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Penguins on Parade: The Book of Magic!

By (March 2, 2016) No Comment


Some Penguin Classics don’t look like Penguin Classics, which is a trifle odd when you consider how book of magicinstantly recognizable the Penguin brand is to book-buyers, but you certainly won’t hear me complaining when the results are as nifty as The Book of Magic, a big new anthology of supernatural literature “from Antiquity to the Enlightenment,” edited by Brian Copenhaver. It’s a heavy black 600-page volume with embossed gold lettering and sigils in the shape of a tree on the front cover.

The book is crammed full of great stuff. Copenhaver has ranged over vast tracts of literature, from the Bible to ancient Greece to ancient Rome to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and beyond. We get snippets from the Old Testament, the New Testament, Homer, Plato, Hippocrates, Virgil, Cicero, Pliny, Plotinus, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, the Malleus Maleficarum, Marsilio Ficino, Paracelsus, Marlowe, Spenser, Shakespeare, and many others (Copenhaver blandly informs us that all the translations from the Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and “modern vernaculars” are all by him except for rare cases otherwise noted – which would make this volume one of the most astonishing feats of scholarly translation to appear in several centuries), all grappling with the nature and specifics of magic in all its forms.

And the grappling starts early. Right away in his Introduction, Copenhaver is doing all of the rhetorical gymnastics writers always need to do in order to differentiate their subject – magic – from its malformed and conjoined twin, religion. It’s never a pretty performance, and it isn’t pretty here, being full of jittery air-quotes and mincing qualifications:

‘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.

The Book of Magic tracks its subject warily and quietly through the thickets of ancient sources of religion, trying the whole time never to touch the thickets. It’s the book’s aim to find magic throughout religious history, and it’s the book’s nagging worry never to call religion magic. Jesus cursing a fig tree makes it into the book; Jesus rising from the dead, no. God parting the Red Sea, yes; God Himself, no. The differentiation is strenuous and therefore incomplete, but I found the fact that it’s attempted at all just a touch irritating.

Copenhaver assembles a fantastic array of bits and pieces, shards of almost every magic neurosis on record. We get mystified physicians groping at why some diseases abate and others worsen; we get armchair travelers speculating on the strange customs of distant lands; we get wide webs of protocols designed to pathologize or punish the different; of course we get everywhere writers attempting to double-talk themselves out of death. And we get lots and lots of charlatans and dupes – one passage from The Life of Apollonius by Philostratus, third-century chronicler of the first century miracle worker, is a good case-in-point:

During an eclipse of the sun, a clap of thunder rolled out – rare in an eclipse, it seems. He then looked up at the sky and said, ‘Something great will happen and will not happen.’ Those present when he said this could not make sense of his words at first, but everyone had put the meaning together by the third day after the eclipse. While Nero was having his dinner, a thunderbolt had struck the table, breaking apart the cup that was in his hands and not far from his mouth. When Nero was almost hit, it was just as Apollonius had said – something done and not done.

It’s impossible to know whether or not the person who wrote that bit about “something great will lucy reads about magichappen and will not happen” saw what an open-ended con game it was, how Nostradamus-style “a great being will appear on the stage of life”-style unfalsifiable it was, although it’s not impossible to gauge how well it was believed by others. Ultimately, that’s one of The Book of Magic‘s most disturbing pleasures: as you read through it, you can’t help but keep remembering, people have genuinely believed ALL of these things, at some point or other.

Even a glance around the current cultural landscape – the American landscape in particular – gives a thoroughly barbed edged to such thoughts. The Book of Magic may just be the Penguin Classic for our time.