Correcting Legends, Receiving Ghosts

What does it mean to mythologise a person? By secular usage, when an historical figure is “mythologised”, we must obviously be careful to distinguish between person and myth.

The legends of historical actors are those Great Men of History - and it is almost exclusively men - who singlehandedly united kingdoms, waged wars, built empires, redefined reality and generally bootstrapped themselves into powerful positions of prestige. They swell to fit the frame of portraiture. The actual personage pales, what with all their awkward complexities of foibled humanity and essential context.

Clearly, such propaganda is not useful to honestly assessing the unfolding of all things or the days and ways of our ancestors. Yet I would also contend we should distinguish between what we might call legend and spirit. What I mean in this context by legend is the printed myth, the story, the fable, the hyperbolic arabesque. Conversely, we might consider the spirit of an historical figure as a ghost born of resurrected text, queried memory, and permutations of comprehension and utility. This is a pulse of reception: how a text or spirit is received by descendent generations; how it is revived, re-interpreted, re-directed and re-invented. Reception charts the enlivening effects upon discourse of a necromantic circulation of a spirit’s text-blood. A most exquisite corpus, a piece of the picture built upon by the next pen. The spilling of ink after ink.

These spirits of historical figures appear in comely or monstrous forms as they are invoked by the wheel of historiographical fortune and fad. New founding forefathers and foremothers of thought arise as the old fall from favour. Some are considered too holy to touch. Historic legends are often crystallised by overprotection thusly, in the ossification of historical spirits. The bones of the barrow once passed between the hands of family are secured behind the locked doors of private collections.

This idolatry - a worship of the idols we hack our ancestors into - is not simply reductive, it is a profound violence against those ancestors and against a sacred role carried out by technicians of the undying to facilitate contact with our roots. The historian must be an intermediary, a translator, of the dead to the living; not a middle man of hieratic monopoly. Such a role requires training, for we do ourselves and the dead a disservice when we approach them with blunt tools. But this training is not license to amputate the healthy branch from its trunk, or to bar our fellow creatures from the cauldron of the Commonwealth.

This violence, like all violence, begets a potentially more insidious violence. In attempting to wash off the bullshit of a sacred cow too severely, we risk bleaching away what we hoped to preserve. Stumbling on our self-appointed pedestal in order to “correct” history, we maim it to cartoonish. Ecce homo. The babes in the sacred bathwater. Alienated from historical comprehension, poorly served by conservative and self-aggrandising pedagogy, we confuse the idol for the source once more, and lose something of ourselves by our dismissals.

The greatest spirit to preside over the histories of European magic is undoubtedly Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim. Speaking of the necromantic experiments of Humphrey Gilbert and John Davis to summon the ghosts of magicians to deliver magical texts and instruction, Frank Klaassen especially highlights the importance of Agrippa’s afterlife in the thought and praxis of his antecedents:

“…in the late 1560s Humphrey Gilbert employed the demon Azazel to call up the ghosts of a select group of magicians: Adam, Job, Solomon, Roger Bacon, and Cornelius Agrippa. A mere three decades after his death, Agrippa had attained a position next to the greatest reputed magicians of the ancient and Christian eras. If the calling up of Agrippa’s ghost is a little surprising, the estimation in which Gilbert held Agrippa is not. Among the second generation of Renaissance writers on magic, his is unquestionably the most influential and colorful. His great work on magic, De Occulta Philosophia, became an instant classic in the library of occult learning. The work won him a place on the indices of Venice, Milan and Rome in 1554, as well as in the processes of the Holy Office at Fruili. More telling, however, is the shadow he cast in the library of magic. Within twenty years of Agrippa’s death, his restless ghost was already present in the form of pseudonymous works printed under Agrippa’s name. His notoriety and influence in the world of sixteenth-century occultism are also well attested in manuscripts of magic… no other Renaissance occult writer was quoted, extracted, or cross-referenced with such frequency. Agrippa’s project is therefore central to our understanding of magic…” [Frank Klaassen, The Transformation of Magic: Illicit Learned Magic in the Later Middle Ages (Penn State Press, 2013), 198-199]

As a further testament to the admixture of text and spirit, we should bear in mind that such books attributed to him – informally referred to simply as Agrippas – acquired demonic personalities of their own: in France these were frequently kept chained up under padlock, ‘said to be a living book that hated to be consulted and hid its characters until it had been compelled, by beating it’. [Claude Lacouteux, High Magic of Amulets and Talismans trans. Jon E. Graham (Inner Traditions: Rochester, 2014), 43-44.]

So how do we treat Agrippa now? Do we ignore the propaganda and engage with his actual context and thought? We may try, but pitfalls beset us constantly. The risky footwork of responsible historical analysis must dance between two traps: on the one foot, one must avoid the ‘enormous condescension of history’ that implies our predecessors were idiots because they didn’t have televisions. On the other foot, one must avoid assuming our understanding, our emotionology, and our context is the same as theirs. It can be useful to make comparisons: I myself have jokingly likened the early modern popularity of melancholia and the tortured genius to “a Renaissance (proto-)emo”. Yet these similes of modernity (“the grimoires were the iPads of their day!!!”) can at best only scaffold our understanding, and must at some point be removed to engage with the actual architexture.

For instance, sixteenth-century philosophy followed rules of construction very different from modern methodologies - its citation standards and academic conventions of authorial editorship are nothing like those we are used to today. Thus it is easy to jump to conclude that many writers appear to commit plagiarism. 

As a concrete example of the difficulties of understanding context - indeed, the context of this very practice - consider the analysis of Eric Purdue, translator of Agrippa’s Latin, who rightly pointed out in his talk delivered to the 2015 Esoteric Book Conference that some of De Occulta Philosophia is “cut-and-pasted” from other sources. I consider this to be a fascinating point about the scissor-craft of epistemology - that we cut up what we already know to invent and interact with the chimeras of what we do not yet know. I applaud Purdue for this offhand pearl. But what this is categorically not suggesting is that Agrippa is a mere hack. The Three Books of Occult Philosophy are not your high school history homework. We cannot frame them in the same context.

When we do attempt to force our context onto our ancestors, we gather around the bonfire of our Vanities of the Arts and Sciences. We put torch to the straw man we have woven, sentenced for not being able to shoulder the weight of our expectations. A colonialist boom-and-bust historical economy of hype and consumption. Even in this, we do not actually kill our idols, so much as smirk about the crude caricatures of them we have drawn on the front of our barely opened notebooks. A scribbled Sharpie moustache on the oil portrait - as useful as it is transgressive or original.

Lazy history fattens sacred cows, which rightly should be slaughtered. But what fresh crop of understanding does that blood enliven? Do we attempt to sharpen knives of discernment on the quern-stones of our ancestors? Or are we merely performing an ostentatiously conspicuous butchering, a display of our supposed wealth of knowledge? Are you offering ritual or simply staging spectacle? Who is served?