Contagious magic and the accomplishments of Linda Dégh

The principle of contagious magic states that personal energy can travel through objects. If a master potter creates a pitcher, part of her expertise then lives in that pitcher, and can be transferred to the next person who touches it. In this process, the potter’s life force is like a contagion. It exists independently of her and can affect others who come into contact with it.

Social scientists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries used contagious magic to explain the importance of totems among so-called primitive societies. That line of thinking has thankfully gone out of fashion, as “primitive” often served as a euphemism for “not as advanced as us,” or worse, “non-white.” Contagious magic survives today, though. In everyday life, many of us place extra value in the object that seems to transmit the energy of its previous handlers. Think of a departed ancestor’s wedding dress, or the cap and gown worn by a child who has grown up and left home. The closer we get to these artifacts, the closer we feel we are getting to the people whose hands once touched them.

Working in an archive provides a daily experience of contagious magic. The material an archivist deals with distills the energy of the inaccessible realm of history. Archival documents are letters from the past, both figuratively and literally. They provide detailed information about what people were thinking decades or even centuries ago, and often enough, they are made up of written correspondence from days gone by.

Linda Dégh
Linda Dégh

I had a rather potent encounter with contagious magic on a recent site visit with Dina Kellams, director of University Archives and Records Management. In late May, Dina and I spent time in the home of Linda Dégh, an eminent Indiana University folklorist who passed away in 2014. Our task was to collect the material that best serves to illustrate and honor Dégh’s career in folk narrative and belief studies. Her house was packed with it. Especially on the ground floor, a multi-room study where every available space was filled with books and paperwork, Dina and I had our work cut out for us.

As we sorted through the materials, we kept in mind how various types of documents would look if they were to be included in an archival collection. Of prime value were many of the thousands of photos Dégh shot over the years. The same was true of her hundreds of audio recordings, both cassette and reel-to-reel. Once processed, these will provide an intimate portrait of Dégh’s activities as a fieldworker. More specifically, they will allow users to partake in her point of view. To imagine holding the camera or pressing the record button is to effectively inhabit the perspective of this star of the field. The experience is doubly alluring for one who is familiar with Dégh’s work, as I am. The contagion of her career, which spanned most of the twentieth century, reaches me today, as if by magic.

The trouble with contagious magic in this case is that it applies to a much greater collection of materials than those that are appropriate for archiving. What of the many dissertations that Dégh supervised? Some of these sit in stacks in her basement. Several are still in their original envelopes, mailed decades ago by former students for her review. I know that these works are published elsewhere, probably in much handsomer formats. Still, I can’t help thinking of each of them as the physical incarnation of years of hard work and careful mentoring. If mental toughness looks like anything, it looks like a printed-out dissertation. Trust me. I just finished one. But to put such a document in the archive would unnecessarily expand its scope, as well as duplicate publication efforts made elsewhere. Therefore, the dissertations stay on the shelf, despite the energy and relationships they represent.

Just as Dégh’s work is far too voluminous to archive in total, it is too extensive to fully describe here. However, it is nicely summarized in her obituary from a recent issue of the Journal of American Folklore. Elizabeth Tucker writes: “Linda was such a star of folktale and legend studies, such a force of nature; how could she not be with us anymore?” The point is well taken. Dégh’s is a tremendous loss. Yet I am compelled to mention the comparably tremendous energy left behind in her papers. Through careful effort, perhaps our archiving project can capture a measure of that energy for posterity–a force of nature organized, indexed, and made available for public perusal.