The Occult Mind * Christopher I. Lehrich (2007 cornell university press * isbn 9780801445385)

The Occult MindI don’t often get books to review, but the publisher of this book contacted me. According to the description this books holds the middle between my ‘old interests’ (magic and Western occultism) and more recent interests (comparative religion) so I decided to have a copy sent and see what this scholarly book on magic is all about. The writer (who earlier wrote a book on Agrippa) wrote an interesting preface in which he explains his new way of approaching the subject; not with one scientific discipline, but using several of them in order to get a wider picture. For this purpose he says a few things about scholars such as Frances Yates and Mircea Eliade who both he slays in a few lines, but still find their ideas “usefully incorrect”. Yates is of course the famous (popular) scholar on Western esotericism, Eliade the most famous scholar in the field of comparative religion and mythology. According to Lehring both have fallen victim to ‘wishfull thinking’ theories on fragile basis and dubious connections and further theories thereon.
The book opens with the idea of ͆gypt (not Egypt) which somehow acts like “Ultima Thule” or the “Philosophia Perennis” as the source of (magical) thinking. Then Lehrich uses great names from the magical past of the West to expose his ideas; Giordano Bruno and his art of memory and John Dee (further dealing with Yates’ theories) and Athanasius Kircher to investigate the idea of encylopedianism (is it about collecting or seeking connections?) and daring theories built on quicksand. Further dealt with (sometimes separately, sometimes as a (lenghty) sidepath) are Ley-lines, Nō (the traditional Japanese puppet play) and Tarot and music. From Yates and Eliade in the beginning, Lehrich shifts towards the famous anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss and later the (also French) philosopher Jacques Derrida, but numerous other writers are referred to and quoted as well.

Having read the book, the promising preface and the nice last part are interesting, because the writer puts different ideas and theories next to eachother and tells something about it. The rest of the book seems to me like lenghty digressions on small parts of the larger picture. I know this is done to underbuild his idea, but in this way the book can hardly be called a book about (Western) magic. As a matter of fact, the book more appears to be a book on the method of investigating the subject, a new methodology for scholars in the field and (as a non-scholar) I totally miss the methodology that Lehrich proposes (other than using approaches from different disciplines). Therefor the obviously well investigated texts about the systems of Bruno or Kircher may be interesting for the little information given, but they are not what the book seems to be about. Long sidepaths with nice interpretations and explanations suddenly end, because they were only meant as an example for the proposed methodology. For these reasons I have the idea that this little book (182 pages of text, the rest is bibliography, index, etc.) aims for students and scholars who (want to) investigate the subject of magic, rather than the average man who is interested in the subject, the person like myself. Therefor it is hard to say if the book is good or not. I certainly enjoyed parts of it, Lehrich’s critical view at ideas that are almost regarded as normal (even though he is harsch towards thinkers that I admire myself) and to the historical characters that he describes. Also I praise him for trying to take the scholarly investigation of magic out of the cellars of science, but overall the book seems not to be written for the reader like myself.
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