't want to wait, you can drink a mana potion, or eat mana-replenishing food, or benefit from the action of various spells.  And when your mana reserves are once again full, you can cast all your spells again, boom, zap, kapow.  Presumably in the fantasy universe of a book, rather than the mechanics of a computer game, mana could be regained by performing rituals, offering sacrifices, eating the hearts of opponents with a lot of mana, possessing objects of sacred power, and so forth.  It might be interesting to imagine that mana is captured in objects by the work of skilled artists, that truly great works of art possess mana: power.
        That brings me to the other thing I associate with the word mana.  Mana was the subject of a talk I heard by artist Francisco Mendez-Diéz.  He asserted that to be art, images must have power, and that powerful images come from deliberately looking for mana.  That mana power, he said, can come from shared experiences, from authenticity and honesty to self, or from the act of adoration of an image or object.  Meaning equals power.  These are some interesting ideas, and while I don't think that I venerate raw power, for good or evil, to the extent that Mendez-Diéz seems to, he did say a few things I found very helpful in thinking about making and viewing art.
        The first of these is the distinction he drew between images of power and images with power.  Images of power are simply depictions of something that has no particular depth of meaning to the artist.  For example, if I were to draw a picture of Zeus smiting things with thunderbolts, it would be a picture of power, but it would have no particular power of its own, since I don't much care about Zeus.  Images with power, Mendez-Diéz said, are made when the artist is working with a subject that truly speaks to him, so that he's not merely depicting another's ideas and beliefs but is wrestling with his own.  All this can get a little mystical for me, but I do very much like the reminder that as an artist I'll be doing my best work when I follow my own attractions, explore my own desire for understanding, and work to express my own visions authentically, rather than producing stuff that I imagine other people will want to buy.  The reminder is equally valid for writing.
        The other interesting point Mendez-Diéz raised was a question: Is it a unique quality of artists that they see power in a different way?  (I certainly don't think I see power in quite the same way he does, but whether that means one of us isn't a real artist is another question!)  Think of the phrase, "Oh, I see!" meaning, "I get it!  I understand."  If we cultivate our ability to see, does that give us greater insight, greater understanding?  And if we possess greater understanding, does that give us greater power, greater mana?  I'm leery of grandiose claims about the superiority of artists, but at the same time I do believe in the power of creative habits of mind.  I do believe that all of us would benefit if more of us cultivated our ability to glimpse and pursue unexpected connections, to look for alternatives, and to find and create beauty all around us.  So if mana is power that we can draw on by thinking creatively, then let's hope we never suffer from the frustrated cry heard in the midst of many a desperate battle in World of Warcraft: Out Of Mana!

[Picture: Papuan Idols, engraving from Ridpath's Universal History, Volume VIII, 1894;
Vision and the mechanism for response to external stimuli, woodcut from Tractatus de homine by René Descartes, 1644.  (Image from National Library of Medicine Image Collection.)]

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