When my brothers and I were kids, we always used to holler “Geronimo!” in the midst of some daring leap into the hay or swing on a grapevine. I have no idea why, or what we thought would happen if we didn’t.
From comic books we learned about seeing stars after any sudden blow to the head. Since we horsed around a lot, we had plenty of opportunities. I always assumed that real rather than figurative stars were meant: if one’s natural eyesight were jarred a bit, I figured, a kind of tunnel vision would set in, allowing one to see beyond the atmosphere just as someone at the bottom of a deep canyon – so I’d heard – could see stars at noon. “Seeing stars” was the stage just before “getting your lights knocked out.” Vision must be something like a searchlight, as I envisioned it.
“Starlight, star bright, first star I see tonight…” I wished upon stars for years. I attributed its lack of success either to my having wished mistakenly upon a planet, satellite, jet, firefly, etc., or to my insufficient sincerity. I practiced being as sincere as possible.
Kids tend to think of the world in very concrete ways. This is often referred to as literalism, but that seems like a misnomer since the practice dissipates with growing literacy. Writing enables abstraction. Children, like people in oral societies, lack the habit of objectifying words and subjectifying things and beings. Metaphors delight them; dishonesty – breaking the intimate relationship between word and world – outrages them. And the very young conspire with the old to perpetuate ritual and tradition. Since the world is essentially arbitrary and mysterious, things should always be done as close as possible to the way they were done before.
Arbitrary and mysterious were the things we did to avoid bad luck and seek fortune. “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back!” Hear that once as a small child and, unless you despise your mother, you will avoid stepping on sidewalk cracks for years – no questions asked. As a kid, I wallowed in tragedy, convinced that this was the best way to stave off real misfortune. Perhaps someone had once used the phrase “taking your medicine” in conjunction with a well-deserved spanking; wherever the superstition came from, I was convinced that self-inflicted misery possessed a kind of homeopathic power to stave off the very real terrors that seemed to haunt every other family but ours: the house burning down, the sudden death of one or both parents.
To some extent I’m still this way. While a lot of people feel that anticipating negative outcomes is very dangerous, and are very superstitious about discussing possible misfortunes, I’m just the opposite. The Fates hate to be predictable, so anticipating ill fortune is the best way to keep them at bay. Readers of this blog should be well acquainted with my chief superstition: that things seldom happen the way anyone expects, because the world is too complex for human minds to encompass. That adds up to a belief that if we think it, it must not be true.
For the same reason, unguarded predictions of good fortune are dangerous: they tempt fate. We were always knockers on wood in my family. At a certain point, I turned it into a joke and began rapping on my own skull, but the fact remains I do still do it – or at least say it – as automatically as any Muslim says “Inshallah.” Another way to play with fortune is to manipulate one’s own desires, one’s very notion of what constitutes good and bad luck. “If it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all,” as the old saw has it. Gallows humor is still the surest way I know of triumphing over death. To think this way is to rise above our own desires, to some extent – to see ourselves as fairly inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. And isn’t that very near the core of what it means to be religious?
I’m not sure I observe any real taboos. I walk under ladders, spill salt, and ride the elevator to the 13th floor without a qualm. Black cats are, if anything, good luck as far as I’m concerned. If you want a good mouser, why pick one that’s easy to see in the dark? I have learned the hard way, though, that sharing an idea for a book or other writing project before it is fully fleshed out and at least partially completed is almost guaranteed to kill the inspiration. In talking to writer friends, I’ve found that they take similar precautions. Since inspiration is ultimately mysterious, it stands to reason that writers and artists would become as superstitious about it as baseball fans and players about the outcome of a game. Once I find a certain combination of behaviors that seem to lead to decent writing first thing in the morning, I am reluctant to change a single thing about my morning rituals.
I have never been much of a believer in signs and portents, though part of me feels as if I should be. On the one hand, it’s a way of discovering significance in seemingly ordinary or inconsequential things – not too different from what I strive to do as a poet. On the other hand, though, there’s a kind of egotism about it that repels me. I once briefly dated a woman who saw omens everywhere, in every bird call and strangely bent blade of grass. This was fascinating for a little while, but it gradually dawned on me that she was using her omen reading as a license for bizarre and erratic behavior. The world revolved around her, but she was, in her own mind, something of a marionette. Powerful, invisible forces battled for control of the strings. At least she didn’t listen to voices, as far as I know. But it’s worth wondering to what extent her belief system really differed from that of a more conventionally religious person.
“Superstition” is a funny word. When used to describe the contents of other people’s deeply held beliefs, it is offensive in the extreme, but when applied to certain, fairly trivial beliefs and behaviors of our own, it easily becomes an appropriate topic for cocktail-party conversation – or online bull sessions.
The idea of superstitions as inconsequential, personal tics is a peculiarity of modern, industrialized societies, I’m sure. To me, one of the main attributes of modernity is the virtual monopoly of the habitual. Whereas pre-modern peoples tend to view the world of the humdrum familiar as a kind of veil or illusion, for us, the awesomely complex machines and organizations that regulate and permeate our lives offer the truest measure of reality. Enchantment is a thing for Walt Disney movies and children’s books. While only one percent of U.S. residents typically describe themselves as atheists, the largest percentage of the remainder enforce strict separation between different realms of belief. Consciously held convictions about the spirit world or life after death are essentially private; everything that can’t be touched, seen or demonstrated enjoys a kind of shadow existence in the head or in some, as-yet-undiscovered alternate universe or parallel dimension.
This leaves a vast array of less consciously held beliefs and behaviors, including not only what we call superstitions, but political myths and prejudices as well. Given the uniquely pluralistic nature of religious belief in the U.S., the latter assume perhaps a greater prominence that they otherwise might. The myths that bind us together as a people include such unfounded prejudices as: We have been a uniquely virtuous nation in our good intentions toward other nations; We are a uniquely generous people, without whom the rest of the world would be even worse off than it is already; In America, anyone who really wants to can get ahead; The fondest dream of every brown-skinned foreigner is to become an American citizen.
In saying that superstitions are less consciously held, I don’t mean to suggest that they are completely unthinking. Quite the opposite, in fact: one of their defining characteristics is that, in contrast to the sort of myths just listed, superstitions are beliefs that the believer him/herself considers somewhat questionable. This is where the disenchantment I spoke of comes in. But the peculiarly modern disavowal of the mysterious is not without benefits: an ironic detachment from irrational or supra-rational beliefs may be a necessary precondition for overcoming racism, sexism and other forms of bigotry. My father always felt that his father was somewhat ashamed of his own bigoted views about black people, and tried hard not to air them in front his children.
In this vein also are curses: believed in just strongly enough to give them a kind of compulsory quality. Few people who shout “Goddamn it to hell!” believe in a literal hell, much less in the possibility of damnation – Americans believe in heaven, by and large, but not, with the exception of fundamentalists, in hell. And just as the ideology of progress has enabled the widespread discrediting of bigotry, among people who no longer inhabit a demon-haunted world, profanity spills out of its once narrow banks to form a vast but shallow sea. Cursing represents the ultimate in reductionism: you are nothing more than the sum of your urges, a cunt, an asshole, an unbeing. But cursing curses itself, because in an utterly profane universe, words are drained of meaning and curses become hoist by their own reductionist petard. Pervasive as cursing currently seems, it’s easy to believe in a dystopian future where everybody is fucked but nobody really fucks.
By contrast, when we say “Bless you!” to someone who has just sneezed, we may actually feel that such effusions of good feeling have the power to confer blessing. This qualifies as superstition because: A) it is virtually automatic; B) the underlying reason for it (belief in soul-loss) has been long forgotten, but C) we nonetheless believe it possesses some kind of efficacy, despite the fact that most people who say it would probably admit it’s “just words.” I think most if not all of what are commonly described as superstitions should meet these three requirements. As the realm of the religious slowly succumbs to privatization, such that no once-dark corner of what used to be called the soul remains off limits to analysis and exploitation, curses and superstitions constitute almost the last vestiges of authentic, vernacular religious behavior.