A review of Magus: The Art of Magic from Faustus to Agrippa by Anthony Grafton

Reviewed by David Allen Brizer

Magus: The Art of Magic from Faustus to Agrippa
by Anthony Grafton
Belknap Harvard University Press
Dec 2023, 282 pp, ISBN-13: 978-0674659735

In 1930s-40s Czechoslovakia, an upstart occult magician named Franz Bardon was approached by an agent of the Wehrmacht. The Nazis already had most of the continent, but Europe wasn’t enough. They wanted the world.

Bardon, a writer of books and an esteemed teacher, commanded the respect of initiates and acolytes throughout the civilized word – including the attention and respect of aa little-known component of the war machine dedicated to furthering its material and ‘spiritual’ progress by means of alchemy, astrology, and magic.

Bardon, who up to that point had (perhaps reasonably) considered himself a Master of the Universe, found that he was wrong. Dead wrong! He most decidedly was not a master, neither of the Nazis nor of the universe. Following his point-blank refusal to cooperate, Bardon found himself in a dungeon: in a Nazi dungeon, stapled to a hundred-pound ball and chain, until his liberation three years later by the Soviets.

Dramatic: yes! True: yes! Typical of the plight of Light-Seekers, Wizards, Sooth-Sayers everywhere: yes! The plight – the maddening frustration of endless null attempts at transmutation of lead into gold, of spiritual dross (= the quotidian ego) into Something Finer, scream at us from the pages of history and literature. The origins of this ever-recurrent motif — the head-on doomed-to-failure assault upon angelic domains by practitioners of sorcery, kabbalah, and circus side shows – make for fascinating reading. Turns out there was a real historical Doctor Faustus, who, overshadowed by canyon-walls of grimoires and ranks of monkey-faced familiars, dabbled in the real…and in the forbidden. Or read Bulwer-Lytton’s Zanoni, about a perennial mage who, defying the constraints of time and space, keeps showing up, anywhere and everywhere, in order to keep showing his wares: forecasts of the future, romantic spells, ‘workings.’ 

The literature and history of ‘ceremonial’ – read ‘ritual’ – magic, is, as they say, as long and circuitous as that of mankind itself…as multi-tiered and as impossible to properly explain as the Tree of Life, or the Zohar, or a thousand other mystical texts that Jorge Luis Borges is perhaps still translating somewhere, somehow…

Ceremonial magic, as adumbrated and practiced by Faustus, was a vast syncretic enterprise. Its practitioners picked and chose from original and not-so-original ritual sources, invoking demons and gods by means of formulae, symbol, fumigations (burning of ritual incense), even animal sacrifice. This was an eldritch universe of correspondences, of so-called ‘sympathetic’ magic. To the extent that a ritual – and the heightened awareness of the magical operator – were resonant with the forces of the Universe at Large, to that extent the success of the magical operation was assured. Comparative mythology and religion (as set forth, say, in Frazer’s Golden Bough, or in Joseph Campbell’s Hero with A Thousand Faces) is the name of the game. There is a remarkable consistency of gods and goddesses, of demons and angels, in most every pantheon ever recorded and observed. 

Anthony Grafton, who has made a career writing about similar rarities, conjunctions and mystifications, is a master historian, a writer who goes elbow deep, fearlessly, into artifact, archive, and multi-lingual sources (including Latin and Ancient Greek) as he chases the dragons of medieval magic and mystification.

Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa (1486 – 1535 A.D.) is a case in point. In the final and most important chapter of this book, Agrippa and his “cabinet of natural wonders” – handbooks of correspondences between the natural world and the inner world of the magus – take center stage in the medieval quest for knowledge. Agrippa’s De occulta philosophia became a seminal work, its multiple editions eagerly though quite often covertly devoured by aspirants and would-be wonder workers everywhere. 

They say also [Agrippa writes] that a stone bitten by a dog has a power to cause discord, if it is put in a drink, and that one who puts a dog’s tongue in his shoe, under his big toe, will not be barked at by dogs, especially if it is added to the herb of the same name, cynoglossa [dog’s tongue.]

There’s surely a trope here, whether one calls it ‘The Search for the Grail‘, ‘The Illuminati’, ‘The Knights Templar’, or simply prefers ‘alchemy.’ This territory is known to writers diverse as (here comes the short list): Dion Fortune, Wilkie Collins, Franz Bardon, Éliphas Levi, Gérard Encause, J.-K. Huysmans, H.P. Lovecraft, Pierre Loüys, Gérard de Nerval and…so many more. What these génies-excentriques and their sometimes louche creations have in common is a grappling with the mystery of sentience, an urgent knock upon the door of Ultimate Meaning – a fierce wrestling match with the archangel or with Jacob – which in no single case is ever, at least in my opinion, ‘satisfactorily’ resolved…let alone won! 

Grafton’s profound exploration of the intelligible (i.e. archival, printed or otherwise written) documentary evidence is no exception to this rule. Drill down as he might, and he does drill down,  righteously, as only a scholar on fire for his subject can. In his capable hands, centuries of obscurity, of rumor, of paranormal gallivanting yield to rational inquiry and to the gavel of the historiographer. The seekers, the bamboozled initiates — those permanently gifted with the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of immolation at the stake, become, under Grafton’s microscope, real human beings trapped in the flux of history, forever searching but never quite finding.

It’s not all mystification (and here’s where author Grafton really shows his stuff.) Turns out the smoke-clotted retorts, the alembics, the alchemical studies conducted under dead of night, were the advance guard of the Reformation, of progress, of enlightenment. Mere superstition, alchemy dressed up with no place to go, was the form fruste of rational thinking, of experimentation, of the evolving natural and physical sciences. Those who have experienced firsthand the curiosity and frustration of the spiritual quest – whether personally, or through the writings of the many who have stumbled before – will find in Grafton’s excellent book a tonic for the sloppy thinking and glorious obfuscation that has accompanied Faust and his progeny literature for literal centuries now.

About the reviewer: David Allen Brizer is a NYC-based author and book critic. His articles and reviews have appeared in The New York Times, The New England Journal of Medicine, The American Journal of Psychiatry, Rain Taxi, others. His short stories have been published in AGNI, Exquisite Corpse, Word Riot, among others. Brizer’s non-fiction books include Quitting Smoking for Dummies, and Addiction & Recovery for Beginners. His second novel, The Secret Doctrine of V.H. Rand, will be published by Fomite in January 2024, a follow-up to his Victor Rand (2014.) At present he is working on a collection of short stories and a metafiction about literary surrealists.