Friday, July 27, 2012

The Vagaries of Book-Buyers: Collecting Books on the Occult

The following article appeared in Book-Lore in May 1887, and proves that nothing much changes in the world of book collecting.

The Vagaries of Book-Buyers
LORD LYTTON, in that curious and mysterious novel, Zanoni, mentions an old bookseller who, after years of toil, had succeeded in forming an almost perfect library of works on occult philosophy. Poor in everything but a genuine love for the mute companions of his old age, he was compelled to keep open his shop, and trade, as it were, in his own flesh. Let a customer enter and his countenance fell; let him depart empty handed and he would smile gaily, oblivious for a time of bare cupboard and inward cravings. A purchaser was indeed a deadly enemy to the old man, for every proffered coin was scorching hot, a miserable and inadequate exchange for one drop of purple blood.

It is astonishing what a deep interest some people take in weird and obscurely written books. They will gloat over the mysteries of Hermes, and nervously finger the pages of Agrippa, that foul magician whose judgment of himself and all his labours is so eloquently portrayed in his Vanitie of Arts and Sciences. No matter, says the devotee, Agrippa was mistaken; he was afraid of the Inquisition, and recanted. He could not have invented the sigils, triangles, and magic circles, without which congregated with horrid eyes the spirits of the Moon and Paymon, the King of the West Wind. Agrippa was afraid of the spectres he had raised; afraid of his own black dog, and of the hell to which it pointed.

The amateur occult philosopher is, however, not afraid as yet and every spare moment is occupied in ferreting out the names of ghostly men, who either suffered on the rack or at the stake, for leaguing themselves with the powers of the air, or else tumbled headlong into the talons of besieging hosts of devils, all screaming, as Paracelsus says they sometimes do, " Thy pentacles and thy circle are wrong, thy words are false; come thou with us."

The old bookseller was a type, and, as we think, a type only of Lytton's own creation; perhaps a reflection of the soul of Lytton himself, ever groping through mists of tale and fable, and ever unsatisfied.

The purchaser of works on occult philosophy is usually exceedingly enthusiastic, so much so that he persists in his so called studies, notwithstanding the fact that nine tenths of his books are in Latin, a language of which he knows little or nothing. In a few words, he would become a disciple of Jannes and Jambres, and to this end sets about accumulating materials in the form of huge folios, conscientiously intending, no doubt, to read them when time and opportunity offer.

His course of reading so far has been confined to the Strange Story, which first riveted his attention on fiends and spectres, and to Barrett's Magus, which, being in English, and adorned with a number of weird plates, has proved an excellent stimulant to further exertions. The Bible is ransacked, and the Witch of Endor and Simon Magus duly weighed in the balance, while such phrases as "Now the magicians of Egypt they also did in like manner with their enchantments," roll off the tongue with unctuous volubility. Presently the aspirant to "horrors fell and grim" stumbles across the treatises of Raphael and Sibly, and sighs to think that his ignorance effectually cuts him off from the delightful contemplations of those obscure authors upon whose diatribes their works are founded.

At this point the average student comes to a full stop, and turns probably to astrology as being a more tangible study, and apparently much easier. His little library swells with the treatises of Lilly, Raphael, Placidus de Titus, and the great Ptolemy, while he rejoices to think that Flamsted believed in the reality of the science, and that old Burton, the "Democritus junior," hanged himself rather than admit that his own horoscope was out of gear.

The next step is the purchase of a planisphere, which conveniently dispenses with abstruse calculations in spherical trigonometry ; and finally the student erects a horoscope all out of his own head, showing plainly enough that he was born when Mercury was retrograde, and at the square of the moon a never failing sign of idiocy, proved up to the hilt, be it said, when he is at last actually persuaded to go a horse racing with his slender capital, merely because the "quesited" the famous "Flying Scud" is in a trine aspect with Jupiter, Lord of the Seventh, and therefore cannot lose. The horse, however, breaks down, and is scratched four and twenty hours after the money is staked, and henceforth astrology is a Will o' the wisp that will never again lure our bibliophile to his ruin.

Out of every twenty persons who take up the study of occult philosophy, nineteen are supremely ignorant of the most ordinary branches of knowledge, but the twentieth is a man of very different composition. He, too, began, perhaps, in the same way as his less gifted brethren, and has followed the same paths, and pored over the same books, and would like also to rival the deeds of Albertus Magnus, who had power over the elements; or of Peter of Abono, who raised terrible forms as easily as a market gardener raises cabbages.

He speedily discovers that Barrett's Magus is, in part, at least, a mere translation, and a very bad one, of Agrippa's fourth book, and that Raphael has mutilated the words of every author he quotes. There is no reliable work in English which can possibly be procured, and so he turns to the Latin, beginning with Iamblichus, and his famous book De Mysteriis, printed by Aldus in 1497. This rare and interesting specimen of typography loses, however, all its beauty in the absorbing nature of its contents; and the same observation is applicable to the author's Vita Pythagorae, published at Rome in 1556. These treatises are, it is true, mere introductions which every tyro who hopes hereafter to lift the veil of Isis must read if he wishes to fit himself to meet the petrifying gaze of the "Dweller on the Threshold;" but they are also two most useful books, as from them can be gleaned a mass of information which, rightly understood, is declared by the initiated to point to the portals of the world beyond the grave.

With appetite whetted to a swallowing point perfectly gluttonous in its magnitude, the student next turns to the treatise of the learned Jesuit, Martin Delrio, who, in his Disquisitionum Magicarum, examines the many different systems of magic practised by the professors of his day; to Bodinus, De la Demonomanie des Sorciers; and in their turn to Boissardus, Jerome Cardan, Glanvil, Grillandus, Van Helmont, Wierus, and the Malleus Maleficarum of Sprenger and Institor.

All these works, comprehending as they do an assortment of wonders the like of which the world never saw, and perhaps never will see, support one another in a manner that would put a coterie of Old Bailey witnesses to the blush, so precise, and seemingly accurate are the expressions used, so consequential the inferences. There is no mincing matters, no equivocation nor contradiction; everything is so orderly and precise that what is usually regarded, in this country at least, as a structure composed entirely of falsehood and fraud, becomes quite natural in appearance, so that, at last, the student finds himself accepting a statement, no matter how foolish, simply because Sprenger affirms it to be true, or Robert Fludd hints that it possibly may be.

All this time money is going out as fast as credulity, for works on occult philosophy are very expensive. The dealers are aware of their patron's feverish anxiety to obtain them when once bitten by the mania, and, as a matter of course, charge accordingly. Thus £3 is, as a rule, demanded for the Opera Omnia of Paracelsus, 1658, 2 vols., folio; seven or eight guineas for the collected works of Cardan, Lugd., 1663; and as much and more for those of Robert Fludd, Oppenheim, 1617. Respecting this last author, Isaac D'Israeli, in his Curiosities of Literature, states that in his time as much as £4o had to be given for a single volume, so great in those days appears to have been the anxiety to obtain copies of works of this and a similar class. We can imagine, therefore, how large must have been the value of the unique collection formed by the bookseller to whom Lytton so fondly refers, and we or at least some of us - may almost participate in his disinclination to have such a splendid assortment broken in upon by the amateur peripatetic philosopher who in all probability cannot read one hundredth part of the treasures he longs to possess.

The modern world has now been revolving for nearly 1,900 years, and during the whole of that time repeated attempts have been made to lift the curtain that shuts out the invisible world. Some few persons as, for example, Rozencrantz, who founded the Society of the Rosy Cross, and Paracelsus, who is "now living in his tomb, whither he retired disgusted with the vices and follies of mankind" are credited with having peeped for a few brief moments behind it; but with these and some other exceptions the progress that has been made is admitted by the most ardent devotee to have been nil. Rumour, as chorus, has taken the place of fact, and dreams that of reality, but still the modern occultist cannot be brought to see that he labours in vain. And so he goes on purchasing ponderous volumes, ugly to look at and absolutely useless for every purpose, theoretical as well as practical, until either he is forced by repeated failures to admit that his favourite authors are impostors, or that he himself has, in spite of all his application, failed to reach the road that leads from this world to that which is to come. He and others like him and there are many even in this century would outstrip themselves in a desperate race through the darkness of Erebus; they spend a lifetime in learning to walk, only to be afflicted with total paralysis at the last; and when they awake to find their labour has been in vain, they are amazed to think of the fallacy which engulphed years of toil in the futile attempt to discover what they will learn in five minutes after they are dead.

However, be this as it may, the sale of books on occult philosophy goes on apace, and purchasers are very eager to part with their cash, a phenomenon which is observed in very few instances save the one under discussion. Some of these days enterprise may detect money in new editions and translations of Artemidorus on dreams, and Raymond Lully and Artephius on the philosopher's stone; but at present the trade is confined exclusively to old and battered copies which have served generations of investigators, which are now being read, and which will be read, in all probability, until they are thumbed out of recognition.

It is said of the Emperor Nero, that among other studies he ardently followed that of magic. He employed immense sums, wrung from the sweat of Rome, in this pursuit; searched far and wide for professors, penetrating the remote regions of India and Africa, and even prowled among the ruined towers of Chaldaea. Rewards were offered, and threats of cruel torture not only lavished but carried into effect, and with what result? Absolutely none, for all the power of Rome could not raise up another Witch of Endor, nor prolong the Emperor's life for a single second. And yet there are in England at this moment thousands of busybodies who think they can, with their limited resources, accomplish what Nero, with all Rome at his back, failed to perform; and so they go on, blinking like owls over distressing paragraphs that no one either in heaven above, nor in the earth beneath, nor in the waters under the earth, can possibly construe into intelligible English. The only consolation is that these good people are out of harm's way, and may perhaps be laying up a store of patience which may serve their end when the fit is over. They are very good customers of the booksellers also, and rejoice exceedingly over one very small piece of silver which they persuade themselves they are on the eve of finding.

1 comment:

  1. Fun reading! Amazing that it was written so long ago.