Realistic magic

IT IS NOT a narrative expedient for me to pretend that I can remember my first meeting with Shakespeare. I was living with my parents at the time. There was time to fill before dinner – empty times when I didn’t have the will or the need to take any action. I would kill this time with little unnecessary gestures, like slapping my fingers against the backs of books gathered on my father’s shelves. This is how I brushed against the same shakespeare thorns complete works. I pulled out a volume, opened it at random, and started reading. I would be lying if I said I remember what it was, but I remember the feel of the pages, silky and very thin, typical of thick books like the Bible or, of course, Shakespeare.

In short, and having dinner on the side, I read one volume after another: tragedies, comedies, history plays. Maybe I skipped a few Henrys. Among the countless reasons why the poet occupied my mind, I mainly remember a feeling of familiarity with his writing, in which I felt comfortable despite being an Italian translation of works. 16th century English.

Many years later, reading Theater, Magic and Philosophy: William Shakespeare, John Dee and the Italian Legacy, by Gabriela Dragnea Horvath, clarified what I believed to be an elective affinity. The many themes brought together in this precious work meet against the background of the influence of Italian Renaissance philosophy on sixteenth-century English culture in general, and on Shakespeare in particular – the same author I met in the my father’s house in Florence, the birthplace of Italian Neoplatonism and Marsilio Ficino. This was the familiarity I had felt while reading: I didn’t just feel at home, I was.

Before delving into the complex work of Horvath, however, it is preferable to present its methodology, given its resonance with the content of the book. In a way, by writing about magic, the author expresses his own, thanks to his adoption of the comparative method typical of the Italian Renaissance. As Horvath puts it, his “inquiry does not unfold along a linear thesis that can be summed up in a single declarative sentence, but unfolds into a web of interrelated subjects.” It aims to

to restore the dynamics of cultural models, the play of existential and epistemological diagrams of an era, the orchestration of its creative energies in their diversity, their tension and their complementarity. It is coherent with the mental disposition of the beginnings of modernity, whose epistemology rested on the mirror, and where the resemblance gave coherence to the system of knowledge and to the world.

Nicolas de Cues had established in By docta ignorantia that any inquiry is comparative and uses the means of comparative relation. Horvath follows his path, comparing magic, drama and philosophy, discussing both the works of de Cusa and the writing of Shakespeare and John Dee.

Horvath argues that perennial philosophy, theater, and magic affected the onset of the modern mindset not only as separate realms, but also in their interdependence. It examines the structural commonalities of theater and magic and finds correspondences with the main affirmations of perennial philosophy; then it follows the rise of magic in high culture as applied knowledge. In doing so, Horvath seeks to – so to speak – resolve and coagulate John Dee and William Shakespeare, whose alchemical encounter generates the spell of the book, which highlights four points in common between magic, theater and perennial philosophy:

(1) the relationships between man, God, Nature and the arts, (2) the foundation in the sense of wonder and confidence in man’s ability to transform the world by producing artificial wonders, ( 3) dependence on invisible beings and the potential of the imagination and (4) awareness of the power of words.

Before Huxley fans get confused, we need to clarify that by “enduring philosophy” the author means a philosophy that does not care so much about the to look for for the truth, but with its revelation. This is the philosophy of Nicolas de Cues, Marsilio Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, which was inspired by Duns Scot, Iamblichus, Al-Ghazali, Plotinus, among others, and which was transmitted to Agrippa, Jakob Böhme and Giordano Bruno. This school of thought presents itself as a “universal science”, a perfect synthesis of theology, philosophy and poetry. Recall, with Horvath, that

an interesting feature of this trend is also the unity of theory and practice. The knowledge accessible by the philosopher was intended to be applied to the transformation of nature, hence the centrality of magic as an umbrella term for theories, rituals, experiments and the arts aimed at healing the world of his. state of decomposition, and the interest of philosophers in medicine, astrology, alchemy, applied mathematics, botany, physiognomy, optics and other disciplines which today come under the domain of science.

Interest in praxis and ritual is what brings the perennial philosophy closer to nature, as shown in the figure of John Dee, the English thinker who, together with his colleague Edward Kelley, developed the enochian language: a fictitious miraculous language dictated by angels. It’s the performances of Kelley, the cheating medium, in whom Dee really seemed to believe, that brings us to the third link: the theater.

Thinking of this controversial alchemist, I remember an untranslatable Italian expression, messa on stage (in French, as in English: staging). The Italian version means both “to stage a play” and “to make a fiction credible by deception”. Ambiguity is indeed embodied by Kelley – the connection between Dee and Shakespeare, magic and drama. Horvath explains that the affinities of theater, perennial philosophy and magic with religion are “structural”:

All have a ritualistic dimension, which explains their dynamic and performative quality: magic consists mainly of rituals, philosophers assimilated magical rituals to connect to the spiritual domain, and their experiments with substances, images or numbers as well as their Finding a method can be seen as a shift from the rituals of religion to the procedures of science and technology. The theater was performed as a ritual of justice with sacrificial victims, reproducing the religious ritual in a secular setting.

Elsewhere, Horvath observes that “in working with simulacra of reality which widened the realm of conceivability, theater has become merged with magic.” This explains Dee’s disguised presence in the Storm, one of his works with the greatest presence of magic. Horvath, however, refutes the established idea that Prospero is Dee’s literary portrait, providing textual evidence that he was most likely the inspiration for the Neapolitan nobleman Gonzalo, an honest old adviser. More than the sorcerer, therefore, for Shakespeare Dee, it is the man of good faith who is mistaken.

It is in the contact between sorcerer and playwright that the alchemy of Theater, Magic and Philosophy: William Shakespeare, John Dee and the Italian Legacy does its job. Like any playwright, Shakespeare viewed his art as intersubjective magic, and magicians like Dee worked on the same assumptions, using the imagination to reproduce and control natural phenomena. However, as Horvath writes:

The enthusiasm of Marsilio Ficino and Giovanni Pico for man’s ability to rise to divine status contaminated Dee to the point of making him believe he was a vessel of revelation from God. In contrast, Shakespeare’s view of man can be called skeptical realism. Rather than exalting man’s capacities, the continuous exercise of critical thinking expressed by his characters reveals human limits: ignorance, weak or perverted reason, ambition, abandonment to passions, mortality.

Dr. Dee continued to believe in the veracity of Kelley’s revelations and in her quality as the chosen revelation vessel. His confidence in the realm of magic contrasts with Shakespeare’s skeptical realism. Although familiar with the glorification of man in perennial philosophy, Shakespeare was not completely convinced of it, as can be seen in Hamlet, Act II:

What a job is a man! how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties! in shape and moving, how express and admirable! in action like an angel! in apprehension like a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals! And yet what is this quintessence of dust for me?

Even though the playwright has a less enthusiastic view of human ability compared to the sorcerer, they share the awareness that words not only mean reality, but transform it as well. “Every word is a magic word,” said Aleister Crowley. Theater, philosophy and magic are different manifestations of the miraculous conflagrations of speech.

If I can add another link to the chain forged by the author, I would suggest that faith in the power of language is also shared by science, which through a network of symbols – both mathematical and verbal – develops and plans the construction of its own “magical artifacts” ie technology. Pico della Mirandola made a distinction between magia naturalis (white magic) and magia demoniaca (black magic). While the latter relies on the power of demons, the former is made possible by knowledge of the laws of nature and the ability to bend them to one’s will, much like science and technology.

On the other hand, whether it is a question of rituals, of concordance between the movement of the stars and human destiny, or of agreement between mathematical models and the behavior of objects, it is the same principle at work: an affinity between human conceptual models and how nature works. The extraordinary power of the scientific method is also its best argument: thanks to it, we have learned to fly and to eradicate diseases, for example. (To which we should add more damaging things, from pollution to weapons of mass destruction.) It’s magic that works pretty well, but why it remains a mystery.

In 1960, more than 300 years later Storm, the physicist and mathematician Eugene P. Wigner wrote a brief essay titled his thesis, “The Unreasonable Efficiency of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences”. I would like to think that Shakespeare and Dee would have agreed with the thesis of the essay.


Francesco D’Isa is a philosopher and artist from Florence, Italy. He writes and draws for various magazines and is the editorial director of the Italian magazine L’Indiscreto.

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