These metaphysics of magicians
And necromantic books are heavenly;
Lines, circles, scenes, letters, and characters;
Ay, these are those that Faustus most desires.
O, what a world of profit and delight,
Of power, of honor, of omnipotence,
Is promised to the studious artisan!
—Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus
As between the natural and the supernatural, I’ve never been much good at drawing firm distinctions. I know myself to be orbiting the sun at the speed of 65,000 miles per hour, but I can’t shake free of the impression shared by Pope Urban VIII, who in 1633 informed Galileo that the earth doesn’t move. So also the desk over which I bend to write, seemingly a solid mass of wood but in point of fact a restless flux of atoms bubbling in a cauldron equivalent to the one attended by the witches in Macbeth. Nor do I separate the reality from the virtual reality when conversing with the airy spirits in a cell phone, or while gazing into the wizard’s mirror of a television screen. What once was sorcery maybe now is science, but the wonders technological of which I find myself in full possession, among them indoor plumbing and electric light, I incline to regard as demonstrations magical.
The inclination apparently is what constitutes a proof of being human, a faculty like the possession of language that distinguishes man from insect, guinea hen, and ape. In the beginning was the word, and with it the powers of enchantment. Across the reach of many centuries this issue of Lapham’s Quarterly speaks to mankind’s predilection for the marvelous, the evidence taken from every quarter of the compass, the testimony touching on the various conjugations of the supernatural into the tenses of divination, poetry, medicine, witchcraft, philosophy, and religion. The braying of Apuleius’ golden ass in concert with the Kamasutra’s sweet singing to the lovelorn; Circe, Behemoth, and Merlin in company with St. Augustine, Sigmund Freud, and P. T. Barnum.
The issue takes its cue from Marlowe’s tragical Doctor Faustus because his dreams of “profit and delight,/Of power, of honor, of omnipotence,” are the stuff that America is made of, as was both the consequence to be expected and the consummation devoutly to be wished when America was formed in the alembic of the Elizabethan imagination. Marlowe was present at the creation, as were William Shakespeare, the navigators Martin Frobisher and Francis Drake, and the Lord Chancellor Francis Bacon envisioning a utopian New Atlantis on the coast of Virginia.
It was an age that delighted in the experiment with miracles, fiction emerging into fact on the far shores of the world’s oceans, fact eliding into fiction in the Globe Theatre on an embankment of the Thames. London toward the end of the sixteenth century served as the clearinghouse for the currencies of the new learning that during the prior 150 years had been gathering weight and value under the imprints of the Italian Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation in Germany. The Elizabethans had in hand the writings of Niccolò Machiavelli and Martin Luther as well as those of Ovid and Lucretius, maps drawn by Gerardus Mercator and Martin Waldseemüller, the observations of Nicolaus Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, Giordano Bruno, and Paracelsus. The medieval world was dying the uneasy death memorably remarked upon in 1611 by John Donne, lyric poet and Anglican divine looking uneasily within himself for a magician’s metaphysics with which to settle the dispute between the spirit and the flesh:
And new philosophy calls all in doubt,
The element of fire quite put out;
The sun is lost, and th’ earth, and no man’s wit
Can well direct him where to look for it.
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