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Michael Cisco
Posted on Tuesday, April 29, 2003 - 01:13 pm:   

Academic Voodoo – “That Old Black Magic”

Jasper Griffin, professor of classical literature and public orator at Oxford, reviewing David Ogden’s book, Greek and Roman Necromancy, in the New York Review of Books for May 1, 2003, provides us with an excellent example of a particular sort of bad faith. In an article which includes the dispassionate description of the wild behavior of Bacchantes and Dionysians, prof. Griffin goes out of his way, several times, to impose his curse-words on the ancient necromancers. He reaches back into the first portion of his article, a review of a new book on Cicero (and which by tacit comparison represents what he believes is a more mature approach to death and loss – being tacit, this isn’t something I would call an argument), to point out that Cicero regarded those who believed in necromancy with “contempt” (perhaps in the expectation that we will be cowed into agreement with the Great Man), and adds: “In the educated classes of the ancient world, there were some people who succeeded in rising above the fear of malevolent magic ...” So here we are presented with an innocuous-seeming phrasing of the situation which nevertheless, when rendered into an image, becomes blatant propaganda: the educated classes (belief in magic is a sign of ignorance if not stupidity, and of membership in an inferior social class – remember our reviewer is English), succeed (implying they were trying to do this, perhaps as part of the greater “progress” of civilization away from “barbarism” which is of course associated with belief in and practice of magic), in rising above (because belief in magic is low, belief in reason is high), the fear of malevolent magic (people who believe in magic are in the grip of a paranoid fear, they are emotional, not rational – never mind that magic is an eminently and obviously rational business of reading cause and effect, and is if anything excessively logical). Now, you wouldn’t want to be included in that paranoid mob, that reactionary rabble, among those irrational and ignorant barbarians, would you? But where has any of this been proven, where have we even been given an argument whose merits we might judge? We are not supposed to judge this argument, or even see it as an argument – no, this prejudice, to invoke it by its proper name, is supposed to be as natural and immediate for us as the air we breathe or the chairs under our asses.

It goes on – the body of love magic literature he describes is “this gruesome company” (the tone of raillery is a veiled pressure to agree, like asking “can you believe this rubbish?” forces your interlocutor to make the effort to contradict you) – the women who are the objects of their attentions “slept on in their distant beds, unaware of the antics of the sorcerers” (ah, futility, and not the noble futility of a Shakespearean boy pining for his darling, but the comic impotence of antic sorcerers hopping to and fro like hottentots, isn’t that funny?) – he compares the necromancer psychologically to a sniper with a God complex, attributes to him “craziness” (how edifying) – “Such were the abysses of unreason into which one might fall” Griffin pontificates smugly, having just perpetrated himself a none-too-rational bit of anti-magic voodoo of his own – he speaks of the necromancers’ “hatreds and their lusts. Obsession joined hands with madness ...”

In nine paragraphs, prof. Griffin has managed to heap all manner of opprobrium on the necromancers of antiquity, complacent in his confidence that they have no credible defenders in the present. But who exactly is he trying to convince with all this commentary? If we may so readily take it for granted that true magic is something no one takes seriously, why should anyone so conspicuously and ostentatiously deride it – repeatedly? I think the professor protests too much. The review is filled with quotes from Egyptian spells held up to our eyes as fragments of a bygone world and as novelties, but they are also often beautiful. I doubt that their glamour works too powerfully on professor Griffin, but perhaps he is not entirely oblivious to it, and is seeking to defuse it. Above all, let him not be mistaken, even for a moment, for one of the shabby lot of modern-day magicians – a fate worse than ... what? Certainly, this fear is in operation here; but more to the point, condescension of the kind exhibited in this article is usually designed to make what is not a foregone conclusion appear as though it were. It is a kind of magic operation, whereby I jostle you into an unconscious acceptance and irrational recapitulation of my derogatory tone. The resulting attitude toward magic is not the result of any real thought on the matter, but rather an im-position, an attempt to implant a prejudice and bypass all the best questions. We can imagine being sniffily told that such investigation is unnecessary in that the question is patently obvious. If it’s so obvious, why do we find magic everywhere in history, and even in this rational modern world? Is it because education is at fault? Is it because most people lack what is irrationally called “breeding” in your country, professor? Sorcerers are just crazy – says who? Crazy by whose standards? Even Cicero felt contempt for them, and far be it from us to argue with Cicero; the argumentum ad hominem is bad form, but it’s all right to enshrine a point as unassailable by argument if the man who makes it is sufficiently venerated as an academic totem. Full of hatred and lust, crazed with his impotence and sexual frustration, obsessed and insane, an overgrown adolescent monster – this is the objective, impartial, rationally-designed rendering of the sorcerer we derive from professor Griffin. And yet, the spells he quotes are beautiful, so beautiful he can’t resist putting in one after another. The image of the sorcerer isn’t all that different from the image of the Romantic poet – by this definition, Rimbaud is a bit of a sorcerer, too. If the necromancers of yore had nothing to say, how come you can’t stop quoting them? Entertainment value and the opportunity to congratulate ourselves on how much better we know ...?

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