Monday, January 14, 2013

T.M. Lurhman on Magic, Belief, and Reality

Philip Zaleski, reviewing anthropologist T.M. Luhrman's book on witchcraft and other magical pursuits in Britain, published in 1989:
Ms. Luhrmann found Western magic to be a peppery mulligatawny soup of mysticism, shamanism, tarot, astrology, goddess worship, dream analysis and Renaissance hermeticism - the ultimate triumph of spiritual syncretism.
But the people who followed these beliefs were not backwoods cranks. They were professionals, engineers, and especially computer types. They were successful in the careers and their relationships, or, anyway, as successful as Christians and non-believers. It was only their beliefs that seemed outside the mainstream.
Among the most extreme propositions: that mind can directly mold matter; that all events are meaningful, and chance does not exist; that seemingly unrelated objects ''correspond'' to one another - so that, for instance, the moon, water, willows, elephants, the number nine, the letter ''S'' and the angel Gabriel are all intimately related.

How, Ms. Luhrmann ponders in her most penetrating meditation, do such tenets take hold? What leads a businessman to abandon conventional beliefs, strip naked and implore the goddess Hecate for a better secretary? Most magicians, it seems, really do believe that magic works. She found that as the fledgling magician develops proficiency, he or she begins to see new patterns and accept new assumptions - as does a specialist in any field. The magician, like anyone else, tends to remember the successful rituals and forget the flops. Events others ascribe to chance become proof of a ritual's effectiveness; if the magician performs a ritual involving water and next day sees someone crying, the tears validate the ritual. Magicians see causality where others see coincidence. The pull of any new ideology can be intense. Even Ms. Luhrmann, the dispassionate observer, found herself seduced. Beginning her fieldwork as a skeptical scientist, she began to think in magical terms. Her fantasy life deepened, as did her dreams, which exploded with mythological imagery. While she refuses to endorse magical power, she describes herself as ''hooked.'' After rituals, she feels ''vital and electric.'' She is ''astonished'' by the ''pertinence'' of tarot cards. If she finally rejects a magical view of the world, it is in large measure because ''I stood to lose credibility and career by adherence.''

Ms. Luhrmann concludes that people are too ''fuzzy'' to live by rational ideology. Rather, they stumble upon new ways of living and then compose an ideology to justify their actions. She calls this process ''interpretive drift'' - a disturbing proposition, especially since the transformation is often ''accidental, unintended,'' even ''unacknowledged.'' We are, as it were, bewitched by life, and our ideas follow suit.
I believe that this is generally true of religion. The beliefs are invented after the fact to explain things that are experienced, or felt. Practice and ritual come first, theology or ideology afterward. The nonbeliever's question, "How can you believe that?" usually misses the point. The point is the experience of faith, which feels so real and true that it justifies the creed in a way far beyond logic and evidence.

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