“If magic is to be defined as the employment of ineffective techniques to allay anxiety when effective ones are not available, then we must recognise that no society will ever be free from it.”
These are the closing words of Keith Thomas’s remarkable book Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971). As someone who is often made fun of for being gullible or superstitious, I derive consolation from his conclusion.
Am I to take it then that magic can be modern? Does this mean that I am not by definition an anachronism? Maybe reading horoscopes (admittedly a bit too avidly) and flinching – silently, slightly, and on the inside – when crossed by a black cat is not such a throwback after all? (Harry Potter lovers, you already know this).
There are other forms of magic that I find stupifying and problematic, however. The people who practice them would never allow that what they are practicing is indeed just magic. Just Magic. These habits and pieties pretend to have authority. Their advocates have conviction and resist any admission that they’re as much in the dark as the rest of us.
At least I have a sense of humour about the horoscopes I read, the ladders I dodge, and the cats that haunt my steps.