In Our Own Heads: Fears, Ritual and New Magic

…under historical conditions that yield an ambiguous mix of possibility and powerlessness, of desire and despair, of mass joblessness and hunger amidst the accumulation, by some, of great amounts of new wealth. These circumstances, added Gluckman presciently, do not elicit a “reversion to pagan ritual.” Just the opposite. “New situations,” he says, citing Evans-Pritchard, “demand new magic”

Jean and John Comaroff, Occult Economies and the Violence of Abstraction

Anger is also an understandable reaction to the uncertainty inherent in the pandemic and protests…We know that uncertainty as both a cognitive and emotional state is one that people want to resolve.

Larissa Tiedens, quoted in this Washington Post article

Confused Heads

And those who expected lightning and thunder
Are disappointed.
And those who expected signs and archangels’ trumps
Do not believe it is happening now.

Czselaw Milosz, A Song for the End of the World

With all the pain, anguish and turmoil in the world at present, there is little surprise that we are dealing with anger, despair and confusion. Even the simplest challenges of working, shopping, exercising or drinking a coffee are now battles with a pandemic and raise ethical and environmental issues for those willing to consider them.

Taking nothing seriously and recognising our sensations as the only reality we have for certain, we take refuge there, exploring them like large unknown countries.

Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet

We are faced with a real danger that we disappear inside our own heads as we grapple with this confusion. Dealing with algorithmic bubbles is one challenge, but a greater one is that in a digitally mediated world where casual interaction is restricted, we have far too much time alone with our thoughts or the media that portrays the thoughts of others as a new gospel.

What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.

T S Eliot, Burnt Norton

New Magic and New Rituals

We have added new rituals to our lives as gestures of preservation: the hand washing, the hand sanitising, the wave on a video call and the elbow with which we open doors. Some have gone further and begun to seek comfort or release in older and stranger magic.

Domestic violence is reportedly on the rise and alcohol sales are rising, given the strong correlation between these two and the pressures of the time, it does not bode well as a solution. Weird conspiracy theories are being propounded as people grapple for explanations. We may not believe in evil witches, but evil billionaires, mind-control vaccines, international agents and shadowy forces are widely discussed and studied earnestly. The advocates of these conspiracies have enough confidence to argue ‘do your own research’ because they know their messages will appeal to desperate minds against the facts.

There is only likely to be an ongoing increase is these strange corners of our digital world. The pressures of climate change will continue after the pandemic ceases. Ongoing economic transformation will continue to roil traditional powerhouses and weaken historical centres of employment. Authoritarians will combine populism with conspiracy to offer easy magical solutions and convenient rituals as the solution.

The Stored Magic of Poetry

The Washington Post article quoted above proposes one solution that at this moment feels almost magical: a focus on appreciation, affiliation and aspiration. Each of these offer us a magical way outside of our heads because they challenge us to look beyond now, beyond here and to find something better in others and the world around us. We need to find our own paths to the luminous.

For me in this time of crisis, I have found appreciation, affiliation and aspiration in poetry. Reading poetry is hardly a world-changing activity, but we each can find a place to begin and to start the journey of being drawn out of our own confused heads. We need to find glimmers that lead us out to the edges.

Poetry has been a way to escape the limits of my own thoughts, to search for insights and to appreciate something greater and richer of the human spirit. Importantly, poetry offers a way to reach for something beyond this time and place, Robert Graves intriguingly described its role in human culture as ‘stored magic’.

True poetic practice implies a mind so miraculously attuned and illuminated that it can form words, by a chain of more-than-coincidences, into a living entity—a poem that goes about on its own (for centuries after the author’s death, perhaps) affecting readers with its stored magic.

Robert Graves, White Goddess

Poetry also invites us to explore our human affiliation from the magic of love, to the mysteries of empathy and the warmth of compassion. We cannot read poems without inviting the rich diversity of humanity back into our lives. At a time of social isolation, there is comfort in this crowd that comes and goes at will.

The purpose of poetry is to remind us
how difficult it is to remain just one person,
for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,
and invisible guests come in and out at will.

Cselaw Milosz ARS Poetica?

Ultimately, the best way outside of the grip of our own heads is through creative action, ideally collective creative action. That action is the only true solution to our present crises.

 If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. 

TS Eliot, Little Giddings

Ultimately, the best way outside of the grip of our own heads is through creative action, ideally collective creative action. That action is the only true solution to our present crises.

We have seen in recent weeks the power of people coming together to make something anew, to struggle to make things even more perfect, despite the desperation of our circumstances. I have been inspired again and again with the human ingenuity in the face of crisis whether it is teenagers using 3D printers to make medical equipment in short supply or restauranteurs reinventing their business models to support customers, suppliers and survive. We have seen friends and family discover the magic of cooking, baking, solving technical challenges of isolation or coming together to support friends and community.

If anything is clear after the last few months it is that we need to create a better world. That will take much mundane work and a great deal of the magic of poetry to unite and inspire us. What is abundantly clear is that that better world lies outside of us in community and in the world. The future not to be found in our heads, no matter how passionate or certain our beliefs.

Poetry is knowledge, salvation, power abandonment
An operation capable of changing the world
poetic activity is revolutionary by nature;
a spiritual exercise, it is a means of interior liberation.
Poetry reveals this world;
it creates another

Octavio Paz, Poetry is knowledge

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