Awe and Wonder
Circe Offering the Cup to Odysseus
John William Waterhouse
There was a recent article in Lampham’s Quarterly (“Very Superstitious”) about superstition and science and folk wisdom. The article is not an attempt to reawaken a belief in superstition or the irrational, but it does encourage us to look for a truth that may lie beneath the superstition. The article begins by telling a story about a family whose child is stricken with scarlet fever. The medical community, and most everyone else, gave up hope for the child’s survival. So the parents went to a group of women euphemistically referred to as a “jury of matrons;” the author of the article suggests the newspaper was not comfortable referring to them as witches (and perhaps they in fact were not). But they gave the parents the benefit of their “folk wisdom.” The article says these women did not believe the child would survive, but they believed that by doing the things they suggested the parents would make the child’s passing easier. What they suggested was, “open all the doors, drawers, cupboards, and boxes in the house, untie any knots – perhaps in a shoelace, a curtain pull, or an apron sash – and remove all keys from their locks. The parents did these things, and the child did not die. Of course this may just be an example of the philosophical fallacy known as “post hoc – propter hoc” which just attributes anything that follows an action as having been caused by that action, as when Huck tells us of a gentleman who looked over his shoulder at the new moon and died two years later. But some suggest that by opening windows and doors a space that may have been confined and full of stale, infected air, was ventilated and made a healthier environment. In other words there may be a perfectly rational explanation for what happened and that perhaps this folk wisdom articulated something real while incorrectly identifying the source and cause of the benefit.
The article is a study in sympathetic magic and its characterization by James G. Frazer, the author of The Golden Bough and the coiner of the term. Sympathetic magic has a long and colorful history. One way of determining longitude at sea, for example, is by knowing the time where you are and the time at the port you sailed from. One proposed solution to the problem involved using a powder that would be sprinkled over the used bandages of an injured dog that traveled with the voyagers (the dog, not the bandages). Applying the powder to the bandages at a specified time, say 12:00 PM, would cause the dog on board the ship to yelp, telling the ships navigator the time at the home port. The navigator, knowing the time on board ship, would have the second time setting he needed to determine longitude. The article gives many examples, some used to cause harm, some put to good and merciful ends, it does not argue, I do not think, for magic, only that things attributed to “sympathetic magic” may have other causes.
The article brings up a second example; that of two clinics in a Vienna hospital assisting mothers in giving birth, one run by midwives and one by physicians. Deliveries performed by midwives at their clinic in the hospital had a mortality rate of 2 percent. The physicians’ mortality rate was 10 percent. A physician at the hospital, Ignaz Semmelweis, tried to figure out why. He observed that in the hospital none of the staff washed their hands, in the 1840’s this was just not done, and was seen as unnecessary. Physicians would go to the maternity clinic after performing other surgeries and would bring infection with them. When, under Dr. Semmelweis’ instructions, the doctors began to wash their hands the mortality rates evened out to 2 percent at both clinic. But the medical community said there was no scientific framework for the washing of hands making a difference. They said this remedy was nothing more than a belief in “sympathetic magic.” Later folks like Pasteur did the scientific tests that gave credence to the practice of washing up, and the practice was then adopted.
The article concludes by saying we turn to magic sometimes because it is all we have. The song that began this, Lyke-Wake Dirge is a song of mourning and songs of mourning perform a kind of magic, they help healing, they often draw attention to more mysterious aspects of human existence that do not lend themselves to easy answers or point to powers beyond our understanding. The article does not endorse superstition, but it does suggest there are things in life we cannot explain and times when we need comforts the rational world cannot provide. Sven Birkerts in an essay “Vertigo” suggests that reading often provides a similar kind of “magical” experience. He does not call it “magical” but he does see it as transformational, and there is a kind of magic involved with this process as he describes it:
Books are so easily masked by familiarity, crowded into indistinctness by others of their kind, their original explosiveness gone latent, awaiting some circumstance in the life of the reader to make them actual, as the writing was for the writer. Books are singularities, trade routes for private intensities. We forget this. Reading itself falls to habit, the eye switching back and forth down pages, down the lengths of columns, just another thing we do, until one day a book comes along that has the force, or is such a fit to what we need, that it renews the act for us. How did we ever forget what happened that first time, whenever it was, with the eruption of another’s voice, that stark surprise breaching of time and distance, the sense we had of standing high on a ledge looking over?
What ever we call it, those that read in the way Birkerts describes have experienced this. Time stops, the mind is awakened, it is reshaped, it becomes aware of things it was unaware of before and understands things it did not understand before. Neuroscientists have begun studying this and have tried to formulate theories that explain why, but to the person experiencing these things, the “whys” are not really that important.
Heliocentric universe, Harmonia Macrocosmica
There was an article and an interview recently (“Humanities aren’t a science. Stop treating them like one” and “Progress Isn’t A Linear Development”) that both discussed the sciences and the humanities and how they each address different human needs and incorporate different ways of thinking and seeing. Both articles assert the importance of both the humanities and the sciences and the need to teach and explore them both, that our human existence is diminished if we give greater importance to one or marginalize the other. The illustrations above and below suggest two different ways of looking at the universe, the top is heliocentric and the bottom is geocentric. The first sees the sun as stationary and at the center of our solar system. The other sees the earth as stationary and at the solar system’s center. Both models of the universe are based on observation. Galileo when he formulated his theories that put the sun at the center based those theories on what he saw and the only way he could explain what he saw. Of course when we standing on earth look at the sky, it appears as though it is the sun that is moving and we are standing still, but with training and adequate tools, telescopes and the like, we can see why what appears to be true cannot be true. But we can also understand how early astronomers without Galileo’s tools would reach other conclusions.
Ptolemaic geocentric model
There is a little poster I saw recently that said, “Science can tell you how to clone a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Humanities can tell you why this might be a bad idea.” I think this captures a real truth that is often absent in the world today. The sciences teach us how to do things, and prod us to search for new ways of doing things, new ways of seeing the world around us. The humanities teach us how to look at the world around us, to reflect on what we do before we do it, so that we may not come to regret our actions later. The sciences help us to understand our world and how it works, the humanities help us to reflect on what we learn about our world and on how we ought to respond to and interact with it. What we loose when we loose science is a method for examining our world and how it works. We loose the tools and procedures to study the natural world, to document the steps, to test what has been discovered so that we can know if we understand what we have discovered. True science is built on skepticism and a belief that the method is more important than the scientist employing it (or at least more important than the scientist’s ego).
What we loose when we loose the humanities is the ability to see consequences before they happen, the ability to reflect on our actions, on the actions of others, the ability to shape a view of the world and how we ought to live in it. Science helps understand how the stars came to be and how they work, how they produce light and energy. The humanities help us to understand why they are beautiful and how their beauty blesses human existence. The humanities teach us there is more to life than respiration, reproduction, and work. It is the discipline of the sciences that teach the scientist how to do his work. It is the humanities that teach the scientist why she or he draws pleasure from that work and, perhaps, who that work should serve.
“The Old Bailey, Known Also as the Central Criminal Court”
Thomas Rowlandson and Augustus Pugin
Law is categorized as a branch of the humanities. It touches on many areas of human life, but it is devoted, in its purest sense, to the protection of the innocent. We regulate markets, for example, not because we want to limit people’s rewards for their labor, but because we want to prevent the human propensity for greed from harming the innocent. Regulation’s intent, when it is done correctly, is to act as a break on the darker angels of our nature. But the law is often more than this. The law often tells stories, it points us to moments in history that provoked the legislation and often in the process of legislating tells the stories that provoked the legislation. This is often true of “common law” that is based on a narrative that explains a legal situation. A common law marriage, for example, is one that is not defined by a rite or ceremony or any official action by the state but by the “story” of two people’s lives together. The administration lawyer (I believe he came from the Reagan administration) who wrote the “RICO” statute, the law intended to control racketeering, was asked if the acronym “RICO” (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations act) was inspired by the film Little Caesar and its central character Rico Bandello. The lawyer refused to answer the question, but he did add that he was a film buff. The only point being, and it may not be that large of a point, is that stories are important and they play a large role in our life. The law against racketeering was not motivated by the film or the story the film tells, but the story the film tells helps illustrate the importance of the law that may have been named in its honor.
The Art of Creating Awe
The film clip is about the creating of “awe” in the movies. It is a talk given by a man who creates special effects in films that move us, that capture the imagination. When we read, if we read well, our minds are capable of producing effects that cannot be created in studios, that are far more awesome; it is this working of the human imagination that creates the magic that Birkerts describes in his essay. The human imagination is the richest source of wonder on the planet and even in the case of films each of the effects began as an image in the mind of its maker. There was an article on Ludwig Wittgenstein (“Ludwig Wittgenstein’s passion for looking, not thinking”) and his belief in the importance of “looking.” In the article Wittgenstein is quoted as saying, “don’t think look.” Or as Yogi Berra put it, “You can see a lot just by looking.” The article is about the importance of seeing things and not just thinking about things. It tells the story of Bertrand Russell taking a test that was based on geometric shapes. He did well at first and then he began having trouble. When asked why he was having problems he said it was because he no longer had names for the shapes he was being shown and without the names he did not know how to think about them. Russell believed more in thinking than in looking. There is probably value to both ways of approaching problems, but often we give greater credence to what we think about things than we do to what we see and how what we see affects us.
Mont Sainte-Victoire and the Viaduct of the Arc River Valley
There was an article in The Guardian about walking and inspiration (“Path to enlightenment: how walking inspires writers”) that also addresses this issue of paying attention to the world around us and the beauty that is there. The article discusses writers who wrote and walked and whose writing was a product of these rambles, Wordsworth for example, and Wittgenstein are mentioned. The paintings above and below are of landscapes that are serene and comforting. It is an aspect of beauty that it often brings comfort and produces an inner peace. The focus of the article, or its inspiration anyway, is a house in Connemara, Ireland that belonged to an Irish poet named Richard Murphy. He wandered around the area and he sailed its harbor. This wandering helped to integrate him into the community but it also helped to build community because his wandering about, and his writing about wandering about, provoked interest in others and people came to visit and these visits in turn helped the economy of this poor community.
Living on Cape Cod I can see how on the one hand visitors to a beautiful place do help the economy of the place but they can also change the look of the place. Sometimes real objects of beauty are not universally appreciated, but their appreciation is dictated by taste. Georgia O’Keefe loved the desert, but many find it a hostile unfriendly place. But when people who share O’Keefe’s interest in the desert come to the desert, the neon soon begins to replace the Joshua Trees and the cactus. But what is probably of greater concern is that those that visit the desert or the coast of Cape Cod want to shape it to fit a private conception of “the beautiful” that is at odds with the beauty that brought them, and others, there in the first place. As Yogi Berra also said, “nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded” and there is something in the beautiful that does not like a crowd.
The Fisherman’s house at Varengeville