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David Bouchier: Do You Believe in Magic?

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It was a stroke of genius by the framers of the Constitution to schedule the elections immediately after Halloween. We are in the right frame of mind — so thoroughly accustomed to thin disguises, thinly-disguised blackmail, and magical thinking that we can no longer tell the difference between fact and fantasy.

Halloween is not an easy time for those of us brought up to respect the principles of the Enlightenment. According to those principles, we human beings can only take our next step forward by banishing all our fantastic supernatural beliefs, and building a world based on scientific knowledge and humanistic principles. On Halloween we take several steps backwards. In the 18th century, philosophers like Voltaire confidently expected that superstition — "that infamous thing" as he called it — would soon vanish, and that the world would move into a golden age of reason and science. How disappointed he would be to see us now, still captivated by some of the oldest and silliest superstitions and magical beliefs.

We have science, yes, but we seem to want magic, too. So if the philosopher Voltaire, arrived in Long Island today he would find us surrounded by monsters, ghosts and dancing skeletons, preparing for All Hallow’s Eve, the eve of witches. He would find alive and well many of the magical and superstitious beliefs he sneered at on his deathbed in 1778: He would be astonished to discover people in the 21st century wearing lucky charms and copper bracelets, playing with Tarot cards, insisting that bad news comes in threes and chasing after instant cures for all diseases. He might go to a bookstore, if he could find one, and look at the New Age section (a label Voltaire would surely have found hilariously funny), and find shelves of books about astrology, reincarnation, mysterious earth forces, magic crystals, flying saucers and every kind of superstitious twaddle handed down to us from the dark ages, when magic ruled. They weren't called the dark ages for nothing.

The desire to believe in magic seems almost to be hard wired. All our myths and stories show it. Every Force must have a Dark Side. Every Harry Potter must have a Lord Voldemort. Hollywood storylines intersect with real life, and it gets harder and harder to remember that it’s all a clever illusion.

The problem with magic is that it doesn’t work. And the problem with human beings was and is that they want to believe in it anyway. Magic is easy and quick. Science is slow, and difficult, and it doesn’t even pretend to answer our most urgent metaphysical questions. Why bother with the ambiguities of science when magical thinking can solve everything, with no mental effort whatsoever?

I suspect that magic stays in our minds as a kind of primitive, hopeful faith and even a rebellion against the hardness of facts. Plenty of people take advantage of our half-conscious belief in it, including legions of advertisers and politicians. Magic promises a short cut through all the complexities and disappointments of life, directly to our hearts desire. It’s hard resist believing in it just a little, even though it always turns out to be a trick rather than a treat.

Copyright: David Bouchier

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.