Free Essay Magic Loss

Barbara Howard Traister (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "Literary and Philosophical Background," in Heavenly Necromancers: The Magician in English Renaissance Drama, University of Missouri Press, 1984, pp. 1-31.

[In the following essay, Traister examines religious, philosophical, and popular attitudes toward magic in the Renaissance that resulted in the literary and dramatic representation of the magician in the works of Edmund Spenser, Christopher Marlowe, and Shakespeare.]

Doctor Faustus, The Tempest, Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay— these very different plays have in common a major character who is, or claims to be, a magician. Scores of less well known plays from the Tudor and early Stuart period also have in their casts of characters a magician. Indeed, for some thirty years, the magician was a familiar stage figure; then, quite suddenly, he vanished from the stage, reappearing only in a few court masques or as a parody of himself, as a pseudo-magus. Exploration of this abrupt rise and fall of the stage magician forms part of the subject of this study.

The magician filled a symbolic role in many plays. He functioned as a man whose horizons were both limitless and limited, a self-contained paradox. The convergence of two views of the magician—one, popular and literary, perhaps most clearly expressed in the medieval romances, the other, elitist and philosophical, best studied in the writings of the Italian neoplatonists—led to an ambivalence that made the magician a potentially fascinating stage character. Brief exploration of these traditions of magic leads to an understanding of how the magician functions in individual plays and provides some background for examining his association with magical competitions, sensual delights of all sorts, and a master-of-ceremonies image.

Interest in magic ran high during the Tudor and early Stuart period. It is important to understand both the pre-conceptions the audience was likely to have had about magicians and what the playwrights themselves might have known and felt about magic and the men who practiced it. The subject was seriously discussed in the court circles of Elizabeth and James, in the English law courts, in church, and in philosophical works imported from the Continent. Thanks largely to pioneering studies of neo-platonic and hermetic magic emanating from the Warburg Institute, since the 1950s literary scholars have become increasingly aware of the influence of magic on Renaissance thought. A somewhat different line of inquiry, not yet as well explored, concerns how—if at all—that influence was translated into literary, fictive creations.

In this spirit of inquiry, then, I examine both the historical and literary climate of Renaissance magic in preparation for close analysis of several important stage magicians. It is impossible to claim direct influence, except in a few unusual cases, of the literary and historical materials on specific plays or specific dramatists. However, the conflux of magical traditions in the early Renaissance helps explain how, for a few playwrights, the magician figure focuses issues of human potential and limitation and raises the question of how much man is permitted to know.


Religious and philosophical attitudes toward magic were varied and complex. Until the thirteenth century—and, officially, much later than that—the medieval church's position was simple and straightforward: magic was to be avoided by God-fearing men. God permitted magic partly to demonstrate, by its overthrow, his own miraculous powers, and partly as one of the pitfalls that appeared in the world as a result of original sin.

But difficulties arose from such a sweeping condemnation of magic, and uneasy perceptions of problems produced by the complete rejection of magic appear in the writings of men such as Albertus Magnus and Roger Bacon. Of primary concern was the impossibility of drawing any clear line between magic and science. To experiment, to inquire into the secrets of the universe, was to come very close to involvement with magic. Medicine and astronomy, for example, were frequently associated with magic. Was the doctor practicing magic when he prescribed herbs to be taken at the full moon? Was the man who predicted the stars' influence on one's life or one's harvest a magician? Already uncomfortable questions in the thirteenth century, they grew increasingly vexing in ensuing centuries as the demand for scientific experiment increased.

Physician, alchemist, professor all then wore the same long robe, which might mark either the scholar or the magician. And when so much of what was new in science was concerned with the very frontiers of knowledge, and dealt with almost unimaginable problems of the organisation, complexity and harmony of Nature, scientists themselves were puzzled to know certainly where natural philosophy stopped and mystic science began.

Some philosophers attempted to clarify the issues by distinguishing demonic magic from what became increasingly well known as natural magic (magia naturalis). Writers as early as Roger Bacon distinguished between demonic ("not human") magic and natural wonders, though most did not yet call the natural wonders "magic":

Nam licet naturae potens sit et mirabilis, tamen ars utens natura pro instrumento potentior est virtute naturali, sicut videmus in multis. Quicquid autem est praeter operationem naturae vel artis, aut non est humanum, aut est fictum et fraudibus occupatum.

Granted that nature is powerful and wondrous, nevertheless, by using nature as its instrument, art is stronger than natural power, as we see in many things. Moreover, whatever is beyond the operation of nature or of art is either not human, or is invented and usurped by fraud.

Gradually the linguistic distinction between natural and demonic magic became familiar (though the church never officially accepted it), and when, in the mid-sixteenth century, Giambattista della Porta used the phrase magia naturalis to title his collection of remedies and superstitions, it was a well-known phrase.

But the verbal distinction between natural and demonic magic created new difficulties: how was the natural magician to be regarded? A familiar example of the problem arises from the biblical account of the three magi visiting the Christ child. The magi foretell the birth and then confirm its occurrence by reading the heavens; yet they are clearly positive figures. Writers against magic were always rather embarrassed about this passage and developed numerous ingenious ways of getting around the problem. Albertus Magnus turned to etymology to solve the difficulty and at the same time worked in his distinction between good and evil magicians:

Magi enim grammatice magni sunt.… Nec sunt Magi malefici sicut quidam male opinantur. Magus enim et Mathematicus et Incantator et Maleficus sive Necromanticus et Ariolus et Aruspex et Divinator differunt. Quia Magus proprie nisi magnus est, qui scientiam habens de omnibus necessariis et effectibus naturarum coniecturans aliquando mirabilia naturae praeostendit et educit.

For Magi are, grammatically speaking, great men.… Nor are Magi evildoers, although they are often thought ill of in this way. For a Magus and a Mathematician and a Charmer and an Evil-doer, or a Necromancer and Seer and Haruspex and Diviner all differ. Since a Magus is surely nothing unless a great man, knowledgeable and making guesses about nature from all its requirements and effects, he often demonstrates and teaches nature's wonders.

But such distinctions had to be repeated by each writer who dealt with magic. Interestingly, no one seems to have doubted that there was demonic magic. Rather, all efforts were directed at proving that "good" or natural magic did, or did not, exist.

As late as the mid-seventeenth century some writers were still trying to define magic and magus and distinguishing between acceptable and unacceptable types. But many Renaissance commentators seemed confident in the treatment of natural magic:

Magick is taken amongst all men for Wisdom, and the perfect knowledge of natural things: and those are called Magicians, whom the Latines call Wise-men, the Greeks call Philosophers.… There are two sorts of Magick: the one is infamous, and unhappie, because it hath to do with foul spirits, and consists of Inchantments and wicked Curiosity; and this is called Sorcery … [which] stands meerly upon fancies and imaginations, such as vanish presently away, and leave nothing behinde them.… The other Magick is natural; which all excellent wise men do admit and embrace, and worship with great applause; neither is there any thing more highly esteemed, or better thought of, by men of learning.

Words like worship as Porta's anonymous translator used it in the statement above (Porta himself used the phrase excipit, colit, & veneratur) had the potential to get their author into a good deal of trouble with the church, but such effusions demonstrate to what heights admiration for natural magic rose in some circles.

In theory, demonic and natural magic were distinguished by a single incontrovertible difference—demonic magic was performed with the aid of spirits; natural magic was not. But in time, natural magic became a more general term, covering more territory than had originally been permitted it. The people most responsible for the alterations in the meaning of natural magic were a group of Italian philosophers who revived neoplatonism during the latter half of the fifteenth century. The magical theories of this group had some influence on the way magic is portrayed in English Renaissance literature.

The revival of neoplatonism provided its adherents with a belief in a general animating spirit (spiritus or anima mundi) operative in the universe. This spirit in turn in-fused souls or spirits into other parts of the creation, usually the planets and other heavenly bodies. This belief probably originated from Plato's Timaeus:

[And when he framed the universe he distributed] souls equal in number to the stars, and assigned each soul to a star; and having there placed them as in a chariot, he showed them the nature of the universe, and declared to them the laws of destiny, according to which their first birth would be one and the same for all.

As this doctrine of world soul emerged, having been filtered through Plotinus and influenced by hermetic writings, it was seen as a source of tremendous cosmic energy and wisdom that man, under very special conditions, might be permitted to tap. Neoplatonists had individual theories about how one might tap into this suprarational wisdom and power, but most subscribed to the general idea that, by purifying himself of earthly ties and steadily pursuing wisdom and knowledge, man could lift himself above the concerns of the sublunar world and participate in knowledge of cosmic affairs. One of the most famous expressions of belief in man's ability to ascend to a semidivine state is Pico della Mirandola's Oration on the Dignity of Man: "It will be within your power to rise, through your own choice, to the superior orders of divine life." An d Giordano Bruno, often far less restrained than Pico, sang in the poem that introduces On the Infinite Universe and Worlds:

Henceforth I spread confident wings to space;
I feel no barrier of crystal or of glass;
I cleave the heavens and soar to the infinite
And while I rise from my own globe to others
And penetrate ever further through the eternal
That which others saw from afar I leave far
behind me.

Not only is this an expression of Bruno's cosmography; it also suggests the potential that Bruno believed man had to transcend his own globe and mentally explore "far other worlds and other seas."

But, of course, it was not granted to every man to gain such wisdom. Like other writers on magic, the neoplatonists jealously guarded their magical secrets, carefully limiting those who could be expected to attain communication with the heavens to a select group of initiates. Certainly not all neoplatonists subscribed to Pico's ideas about magic or even to Marsilio Ficino's milder views. But those who did concern themselves with magic usually believed that only the magus, the rare wise man, could accomplish contact with the infinite: "As the farmer weds his elms to the vines, so the magus weds earth to heaven—the lower orders, that is, to the endowments and powers of the higher," stated Pico in the Oration.

Neoplatonists called magic that performs the synthesis of the earthly with the heavenly natural magic but gave the term a significance at odds with its original meaning. If man's ascent to divine wisdom was purely the result of his goodness and intense study, then the meaning of the term remained essentially unchanged. But most neoplatonists, not content to have man do all the work, felt the need for means to attract (or even to compel) the planetary spirits to visit the magician. Ficino, for example, developed theories of how to attract planetary daemons (to be carefully distinguished from "demons," evil spirits) by the use of music, particular words similar to incantations, special colors, and perfumes. These sensual lures were designed to draw spirits that a recent commentator on Ficino's magic, D. P. Walker, described [in Spiritual and Demonic Magic, 1958] as "like men without earthly bodies who live in the heavenly spheres; they perform the function of transmitting celestial influences; they can, being both soul and spirit, act both on man's spirit and his soul." The major difference between such "spiritual magic" and truly demonic or devilish magic seems to be that Ficino intended to attract benign angelic spirits to influence his own disposition rather than evil spirits who would perform malevolent feats or interfere with the lives of other people.

Of the writers who shared Ficino's belief in planetary daemons or held more extreme beliefs, a few admitted to something more in their art than natural magic. Agrippa distinguished between natural and "ceremonial" magic, the latter involving rituals and special ceremonies for getting in touch with spirits. All ceremonial magic is dangerous, he warned, but he went on to distinguish two kinds—"goetic" and "theurgic." Goetic magic, the calling up of evil spirits, is, he admitted, truly commerce with the devil and is as reprehensible as the opponents of magic claim. Theurgy, on the other hand, is the calling of angelic or planetary spirits and, though dangerous, is very attractive. Tommaso Campanella, writing in the seventeenth century and thus possessed of a latecomer's perspective on the changes in theories about magic, distinguished [in "On the Sense and Feeling in All Things and on Magic"] three kinds: diabolic, natural, and "divine," the last a kind of heavenly gift to those who have practiced natural magic in a spirit of reverence and piety.

Now I affirm that there is divine magic: magic that man can neither understand nor employ without the grace of God.… There is natural magic, as that of the stars, and that of medicine and physics, with religion added to give faith to those who hope for favors from these sciences; and there is diabolical magic for those who, by the art of the devil, seem, to those who do not understand, to do marvelous things.… Natural magic, then, stands between: and those who exercise it with piety and reverence for the Creator, frequently come to be elevated to the supernatural kind of magic, thus participating in magic of a higher form.

As must be evident, the study of Renaissance magical theory is enormously complicated by the imprecision of terminology and by variations in kinds of magic, many of which seem to overlap or duplicate one another. Discussions of magic are further obfuscated by a deliberate vagueness on the part of philosophers about their specific beliefs. Contemporary examples of the church's power over heretics warned writers against being too outspoken about their magical ideas. So magicians denied or apologized for their magical theories, shrouding their ideas in seemingly innocuous contexts. D. P. Walker has commented on the difficulty of deciphering what Ficino actually believed about magic from the extremely cautious and often ambiguous way in which he wrote of it; Agrippa apologized for and virtually retracted his most outspoken book on magic, De occulta philosophia, even before he published it. The book was completed in 1510, the year Agrippa visited England, but circulated in manuscript until published in 1533. In 1526, evidently as a precaution against charges that might be made against the positive comments about magic in De occulta, Agrippa published De incertitudine et vanitate scientiarum declamatio inuectiua, which repudiated many of the views on magic contained in the yet-to-be-published De occulta. Bruno's allegorical obscurity is undoubtedly also due in part to his fear of being too outspoken. To some degree, of course, magical theorists used deliberate obscurity as a tactic to keep from the uninitiated wisdom that they neither deserved nor could handle. These philosophers were not disposed to cast their magical pearls before swine.

Adding to the confusion surrounding magic is the adoption by leading neoplatonists of much theory that was not neoplatonic in origin. Ficino, one of the earliest and perhaps the most influential of the philosophers who espoused neoplatonism, was deeply influenced by hermetic material that he translated and published at the behest of Cosimo de Medici. Thought to be ancient Egyptian writings antedating Moses, the assorted occult treatises ascribed to Hermes Trismegistus influenced theories abut magic, medicine, and astronomy for nearly two centuries until Casaubon revealed their spurious nature in the mid-seventeenth century. Thus, even in Ficino's best-known work, De triplici vita (1489), his neoplatonism was adulterated by occult material from other sources. Similarly, Pico della Mirandola added to the neoplatonic elements of his magical theory a good deal of cabalistic belief in the importance of words and language for contacting spirits. This cabalistic element was passed to later writers mixed with Pico's neoplatonic beliefs. Clearly, to talk of neoplatonic magic is to talk of a general magical theory—philosophically based, seeking wisdom and knowledge, recognizing the existence of extraterrestrial spirits whose influences may be felt and, to an extent, controlled by man—not of a rigid set of beliefs conforming strictly to the tenets of neoplatonism.

With his discussions of how to attract planetary spirits, Ficino was at first the most important theorist of neoplatonic magic. But he did not go far enough with his magic to qualify even as a theurgic magician. Ficino's theory involved no compulsion. He merely wanted, through various ceremonies, to prepare the operator to be receptive to planetary spirits and perhaps to attract—never to compel—the spirits to visit the anxiously waiting operator. It was the revision of Ficino's ideas by such men as Agrippa and Paracelsus, who added cabalistic and expanded already present hermetic elements, that gave the magician not only attraction for but also power over both good and evil spirits and produced the strong and notorious kinds of magic. Ficino's reputation in his own time does not seem to have been that of a magician, and he was not persecuted by the church for heretical practices. Agrippa and Paracelsus, on the other hand, were known primarily as magicians and only secondarily as philosophers. What is so attractive and so dangerous about the strong magic of someone like Agrippa is the power it grants to man, who is able, if he is a properly initiated magus, to compel spirits to obey him. Agrippa would have quickly emended the preceding sentence to read: "the good, angelic spirits to obey him," but clearly the emendation was often forgotten by Agrippa's contemporaries. The line between goetic and theurgic magic was often blurred or omitted. Campanella, commenting on Agrippa, said that he reject ed magic that subjects man to the devil but kept the magic by which man subjects the devil and constrains him to do his will. And Pico, making the distinction between magicians who are controlled (having made a pact with or a promise to evil spirits) and those who control, made a similar claim for the magician's power over evil spirits: "For just as that first form of magic makes man a slave and a pawn of evil powers, so the second form makes him their ruler and lord." This promise of rule over spirits, whether angelic or demonic, tantalized philosophers and dramatists alike, and much of the magic discussed in the Renaissance involved the compulsion of spirits, a far cry from Ficino's original, mild theories of daemonic attraction.

What is important in all this is to recognize the very real philosophical concern with magic in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Philosophers who were, at least to some degree, known and respected were writing seriously about magic and, under the label natural magic, were talking positively about a magic that involved communication with spirits. The magus, in some circles, was regarded as a man of great wisdom, to be respected as a superior man among men. Indeed, the magus became in some writers' minds a symbol for the infinite possibilities that then seemed open to man. Through magic, some felt, man could climb to God (granted divine grace, of course) rather than simply mark time waiting out a weary life on earth. Eugenio Garin [Science and Civic Life in the Italian Renaissance, 1969] summarized this view of the magician as possessor of tremendous potential:

True magic was defended because it was work which made use of the given forms in order to construct an ascending chain of Being. Ceremonial magic, on the other hand, was attacked because it was work which led into the abyss of sin and chaos. In both cases, however, the ambiguous reality of man consisted in the fact that he was a possibility, an opening through which one could rejoice in the inexhaustible richness of Being. He was not a being, defined once and for all, immobile and secure, but was always precariously balanced upon the margin of an absolute risk.

The magician could damn himself, as Faustus does, but there was also a possibility that he could lift himself into the sphere of immortal spirits or at least call some of those spirits down to him. A character with such potential might well prove attractive to a dramatist.

Nonetheless, little evidence has been offered that this philosophical view of magic, based primarily in Italy, had any effect on the writers of sixteenth-century England. Though England was not in the mainstream of the neoplatonic revival, the movement clearly had some influence on English letters. Many of the seminal magical texts had been translated into English by the end of the sixteenth century, and others were available to English readers in their original languages. In addition to the written word England had other contacts with philosophic magicians. As evidence of this, I would like to look briefly at three men—Agrippa, Giordano Bruno, and John Dee—all three magicians or magical theorists, all deeply influenced by neoplatonism, and all well known or active for a while in England.

The earliest of the three is Henry Cornelius Agrippa (1486-1535), a German physician, a correspondent of Erasmus, and contemporary with the Englishmen Thomas More and John Colet (who was for a short time Agrippa's teacher). The question of Agrippa's contribution to the history of magic and science is much debated—Thorndike, for example, labeled him a "wayward genius" and "intellectual vagabond," whereas Charles Nauert [in Agrippa and the Crisis of Renaissance Thought, 1965] maintained that he was a vital and influential figure in the history of magic. What seems agreed upon, however, is the breadth of his reputation and the popularity of his works, attested to in part by numerous editions of his De occulta philosophia in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

While Agrippa was not wholly a neoplatonist and, indeed, leaned rather more toward Aristotelianism in his later years, he did base much of his magical theory upon the neoplatonic magic set forth by Ficino (passages from De Triplici Vita are sometimes quoted verbatim by Agrippa, though with no acknowledgment given to Ficino) and also borrowed much, including some cabalistic elements, from Pico. He believed that the magus was able to gain contact with angelic spirits through the construction of images, but he added that such images were useless "unless they be so brought to life that either a natural, or celestial, or heroic, or animistic, or demonic, or angelic power is present in them or with them." Nauert explained, "The soul of the magician who employs these images draws its ability to use them not from reason but from a mystical ascent aided by ceremonial preparation and dependent for its consummation on divine illumination."

Despite numerous denials that he advocated theurgic magic, Agrippa could not hide his interest in it. In the middle of a stern warning about the dangers of ceremonial magic, Agrippa gives himself away by breaking into the first person as he speaks of the power of theurgy:

Many thinke that Theurgie is not prohibited, as who saithe it were gouerned by good Angels, and by the diuine power, whereas yet oftentimes vnder the name of God, & the Angels it is bounde with wicked deceites of the Diuels, for not onely with naturali forces, but with certaine solemnities & ceremonies also, we winne and drawe vnto vs heauenly thinges, and thorowe them the diuine verrues.

Perhaps it is not surprising that, despite his attempts to disapprove of all ceremonial magic, Agrippa's reputation as a black magician grew.

Agrippa's influence was perhaps felt more in the worlds of art and literature than in the work of his fellow philosophers (which may in part account for Thorndike's scorn). For example, Erwin Panofsky [in The Life and Art of Albrecht Dürer] has suggested that Agrippa's brand of neoplatonism in De occulta is the primary literary source for Albrecht Durer's famous Melancholia I. In England, Agrippa's name was well known to men of letters. In 1510, the year in which he completed the manuscript of De occulta, Agrippa visited England, and this trip may have helped to spread his reputation in that country. By 1569 his De vanitate had found an English translator who attests to Agrippa's magical reputation in his preface: "For it is saide, and his workes testifie the same, that he exercised the Arte Magicke, and therein farre excelled all other of his time." John Dee, whose seven-thousand-volume library was perhaps England's best, owned two editions of the De occulta: the 1533 first edition and the 1550 edition, which had appended a spurious fourth book that made Agrippa seem a much more radical and goetic magician than the original three books suggest. Dee was evidently not only an owner but also a reader of Agrippa's book, since he cited it on at least one occasion. Among many English literary references to Agrippa is Thomas Nashe's portrayal of him as a trickster [in "The Unfortunate Traveller"]: bringing back Tully for Erasmus to see, showing the Earl of Surrey his love in a magic glass, and displaying perfect memorization of a two-thousand-book library. The most famous reference to Agrippa occurs, of course, in Marlowe's picture of the goetic magician:

'Tis magic, magic, that hath ravish'd me.
Then, gentle friends, aid me in this attempt,
And I, that have with concise syllogisms
Gravell'd the pastors of the German church,
And made the flowering pride of Wittenberg
Swarm to my problems as the infernal spirits
On sweet Musaeus when he came to hell,
Will be as cunning as Agrippa was,
Whose shadows made all Europe honour him.

Agrippa's reputation seems to have been twofold: he was known as a goetic magician and a learned philosopher. Sidney, who used Agrippa's De vanitate in his Defense of Poesie, seems to regard him as a philosopher and makes no mention of him as a magician. The duality of Agrippa's reputation appears in Sanford's preface, in which he first remarks how much Agrippa knew and how wise he was and then goes on to recount the story of Agrippa's black dog, a demon disguised, which Agrippa on his deathbed accused of having damned him and which then promptly ran and drowned itself in the river. A similar ambivalence between philosophical and practicing magician marks many of the magicians who appeared on the Elizabethan stage.

Thus, while there is little evidence that English writers were familiar with the magical theories of Ficino and Pico, a goodly number of them had probably heard of Agrippa. If neoplatonic magic had not already found students in England, Agrippa's works and the later visit of Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) may have aroused interest in philosophical magic.

Bruno's visit to England in 1583 seems to have been more of an event than Agrippa's earlier sojourn. While there, he published two books, one dedicated to the French ambassador and the other to Philip Sidney, and participated in a philosophical debate at Oxford, where—one spectator scornfully noted—he quoted great chunks from Ficino without giving him any credit. The debate left Bruno contemptuous of the Oxford "pedants" and apparently did not give the faculty there a much higher opinion of him. More positive, however, was his acquaintance with Sidney (who seems involved in one way or another with several magicians, for he was a friend of John Dee and a participant in his study circle, the subject of which was probably neoplatonism). There is no evidence that Dee and Bruno ever met, but Sidney must have provided a mutual contact, so that they were at least aware of one another's interests. Though Sidney undoubtedly knew some of Bruno's works, there is no certainty that he knew much or anything about his magic, since Bruno's treatises specifically on magic, De magia and De vinculis in genere, were probably not composed until after Sidney's death and were not published until the nineteenth century.

Perhaps partly for this reason, Bruno did not have the same magical reputation as Agrippa, and only in fairly recent scholarship have his magical interests received emphasis. Much of Bruno's magic derived from Agrippa's De occulta, though he omitted the angels that Agrippa insisted can be summoned by theurgic magic. Instead Bruno envisioned an ascending scale for the magician to mount: "From sense to elements, demons, stars, gods, thence to the soul of the world or the spirit of the universe, and from thence to the contemplation of the one simple Optimus Maximus, incorporeal, absolute, sufficient in itself." Since reaching the demons is one of the early steps in the ascent, Bruno seems to believe unabashedly in demonic magic.

How much of Bruno's magical belief was in evidence to his English friends cannot be determined. Some scholars believe that Bruno's English contacts were limited to a small circle and that his works were little known in En gland until years after his visit. Others seem almost over-anxious to find evidence of his influence in literary works of the period. Yates has speculated that the character Berowne in Love's Labour's Lost is modeled on Bruno, and A. W. Ward in his 1887 edition of Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay suggested that the magical contest in that play may reflect Bruno's Oxford debate. Such conjectures are interesting but speculative. What can be ascertained is that Bruno, an outspoken believer in neoplatonic magic, was present and publishing in England and evidently acquainted with English literary figures. He provides another means by which knowledge of neoplatonic magic may have entered England.

Even more familiar to English writers might have been their countryman John Dee (1527-1608). Philosopher, scientist, book collector, consultant to the royal navy, adviser to Queen Elizabeth, and acquaintance of Philip Sidney, Dee was also a practicing magician and alchemist. In fact, he left written transcriptions of conversations with angelic spirits whom he had summoned with the help of the medium Edward Kelley.

Dee was a neoplatonist, though his theories contained elements from other philosophical schools as well. Certainly his ideas on the intellectual quest for wisdom sound familiar.

Thus, can the Mathematicall minde, deale Speculatiuely in his own Arte: and by good meanes, Mount aboue the cloudes and sterres; And thirdly, he can, by order, Descend, to frame Naturali thinges to wonderfull vses: and when he list, retire home into his owne Centre: and there; prepare more Meanes, to Ascend or Descend by: and all, to the glory of God, and our honest delectation in earth.

Dee's library contained works by both Pico and Ficino, and his writings show evidence of their influence, yet his magic most resembles that of Agrippa. Like Agrippa, Dee believed that to practice the highest form of magic, "Thaumaturge or divine magic," one must seek "communion with goode angels by purifyinge of the soul." What is unusual about Dee is his interest in doing what he theorized about. Notice in the excerpt quoted above that there is a descent mentioned as well as an ascent, and all is for our "delectation in earth." Dee evidently intended that the wisdom gathered from the mystical ascent would be put to use in the natural world. Eugene Rice in The Renaissance Idea of Wisdom speaks of a debate over two conflicting views of wisdom: sapientia or contemplative wisdom and scientia or practical, utilitarian wisdom. Dee seems to combine these two views of wisdom in ways the Italian theorists did not. (Ficino is something of an exception, perhaps, for he hoped to use the wisdom he gained from spiritual communications in his medical practice.) Dee's journals and diary indicate that he tried and believed he had succeeded in communicating with the spirits, something other magicians had theorized about but left no record of actually trying. In addition, Dee committed himself and his family to several years in Europe, primarily at the court of Rudolph II , by whom he was hired for the express purpose of producing the philosopher's stone. Though the visit was ultimately a fiasco, Dee's initial commitment to it suggests his confidence in his ability to produce material good from his magical activities.

Until recently, Dee's reputation rested largely on tales of his communication with angels, and often the other sides of his varied career were ignored. He was first suspected of being a conjuror after he staged Aristophanes's Peace, in which an elaborate mechanical beetle appeared to fly. The stagecraft was so ingenious that his audience was convinced he had used magic, and from then on his reputation spread. His relationship with Elizabeth dates from the time she was a princess and out of favor during her sister Mary's reign. Dee apparently cast favorable horoscopes for her, predicting that she would one day rule. However, Dee's prognostications caught up with him. He was suspected of conspiring with Elizabeth to do away with the queen by sorcery and formally accused of sorcery against Mary, though acquitted by the Star Chamber in 1555. During Elizabeth's reign, Dee seems to have been called in for occasional consultations by the queen, and his diary records visits by her to him at his house at Mortlake. Other entries in the diary suggest that he was kept busy casting horoscopes, teaching and advising friends, and at various times performing jobs for the queen or traveling at her request. In addition, Dee wrote treatises on a number of different subjects, though none specifically on magic. Dee conducted a number of scientific experiments, invented useful navigational devices, and was reputed to be an excellent mathematician. He was, all told, one of England's best examples of the "Renaissance Man " and deserves F. A. Yates's succinct observation [in Theatre of the World, 1969] that "no more complete mirror of the Elizabethan age could be found than John Dee." True to Pico's symbol, this Renaissance man was, in addition to all his other attributes, a magician.

Yet many of his fellow Englishmen feared Dee as a conjuror, a spirit-summoner, and this reputation greatly distressed Dee, partly because it was dangerous to be suspected of conjury in England at that time, and partly because Dee was apparently horrified to be suspected of commerce with the devil. Several of his later writings contain long complaints about the pillage of his library (which seems to have been a deliberate act of destruction against the "conjuror" carried out while Dee was abroad) and about the rumors that he was a "Caller of Deuils" and "Arche Coniurer, of this whole kingdom." Dee wanted to make the distinction between a philosopher who experimented (which he considered himself to be) and a conjuror (which he was reputed to be). In the following warning, however, Dee, like many writers on magic, struck a note of condescension toward the vulgar and unlearned who presume to judge his activities:

Let all such, therefore, who, in Iudgement and Skill of Philosophie, are farre inferior to Plinie (who called Moses a magician) take good heede, leaste they ourshoote them selues rashly, in Iudging of Philosophers straunge Actes, and the Meanes, how they are done. But, much more, ought they to beware of forging, deuising, and imagining monstrous feates, and wonderfull workes, when and where no such were done: no, not any sparke or likelihoode, of such, as they without all shame, do report.

But Dee's protestations had little effect, and as an old man in 1604 he was still petitioning King James to clear his name of the label of conjuror. Despite all Dee's un-happiness with his image, he is remembered primarily as a magician, thanks in good part to Casaubon's publication in 1659 of parts of Dee's journals. His magical paraphernalia—his table, crystal globes, and the black obsidian mirror cherished by Horace Walpole as the "Black Stone into which Dr. Dee, used to call his Spirits"—are housed in the British Museum for all to see, evidence that Dee was an operator as well as a theorizer about magic. To his contemporaries he must have been an obvious example of a magician, perhaps more useful as a model than Ficino or Pico because he actually practiced what he wrote about.

Turning theory into practice, however, changed philosophical magic. What had been for Pico a symbol of man's potential, and for Ficino a theory of how to obtain infinite wisdom, became for Agrippa and Dee an increasingly concrete and practical way of operating in the world. The uninitiated and uninformed misperceived this magic and, through rumor, transformed it into cheap tricks. Writing of the medieval church, J. Huizinga commented [in The Waning of the Middle Ages]:

But was she able to stand against this strong need of giving a concrete form to all the emotions accompanying religious thought? It was an irresistible tendency to reduce the infinite to the finite, to disintegrate all mystery.… Even the profound faith in the eucharist expands into childish beliefs—for instance, that one cannot go blind or have a stroke of apoplexy on a day on which one has heard mass.… While herself offering so much food to the popular imagination, the Church could not claim to keep that imagination within the limits of a healthy and vigorous piety.

Such making tangible of the intangible Christian mysteries is similar to what happened to spiritual magic as it filtered down to broader public awareness. The vulgarization of spiritual magic merely added to the continuum of varieties of magic from which the writer of Elizabethan and Jacobean England could draw.

What contemporary philosophical magic made available to the dramatist was a climate of interest in the magician. Despite the strictures of the church, the dramatist had the possibility of presenting "white" or "natural" or "spiritual" magic as a positive force. In addition, he could develop the magician as a fully fleshed character: wise, intellectually oriented, using verbal rituals, music, perfumes, and special clothing to accomplish his ends. The magician could be as human as, though a good deal more exotic than, the village shoemaker; that is, he could be treated realistically within the drama.


What contemporary magic could not have provided, however, was much for the magician to do. Philosophic magicians did not, after all, perform tricks, heal the sick, or assist those in trouble. They read, they meditated, often they advocated severing all ties to the world around them. Even John Dee's angelic conversations—perhaps the most sensational action reported by a philosophical magician—are hardly the sort of material a dramatist could use for plot.

But there were other traditions of magic, literary ones, to which dramatists could have turned for help in motivating their magicians and involving them in plot action. The most fruitful of these traditions to examine for examples of "literary" magic seems to me to be the medieval narrative romances (their possible link with the drama is clear when we remember that English stage magicians appeared first in dramatic romances, which were often clumsy adaptations of longer narrative romance materials). Filled with magic and with stereotyped, unrealistic characters, romance had no need to correspond closely to the real world. Thus, the medieval romances took a relaxed, un-concerned attitude toward magic. It exists everywhere in the romance world and is good or bad according to the motives of the magician or the effect it has on plot.

The magician as a character in romance is quite different from the character suggested by the writings of the neo-platonic philosophers. The romance magician, who can be either male or female, is usually set apart from the other characters by some physical or spiritual peculiarity: Merlin is unnaturally hairy and has a devil rather than a human for his father; Clinschor (in Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival) has been castrated; Morgan le Fay (Gawain and the Green Knight) and Cundrie (Parzival) are incredibly ugly. Rarely does a magician have a family, close friends, or a lover. Merlin, in his several romances, is something of an exception, but even so—since his relationship with his mother receives little emphasis after he grows up, and his mistress shuts him up forever in a rock—he can hardly be seen as part of a warm familial group. In a genre much interested in reconciliations between long-lost families or lovers, the magician generally remains apart and aloof.

In the narrative romances, magicians generate their own magic; they have no need to employ spirits or to perform elaborate ceremonies. Occasionally a magician—such as Malory's Morgan le Fay, Cundrie in Parzival, or the Clerk in Chaucer's "The Franklin's Tale"—is learned or uses books, but such references are always casual. There is none of the association between magic and learning mandatory in theories of philosophic magic. Most magicians seem born to their trade, whether—like Merlin—because of a nonhuman or magical relative, or because of a prediction that they will have magical skill. The romances spend little or no time explaining the motivation for or methods of magic; what is important is the effect the magician has on the plot. On the stage, such undeveloped, unexplained magic occasionally occurs in plays, like The Birth of Merlin, that seem directly derived from narrative romance.

Much of the magic in the romances has no particular source. Magical rings, enchanted springs, deadly beds, and magical potions abound, and often the writer makes no effort to explain how they came to be enchanted. Examples of romances containing such magical effects include Floris and Blancheflour (with its magic ring and a stream to detect adulterous maidens); Chretien de Troves's Yvain (protective rings and an enchanted spring); Sir Launfal (magic purse, horse, and dwarf); and Sir Tristrem (magic potion). Whole faerie or magical worlds may exist (as in Sir Orfeo and Sir Launfal) without explanation of their origin. No magician need be involved in creating them. But sometimes a specific magician is responsible for providing characters with invulnerable magical props (as Clinschor creates the enchanted bed in Parzival). In such cases, however, emphasis is invariably on what magic accomplishes rather than how it is performed.

The magical equipment associated with romance magicians is varied. Sorceresses seem to favor magic potions, rings, and swords, while male sorcerers often prefer larger projects—enchanted castles, magical beds, or invulnerable battle dress. The variety itself is informative, however, because it suggests there is no required or mandatory equipment for performing magic. The magician is usually self-sufficient and needs little help from spirits or objects to produce his effects.

Once, in a restaurant in Italy with my family, I occasioned enormous merriment, as a nineteenth-century humorist would have put it, by confusing two Italian words. I thought I had, very suavely, ordered for dessert fragoline—those lovely little wild strawberries. Instead, I seem to have asked for fagiolini—green beans. The waiter ceremoniously brought me a plate of green beans with my coffee, along with the flan and the gelato for the kids. The significant insight the mistake provided—arriving mere microseconds after the laughter of those kids, who for some reason still bring up the occasion, often—was about the arbitrary nature of language: the single “r” rolled right makes one a master of the trattoria, an “r” unrolled the family fool. Although speaking feels as natural as breathing, the truth is that the words we use are strange, abstract symbols, at least as remote from their objects as Egyptian hieroglyphs are from theirs, and as quietly treacherous as Egyptian tombs.

Although berries and beans may be separated by a subtle sound within a language, the larger space between like words in different languages is just as hazardous. Two words that seem to indicate the same state may mean the opposite. In English, the spiritual guy is pious, while the one called spirituel in French is witty; a liberal in France is on the right, in America to the left. And what of cultural inflections that seem to separate meanings otherwise identical? When we have savoir-faire in French, don’t we actually have something different from “know-how” in English, even though the two compounds combine pretty much the same elements?

These questions, about the hidden traps of words and phrases, are the subject of what may be the weirdest book the twenty-first century has so far produced: “Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon,” a thirteen-hundred-page volume, originally edited in French by the French philologist Barbara Cassin but now published, by Princeton University Press, in a much altered English edition, overseen by the comp-lit luminaries Emily Apter, Jacques Lezra, and Michael Wood. How weird is it? Let us count the ways. It is in part an anti-English protest, taking arms against the imperializing spread of our era’s, well, lingua franca—which has now been offered in English, so that everyone can understand it. The book’s presupposition is that there are significant, namable, untranslatable differences between tongues, so that, say, “history” in English, histoire in French, and Geschichte in German have very different boundaries that we need to grasp if we are to understand the texts in which the words occur. The editors, propelled by this belief, also believe it to be wrong. In each entry of the Dictionary, the differences are tracked, explained, and made perfectly clear in English, which rather undermines the premise that these terms are untranslatable, except in the dim sense that it sometimes takes a few words in one language to indicate a concept that is more succinctly embodied in one word in another.

Histoire in French means both “history” and “story,” in a way that “history” in English doesn’t quite, so that the relation between history and story may be more elegantly available in French. But no one has trouble in English with the notion that histories are narratives we make up as much as chronicles we discern. Indeed, in the preface, the editors cheerfully announce that any strong form of the belief to which their book may seem to be a monument is certainly false: “Some pretty good equivalencies are always available. . . . If there were a perfect equivalence from language to language, the result would not be translation; it would be a replica. . . . The constant recourse to the metaphor of loss in translation is finally too easy.” So their Dictionary is a self-exploding book, like one of those kinetic works of art that Jean Tinguely used to make, where the point of the work is to watch it self-destruct in the museum garden.

Yet Tinguely was a considerable and entertaining artist, and this is a considerable and entertaining book, full of odd words beautifully, at times owlishly, annotated. Though most of its instances are in English, French, German, and Italian, the editors still have time for a discourse on the nuances of the Romanian dor, a word whose approximate meaning is “longing” but that is “a lyrical expression of the feeling of finitude, between folk metaphysics and philosophical reflection, and self-consciously Romanian.” Derived from dolus, a vernacular-Latin noun meaning “suffering,” dor indicates, according to the classicist Anca Vasiliu, something more particular and estranged than melancholy, less sentimental and self-indulgent than Weltschmerz—and, it occurs to a reader, strikes the central emotional tone of both the French-Romanian aphorist Emil Cioran and the Romanian-American artist Saul Steinberg. They are masters of dor.

Not far away, there is a fascinating entry on the relationship between the Freudian concept of Trieb and the English “drive,” the word often used to translate it. The thought is that “instinct” might much more closely match Freud’s original meaning, and that using “drive” so relentlessly has made American Freudianism a far more driven practice than the original. Rather nicely, in a book devoted to words, logos, translated in the King James Version of the Gospel of John simply as “the word,” turns out to be the most all-purpose of items. Twenty-three alternate meanings for it are listed in English alone—it is, the editors say, a model of “polysemy,” packing multiple meanings into a single sign, and managing to suggest both words themselves and the wider shores of wisdom that words articulate. Meanwhile, many fine pages are devoted to the fine shades separating “piety” from “pity,” provoking in a reader the thought that where the Christian desire was to discriminate one from the other—moral duty from moral impulse—modern humanism is essentially an attempt to return the words to a single meaning.

Some words have surprisingly specific authors. “Spleen” extends, like a suspension bridge, between the twin piers of Shakespeare and Baudelaire: Shakespeare took it out of ancient medicine and gave it life as an expression meaning masculine overcharge (“Quicken’d with youthful spleen and warlike rage”); three centuries later, Baudelaire gave the word a second life, adding to the original meaning an overlay of beetle-browed irritation. Sprezzatura is “a word that is untranslatable par excellence,” with not even a close translation outside Italian, but then it is not exactly in Italian. The term is, the editors explain, a self-conscious invention by the sixteenth-century writer Baldassare Castiglione, to label his own idiosyncratic concept of a gentleman’s seeming indifference to polish; he made it up as much as Lewis Carroll made up mome raths.

Significant patterns of meaning do emerge from the mists. Some words alter because of the stray contingencies of time, others because of the specificities of political history. To take those two introductory instances: although one could try to draw significance from the fact that spirituel means not “spiritual” but “witty,” the truth is that it’s just an etymological accident. The same meaning lingers in our word “spirited.” (When Shakespeare has Brutus say that Antony has a “quick spirit,” he means that he’s very bright, not very good.) The French are as unlikely as we are to think that a witty man is a spiritual one, and if there’s a moment’s confusion it gets clarified by tone and touch.

On the other hand, though the word “liberal” in French does not mean what “liberal” means in English—a French liberal admires Margaret Thatcher, is a critic of the welfare state, and supports the free market whenever possible—the difference is historical in another sense. France took a statist turn very early, so speaking up for liberty meant speaking against the state. In America, given the centrality of the struggle for civil rights, speaking up for liberty has often meant speaking up for the state. A liberal in France does stand for most of the same things as a liberal in America or in England; he just seems farther to the right, because the situation in France is, for historical reasons, skewed so much farther left.

Of all these words, one and one alone seems truly to stump the editors, and that is the German word Dasein, made famous in Heidegger’s “Being and Time,” and usually left by bewildered translators in the original German, and meaning—well, what it means bewilders even the Continental editors. Calling it a “paradigm of the untranslatable,” they struggle over six double-columned pages to explain, anxiously, what it might mean: roughly, “life,” but with an overtone of anxiousness (“the very being of the being that we are, essentially or inessentially, not in the sense of an identity, but in proportion to a being that we have ‘to be’ ”), the whole leading to the sneaking suspicion that Dasein is untranslatable because it has no particular meaning in the original language, either. A truly untranslatable word, it seems, may be the sign of an unsustainable concept.

A spectre haunts this book, however. It is the spectre of Benjamin Lee Whorf and the theory of linguistic relativism to which he gave his name. Whorf was an amateur American linguist in the first half of the twentieth century who became obsessed with the idea that the system of tenses in the Hopi language gave the Hopi a different view of present, past, and future. (His understanding of Hopi grammar turns out to have been rudimentary.) Whorfianism came to refer to a larger idea derived from this notion—the idea that our language forces us to see the world a certain way, and that different languages impose different world views on their speakers. It’s a powerful idea in the pop imagination. It sounds right when you say it.

Yet “Whorfian” relativism, at least in its strong forms, is one of those ideas that disappear under any kind of scrutiny. After all, if we were truly prisoners of our language, we shouldn’t be able to use it to see its limits clearly, or to enumerate the concepts that it can’t conceive. The ghost of Whorf haunts every page of the “Dictionary of Untranslatables”—only to be exorcised by the authors, only to return. For instance, in a long section on the use of the English suffix “-ing,” we are told that our possession of such a form means that we have instant access to an idea of change-in-motion. The title of E. P. Thompson’s classic “The Making of the English Working Class” is cited as an example of how English lends itself to stories of historical change as action. In French, Thompson’s book would be called “The Formation of the English Working Class,” and if this is a big difference it’s hard to hear.

In recent years, there’s been some empirical support for mild versions of the Whorfian idea. Given more color names—“aqua,” “teal,” and “periwinkle,” in addition to “blue”—we do seem to respond to more colors, or at least to group the colors we’re shown more finely. In other words, having many words for shades of blue helps you tag the memory more easily and retrieve it faster, though it doesn’t mean that you really see more shades than the next guy. (Common sense tells us this already about, say, wine tasting: when we’re given new terms—there’s tar, tobacco, and rosewater here—we’re more likely to say, “Oh, yeah, I smelled that!” than “Oh, now I smell something new.”) The names help us sort the steady perception into manageable bits. Similar studies have helped rehabilitate Whorf, at least a little.

In response to this revival of pop Whorfianism, the linguist John H. McWhorter has written a short, sour, brilliant little book, “The Language Hoax” (Oxford), which attempts once again to explain to a general audience why the idea of linguistic relativism is empty. Patiently dissecting a bad idea, McWhorter explains that even the most robust Whorfian effects, like those in color sorting, involve, at most, microsecond differences in doing tasks—less time than it takes for kids to start laughing at the wrong word in a trattoria. It is no more surprising that a tribe whose language doesn’t have numbers can’t do math, he says, than that a “tribe without cars doesn’t drive.” McWhorter also puts his finger on a core problem: “A difference in thought must be of a certain magnitude before it qualifies realistically as a distinct ‘worldview.’ ” Even if it were true that the participle in English made us a mite more likely to think “actively,” differences in ideology and belief overwhelm and obliterate those lexical tints. Buddhists and Stoics have no trouble at all making their fatalism felt in English.

McWhorter makes all the right arguments, and he makes them clearly. And yet some version of the case persists, as imperishable as a zombie. What’s the allure of linguistic relativism? There may be solace in imagining ourselves prisoners of circumstances beyond our control—of language or horoscopes, of God or Capital—and so relieved of responsibility for what we do next. It may also be that linguistic relativism gives a kind of cheap knowingness that we all enjoy: you’re a prisoner of your tongue, but I’m the one who can show that you’re imprisoned. In truth, language seems less like a series of cells in which we are imprisoned than like a set of tools that help us escape: some of the files are rusty; some will open any door; and most you have to jiggle around in the lock. But, sooner or later, most words work.

Curiously, McWhorter only briefly dismisses the author who continues to give linguistic relativism its greatest cachet among literate people: George Orwell, whose essay “Politics and the English Language” (1946) made the claim that the debasement of thought cannot be separated from the debasement of language. Criticizing Orwell is as offensive to most humanists as criticizing Aquinas is to Catholics, but the essay gives mere obfuscation a cognitive power it never had. Orwell rightly detested double-talk, cheap euphemism, and deliberate obscurity—the language of “strategic hamlets” and “enhanced interrogation,” and all the other phrases that are used to muddy up meaning. But euphemism is a moral problem, not a cognitive one. When Dick Cheney calls torture “enhanced interrogation,” it doesn’t make us understand torture in a different way; it’s just a means for those who know they’re doing something wrong to find a phrase that doesn’t immediately acknowledge the wrongdoing. If the strong form of linguistic relativism were true, then not having the correct phrase or being forced to use a weird one would change our perception of what’s taking place. There’s no evidence that this happens. Whatever name Cheney’s men gave torture, they knew what it was. A grotesque euphemism is offensive exactly because we recognize perfectly well the mismatch between the word and its referent. It’s an instrument of evasion, like a speeding getaway car, not an instrument of unconsciousness, like a blackjack.

If lucid writing is the sign of a moral state, it’s the moral state of hard work, keener effort, acquired craft—a desire to communicate rather than intimidate, to have fun with a fellow-mind rather than bully a disciple. Sane and shapely sentences are good because they’re sane and shapely. There’s no guarantee that they’ll contain the truth: lots of sane and shapely sentence makers have had silly ideas. But, like sane and shapely people and homes, they are nice to have around to look at.

Although the differences between languages are minute, and can’t be elevated to either a prison house or a world view, it is in language’s minutiae that the small gestures of art live. In the 1939 French film noir “Le Jour Se Lève,” for instance, there’s a moment when the concierge, pressed by the police about a piece of furniture in the killer’s apartment, tells them that it’s “une armoire comme toutes les armoires”—“An armoire like all armoires.” The English subtitle has him saying, “It’s just a regular armoire.” This is the sense of it, but there is something universalized and pseudo-systematic in the French form that is part of the flavor of French life. The concierge is making a categorical point about furniture.

Back in the social sciences, there are studies to support our sense of such differences—not in cognitive view but in cultural flavor. Bilingual people, for instance, seem to narrate stories very differently in their two languages. Russian émigrés to America seem to use more collectivist nouns when they’re speaking Russian, more individualistic ones in English; bilingual French-English speakers tend to tell the same stories with an emphasis on “achievement” in English, and on “aggression toward peers” in French. (The English story is “I done it!”; the French version is “And the bastards tried to stop me.”) This seems little different from the truth that the rituals and habits of playing hockey (cursing, stoical indifference, then handshaking) are different from those of playing soccer (whining, faking injuries, etc.). Obviously, immigrants have sociolinguistic habits among themselves that are different from the social habits acquired by speaking their new language. We don’t speak French or Italian if we don’t know the way to speak French and Italian.

We are not captives of our tongues, but we are citizens of our languages. And citizenship is a broad concept that includes behavior and rituals. We approach the secret life of another language more intimately on first approach than after we have married into it. Learning a new language is like learning a new city: you see things you’ll never notice, or need, once you go to live there and are habituated by routine. There’s even a very real sense in which it is easier to “think” in a foreign language if you don’t quite speak it than if you do. The gender properties of French, for instance—tables are feminine, candlesticks masculine—leap out as you learn the language. They can seem to eroticize the world. But they quickly recede, and become neutralized as standard features. (Just as English speakers don’t really notice the encoded oddities of English; for instance, that we don’t have a future tense and plans have to be conjugated as acts of will—“I’ll be going later.”) Anyone whose grandparents reverted to Yiddish in moments of exasperation will recall how this dual linguistic citizenship works; your grandfather did not say “What a gonif!” because there were no curse words in English.

The rubber meets the road—or lagomma tocca la strada, as we Italian speakers say—when it comes to translations of important poetry and literature generally. No matter how well we have immunized ourselves against empty Whorfianism, when the German sighs and tells us that the Rilke we know in English is nothing like the real Rilke, we tend to credit it, if only because we know that the Keats the German speaker knows can really be nothing like Keats. (“Schönheit ist Wahrheit, Wahrheit Schönheit” is the German for “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” but there is nothing beautiful about it: just a look tells us that the balance of the monosyllable against the disyllable, what we might call the echt sprezzatura of the original, isn’t there.)

Near-contemporary translations of great texts often seem to capture them best, whatever their small errancies. New York Review Books has just put out a new edition of John Florio’s translation of essays by Montaigne. Florio, a friend of Shakespeare’s, can sometimes be compacted and muddled—there have been many more “faithful” translations since—but the rendering rings right. The background assumptions are so confidently registered that the foreground turns can be pictured in the proper light, too. The rhythm in Florio’s Montaigne is pleasingly Shakespearean in its play between the forthright and the fancy, a play easily lost by mere homogenized lucidity: “I cannot settle my object. It goeth so unquietly and staggering, with a natural drunkenness. I take it in this plight, as it is at the instant I amuse myself about it. I describe not the essence but the passage.”

Similarly, though C. K. Scott Moncrieff, Proust’s first translator into English, apologized to Proust for his “imperfect” French, and though it’s often said that Scott Moncrieff is self-consciously poetic where Proust is not, his contemporary translation of Proust remains much the best ever achieved, exactly because the aesthete’s point of view was so deeply in his blood and bones. He is self-consciously poetic in part because English aestheticism, made under the moon of Wilde, was always damper, more elaborately, self-consciously poetic than the drier French equivalent. He missed the idiomatic equivalences sometimes. (When Swann, in the last sentence of “Swann in Love,” confesses, with shattering banality, that Odette, the woman he has sacrificed so much for, had never really been his type, Scott Moncrieff has the awkward literalism “not my style.”) Yet though he gets small things wrong, the murmuring rhythm and violet color of the book have never quite been matched by the more accurate later renditions. He finds the right English sound to match the French one.

In a fine 2011 study of translation, “Is That a Fish in Your Ear?,” David Bellos points out that, despite the endless insistence that the real thing is always lost in translation, we readily translate everything, and all the time. “Think of a great poet, and you’ve almost certainly thought of a translator, too,” he writes. For all the supposed incommensurability of languages, we guide poems from one to another every day. Even if one accepts that these are only partial victories, is there another kind? Perhaps the truth is that poetry isn’t as exclusively “poetic” as we often like to pretend, just as the “poetic” part of philosophy is bigger than philosophers sometimes want to think. (When we read Hume, the patient humor is inseparable from the moral point, that skepticism has no need to be hysterical.) Poetry contains as much wisdom as it does word magic: Szymborska in English may be nothing like Szymborska in Polish, but we read her for the good counsel as much as for the choices among words.

Citizens of our languages, we act as citizens do, participating, reforming, accepting the rituals and celebrating their alteration, occasionally even voting for new rules and rulers. No words are entirely untranslatable; none are entirely transparent. A pragmatic view of how words work is the only view of them that accounts for our persistent tiny triumphs and sudden comic errors. Sometimes they obscure; sometimes they’re plain; often they fail us. When the wild strawberries are in season, you hope you find the words to get them on your plate. When the beans come, you eat the beans. ♦

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