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Saturday, 29 December 2012

The contemporary magic of denial

There is significant insight into our Western denial of reality in today's Guardian. Giles Fraser is particularly apposite in a comment piece (which has some synergy with my Christmas night sermon) about our continuing belief in magic:

"What do I mean by magic? Forget Merlin. Forget Potter. I mean the belief that there is ever a short cut out of the constituent limitations of our humanity. That there is a way, instantly, with the flick of a wand or a credit card, of changing ourselves from one thing to something else entirely. Abracadabra. Magic is the escape fantasy of those who cannot cope with the fact that we are limited creatures, that we will grow old and die, that we can never have everything, that we will always be dependent on food and oxygen and the love of others, and that, because of this, we will often feel pain and loss. Magic is the belief that there is some other way of dealing with all of this other than simply by dealing with it.

Which is why I think the really dangerous magic – and I believe all magic is dangerous – is out there in the post-Christmas sales. The most insidious magic is disguised as something so ordinary we don't even notice it. In terms of magic, both Christianity and contemporary market capitalism appear under the form of their opposites ...

We buy the new suit or go on a diet to become a new person. We think becoming a pop star will plug the longing within – ignoring the evidence of those many pop stars who tragically take their own life as they realise the Simon Cowell brand of promised magic is a lie. We play the lotto. And every night on our TV screens, advertising offers us the contemporary equivalent of the philosopher's stone (turning lead into gold) and the fabled elixir of life. All of this, at root, is an attempt to escape from something that cannot be escaped from. Escape from the ordinary conditions of life. Escape from the anxiety within ourselves."

Elsewhere, in their 'Worst Ideas of 2012' feature, we read Oliver Burkeman saying (in a section entitled 'Ignoring Reality' and including comment on the Jimmy Savile scandal):

"The horror was hiding in plain sight. But acknowledging it would have meant acknowledging exactly who it was that we'd elevated to the status of national treasure – or perhaps even acknowledging, as Andrew O'Hagan put it in the London Review of Books, "that the culture itself is largely paedophile in its commercial and entertainment excitements"."

He argues that this "refusal to see what we're looking at is surely at the heart of climate-change denial, too," as well as the implacable faith Republicans had in a Romney landslide:

"The annals of psychological research are full of examples of how accomplished we are at not seeing what's there, for many reasons. People given the opportunity to cheat in small ways on tests, for example, don't consciously acknowledge they're dishonest; they'd rather preserve their sense of not being cheats. Or perhaps you've seen that famous basketball video demonstrating the phenomenon of "change blindness": when people are asked to count the number of times the ball is passed between players, they fail to see a person in a gorilla suit walk right across the frame."

Denial, in a broader sense, he notes, "has its benefits: without a dose of it, we'd be unable to overlook our own and others' lapses and faults, and relationships would become impossible. But its pitfalls are enormous, as Romney's aides and media supporters learned. Or did they learn?"

Fraser makes a similar point: "At the end of his seminal work Religion and the Decline of Magic, the historian Keith Thomas states: "If magic is defined as the employment of ineffective techniques to allay anxiety when effective ones are not available, then we must recognise that no society will ever be free from it." That is exactly right. But in an age that prides itself on its rationality, we commonly mask this reality from ourselves." 

Fraser concludes: "The Christian tradition insists on one thing over and over again: that you and I are not gods and that we cannot defy the gravity of our basic humanity. This religion is a process of disenchantment from the persistent belief that we are the centre of the universe. What is the secular equivalent to this admonition? I don't see one. Everywhere, we are told that we can (with what Marx called "the magic of money") be transformed into mini gods – rock gods, sex gods, masters of the universe."


Michael McDermott - Hit Me Back.

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