Eros and Magic in the Renaissance, Ioan P. Couliano

If you regard yourself as an intellectual magician, you must read this book. That’s it in a nutshell.

Couliano’s genius lies in the perception of patterns in Renaissance magicians of great importance, such as Ficino and Bruno, and his awareness of the philosophical foundation behind their ideas. Of course, as I’ve written elsewhere, that foundation is a late Neoplatonism, but Couliano sees more: he identifies that the aim of Renaissance magic was the creation of bonds or chains of Eros. Eros is the principle underlying all magic, and Couliano even expresses it in an equation: Eros = Magic.

Eros isn’t just the desire of sexual contact. Couliano doesn’t go there, but as Foucault has argued this concept of sexuality is a pretty recent one. No, Eros is desire itself: the desire, specifically, of a person for the phantasm or image that they construct of the desired object. If I’m hungry, I do not desire a sandwich: I desire the phantasm of the sandwich, and once I enjoy the sandwich the bond I’ve made with the phantasm disappears and the phantasm disintegrates. Magic, then, is manipulating these phantasms.

One of the central technologies that magicians use to manipulate these phantasms is the ars memoria, the art of memory, which had reached a high level of sophistication in the late middle ages, but was all but destroyed by the reformation.

Couliano convincingly argues that, in fact, many of these renaissance techniques have been repurposed, not as a science (take that you “magic is just undiscovered science” folks) but as advertising and propaganda. The renaissance magician believed, as most modern first world people do not, that the screen upon which the phantasms are impressed, the pneuma, was not restricted to humans but to the universe as a whole. Magic is an advertisement to the universe, to create a desire in the universal pneuma to create the phantasm you project, just as an advertisement for a car creates a phantasm that binds you to the car. Of course, the trick is that these chains or bonds aren’t simple: in fact, it’s often more effective to chain one phantasm to another. You don’t sell a car to someone by giving them the phantasm of the car. No, you create the phantasm of the car and chain it to other phantasms they already have: the desire to appear successful, sexy, etc.

Couliano goes so far as to suggest there are two kinds of governments: police states, and magical states. In general, magical states tend to be more “democratic,” because the people running them must control the population with images and phantasms, rather than main force. I’m sure this is a dig at his home nation of Romania, perhaps even the insult that got Couliano murdered at the University of Chicago in 1991. I wonder what he’d say about the current state of Romanian politics, and the strong occult elements there.

Couliano is not an easy read. I sat at Borders with a Latin dictionary, a German dictionary, and a lot of caffeine to get through it. You need to have some familiarity with classical Greek philosophy, renaissance history and philosophy, and it doesn’t hurt to know your Italian magicians. But the book is also a rewarding delight to read, and I’d have finished it earlier if I hadn’t had to write copious notes in the margins.

3 Responses to “Eros and Magic in the Renaissance, Ioan P. Couliano”

  1. You may also find this review (not of Couliano, but instead of a pair of recent books on Hermeticism and its impact) of interest. The first book sounds quite interesting, especially in context of Couliano’s direction of thought.

  2. Ioan Couliano was a fascinating personality on his own right. You may read Ted Anton’s biography, “Eros, Magic and the Murder of professor Culianu” if you are interested. You may find here much more about Couliano’s interaction with Romanian politics of the day.
    He was also a good friend of the fantasy writer John Crowley, and you can see his influence in Crowley’s books like Aegypt..
    His intellectual itinerary was fascinating as well. He became interested in fractals and chaos theory, and wanted to describe religions as formal systems deploying in history. He used for that a combinatorial system quite close to Bruno “memory wheels”. Ted Anton summaries it very well by writing :
    “He planned to link Bruno’s Art of memory with discoveries in Artificial
    Intelligence complexity theory, and psychology in an effort to compare the
    different ways in which cognition creates the universe”.
    He never had the time to really mature this project, but you may find a first attempt to use this new kind of methodology partly in his “dictionary of religions” (officially written with Mircea Eliade, but in fact mostly written by Couliano alone), and even more, in his book “the tree of gnosis”, which, beyond being an extremely clever book on gnosticism, is in fact especially interesting for the methodology used.

  3. [...] Postmodern Magic Eros and Magic in the Renaissance: Eros is desire itself: the desire, specifically, of a person for the phantasm or image that they [...]

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