Awaiting Captain Walker
The film Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, for those who haven’t seen it, is the last of a trilogy set in the aftermath of global nuclear war. Human society is reduced to primitive squalor and ruled by gangs and despots. An outpost called Bartertown offers a rare luxury: an electric generator powered by a methane refinery, both cobbled out of dilapidated machinery from the previous age. As savage as Bartertown is it’s clear that there are worse places you could be; Bartertown at least has laws.
Halfway into the movie Max has been exiled from Bartertown and lies in the surrounding desert on the verge of death, but he’s rescued by a group of children who live in a nearby canyon oasis. They’re the offspring of the survivors of a plane crash. According to the history they retain through ritualized storytelling, a pilot named Captain Walker flew a group of people out of a bombed city to escape the ensuing nuclear winter. It went down in the desert and what was left of the group was forced to make a life in the oasis. After about a decade of building shelters and raising families, the group decided that they needed to find out if there was any human civilization left around them. They put the eldest children in charge and departed with a promise from Captain Walker that someone would return for them. At this point it’s safe to say that no one ever will.
Left on their own, the children have clung to Walker’s promise with (literally) religious fervor. The community is reminiscent of a cargo cult. The junk from the jet wreckage has been converted into sacred adornments and talismans (the tribe even appears to have a medicine man) and Captain Walker has become a messianic figure to whom they attribute supernatural powers. They wait for him to come lift the downed airplane back into the wind and return them all to “Tomorrow-morrow Land”, a utopia they’ve dreamt up based on the stories they’ve been told about the old world and the photos and artifacts they’ve scrounged. Max bears an uncanny resemblance to Captain Walker so the children are convinced that he’s finally returned and ignore Max’s protests to the contrary.
This scene always strikes a chord with me. There’s some dramatic license being exercised here, but fictional scenarios like this one hold a very valuable insight. It’s easy to see primitive tribal cultures that are steeped in magic and superstition as quaint, naive, misguided, or delusional. Even for Max the tribe comes off a bit crazy at first, and for someone accustomed to the apocalypse that’s saying a lot. We take completely for granted the fact that we each hold thousands of lifetimes of accumulated knowledge in our heads. We live in an age where we’re assaulted with more information in a day than a member of an ancient isolated community could encounter in an entire year. We just can’t see ourselves reflected in this strange ancestral condition; we find all this stuff anachronistic and irrelevant to life in the present.
But what’s so crucial to remember is that this condition is the default state of a human being. This is you, me, or anyone else had we not been born into intellectual privilege. These children have modern genes and modern blood, but having grown up isolated from the global environment and lacking schooling beyond the stories their parents raised them on, humanity’s fundamental nature has been laid bare. Magical thinking, imbuing coincidence with meaning, creating sacred myths and rituals, perceiving supernatural connections — this is not merely anomalous behavior. This is the cognitive path of least resistance for any Homo sapiens.
We were all on this path until we were graciously shown a higher one. It’s only through education and intellectual self-discipline that we rise above it and become our modern selves.
Many, however, don’t aspire to rise very far. Others are born into circumstances where intellectual resources are sparse. Today’s society is replete with examples of people still living at this primeval level. Because we’ve created an environment in which knowledge is unavoidable, few can entirely succumb to this condition, but vestiges of it are continually surfacing in people’s daily lives.
A ballplayer refuses to wash his lucky pair of socks. A grieving husband makes monthly visits to his wife’s grave to tell her about his life since. A hotel skips the 13th when numbering its floors. A churchgoer draws the sign of the cross on her chest in the face of tragedy. A truck driver sees the same digits repeated on three separate license plates and decides to play the lotto with them. A fisherman sets sail on Saturday instead of Friday to help ensure his safe return.
This is all just the practice of magic in a modern form. The behaviors and rituals are different but the psychological inclination is the same. And what makes the old magic inferior to ours? What distinguishes the ballplayer’s socks from a fetish or charm? Or the sign of the cross from an incantation? Or the reading of license plates from divination?
Is our modern mysticism really that much different from the belief that a man can send a crippled jet back into the sky?
This is why I can’t be too hard on the average occultist or religionist. I can’t get as angry about their frequently negative influence on society as many skeptics do, because you can only get so upset with something for obeying its own nature. Even the staunchest of rationalists can lapse back to his ancient roots when met with enough terror or hardship. We’re all walking on a wire that threatens to toss us into barbarity without warning.
Being rational animals we’re torn between two modalities. The path of rationality is difficult; the animal path is easy. And until the end of time the vast majority of human beings will take the easy road. This will never, ever change. One who hopes for a world of perfect sanity is setting himself up for disappointment.
So since mysticism isn’t going anywhere, my advice is to gain enough distance from it all to be able to respond to it with academic fascination rather than arrogant indignation. To observe the traces of our ancestry influencing every aspect of modern society — emerging from simple roots into very complex and unpredictable patterns — is a truly amazing thing. Stepping back far enough to see your own magic in the same light as the alien magic of ancient cultures gives you a better glimpse of the grand cognitive tapestry you’re a part of, and the inborn impetus to deceive yourself loses a little more of its hold over you.
Before I close I do want to be clear on this: I’m not arguing that the customs of cultures that our society deems primitive are juvenile or useless. Every culture has within it a unique intellectual DNA and the preservation of this ethnodiversity is paramount. Each peers at the cosmos and the human condition through its own lens, and one of the worst things we can do to ourselves as a species is to reduce the number of those lenses down to one. Monoculture is death, and we’re headed toward it full tilt.
But as I’ll explore in future posts, when plumbing the depths of your own consciousness (which is what magic is truly about) you can choose to come to conclusions about the internal world or you can choose to come to conclusions about the external world based on what you uncover. The former I find to be a valuable, noble endeavor; the latter, a very problematic one. And it’s with the latter that this blog is chiefly concerned.
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- 01.31.09 / 11am