Ioan P. Couliano rocks my world. It’s official. I’m forty pages from finishing Eros and Magic in the Renaissance and my world is officially rocked. I’m also nearly too caffeinated to type, as I unconsciously swilled coffee for the last fifty pages. So I’ll give a detailed review — more of a paean of praise, really — when I finish.
Archive for the Book Review Category
I wax hot and cold on Donald Tyson. First, I remember strongly disliking The New Magus when I first read it many and many a year ago. But I developed a stronger fondness for him after his editing job on Agrippa. Portable Magic seems like a really cool idea — using tarot cards as vehicles for magic. And the execution is excellent. He sets up a whole ritual system that seems very well-thought-out and clever.
My only criticism is that it’s a system that could be explained (at least to someone familiar with ritual magic) in a five or ten page pamphlet. There are other interesting uses of the cards that he never touches on (like, what about using them to develop the siddhi associated with the paths? What about using them in conjunction with the Hebrew letters to make sigils or words of power? What about invoking them as archetypes?).
I’ve tested the system, and it works pretty well. It just seems to leave so much depth unplumbed. Ah, well. For what it is, it’s worth the money, and I recommend it.
I picked up Alexander Roob’s Alchemy & Mysticism. It’s largely a collection of plates from various periods in history illustrating alchemical and mystical theories. What’s striking about the book — and this isn’t a judgment of its quality — is that the textual explanations pale against the effect of the graphics. It makes me think about the ways that we organize information.
In the middle ages, paper was expensive, books were expensive, and (although this is secondary, I think) literacy wasn’t widespread. The graphical representation of information, therefore, was common, from stained glass depicting saints’ lives, to alchemical texts illustrating complex procedures with allegorical drawings. We now find this a remarkably inefficient way to organize information, but it’s exactly the opposite — it’s incredibly efficient. Reading it, however, requires different sets of codes.
For example, we have to recognize that up is often far, and down is often close — processes frequently move up the page, rather than down as we might expect. Our preference for left over right is irrelevant, largely. The center is still privileged. Smallness indicates minor information, not distance in space. Largeness indicates important information, not closeness in space.
The codes all changed with the invention of text. Engraving images and text together was a bit of a chore (Blake’s dead brother taught him a method from beyond the grave, for example — that tells you something of how difficult a task it was). So there’s a stronger reliance on text than image, and the codes change. Coincidentally, we also develop the new graphical codes — the “realistic” codes of forced perspective and so on.
Now, we have a third revolution on our hands — image and text interacting in a completely free environment. We have yet to invent or codify our codes for interpreting information in this new medium.
Also, these graphic representations have a different effect on consciousness. The information doesn’t arrive linearly, as with text, nor in binary pairs, as with language. It arrives in threes, fours, groups, clusters, and — while there’s a tendency for the eye to move along certain lines — slightly differently for each person.
I sometimes wonder if a graphical representation of the principles of magic is not only preferable, but necessary.
I went to Borders today ’cause I had a coupon (which, of course, I put in my shirt pocket and completely forgot, ah, well) and while there I picked up Brian Cotnoir’s book on Alchemy. The thing I like about this too-slim volume is that it focuses, for a change, on physical rather than philosophical or psychological alchemy. A lot of nonsense has been written about the topic, and it’s nice to see someone actually go through, for example, laboratory procedures. Still, Cotnoir doesn’t abandon the philosophical roots of alchemy, giving them plenty of emphasis. I’m just very pleased someone is still doing physical alchemy. The book’s a fast read.
One way to conceive of alchemy is as a ritual in which one uses physical substances rather than, say, divine names or sigils. By transforming a substance, we transform part of ourselves. The problem is, physical alchemy requires a bit of an investment and space. Still, it’s worth learning about the actual laboratory procedures if we want to understand the symbolism.
There are some books I must read in small doses, because the excitement of new ideas mingles with the despair of ever writing anything as groundbreaking.
The new and improved S.S.O.T.B.M.E. is such a book — one of those that makes me wish I had written it, because if I had, maybe my views on science and magic would be a bit clearer. While I don’t like the emphasis on aeonics in one chapter — every time someone brings up talk of “aeons” my eyelids feel heavy — and I think it could be a bit clearer for those without an advanced background in postmodern theory, it’s a miracle between two pieces of cardboard.
My answer to a lot of magical-type question could be “read S.S.O.T.B.M.E.”