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.

Devlin’s is one of the most illuminating books I have read for a long time, and one of the most enjoyable. It combines intellectual power and originality of a high order with a literary skill that is almost that of a novelist, for whom every individual is full of surprises and every incident pregnant with emotion. She has painted an intriguing and subtle portrait of a twilight zone, as full of weird characters and poses as a canvas of Hieronymus Bosch. By the use of fine detail, she reveals the superstitious, not as an inert mass of prejudice, but as individuals jumping around like trained boxers, constantly making choices, fighting not just according to fixed rules but with varying degrees of skill, deviously, relentlessly. She clarifies the strategy and tactics of escapism. When one looks closer, one realises that her story is not just about France: she has been probing into the universal problem of woolly thinking. She gets under the skin of the silent majority that is her subject and discovers that the skin is extremely prone to erupting in goose-pimples, signs of its never-ending micro-rebellions. At a time when scholarship is becoming increasingly narrow and incomprehensible to the layman, it is a pleasure to find an author who is not just immensely erudite (as she is) but who knows how to write elegantly, how to expose human frailty with compassion, and how to use her erudition to focus on concerns that every person turns over in his mind every day: fear, ignorance, suffering and how one avoids them. I think this book could become a classic, a modern counterpart to Montaillou.

Devlin is an Irish diplomat. Since she was once my student at Oxford (she is also a graduate of Dublin, the Sorbonne and the Ecole Nationale d’Administration), I have been able to talk to her about her book. It has been a dozen years in the making, and doubtless can be read from several different viewpoints. I suspect, for example, that she has used France to understand the problems of the irrational in her own country, in almost the same way as Tocqueville used the USA to clarify his attitude to democracy in Europe. Inevitably, the significance I see in the book reflects my own preoccupations.

Nineteenth-century France is a particularly convenient vantage-point from which to observe the survival of superstition in the modern world. It produced an enormous mass of publications on the subject; and many able ethnologists went round the country recording memories, anecdotes and information about rituals. These jumbled sources are not easy to use. Devlin has succeeded in making sense of them, fitting them into the context of the more prosaic sides of existence, marrying them with the records of court trials and above all with medical case-histories. The writings of doctors in 19th-century France are quite extraordinary: when doctors aspired to being men of letters, when they were enthusiastic children of the Enlightenment, overflowing with curiosity to observe mankind in all its manifestations, and not yet restrained by being technical specialists, their books became a commentary on life almost comparable in richness to the literature of fiction.

The starting-point in all discussion of this subject is the contrast and conflict between superstition and science. Logically, there is a clear conflict. But in human terms, things are less clear. In his excellent book on the decline of magic in 17th-century England, Keith Thomas stated the problem. Having shown how belief in the supernatural was dethroned on the one hand by the spread of scientific attitudes and on the other by a new Protestant ethic of self-help and stoicism in the face of suffering, he concluded, with admirable honesty, that there remained something mysterious about how exactly faith in unaided human powers triumphed over traditional fears. For magical cures lost their prestige before modern medicine could offer efficacious alternatives. The explanations he offered, he said, were only ‘approximate’.

Devlin’s answer to this puzzle is a double one. First, she blurs the contrast between the rivals. In the mental world she describes, a person who meets the devil while walking at night on a dark road, ‘all black with big horns and big teeth’, or performs strange rituals at the command of amateur faith-healers (and she points out that only a generation ago, there were as many faith-healers in France as doctors), or has prophetic visions, does not necessarily have a view of the universe that assumes it to be ruled by supernatural forces. She has found an extraordinary absence of curiosity about the mechanisms of the supernatural and about the way prayers for supernatural intervention are supposed to be effective. It is almost as though her seemingly benighted peasants were precursors of the modern car-driver, who does not know how his car works, but trusts it all the same, interested only in knowing which button to press. The superstitious were intensely practical, not theoreticians or believers in a special kind of physics: they used to treat the stone statues of saints who granted marriage favours or cured headaches just as they would a government official or priest, as though they were alive, if necessary bribing or beating them to force compliance. When they recited strange mystical formulae, that did not mean they believed in them, or even understood them.

Whether they dabbled in corruptions of pagan or Christian mysticism, they did not generally have a sense of spirituality, or unworldly values: on the contrary, they were thoroughly materialistic. It is a myth that materialism is a curse peculiar to modern civilisation. Even death was something they might have trouble understanding in spiritual terms; often they recognised death as no more than a separation or journey. The metaphysical implications of their actions did not bother them. Of course, scholars have found elaborate systems of belief hidden in apparently chaotic superstitious practices. But Devlin looks at these from another angle: she is trying to describe the art of living with muddle and contradiction, showing how these were valued because they provided protection from a reality that was too harsh. She analyses the art of weaving contradictions into garments that give one the outward appearance of being respectable and sensible.

Devlin’s peasants were Catholics: they could go to the confessional and pour out their worries to a priest, in private. But that kind of relief did not appear to be always enough. They seem to have been attracted to superstitious rituals also because these offered the opportunity to express their private emotions in public. There could be an exhibitionist element in their bizarre practices. They liked using these as a sort of popular jargon, an alternative to the jargon of the educated, who could of course be equally obscure; learned treatises on political economy or moral theology could be just as divorced from reality. The confusions into which the superstitious fell as a result of resorting to their old-world imagery were not necessarily more absurd than the confusions which pedants could entangle themselves in with their abstruse erudition and their rhetorical verbosity.

There were instances when superstitious behaviour was little more than an extension of the carnival spirit, valued as an almost humorous safety-valve. When injustice was so omnipresent that there seemed no way of getting rid of it, and when all one could do was to play out one’s fantasies periodically, laughing to hide one’s tears, then these rituals allowed one to get something approaching fun out of expressing one’s thoughts and feelings about the shortcomings of the real world. The young, for example, found it helpful to be able to do the equivalent of dropping out, by allowing themselves to be ‘possessed’ by an evil spirit. A 20-year-old girl, infatuated with a neighbour and forbidden to marry him, has fits during Sunday mass, every time she sees him in church. It is the only way she can express herself. Her father threatens legal action against the boy for ‘charming’ her. Charm takes one to the borderlines of superstition, where it meets the mysteries of love, which can sometimes be a domesticated form of superstition.

Some superstitious beliefs might appear grotesque, but peasants had an undoubted fondness for the grotesque, and though terrified by the impossible creatures they imagined to be threatening them, they seemed somehow to savour the thrill, as though they were inventing their own horror movies.

When the inarticulate felt the need to protest against their misery, and could not do it by ransacking the lord’s castle, they looked around for scapegoats. The art of finding scapegoats has been refined since those days, but it owes much to tradition. To be able to blame spells for one’s troubles, to be able to persecute strangers or helpless old women, accusing them of being witches, provided peasants with relief from their tensions. Just because they earned their livings in ways that involved repetitious routines, it did not follow that they passively accepted misfortune as routine too. Extortionate governments, landlords, moneylenders were inescapable fixtures in their lives: there had to be some things they could personally change. They may have known that they were deluding themselves, but they enjoyed a peculiar sense of freedom, almost hope, when they invoked supernatural forces.

The superstitious were not always simply guilty of weak-minded credulity when they seemed to accept the sayings of ancient almanacs that the sixth day of the month is to be feared but the seventh is a good day, while there is a danger of death from the 12th to the 15th, or when they persisted in believing that a cock crowing between sundown and midnight is an ill omen. It was not necessarily a question of believing or disbelieving. Omens, like much superstitious lore, did not describe the world or explain its workings, but were rather a theatrical demonstration of vulnerability, providing a vocabulary to help people organise their reactions, clarify their feelings, cope with the behaviour of others; they were a way of battling with probability and timidity. In the ancient world, oracles were in favour, not because they gave accurate directions on how to make money or influence events, but because they forced busy and distraught people to reflect, to work out what it was they wanted.

Devlin’s second contribution to the problem of the clash of science and superstition is to look at the point of transition more closely. Keith Thomas stopped at the beginning of the 18th century, before the new medicine had had a noticeable effect on the masses. Devlin concentrates on the origins of modern psychiatry, in which French 19th-century doctors played a decisive role. It was largely on the basis of their researches that present-day psychiatry was developed. She re-examines the early hesitations in a most instructive way. The strength of superstition came above all from its ability to treat anxiety and psychosomatic troubles. So Devlin traces the history of the therapeutic power of the imagination from its magical origins through the crucial period when hypnosis was introduced into modern medicine by Liébeault, Charcot, Bernheim and others.

Old-fashioned peasants may well have suffered from neuroses no more or less than modern city-dwellers. One doctor, studying the ‘rural neurasthenia’ of the Tarn-et-Garonne in 1911, claimed that one-third of its rural inhabitants were afflicted with depression, and that was only one of their many mental ailments. Their superstitious remedies, their potions and their spells seem to have given them a more satisfying relationship with their fear than they could obtain from merely swallowing a small pill.

‘I had dreadful pains,’ Devlin reports a blacksmith and practising Christian as saying. ‘I could no longer work on my forge. I walked on crutches for three weeks. In the end we “questioned the saints”. We saw that it came from Saint Avit. My father-in-law did the devotions, he went to get me water at Les Jalaynes fountain. I rubbed myself with it. You’re not going to believe me but I swear it’s true, the next day I was completely cured and I was thumping away at the anvil at work.’ In a particularly rich chapter, Devlin shows how folk medicine understood the importance of a patient’s feelings and frame of mind in effecting a cure, and used them often with more skill than orthodox medicine knew how to. She describes how modern psychiatry only slowly learnt the unspoken lesson of the heritage of superstition. At first, in the mid-19th century, psychiatrists blamed the mad patient for not being rational. That had little effect. Only when they told him that he was not responsible for his misfortunes, which was the great consolation that superstition brought, was psychiatry accepted by public opinion. Only when psychiatry continued where the exorcist left off, accepting that the soul is a jungle too dark for anything to be discerned clearly, only when the irrational unconscious was invented to take over from the world of fairies and goblins, was the old vocabulary of the supernatural seriously threatened with obsolescence.

So instead of trying to explain the destruction of the prestige of magic, Devlin shifts attention to the continuity of irrational attitudes. Magic has changed its name; it has surrendered only because it has obtained a right of asylum in the modern world, with a new identity.

The philosophes of the Enlightenment argued that superstitious beliefs were the chains that held the poor in servitude. They wanted to destroy superstition so as to liberate mankind: happiness was, for them, the opposite of ignorance. A modern person must be rational. But modern persons, even when loaded with academic diplomas, have continued to be irrational, have believed myths even more outrageous than those of the dark Middle Ages, and have perpetrated cruelties even more vicious than those of their ancestors; they have been bamboozled by fairy-tales invented by dictators and commercial propagandists. The promise of happiness through science, education, hygiene has not quite been fulfilled. The contrast between the ignorance of the past and the enlightenment of the present is not as obvious as it once seemed.

So it is now possible to look at superstition with fresh eyes. Devlin does not give much attention to alchemy (which was a scholar’s pursuit), but she could have argued similarly that what was once regarded as the negation of science is now being reinterpreted as a significant phase in its development; alchemy carried a lot of nonsensical baggage around with it, but its interest in transmutation was not silly, as it turns out. And the long battle between science and religion is now capable of being seen as based on a misunderstanding of what religion is. In other words, the boundaries and categories of the past continue to dominate thought long after they have served their purpose.

It is strangely satisfying to have the frailties of the intelligence laid bare with so much intelligence and wit, to listen to these Variations on the Theme of Ignorance played so thoughtfully, so thought-provokingly.