This Film's Crap. Let's Slash the Seats.
- Aug 20, 2017
- Reaction score
As a 26 year old Engineer working for Xerox, myself and three friends were backpacking in the Catskills Mountains when we came upon a very large clearing, more like a meadow, where more than ten older (I would guess the women were in their sixties) women were nude and dancing in what we gaithered was an attempt to cure one of their company from cancer. Once we figured out what was going on we didn’t spy on them and instead took a long circuitous route around the clearing. Never seen anything like that again.As long as there's sex, drugs and skyclad dancing round midnight bonfires, I can live without the religious and spiritual bit.
Sorry that it's taken me more than a month to type up some reactions to reading I've been doing on the occult--some other projects, and summertime languor, got in the way. In any case, here's the first installment:
Michael D. Bailey, Magic: The Basics (London: Routledge, 2018).
As its title implies, this is a brief introduction to the subject, part of ‘the basics’ series published by Routledge. Its author, Michael Bailey, is a historian who specializes in Early Modern European magic who has written studies of the Malleus Maleficarum and of the idea of superstition, as well as an earlier textbook on magic in European history, which I’ve read and liked. Though this book is not a history—its chapters (except the last) are thematic rather than chronological—its outlook is more historical than, say, psychological, anthropological, or sociological, albeit Bailey draws on work in all those fields. Unsurprisingly, he also pays a good deal of attention to Early Modern European ideas about magic and witch-hunting. As Bailey notes, though, there has been a vast amount of scholarship written on the latter topic, so it is not simply a case of an author emphasizing his own specialty.
After a short introduction that notes the ubiquity of magic, the book offers six chapters (see below for titles). It concludes with a glossary, which includes some terms not actually used in the text, like ‘Enochian magic,’ a short guide to further reading, and an index. A real bibliography might have been more useful, but on the plus side the volume has chapter endnotes that give its sources. Since the work surveys a lot of terrain, though not in great depth (the text runs only to 160 pages), I won’t try to summarize all Bailey’s points. Some of them will be pretty familiar to anyone who has read much on the subject, which is not surprising in an introduction. Instead, I’ll highlight a few of his remarks that I found interesting or debatable.
Chapter 1: The Meanings of MagicMagic as a cultural category is defined largely by its relation to two others, religion and science—the latter defined not narrowly as modern science but more broadly as ‘theories about the functioning of the natural world.’ So an attempt to deal with the spiritual or divine may be either religious or magical, and an attempt to control or manipulate the world may be scientific or magical. This seems valid for European civilizations, at least, but I wonder if it applies as well for other cultures? From what little I know, it seems that much of what gets discussed as ‘magic’ for Ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt (for example) is actually the purview of priests or similar religious officials. As Bailey makes clear, monotheistic religions and especially Christianity have been most insistent in dividing religion and magic (and declaring magic evil), while modern science (i.e. from the 18th century onward) has likewise rejected magic more thoroughly than similar bodies of knowledge elsewhere or in earlier times.
Bailey’s initial chapter also includes a useful brief survey of “Universalizing Attempts in Anthropology and Sociology” that deal with magic as category. This has good capsule accounts of some key writings on the subject, including those of Frazer, Mauss, Durkheim, Malinowski, and Evans-Pritchard. Bailey notes that some scholars reject ‘magic’ as a term of analysis altogether, because it is inchoate and may be misleading in many contexts, but rejects this view largely on practical grounds. As an interesting final point in this chapter, he argues that a degree of incoherence or conceptual slipperiness is built into magic as a phenomenon, even when one studies it in a single, distinct culture and situation: magic is by its nature ill-defined. As he puts it, “Secrecy, uncertainty, and mysterious changeability are important hallmarks of magic around the world.” A corollary of this that he develops later in the work is that magic that lacks this quality—that is too well-defined, too understandable—is likely to be absorbed into the categories or religion or science for its culture.
Chapter 2: Magical ActsThis was the weakest chapter, in my opinion. It surveys briefly the uses to which magic has been put, types of magic and practitioners, the use of materials (including texts) in magic, and the sources that have been posited in different cultures for magical power. Bailey’s discussion is sound (as far as I can tell) and interesting enough, but since his remit is the entire world throughout history, it is hard to come up with much in the way of generalizations that are not pretty commonsensical. So, for example, the section on practitioners notes that some types of magic may be done by anybody (like throwing salt over one’s shoulder to avert bad luck), while other types are more elaborate requiring involved rituals and specialist knowledge. Professional magicians may be part of an educated elite or less learned ‘cunning people.’ Though in some societies (or for some types of magic) education and resources are all that it necessary, in other cases magicians have some innate (and often inborn) special characteristic, like being born ‘in the caul’ or being descended from another magician. And so on.
Chapter 3: Magic Contested and CondemnedThe third chapter stresses well a point that it too easy to overlook. Rather than modern cultures being incredulous about magic while premodern ones believed in it, in any given society there will be a range of credulity about different magical phenomena. Thinkers may cast scorn on much that passes as magical in their civilization while accepting some other magical phenomena as real. This chapter also notes that most cultures have seen magic as morally ambiguous and created legal penalties only for maleficent magic. Christian Europe is something of an exception here—though there were Christian intellectuals who defended some sorts of magical practice—and Bailey concludes the chapter with a brief resume of the Early Modern witch-hunts.
Chapter 4: Magical IdentitiesBailey’s fourth chapter economically unites a variety of topics (magicians as ‘outsiders, the ‘social strain gauge’ approach to magic, the gender of magical practitioners, etc.) through a discussion of what people have been labeled or self-identified as magicians. The book notes that in some African and Asian societies, evil magicians (‘witches’) are considered capable of doing their harm completely involuntarily—indeed, they may not even be aware that they are ‘witches.’ I found this interesting since European ideas about magic normally treat it as volitional, with maybe a few exceptions like the evil eye.
Chapter 5: The Reality of MagicThe fifth chapter begins with some straightforward ways in which magic can ‘work’: some magic draws on what we would think of as real properties of plants or minerals, some may involve the use of hallucinogens which could lead participants to perceive things, and some relies on deliberate trickery. A more interesting question that Bailey pursues is why people might ascribe some harms or outcomes to maleficent magic, instead of to natural causes or bad luck; a key factor seems to be the presence of unusual levels of stress, or threats that cannot be met by normal means. Drawing on a study of ritual magicians in late 20th-century England, Bailey also suggests that the practice of magic itself may ‘train’ people to see it in operation around them, accepting cause and effect relationships that other would not. An important part of this is viewing magic’s outcomes as possibly indirect instead of direct. Also, these ritual magicians accept that particular magical procedures may fail as well as succeed, “experiencing magical rites that fail critically reinforces the magicians’ conviction that they are engaging in a serious activity that operates in an objective and not merely and imagined way.”
This chapter also briefly discusses psychological studies of magical thinking and superstition. Bailey notes work which suggests that people are more likely to engage in this if they are in fields or situations where the outcomes are unusually random (like gambling, or some sports) and that therefore greater control over the environment may have produced a decline in belief in magic. He is skeptical (rightly in my view) about the latter idea, though, noting that surveys from the early 20th century onward have not shown any straightforward drop in belief in magic, and that European elites rejected magic considerably before modern technology rendered life more predictable. He puts more credence in work which tends to show that people in modern Western societies may act as though they believe in magical phenomena or processes while explicitly proclaiming they do not, what he calls ‘dual-process thinking.’
Chapter 6: Magic in the Modern WorldBailey’s final chapter is largely concerned with the ‘disenchantment of the world’ that Weber identified as characteristic of modernity. He provides a useful brief account of occult traditions in the modern West which of course show that magic did not entirely disappear, but he does not really engage with scholarship that argues that occultism may have been influential in the creation of modernity. The chapter also deals with reactions to ‘disenchantment’ beyond the West, exploring both acceptance and resistance to it. Here I was surprised to learn that some non-European societies welcomed the idea of disenchantment as they thought it would end the depredations of witches, only to be disappointed when it failed to do so.
It is; I wish Bailey had discussed it in more depth, but of course this is a short introduction. His example comes from psychological experiments where people are given lottery tickets and then provided with incentives to exchange them for other tickets. On rational/probabilistic grounds they should agree to do this, but many people will not. Bailey notes that some explain this by saying they would feel worse if they gave a way a winning ticket, which is a recognized psychological principle (regret avoidance), but that some other findings indicate that people are acting as though they thought exchanging tickets would lower their chance of winning.Your summery is much appreciated and enjoyed. Dual-process thinking, in particular, seems very interesting.
It is; I wish Bailey had discussed it in more depth, but of course this is a short introduction. His example comes from psychological experiments where people are given lottery tickets and then provided with incentives to exchange them for other tickets. On rational/probabilistic grounds they should agree to do this, but many people will not. Bailey notes that some explain this by saying they would feel worse if they gave a way a winning ticket, which is a recognized psychological principle (regret avoidance), but that some other findings indicate that people are acting as though they thought exchanging tickets would lower their chance of winning.
I know that, personally, I don't believe in the occult, but I can have a strong sense that the universe is perverse. So, for example, if I may sometimes take an umbrella with me on iffy days not to prepare for rain but as a prophylactic against it. I don't really think my preparedness has any effect on the weather, but I act as though I did.
I hope you like Mask of the Sorcerer--Schweitzer deserves to be better known, IMO.Well, I can definitely agree that the universe tends towards perversity. What will you read next? I have a few books that might fit this thread and if I get around to actually finishing one of them I'll post my thought. As an aside, I bought The Mask of the Sorcerer on your recommendation. It's staring at me as I type this and I'll read it sometime soon, hopefully.
He notes that the actual content of the magic, the supernatural powers it invokes, and the status of the performer can vary widely, while remaining essentially the same activity. (As an aside, I hope every chapter in the book does not begin with wrestling with the definition of magic.)…an activity consisting of symbolic gestures (e.g. the burning of a substitute figurine), usually accompanied by recitations, performed by an expert (relying on transmitted knowledge) with the goal of effecting an immediate change and transformation of the object of the activity (e.g. the cure of an ill person or the removal of an agent of evil from a house.
Rivals or enemies may only have existed in the patient’s mind; in other words, such incantations are treating a mild form of paranoia. Moreover, they were probably not composed for someone who actually faced intrigues at court. It is more likely they were used by ordinary individuals in the Mesopotamian bureaucracy who imagined they had rivals.