Presenter: Dr. Katherine Sirluck

Katherine Sirluck teaches Renaissance literature and drama in the Department of English at UBC. She completed her B.A. (Hons.) and her Masters degree in English at the University of Toronto, and her doctorate on Jacobean tragedy at King’s College, University of London. She has published on Marlowe, Shakespeare, and Mikhail Bulgakov, and has a continuing interest in feminism, the history of ideas, and cultural anthropology.

Renaissance Magic and the Wonder Working Word

The Wonder Working Word (published in 1494) and Cabalistic Art (1517) are John Reuchlin’s two major contributions to the study of Cabala. This influential Hebraist, together with Pico della Mirandola, and other Renaissance occultists such as Agrippa and Bruno, changed the way in which the nature and capacity of the word were understood in England and Europe. They influenced ambient ideas regarding the efficacy of the word as a mediating force between the divine and material realms. In hermetic magic, writing and speech are configured as an emulation of prime Creation and the original ordering of Chaos (“In the beginning was the Word”). Certain occult practices constitute the turning away from a recalcitrant and unintelligible material world to a logocentric universe that is by its very nature “intelligible” and obedient, and which can be bound to materiality. One may also discern, in this branch of occult philosophy and science, a deeper, underlying drama of absence and estrangement between the magician and the Deity. The desire to initiate contact through imitation, or simply through magical invocation, is visible in Renaissance occultism from Ficino to Dee, and in Renaissance literary figures from Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus to the speaker in Donne’s Holy Sonnets. Occultism seems to have contributed to some writers’ fascination with the power of language to mediate, alter, or stand in for the “real”. I want to reflect a little on Renaissance occult theory pertaining to language, and consider how some literary works take up the idea of language as a magical tool.

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