I’ve realised something extraordinary about the way I read.
Or, perhaps, I’ve had an extraordinary realisation about the way I read.
I tend to read two dissimilar books in parallel, and sense for links. I’m not consciously comparing them. Were they to be too alike in subject matter or attitude, I doubt I’d find the obscure thrill of pattern recognition. I’m think I’m seeking for ways in which they can unexpectedly (and, certainly, unintendedly) combine to suggest something strictly outside the scope of either of them (a bit like a third mind I suppose).
I always imagine that I have several books on the go at once. Thinking about it more critically, that’s not actually the case. I have several books started at the same time, but I will tend to finish two close together. I will finish the rest later, usually in combination with other books that I’ve started to replace the two I’ve just finished.
Perhaps I’m casting around for two books that will resonate together, sampling several until I find two that I suspect will offer something. Perhaps also I’m less interested in really reading the two books in question: I’m behaving like an overinterpreter, using the books for my own mental hobbyhorses rather than accepting their own narrative flow like a good reader.
At the moment I’m rereading Yates’ The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age and have as my light bedside read J.C. Cannell’s The Secrets of Houdini. Now both of these are subjects I have time for and these are both classic works in their respective fields. I started the Yates because I really wanted to read The Art of Memory and wanted to refresh my own memory first. I chose the book on Houdini because I wanted something light and put-downable to read before sleeping.
But I was already reading a light bedtime book - one of the Ian Rankin novels. For some reason I set it aside and got on with the Houdini book. It was only when I got to the inevitable and substantial section on Houdini’s long war on Spiritualism that I started to see parallels with Yates’ subject matter.
In brief, Yates spends a deal of time defending the Elizabethan magician Dr Dee against charges of being a demonologist. She does this by attempting to put him in the context of a Renaissance tradition of Christian Cabalists stretching back via Agrippa to Reuchlin, Pico and ultimately Raymond Lull. She explicitly compares the campaign to discredit Dee with the labelling of Cornelius Agrippa as a black magician (he is generally agreed to have served as a model for Faust).
This is all a long way from Houdini, who was an autodidactic Jewish stage magician and, of course, one of the most physically astonishing men who ever lived. And yet Houdini, in his early penurious years, used to conduct seances and perform the very mediumistic tricks he later condemned and exploded as the work of charlatans. And, ironically, it was in his later years, when he was expending tremendous efforts to expose mediums wherever he went, that Spiritualists like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle became convinced that Houdini must be a medium himself.
It’s an amusing story, and has been told several times in recent years in book and film, but am I mad to see a connection here with the way that heterodox protoscientific neo-Platonists like Agrippa and Dee were persistently labelled by outsiders as ‘black magicians’? Those looking in from the outside are happy to attribute more power than even the most self-aggrandising magician (oafs like Crowley excepted) would ever claim.
I know this doesn’t sound clear. The connection is raw and unworked in my mind. Perhaps that’s why it excited, set my scalp tingling. I’m not sure I’ve even captured it at all; it appears different when set down (as is usually the case). I need to reread, rethink, rework, before deciding if it’s something or nothing. But it’s a process I know. It’s just that I’d never before nailed down how that process starts.