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The Age of Orbs and Pondering

The end of 2021 has everyone feeling like a contemplative wizard

Nobody with a passing interest in meme trends could fail to notice one that has infiltrated the web of late, and could well carry us into 2022 without losing steam. I speak, naturally, of the wizard who ponders a magical orb, entranced by visions within, reflecting on their significance.

The illustration, by the late English artist Angus Mcbride, dates from the late 1980s, when it was featured on the covers of books for role-playing games set in the Middle Earth of Lord of the Rings. The cloaked and bearded orb-ponderer is therefore a known entity in specific fantasy lore — in fact, he appears to be none other than the traitorous Sauruman — but no matter. His likeness has been liberated to serve the higher cause of rarefied shitposting, a true dark art.

We’re drawn to this tableau, I feel, for many reasons that have little to do with mystical prognostication and spells. It’s rather tranquil, even if the warlock’s hooded eyes hint at nefarious plans. There’s a classical solidity to his figure — he is firmly positioned at the seat of control, secure in his castle. The pure focus is enviable: nothing distracts him from the glowing crystal ball before him, not even that impish pageboy or whoever it is watching him from a doorway nearby. He is, we’d say today, in the zone. But there’s something else, too, isn’t there, a parallel that almost escaped me at first. It’s the eerie blue light that made everything click.

Yes, it’s like he’s staring at his smartphone. What is a wizard’s orb if not the most addictive screen? This object can bring you power, knowledge and tantalizing glimpses of the future, but it may exact a terrible cost. The deeper you stare into the void, the less you are able to look away.    

Maybe, just as it’s not good for us to scroll TikTok for an hour with the lights off after climbing into bed, we shouldn’t spend so much time on contemplation of enigmatic spheres. Our favorite apps hypnotize us the same way, by instilling the belief that some answer or epiphany, the justification for our gaze, is close at hand — so long as we maintain attention. Yet always it remains elusive, and we have no choice but to continue seeking. The promised satisfaction doesn’t exist, only the hunger for it, which redoubles with each moment we lose to the past.

It can be a melancholy state of affairs, to say the least.

However, I want to be clear on this point: I am not anti-orb. I believe orbs can be useful in understanding the world around us, and for periods of responsible introspection. It seems not incidental to me that we have gravitated toward the practice at the end of another chaotic and baffling year, when we are pressed with the need to find the balanced center of the soul. In his orb-rumination room, the wizard escapes the dark, cold winter outside, achieving a manner of hibernation. Who among us does not crave that quiet retreat when the days are short and the sun turns weak in the sky? When we ask, again, what we are doing here, and for whom we do it? The orb invites us to sit in these uncertainties — to ponder them — as the stuff of life.

If human beings have the wondrous capacity for self-awareness, they also have this: a talent for emptying the mind of all except the intangible. Here we confront thoughts without form, ideas that defy reality. The opaque mists that are the subconscious itself. What a crucial reprieve, this meditation in our private chambers, face lit up with the shine of all that ever may be. Flawlessly round, bewitchingly bright, a universe in miniature. 

Go on, now — it ain’t gonna ponder itself.