From chapter "Narcissism"
I’d love to be able to say that I first learned of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by reading Goethe’s poem when I was a child, doing a little light reading in the original German, of course. But the truth is that like so many people of my generation, I first encountered this story in Walt Disney’s Fantasia. If you recall, during one segment of the animated feature, Mickey Mouse is an apprentice to a sorcerer. The story begins with Mickey carrying buckets of water down some stairs in a castle, then trudging to pour the water into a large basin. When the sorcerer leaves, Mickey gets the bright idea to cast a spell he’s seen the sorcerer use to animate a broomstick. It works! The broomstick grows legs! And it walks! On Mickey’s command it grows arms and picks up the two empty buckets. He leads it up the stairs and out to a fountain. The broomstick fills the buckets, follows Mickey down the stairs and to the basin, then empties them. So far, so good! Mickey is making matter and energy jump through hoops on command! Isn’t that the point of life? Isn’t that why all of evolution has taken place, so humans—homo sapiens sapiens, or in this case mickey sapiens sapiens—can make matter and energy jump through hoops on command (as a translation of Goethe’s poem puts it: “You’re a slave in any case, and today you will be mine!”)? With the broomstick firmly set to the task, Mickey takes a nap. What could possibly go wrong? He dreams that he has been able to likewise get the stars and ocean and weather to do his bidding. Sound familiar? All the while the broomstick keeps bringing in water. Mickey awakens to a flooded room. He doesn’t know how to make the broomstick stop (just like we have no idea how to get rid of or clean up or fix so many of the horrors we’ve unleashed upon the world: GMOs, invasives, plastics and other endocrine disruptors, nuclear waste, heavy metals and other pollutants, depleted and polluted aquifers, biodiversity crash, global warming, or neurotoxins; and just like on the larger scale we seem to have no idea how to get rid of agriculture, civilization, or industrialization). So he splinters it with an ax. Unfortunately for him, each splinter regenerates—think: hydra—and suddenly he has something like 279 broomsticks carrying buckets of water into the now completely inundated room. The water threatens to take him away, drown him. He could die because of his arrogance. But at long last the sorcerer returns. He cleans up the mess, and uses a broomstick to swat Mickey on the butt as Mickey leaves the room. The end.
The story is a pretty straightforward metaphor: if you meddle in that which is beyond your capacity to comprehend, and/or if you attempt to control that which is beyond your capacity to control, you run a pretty good chance of causing catastrophe. Sound familiar? You may free yourself from some drudgery in the meantime, and you may dream about controlling the heavens and the seas and the skies, but you’ll come to failure. Sound even more familiar?
I realized even at eight, when I first saw this in a theater, that at least for me the metaphor would have worked still better with nature as the sorcerer, the one who understands how the world is, and not merely a more experienced human—named, I later learned, after Disney himself.The latter implies that if we can just become better and more experienced slavemasters, we’ll be able to competently run the show. But of course that’s nonsense, and completely counterfactual; as humans have attempted to control more and more of the biosphere, more and more of the biosphere is being “reorganized,” read: murdered. I also recognized even as a child that the metaphor has at least one more point of departure from our situation regarding the earth, which is that the horrors created by this culture and its arrogance are creating permanent harm, and can’t be forced by some feat of magic to disappear with no harm done. Despite those two points of dissonance between the metaphor and our current situation, the metaphor has stuck with me all these years, helped inform my understanding of the world, helped inform my understanding of this culture’s stupidity, arrogance, and destructiveness. It has informed my understanding of this culture’s politics, religion, economics, philosophy, epistemology, and certainly its science.