‘Now as to magic’
|July 17, 2012|
“Dr Faustus in the Magic Circle”, from The Damnable Life and Deserved Death of Doctor John Faustus, P.F. Gent, 1969
From Lapham’s Quarterly:
If the paramount project of W. B. Yeats’ professional life was the perfection of the art of poetry, it was intertwined with a personal preoccupation, the study and practice of magic— not in any metaphorical sense, but the dedicated pursuit of supernatural powers based upon the ancient traditions of alchemy and necromancy, which began in his youth and persisted to the end of his long life.
Yeats wrote frankly about his vocation as a magician in several memoirs and in A Vision, a dense astrological treatise he labored over for twenty years. A Protestant Irishman in Victorian Britain, Yeats as a young man was pulled in conflicting directions, but the occult always trumped worldly concerns, because it was so deeply connected with his poetic craft. In 1892, when the Irish patriot John O’Leary admonished the twenty-seven-year-old poet for his devotion to magic at the expense of the Cause, Yeats answered:
Now as to magic. It is surely absurd to hold me “weak” or otherwise because I choose to persist in a study which I decided deliberately four or five years ago to make, next to my poetry, the most important pursuit of my life…If I had not made magic my constant study I could not have written a single word of my Blake book [The Works of William Blake, with Edwin Ellis, 1893], nor would The Countess Kathleen [stage play, 1892] have ever come to exist. The mystical life is the center of all that I do and all that I think and all that I write.
That’s plain speaking, which admits no ambiguity. If one would understand the works of the poet often described as the greatest of his age, it might seem necessary to come to terms with this lifelong passion. Yet apart from the prose works mentioned and a handful of supernatural tales in the vein of Edgar Allan Poe, Yeats never directly addresses the practice of magic in the poetry and plays upon which his magisterial reputation rests. He alluded to it only rarely, with ambiguous metaphors and a select hoard of words charged with esoteric meanings.
Magic imbrued Yeats’ thinking so profoundly that it’s nearly impossible to disentangle the strands without rending the garment. Kathleen Raine, a poet deeply influenced by Yeats, offered a useful formula: “For Yeats magic was not so much a kind of poetry as poetry a kind of magic, and the object of both alike was evocation of energies and knowledge from beyond normal consciousness.” The salient word there is “evocation,” casting the poet as a magus conjuring verbal spirits, not from his imagination but from a higher, or a deeper, place.
Inherent Vice’s Two Directions
The jokes certainly strike one as sophomoric and the latter one as clichéd, further below Pynchon’s intelligence than one would like to think he would stoop, at least in print. Discounting them and moving on, or throwing the book across the room as Parker half implies we should do, however, would be to lose sight of “that high magic to low puns”.
Auden, Larkin and Love
I was prompted to revisit these ancient questions anew by a long footnote about a single line in the new Complete Poems edition of Philip Larkin’s poetry. The footnote refers to “An Arundel Tomb” contains a provocative remark about that the poem’s celebrated, controversial, closing line, the one about the true nature of immortality: “What will survive of us is love.”
Plato, Our Comrade?
Not surprisingly, there have already been critics of Badiou’s translation. The first is that his translation breaks the formal rules of translation to such a degree that the original meaning of the text has lost its significance. But this critique is inadequate at face value because Badiou’s hyper-translation is forthright in its intention of taking Plato’s concepts and modifying them into his own lexicon.
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