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The Soul of Nature:
The Meaning of Ecological Spirituality
Copyright 1996 by Lynna Landstreet. See contents
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9: Magic and the problem of belief
third axis -- the acceptance, condemnation or outright rejection of
the possibility of magic or paranormal phenomena -- may seem initially
the most difficult to relate to environmental concerns. But I think
that there may be more of a connection that might at first appear to
be the case. A society's view of magic may in fact say a great deal
about where that society perceives itself in relation to the world,
in terms of the locus of power and control. A world where magic can
happen is a world where we don't have all the answers, a world where
nature still holds the power to surprise us, to confound our expectations
and evade our attempts at categorization, prediction and control.
In my view, the acceptance of the possibility of magic is rooted
in humility -- it is a tacit admission that we don't know everything.
Conversely, the denial of magic is rooted in control fetishism -- in
the blind faith that nothing we don't understand can exist. Even the
term "supernatural" in itself implies a faith in the possibility
of some sort of absolute knowledge of what is "natural."
I find that this faith in the ability, and perhaps more importantly,
the right, of human beings to define the bounds of reality, to
dictate what nature should and should not be allowed to do, is disturbingly
widespread, even among many who are otherwise quite critical of anthropocentric
biases. I sometimes refer to the common perception that things cease
to exist if we stop believing in them as the Tinkerbell syndrome, after
the well-known scene in stage productions of Peter Pan where the audience
is exhorted to clap their hands if they believe in fairies, in order
to save Tinkerbell from being destroyed by their disbelief.
This view can be seen in the popular interpretations of a legend originally
told by Roman writer Plutarch about a ship which was stopped in mid-voyage
by a mysterious voice from nowhere announcing demanding that the captain
carry the following message (as recounted by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
in her poem "The Dead Pan") home with them:
And that dismal cry
And sank slowly through the air.
"Pan is dead! -- Great Pan is dead --
Pan, Pan is dead."
Dolores LaChappelle points out that the Greek god Pan has often been
portrayed as representative of the old gods in their entirety due to
his name, which means "all" in Greek, and adds that:
Plutarch's story, dating
from the second century, predates the time of Constantine by roughly
150 years; yet, according to the Christians, this was a clear prophecy
that all the pagan gods were gone; only the one Christian God remained.
So, apart from the temporal problems, we have here perhaps the classic
example of what could be termed the ultimate in anthropocentric hubris:
the idea that the human mind, human belief, is so potent that it can
literally destroy gods. Nietzche's famous "God is dead" is
only a refinement of the basic sentiment expressed here.
A similar viewpoint was expressed by Neil Evernden, who in his Nature
and Society class in 1995 remarked upon the lingering traces of magic
in mediaeval sensibility, wherein a field might contain messages from
God. Nowadays, he added, this could not be. When I suggested, only half-jokingly,
that perhaps it wasn't that the messages that were gone, but that the
majority of people had stopped paying attention to them, he adamantly
insisted that no, the messages were no longer there. If the majority
of people don't believe in something, apparently, it cannot exist.
Personally, I tend to feel that the divinity of nature, like "the
beauty of things" that the poet Robinson Jeffers writes of,
...was born before eyes
sufficient to itself; the heart-breaking beauty
Will remain when there is no heart to break for it.
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