I think I got into bed in the middle of the seventh inning, had my life-preserving shot of grappa, and dozed off, with the radio on to the game. A bit later, as Little went to the mound the first time and left Pedro in the game, I woke up and heard the Yankees tie the score. When Little went out the second time, Joe Morgan confessed: “Now I believe in The Curse. I never did before, but now I do. I just don’t understand anything about the eighth inning.”
And that’s exactly right, which is why I am writing a book on Naples, where curses and other forms of magic are simply accepted as a part of life. Life is full of terrible and wonderful things, and for the most part they are all very hard to explain. We hyper rationalists of the Enlightenment Faith constantly try to find material, causal explanations for most everything, but that enterprise is doomed, both by the limits of human understanding and by what my father–an engineer–called the “innate perversity of the inanimate.”
You will be told that The Curse is not really an explanation, let alone scientific, but in fact it meets all the requirements for good science. First of all, it thoroughly explains the phenomenon: The deranged owner of the Red Sox sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees, and so the baseball gods punished him for his monumental error by causing the Red Sox always to lose. You can’t ask for a more complete or convincing explanation than that. Second, the results can be replicated, as they have been for endless decades. Third, the theory accurately predicts future results (the eighth inning, for example, which, as Joe Morgan pointed out, cannot be explained any other way). Fourth, there is no convincing alternative explanation for the data. And fifth, it passes peer review. The players, owners, coaches, and fans of the Red Sox (the same can be said of the other accursed team, the Cubs) may say they don’t believe it, but of course they do. They must.
While we refuse to accept magic in our lives, the Neapolitans embrace it. And since they embrace it, they are better at identifying it, and in so doing they avoid some of the miseries that afflict modern man. Take envy, for example. Poor Neapolitans (which is to say, most Neapolitans) are astonishingly free of envy of those more successful than themselves. In many of the old neighborhoods, rich and poor live on top of one another (Literally. In a single palace you can find dirt-eating poor on street level, and gradually higher-status folks moving up the stairs, until you arrive at the luxurious flat of the aristocrat on top), and the poor take pleasure in the grandeur and comfort of the rich. They would love to live that way, but since they believe that luxury is usually bestowed magically rather than earned (yes, they know it was sometimes stolen, but that’s another story), they hope for similar good fortune. On the other hand, they know that most of them will not get good fortune, but rather…a form of The Curse.
Much of Neapolitan life revolves around the most likely source of great fortune: the weekly lottery. Tradition has it that Neapolitans’ dead ancestors–who are omnipresent in current events–always know the winning numbers in advance. And they are desperately trying to transmit those numbers to their progeny–through dreams. Not just any dreams, but dreams with a special numinous “feel” to them, usually dreamt shortly before awakening. There are thick volumes of dream interpretations that translate dream images into numbers (I have a small collection of such books, even though I am not yet a lottery player), and there are sages and masters of the occult who can help you judge whether your dream is the right sort, and how to extract the numbers from the dream images.
As you can imagine, there is a lot of conversation about dreams and numbers–Naples is the chattiest city in the world– which is to say about magic. And, like The Curse, the theory has been confirmed many times, as lottery winners share their winnings with the dream readers, to the great satisfaction of the public.
A great miracle, and thus a great mystery, lies at the heart of Neapolitan life: the miracle of San Gennaro, the city’s (recently downgraded) patron saint. Beheaded by the Romans, his congealed blood is in a small vial in a special chapel of the cathedral, and three times a year the vial is taken out by the archbishop, and the faithful pray over it, and yell at San Gennaro to perform his miracle and liquefy his blood. Most of the time, the miracle takes place quite rapidly, but sometimes it takes hours (bad sign) and rarely it does not happen at all (terrible sign, usually followed by an eruption of Vesuvius or a new cholera outbreak or war or some such). Scientists have of course tried to explain (or explain away) the miracle, but have thus far failed (thank goodness!). And so Neapolitans continue to believe that if San Gennaro’s miracle succeeds, the city will have good fortune, but if it fails, The Curse is on them.
As it most certainly is on the Red Sox. And that’s science, baby. Not that junk you read about in the learned journals.