Magic circles

I recently had the chance to visit two centers of the arcane.

The first was the Warburg Library, an academic library at the University of London. It attracts a notable but somewhat rare subspecies of academics: those interested in how ideas in religion, philosophy, magic, mysticism, and the arts evolved from ancient times into the modern period. You might think this area of interest isn’t rare at all, and that a lot of historians get into this sort of thing. But my experience suggests otherwise. My sense is that most historians today are interested either in (a) questions that can be answered on the basis of data culled from archives (like figuring out where the timber came from to build the English ships that defeated the Spanish armada), or (b) superimposing what’s hot in our culture onto periods of the past (like exploring transgender politics in early modern London). It’s relatively easy to come up with something new to say in the (a) and (b) sets, so they can be taken up by capable PhD students and spun into careers leading to tenure. It makes sense that they would be more prevalent.

By contrast, the sort of learning that the Warburg encourages is old magic, special wizardy stuff. It requires putting together old texts from different periods, often in a handful of languages, in order to provide a comprehensive view of some strange or difficult idea that has animated people over centuries. These topics have been discussed forever, and more has been said about them than can be said intelligibly, so any scholar entering these thickets had better have hands full of time and patience, and a mind untroubled by rigid borders. It’s the style of thinking I admire the most, though at the same time I think it is wholly implausible. Basically, I don’t think there are any truths living at such high altitudes of time and space, and if there were, humans wouldn’t be in any position to know them. Still, it’s thrilling to watch some humans try, as they demonstrate the remarkable plasticity of the mind, if nothing else.

I’m fascinated by the Warburg as an institution because of its stubborn resolution to swim upstream against academic currents, but even more so because it has its own way of organizing its collection. The Warburg doesn’t arrange itself in some easy, straightforward way that allows a scholar to quickly lay their hands on whatever volume they think they’re looking for. Instead, it groups texts by a looser sense of association, as if the books all went to a pub and came home with interesting strangers. The library started with the personal collection of Aby Warburg, who read everything and shelved it according to his own sense of what relates to what, and the library tries to follow the same spirit today, so that scholars, looking for one book, will instead find other books they should be reading. I’m exaggerating only a little when I say the library is geared toward the production of new rabbit holes.

The other center of the arcane I visited was The Magic Circle in London. It is usually open only to members, but a friend of a friend gave us a tour. This is a place where great magicians gather to share secrets and discover new ones (so, rather like the Warburg). I am no magician myself, but I am fascinated by the intelligent techniques of deception and the knowledge of human psychology that is involved in stage magic. It is an art that requires long practice and deep dedication, but magicians (unlike many academics) rarely deceive themselves into thinking that their great efforts are carrying them into some sort of cloud cuckoo land. They keep their feet on the ground, and the cards up their sleeves. 

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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