This article is from the publication “The Guardian” and is written
by Philip Pullman
A new exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford brings together a multitude of objects and artworks – there’s a “poppet” or rag doll with a stiletto stuck through its face, an amulet containing a human heart, a wisp of “ectoplasm” apparently extruded by a medium in Wales, and too many others to count – from a dark world of nonsense and superstition that we ought to have outgrown a long time ago. At least, that’s how I imagine rationality would view it. I find myself in an awkward position rationality-wise, because my name is listed on the website of the Rationalist Association as a supporter, and at the same time I think this exhibition is full of illuminating things, and the mental world it illustrates is an important – no, an essential part of the life we live. I’d better try to work out what I mean.
I’ll start with William James. In his book The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), James takes an interesting approach to his subject: he’s not trying to persuade us of the truth of this religion or that, or to unpack some complexities of dogma, or to interpret religious stories for the new 20th century. The book is about what the title says: religious experience – what it feels like to be converted, or to lose one’s faith, or to be in a state of mystical ecstasy, or of existential doubt. James’s examples are drawn from the testimonies of believers and unbelievers alike, and the question of whether there is a God, and whether Jesus Christ is his son, and so forth, is of little interest to James’s main enquiry: only the effects of believing it matter here. For example, we may doubt that the Virgin Mary actually, in fact, physically appeared to Bernadette Soubirous at Lourdes (we may doubt that there ever was a Virgin Mary in the first place) but the vision, or whatever it was, was clearly profoundly meaningful to Bernadette, and her account of it was meaningful to many others, and it certainly had an effect on her and the life she led.
And of course she’s not alone. Countless thousands of thoughtful and intelligent people have had experiences of a kind that they call religious. James paid them the compliment of taking these experiences seriously, and produced a classic of psychological insight. But could there be a Varieties of Magical Experience? Could the mental universe that produced witch bottles and sigil, and grimoires, and the whole idea of magic itself, be rich enough to sustain an examination of that sort?
The universe of magic is a large place. It contains phenomena ranging from simple good luck charms to complicated systems of belief and practice such as astrology and alchemy, and it comes to us from prehistory, and from every part of the world, and it still flourishes today. The variety of ideas and objects it contains is almost limitless; the one thing they have in common is that rationalism would scoff at all of them as absurd, outdated, meaningless superstitions that aren’t worth wasting time on.
But rationalism doesn’t make the magical universe go away. Possibly because I earn my living as a writer of fiction, and possibly because it’s just the sensible thing to do, I like to pay attention to everything I come across, including things that evoke the uncanny or the mysterious. Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto (I am human, I consider nothing human alien to me). My attitude to magical things is very much like that attributed to the great physicist Niels Bohr. Asked about the horseshoe that used to hang over the door to his laboratory, he’s claimed to have said that he didn’t believe it worked but he’d been told that it worked whether he believed in it or not. When it comes to belief in lucky charms, or rings engraved with the names of angels, or talismans with magic squares, it’s impossible to defend it and absurd to attack it on rational grounds because it’s not the kind of material on which reason operates. Reason is the wrong tool. Trying to understand superstition rationally is like trying to pick up something made of wood by using a magnet.
I have plenty of superstitions, which are my own and no one else’s (I don’t believe that anyone else would feel more able to write a novel, for example, if they used the only kind of pen and paper that works for me) but one of the interesting things about Spellbound, the Ashmolean exhibition, is that it illustrates beliefs that many people in many places and during many centuries have held in common. Belief in witches, for one thing, is more or less worldwide. In Christian countries it reached a pitch of hysterical panic between the 15th and the late 18th centuries, at a time when tensions between Protestant and Catholic powers were at their highest, and when the medieval world of faith was being challenged by the new thinking of the Enlightenment. Among other things, it was a systematic exercise of cruelty and horror: during this period, writes Malcolm Gaskill in the exhibition catalogue, “there were around 10,000 trials for witchcraft in continental Europe, the British Isles and North American colonies”.
Unlike many human failings, this was not entirely the result of stupidity. Many intelligent people believed that witchcraft existed, and that it was right and proper to stamp it out by killing those who practised it. Nor is that cast of mind safely buried in the past. READ FURTHER