In place of fairies

Simon Schaffer

  • Stolen Lightning: The Social Theory of Magic by Daniel O’Keefe
    Martin Robertson, 581 pp, £17.50, September 1982, ISBN 0 85520 486 9
  • Scienze, Credenze Occulti, Livelli di Cultura edited by Paola Zambelli
    Leo Olschki, 562 pp, April 1982, ISBN 88 222 3069 8

Daniel O’Keefe’s massive survey of magic not only tells us ‘how to do it’ but gives us some policy recommendations too. His book reads like the transcript of a Royal Commission report on the occult. It is not easy reading, but the effort is worthwhile. His advice extends to such fields as politics, economics and war: this scope gives some clue both to the structure and to the theme of Stolen Lightning. This is not a book that describes magic – Paul Daniels and his friends in the Magic Circle can rest easy. Instead, it is a book that celebrates a kind of magic, the magical arcana of high social science. As the author frequently points out, modern sociology and anthropology have been dominated by the detailed study of primitive ritual, and specifically of magic and its relation with religion. Indeed, these social sciences may be said to have emerged from that study. The classics of modern social science, whether Durkheim, Mauss, Evans-Pritchard or Weber, have all been obsessed by these issues, which they connect more or less closely with the very origins of our own society. Here the origins of social science and the origins of modern society are traced to the same source. Stolen Lightning is much more an examination of these great traditions than of magic itself.

In this respect, as in many others, O’Keefe resembles very closely those great scholars of the Renaissance whose encyclopedic surveys of the Classics were such an important part of the Renaissance ‘occult revival’. In works with titles such as The Occult Philosophy, wise men and magi like Cornelius Agrippa and John Dee outlined in general and axiomatic form the elements of a high and secret knowledge which they claimed to have inherited from the past. This is exactly what O’Keefe has accomplished for his own misty past, instead of Orpheus, Hermes and Simon Magus, we are told of Marcel Mauss, Durkheim’s nephew, who, according to Evans-Pritchard, worked expertly on the anthropology of magic ‘without leaving his flat in Paris’ and who rallied the disciples of his sect around expensive dinners in excellent restaurants. ‘Maybe,’ O’Keefe suggests, ‘the classics of sociological theory are sociology’s own theology.’ Instead of the great division into natural, celestial and ceremonial magic which the Renaissance masters outlined, we are presented here with a sociological algebra in three great ‘books’ and one lengthy postscript. This algebra tortuously expresses the great debate of social theory about the relative priority of religion (R), magic (M) and science (S). The algebra is used to express these problems rather than to resolve them. In the early stages of the sociological faith, the dominant theory was that religion grew from magic, and science from religion. Thus the classical formula was M...R...S. O’Keefe’s ‘preliminary descriptive general theory’ claims that the story is to be symbolised by the formula R... M. At points this algebra gets more arcane than the subject which it treats, at times the emergence of magic from religion is substantially modified, and, even more frequently, the arrogance and ambition of this book outclasses even that of Doctor Faustus. Yet it is very fruitful to treat social theory as arcane knowledge of the arcane. The rewards are immense.

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