Friday 17

Today is Friday the 17, a day deemed to bring ill luck in my country. It would be impossible to know precisely how many people are swayed in their decisions by such a circumstance or how many give it a think when they get up on the dawn of a day like this. I imagine many wouldn’t be very frank about the extent that superstition influences their lives, and others wouldn’t be completely aware of its real effects on the course of their actions.

I certainly am not influenced, and the proof is that I had to be reminded about it during a conversation today, at which I forced a smile just out of civility. However, the fact that the collective behaviour keeps the cultural reference alive, even though in jocular terms, is probably a sign that people need to exorcise Friday 17 and share their uneasiness about it.

It’s undeniable that it takes determination and willpower to have a completely free mind about superstition – be it a black cat crossing your way, walking under a ladder, killing a spider, putting up an umbrella indoors, just to cite a few ill-fated events I am acquainted with. In certain cultural contexts you grow up hearing these silly stories that boil down to attributing power to things and end up influencing your conduct.

Moreover, even when it’s not cultural, our brain naturally builds associations between events occurring to us, in trying to come to terms with the unknown by holding fast onto the known. In other words, if we create a relationship between an event and another based on our own experience, we are bound to expect the happening of the first when the second occurs again.

Yesterday, for instance, I caught myself red-handed. I was considering going to Isola d’Elba, which I visited a few years ago. Since within a short while of my returning home that time I suffered a bereavement, my instinctive thought was: What will happen now if I go again? Not that this will prevent me from going to Elba, but certainly it shows how ill fame starts to be attached to things and gives birth to superstition.

Again, a few days ago a colleague referred to a common acquaintance as a jinx, which made me not just let the joke fall disastrously flat, but also explain my contrary point of view about pinning a bad reputation on someone. When I later learned that the thing was repeated, maybe also started, by whom I considered a serious man, I was literally outraged.

I am often surprised that in a century like ours, in a part of the world that calls itself free and secular, would-be rational people should still be enslaved by ridiculous obsessions.

When I was reading Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black, I took note of a passage that amused me a lot, when a spirit talks in mocking terms about the latest fashion in conspiracy theories, sensational revelations that set out to rewrite history in the wake of the Da Vinci code:

Have you read The Truth About Exodus? Basically it’s how they found this bit of the Bible written on a pyramid. Inscribed on the side. And how contrary to popular belief the Egyptians actually, they actually paid the Israelis to leave. And they used the money for making the Ark of the Covenant. Jesus was an Egyptian, they’ve found scrolls, he was actually of pharaoh descent. And it’s why they walk round and round at Mecca. Like they used to walk round the Great Pyramid.

What is then the heritage of the Enlightenment, which we thought had done away with the Middle Ages and its superstitions? We are back to an era when many western people have turned away from mainstream religions to unquestionably embrace New Age nonsense. In present-day psychic and occult faires, people consult clairvoyants, buy metal bracelets supposed to ward off dangers or ceramic pieces that purportedly change the “molecular structure” of water before you drink it.

We have taken a step back from the myths of world religions only to bury ourselves in a quagmire of ideas that are even more irrational and detrimental to the role that man’s mind should play in achieving independence of judgment and freedom. There are wicked commercial interests behind this, but also a lot of guilty gullibility.

William Shakespeare wrote in King Lear:

This is the excellent foppery of the world, that, when we are sick in fortune, often the surfeits of our own behaviour, we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and stars; as if we were villains on necessity, fools by heavenly compulsion, knaves, thieves, and treachers by spherical predominance, drunkards, liars, and adulterers by an enforc’d obedience of planetary influence; and all that we are evil in, by a divine thrusting on.

Reading this passage surprised me greatly, firstly because their modernity makes it hard to believe that they were written four centuries ago, long before the scientific discoveries and in an era still steeped in religion, witchcraft and superstition; but even more because they prove that rationality is a universal value that makes man great by highlighting the gift of intelligence. Let’s leave Friday 17 behind.