For and Against the Moon

[First published in English Studies in Canada 15.3 (1989): 305-18. I have corrected several typographical errors, and have added a few words (in square brackets) to note 14. The text of this essay is otherwise unchanged.]



Vacuous, white bone; everyone sees it
Who knows what it is for? 
It is said the moon can drive men mad
Are you for or against the moon?1


One senses a hint of autumn in the air: it is in fact early September as I write this, but I mean another kind of autumn. Not long ago it might have seemed that the high summer of deconstruction in literary theory was going to be indefinitely prolonged. Yet suddenly the signs of change are all about us: a nuanced past tense in the Modern Language Review (“When Deconstruction was at its height, one never quite knew how serious a posture of response was required”); a measured declaration in the first issue of New Formations (“The decade of deconstruction, it seems, is over”); and in the first issue of Textual Practice, more decisively still, a reviewer's discovery in recent work by a leading American deconstructionist of “a return to logocentrism of the most daring and unrepentant kind....”2 Daring and unrepentant logocentrism? The literary theorists are flocking together, it would appear, in preparation for one of their periodic migrations.

The prospect of their colleagues' impending change of climate, and perhaps also of coloration, would no doubt be a source of satisfaction to the winter birds among us, were it not that the latter perhaps harbour some suspicion of the migrants' imminent return in another less gaudy and more serviceable plumage (that, say, of the new historicism, or of cultural materialism—both of which challenge more fully the doctrines of New Criticism and its successor theories than do the deconstructive modes referred to by some of their American practitioners as the new New Criticism). In the meantime, those who are not sure whether they belong to either flock may find profit in returning to certain of the inaugural texts of deconstruction, which it may now be possible to read in a new and cooler mood, with diminished anxiety and with greater pleasure.

Of course, it may well be that predictions of the withering away of deconstruction are premature. Critics who have seen a relation between the metaphysical obsessions of deconstruction and a failure to engage with problems of historicity3 are unlikely to side with trend-spotters who would allot to each critical tendency a fixed span (“the decade of deconstruction”), after which period it is to be erased and supplanted by the next manifestation of a rootless present. And others may share the view of Alan Kennedy, who does not want to see deconstruction passed by before he has “even begun to feel confident about what the limits of deconstruction might be.”4 This mode of criticism may thus continue to be widely practised. Indeed (to lapse once more into metaphor), as I write there is a spring tide in the Annapolis Basin a hundred yards from my window, and the moon seems no less full than it did last night. But what is this moon?

Let us define it, with the help of Wittgenstein, as a kind of absence. If we are willing to take the word of one eminent contemporary critic and theorist (Harold Bloom), it would appear that reading, whether wilfully so or not, is also inevitably misreading. Consider, then, the opening aphorism of Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: “The world is all that is the case.”5 Wilfully misreading these words, I would like to ask: But is there not also the moon?

In the context of Derridean deconstruction, the question may be less witless than it seems. Elsewhere in the Tractatus Wittgenstein wrote: “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world” (proposition 5.6), and “Logic pervades the world: the limits of the world are also its limits” (proposition 5.6 1)—from which follows the doctrine, announced in the preface and repeated as the concluding sentence of the work (and thus itself an enactment of those limits), that “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.”6 In contrast to the early Wittgenstein, Jacques Derrida has persistently defied any such limits, both by placing himself outside them in his practice as a writer, and also by insisting (especially in those early books and essays which are still the basis of his reputation in the English-speaking world) that any act of delimitation is subverted by the weave of differences and deferrals, of absence, trace, and supplément, which he sees as constituting language itself. Challenging, like Nietzsche,7 the first principles of logic (those of identity and non-contradiction), his aim has been to make enigmatic, to deconstruct, any possible metaphysic of presence, and thus to undo or at least expose the “logocentric repression”8 which by his account has characterized the whole tradition of Western metaphysics.

This Derridean project has in many respects enjoyed a remarkable success. Lucretius proved the universe to be infinite by arguing that if a person went to the edge—wherever one took that edge to be—and threw a spear, it would ether be blocked by something or else would speed on its way. Since the thought-experiment can be repeated from whatever new edge one's spear-throw reveals, either case shows that the universe continues without end or limit.9 Similarly, Derrida, throwing spears in both directions from the edge of the world defined by Wittgenstein's Tractatus, has revealed receding infinities on both hands: one spear, thrown into the gap between signifier and signified, splinters the latter into an infinite regress of supplemental signifiers; another, hurled at the “transcendental signified” which in “logocentric” metaphysics puts an end to this regress, sails on without resistance.10 Standing, then, within the labyrinth (his metaphor) that is raised by his banishment of metaphysical presence, Derrida wrote in La voix et le phénomène, in what may seem to be deliberate opposition to the last words of the Tractatus: “It remains, then, for us to speak, to make our voices resonate throughout the corridors in order to make up for the breakup of presence [pour suppléer l'éclat de la présence].”11 Suppléer, éclat: the words themselves resonate with ambiguity.

But where is this labyrinth? I hope that I can answer, “On the moon,” without being misunderstood. In the course of his brilliant study of “Plato's Pharmacy,” Derrida investigates Socrates' allusions in the Phaedrus and the Philebus to Theuth or Thoth, the Egyptian god of writing and of the moon, and in a brief digression into Egyptian mythology argues the metaphorical identity of these two divine functions. Ammon-Ra—Ammon (the hidden), Ra (the sun)—“is god the creator, and he engenders through the mediation of the word.... we encounter here a hidden sun, the father of all things, letting himself be represented by speech.”12 Thoth, the moon-god, divine scribe, and eldest son of Ra (and thus a secondary, engendered god), announces in language “an already formed divine thought, a fixed design. The message itself is not, but only represents, the absolutely creative moment. It is a second and secondary word.”13 To Thoth's secondariness, both as god of the moon and as god of writing, is added the fact that he is made responsible in several papyri for the plurality of languages—and in Plato's Philebus for differentiation within language. In what follows, the familiar terms of Derrida's deconstruction of presence—absence, trace, supplément—assert themselves forcefully:

As the god of language second and of linguistic difference, Thoth can become the god of the creative word only by metonymic substitution, by historical displacement, and sometimes by violent subversion.

This type of substitution thus puts Thoth in Ra's place as the moon takes the place of the sun. The god of writing thus supplies the place of Ra, supplementing him and supplanting him in his absence and essential disappearance. Such is the origin of the moon as supplement to the sun, of night light as supplement to daylight. And writing as the supplement of speech.

Citing, from ancient Egyptian texts, examples of this substitution of Thoth for Ra, of the moon for the absent sun, and of the subsequent word-play which establishes further chains of signification, Derrida remarks that

This process of substitution ... thus functions as a pure play of traces or supplements or, again, operates within the order of the pure signifier which no reality, no absolutely external reference, no transcendental signified, can come to limit, bound, or control....14

Through the analysis of this mythical structure the moon thus becomes not merely a conspicuous example of the Derridean supplément, but also a metaphorical vehicle whose tenor is the whole play of substitution and supplementarity—which is to say, superimposing a spatial metaphor, the topos where these substitutions take place. It is, surely, in recognition of the further lunar overtones of this analysis that Derrida writes, in the same sentence from which I have just quoted, of “this substitution, which could be judged 'mad' since it can go on infinitely in the element of the linguistic permutation of substitutes, of substitutes for substitutes....”15

Other suppléments quickly manifest themselves and proliferate in the tenor of this lunar metaphor. Depending on the degree of blindness involved in the world's attempts to define itself, Derrida's discourse may not seem indisputably a part of “that which is the case”; yet through his deconstructive analyses of Plato, Aristotle, Hegel, Nietzsche, Husserl, Heidegger, and Austin it has raised tides even within the most strictly delimited of logical worlds.16 It is also consciously eccentric, both in its challenge to the idea of a centre, point of presence, or fixed origin which would inform “the structurality of structure,” and also in its choice of a ludic rhetoric that is meant to exemplify the free-play of signifiers opened up by this de-centring.17 But is this free-play not to some extend illusory, since by Derrida's own admission it resolves itself into an orbit around the traditions that he wishes to deconstruct? And once the rules of the language-games of deconstruction have been assimilated, is there not some danger that his arguments, however unexpected certain of their swerves, may become in their extended form as predictable as the phases of the moon?

Lunar and orbital, again, is Derrida's relation to the problem of institutional appropriation. For if the serene resistance to appropriation which is an important recurring feature of his writings constitutes the angular momentum of his path, it is balanced by the gravitational pull of those institutions in France, America and England—most evidently the Tel Quel group, the Yale formalists, and the New Accents writers—which in disseminating his thought have also appropriated it for their own ends. Gerald Graff, describing deconstruction as “a strategy for making texts immune to appropriation by the consumer,” at once added that “the very procedures by which texts are made to seem unmanageable rather easily become a critical commodity fetish—that is, the styles of resisting commodification themselves become commodities.”18 Whether or not this description is fair, such a drift was wryly exemplified by Christopher Norris when he wrote in his book Deconstruction that “Critical theory is nowadays a reputable academic business with a strong vested interest in absorbing and coming to terms with whatever new challenges the times may produce.”19 (Is not this precisely the vaguely upbeat language of the corporate Annual Report to shareholders?)

Derrida is himself well aware of this problem of appropriation, but his stance with regard to it has remained paradoxical. Calling in 1983 for a “new responsibility” that would seek to “unmask—an infinite task—all the ruses of end-orienting reason, the paths by which apparently disinterested research can find itself indirectly appropriated, reinvested by programs of all sorts,” he pointed to the intrusion of a state-directed military or 'national-security' orientation into all fields of research, including his own:

From now on, so long as it has the means, a military budget can invest in anything at all, in view of deferred profits: 'basic' scientific theory, the humanities, literary theory and philosophy.... What is produced in this field can always be used. And even if it should remain useless in its results, in its productions, it can always serve to keep the masters of discourse busy: the experts, professionals of rhetoric, logic or philosophy who might otherwise be applying their energy elsewhere.20

In the face of this apparent admission that there may after all be a hors-texte, and that even if (thanks to his dialectical ruses) the deconstructionist's pure free-play in language cannot be directly appropriated, it may in some sense be always already appropriated, Derrida's continued adherence to a kind of sceptical ataraxia seems courageous, if also perhaps naïve. Gerald Graff appears to have cut deeper into the question of appropriation when he asked:

Isn't it at least possible that nature, essence, immanence, and other logocentric concepts are less of a live issue than they once were, that these and other hierarchical concepts were rendered negligible long ago by a more powerful 'deconstructive' force than that of any school of philosophy or criticism, namely, the force of consumer capitalism itself? Aren't strategies of textual dissemination of questionable effectiveness if the culture they seek to strike against is already more like a disseminated text than an organically unified one?21

Derrida of course regards with distaste and alarm the transformations being worked in our culture by the hegemonic forces of consumer capitalism, and he has spoken out strongly against these forces. But to the extent that the strategies of deconstruction repeat these transformations on an intellectually rigorous level, there would seem to follow from Graff's comments another, harsher question—which I will pose in the form of an allusion to Derrida's analysis in “Plato's Pharmacy” of the Platonic pharmakon: Is deconstruction itself a remedy, or has it rather been a poison? To put the question in these terms is already to reveal a distortion, an incomprehension even, of the Derridean text: for the word pharmakon means both “remedy” and “poison,” as well as several other things; and this appropriation of the term constitutes an allegorizing of his text that Derrida might well reject with contempt. Yet the insistence with which this or similar questions have been raised, and with which one or the other answer has been pressed, may serve as a reminder that the Derridean intervention has not occurred in a vacuum, and that the various appropriations of his thought have not been without consequences.

“Hands, hold you poison or grapes?”22 Either alternative seems inappropriately apocalyptic. We are concerned here with a secondary phenomenon (though one which emphatically reveals the secondariness of all other cultural phenomena), and therefore with a symptom, as much as with a cause. Deconstruction may be a poison for the paranoid, and a remedy for dogmatism (though ironically, some of its American offshoots have at times tended to acquire certain of the vestments of dogma). But as I have been trying to insinuate for several paragraphs already, deconstruction is also, on Derrida's own account, the moon.

What the early Wittgenstein excluded from “the world” and consigned to silence can, in his own terms, still be thought—“for in order to be able to draw a limit to thought, we should have to find both sides of the limit thinkable (i.e. we should have to be able to think what cannot be thought)”—but it can, by his definition, only be thought as nonsense.23 To which Derrida would reply that a refusal to examine the institutions and exclusions of the principle of reason itself, when compounded by a pre-emptive definition of the thought which does so as “nonsense,” is no more than obscurantism.24

Wittgenstein's “world,” Derrida's “moon.” Those who have found the relentlessly inquiring stare of the latter alarming may wish to summon up the image of that space, adjacent to “the neighbouring moon,” yet on the outside of the limit which defines “the firm opacous globe / Of this round world” and separates it from Chaos: the image of that “windy sea of land” which Milton, in Book III of Paradise Lost, calls limbo or the Paradise of Fools, and which he reserves for “embryos and idiots,” for

All the unaccomplished works of nature's hand, 
Abortive, monstrous, or unkindly mixed....25

Others, who for whatever reason have not felt threatened by the deconstructive enterprise, might prefer to evoke the thirty-fourth canto of Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, in which Astolfo, travelling to the moon, discovered “no folly, / For still that here with us remaineth wholly.” Instead he found, in receptacles of different sizes, the mislaid sanity and wisdom of those on earth

That think they have great store of wit and boast it
When here it plain appeared they quite had lost it.

There also, in a scene suggestive of Derrida's account of the quasi-originary weave of différance, Astolfo encountered the Parcae or Fates, who out of “diverse fleeces”—wool, lint, silk, and cotton—spin “Threads infinite of divers stuff and hue.”26

One further aspect of the moon-metaphor set in motion by Derrida and pursued here remains to be considered. Quite simply, the moon itself is not a novelty—a fact which may seem of some significance should we attempt at some point to assess our responses both to this writer and to his critics. According to Derrida's own analysis of Egyptian mythology, an awareness of différance and of the linguistic archi-trace goes back at least as far as to the priests of Memphis; and as I wish briefly to indicate, certain features of Derrida's thought are anticipated by the sophist Gorgias, by the ancient sceptics, by Valentinus the Gnostic, and by a number of Renaissance writers.

Let us consider these anticipations in historical sequence. Although Derrida protects himself in “Plato's Pharmacy” by remarking that “this reading of Plato is at no time spurred on by some slogan or password of a 'back-to-the-sophists' nature,”27 his argument in this text is nonetheless profoundly Gorgian. In saying this I am not referring primarily to his extended use of Gorgias' Encomium of Helen to establish the important point that the analogy (logos) between the relation of pharmakon to body and that of persuasive logos to soul is anomalous, in that one of its terms recurs as the name of the analogy—from which it follows that “The pharmakon is comprehended in the structure of logos.”28 I am interested rather in the co-presence of Gorgias, earlier in Derrida's text, in a well-known passage on “the dangerous supplement” which contains no mention of the old sophist. The supplément “is not, so to speak, dangerous in itself, in that aspect of it that can present itself as a thing, as a being-present. In that case it would be reassuring. But here, the supplement is not, is not a being (on). It is nevertheless not a simple non-being (mé on), either. Its slidings slip it out of the simple alternative presence/absence. That is the danger.”29 I find it hard not to hear this, in context, as an echo of Gorgias' refusal to permit any clear distinction between being and non-being (on kai mé on)—an echo, in particular, of the argument in Gorgias' text On Nature or that which is not (peri tou mé ontos) that “it is not possible [for anything] either to be or not to be” (ouk estin oute einai oute mé einai).30 Gorgianic overtones are strengthened when, two paragraphs later, Derrida exemplifies the workings of this Platonic supplément-pharmakon by alluding to what Freud called 'kettle-logic': “1. The kettle I am returning to you is brand new; 2. The holes were already in it when you lent it to me; 3. You never lent me a kettle anyway.”31 This, again, sounds very much a displaced reminiscence of the principal argument of Gorgias' Peri tou mé ontos, which is, “firstly, that nothing exists; secondly, that even if anything exists it is inapprehensible by mankind; and thirdly, that even if anything is apprehensible, yet without a doubt it is inexpressible and incommunicable to one's neighbour.”32 Derrida's argument would thus appear itself to be anomalous, with respect to its Gorgianic roots, in precisely the same manner as that in which it shows logos to be anomalous: the same form of inquiry which reveals the pharmakon to be embedded in logos also shows Derrida's argument to be itself permeated by the meontic logic of Gorgias.

Derrida's affiliations with the ancient sceptical tradition, which in recent decades has attracted renewed scholarly interest,33 are perhaps more obvious. It may then be sufficient to quote A. D. Nuttall's observation that

The third of [the Pyrrhonist philosopher] Agrippa's “five modes of perplexity,” the mode of relativity,” neatly encapsulates the history of structuralism and its resolution into scepticism: “The mode derived from relativity declares that a thing can never be apprehended in and by itself, but only in connexion with something else. Hence all things are unknowable.” Agrippa's second mode of perplexity mirrors Derrida's principle of indefinite deferral: “The mode which involves extension ad infinitum refuses to admit that what is sought to be proved is firmly established because one thing furnishes the ground for belief in another, and so on ad infinitum.” Agrippa applies the principle to rational demonstration, Derrida to semantic confirmation. The end result in either case is virtually the same.34

In alluding, next, to Derrida's Gnostic affinities, I do not wish to be mistaken for a practitioner of the kind of heresiological polemic of which there have been some notorious recent examples.35 I would simply suggest that any reader of the hostile accounts of Valentinian Gnosticism in Irenaeus and Hippolytus, of Valentinus' own Gospel of Truth, and of some of Derrida's early texts, among them the essay “Force et signification” and the opening chapters of De la grammatologie, can hardly fail to observe certain very striking parallels.36

The Renaissance anticipations of Derridean deconstruction, if more diffuse, resonate oddly with that Derridean text, “Plato's Pharmacy,” from which I have drawn the key metaphor of this essay. Beginning in the latter part of the fifteenth century, recurrent tides of excitement were generated among humanist scholars by the recently translated writings attributed to the Egyptian sage Hermes Trismegistus—who is none other than the Hellenized form of Thoth, the Egyptian god of writing and of the moon. The fact that this Hermes, the king, priest, and prophet who gave laws and letters to the Egyptians, was wholly legendary, and that his supposed writings actually date from the first centuries of the Christian era, came to light only in the early seventeenth century.37 He had in the meantime been accepted by many scholars for more than a century as an approximate contemporary of Moses, as the author of a professedly inspired account of the creation which overlaps with and pulls against the book of Genesis, and as a philosopher from whose writings the doctrines of Plato were derived. One of the results of this was a quasi-deconstructive reversal of the normal flow both of causality and of textual authority—the establishment of a habit of reading which made the Hermetic appropriation of commonplaces from the schools of Middle Platonism into the ancient sources of Plato's thought, and the Hermetic creation myth (thanks in part to its parallels with the Kabbalistic speculations then being revealed to Christians by Jewish scholars exiled from Spain) into a revelation of the esoteric meaning of the Genesis story. Another result—perhaps appropriately, since to Hermes was traditionally ascribed the definition of God as “an infinite sphere whose centre is everywhere, and whose circumference nowhere”38—was a certain de-centring of originary authority: the divinely inspired Hermes was a direct challenge to the exclusivity of the Judaeo-Christian revelation, and however much a Hermetist might strive to reconcile the two (“I am a Christian,” wrote one of them, “and at the same time not ashamed to be a Hermetist”),39 interpretive tensions, which rapidly also acquired political dimensions, were inescapable.

Among the manifestations of the Hermetic vogue of the Renaissance could be cited the strange career of another Agrippa—not the Pyrrhonist philosopher, but the humanist, lawyer, and also magician and doctor (and thus pharmakeus), Henricus Cornelius Agrippa of Nettesheim. Author of the notorious De occulta philosophia, this Agrippa was also, like the Pyrrhonist, a refuter of first principles: his most widely read and translated book was a quasi-encyclopaedic 'deconstruction' of all arts and sciences as vain and uncertain.40 Cornelius Agrippa was praised by later writers as another Hermes Trismegistus—and also, as befitting a proto-Derridean pharmakeus, attacked as a sorcerer; his writing, which he himself announced should be of medicinal value, was by hostile polemicists declared to be a “mortal poison.”41 Nor was he soon forgotten. André Thevet, writing a half-century after Agrippa's death, bewailed among “les malheurs de nostre France” the fact that his country still supported followers of Agrippa, who, “making as though to take the moon between their teeth, trim, clip, cut back, limit, divide and dismember the power of Eternal God....”42

If these anticipations, however shadowy and incomplete, suffice to remind us that the moon is indeed no novelty, they also lead to a slightly embarrassing question. The fields to which I have alluded have all been the objects of intensive scholarly study over at least the past several decades. Why, then, should literary critics have been so startled by the reappearance and the creative adaptation in Derrida's writings of motifs which during the intervening centuries had never been wholly eclipsed—so eager, on the one hand, to carry the moon in their pockets; and, on the other, to howl against its minions like Irish wolves?

One might at the same time ask whether there has not been an element of conscious self-deception in Derrida's own repeated rhetorical representations of logocentric metaphysics as an effectively monolithic tradition of thought. His own forms of argument tend very quickly to dissipate this phantom: any apparent monolith is revealed by a deconstructive reading to be traversed by fissures, to be openly ruptured—indeed, to be constituted on and in response to the network of indeterminacies of which these are only the first ostensible signs. The Platonic logos—to revert to the example at hand—is built upon and subverted by the Gorgian/Socratic pharmakon. But has this, or something analogous, not been the case throughout history as well as in this inaugural textual example? Does the duplicitous relationship between hegemonic construction and sceptical devolution—between, on the one hand, the selective appropriations of dogmatism, and, on the other, a mélange of collaboration, resistance, and subversion—not seem to be repeated in perpetually different ways in the ideological and literary strugglers of other ages, including our own?

The Derridean mythos of a monolithic metaphysical tradition of logocentric repression is thus to some extent undercut both by the forms of analysis which Derrida himself has practised and also by the traces, sometimes visible within his own writings, of counter-traditions which have in various ways anticipated his sceptical stance. But at the same time, paradoxically, the receptions of his thought, the positions taken for and against the moon, effectively legitimize this story by demonstrating that it was one which we urgently needed to have told to us. Only in a literary-academic culture in which subversive counter-traditions had been and were being very efficiently repressed—a culture which indeed was instituted in the nineteenth century for the purpose, among others, of reproducing orthodox ideologies and mystifying class and gender oppression43—could such a narrative have been believed. And believed, because while Derrida's own writings may give it the lie, the aggressive manner in which orthodox academic critics initially responded to them are at least partial evidence of this story's truth.

* * *

I could claim that this essay has been an exercise in what Derrida calls “la mythologie blanche.” Or it might more fittingly be described, in a phrase of the poet Émile Nelligan, as “clair de lune intellectuel.”44 From the play with metaphor in which I have indulged it might seem rash to draw even tentative conclusions. However, one question does return with a certain insistency: namely, to what extent has Derrida succeeded in his stated desire to be exorbitant? He wrote, in De la grammatologie:

But what is the exorbitant?

I wised to reach the point of a certain exteriority in relation to the totality of the age of logocentrism. Starting from this point of exteriority, a certain deconstruction of that totality which is also a traced path, or that orb (orbis) which is also orbitary (orbita), might be broached.45

The echo in this passage of the Archimedean gesture of Descartes' Second Meditation (which suggests a deeply ingrained metaphysical habit of mind);46 the lunar, and thus orbital, quality of the “point” chosen from which to deconstruct the orbis terrarum of logocentricity; the tendency of deconstructionist texts to fall into a different rut (orbita) of their own: all these may indicate that the project was in certain respects constrained from the start.

Yet the attempt can be honoured—and seconded, if perhaps in other modes. A half-century ago Walter Benjamin wrote that “In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it.”47 In the interim these words have not ceased to be true; and it continues to be the case that conformism—in a gesture which is the precise opposite of Derrida's characterization of his own project—designates as 'exorbitant' the Other which it seeks to exclude, to silence, and to suppress. It is also the case that the vigour of any discipline in the human sciences is directly related to the extent to which it incorporates the exorbitant—with the aim not of domesticating it, but rather of bringing about a critical reorientation both of the discipline and of the society which that discipline serves as one of its modes of reproduction.




1  Tom Wayman, “Full Moon in Winter 5 O'Clock Unemployment Spaceshot Era,” lines 15-16, 25-26, in his For and Against the Moon: Blues, Yells, and Chuckles (Toronto: Macmillan, 1974), pp. 15-16.

2  A. D. Nuttall, “Solvents and Fixatives: Critical Theory in Transition,” Modern Language Review 82.2 (1987), 273; Gregor McLennan, “Rescuing Reason,” New Formations 1 (1987), 142; Roger Poole, “Midrash” (rev. Of Geoffrey Hartman and Sanford Budick, eds., Midrash and Literature), Textual Practice 1 (1987), 86.

3  See, for example, Edward Said, The World, the Text, and the Critic (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983); and also my article “Deconstruction and the Gnostics,” University of Toronto Quarterly 55.1 (1985), 74-93.

4  Alan Kennedy, “Criticism of Value: Response to John Fekete,” in Literature and Politics/Literary Politics, ed. Michael H. Keefer, Dalhousie Review, special double issue, 66.1-2 (Spring/Summer 1986), 87. Kennedy is course well aware that Derrida insistently questions the very possibility of delimitation; see, for example, Derrida's Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), pp. ix-xi, 25.

5  Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. D.F. Pears and B.F. McGuinness (1961; rpt. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1974), p. 5.

6  Proposition 5.6 and the first sentence of 5.6 1 appear on p. 56. The aphorism about silence appears on pp. 3 and 74.

7  See, for example, Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, trans. W. Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale (New York: Vintage, 1968), section 516, pp. 279-80.

8  Jacques Derrida, De la grammatologie (Paris: Minuit, 1967), pp. 103, 74.

9  Lucretius, De rerum natura, ed. Cyril Bailey (2nd ed., 1922; rpt. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1954), i.968-83. (I am indebted for this reference to A. D. Nuttall, Dostoevsky's “Crime and Punishment”: Murder as Philosophic Experiment [Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, for Sussex University Press, 1978], p. 123.)

10  See De la grammatologie, chapters 1 and 2.

11  Derrida, Speech and Phenomena and Other Essays on Husserl's Theory of Signs, trans. D. B. Allison (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973), p. 104; La voix et le phénomène (Paris: P.U.F., 1967), p. 117. (I am indebted to Newton Garver, in the preface to the English translation of this work [p. xxviii], for the perception of a link between this sentence and the first proposition of Wittgenstein's Tractatus.)

12  Derrida, Dissemination, trans. Barbara Johnson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), “Plato's Pharmacy,” p. 87.

13  Ibid., p. 88.

14  Ibid., p. 89. The translation of the opening phrase of this passage seems clumsy. Derrida wrote: “Dieu du langage second et de la différence linguistique, Thot ne peut devenir le dieu de la parole créatrice que par substitution métonymique, par déplacement historique et parfois par subversion violente.” La dissémination (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1972), p. 100. [I would translate this as “God of secondary language....”]

15  Dissemination, p. 89.

16  See, for example, Richard Rorty, “Philosophy as a Kind of Writing: An Essay on Derrida,” in his Consequences of Pragmatism (Essays: 1972-1980) (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982), pp. 90-109, and the essays cited in Rorty's first note to that essay; also Christopher Norris, The Deconstructive Turn: Essays in the Rhetoric of Philosophy London: Methuen, 1983), and The Contest of Faculties: Philosophy and Theory After Deconstruction (London: Methuen, 1985); and, in addition, the Philosophy and Literary Theory issue of The Monist 69.1 (January 1986).

17  See the well-known essay “La structure, le signe et le jeu dans le discours des sciences humaines,” in L'écriture et la différence (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1967), pp. 409-28.

18  Gerald Graff, “The Pseudo-Politics of Interpretation,” Critical Inquiry 9.3 (March 1983), 606-07.

19  Christopher Norris, Deconstruction: Theory and Practice (London and New York: Methuen, 1982), p. 1.

20  Derrida, “The Principle of Reason: The University in the Eyes f its Pupils,” Diacritics 13 (Fall 1983), 16, 13.

21  Graff, “The Pseudo-Politics of Interpretation,” 606.

22  Dylan Thomas, Collected Poems 1934-1952 (London: Dent, 1967), p. 58.

23  Wittgenstein, Tractatus, p. 3.

24  See Derrida, “The Principle of Reason,” 7-15.

25  Milton, Paradise Lost, ed Alastair Fowler (London: Longman, 1971), Book III, 418-98, pp. 167-72.

26  Ariosto's Orlando Furioso: Selections from the Translation of Sir John Harrington, ed. Rudolf Gottfried (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1971), canto 34, 638-704, pp. 296-98.

27  Derrida, Dissemination, p. 108.

28  Ibid., p. 117.

29  Ibid., p. 109.

30  I am quoting from the work De Melisso Xenophane Gorgia, attributed to Aristotle, as cited and interpreted by G. B. Kerferd, “Gorgias on nature or that which is not,” Phronesis 1 (1955), 3-25. (As Kerferd observes, there are several possible English renderings of this passage.)

31  Derrida, Dissemination, p. 111. Derrida at once characterizes the 'kettle-logic' of 'Plato-Rousseau-Saussure' as follows: “Analogously: 1. Writing is rigorously exterior and inferior to living memory and speech, which are therefore undamaged by it. 2. Writing is harmful to them because it puts them to sleep and infects their very way of life which would otherwise remain intact. 3. Anyway, if one has resorted to hypomnesia and writing at all, it is not for their intrinsic value, but because living memory is finite, it already has holes in it before writing ever comes to leave its traces. Writing has no effect on memory.” As Christopher Norris remarks, “This 'kettle-logic' is the means by which the Phaedrus both persistently raises the question of writing and just as persistently manages to evade, suppress or contain its large implications.” Norris, Derrida (London: Fontana, 1987), p. 40.

32  Gorgias, Peri tou mé ontos, as reported by Sextus Empiricus, Against the Logicians, I. 65. The translation makes use of the version of R. G. Bury, Sextus Empiricus with an English translation (4 vols., Loeb Classical Library; London: Heinemann, 1933-49), vol. 2, p. 35, and that of R. K. Sprague, ed., The Older Sophists (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1972), p. 42. Howard Felperin, describing it as “The first work of thoroughgoing (what I shall later term 'hard-core') deconstruction to come down to us,” suggests that this Gorgian text is “so striking in its wholesale anticipation of the contemporary project as to demand reconsideration of the cultural and philosophical context that could have conditioned it” (Beyond Deconstruction [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985], p. 104n). Felperin, who performs the remarkable feat of attacking Derrida at length without quoting him or even so much as naming one of his writings, does not attempt such a reconsideration.

33  Instances of which in the past few years include Myles Burnyeat, ed., The Skeptical Tradition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), and Julia Annas and Jonathan Barnes, The Modes of Scepticism: Ancient Texts and Modern Interpretations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

34  A. D. Nuttall, A New Mimesis: Shakespeare and the Representation of Reality (London and New York: Methuen, 1983), p. 36. Nuttall is quoting from Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, trans. R.D. Hicks (Loeb Classical Library; London: Heinemann, 1925), ix.89, 88, vol. 2, pp. 500-01. See also A. J. Cascardi, “Skepticism and Deconstruction,” Philosophy and Literature 8 (1984), 1-14.

35  I am referring in particular to the Charles Eliot Norton lectures given at Harvard in 1979-80 by Dame Helen Gardner and published as In Defence of the Imagination. Frank Kermode, one of Dame Helen's targets, replied with devastating effectiveness in “On Being an Enemy of Humanity,” Raritan 2.2 (1982-83), 87-102.

36  I have discussed some of these in my essay “Deconstruction and the Gnostics.”

37  See Frances A. Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964; rpt. Chicago: University of Chicasgo Press, 1978), and Anthony Grafton, “Protestant versus Prophet: Isaac Causaubon on Hermes Trismegistus,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 46 (1983), 78-93.

38  The earliest surviving text in which this aphorism occurs is the twelfth-century Liber XXIV philosophorum. See Robin Small, “Nietzsche and a Platonist Tradition of the Cosmos: Center Everywhere and Circumference Nowhere,” Journal of the History of Ideas 44 (1983), 89-104. I have studied certain implications of this definition in “The World Turned Inside Out: Revolutions of the Infinite Sphere from Hermes to Pascal,” Renaissance and Reformation/Renaissance et Réforme n.s. 12.4 (1988), 303-13.

39  Ludovico Lazzarelli, De summa hominis foelicitate dialogus, qui inscribitur Calix Christi et Crater Hermetis, in Eugenio Garin et al., eds., Testi umanistici su l'ermetismo (Rome Fratelli Bocca, 1955), p. 56: “Christianus ego sum ... et Hermeticum simul esse non pudet.”

40  The standard study of this writer is Charles G. Nauert's Agrippa and the Crisis of Renaissance Thought (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1965); see also my article “Agrippa's Dilemma: Hermetic 'Rebirth' and the Ambivalences of De vanitate and De occulta philosophia,” Renaissance Quarterly 41.4 (1988), 614-53.

41  Gabriel Naudé, in his Apologie pour tous les grans personnages qui ont esté faussement soupçonnez de magie (Paris, 1625), p. 404, calls Agrippa “un nouveau Trismégiste”; Jean Bodin, in De la démonomanie des sorciers (Paris, 1581), fol. 219V, denounced him as “le plus grand Sorcier qui fut oncques de son aage.” In the preface to De occulta philosophia, Agrippa proposes that what he writes of magic might be put to use in the same way as doctors use poisons as antidotes: “nam & medicorum volumina inspicientibus contingit cum antidotis & pharmacis simul etiam venena legere.” Opera, ed. R.H. Popkin (2 vols., Lyon, c. 1600; facsimile rpt. Hildesheim: Georg Olms Verlag, 1970), vol. 1, sig. a2v. André Thevet, in Les vrais pourtraits et vies des hommes illustres (2 vols.; Paris, 1584), vol. 2, fol. 544, wrote of Agrippa's book De vanitate that “Il n'y a coin ny secret d'aucune discipline, lequel il n'ait fureté & y ait vomy quelque regorge de sa mortelle poison.” 

42  Thevet, Les vrais pourtraits, vol. 2, fol. 544V: “I'ay honte qu'il faille que ie ramentoyve les malheurs de nostre France, qui encores pour le iourdhuy soustyent des Agrippins, esquels soubs quelques traicts estranges & espouventables font estat de prendre la lune avec les dents, taillent, roignent, retranchent, moderent, partissent & despiecent la puissance de l'Eternel, lequel ils veulent assubiectir aux niaiseries, qu'asses sottement ils s'impriment dans la cervelle.”

43  See, for example, Robert Holton, “A True Bond of Unity: Popular Education and the Foundation of the Discipline of English Literature in England,” in Literature and Politics/Literary Politics, Dalhousie Review 66.1-2 (Spring/Summer 1986), 31-44.

44  Jacques Derrida, “La mythologie blanche: la métaphore dans le texts philosophique,” in Marges de la philosophie (Paris: Minuit, 1972), pp. 247-324; Émile Nelligan, Poésies complètes 1896-1899, ed. Luc Lacourcière (1952; rpt. Montréal and Paris: Fides, 1968), p. 41.

45  Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), pp. 161-62.

46  René Descartes, “Méditation seconde,” in Oeuvres philosophiques, ed. F. Alquié (3 vols.; Paris: Garnier, 1963-73), vol. 2, p. 414: “Archimède, pour tirer le globe terrestre de sa place et le transporter en un autre lieu, ne demandait rien qu'un point qui fut fixe et assuré. Ainsi j'aurai droit de concevoir de hautes espérances si je suis aussi heureux pour trouver seulement une chose qui soit certaine et indubitable.”

47  Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (London: Fontana, 1973), p. 257.    

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 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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