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Interview: Magic

Conducted by Gyan Prakash over email.

Balzan Prize winner, Anthony Grafton, currently Henry Putnam University Professor of History and the chair of the Council of the Humanities, talks about the mechanical rabbit that farts fire, the historical Faustus, the sexuality of magic and more...

- The editors

Gyan Prakash:  Max Weber spoke about the modernity as the disenchanted world. 
What do you think of his formulations? Do we live in a world free of

Tony Grafton: Weber has played a huge role in my thought all my academic life. But modern history, as we’re coming to understand better and better, has not stripped magical assumptions and categories away. Historians like John Monroe and Corinna Treitel are making clear the limitations in Weber’s understanding of his own time—to say nothing of earlier ones.

Gyan Prakash:  Is magic the term the moderns give to that which they don't
understand?  Did people in early modern Europe mean by magic what we
mean today?

Tony Grafton: The term magic today is used for so many different things today that some specialists would rather abandon it entirely—as many would like to abandon religion, as a term. In early modern Europe, magic referred basically to events that could not be explained by the ordinary, visible action of Aristotelian causes. Even then, though, it referred to: marvels caused by demons; marvels made possible by the hidden qualities of natural objects; and marvels made possible by the application of “mathematics” to nature (i.e. the construction of automata). And even the theorists who made these distinctions had trouble maintaining conceptual clarity. Athanasius Kircher argued that the Egyptian magical statues were really automata crafted by priests. At times, he dismissed such devices as mere fakes; at times, he classified them as “mathematical magic” of a genuine but non-supernatural kind.

Gyan Prakash:  How do you think that the "wondrous" New World entered the
consciousness of the early modern Europeans?  Were "wonder" and
"magic" ways of  comprehending/appropriating the new? Were they also
something more and different?

Tony Grafton: There was a powerful tendency in the late 15th and early 16th century to see other tribes as possessing magical powers that Christians didn’t have—a tendency that manifested itself everywhere from the first discussions of Jewish ritual (and Kabbalah) to the late medieval travel literature read by Menocchio. In addition, as the Counter-reformation took hold, missionaries in the new world looked harder and harder for evidence of actual diabolism—in addition to the diabolic idolatry that Cortez and others thought they encountered. A massive screen of assumptions helped Europeans to see the New World as wonderful—just as the discovery of the New World in its turn encouraged Europeans to look for further wonders.

Gyan Prakash: Do you think that science gained its cultural authority by its
performance and public perception as magic?

Tony Grafton: Again, there’s a dialectical relationship. Engineers like Brunelleschi and Leonardo sometimes denied the efficacy of magic, but they effectively played the mysterious magus, keeping their methods secret and staging miraculous performances. Their technological feats—often classified as “mathematical magic” anyhow—gave credibility to magic. But the magicians taught the engineers and scientists how to dramatize their knowledge and power, and by the sixteenth century many figures, from Henry Cornelius Agrippa to John Dee, combined the two sets of pursuits.

Gyan Prakash:  What can you tell me about a mechanical rabbit that farts fire?  
In early modern European culture, it seems that there is often a
complimentary relationship between the wondrous (the ludic, the
entertaining, the marvelous) and practical and/or pure scientific
knowledge--did this relationship become more vexed over time?

Tony Grafton: In the fifteenth, sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, as Tom Kaufmann, Paula Findlen and others have taught us, natural philosophers often adopted a ludic style. Many figures who were taken very seriously by scholars and patrons alike—for example, Cornelis Drebbel, the Dutch philosopher/alchemist/artisan on whom Vera Keller has just finished a fine dissertation—expended as much effort on creating display pieces (in his case, hydraulic organ automata) as on enterprises that could reveal the deepest secrets of nature (his perpetual motion machine) or could yield great power (his working submarine). But in the course of the seventeenth century, Bacon (in some moods) and others began to distinguish, in a new way, between serious and trivial pursuits in the study of nature, and magic and related fields like astrology were gradually marginalized. The details of this process still need to be sorted out.

Gyan Prakash:  How does the history of the book relate to the history of magical

Tony Grafton: Magic, of course, always used books—remember Prospero—and in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries magic took on some of the trappings of humanistic eloquence and philology. Various forms of Jewish speculative thought and practice, newly available in the Christian world, were integrated into such magical works as Agrippa’s On Occult Philosophy of 1533, which became the magician’s (and inquisitor’s) desk reference, and supplied the magician with an ancient pedigree.

One of the most fascinating features of early modern magic, though, is that so many copies of books have been preserved. Since scholars often read pen in hand, one can look over the shoulders of readers as they go through magical texts—sometimes claiming that they have seen messages projected on the face of the moon or spirits appearing to frighten them. This gives us an unusually vivid sense of actors’ categories, revealing what they found plausible and what not.

Gyan Prakash: Can you say something about the relationship between Renaissance
self-fashioning and magical practices?

Tony Grafton: Magicians, of course, had no licenses (unlike doctors or lawyers). So dress and demeanor, charisma and eloquence were vital for those who hoped to make careers. What fascinates me is that some magic performed their roles so successfully that they frightened not only ordinary people, but the political authorities. The historical Faustus, for example, was suspected of both necromancy (diabolic conjuring) and sodomy—both capital offenses. But city governments, instead of putting him on trial, refused to admit him to their territory, or expelled him after making take an oath not to harm them—clear evidence that he had created a convincing magical self. Was this because he ate the rival who confronted him in Vienna (only to release him, unharmed, a few days later)? I wish I know.

Gyan Prakash:  Does the figure of the Renaissance (or early modern) magus have
any parallels in contemporary American culture? What about here at

Tony Grafton: Hubert Alyea, a great Princeton chemist, used to wind up his course with the “Tiger reaction”—two clear fluids, mixed, produced a liquid with orange and black stripes. Nowadays I would think of some of the great charismatic lecturers, like Cornell West—as early as the fifth and fourth centuries, some observers noted the relationship between magic and rhetoric.

Gyan Prakash:   Reginald Scot said that if a woman were to perform a conjuring
trick similar to the male entertainer Brandon (mid 16th c.), all of
England would "clamor for fire and faggot" to burn her.  What about
the gender dimension of magic?   Was sexuality also an aspect of magic?

Tony Grafton: Sexuality was central to popular magic, much of which revolved around love potions and the like, as it had for centuries. The learned magic I study was mostly practiced by men, supposedly on the condition that they maintained a strenuously ascetic regimen. But we know of a few women alchemists—the career of one of them, a charlatan (in period terms) who ended up being executed, is being reconstructed by Tara Nummedal at Brown, a very gifted historian of science. And Carlo Ginzburg, at the very start of his career, discovered a female magician in Modena who was trained in spells by a learned man. On the whole, though, learned magic, like philology, was mostly a male domain.

Gyan Prakash:  Can you comment on the role of magic, spells, and charms in your

Tony Grafton: So far as I can see, my only rituals concern preparation for public lectures—as so often, an area in which one does not have full control (baseball players notoriously don’t practice magic to help them field, but do when they are batting or pitching—areas in which control is never complete). But I don’t want to frighten anyone by revealing them.