Throughout my teens and early twenties, I was fascinated with the occult and the idea of magic. The night side of life and the psyche had always intrigued me, and by age 14 I had begun to read the Tarot cards. One year I took astrology lessons, which ultimately proved useful in overcoming my entrenched resistance to appreciating mathematics. My bookshelves still bulge with occult texts - alongside volumes on alternative medicine, philosophy, psychology, history and mythology, art and poetry, science fiction novels, and any other subject that has held my fancy long enough to propel me to a bookstore.
Early this morning, my cat awakened me. As I lay in that gossamer space between sleep and wakefulness with wispy and colorful fragments of dreams flittering softly around me like a bunch of bats startled by lantern light, a surprising insight grasped my imagination.
Magical thinking changes from one generation to the next, and every generation laughs at the superstitions of previous generations while embracing contemporary versions. While most people may scoff at the foolishness of ancestors who believed in demons or fairies, people today simply use different (preferably scientific sounding) terms for things of lingering mystery. Instead of warding off demons, we solemnly discuss ways of warding off the elusive causes of mental illness, or overcoming evil. Good fairies play no greater role in our lives than leaving an occasional coin under the pillow in exchange for a baby tooth - any more noteworthy boons we attribute to luck or to miracles, unless politicians find a convincing way to take credit for them.
Picture this: A modern day Mystery Temple where black-robed priests practice elaborate and solemn rituals. The atmosphere hangs heavy with awe, tinged with dread. Hushed voices in the background serve as a background for the occasional incantation delivered in monotonous tones as well as impassioned petitions and prayers. Laughter seems out of place here, as does weeping or wailing, and the poorly lit room often feels tangibly thick with stifled urges to vent emotion. The doors to the temple are zealously guarded, and no one may enter without permission. The temple dignitaries retreat to an inner chamber for meditation or quiet consultation during pregnant breaks in the dramatic proceedings.
An uninitiated visitor receives the unmistakable impression that matters of the gravest importance lie at stake in any discussion that takes place in this temple. Momentous decisions affecting society as a whole, and matters of individual life and death wholly outside the jurisdiction of the medical profession are decided here. All present tacitly understand that God supervises the rituals performed here, although none but the most perfunctory invocation of God seems appropriate. One man may be sacrificed on the altar, while another receives benediction and forgiveness at the behest of the highest powers known to man.
Does that sound at all like a courthouse? While an undertow of disquieting concern about secret societies like Skull and Bones tugs insistently beneath the mainstream of cultural awareness and sometimes rises toward the surface, private rituals held in dark windowless rooms don't concern people greatly, no matter how bizarre or absurd. Yet perhaps unbeknownst to ourselves, we have all fallen under the sway of a less secretive and equally mysterious brotherhood. A priesthood of Law, with unquestionable power to deprive people of life and liberty, to issue judgments affecting one individual or all, and to determine matters of right and wrong with far greater efficacy than a mere papal edict.
Magical thinking appears to dominate modern day culture in surprising ways, with the Law superstitiously regarded as a magic wand. As if passing the right law will make little boys stop kissing little girls, or vice versa, or an additional sin tax - like a pin stuck into a voodoo doll - will magically bend recalcitrant individuals to a superior will.
The Law, like a silver bullet or wooden stake, supposedly slays the werewolves and vampires that prey on our vulnerabilities. Magical talismans like restraining orders, licenses, and the increasingly disposable search warrant weave a protective spell around the bearer and bind the unseen forces of evil. The high priests safeguard the Law of the god whose temple reigns supreme over the land, and before whom none dare refuse to prostrate themselves. Into his ravenous mouth babies and full-grown men disappear at the discretion of his priests and their underlings, all "for the good of society as a whole."
Until now, it had never occurred to me that a parallel might exist between my early fascination with the occult and my more recent preoccupation with the Law. No secret society practicing strange rituals in hidden chambers could hope to exert a tenth of the influence over critical world affairs than one operating freely and openly in our midst, with our full knowledge, overwhelming support, and voluntary cooperation. Hmmm.
published at Endervidualism on 3/30/04