Friday, October 19, 2007

Killing the Goat

[another WAAGNFPN crosspost]

I read the story some years ago, in The Wall St. Journal, I think, in the first page center column where they put their “strange but true” features. It concerned an occurrence at a semiconductor plant in Indonesia.

The work was semi-skilled labor, of the sort that required close eye/hand coordination, for which the local native women were well suited. Much of it was done under the microscope. The overall situation was stressful: clean room standards, long hours of intense concentration. After some months the women began seeing things under the microscope. They called these things ghosts, and told the supervisors that the place had become haunted with the spirits of the dead.

The plant engineer, being a practical fellow, paid a visit to the local shaman. The shaman confirmed the diagnosis of ghosts. “What must I do to rid the plant of the ghosts?” asked the engineer, doubtless in the spirit of playing along with local customs.

An infestation of this magnitude requires the sacrifice of a goat, he was told.

“How much do you charge to do this?” asked the engineer, probably in the spirit of expecting a bit of a shakedown.

No, the shaman explained, the head of the enterprise must do it, (thereby demonstrating that the principle of separation of powers is not a purely Western invention). If it were in the village, the chief would be the one, but since it is in the manufacturing plant, the engineer himself would have to do it.

Needless to say, this took the engineer aback somewhat. This was more playing along with local customs than he’d bargained for. But after much thought, and probably silently cursing his fate, the engineer went through the ritual sacrifice. He killed the goat.

And the ghosts went away, and the women went happily back to work.

Now the first question that you should ask yourself is “were the ghosts real?”

I realize that the expected “rational” answer is that they were not “real,” that they were “merely” the products of the women’s imagination. Then, having blamed the women for their perceptions, a “rational” procedure would have been to put the women into counseling or perhaps give them tranquilizing drugs. We know pretty much how well these procedures work; not very well, and they are expensive. Is this rational?

No, the engineer did the rational thing. He performed the ritual and the ghosts went away. Cost, one goat, and a certain amount of embarrassment on the part of the head guy. Sounds fair, doesn’t it?

But wait, what about the ghosts. I’m not really saying that they were real, am I?

Yes, I’m saying that they were real, but I’ll explain more about that when I answer the second and third questions.

The second question is, what were they made of? The third question is, were they supernatural?

The ghosts were made out of silicon, and plastic, and glass, and microscopes, and clean rooms, and Indonesian women. They were not supernatural. How can something so ordinary be supernatural?

Ah, so you think I’m saying that they were not real after all, yes?

Now I ask that you consider that sentence. You read it, it makes sense. Is that sentence not real? It is made out of phosphors or a computer screen, or paper and ink, it doesn’t matter. It’s the same sentence either way. So what is it made of?

The same thing as ghosts. The same thing as all magic. Whatever is available.

People say “occult” and I will leave the room. Occult means hidden, and magic is not hidden. We live in it. You can’t escape it. You can refuse to look at it, however.

I once told the story of killing the goat at lunch once with a friend of mine, Al, and his co-workers. One of the party, a guy named Mike, just would not stand for my stating that the ghosts were real. “No, no,” he kept saying. “They were merely imaginary.”

“What’s ‘mere’ about imagination?” I asked. “The nature of a hammer is different from a hurricane, but they are both real. Magic is of another different nature. But it’s still real. The ghosts were real.”

“No, no, that’s wrong,” he kept insisting.

Al later told me that Mike had a Korean wife, and about a year before she had a child that died at birth. Some months later, after seeing the ghost of the child several times, the wife had performed an exorcism. Mike would have nothing to do with it.

“He’s still pretty touchy about the whole thing,” Al told me.

“The exorcism or the death?” I asked.

“Both,” he said.

“How’s his wife doing now?” I asked.

“Oh, she’s fine.” he replied. Al knew what the story was about.

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