You’re soaking in it

If you’re a certain age (old) you might remember Madge the manicurist, who was forever insulting women about their chapped hands and tricking them into soaking their fingertips in Palmolive dishwashing liquid.

As a kid, I never understood these commercials. They seemed like fairy tales or dreams, where people act out of inscrutable inner compulsions and events move along according to a logic sealed off from daylight awareness. Why did these ladies, unasked, place their hands in dishes of green goo? They always seemed surprised to find themselves in this situation, yet would relax when Madge explained that it was dishwashing detergent. But this was even more mysterious. Why did the ladies decide to go along with it? Why did Madge contrive this whole situation in the first place? And how?

Perhaps there is something in successful commercials that communicates with us on the level of dreams. There is a certain form that everyone encounters in dreams: you find yourself in a situation where odd behavior is expected and you go along with it. You just find yourself doing it. And then, at a certain point, you come to a flash of lucidity in your dream, and you realize that you are doing something extremely strange, something your daylight self would never do, and you have been doing it all along.

holy mountain

Wait, I’m eating a face.

And in that flash of recognition, in the dream, you find a complicated reconciliation. There is a fragment of rational awareness that registers the face-eating* as peculiar, but it is a fragment embedded in the overwhelmingly persuasive logic of the dream. I find myself in the midst of eating a face, and that’s unsettling . . . but . . . it’s what I need to be doing now. So you keep eating the face, cuz what else are you gonna do? Not eat the face? That doesn’t make sense. Only when you wake up does your rational understanding overwhelm the logic of the dream and you say to yourself, “wow, what a weird dream.”

This post isn’t really about dreams; it’s about magic, again. I’m picking up a thread from my last post, where I ended up suggesting that there is something in magical styles of thought that humanist thinkers (even the odd musicologist) use all the time, whether they know if or not — usually not. Magic: you’re soaking in it.

I want to make this point clearly, and I’m going to keep making it, because most people assume that magic is the enthusiasm of a tiny and peculiar minority—occultists, pagans, new-agers, acidheads, and people from cultures that educated westerners quietly believe are backwards.** Just about every time I tell a fellow academic that I’m working on a book that deals with magic I feel the same frisson of discomfort. I can practically see the thought balloon emerge from my interlocutor’s head: wait, you can’t write a book about something that doesn’t exist, can you? Well, if magic doesn’t exist, I guess you can write about the kooks who believe in it. But hang on, then, are you writing about those kooks, or are you actually one of them? Just how crazy are you?


My response.

My response is always a variant of “you’re soaking in it.” We are all doing magic, or at least engaging in magical thinking, all the time. And this is not necessarily a bad thing.

Imagine the following scenario. A woman (let’s call her Ivy) has a furious argument with her boyfriend and goes out for a walk to think some things over. She’s been with this guy for a long time and has a lot invested in the relationship. Only now she’s asking if it’s a real investment or something more like the sunk-costs fallacy you get into with an old lemon of a car — “I can’t get rid of it now, after all the money I’ve put into it!” She thinks back over the argument, thinks about its long, inconclusive prehistory, the cankered bickering over the same damn thing, over and over, whatever that might be: something big and immovable, like money, career, sex, commitment, or kids. She asks whether he will ever really change and whether she can ask him to, what the nature of their relationship is now, was it really that good to start with, does she actually love him or is he a kind of bad habit . . .  that sort of thing.

Let’s imagine the scene in more particular detail. It’s a cheerless winter afternoon, shading into dusk. As the sun gets lower in the sky, the gray overcast of the afternoon starts breaking up into streaks of cloud and blue sky. Ivy looks up from her preoccupied, huddled passage through the streets and is suddenly arrested by the beauty of the sky. Her heart lifts then. She stops and feels a pervading calm, a centeredness within the totality of her surroundings. She feels herself standing at the axis of the big sky full of broken light and clouds. She feels her roots in the ground. She truly experiences this moment in which she is undecided and yet full of potential. She feels connected to everything.

A flight of crows rises noisily into the air. Their collective movement wavers between the direction from which Ivy came, back towards the apartment where her boyfriend is waiting on her return, and the direction she’s walking now, away from home and certainty. She suddenly feels sure that the crows’ flight is telling her something: the direction they take has the same meaning as the direction of her relationship. If they fly homewards, then she too will go home. If they fly away from home, then she too will fly away. If they just keep circling around, taking no particular direction, then that would seem to be a dismally accurate commentary on the current inconclusive state of her relationship. But no matter what, in this charged moment of heightened and centered awareness, when all things seem pregnant with meaning and the world itself seems intent on telling her something about her life, the flight of crows becomes a sign.***

And lo, at that moment the sun comes fully out from behind the broken bank of clouds, and the crows wheel around and fly straight towards it — away from her home, away from her boyfriend, away from her old life, and into the light. And Ivy knows, beyond any doubt, that it’s over. She goes home, tells her boyfriend she loves him (which she does, she now realizes, only she also realizes that it doesn’t change anything) and packs her stuff. “But why?,” he asks. Chances are, she’s not going to tell him it was because of the crows. She probably isn’t going to tell her friends about the crows either, when they ask her about her breakup. And as time goes on and her moment of clarity becomes muddied (as all such moments do) by the complications of life, she probably won’t even tell herself. In the story she tells of her own life, the crows will be forgotten and only the rational deliberations behind her decision will remain.

Unless, of course, she decides that magical thinking isn’t totally worthless after all. In which case, she trusts her experiences more than what any authority will tell her about them. But for the most part (and here I must defer full explanation to the next part of this post) we don’t trust our own experiences. Weird shit happens to us all the time, but if we can’t find an explanation for it that fits our education and cultural norms, we file it away in a mental folder marked “awkward/miscellaneous” and never look at it again.

Now, maybe the exact story I told hasn’t happened to you, but something like it probably has. The recently bereaved, for example, very often have a similar kind of experience, where something strange and striking in their environment seems to offer not only a reminder of the lost loved one but a tangible presence — “I felt that she was there with me once more.” Here is an example of such an experience, a short essay in which Michael Shermer, a professional skeptic of the sort I usually make rude comments about, has a genuinely weird experience and doesn’t simply dismiss it or assimilate it to rational explanation. “I savored the experience more than the explanation,” he writes. Not a bad definition of how magical thinking works.

I want to think more about this piece, and its author’s experience, in my next installment. But in the meantime, I want you to consider that, at such strange moments, we experience something like the dissonance of consciousness that I have argued belongs to certain dreams, where something of waking consciousness penetrates dream consciousness and makes itself uncannily felt. Moments of magical thinking present us with the same dissonance, but in reverse: those moments of waking life where we find ourselves thinking magically are moments in which dream consciousness invades the daylight realm.

Does this mean that they don’t matter? Well, they matter insofar as dreams do. But then, how do dreams matter?

[Later: I didn’t end up bothering to answer my last rhetorical question. Dreams matter, OK? Can we agree on that? I did, however, write a sequel to this post, here.]

*This is an image from Alejandro Jodorowsky’s surreal film The Holy Mountain.

**You will not get your standard American academic to admit s/he believes that any culture is superior to any other, not even under torture. But, dear reader, ask yourself this. If you don’t think that Western culture is better than any other and if you also think magic is bullshit, then how do you square your cultural relativism with the fact that there are lots of places in the world (especially in what used to be called the Third World) where people continue to make offerings to household gods, make decisions with the aid of divination, lay curses on enemies, or believe themselves to be cursed? Most people don’t think about it, or if they do, they quietly file the resulting cognitive dissonance into the mental folder marked “awkward/miscellaneous.” But it is this very question that lay at the center of the debate between Lucien Lévy-Bruhl and E. E. Evans-Pritchard, a debate that shaped the modern discipline of anthropology. Anthropologists have thought long and hard on this problem and have thereby come to a more sophisticated understanding of magic. But for the most part the rest of western intellectual culture has not.

***By the way, the word “augury” originally meant the practice of divination by watching the flight of birds. Dale Pendell’s short poetic treatise on divination is called The Language of Birds, appropriately, and is full of lovely, obscure words for various  forms of divination: selenosciamancy (divination by the shadows of moonlight through trees), clednomancy (divination by hearing chance words) philematomancy (divination by kissing), margaritomancy (divination by heating and roasting pearls), omphalomancy (divination by counting knots on an umbilical cord). Basically, if it manifests in your experience and you can’t control or predict its behavior, you can use it for divination.



About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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