Friday, June 21, 2013

Alt & Neumann on Hermetismus

There is a popular stereotype about academics: they spend far too much of their time bickering endlessly about the meaning of terms. Shouldn’t they better dispense with such tedious foreplay and get straight on to their real business, addressing the topics themselves that they are supposed to be studying? It is not so easy to explain to non-academics that this is a naïve request, because those topics themselves are often not there in the first place, but are constructed by the very discourse in which they are being discussed. Take “Hermeticism”, or “the Hermetic Tradition”. Are we thinking here only of the Corpus Hermeticum and its commentaries, or do we also mean to include a whole range of alchemical writings attributed to the legendary author Hermes Trismegistus? Is such authorship essential for something to be “Hermetic”, or do we assume that since alchemy is known universally as “the Hermetic art”, Hermes does not even need to be mentioned? But if so, do alchemy and the Corpus Hermeticum really have that much in common, apart from the name? If so, what is it that they have in common? And what do we do with texts about astrology or natural magic attributed to the Thrice Greatest? Do they suddenly become “Hermetic” too, just because of that attribution, while texts with perfectly similar contents that happen to be attributed to some other author are not? That seems quite arbitrary. But then again, if we conclude that therefore we do not need a reference to Hermes to call something “Hermetic”, then what do we need in order to do so? Presumably something that all of these texts and traditions have in common, setting them apart from all others. But imagine that we will manage to establish some such common features (by which criteria? established by whom? why? with which arguments?), then will we still have any reason to call those common denominators “Hermetic” at all?
And so on, and so forth… I’m afraid that such a seemingly endless string of questions will only add more fuel to the already dim view that outsiders tend to have of academic discourse. And yet we really have no other choice than to deal with these terminological issues seriously. While reading a recent book by Peter-André Alt, Imaginäres Geheimwissen: Untersuchungen zum Hermetismus in literarischen Texten der frühen Neuzeit [Imaginary Secret Knowledge: Studies of Hermetism in Early Modern Literary Texts], I was reminded that the problem gets complicated even further by the contingencies of how scholarly traditions have developed in different disciplines as well as in different countries and linguistic domains. In anglo-saxon research, the legacy of Frances A. Yates is absolutely unavoidable even for scholars (like myself) who disagree with almost everything she said; but for some reason, Yates’ seminal Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964) never got translated into German, and neither the book nor all the discussions around it seem to have had much impact on the German debate. An entirely different scholarly tradition has emerged here in the field of literature instead, with entirely different arguments and assumptions, strongly influenced in this case by the pioneering work of Hans-Georg Kemper – who never got translated either, and remains almost unknown to non-German scholars. As a result, instead of an international scholarly debate about “Hermeticism” we have a series of local networks that hardly care to listen to what the others have to say. In the Humanities at least, this kind of provincialism is much more widespread than we might think: the Germans read German, the French read French, the Italians read Italian, the Russians read Russian, and so on – and none of them gets read by the English-speaking world. Of course I’m exaggerating a bit for the sake of argument, but the pattern is a real one.  
In discussing how he plans to use the term Hermetismus in his book, Peter-André Alt, too, appears to think entirely in terms of German academic discourse. He takes his cue mostly from Hans-Georg Kemper and Wilhelm Kühlmann (p. 13, 15), both of them very impressive scholars whose work would deserve to be much better known beyond the German domain. Now Kühlmann appears to understand Hermetismus in a very broad sense, as including more or less everything that tends to be discussed in current English-language research under the label of early modern “esotericism” (see his programmatic article ‘Der “Hermetismus” als literarische Formation: Grundzüge seiner Rezeption in Deutschland’, Scientia Poetica 3 [1999], 145-157), but Alt rejects that terminology because he finds it anachronistic. While he expresses some objections to my way of approaching the problems of definition and categorization, I suspect that my recent work (Esotericism and the Academy, published in the same year as Alt’s book and hence not accessible to him at the time) might perhaps put some of them to rest. Be that as it may, I think that Alt’s resistance against the “esotericism” label has to do not only with a (quite justified) fear of anachronistic reasoning, but at least as much with the simple fact that his own field of specialization is restricted to the early modern period. As a result, he and his colleagues do not need to bother about the longue durée of the traditions they study, and can dispense with the problem of finding a term that covers all of it. In a solid discussion written by Alt in collaboration with Volkhard Wels, published in a multi-author companion volume Konzepte des Hermetismus in der Literatur der Frühen Neuzeit(2010), this point is acknowledged explicitly (p. 8).
What then is Alt’s approach? On the one hand, he wants to use a much more restrictive and precise definition of Hermetismus than Kühlmann: he emphasizes repeatedly that his book will be grounded in ‘a determination of Hermetism based on exact source-philological criteria … based strictly on the Corpus Hermeticum and its topoi’ (p. 21). On the face of it, then, his book will be concerned exclusively with the reception history of the C.H. in early modern literary texts. The reception of alchemical materials, including the Tabula Smaragdina, is strictly excluded (p. 21). However, it would seem that this ambition of applying great philological/source-critical rigour suffers shipwreck immediately, for a simple reason: it just so happens, Alt points out, that we rarely find any ‘direct textual references’ to the C.H. in early modern literature at all (p. 16)! Instead, we are seldom dealing with more than indirect ‘allusions [Anspielungen] and the hidden use of central patterns of argumentation’ (pp. 16-17, cf. 23). If this is the case, then doesn’t it make Alt’s apparently so severe program of a quellenphilologisch exakte Bestimmung des Hermetismus (p. 21) impossible from the outset? It would seem hard to draw any other conclusion, until one realizes that Alt has opened a narrow escape route in the final words of the quotation given above: ‘… based strictly on the Corpus Hermeticum and its topoi’.
So what are those topoi? Alt first mentions three criteria of what he, for reasons best known to himself, considers to be particularly “Hermetic” (the logos doctrine, the central function of inspiration, and the special importance of doxa transmitted from teacher to pupil [21]), and continues by mentioning some ‘specifically literary topoi through which Hermetic traces are passed on: to these belong secrecy, reading the Book of Nature, androgyny, the self-reflection of poetic production or the brooding silence of melancholy’ (p. 23). Judging from such a description, I find it hard to avoid the conclusion that Kühlmann’s wide and inclusive understanding of Hermetismus has silently returned through the back door. For if all these “topoi” are supposed to be “Hermetic” – but unfortunately, Alt never explains what it is that makes them “Hermetic”, or in what sense –, then the term Hermetismus becomes so vague and all-encompassing as to be virtually meaningless. In short, I’m afraid that Alt’s laudable project of a quellenphilologisch exakte Bestimmung based strictly on the Corpus Hermeticum vanishes into thin air even before it is put to the test.
In some other respects, too, the quellenphilologische foundations are less secure than one might think at first sight. I would not dare to question Alt’s expertise in early modern German literature, in which he undoubtedly knows his business, but it must be said that his knowledge of the Corpus Hermeticum and its early modern reception is rather flimsy, and the same goes for his familiarity with non-German scholarship in this domain. Amazingly, Alt never seems to have noticed that the C.H. consists not of ‘insgesamt 18 Traktate’ (p. 25, 26, 27) but of only seventeen (the first editor of the Greek text, Adrien Turnèbe, created a fifteenth treatise out of some Hermetic excerpts from Stobaeus, but this was seen as artificial by later editors, who left it out again but kept the numbering: hence the absence of a C.H. XV). And although Lodovico Lazzarelli (the translator of the final three treatises of the C.H., not included in Ficino’s Pimander) figures prominently in the very title of Alt’s Chapter 2, it seems that all he knows about this figure – who is in fact crucial when it comes to the quellenphilologische foundations of Renaissance Hermetism – is taken indirectly from Hanns-Peter Neumann’s problematic review (in Scientia Poetica 12 [2008], 315-322) of the main contemporary monograph on Lazzarelli, published by yours truly in collaboration with Ruud Bouthoorn in 2005. I really need to set the record straight here, for almost everything that Alt writes about Lazzarelli and my own work is wrong.
Most of Alt's mistakes have their origin in Neumann himself, who, for reasons unknown to me, seemed determined to present our book on Lazzarelli in the most negative light possible. Sitting on a very high horse, he complained first of all about the ‘Lässigkeit und Mangelhaftigheit’ of our ‘incomplete and partly incorrect’ bibliography (p. 318). What was the problem? Well, we appear to have overlooked one title: Alselm Stoeckel’s 1582 edition of Lazzarelli’s Crater Hermetis (attached to his Epithalamion and therefore easy to miss). There is no reason, however, why we should have mentioned all the later reprints of Lefèvre d’Étaples’ famous 1505 edition, although Neumann thinks we should; and most importantly, before accusing us of a mistake as elementary as getting the date of Gabriel du Preau’s French translation wrong, he should have taken the trouble to consult the book itself. It was first published in 1549, exactly as indicated in our bibliography, and not in 1557 as claimed by Neumann on the basis of the French National Library Catalogue. So much for the ‘Lässigheit und Mangelhaftigkeit’ of our bibliography, which then inspires Neumann to express doubts about the quality of our translations as well (but what is the connection?) only to end up concluding, apparently to his surprise, that those doubts are unfounded and we do know our Latin after all... As for Lazzarelli’s Corpus Hermeticum translation, known as the Diffinitiones Asclepii, Neumann’s knowledge of it does not reach as far as the information that, as already noted above, it contains no C.H. XV (p. 316, 319); and if he had read our sloppy and faulty bibliography a bit better, he would have known that the Diffinitiones were published by C. Vasoli in E. Castelli's Umanesimo e esoterismo in 1960. Hence his claim that we have failed to grasp the chance of ‘doing pioneering work’ on these translations (p. 319) rests on nothing. Not a word of appreciation, by the way, about the series of critical editions and annotated translations of previously unavailable texts, including several manuscripts, that we did publish in our book.
Incompetent reviews [sometimes written by competent scholars, as happens to be the case here] are a fact of academic life, and are better ignored in most cases. They become a problem if renowned scholars take them seriously, and rely on them in lieu of reading the book itself, particularly if this happens in a monograph. Unfortunately, such is the case here. A relatively minor issue is that Neumann and Alt both present me as ignoring the “neoplatonic” nature of the Corpus Hermeticum while attributing neoplatonic interpretations only to Ficino (Neumann p. 320; Alt p. 26 nt 39): in doing so, they seem to conflate the well-known middle-Platonic backgrounds of the C.H. with properly neo-Platonic interpretations in the wake of Plotinus. More serious is Alt’s completely incorrect claim that Lazzarelli’s Crater is about ‘the idea of transmigration’ (Alt p. 26), quod non, or his misleading description of Lazzarelli as ‘a pupil of the alchemist Giovanni da Correggio’ (it is only at a very late stage that both men seem to have developed an interest in pseudo-Lullian alchemy: Correggio was essentially a wandering apocalyptic prophet and miracle man). In fact, these few mistaken statements are all that we get to read about Lazzarelli at all. Nothing indicates that Alt ever read our book, and hence he misses quite some information that could actually have been useful to some of his later arguments, for instance about Poimandres as the Logos (cf. pp. 30-31).
I prefer not to go into detail about a range of further statements, later on in the same chapter, about the Corpus Hermeticum and its contents: this blogpost is already getting far too long. The points I have been trying to make are simple. Firstly: Hermeticism is an extremely complicated topic, both historically and conceptually, and the sine qua non in writing about it consists in careful study of the primary sources in their original languages together with equally careful study of the secondary sources in their original languages. And secondly: the imperative of always going ad fontes pertains not only to the former category, but to the latter as well. 

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Desire for Beauty

This week I have been re-reading Der Tod in Venedig. Thomas Mann has been my favourite German author for several decades now, but my memory of this particular novel had receded almost completely behind the more recent experience of watching Luchino Visconti’s famous movie of 1971. Because I happened to be reading a contemporary novel at the same time – Yann Martel’s Life of Pi (in this case I had seen the movie first) – I was reminded once more that one should never allow one’s standards of quality to be determined by the average level of good and professional writing, but only by the example of truly great authors. No offence intended to Martel, who is competent enough as a writer, but obviously Mann is in a different league altogether. It had been some time since I had read prose of such superior beauty, and the experience brought me straight back to one of my long-term topics of interest and reflection: the nature of beauty and erotic desire. For that, of course, is what Mann’s novel is all about. It tells the deceptively simple story of a famous writer, Gustav Aschenbach, who, following a sudden impulse, decides to escape from his daily work discipline to take a holiday in Venice, where he falls under the fatal spell of an incredibly beautiful teenage boy, Tadzio, who is staying with his family in the same hotel. They never exchange a word. All that Aschenbach does is watching his “idol” from a distance during dinner, on the beach, or during sightseeing tours through the city. When the great man finally succumbs to cholera, while sitting in his chair on the beach, Tadzio is hovering in front of him on the edge between earth, water, and sky, as a luminous figure – Hermes the Psychagoge – beckoning him across the threshold between life and death.
Mann’s lifelong struggle with his homoerotic desires is a key to his oeuvre (see the brilliant biography by Herman Kurzke, which cannot be recommended highly enough, even if it might go just a bit too far in reducing Mann’s Urkram entirely to sexual/erotic repression and sublimation), and his allusions to Plato’s Phaedrus are obvious and wholly explicit. Therefore I decided to re-read that dialogue as well, in a good translation by Robin Waterfield. What I knew best was the famous center part about the four divine frenzies, the chariot of the soul, and its “wings of desire” that start growing in the presence of beauty (cf. Wim Wenders’s movie of that title, known as Der Himmel über Berlin in German). This time I paid more attention to the first parts as well. First Phaedrus recounts a speech by the famous orator Lysias, who argues that an older man who desires a younger boy should take care not to lose his wits by actually falling in love with him, but should keep a cool head and just get what he wants. It’s essentially a cynical argument that highlights the risks and disadvantages of losing one’s reason in the pursuit of sex. Socrates responds by coming up with a speech of his own, which emphasizes that the lover’s erotic passion is disadvantageous and risky to the beloved as well.
Now just imagine. There they are, the older man Socrates and the young attractive Phaedrus, lying in the soft grass under a great tree outside the gates of Athens, far from any prying eyes, and reaching a clear conclusion: one should not give in to the irrational passion of erotic desire! It is precisely at this point that Socrates is interrupted by his inner daimon, who tells him that the tale he has just been telling is utterly false: he has committed a terrible offense against the great God of Love, and should do penance. And so he does, by launching into a speech with an entirely different message, which praises not reasonable restraint but the frenzied state of erotic madness (mania) as a divine condition that leads to true and lasting knowledge. By gazing upon a beautiful human body, the soul is reminded of the absolute beauty that it has once beheld when it was still travelling in the company of the gods along the outer rim of the heaven. From there it could gaze into the region beyond heaven, which “has never yet been adequately described in any of our earthly poets’ compositions, nor will it ever be”: this is the home of absolute unchanging and everlasting beauty, of which the passing images of corporeal beauty in this temporal world can give only a reflection. This beauty is the proper divine nourishment for the wings of the soul: at the sight of a beautiful human body, they spontaneously begin to grow, getting ready to carry the soul upwards back to its divine origin.
It’s a splendid narrative, compellingly beautiful in its very analysis of beauty. Reading Plato’s Phaedrus again, in conjunction with Thomas Mann Tod in Venedig, I couldn’t help musing about the incredible power of ideas. The impact of this relatively short dialogue can hardly be overstated, and regardless of its beauty (or, rather, because of it?) it must be admitted that its effects have been far from just positive. Firstly, Plato’s insistence that we must find beauty beyond the body has given legitimacy to Christian obsessions with sex and sin, at least since Augustine, leading to pervasive mechanisms of repression and sublimation that are the object of psychoanalysis and remain omnipresent in our society to the present day. Secondly, the narrative simply denies beauty to women; and while this would eventually be corrected, when Platonism got heterosexualized into a veritable “religion of beauty in woman” – medieval chivalric ideals of “courtly love”, some currents of Sufism, Renaissance Platonism after Ficino, Romanticism – it remains doubtful, to say the least, whether the masculine gaze can at all be translated into a feminine gaze on corporeal beauty (whether masculine or feminine) – or whether it should. And finally, the Platonic ideal of love has led to an implicit “complicity with death” at least since German Romanticism: perhaps beginning with Justinus Kerner (an underestimated pioneer: see pp. 236-237 here), eros has been implicated with illness and death, because only through dissolution of the body is it supposed to be possible for the soul to reach its true destiny. Nobody knew this better than Thomas Mann himself, for not just Tod in Venedig but also its splendid hetero-erotic counterpart Tristan, and indeed his entire oeuvre – particularly Der Zauberberg and Doktor Faustus, which really diagnose the cultural pathologies underlying World War I and II respectively – can be read as testimony to a persistent struggle with the human, moral, and ultimately political implications of Platonic eros. There is something awe-inspiring (literally numinous) in the realization that, in some very real sense, so much of the essential drama of Western culture may have its origin in a frenzied conversation between two Greek philosophers, lying under a shady tree on a lazy afternoon, talking about love.