28 May 2015


Ernest(o) de Martino. Magic: Primitive and Modern. Tom Stacy, 1972.

This was a book which had quite an influence on me as a 21 year old student, introducing me to shamanism and to radical ideas of what one might later see as a proto-post modernist nature. Ernesto de Martino (1908-1965) was an Italian anthropologist and philosopher who undertook an intellectual journey from fascism to communism, perhaps seeing both as forms of civic religion.
In this book, first written in 1948 de Martino was concerned with the reality of magical powers. Anthropologists had traditionally viewed them as error, fraud and evidence of the “pre-logical thinking” of “primitive” people. De Martino on the contrary argued that they could well be “real”, at least in some cultural and historical contexts. He gave examples from ethnological accounts of shamanism and related phenomenon, and from psychical research, his knowledge of which was, however, rather hazy.

De Martino argued that in small scale traditional societies, where human beings were being in danger of being overwhelmed by nature, magic was a means of “preserving ones presence in the world”. In these societies magic was real, it worked. But perhaps not so in modern mass society. De Martino seems to saying if we envisage the world as organic and magical it will be so, but if we think of it as a mechanism, it will act as a mechanism.

These kind of radical relativist ideas had quite an appeal to me for a number of years, as witness the notorious Doves Are Just Middle Class Pigeons! They seemed to gel with ideas of people like Thomas Kuhn or even Charles Fort. For a time I entertained the idea that maybe anomalies were not actual things, but as it were “holes in reality”. Some people argued that consciousness created reality, others that society created consciousness, so could society if not create, then at least organise reality.

So I constructed an idea that the shaman ventured out of socially constructed reality into the “wilderness” beyond in order to gain access “energy” which could be brought into the community. Over time these ideas became much less literal, though you can see that the idea of “habitat and wilderness” still informs much of my thinking.

Looking back at de Martino’s book after many years, what struck me was how obscure much of it was, something that would be even more true of later post-modernist thinkers. It is never exactly clear what de Martino actually thought. One reason for this, and for its appeal to young people in the 1970s, was that it reflected his own intellectual turmoil. The parapsychology looks a lot less impressive, and one has to be careful about some of the ethnography, compiled by Europeans who wanted to portray non-western cultures as exotic, primitive and instinctual.

Yet there is something here in de Martino’s arguments about the nature of the precarious world. In our modern air conditioned society we live in a given world which all seems secure. Yet events, such as the death of person out of time, or a major health or related crisis can lead to the fall of this “given world”, into a chaotic realm where anything now seems possible, and in which magical thinking reasserts itself as a narrative that seeks to restore order and meaning to a chaotic world.
  • Peter Rogerson.

1 comment:

Lawrence said...

I remember reading this book near twenty years ago, no longer have the copy so I have to rely on my memory here. It impressed me likewise as an important contribution to both anthropology and the serious study of the paranormal. I do remember the two distinct aspects to it, theoretical and accounts of alleged paranormal phenomena, the latter being easier to read and digest.

I take a less skeptical approach to all this than Rogerson, if anything I am more convinced of the reality of the paranormal and its significant relationship to ufology and shamanism than ever before. Even as the latter two disciplines (for lack of a better term) are now filled with hucksters and fakers, more so than ever before. But then again Tricksterism - and its multiple aspects, positive and negative and beyond all that - is the nature of the game. Anyway glad to see this book reviewed here.