Science and disenchantment: Galileo’s Plank and the Shaman’s Pole.

October 28, 2012

Fortnightly Review:

GALILEO HAD A plank down which he rolled different-sized metal balls. He was questioning Aristotle, according to whom bigger balls should have reached the ground first. But they didn’t. All the balls, whatever their size, arrived at the same time. This was the plank of disenchantment, of measurement and close observation. When the balls reached the bottom of the plank, two thousand years of Aristotelianism died there and then, and ever since, experiment has taken over from scripture. Don’t take anyone’s word for it: Nullius in verba became the motto of the Royal Society later in that century, the seventeeth.


ACCORDING TO MIRCEA Eliade, in shamanistic communities, the shaman’s home has a pole (sometimes a tree) which goes through the roof. During the ceremonies of initiation the shaman climbs to the end of this pole, thus establishing that he has journeyed to the extremities of perception, travelled where the non-initiated members of the community cannot go. He returns with a different level of consciousness, an ability to perceive and heal illness, an awareness of the realm of the spirits. He is now fully initiated.

MUST WE CHOOSE one or the other of these as our axis mundi? We live, it seems, between the pole and the plank; between our continuing wish to be enchanted and our eagerness to disenchant the world through science (to know it as it really is, not as we would wish it to be). The question is put to us daily: which is it to be? But is it possible that the choice is a false one, like being asked to choose your left mental hemisphere or your right? Are we being told we must choose one side of the paper or the other? Maybe the pole and the plank represent complementary aspects of the human condition. Could they both be the expression of fundamental needs?

Why Do We Represent?

To represent the world is to absent ourselves temporarily from it. We cannot be seamlessly situated in the present moment, and also be simultaneously situated so as to create a representation. The creation of a representation requires a separation from that which is represented; we cannot simply merge into the perception. We disengage from the present and absorb ourselves instead in what Max Raphael called ‘the means of figuration’.1 Here then the scientific and the artistic moments share at least one condition of existence: displacement from utter absorption in the sensuous moment.

Were our earliest intellectual acts in fact moments of orientation? Did we have to remove ourselves from the sensuous continuum in order to situate ourselves intellectually in the world? Constellations may well have been the first moment of art and the first moment of science too. At that stage in human history there was no distinction between the two. What is interesting about the constellations is that they are both there and not there. It is our moment of perception, linking up the light of different stars from different times, which creates the constellations; and yet our astronomical charts are still filled with them. These gods, goddesses and mythical hunters populate the heavens. In constellations, the past and the present co-exist; different planes of reality are brought together to form mythic shapes. There is only one single plane upon which these realities co-exist, and that is the plane of perception.

A representation is an exteriorization of perception, but also its negotiation into form; we make our marks upon the cave wall, and thereby project the perceptions we have of the world back on to the exterior world from which they came. In the process, they metamorphose.

Science and Magic.

Our first attempts at science appear to have been primarily magical. There was no distinction as yet between the scientific and the manipulative impulse. We placed ourselves in a relation with nature where rain could be summoned, fecundity guaranteed, sickness and death averted, or wishes fulfilled. There was often built into these procedures and ceremonies an acknowledgment of the nature of reality, even where the impulse was to overcome it. For example, the rain dance demonstrates an awareness that rain is a necessity if crops are to flourish. Therianthropic masks worn by spiritual agents of various sorts acknowledge a physical strength in animals which is not present to anything like the same degree in humans. Herbs initially used for their magical properties proved themselves efficacious in some cases; ineffective in others. So through experiment a therapy began to take shape, even an effective one. Magic can measure itself by results, just as experimental science can. We can, if we look hard enough, find the rudiments of some of our present practices there: a doctor still takes something from the earth and gives it to the patient for ingestion into the body, so as to avert or palliate illness. Drugs go ‘on trial’, and when they are deemed efficacious enough we call them ‘wonder drugs’. We have undoubtedly shifted the nature of the correspondences, and their alignments one to another. With the demise of alchemy, we have looked increasingly to experiment and measurable results to dictate the nature of our science. Alchemy is the last moment when the magical is still permitted as a licit element of the genuinely scientific enterprise, and it is a moment that has a sort of afterlife in Newton, who would appear to have regarded force at a distance as an occult power, and who never gave up his alchemical experiments to the end of his life.

Already the plank and the pole no longer seem so far apart. What is it that the shaman is doing when he climbs his pole? The word shaman is derived from the word sorcerer in the Tungus language. A shaman could visit the land of the dead; bilocate; assume an animal form. A shaman would undergo a psychic vastation, a journey across the valley of death, and only after that would his control of the spirit world enable him to perform curative acts. Like Dante, he must first undergo the terrors of the Inferno before the paradisal state might be witnessed and vouchsafed…

Read it all.

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