‘Fairer than the evening air’: Marlowe’s Gnostic Helen of Troy and the Tropes of Belatedness and Historical Mediation

Forgive the interruption, but is there a scholar anywhere who does not respond to this Wittenberg man's notion of his alma mater in flames, or cannot take pleasure in imagining one or two close colleagues at the heart of a similar conflagration? But the thought of long-haired Achaeans running bronze-clad through Wittenberg, spearing astonished academics in the streets of their plundered and burning city, is perhaps not uppermost in Faustus's mind.   

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Right Eye and Left Heel: Ideological Origins of the Legend of Faustus

[This essay was first presented at the conference on CONTEXTS: The Interdisciplinary Study of Literature, University of Manitoba (13-16 May 1987); a revised version was read the Renaissance Seminar, University of Sussex, 25 October 1988. It was first published in Mosaic 22.2 (Spring 1989): 79-94.]


The old is dying, and the new cannot be born. In this interregnum there arises a great diversity of morbid symptoms.

(Antonio Gramsci, qtd. in Marzani 296)


My subject is the sixteenth-century legend of Doctor Faustus, the protagonist of which is a university scholar in full rebellion against the received system of knowledge. I shall argue that the early forms of this legend both participate in and record the orthodox suppression of an actual challenge to this system; the legend may therefore speak to us with renewed relevance at a time when the current organization of the field of textual studies is again being challenged, in the name this time of “comparatist” or “interdisciplinary” modes of analysis.

The words of Gramsci which I used as an epigraph might with equal validity be applied to both situations. The very familiarity of this dictum, however, permits the reader all too easily to forget its figurative nature. Consider then, a more recent development of the same allegory, drawn from a well-known essay by Jacques Derrida:

Here there is a kind of question, let us still call it historical, whose conception, formation, gestation, and labor we are only catching a glimpse of today. I employ these words, I admit, with a glance toward the operations of childbearing—but also with a glance toward those who, in a society from which I do not exclude myself, turn their eyes away when faced by the as yet unnamable which is proclaiming itself and which can do so, as is necessary whenever a birth is in the offing, only under the species of the nonspecies, in the formless, mute, infant, and terrifying form of monstrosity. (293)

Ripped untimely from their contexts and superimposed in this manner, as variations on a theme, the words of Gramsci and Derrida seems to coalesce into a single grotesque image—grotesque, in the first instance, because Gramsci's words evoke, though without laughter, that bizarre image of the senile hag in childbirth which Mikhail Bakhtin identifies as a recurrent, perhaps an organizing feature of the Renaissance counterworld of carnival; and in the second grotesque, not just because what is at issue is emphatically paradoxical, but also because of the way in which the reader's glance is made to flicker between the unnameable birth in progress and the unnamed ones whose averted eyes certify it as monstrous. Yet while the superimposed layers of this image may appear to coalesce, there remains an obvious and powerful tension between them. The monstrosity that is no more than implicit in Gramsci's words becomes inescapable in Derrida's—which, if their perhaps disingenuous ambivalence be counted as morbid, may themselves be taken to exemplify at least one of the symptoms alluded to by Gramsci.

One subsidiary function of this essay will be to pose the question of whether, or to what degree, this conflated image of a laboring expectancy, of a monstrous birth in the offing, of the old struggling to deliver or miscarry the new, can convey what is at stake in the turn to an interdisciplinary mode in literary studies. This interdisciplinary turn might by the cynical be seen as an attempt to generate new and productive forms of intellectual practice out of the interstices between disciplines, some of which have themselves been described by their more searching practitioners as played-out and sterile. (One thinks, for example, of Richard Rorty's remarks to the effect that “that literary genre we call 'philosophy'” has “outlived its usefulness” [xiv], or of Terry Eagleton's recent study of literary theory, which begins by recognizing literature as an illusion and ends by identifying literary theory as another one and proposing that the best possible thing for it to do would be to argue itself out of existence [204].) Indeed, an ambivalence comparable to that of this grotesque compound image appears to traverse the very notion of an interdisciplinary approach to literature—for to speak in such terms is at one and the same time to transgress disciplinary boundaries and to re-assert them as defining the limits to that which is being approached, and consequently its nature as an object of study.

Thus, if certain forms of ideological closure are implicit in the division of textual studies into disciplines, it is arguable that interdisciplinary studies may serve as much to perpetuate as to subvert these forms of closure. A discipline in the human sciences—to hazard a partial definition—might be termed an apparently self-authenticating, self-perpetuating social narrative which recounts a variously defined “us” to ourselves, in the process “disconcealing,” structuring and objectifying this collective identity (Lyotard 18 ff.; Gadamer 103). The material substratum of this meta-narrative is in every case a sequence of relationships, of authority and of submission, between doctor and discipulus—a banal fact which may, however, suggest a similarly close relationship between the derivative terms “doctrine” and “discipline.” Such a relationship is more clearly perceptible in the manner in which the subject-matter of the methodologies that apparently shape the meta-narrative of the discipline are themselves delimited by certain broad doctrinal or ideological commitments which the discipline in turn legitimizes.

English studies, for example, in their New Critical phase commonly took as axiomatic the autonomy and “organic unity” of the text, consequently imposing a severely reductive meaning upon the idea of “context,” which came to denote an inert background from which the individual canonized text had decisively separated itself, rather than something inextricably interwoven (contextus) with all texts as a condition of their textuality. At the same time, not surprisingly, New Critics tended to attribute an analogous autonomy both to the act of writing and to characters in the texts that they explored. The discipline thus both echoed and legitimized an ideology of individualism which, in attenuated form, is still routinely an object of devotion for liberal (and illiberal) political orators. After a period of conceptual “disorder” in which traditionalists have regularly lamented a lack of system and coherence (see for example Cain 93), a similar cycle of legitimation may now be developing in the “new new criticism”—which perhaps seeks less to complete the overthrow of its once-hegemonic namesake that (in a familiar deconstructive doublet) to supplant and supplement, replicating its ideological functions in a mood of ironic dispersal rather than of unification.

My primary concern in this essay, however, is to propose an ideologically-based analysis of the origins of the legend of Faustus—a legend in which, as every reader of Marlowe or Goethe knows, the inadequacy of the traditional academic disciplines is proclaimed at the outset. In mastering philosophy, medicine, law and theology, Goethe's Faust has learned only “dass wir nichts wissen können” (line 363). His gestures of dismissal echo those of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, who in summarizing his rejection of the principal academic disciplines of his day declares that “Philosophy is odious and obscure, / Both Law and Phisicke are for pettie wits”—and “Divinitie,” traditionally the queen of the sciences and the ideological matrix in which the others subsist, is “basest” of them all, “Unpleasant, harsh, contemptible and vilde...” (A: 139-42).1 Marlowe's Faustus has at this point already turned to the “Metaphysickes of Magicians” (A: 79), which hold out to him, not the dialectical skills of which he already boasts, nor the medical powers which, having mastered, he could respect only if they enabled him to raise the dead and to be more than human, nor the despicable trivialities of the law nor, finally, that promise of “everlasting death” (A: 76) which is all he can find in the New Testament—but rather a dominion that “Stretcheth as farre as doth the minde of man” (A: 91).

Yet in this play, as in other Renaissance versions of the story, the attempt to substitute for the orthodox disciplines a form of power/knowledge which would be immediately transitive in its effects both upon the knower and upon the world that it subjects to him, thus dislocating and transcending the hegemonic system of discourses, is wholly abortive. It is noteworthy that the play contains a powerful analogue to that grotesque compound image of a monstrous birth, or non-birth, with which I began. In the first scene Faustus sums up his desires in two resonant lines: “A sound Magician is a mighty god: / Here tire, my braines, to get a Deity” (A: 92, B: 89).2 He thus announces a project of a self-begotten rebirth into divine form which would deliver him into “a world of profit and delight, / Of power, of honor, of omnipotence,” at the same time giving him sway over the world itself: “All things that moove betweene the quiet poles / Shalbe at my commaund...” (A: 83-84, 86-87). This initial aspiration is inverted in Faustus's last soliloquy, where he wishes futilely that he might evade eternal punishment by being “changde /Unto some brutish beast” (A: 1490-91). Moreover, in what sounds perversely like a kind of prayer, he cries:

You starres that raignd at my nativitie,  
whose influence hath alotted death and hel, 
Now draw up Faustus like a foggy mist, 
Into the intrailes of yon laboring cloude, 
That when you vomite foorth into the ayre, 
My limbes may issue from your smoaky mouthes, 
So that my soule may but ascend to heaven.... (A: 1474-80)

Faustus is reduced to an abject attempt to surrender his bodily integrity in a disgusting reversal of birth; having aspired to “rend the cloudes” (A: 89), he now begs for physical dissolution in their entrails. The bargain proposed—of resorption into a dismembering womb, and of regurgitation and dispersal, in exchange for the salvation of his soul—is the most violent expression of despair in the play.

It is one of the many ironies of this play that Faustus's counter-disciplinary, undisciplined, demonic way to a species of power/knowledge itself quickly assumes the features of a parody discipline: what Faustus achieves with his sophistical critique of the ends and limits of the academic disciplines is, in Constance Brown Kuriyama's helpful portmanteau coinage, “omnimpotence” (95). Overtones of a conventional doctor-discipulus relationship are implicit in Faustus's desire to accelerate his study of magic through the “sage conference” of Valdes and Cornelius (A: 131). (Perhaps because this demonic counter-discipline is parasitic upon the forms of knowledge which he already possesses, the arrogant novice has little to learn: Valdes tells him, “First Ile instruct thee in the rudiments, / And then wilt thou be perfecter than I” [A: 194-95].) In the comic scene which immediately follows Faustus's conjuration of Mephostophilis, however, a doctor-discipulus, master-servant sequence becomes explicit.

Here Wagner, who is Faustus's servant, engages the beggarly clown as his own servant with the promise to “make [him] go like Qui mihi discipulus” (A: 375), with the inducement that (as he says) “I will teach thee to turne thyself ... to a dogge, or a catte, or a mouse, or a ratte, or anything” (A: 421-22), and also with the coercive assistance of two devils whose capacity to terrify the clown awakens the latter's interest in what he calls, in the 1616 quarto, “this conjuring Occupation” (B: 379). Shortly thereafter, Faustus is himself subjected to a similar coercion, and bullied by Lucifer, Belzebub and Mephostophilis into accepting constraints upon his very thoughts: “Thou art damn'd, think thou of hell” (B: 642); “Thou shouldst not thinke on God. Thinke on the devill” (B: 662-63). His surrender, with a vow “never to looke to heaven,” elicits from Lucifer the suave reply: “So shalt thou show thy selfe an obedient servant...” (B: 666-67). However, the reader or playgoer has already been made aware, in a lighter way, that this occupation or discipline involves strict constraints. Wagner, in his sternest manner, says to the clown: “Villaine, call me Master Wagner, and see that you walke attentively, and let your right eye be alwaies Diametrally fixt upon my left heele, that thou maist, Quasi vestigiis nostris insistere” (B: 384-87). “God forgive me,” says the clown, “he speaks Dutch fustian: well, Ile folow him, Ile serve him, thats flat” (A: 435-36).

Perhaps the most damning thing that can be said of the scholars who have studied the early forms of the legend of Faustus is that they would appear, with some notable exceptions, to have followed Wagner's instructions to the letter. Goethe specialists concerned to trace his footprints among a mass of source materials, or Marlovians getting up the obligatory background; folklorists working to identify sources and analogues to the motifs absorbed into the legend; practitioners of a sometimes more or less inert form of literary historiography; students of Renaissance occultism or, more rarely, of humanistic and Reformation controversies—they have for the most part adhered to the paths prescribed by their respective disciplines. It would be churlish to deny that these scholars have provided a basis for the understanding of something more than the disparate parts made visible by their studies. Yet, as may be suggested by the critical perspective upon disciplinary constraints which is built into the legend, at least in its Marlovian and Goethean forms, the origins and early development of the Faustus story cannot be adequately comprehended within the bounds of any single discipline. Although the legend is by common consent of major importance in that cultural manifold which is their shared, or rather partitioned, object of study, from the point of view of each separate discipline its early forms appear somehow peripheral. The reason for this, I would argue, is that the intelligibility of these early forms of the legend is inseparable from their ideological functions as polemical narrative—and it is these functions which the division of textual studies into disciplines serves to suppress and to make invisible.

“Polemical narrative,” I have said: let us be more precise. Whatever may be said about the motifs drawn into it from, for example, the patristic legend of Simon Magus and the medieval legends of Cyprian, Virgilius or Theophilus (see Butler 73ff.), the legend of Faustus arose in the early decades of the sixteenth century as a form of ideological assassination, as an abusive attack upon representatives of a current of thought which proposed to deconstruct and to transcend the orthodox categories of knowledge, which appropriated Christian doctrine in the service of a kind of gnosis, a radically heterodox power/knowledge, and in which, finally, the metaphor of rebirth that is parodied and inverted in Marlowe's play occupied a central place.

There is not space here to do more than name a few of the prominent early exponents of this Hermetic-Cabalistic tradition—Marsilio Ficino, philosopher and translator of Hermetic, Platonic and Neoplatonic texts; Giovanni Pico, polymath, philosopher, and Cabalist; Joannes Reuchlin, embattled Hebrew scholar and Cabalist; Joannes Trithemius, abbot, annalist and magician; Ludovico Lazzarelli, humanist poet and Hermetic enthusiast, Jacques Lefèvre d'Étaples, an evangelical humanist, the prime reinterpreter of Aristotle for his generation; Cornelius Agrippa, encyclopedic occultist and skeptic.

Similarly, at this time one can only gesture at some of the works of modern scholarship which have restored this invasive tradition to view: the essays of Garin, Kristeller, Secret, and Walker; iconological studies by Wind and by Klibansky, Panofsky and Saxl; explorations by Zambelli, Zika, and Grafton of orthodox reactions to the legendary Hermes Trismegistus and to such Hermetists and Cabalists as Agrippa and Reuchlin; and Frances Yates's speculative historical reconstructions—which have themselves provided the occasion for cross-disciplinary warfare between intellectual historians and historians of science.3

The connections between this current of thought and the Faustus legend may intially seem far from obvious. In the first complete version of the legend to be printed, the Historia von D. Johann Fausten published by Spiess in 1587, there remain only traces of what I would call the originary polemic against the Hermetic-Cabalistic tradition, while a broad current of anti-Catholic polemic is in evidence throughout the text. If the narrative exfoliation of the legend resulted in an occultation of the ideological polarity from which it sprang, however, Marlowe's Doctor Faustus might be said to constitute a return of the repressed. As I have argued in another essay (“Misreading”), the more authentic 1604 version of this play embodies an unbalanced dialectic between a Reformed theological orthodoxy which it simultaneously affirms as inescapable and exposes as intolerable, and that other ideology which is the basis of Faustus's unstable ambitions, and to the nature of which he offers an important clue when he aspires to be “as cunning as Agrippa was, / Whose shadowes made all Europe honor him” (A: 150-51).

The German humanist and magician Henricus Cornelius Agrippa (1486-1535)—whose “shadowes” were the theatrical displays of necromancy with which this “abundant scholar” was popularly thought to have astonished his contemporaries, among them Erasmus, More, Luther's protector the Elector of Saxony, and the Emperor Charles V (Nashe 297-99)—can provide a focus for our inquiries. Of Agrippa's many books the best known was De incertitudine et vanitate scientiarum et artium atque excellentia verbi Dei declamatio, which anticipates Marlowe's Faustus in its rhetorical demolition of all orthodox forms of knowledge, from logic to courtly place-seeking, and from whore-mongering to scholastic theology. Despite the evangelical posture which gives shape to its satire, this book was suspected (by, for example, Thevet vol. 2, 544r-v) of being a kind of ground-clearing operation for the magical doctrines espoused in Agrippa's other major work, his De occulta philosophia, an encyclopedia of occultism in which appear rhapsodic flights (such as the “Epistola nuncupatoria” to Book III, and also III.vi) that would seem to underlie Faustus's praise of magic. The relationship seen by some sixteenth-century readers between these books is thus parodied by the pattern of Faustus's first soliloquy. Moreover, a Hermetic doctrine of spiritual rebirth which entails the acquisition of divine powers is the basis both of Christian faith as Agrippa understands it in De vanitate and of the highest forms of magic described in Book III of De occulta philosophia (see Keefer, “Dilemma”).

There are strong reasons for locating the historical Doctor Faustus on the radical fringe of that Hermetic-Cabalistic tradition of which Agrippa was one of the most notorious exponents.4 Georg of Helmstadt, or Georgius Sabellicus Faustus (as he came to call himself), first comes to light as a magician in a letter written in 1507 by Joannes Trithemius (to whom Agrippa three years later dedicated the first manuscript version of De occulta philosophia). From this letter is appears that Faustus claimed astonishing magical powers, boasting, for example, that if all the works of Plato and Aristotle were lost he could restore them—as Ezra did the writings of Moses—with increased beauty, and bragging in addition “that the miracles of Christ the Saviour were not so wonderful, that he himself could do all the things that Christ had done, as often and whenever he wishes.” Faustus's transgressions were not merely verbal for, according to Trithemius, he also disgraced himself as a sodomite (Palmer and More 83-86). Frank Baron's analysis of this letter has shown both that Faustus, drawing with wild eclecticism upon a variety of magical traditions, associated himself with Zoroaster and Numa Pompilius, among others; and also that Trithemius, himself struggling against accusations of black magic, took the occasion to denounce him as a means of displaying his own orthodoxy (23-29).

Nowhere, of course, does Trithemius associate Faustus with the Hermetic-Cabaistic tradition to which he himself adhered. One may suspect, however, that he knew more about Faustus than his letter reveals. In 1506, and again at greater length in 1514, Trithemius described a visit to the court of Louis XII of France made in 1501 by a similarly boastful magician, one Joannes Mercurius de Corigio (see Garin, Testi 45-46). Here again there are no direct indications of Hermetic or Cabalistic affiliations; but in this case, unlike that of Faustus, the man left writings which have survived, as have those of his disciple, the humanist Ludovico Lazzarelli (see McDaniel; Kristeller, “Lazzarelli”; Ruderman). From these it is clear that Joannes Mercurius was more than just a bizarre magician and prophet: he claimed, with something like the eclecticism of Faustus, to be at once Hermes, Enoch, Apollonius of Tyana, and Christ; and Lazzarelli's writings about him reveal a knowledge of the Cabala. Moreover, the wording of Trithemius's text lets slip the fact that he was aware of the man's true oddity: he writes that Joannes Mercurius scorned “almost all the ancients together, the philosophers as much as the theologians, since he might declare all of them, excepting only himself, to have been unlearned.”5 If we knew nothing else about this bizarre figure, the words “excepting only himself” would seem merely a clumsy turn of phrase. But as Trithemius undoubtedly realized, the man literally believed himself to be one of “the ancients”—or rather, several of them combined. There are then grounds for believing that in the case of Faustus, Trithemius also knew more than he was willing to commit to paper.

A further sampling of this learned abbot's correspondence reveals a fact that is of equal interest. Like Mercurius's disciple Lazzarelli, who seems, shortly before 1494, to have initiated the elderly King Ferdinand of Aragon into the mystery of Hermetic rebirth into divine form (D.P. Walker, Spiritual 64-72), and like Mercurius himself, who would appear to have had similar designs upon Louis XII of France in 1501, Trithemius attempted to disseminate magical beliefs and practices through the conversion of powerful princes. In 1503 he wrote to the Margrave of Brandenburg in the hope of enrolling him as a student of natural magic, of establishing for him a program of studies in this art, and (it would seem) of subsequently persuading other rulers to follow his example (Trithemius sig. G3-Hv). Trithemius's persuasions, which emphasize the political as well as spiritual advantages to be gained from a knowledge of magic, may seem staid in comparison with those of Mercurius, who made wild promises of good fortune and longevity to the King of France, or of Lazzarelli, whose conversion of Ferdinand involved a strongly heterodox appropriation of Christian doctrine. While Trithemius was playing the same game, however, it was obviously not in his interest to reveal how much his own magical doctrines were derived from the same sources as those of such embarrassingly indiscreet practitioners as Lazzarelli and Mercurius—or Georgius Faustus.

The association of the historical Faustus with the radical wing of the Hermetic-Cabalistic tradition is reinforced by a letter of the humanist Mutianus Rufus, who encountered him in 1513, and scornfully proposed that the Dominican theologians who were trying to destroy “the philosopher Reuchlin” should take aim at this man instead (Palmer and More 87-88). Here again one may see an attempt to deflect hostile attention from a mainstream exponent of the Hermetic-Cabalistic tradition to a figure on its radical periphery. Besides being a noted Hebrew scholar, Reuchlin was the author of De verbo mirifico (1494), a Cabalist exposition of the magical powers inherent in the name of Jesus. Agrippa borrowed heavily from this work in De occulta philosophia (see Zika, “De verbo” 138, “Reuchlin” 242-43), and also lectured on Reuchlin's book at the University of Dôle in 1509. (For this act he was denounced before the court of Margaret of Austria as a judaizing heretic, and lost his position at the university [Nauert 25-28]—another instance of orthodox reaction to this current of thought.)

The Reuchlin connection can take us farther still. In 1515 and 1517 Reuchlin's defenders struck out at the theologians with the famous Letters of Obscure Men. A riposte published by Ortwin Gratius in 1518, the Lamentationes obscurorum virorum, contains an intriguing exchange of letters about sinister demonic practices between “Agrippa Stygianus” and one “Georgius Subbunculator” (Zambelli, “Agrippa von Nettesheim,” 280, “Magic”). The latter name, if indeed it is a derisive modification of “Georgius Sabellicus,” is a telling one—for Faustus in his eclectic heterodoxy was in effect a subbunculator, a “botcher-up of old clothes.”

The names of Agrippa and Faustus (who died in 1535 and c. 1537 respectively) were subsequently paired with increasing frequency. Agrippa's brief service in the court of Charles V was absorbed, within several decades, into the legend of Faustus: both magicians were rumoured to have won victories for the emperor by magic (Palmer and More 103; Thevet, vol. 2, fol. 542v-543). In addition, the libel, first printed in 1546, that Agrippa's black dog was a devil, was echoed two years later by the claim that Faustus's dog, and his horse as well, were devils (Nauert 327; Palmer and More 98). It seems to have become almost a convention to associate Faustus, as Melanchthon did, with “iste nebulo qui scripsit De vanitate artium” (Palmer and More 102), with that “scoundrel” Agrippa.

Faustus, however, proved to be a more appropriate focus than Agrippa for the development of hostile legends. This “great sodomite and necromancer,” as the city records of Nuremberg called him in 1532 (Palmer and More 90), was a far more extreme transgressor of social and ideological codes; he also conveniently left no writings behind him. Agrippa, in contrast, was a famous (and in some circles well-respected) man of letters. His pupil Johannes Wier came to his defense in his widely-read De praestigiis daemonum (1563), a book which also attempts to redirect the attention of persecutors from the innocent women whom they were torturing as witches to the activities of learned magicians (Wier fol. 67-77, 206v-207, 368; cf. Baxter 57-62), and the fourth edition of which, printed in 1568, contains several anecdotes about the misdeeds and violent death of Faustus (Palmer and More 105-07).

The development of the central core of the Faustus legend (to which popular tales about, for example, Faustus devouring a load of hay could subsequently be added at will) thus forms part of the history of orthodox responses to heterodoxies associated with magical practices. Norman Cohn has argued persuasively that orthodox reactions to the medieval tradition of ceremonial magic during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries laid the foundation for the stereotype of the witch, which was fully elaborated only in the early fifteenth century (164-205). After the 1470s, however, the church found itself facing a new form of Hermetic and later also Cabalistic magic which claimed to be based upon the purest and most ancient religious traditions and to be in conformity with the true uncorrupted teachings of Christ. Medieval grimoires and pseudo-Solomonic texts could be easily enough condemned as sorcery and witchcraft—but what was one to say of the pious Hermes Trismegistus and the holy Cabalists? Were their modern interpreters—respected scholars and philosophers like Ficino, Pico, Trithemius and Reuchlin—also witches and sorcerers? The question did not initially take that form. Giovanni Pico was condemned in 1487 on theological rather than on demonological grounds—and then absolved in 1493 by Pope Alexander VI in terms that gave support to his theological claims for magic and cabala (Yates 113-14).

As social, political and ideological tensions increased in the early sixteenth century, however, the tone of the debate began to change. Shortly after the turn of the century Charles de Bouelles, who had visited Trithemius at his monastery of Spanheim and made use of his famous library, denounced him as having a pact with the devil (Wier fol. 75v). At about the same time, Gianfrancesco Pico, a nephew of the more famous Giovanni who shared neither his uncle's philosophical opinions nor his enthusiasm for magic, attacked in his De rerum praenotione (1506-07) any conflation of Christian and pagan traditions, denouncing Orpheus and Apollonius of Tyana as demonic magicians—and letting off Ficino, whose talismanic magic he linked with that of Apollonius, only because of his submissive attitude to the church (Walker, Spiritual 146-49). In this text the younger Pico also told stories, among them one about a magician who had promised to a curious and unwise prince “that he would present to him the siege of Troy as on a stage or in a theater, and would show him Achilles and Hector as they were when they fought.” This magician's pretended knowledge of future events let him down, however: he was promptly carried off by a devil (qtd. in Wier fol. 71r-v). A decade later, in 1515, Jerome Benivieni had to defend the reputations of Ficino and Giovanni Pico against the accusations of a preaching friar that they had attempted to unite their souls with God, perform miracles and prophesy by means of magical and cabalistic rites (Secret 77-78). The philosophers, it would seem, were being assimilated by the orthodox to the pattern of extreme Hermetists like Mercurius or Faustus, who actually claimed to be capable of such things.

Why, however, did the Faustus legend develop in Lutheran, rather than in Catholic or Calvinist circles? A tentative answer to this question may be sought in several facts. First, the Catholic church was less automatically predisposed than were the Reformers to identify any mention of magic as demonic sorcery (Thomas 27-89). Next, the reforming impulses of the Hermetic-Cabalistic tradition, its claim to restore the pristine verities of the Christian religion, and its doctrines of illumination and rebirth all outflanked the teachings of the neo-Augustinian Reformers.6 No less significantly, certain late-patristic texts which Calvin rejected as “putrid fables” (vol. 48, viii) were used and transmitted at the University of Wittenberg under Luther and Melanchthon.

I refer in particular to the pseudo-Clementine Recognitions, and to the apocryphal Acts of the apostles Peter and Paul.7 These texts record a series of debates and magical contests between St. Peter and Simon Magus, the Gnostic heresiarch and magician whose teachings had been refuted by such orthodox polemicists as Irenaeus and Hippolytus in the second and third centuries A.D. (The name Faustus, it may be added, appears in association with Simon in the pseudo-Clementine texts; and heresies similar to those of Simon recur in the late fourth century in the mouth of Faustus the Manichee, who was refuted by St. Augustine [see Wentersdorf 215-19].) The heresies of Simonian Gnosticism, as presented in the Recognitions, resemble those of the major “gnosticizing” Hermetic texts, which date from the same period and which later formed the core of the Renaissance tradition espoused by Reuchlin, Trithemius, and Agrippa.8 The legend of Simon Magus, moreover, shows the same pattern of development—from doctrinal and demonological polemic to a narrative exfoliation resulting in the occultation of the Gnostic ideology—that I have shown to be traceable in the Faustus legend. Furthermore, in several important respects—the emphasis upon demonic flight, the episode of Helen of Troy, and the magician's irretrievable damnation—the later legend borrows from the earlier one. The Simon Magus legend is thus not merely the earliest of a large number of textual sources of the Faustus legend; it is also in a full sense its prototype and parallel.

To these ideological, etiological and structural parallels can be added a further, functional one. Melanchthon, whose statements about Faustus imply that he had encountered him, both in Wittenberg and perhaps also previously (Palmer and More 101-02)—although what he says about the man's Christian name and birthplace is contradicted by earlier sources (Baron 11-16)—repeatedly compares the sorcerer to Simon Magus. One may suspect that a kind of ratio is being constructed. The antichrist Simon Magus opposed, and yet by his very presence also testified to, the apostolic mission of St. Peter and St. Paul; Melanchthon's stories about Faustus imply a similar guarantee through demonic opposition of his own and Luther's quasi-apostolic role. A suspicion that such a ratio may underlie the Lutheran legend is strengthened by the curious response of one Augustine Lercheimer, a graduate of Wittenberg in the 1540s, to the publication of the Historia von D. Johann Fausten in 1587. Denouncing it angrily as “trivial, false, and nasty,” as a libel both upon the university with which it associates Faustus and also upon “Luther, Melanchthon, and others of sainted memory,” Lercheimer then proceeds, very oddly, to tell a story which links Faustus more intimately to the Lutheran leadership than does anything in the Faustbuch. It would appear that when Faustus was in Wittenberg, “he came at times to the house of Melanchthon,” of all people, where he received both hospitality and admonitions. Resenting the latter, he told his host one day as they descended to dinner that he would make all the pots in his kitchen fly up through the chimney. To which Melanchthon replied, with less than his usual eloquence, “Dass soltu wol lassen, ich schiesse dir in deine kunst”—and the magician, of course, was powerless to harm “the saintly man” (Palmer and More 121-22). This Kitchen Debate reproduces in miniature the rhetorical and magical contests between St. Peter and Simon Magus. The fact that Lercheimer evidently felt it to reflect credit upon his teacher speaks volumes.

* * * * 

The Faustus legend of the sixteenth century thus preserves, for those whose disciplinary commitments do not blind them to the evidence, traces of a vicious ideological struggle—one in which, to oversimplify matters somewhat, a radically relativistic current of thought which challenged religious and academic orthodoxies succumbed to the onslaught of an authoritarian, exclusivist biblical fundamentalism that had made its own compromises with the structures of political power. Such defeats are seldom absolute: thus, in 1619, the young René Descartes's dreams of a mathesis universalis and of a single method of inquiry which would reunify the scattered sciences were stimulated by his reading of Agrippa and of the Hermetic fantasies of the Rosicrucian manifestos (Descartes, vol. 10, 165, 167-68, 193-200, 214). Yet it was a defeat. However misleadingly, Joannes Reuchlin has most often been remembered by historians as the occasion of a violent ideological struggle between “humanists” and “scholastics” (the real issues, as Zika [“Reuchlin and Erasmus”] and Overfield have argued, were Reuchlin's courageous opposition to orthodox anti-semitism, in particular that of the Dominican order, and his propagation of Cabalistic magic). Cornelius Agrippa has survived, more dubiously, in the rhymes of the English translation of Struwwelpeter as “tall Agrippa,” who dips young racists into his enormous inkwell, from which they emerge as black as the child whom they have been tormenting. Despite their reputations as scholars, however, the comparatist, counter-disciplinary turn which Reuchlin and Agrippa represented had little if any impact upon university curricula in their century.

This fact may seem hard to regret, if one pauses to reflect upon the more wildly irrational elements in their writings, and upon their systematic failure to distinguish between the natural order and the order of words. However, something more fundamental was also at stake—quite literally so—in the ideological struggles whose traces I have been investigating.

One can scarcely speak of the legend of Faustus without remembering the central function in most of its versions of “das Ewigweibliche.” The “eternal feminine,” or the “eternal in woman”—whether figured by Goethe as “Una poenitentium ... sonst Gretchen genannt,” or by Marlowe as that glamourously demonic Helen whose lips suck forth Faustus's soul—draws the protagonist in the direction in which he was already going. It cannot have escaped attention that the central metaphor of this essay is derived from a different male image of the “eternal feminine,” one which registers quite precisely a male fear of the female body, and which uses it to symbolize the “monstrous” processes which escape masculine control. 

It may therefore be relevant to observe, in concluding, that one of Cornelius Agrippa's earliest writings was entitled De nobilitate et praecellentia foeminei sexus (1509). In this text he argues (I quote from the translation of 1542) that “betwene man and woman by substance of the soule, one hath no higher pre-emynence of nobylytye above the other, but both of them naturally have equall libertie of dignitie and worthynesse. But all other thynges, the which be in man, besydes the dyvyne substance of the soule, in those thynges the excellente and noble womanheed in a manner infynytely dothe excell the rude grosse kynd [i.e. nature] of men...” (sig. Aiiv-Aiii). In this text Agrippa subverts a long-established misogynist tradition with its own weapons of philological argument and the citation of scriptural and patristic authorities. The work is exuberantly playful, but that predominantly male scholarly tradition which has interpreted it as no more than an exercise in paradox is perhaps mistaken. For while Agrippa's arguments are in places deliberately frivolous, they also insistently call into question the established order both of gender relations and of ecclesiastical power (Wirth 609-13). In other writings Agrippa took a vigorous stand against the demonization of the feminine and of the female body which was under way in his lifetime. He mocked the theological faculty of the University of Cologne for having given its approval to that brutally misogynist text, the Malleus maleficarum (Opera, vol. 2, 1043; see Lea, vol. 2, 337-43). Moreover, in 1518 in Metz he put his career and his life on the line in his successful defense of a woman who had been accused of witchcraft and tortured by the local inquisitor (Nauert 59-61).

I conclude, then, with a question. Is it merely a coincidence that the period between 1560 and the late 1580s, during which the Faustus legend received its full narrative elaboration, also saw the first major outbreak of witch-hunts in Western Europe (Monter 35; Midelfort 32, 86-89; Macfarlane 26-27)—an outbreak in which, with the vehement approval of orthodox intellectuals, thousands of people, most of them women, were imprisoned, tortured and judicially murdered? One may be reminded of the image of Gretchen, the desired and the betrayed, which appeared to Goethe's Faust on Walpurgis Night, and of Faust's response to this apparition:

Welch eine Wonne! Welch ein Leiden! 
Ich kann von diesem Blick nicht scheiden. 
Wie sonderbar muss diesen schönen Hals
Ein einzig-rotes Schnürchen schmücken, 
Nicht breiter als ein Messerücken! (4201-05)

Or, in Barker Fairley's translation: “What joy, what suffering. I can't take my eyes off her. Strange how the red line round her lovely neck suits her. Not wider than the back of a knife” (73).




1  My quotations from the Greg edition are identified by line numbers and by text (A refers to the edition of 1604 and its reprints of 1609 and 1611, B to the substantially revised and bowdlerized edition of 1616). U/v and i/j have been silently altered to conform with modern practice, and errors in Latin phrases are silently corrected. For the principles governing my use of the A and B texts, see Keefer, “Verbal Magic” and “History.”

2  These lines offer an interesting textual crux: the B-version of A: 92 contains what seems to be an ideologically-motivated softening of the meaning (“Demi-god” for “mighty god”), but the following line in A shows signs of memorial corruption (hypermetrical self-address, internal rhyme, suppression of the metaphor of begetting). I have given to B: 89 the punctuation of Jump's Revels Plays edition.

3  Yates's exaggerated claims about the formative role of the Hermetic-Cabalistic tradition in the development of scientific mentalities have been challenged by Westman, by Vickers, and by Schmitt, who is criticizing Yates went so far as to propose that “Hermeticism never becomes a real driving force of any significant cultural movement during the Renaissance” (207)—a remark which may suggest that he, as much as Yates, would have done well to attend to Garin's warning against “troppo facili sintesi” (“Divagazioni” 466).

4  Baron's attempt to do so on the basis of Faustus's possible associations at Heidelberg University in the 1480s (20-22) is purely conjectural—although his discovery that Faustus studied there is of major importance. I have tried to show here that there are solid textual grounds for linking Faustus with the Hermetic-Cabalistic tradition.

5  My translation. Trithemius wrote: “contemnens veteres pene cunctos, tam Philosophos, quam Theologos, cum prater se unum omnes diceret fuisse indoctos...” (Garin, Testi 46).

6  An early instance of the unstable relationship between the Hermetic-Cabalistic tradition and its near-opposite, predestinarian theology, is studied by D.P. Walker (Theology 42-62). In some cases the reforming impulses of this tradition were absorbed into orthodox evangelical movements (see for example Rice 19-29; Copenhaver 189-211). The concluding chapters of Agrippa's De vanitate, in which a quasi-Lutheran vocabulary is used to convey a thoroughly instrumental, Hermetic view of illumination and rebirth, exemplify an inverse process.

7  The Recognitions, first printed in 1504 by Lefèvre d'Étaples, is one of two surviving fourth-century recensions of a lost third-century work, itself a compilation of earlier Christian and Gnostic texts (Cullmann 63-131; Hennecke-Schneemelcher, vol. 2, 542-45). The Acts of Peter and Paul, which dates from the sixth or seventh century but incorporates parts of the second-century Acts of Peter (Hennecke-Schneemelcher, vol. 2, 575) was current in the Renaissance in a Latin translation dating from 1490 (A. Walker xiv).

8  These are the first, fourth, seventh and thirteenth tractates of the Corpus Hermeticum. For indications of their significance as a group, see Festugière 11; Nock, Corpus, vol. 1, 16, 61, 128n); Nock, Essays, vol. 1, 85. There are English translations of these texts in Grant (Anthology 211-33); the term “gnosticizing” is applied to them by Grant (Gnosticism 148).    





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Agrippa's Dilemma: Hermetic 'Rebirth' and the Ambivalences of De vanitate and De occulta philosophia

Agrippa's Dilemma: Hermetic 'Rebirth' and the Ambivalences of De vanitate and De occulta philosophia

When in 1625 Gabriel Naudé wished to clear the name of Cornelius Agrippa (1486-1535) from the pious slanders of the demonologists of the intervening century, he argued that this learned man, “a new Trismegistus in the three higher faculties of Theology, Law, and Medicine, [...] who [...] exercise[d] his mind on all sciences and disciplines,” deserved better than to be abused with stories “which would be much more appropriate in the magical tales of Merlin, Maugis, and of Doctor Faust....”

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