From Magic & Images/Images & Magic, by David Levi Strauss


From Magic & Images/Images & Magic, by David Levi Strauss:

In a later statement/manifesto for a poetry reading at San Francisco State University in 1963, Robert Duncan said “I have more of being in the magic of the language and in the dreams of poets than I have in my personal existence. . . . The Art, the Way, the threshold, then, is a Theurgy, a Magic.”

One of the many things (Stan) Brakhage and Duncan shared was a propensity for false (and fruitful) etymologies. In a letter to Bruce Elder in 1998, toward the end of his life, Brakhage wrote, “The word ‘image’ has, for me (i.e., this is personal) the immediate connotation of the three wise men—the ‘mages’ so to speak, plus the intrusion of ‘I’ (that greek pillar we each all share so personally). . . .”3

Our word “magic” comes from the Old Persian, through the Greeks. The Greeks borrowed the word, µαγεια, to refer to the science and religion of the “Magians”—Zoroastrian “Wise Men” of Persia and Media (now part of Bush/Cheney’s “Axis of Evil”), and the Greeks had enormous respect for their special powers, beginning with the interpretation of dreams. These magical practices were distinguished from γοητεια (necromancy) and φαρµακεια (the use of drugs).

The Indo-European root of the word means “to be able, to have power”—very basic, in our “may” and “might.” Really a verb of basic action and agency. Through the Doric Greek, we get to makhos, meaning “device,” and this becomes our modern “machine” and “mechanism,” like the magic lantern, or the cinematograph.

[Do you know that “cinema” is not in the O.E.D.? Resisting the Gallicism, they insist on the Greek “k” of kinema, “a motion,” or movement, including a political movement (from kinein, to move), and the kinematograph, writing motion, “A contrivance (invented by Messrs. Lumière of Paris) by which a series of instantaneous photographs taken in rapid succession can be projected on a screen with similar rapidity, so as to give a life-like reproduction of the original moving scene.”]

Fundamental to magic is the law of sympathy, whereby things act on one another at a distance through invisible links. The manipulation of such linkages is known as binding. The magic in Homer’s Odyssey has mostly to do with bonds and binding, and Giordano Bruno’s fundamental text on magic is De vinculis in genere (A General Account of Bonding). “There are three gates through which the hunter of souls ventures to bind: vision, hearing, and mind or imagination. If it happens that someone passes through all three of these gates, he binds most powerfully and ties down most tightly.”4

Henri Hubert and Marcel Mauss advanced the most complete modern sociological theory of magic, and they concluded that, in order to be magical, an act or belief must be common to the whole of a society. Magic is essentially traditional and social—if most people in the society don’t believe it, it won’t work. “We held,” wrote Mauss in his General Theory of Magic, “that sacred things, involved in sacrifice, did not constitute a system of propagated illusions, but were social, consequently real.”5 This lays the groundwork for thinking about the relation of magic to technology and media today.

Our “image” is straight from the Latin “imago,” related through the root to imitari, “to imitate,” so an image is an imitation, copy, likeness, statue, picture, phantom, conception, thought, idea, similitude, semblance, appearance, shadow . . . .The Greek eidolon survives only as a shadow of itself, as “an unsubstantial image, specter, or phantom,” Lovecraft’s “putrid, dripping eidolon of unwholesome revelation.”

The root is eidos, “form or shape,” which goes to eidesis, “knowledge,” and eidetikos, “relating to images or knowledge,” which survives in the eidetic image. This is from Gustav Hartlaub’s entry on magic in the Encyclopedia of World Art:

The magician, or magical type of man (homo magus), and the visionary or seer (homo divinans) are often eidetic types in the sense described by E. R. Jaensch, who has shown that even today, among children and among some artists, evidence of subjective visual images can be found, and that perceptions of things which have happened, or even only been imagined, can be projected as if they were optically visible. The eidetic type has a tendency to visions and hallucinations and takes his dream life for reality, often even a higher reality. This tendency is linked with an inclination toward autosuggestion or mass suggestion and hypnotic phenomena that accompany them.6

So we’ll imagine this eidetic link between two foundlings, orphans, both Capricorns, one born in 1919 (Duncan) and one in 1933 (Brakhage), who both became “magical types” and visionaries.

***

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About David

The Word and little else.
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