Going over the publishers’ lists each season, I keep an eye out for the distinctive themes or emerging concerns. It wasn’t hard to detect a growing concern for the situation along the U.S.-Mexico border in the forthcoming university-press titles covered in the last roundup column, for example. The timeliness of the books and the points of convergence among them were clear and distinct.
Not so much, I suspect, with the books corralled into this week’s survey. The connections between them may exist only in the eye of the beholder. They are united only by being somewhat off-beat in topic — enough so to elicit my curiosity. As perhaps one or two may pique yours, as well.
“Nonsense is nonsense,” the rabbinical scholar Saul Liebermann said with regard to a colleague’s studies in mysticism, “but the history of nonsense is a very important science.”
The field of Solomonic ceremonial magic is one of the sketchier precincts of late medieval and Renaissance cultural history — a largely European Christian effort to transmute second- and third-hand knowledge of the Kabbalah into rituals that would summon supernatural beings and bind them to the magician’s will. (While not mentioned in the Bible, a tradition had it that King Solomon exercised this power to build the Temple.) Penn State University Press adds two volumes to the scholarship this fall, starting with Frank Klaassen’s Making Magic in Elizabethan England: Two Early Modern Vernacular Books of Magic (August). An edition of two anonymous, handwritten occult manuals from Shakespeare’s day, it “painstakingly traces how the scribes who created these two manuscripts adapted and transformed their original sources.”
Allegra Iafrate’s The Long Life of Magical Objects: A Study in the Solomonic Tradition (September) presents a series of case studies of surviving artifacts useful when trying to put theory into practice: “a ring used to control demons; a mysterious set of bottles that constrain evil forces; an endless knot or seal with similar properties; the shamir, known for its supernatural ability to cut through stone; and a flying carpet that can bring the sitter anywhere he desires.” Back in the day, you had to create these things from scratch, whereas the 21st century ritual magician can often purchase them on Amazon. (Seriously.)
Bruce T. Moran’s Paracelsus: An Alchemical Life (Reaktion Books, distributed by University of Chicago Press, September) considers a 16th-century figure with one foot planted in the world of occult philosophy and the other in what, for all its limitations, definitely counts as medical science. He “traveled constantly, learning and teaching a new form of medicine based on the experience of miners, bathers, alchemists, midwives and barber-surgeons,” while also cultivating “mystical speculations, an alchemical view of nature and an intriguing concept of creation.” The latter apparently included the belief in a female deity. All things considered, the most surprising thing about Paracelsus is that he managed to die a natural death. Perhaps he traveled too much for religious authorities to do him in.
Cosmic speculation now involves less risk than in Paracelsus’s day — and more interdisciplinary teamwork, as exemplified by Victoria Meadows and three other co-editors in Planetary Astrobiology (University of Arizona Press, December). Requiring “the combined efforts of more than 75 international experts consolidated into 20 chapters,” it explores the possibility that life exists elsewhere in the universe by “bring[ing] together current knowledge across astronomy, biology, geology, physics, chemistry and related fields.” Carl Sagan used to refer to this area of study as “exobiology,” but I suspect the UFO devotees appropriated that word — hence the need to rebrand the field as planetary astrobiology.
In any event, Joshua Nall’s News from Mars: Mass Media and the Forging of a New Astronomy, 1860–1910 (University of Pittsburgh Press, September) takes us back to one of its founding episodes. In the late 19th century, patterns were found on the surface of the red planet that some observers took to be canals. Whether or not the patterns existed, much less any canals, was a topic of scientific debate that soon spilled over into the mass media of the day: “As rivaling scientific practitioners looked to marshal allies and sway public opinion — through newspapers, periodicals, popular books, exhibitions, and encyclopaedias — they exposed disagreements over how the discipline of astronomy should be organized and how it should establish acceptable conventions of discourse.”
It sounds like an intriguing subject for a documentary. Another fall title, Pierre Déléage’s Arctic Folly: The Anthropology of a Delusion (HAU Books, distributed by University of Chicago Press, September), has the makings of a tense historical drama. The French missionary and ethnographer Émile Petitot (1838–1916) did extensive fieldwork among Native American peoples living in Canada’s Northwest Territories, studying their languages and transcribing their myths. “[O]ver the course of his 20 years in the Arctic Circle,” however, he “descended into a long delirium” that included bouts of rage and paranoia as well as developing “improbable interpretations of his Arctic hosts.” (I see from The Dictionary of Canadian Biography‘s website that Petitot concluded that one group was descended from the lost tribes of Israel.) Described as an “anthropological novella,” Arctic Folly explores “the analytic conundrums that arise in profound cognitive displacement.” Someone should notify David Cronenberg.