Some Penguin Classics have to walk a very fine line in order to exist at all. Not all of them manage it, of course: there’s been no Penguin Classic of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, nor will there ever be, it’s unlikely we’ll ever see a Penguin Classic reprint of My Life and Loves, or a nice annotated edition of Roger Casement’s diaries, or any of the many electrifying books by Robert Ingersoll. There’s politics as well as cowardice at work here, or rather there’s the cowardice of politics: reprint volumes keep one eye fixed steadily on institutional sales.
It’s hard therefore to guess the fate of something like Brian Copenhaver’s big, brilliant new Penguin volume The Book of Magic: From Antiquity to the Enlightenment, since it treads for its entire 650-page length the finest of troublesome fine lines: religion. After all, if you’re compiling an anthology of excerpts about magic from the course of Western literature, you’ll scarcely be able to avoid tripping over living religious faith at almost every turn. Copenhaver’s eloquent Introduction is hardly off the starting-block before it’s beginning to parse its way around the question:
‘Magic’ (like ‘religion’) as the name of an essence will be uninformative because eliminating contradictions to keep the word accurate will also make it very abstract – too abstract for the relevant domains, which are moral, social and cultural. Keeping the word accurate will be hard because the concepts tagged by ‘magic’ and its cousins, with all the freight that they carry, have emerged in Western and Christian environments in response to Western and Christian problems. Applying the word ‘magic’ – free and clear – to something non-Christian and non-Western … will be difficult, maybe impossible.
Given the drift of this sort of thing, it’s inevitable that Max Weber will come up, and he does smartly:
Magic is ritual where religion is ethical, according to Weber. Magic coerces, but religion supplicates. Magic goes to particulars, religion generalizes. Magic is emotional, religion rational. Deeply learned, writing in patience and finesse, Weber knows that these facile dichotomies cannot stand. By his lights, Moses, Elijah and Jesus were magicians. If those heroes of the Abrahamic faiths were all magicians, how can magic be distinct from religion on axes like ethics v. ritual, reason v. emotion, and so on? No such distinctions can hold, as Weber concedes again and again. But then – on the trail of ‘typical pure magicians’ and something ‘essentially magical’ – he applies the distinctions again, seduced by ‘always’ and ‘all’, words meant to distinguish all magic always from religion – or the reverse – in order to isolate an essence.
The anthology itself, this tremendously entertaining book Copenhaver has created, bolts away from such torturous equivocation the instant it can. In these sections – the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, the ancient Greeks, the Church fathers, the philosophers and commenters of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and the Enlightenment – a delightful array of names parades before the reader: Strabo, Pausanius, Philostratus, Iamblichus, Lactantius, Origen, and of course the mighty St. Augustine, Marsilio Ficino in abundance, reliable old John Dee, and that gold mine of arresting quotation, The Hammer of Witches … Copenhaver presents this great crowd in mostly new and vigorous translations (the book is, among all its other virtues, a monument of erudition), and he provides along the way unfailingly helpful notes to everything.
The sum of the whole actually manages to rise above the ideological contortions that start the whole thing off, contortions made necessary by that most dangerous of all fine lines: the inability to call all religion magic. Jesus casting out demons Copenhaver somewhat bravely includes, but Jesus rising from the dead will never appear in books like this one, because millions of people still believe in that magic, and it’s possible that Penguin Classics would like to sell some copies to those millions. Even so, it’s unlikely that copies of The Book of Magic will be stacked for sale in the Bible bookstores that dot vast swaths of the American heartland – which is a shame on two or three different levels.