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The magic solution

Magical Historia Mundi Naturalis

Do you ever feel that your life is a perpetual struggle against inanimate objects? The French have a phrase for it: “Les choses sont contre nous,” meaning that things are against us.

Everyday life is full of annoying things that seem to have a malignant life of their own. They can trip you up, frustrate your plans, and even kill you. Everything is a trap, and early in life we learn to deal warily with the physical world of hot liquids, sharp edges and angry cats. Fragile things slip out of our grasp and go crashing to the floor. If we are not careful, we may go crashing to the floor ourselves. Gravity, though invisible, is one of the most annoying things in the universe and is no use for anything except going downstairs. I wish Isaac Newton had never invented it.

If you work with computers, you have discovered the apotheosis of annoying things, designed by experts to confound, confuse and corrupt the fragile human brain. The latest stage in what may be an inevitable takeover of our minds is artificial intelligence and the so-called chatbot, which can mimic human language, and perhaps even a kind of human thinking. We may assume that this is just a first step towards a machine which really will be alive, and able to write better essays than this. Things are close to not just annoying us, but to becoming us. Like Doctor Frankenstein, we create our own monsters.

I suppose that we sophisticated “modern” folks regard all this as a kind of fate. Things are against us, and there is nothing to be done about it. But there may be something we can learn. The human and non-human worlds may be closer together than we like to imagine. Deep in our superstitious minds we know this. Surveys show that three quarters of Americans harbor at least some supernatural beliefs — ghosts, psychic healing, fortune telling, lucky charms, and things like that.

I’ve been reading a fascinating and somewhat disturbing book by Chris Gosden called "The History of Magic." He takes us back to the ancient roots of that feeling that we all sometimes have that there are layers of mystery behind the everyday world. We are not as modern or as rational as we think we are. I confess that I often talk to animals, even rather stupid ones, and to obstreperous mechanical devices, and even to the car when she needs encouragement. In this way I am as primitive as any Neanderthal, although primitive may not be the right word. Perhaps “perceptive” is the word I’m looking for.

Gosden’s history of magic makes a good case that this feeling that all things have a kind of life is as ancient as humanity itself, and very practical. Our ancient ancestors felt intimately connected to things around them — animals, plants, landscapes — and therefore potentially able to influence them by magic. We have no such instinctive connection. Things are alien to us, and therefore potentially hostile.

It's hard for an obstinate 21st century rationalist to believe that magical thinking is or should be part of normal thinking. But we shouldn’t dismiss it entirely. Whatever we choose to call it, magical thinking would make us more aware of our connection to all the things and creatures we use and exploit - not least the planet itself. Let’s face it, from point of view of the non-human world, if it has a point of view, we are extremely annoying things ourselves.

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.