Beyond Our Ken

Magic, Science and the Occult from Antiquity Through the New Age
By Anthony Aveni
Times Books, 406 pp.

Some subjects just seem to resist academic analysis. Humour, for example. If you have to explain why it’s funny then it’s no longer funny, which is why Freud’s Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious is widely recognized as the unfunniest book in the Western canon. Once Freud is finished grinding humour up in his psychoanalytic pestle, there’s nothing left of it but a residue.

The same problem devils Anthony Aveni in his sweeping account of belief in the supernatural from antiquity to today. What Aveni is trying to explain, by definition, defies explanation. If we understood how it worked then it wouldn’t be magic, would it? For all its erudition, in the end the book somehow fails to cast a spell.

A great shame that, because Aveni not only knows his subject inside out but is uniquely qualified to comment on it. He is the Russell B. Colgate Professor of Astronomy and Anthropology at Colgate University. (Astronomy and anthropology?) If nothing else, Behind the Crystal Ball provides a rich catalogue of superstition through the ages, from Babylonian hepatoscopy – “divination by inspection of the liver” – to the current fascination with alien abduction; from the folk medicine of the African Azande through the Eastern Kabbalah to the resurgence of Wicca. The book is itself a liturgy of the Weird.

The premise is sound and the approach is promising. Why and when did magic and science part company? There was a time when there was nothing but magic – when human understanding of the world owed everything to myth, and to a belief that incantation and ritual could influence the course of events.

Then came science and Western rationalism, although for a long time these cohabited with mysticism. Isaac Newton also dabbled in alchemy. Four hundred years later, science is triumphant while the belief in transcendent intelligent powers is belittled, marginalized and dismissed. Unless, of course, that belief is an established religion. Science despises astrology and trance-channeling, but shrugs its shoulders at the Catholic rite of transubstantiation.

But no matter how strenuously the arsenal of rationalism may try to eradicate belief in the irrational, infuriatingly it refuses to go away. Rationalism may hold sway in the classroom and the lecture theatre, but the supermarket tabloids still outsell Scientific American.

How did this strange triangle between science, religion and the other-worldly come about? Smart question. It means that Aveni looks to understand where a fascination for the supernatural springs from. He’s no exasperated debunker, in the style of Martin Gardner or Carl Sagan. Neither is he an advocate of forces-beyond-our-ken. If that’s what you want – that momentarily convincing shiver up your spine – look to the writings of Lyall Watson (Earthworks, Beyond Supernature).

But to understand the workings of magic – its social utility, its persistence – means clambering inside entirely dissonant minds. It is it even possible for us, in the here and now, to imagine what it was like to petition the priestess oracles of Delphi? Or to appreciate why a steel-trap intellect such as Arthur Conan Doyle would have been obsessed with spiritualism?

It can be done. It requires the same balance of empathy and skepticism Aveni brings to bear, but it also requires depth and elaboration. It’s the encyclopedic scope of Behind the Crystal Ball that works to its disadvantage. In Madame Blavatksy’s Baboon, Peter Washington explains why the theosophy movement of the late 19th century – as charismatic a collection of nutcases as you’re ever likely to encounter – managed to thrive amid upper-class money. To tell that story properly takes 400 pages. Aveni deals with it in 10.

The result is that Aveni’s account stalls at the level of description, never really amounting to an explanation. Four hundred pages of his own later, you will know what various human cultures throughout the ages have believed about realms beyond the physical. You just won’t know

  • Globe and Mail September 28, 1996