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Deeper waters

I enjoy the basement of Oxford’s remaindered/discount book shop – all kinds of entertaining things end up there. My latest trip yielded The Psychic Tourist by William Little, a journalistic book in which he investigates one claim after another (psychics, mediumship, remote viewing…), typically finding good stories that turn out to be wildly selective retellings, or studies with methodological holes fit to drive a bus through.

So perhaps it’s not so surprising that by the time he gets to his chapter on superstition, he abandons his ‘open minded investigation’ stance and simply enquires into how and when people are weak-minded enough to believe in lucky charms and rituals and things that obviously aren’t real. Here’s what he has to say about its causes:

‘Superstition is clearly not restricted to primitive peoples who have no other way of understanding how the world works, though these people can show us how superstition actually functions. Take the Trobriand islanders of Melanesia, off the coast of New Guinea, studied by Polish psychologist Bronislaw Malinowski in the 1900s. Malinowski found that when events were outside the islanders’ control they resorted to superstition. While observing the fishermen at work, he noticed that when sailing in lagoons or close to the short, the men relied entirely on their skill and experience to control their boats and locate fish. On venturing into the open sea, however, these same fishermen began using magical rituals, faced as they now were with unpredictable hazards – exactly the type of superstitious behaviour in the face of anxiety and uncertainty that is very much alive today.’

‘These same fishermen…’ – extraordinary transformation!

I imagine you see what I see here, so I won’t add much commentary.

The fishermen (and the university student with the ‘lucky pen’ he goes on to interview) transform as if by magic into superstitious primitives when in an unpredictable, uncertain situation; one that’s largely outside their control. Which is another way of saying that it’s outside the realm of dependable cause and effect: if I do x, I will always get y. If I adjust the sail thus, the boat will certainly go this way; if I revise thoroughly, I’ll certainly be able to think clearly and remember everything under exam conditions. Only it might not, and I might not – and to imagine that we can one day live in a world with all its deep oceans filled in, free from undercurrents, all within our understanding and under our control, really would be superstitious.

When we seek to stretch ourselves, we push the boat out into deeper waters, and go to places beyond the comfort-lagoon-zone where we can’t control outcomes. To navigate here, we relate to our surroundings with metaphor, not mechanics – through ritual, or a reading we can carry with us as guiding principle.

(Little’s story of the university student reminds me…

In my own first Finals papers, I used an old fountain pen, and spent the whole of German prose struggling to restore the flow of ink to my pen, and the flow of German vocabulary to my brain. Failed on both counts. I went and bought a beautiful new pen before the literature papers, and then ink and ideas flowed smoothly.)

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