Zoroaster to Rasputin
The Myth of the Magus. By E. M. Butler. (Cambridge University Press. 21s.) Miss Btrma, now Professor of German in the University of Cam- bridge, published in i935 a work on "the tyranny of Greece over Germany" which was reviewed at the time, non sine laude, by the present reviewer. The volume now under review (it would appear from the preface) is also the fruit of the author's German studies, and has its origin in Goethe's Faust. But whatever its origin, the book has acquired a life of its own in the course of its composition ; and it is a disturbing sort of life. The Myth of the Magus is beyond reviewing. One can only set down the sad and confused reflections provoked in the mind by its reading.
It is an account of some twenty-five or so " mages," treated one after the other, with an introduction of some ten pages and a con- clusion of five. The " mages " are more or less chronologically arranged • they begin with Zoroaster and they end with Rasputin. Our Lord appears in a chapter entitled The Downfall of the Magus, in which He has Simon Magus for His companion. Moses has his part as one of " mages," distinguished for the " malignant " character and the "fearful ruthlessness" (the words are the author's words) of the magic he used. The company includes Pythagoras, Gerbert (Sylvester II), St. Joan, Cagliostro and Madame Blavatsky. The accounts are strung together like thrushes on a string ; but there is a sort of scheme on which they are made to illustrate some or all of the ten "stock features" of the "mage " described in the introduction. It is not clear what is Miss Butler's own view of life or religion. It is only clear to the reviewer, so far as he himself is concerned, that any view she may have is very far from his own. Perhaps that is enough to say.
The picture left on the mind by the book is that of a rider on a dark horse, of uncertain paces, riding through an unknown country in the dark. What does it all mean ? It is hard to say ; impossible to say. There is a dark tower looming somewhere at the end of the ride—or there may be such a tower ; one does not know. Mean- while one gets an impression of a rather pathetic omnisciehce, very ready to confess that it suffers from nescience, but still attempting to cover all knowledge, all time and all countries. There must be, for example, a disquisition on Zoroastrianism (a difficult subject, as the reviewer has discovered to his cost); there must be -another on Apollonius of Tyana (another difficult subject, on which Miss Butler might have got more light if she had consulted Professor Phillimore's translation and the introduction to that translation); and so disquisition follows on disquisition. Miss Butler has delved in a world of strange learning ; she has explored . the caverns of illusion. The reader can only rub his eyes, and ask himself whether he wakes or dreams. His difficulty is increased by the writer's style. It is far from simple • indeed it is often cryptic. What, for instance, is the meaning of these two sentences in the conclusion ? "The systematic poisoning undertaken by Christianity greatly enfeebled the constitution of the descendants of the magi. It [what ?] was a deadly poison, distilled from those flowers of evil always to be found in the garden of magic."
A reviewer must be honest. The present reviewer is bound to confess that Miss Butler's book offends against such taste as he has and such feelings as live in his mind about the mystery ot things. Why should Miss Butler write about ladies "picking up their skirts and showing their lovely legs to the men" (p. 139; cf. also the top of p. Ica and the bottom of p. 114) ? Why must she speak of our Lord as she does in the section based on the Apocryphal New Testament ? There is really no answer ; at any rate no satisfactory answer. There is much learning in her book ; there is less taste, less discretion less judgement. It is not wise to wander among the Zoroastrians, ;he Neo-Pythagoreans, the Neo-Platonists, the Gnostics and the Freemasons unless you have a deep as well as a wide scholarship. Miss Butler has a wide scholarship ; the depth of it is more dubious. A deeper scholarship would never have assembled this heterogeneous collection of " mages." It would have shrunk from the whole undertaking ; or at any rate it would have defined exactly what a magus is, and how he differs from a humbug, impostor, charlatan or quack. Again, a deeper scholarship would have drawn a clearer distinction between historical fact and legendary accretion. Ten pages of the book, for example, are devoted to a magus called Pythagoras—a magus entirely legendary, and totally different from the real Pythagoras. No doubt Miss Butler knows the difference. But the inexperienced reader may easily be led astray, when he finds her using the indicative mood—" Pythagoras did this, or that "—where a shadowy and tenuous subjunctive is the proper mood to use.
Those who have admired Miss Butler's writings on the subject of her Cambridge chair—German language and literature—can only long that she should return to her old woods and pastures. True, her addiction to the " mages " may have begun in that field, and in the study of Goethe's Faust. But is Goethe, or that particular work of Goethe, a good inspiration ? Santayana, in a novel called The Last Euritot, puts into the mouth of one of his characters a remark about Goethe and his ,Eaust that sets one thinking "But what a diabolical guide for the soul ! " A provocative remark, intended to shock. Has it, perhaps, some grain of truth ?