The devil in the details

All weekend the air hangs thick and heavy. On rare occasions when the sun peeks through the clouds, the woods and lawn turn into a Turkish steam bath. With barely a breeze at ground level or aloft, the numerous thunderstorms move at a snail’s pace, like clipper ships becalmed in the Sargasso Sea. From Saturday afternoon on, one can hear an almost constant rumbling from storms in every direction.

When the storms hit, they bring brief downpours of monsoon strength. I sit on my porch and enjoy the tempest, teacup in hand. It’s just as well that I decide to take a break from blogging on Sunday – the computer is off more often than it’s on. My link to the web is through a wireless, so-called ethernet connection between here and my parent’s house, and my father has learned the hard way – through two fried modems – always to unplug the jack from the wall at the first hint of a storm. The surge protector can’t save the modem from a burst of electrons along the telephone line.

Yesterday afternoon we had two lightning strikes that almost certainly would have cooked the modem had it been connected. This wasn’t one of those storms with lots of cloud-to-cloud lightning, “sound and fury signifying nothing.” It was a thunderstorm that meant business: sheets of rain, long minutes between bolts of lightning that went straight to earth (or in fact, straight to sky, but I’m talking more about perception than reality here). The second close strike hit right behind my parent’s house with an earsplitting crash. Ah, adrenalin! I do love a good storm . . .

I was attempting to read a book called The Feast of the Sorcerer: Practices of Consciousness and Power, by Bruce Kapferer (University of Chicago Press, 1997), but it wasn’t easy. The author plunges right into a dense, theoretical discussion in the Introduction, then proceeds to survey the entire field of “Sorcery in Anthropology” in Chapter 1. Only in the second chapter does he begin to get into the nitty-gritty, with descriptions of actual practices in the area where he has conducted fieldwork – among the Sinhalese Buddhists of Sri Lanka. Finally, my head stops hurting and I start finding passages I can sink my teeth into:

The supplicants to the shrines of Suniyam and the other demon-deities unite with the forces of magnified, transcendent, godlike human action. They join with the capacity of this action as a force in the destruction and re-creation of human realities, as a dynamic in the energies of exclusion and inclusion in the orders and relations of the life world, and as the expressive force of alienated and alienating power. When people visit the shrines to Suniyam and the other demon-deities or sorcery gods (usually to ask for assistance for some immediate practical matter concerning their everyday lives), they enter into the vertices of the turbulent power of human being. There they draw upon the magicality of human being and extend themselves into its magicality. This extraordinary potency of human beings is as apparent in lack and dispossession as in possession, to which Suniyam and other demon-deities give marvelous expression. I refer to the capacity of human beings to direct their consciousness actively and transformationally into the world, to make and unmake the realities of themselves and their fellows, to become intimate and influential in the actions of others, and even, as it were, to become consubstantial with the very bodily being of others. This is the potency of sorcery.

It occurs to me that a key phrase in all this is “as it were.” With that last crash of thunder still echoing in my ears, I’m wondering in my usual way just how much it really amounts to, this “magicality” – Sartre’s expression for the power of human intentionality arising from the formation of social bonds. How can you really compare the sparks from a human encounter with the awesome power of Nature? What do “godlike human action” and “the expressive force of alienated or alienating power” really amount to?

But then I remind myself of just how much destruction has been wrought by human beings since their adoption of the mechanistic worldview in the 17th century. Once alienated from the true wellsprings of Creation, the engineers, managers and economists, caught up in their boundless faith in the power and rightness of the human will, have indeed forged a terrifying global reality in which even the weather cannot now be ascribed solely to God or Nature.

The storm moves slowly off. With the last rumbles dying away in the east, it’s time to reconnect the Plummer’s Hollow intranet. But something’s wrong; I can’t get through. I use the pinging software installed by my techie cousin Jeff, and sure enough, there’s nothing passing between the houses. I buzz my Dad on the intercom: is the modem working? Yep, no problem, he says. I run back and forth between the houses, trying this and that, dodging the ever-more-rampant tear-thumb – a moisture-loving plant that has taken over much of the lawn this summer.

We try our usual gambit when the connection fails: turn the main computer off and let it rest for a few minutes before restarting. Neither of us has any idea why this works, but usually it does. No dice this time, though. Finally, it occurs to me to try unplugging and reconnecting both wireless units. I reason that since they are plugged into unprotected circuits, a power surge from the lightning must have somehow knocked them off alignment, even though all their little lights are still glowing green.

It works! Or so the “WS Ping ProPack” suggests. I have to signal my dad to reconnect the modem briefly in order to verify the restoration of my connection. Another storm has already begun to move in.

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