2002/08/08

Having acquired more critical thinking skills over the course of my college education, I don’t think I’d profess a belief in any sort of “magic” now. Nor do I reify human consciousness anymore (which had been a product of my Platonist tendencies). It’s very fashionable in science these days to call consciousness an illusion, and while I’m skeptical about that position as well, I think I’ve come to understand just how contingent on external circumstances that human existence, and hence human thought, can be. By the way, what I wrote below on quantum mechanics was more influenced by science fiction writers than actual scientists.

Actually, there’s a lot that Frazer left out. There is no such thing as a complete closed system or a finished research project. (If there were an end to research, why would we ever become academics?) But he did write a massive work of scholarship, which I think is still brilliant for its time. I’m sorry to confess that I never did finish the book, since I got distracted halfway through. One of these days, I need to pick it up again.

[The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, by James Frazer]

My belief in “magic” is more of a belief in the “network” idea, that we indeed are connected to everything else and that a butterfly’s wings can cause a hurricane on the other side of the world. And science bears me out on this too. Frazer calls it the law of sympathy in magic, that anything which has been in contact with or bears a resemblance to another thing can be used to affect that other thing. He pompously calls it a primitive belief, but asserts that magic, at its root, is really a simpler version of science. Because magic doesn’t look for an outside source, like a god or a spirit, to accomplish amazing and miraculous acts. The magician analyzes his universe and concludes that it works in a logical, predictable fashion, according to a set of laws that govern nature. The same assumption, the same attitude, that drives science.

Anyway, Frazer thinks that the law of sympathy is utter idiocy, and he’s right of course, in a sense. Voodoo dolls won’t hurt the person they’re meant to simulate. Or at least I don’t think they do. But the belief that my actions have far-reaching consequences, that even my thoughts and my will can somehow subtly affect the universe is not so farfetched as people may first think. This is why SF writers are so insanely excited by quantum theory. Consciousness determines the event, turns uncertainty and probability into concrete event. Before the act of observation, it’s all a mishmash of states. Shoddy reasoning, of course, but I think the idea works on a certain level. We as conscious beings have a very different relationship with reality than inanimate, unconscious objects. We affect reality and thus have a means of changing it. Sometimes in surprising ways.

[...]

Frazer by the way is an absolutely insane man. Was an absolutely insane man, I mean. A brilliant scholar, but completely off his rocker. To explore the meaning behind a succession ritual at this temple that he sees in a painting at a museum, he writes a 800+ page book with an entire companion volume of footnotes that encompasses the entire globe in its exploration of culture, mythology and other anthropological studies. I was trying to explain the sheer mindboggling insanity of this project to my mother, and the analogy I came up with was “explaining an aspect of human nature and beginning with the structure of atoms.”

One day, I’d like to have completed a work of massive and perfect scholarship like Frazer’s The Golden Bough. I would like to finish writing the last sentence of the conclusion in this as of yet nonexistent book and know that I have covered everything: every possible book, every possible reference, every possible tangent. That my book could almost be a perfect closed system of knowledge in itself. The man’s not so much a genius than a scholar with OCD. But anyone who loves academia knows what’s so wonderful about The Golden Bough. It is a truly finished research project. I complete my social studies papers with a heartache, knowing that I could have gone to the reference section of the MML and read through a thousand more books but didn’t because of time and laziness. Even the books that I skimmed instead of reading. The chapters that I ignored because they didn’t seem immediately relevant, but did have some connection to my topic. The authors who I heard about but didn’t look for because their books weren’t in the circulating system. The papers and manuscripts and other unpublished documents that could be out there. The sources in different languages which I could not read. Frazer completed his book knowing that he had looked at it all, had read it all, that he overlooked nothing, that he left nothing out.

Or did he? The scholar’s ideal is ever elusive and impossible, as Mother would say. He probably finished the book in time for the publishers’ or the university’s deadline, but with a pang over that one notebook he didn’t look at, that one book which he had meant to use but never did, that one detail that he didn’t include because it would be too long, that one note that just slipped his mind and never came back. That one sentence about that breadfruit cooking custom among the Fiji Islanders (or something like that) that the editor scratched out.

Well, even if Frazer did feel heartbreak as he wrapped his manuscript up and sent it off by post (or handed it to his publisher), he still managed to come a lot bloody closer to the ideal than anyone else whose works I’ve ever read. Of course, not having read too many works of academia, I can’t really claim anything. But I personally believe that few people would have had that much devotion and insanity.