[ by Charles Cameron — a brief note on my own bi-focal vision, with appreciation to Marina Warner ]
I was just reading Marina Warner‘s recent essay On Magic — and protective magic in particular — and was struck by the phrase:
Calligraphic blazons act as icons, gems are incised with prayers to release their talismanic powers, phylacteries hold tightly wound documents written all over with blessings and invocations…
My oh my! Only a click away, IHS, the “global information company” that brings us IHS Jane’s Intelligence Review, was tweeting me something or other and naturally, their avatar showed up (above, upper panel) on my screen, then in my eyes (etc), and finally (after a couple milliseconds?) in what Coleridge called the “hooks and eyes” of memory… where they hooked up very nicely indeed with the logo of the Society of Jesus (above, lower panel).
Jane’s and the Jesuits. I mean, they’re both in the security business, right? The Jesuits want to protect us from sin, heresy, and other matters which will make life hot for us in the next world, while Jane’s wants to protect us from VBIEDs, CBRN weapons and other such things — widely considered more pressing — which might make life hot for us in this one.
Let’s skip the Jesuits and the seculars for a moment, and turn to Judaism and Islam. Marina writes:
Kabbalistic beliefs share common ground in this love of letters as potent, active powers in themselves: “Every word an angel, every letter an angel, and the spaces between them” was a tenet of the mystical Isaac Luria in Prague. According to analogous Muslim practices involving inscription, the right words work even when they’re hidden, indecipherable, or have disappeared altogether: they need only to have made contact, for their presence lingers in the substances where they were once inscribed, transferred by means of the magic operation of writing.
That last is, as cultural anthropologists know, a homeopathic concept — compare this, from the US (NIH) National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine backgrounder:
The alternative medical system of homeopathy was developed in Germany at the end of the 18th century. Supporters of homeopathy point to two unconventional theories: “like cures like”—the notion that a disease can be cured by a substance that produces similar symptoms in healthy people; and “law of minimum dose”—the notion that the lower the dose of the medication, the greater its effectiveness. Many homeopathic remedies are so diluted that no molecules of the original substance remain.
The thing is, there are two worldviews at work here, and Marina very nicely finesses the pair of them when, discussing the “talismanically protective clothes” in a Paris exhibit of “Ottoman princes’ wardrobes from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries”, she says:
Looked at from one angle, the Turkish practice was rankly superstitious, a fabulous, extreme, and crazy example of human fantasy in the doomed quest for mastery of natural forces. But looked at from another angle, the attempt to activate blessing and security through acts of writing rather than simple speech acts, and then by wearing the texts on one’s body, shows us a new dimension of word power and communicates an extraordinary degree of trust in the active literate imagination.
Superstitious, fabulous and crazy in enlightened scientific terms, yes — and yet seen from another angle, an extraordinary degree of trust in the active literate imagination…
John Donne opts for both, compressing two worlds into a mere four words:
At the round earths imagin’d corners, blow
Your trumpets, Angells…
Okay and Amen.
I’d now like to broaden the subject from word to world, and to deepen it from magic to sacrament.