Stratagems of Ignorance

Theodore Zeldin

  • The Superstitious Mind by Judith Devlin
    Yale, 316 pp, £22.50, March 1987, ISBN 0 300 03710 4

Many years ago, in the course of the oral examination of my doctoral degree, a criticism was made of my thesis. ‘You have not mentioned the Programme of Nancy,’ said the illustrious professor. I replied: ‘What is the Programme of Nancy?’ Embarrassed, he confessed he did not know. He turned to the other examiner, who also did not know. Were they frauds?

I have always felt that history has been both unjust and too kind to the Don’t Knows. They are treated with contempt in public opinion polls. The subtleties of their hesitations are brushed aside as signs of weakness. But the world is also full of people who pretend that they know, or who delude themselves that they know. It is humiliating to say you don’t know. The time has surely come for someone to write the history of the Don’t Knows, the I’m Not Sures, the Perhaps Party.

Superstition is one of the older religions of the Don’t Knows. For some, it may be a positive assertion of faith in supernatural forces, but for many it is a foggy compromise between knowledge and ignorance, an insurance policy that may or may not stop things going wrong, a part-time religion. It is a good way into the history of uncertainty.

In the past, superstition was often regarded as a crime. Judith Devlin proposes a retrial, not of offences listed in the law books, but of alleged crimes and misdemeanours against the laws of reason. She allows the defendants to state their case, no longer as frightened victims of repression, but in the company of many others who behaved similarly; she presents a vast number of strange cases. A new geography emerges, in which towns are marked on the map as worth a detour, not because they are the birthplace of some celebrity, or contain factories producing fine porcelain, but because they have a shrine where rheumatism used to be, and sometimes still is, miraculously cured, or a grotto where mothers can suck stalactites to get more milk, or a school where children once staged a rebellion of mass hysteria, having been possessed by the devil, screaming and dancing wildly for months on end, and no one dared stop them. Here is a history of people of whom no one has ever heard, and whom very few have taken seriously, let alone listened to carefully. She lets them speak. They talk about their peculiar religious experiences (and their religion is neither quite that of the Bible nor of any Church), about their ailments (they do not trust their doctors), about the ghosts and goblins they have met, about the witches who have tormented them, the fortune-tellers who have helped them, the magic they have dabbled in, about their attacks of delirium and hallucination, about the ambiguous solace of the trash literature they cannot stop themselves from buying.

Instead of rehashing the traditional view that superstitious people are survivors of an archaic mentality, pitiful misfits in the modern world, she tries to explain why they choose to be superstitious, how they almost rationally decide to be irrational. Instead of presenting them as passive followers of other people’s ideas, she shows them rumbling with micro-rebellions. It is not just when people quarrel and fight that a micro-rebellion takes place, but every time they withdraw from the real world into fantasy, every time their private misery becomes unbearable and they express their anguish in behaviour that is bizarre, or irrational, or silly.

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