A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Sympathetic Magic: All Is Metaphor

Every tree is strange to me. JOHN CLARE (Written during his illness).

Some time ago I read Nature Cure, Richard Mabey's confessional book about his nervous breakdown. (I mentioned this book recently, and Beating The Bounds blogged about it here.) Mabey recounts how his recovery was made possible thanks to writing, the kindness of friends, and the love and dedication of one particular woman. With the help of these he was finally able to re-establish, as a human being and as a natural history writer, his connection with the natural world - in an East Anglian setting of fen and breckland, under huge skies, between long horizons, and in the company of multifarious wild plants and birds.

In chapter 4, The Naming Of Parts, Mabey writes: Certainly... a natural science confined to the naming of parts and simplistic models of cause and effect is neither adequate nor particularly helpful in describing a world in which memory, feeling, spontaneity and a growing and necessary sense of the wholeness of things are intertwined.

He amplifies this by introducing the ancient and primitive belief in 'sympathetic magic': Sympathetic magic is often simplified to the formula of 'like cures (or generates) like'; but it is really a more comprehensive (and seemingly almost universal) approach to the search for order and connectivity in nature. At its heart is the idea of analogy, the ecological, if 'un-scientific', belief that the different layers of life are not only connected, but in some way physical reflections - metaphors, if you like - of each other. Exterior likenesses are clues to inner processes and likely resonances. The shape and colour of plants reveal their powers. The mating dances of animals, if mimicked by humans, will make the animals more prolific - and maybe the dancers, too. The woodpecker thunders, and the heavens will thunder as well. (In the myth and folklore of many cultures woodpeckers are believed to foretell rain, influence the growth of crops, even predict the future.)

Mabey makes clear that Sympathetic magic isn't some primitive stage on the upward journey towards real science. It's a different way of understanding and, its followers hope, influencing the world. It begins with observations and experiences, but then, instead of attempting to explain these by reducing them to ever smaller and more discreet parts or 'atoms', looks at them more broadly until they seem to fit into the weave of the world.

It would be easy to dismiss all this as unscientific, New Age nonsense, but I think it deserves more serious consideration. I myself think it's an exciting, provoking, imaginative and wholly different way of looking at the world - one that I (and I suspect many of us) have likely been practising all the while without realizing it. The poetry of William Blake fits in very well with this holistic world view - as do the Gaia theories of James Lovelock (to quote a quite different sage from more modern times).

One example of this approach (which is beyond the purely taxonomic or test-by-theory methods - and more inclusive, as it brings together the personal and the human, observation and memory, both science and art) is the idea of 'play' in the animal world. Consider the acrobatic jackdaws I saw on my recent walk, swifts screaming in fast and joyful flight, kittens mock-fighting, humans messing about with paint or clay or words. I think you'll find that science alone hasn't yet come up with a convincing, watertight reason why animals indulge in these 'playtime' activities, 'games' which seem to serve no immediately 'useful' purpose, and which seem to arise from no other motives than pure pleasure and delight.

More of all this in a coming post... But in the meantime, can I ask: do you believe in sympathetic magic? Is it the stuff of mysticism, or is it really, objectively out there? I'd like to believe so.


Raph G. Neckmann said...

Is it not possible that the 'stuff of mysticism' and that which is 'objectively out there' can be the same, but seen from different viewpoints?

I don't know about the term 'sympathetic magic', but it sounds believable.

Val said...

To be quite honest I had never heard before heard of the term "sympathetic magic". So, I read about it on Wikipedia and, yes, I absolutely believe it is an inherent part of our universe. Absolutely.

I didn't know what I believed had an official name... but seeing as I hate labels, you won't find me going around calling myself a "Sympathetic Magician"...
; )

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

I'm not exactly sure I grasp (through no fault of yours or the quoted texts) the full notion of sympathetic magic. But I certainly—adamantly—believe life in the whole is a woven fabric, each part and nuance a thread. Can I make a broody chicken laying eggs do a better job of sitting her clutch by sitting on my own fanny in front of her for a week or so…I somehow doubt this part. But there are resonances we can induce and discern.

I think science, and most natural history writing (and those who are book experts alone) is basically of little interest or value beyond the classroom—becoming a self-perpetuating struggle toward the infinitesimal and pointless. A good hunter and woodsman often knows more about more animals, birds, plants, insects, etc. than a high-profile "expert" because they see things in the whole, interconnected, parts influencing other parts, separate and together. I've met country boys who could tell me more about a bird or plant than I'd learned from reading a dozen books on the same subject. They knew so much because they understood how and where things fitted into the whole.

And you know what…I would bet just about anything that if you asked them "do you believe animals play for the sheer joy of it" they'd look at you like you were a fool, questioning something so obvious.

I couldn't care less about what any "latest and greatest" new theory was on the subject—if it didn't conclude that "of course animals play!" then it would be worthless…and I'd question most of the rest of what the person claimed as fact, too.

The Weaver of Grass said...

I think I may well believe in it Robert but will wait for your next post to expand on it a bit before I come down on one side or the other. I certainly like Richard Mabey and his way of life and his books - the one you mention, about his breakdown and recovery, makes interesting reading.

Mister Roy said...

I believe in subtle links between things and events - small to large - far and near. And in metaphors and images having a power and life of their own. I'm less sure about the direct links suggested by the Wikipedia article on sympathetic magic.

Mark Alvarez said...

Analogy. The key to Mabey's magic is analogy: it's human, it's intuitive, but it's also rational, not mystical.

Jay said...

I'm not sure how much we can influence the behaviour of other species, but I do believe that all life is connected at a level most of us simply don't comprehend.

I do believe in this aspect of 'sympathetic magic': If I am close enough to another living being who is in pain, I hurt too. If I am close enough to someone who is bubbling over with happiness, some will rub off. And strangely, if I am with an overly energetic person, I feel tired on their behalf. Maybe that's how these dynamos do it? Maybe they shed their tiredness to the nearest person? I'm only semi-joking ...

The Solitary Walker said...

I am in sympathy with all these comments. Magic!

am said...

Yes, I do believe in sympathetic magic (-:

Wonderful post!