Saturday, 2 October 2010

the ethics of magic

Zuhra Bahman's New Internationalist article on the sorcerers of Kabul makes a compelling case against their modes of operation. Bahman argues that, by selling women charms such as taweez and showest, these sorcerers con women not only out of their money but out of their ability to combat social inequality:
The loss... is not only monetary. This con pushes women into an irrational space, away from the rational world of science, expression, politics and social activism.
Of course, the rational world - or at least, that which claims to be the rational world - can be equally oppressive, which is why irrational space can be so appealing and, I hope, genuinely liberating. Bahman hints at this in her closing paragraph:
If women started trampling over these taweez and showest, and were vocal about their irrelevance to the modern world, these conmen would have to close up shop. Alternatively, maybe I should start a new movement where I shold speak with the djinn of human rights and the ghost of rationality, and advise women to question their situation a bit more deeply; and see the evil in germs, in viruses and in the society run by men.
As much as Bahman is being purposefully ironic, this alternative magic is pretty appealing to anyone who wishes to combine their spirituality with their political idealism. George Santayana sees it in Dante: can the unchanging, the ideal, the eventual, initiate anything or determine the disposition and tendency of what actually lives and moves? The answer, or rather the impossibility of giving an answer, may be expressed in a single world: magic. It is magic when a good or interesting result, because it would prove good or interesting, is credited with marshalling the conditions and evoking the beings that are to realise it.[1]

This, for Santayana, is the essence of Dante's supernaturalism. This is irrational thought, but it's powerful because it lets us value our ideals in their own right: they don't just make things happen, they happen. We don't make them or let them happen, we recognise and our thus part of their happening; this is the same thing as resisting the things that stop them from happening.

[1] George Santayana. Three Philosophical Poets: Lucretius, Dante, Goethe. New York: Doubleday, 1910. p. 94

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