Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production

Vol.4.1: HAPPY NEW YEAR! (I think)

It’s Code Orange at the Orange Bowl. Zillions of flowers are dying on stupid floats up at the Rose parade. And there’s an astrologically ominous number hanging over the next 365 days.

2004!? Oh, No, Not 2000 and F-F-Four! Maybe I’ll Just Stay in Bed This Year

The number four, in Cantonese, is pronounced sei. The same sound (or close enough to it to be scary) as the Cantonese word for “death” I am told. The building in which I lived in Hong Kong lists 35 floors in the elevator, but there are no floors numbered 4, 14, 24, or 34. So it really has only 31 floors. It may be inviting bad luck to live in a floor with the number four in it, but is it bad luck to lie about the number of floors in your building? And, isn’t the fourth floor from the ground floor the fourth floor, no matter what number you put on it? Well, maybe not. You can confuse things by calling the ground floor the rez-de-chaussée, like they do in France; so do you count that one or not? Maybe that’s the idea in Hong Kong: to let the evil spirits sort it out.

Watch out for this number

Watch out for this number

It’s also the Year 4701 of the Chinese Calendar. That’s two f-f-f-fours, bracketing the year. Things are looking scary. 

Well, I for one, am not going to buy into this superstitious nonsense. But at the risk of bringing bad luck upon myself I need to make clear that there is plenty of superstition in Western cultures, and that I regard all religion, or any cosmology or folklore that interprets causes and effects on unsubstantiated and unproved or unprovable circumstances, as superstitious. All religions, born in the fear of the unknown and the wish for a certain and beneficent fate, are suffused with means and methods to seek spiritual favor. 

I’m also not going to panic because I find superstition to be intellectually lazy. Rather than engage in the challenging and rigorous process of trying to understand the world, the riddles of existence, and the relationships between causes and effects, superstition substitutes deistic and demonic whims and the vortices of luck and fortune. The causes for events and circumstances are assigned their etiology from spurious random associations, without any probable or verifiable empirical foundations. The superstitious sneeze because somebody is supposedly thinking of them, not because they have inhaled a spore of pollen. (How many times one sneezes determines what they are thinking about you.) There are specious assignments of “significance” to events. When does “bad luck” or “good luck” begin or end? One is fired from a job (bad luck), but in consequence finds a better job that one would not otherwise have sought (good luck). And so on: yesterday’s bad luck may release today’s good fortune, and, of course, vice versa. Yet, the superstitious person tends to take events out of context in interpreting their significance.

Second, superstition does not take into account that much of life’s circumstances are “influenced” by one’s birth statistics (genes, ethnicity, gender, national origin, religious setting, social class), not birth sign. Where randomness does play a “luck” factor, often “luck” (aside from pure lottery-like randomness) is actually influenced by one’s actions, and even by a subliminal and unrecognized “reflexive rationality.” Desist from waving nine-irons on golf courses during thunder storms and one’s “luck” at avoiding electrocution is increased despite whether one’s horoscope has advised against avoiding large open spaces for that day.

Thirdly. Superstition is a belief in un-sensed, yet acknowledged forces, an endless search for those behaviors (prayer, supplication, ritual, feng shui) that move those forces towards or away from malevolence and beneficence. Being a-rational, or non-rational, they are never formed into theories or laws, regularities that might be employed proactively to influence one’s fate. The only law of superstition is that of what might be called “immediate precedence”: what action or event that is associated with a subsequent consequence, however spurious, can be taken as causal validation. Get on the Number 4 bus and some kid pukes on your new shoes and you “know” exactly what caused what.

Fifth (I decided to skip Sei). At its religious level, then, superstition is primarily expressed through propitiation and supplication. In its Eastern versions, this is primarily concerned with beseeching those forces that can do good things for the supplicant. But these actions are not necessarily moral in character, such as choosing to do good works for others. The superstitious may give alms to the poor, but the motivation is to win the favor of the gods, not necessarily out of a sense of social or moral obligation. In paraphrase of John F. Kennedy, the superstitious person asks not what he can do for the gods, but what the gods can do for him. Such “worship” is nothing, and presumably frivolous, if not practical in its intent. A good god is one that delivers the goods, and therefore the attraction of Western religions may not be whether they espouse a particular philosophy (although its eschatology can be a factor), but its efficacy. 

Sixth. Superstition must be questioned as a basis for explanation, or for action from the point of view of responsibility. In a world of superstition who is responsible for human actions and their consequences? Is one rich or poor, sick or healthy, in love or not, this or that, because of the locations of the planets at their birth, playing the right numbers, or avoiding the wrong ones? What of the actions of others, of governments, of one’s own choices and decisions? Is anyone responsible in a world run by unseen authors of our fates? The result of these characteristics is that superstition is that it is essentially fatalistic. In the world of the fatalist all conclusions are foregone.

Finally, it seems to this rationalist that superstition might just drive one mad. In the world of the superstitious everything has a potential significance, every consequence has an antecedent cause, ranging from one’s birth sign to geomantic circumstance. The world is alive and infested with gods and demons who seem to take account of our every action and utterance. The path through life is paved with metaphysical snares, numbers are everywhere, and woe unto thee if your feng is blowing in the wrong direction over your shui.

Like I said, I’m not the superstitious sort. But it is a presidential election year, and there are f-f-f-fours in both the Chinese and Western calendars, and what is particularly worrisome is that it’s 


©2003, ©2004, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 1.1.2004)

This piece was excerpted from, “Crooked Bridges Over Troubled Waters,” The Wild East, August/September 2003, Issue 6&7.