Weather, magic & the not-so-pathetic fallacy


Today I went to cast some offerings into the River Avon as part of some ritual work I’m doing. I eyed my umbrella on the way out, but it seemed like a bright, placid day, so I left it hanging there (rarely a good idea in a West Country winter). Down by the river, I watched from a footbridge as some people walked round the jetty I work on. Some little fish seemed to be jumping in the water; or at least, that’s what it looked like until I saw how prevalent the ripples were…

I held my palm out and felt no drops of rain. Could it really be raining just over there and not here? Indeed, a bank of light drizzle was moving towards me, at such a slow rate that it took about 30 seconds to traverse the 10 feet or so between me and the bank. Noticing that the people I’d seen had moved along, I walked down to my spot.

It started getting a little heavier as I sat there, so after I’d done my thing, I walked off before I started getting drenched. By the time I was walking along the road towards the Clifton suspension bridge, the rain was abating, and had stopped by the time I was walking up the Zig Zag path. A vast rainbow arced over Clifton, from the Observatory on the downs over to the city centre.

It’s happened before for me, this synchronicity between outdoor ritual work and the weather. I suspect it’s common. Sometimes it doesn’t need ritual, it’s just an unfolding interaction between the flow of consciousness and emotion and the elements. Nothing that could be charted to satisfy the scientific urge; even so, something that strikes the attentive mind and heart as stepping out of the private realm in a way that renders terms like “fancy” and “projection” naggingly redundant.

Cherokee rain dance

Weather magic, often in the form of the “rain dance”, is one of the more common forms of magic to have penetrated the popular Western imagination. Like love spells, it deals with a system so complex that modern science genuinely seems to have hit the limits of its predictive and manipulative power, leaving it shrouded in a cloak of irreducible mystery, and thus ripe for a magical approach.

But it’s something less specific I’m getting at here; none of my experiences of weather changes accompanying rituals have involved any intent to affect the weather. Rather, the weather seems to have played a role in reflecting the energy of the ritual itself, an affirmative dance between the two.

The Badger Stone

I once headed to the Badger Stone on Ilkley Moor to offer some blood (my own) to the river goddess Verbeia. My sense was that she was connected somehow to the moors as well as the river, and I decided to petition the goddess herself for help in uncovering the connection. As I approached the stone, rain started to fall. By the time I got there, it became sleety. As the ritual peaked, it started hailing, and the wind from behind me (from the south) became so strong that as I looked at the cup-mark on the stone where I’d dripped blood, hail was hitting the back of my head and creating an intense tunnel effect in my vision. I wound things down, and the hail softened. As I walked away from the stone, the rain stopped altogether.

(I later discovered that the weather was more tightly bound to this ad hoc rite than I suspected. In Scotland, similar cup-marked stones are sites where libations—usually milk—were frequently offered to gruagach, elemental spirits. One rock in Colonsay was called “the well of the south wind”, referring to the power it gave the chief of the MacPhees to summon this wind at will.)

In art, when an expression imputes attributes like feeling and intent to non-human phenomena, it is known as a “pathetic fallacy”. Coined by John Ruskin in an 1856 volume of his Modern Painters, this term has sat in a corner of my mind, ever since it found its way in there in some English lesson, as a withering condemnation of anthropomorphism in general, not just in art. (And no, I couldn’t resist anthropomorphising the term itself.) It’s been an education to look more deeply at it in order to write this.

Even though a certain university’s “glossary of literary theory” bills it as “a term used by John Ruskin to decry the ascription of human attributes, traits, feelings, and so forth to nonhuman objects”, Ruskin himself is less simplistic. As an artistic device, he knows it makes no sense to decry it outright. However, both informed and slightly befuddled by his strong Victorian dualism between intellect and feeling, he distinguishes several classes of poet according to how they are able to negotiate this rather dubious exchange of feeling between the human and the environment:

So, then, we have the three ranks: the man who perceives rightly, because he does not feel, and to whom the primrose is very accurately the primrose, because he does not love it. Then, secondly, the man who perceives wrongly, because he feels, and to whom the primrose is anything else than a primrose: a star, or a sun, or a fairy’s shield, or a forsaken maiden. And then, lastly, there is the man who perceives rightly in spite of his feelings, and to whom the primrose is for ever nothing else than itself—a little flower, apprehended in the very plain and leafy fact of it, whatever and how many soever the associations and passions may be, that crowd around it.

There’s a certain three-step resonance with one of those hard-to-source Oriental sayings: “Before I studied Zen, a mountain was just a mountain. After I began to study Zen, a mountain was no longer just a mountain. Then, when I completed my studies, the mountain became a mountain again.” The pathetic fallacy is only decried by Ruskin when it’s insincere or when it seems to be overwhelming the poet, i.e. when the emotion involved is either absent or fumbled.

The greatness of a poet depends upon the two faculties, acuteness of feeling, and command of it.

Yet if Ruskin intended to coin a potentially positive, or at least neutral term, why “pathetic”, and why “fallacy”?

In Ruskin’s day, “pathetic” mostly held to its Greek origins in pathos, and meant “relating to the emotions”. The fact that pathos also seems to refer to suffering as well as feeling in general could probably inspire several psychohistorical studies. For now, it’s interesting to note the modern evolution of the word “pathetic“:

Meaning “arousing pity, pitiful” is first recorded 1737. Colloquial sense of “so miserable as to be ridiculous” is attested from 1937.

My Concise Oxford Dictionary (1990) lists it as a “British colloquialism” meaning “miserably inadequate”. It would be glib, but not entirely without grounds, to see here the cumulative influence of the notorious English contempt for strong emotions—nurtured by puritanical religion, science’s lust for impassive “objectivity”, and the Industrial Revolution’s demands on everyday life.

One suspects that despite his obvious intelligence, Ruskin was very much a man of his times, and of his country. While he chose “pathetic” as a technically correct term, his age’s growing distrust of emotional truth and dismissal of animism (outside the patrolled confines of art) found an outlet in his choice of this word, which was carrying more and more negative baggage in the popular mind.

So, why “fallacy”? Simply, Ruskin thought that any feelings, intentions, or other attributes reserved for humans can only be imputed by us to non-human phenomena. Even though the artistic use of this imputation may be praised as the work of genius, it is nevertheless false.

Ramsey Dukes, in S.S.O.T.B.M.E. and elsewhere, has written of the four “cultures”, or modes of apprehending the world: Art, Religion, Science and Magic. To simplify the work of a very subtle writer, he sees them as being discreet, to an extent. They’re not (or needn’t be) in competition with each other: they’re like apples and oranges (and pears and kumquats). However, he does see them as successive reigning principles in a cyclic process, at least in Western culture.

That we have recently been living through a scientific phase needs little debate, and it is clearly Ruskin’s place in the early part of this phase that leads him to use the word “fallacy”. Anthropomorphism is scientifically invalid; so much so, that we may as well drop the “scientifically” bit. Science is “common sense”, the triumphant arbiter of truth itself.

In talking of the classes of poet he feels he has discerned in examining the pathetic fallacy, Ruskin says:

I separate these classes, in order that their character may be clearly understood; but of course they are united each to the other by imperceptible transitions, and the same mind, according to the influences to which it is subjected, passes at different times into the various states. Still, the difference between the great and less man is, on the whole, chiefly in this point of alterability. (emphasis in original)

To me this has clear resonance with Dukes’ concept of the magician as one who integrates in himself all four “cultures” (Art, Religion, Science & Magic) or elements (Earth, Air, Fire & Water—but do note that Dukes does not equate particular “cultures” with particular elements). The point is to be flexible.

This emphasis on “alterability”, for me, exists in a certain tension with Ruskin’s final conclusion, which largely amounts to distinguishing between the pathetic fallacy with and without the distancing use of “as if” or “like”—similar to what we’re taught as the difference between a simile and metaphor. For Ruskin, forgoing “as if” testifies to a weakness of character that is unable to resist being engulfed by the emotions that suffuse both the body and the perceived environment.

So much for “alterability”; the lines are clearly drawn, and giving in to the full force of emotions is a one-way trip for morbid romantics.

While science teachers may worry about animism creeping into their lessons, they may not fully appreciate that their fear is not of an alien intruder. Anthropology has taught us that the psyche of Homo sapiens is naturally animist, and fear of animism in modern science is fear of a weakening of the rational structure hastily erected on top of this sturdy baseline granted us by evolution. Only feebly integrated with its psychobiological foundations, it creaks in the wind and bolsters itself with paranoia.

Modern linguistics and philosophy also teaches us that some things that science has been fearful of are actually hard-wired into our foundations:

Metaphor is for most people a device of the poetic imagination and the rhetorical flourish—a matter of extraordinary rather than ordinary language. Moreover, metaphor is typically viewed as characteristic of language alone, a matter of words rather than thought or action. For this reason, most people think they can get along perfectly well without metaphor. We have found, on the contrary, that metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action. Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.

Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By

“Air” and “spirit” are synonymous in most ancient languages, so perhaps it is no surprise that the weather attends to, reflects and participates in our magico-spiritual acts. And in perceiving this as such, in accepting our direct experience of these phenomena, in recognising our rational apprehension of them as an abstracted superimposition—valid only in a limited sense—we connect with what it means to be human.

As we become conscious of the unseen depths that surround us, the inwardness or interiority that we have come to associate with the personal psyche begins to be encountered in the world at large; we feel ourselves enveloped, immersed, caught up within the sensuous world. This breathing landscape is no longer just a passive backdrop against which human history unfolds, but a potentized field of intelligence in which our actions participate.

David Abrams, The Spell of the Sensuous

I wonder where climate change will leave our conception of ourselves and the world?

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