Aegypt is the name of a fantasy book by John Crowley, as well as the title of yet another non-climate-science post by me. I have loved several of Crowleys books – notably The Deep; Engine Summer; and Beasts. Which left me eager to read more, and totally baffled by Little, Big: a book with some ideas in it, a nice beginning, a turgid midsection and a pointless ending. Many people describe it as his masterwork. But onto Aegypt…

Ostensibly Aegypt is about a chap who gives up his job teaching history and goes off to live in a small village in the hills. So far so boring, and indeed not a lot happens. If you read the book blurb, its also about how the world has had many histories… or used to have a different history to what it has now (shades of the NOvella Great Work of Time, which also disappoints, but at least has the virtue of being short). Its a nice idea, and I can see how Crowley *wanted* to write a book around that idea, but as far as I can tell he fails, just about totally (this is the link into Little, Big: a book about an idea, that doesn’t really work). There are some fantasias about John Dee and/or Shakespeare woven into it, but these don’t really help.

Now, the reason I’m trying to write this down is the stuff about Hermes Trismegistus, famous “magician”, source of endless volumes of nonsense: not only those he wrote, but the turgid and inpenetrable re-tellings that others wrote. This I think is the source of Crowleys idea: what if this stuff worked (it would be a pretty weird world if it did: if you could actually influence the course of events by inscribing medallions with images of Saturn).

But of course it doesn’t. And I was having an interesting argument earlier today about how we should regard this; why we should study it (for those historians who are interested). And I was trying to understand their world-view, at least a bit. Its hard to understand, because from a modern view its so totally nutty you think “how could they possibly have believed this stuff”. And they write vast volumes, promising to reveal secrets, written so as not to reveal them. Did they believe they knew these secrets? Or that the secrets were lost in the past and they were groping towards trying to recover them? And then the next chap comes along, and publishes yet another volume re-arranging the existing words into yet another inpenetrable form, with yet another gloss, all totally pointless. And I want to say to them: can’t you *see* this stuff is all made up? That all you’re doing is copying from one authority to another, never sourcing anything, never checking anything. Of course none of it is checkable (how do you check the names of angels? Call them?) and since they were locked into the idea that the older a source, the more reliable, they were quite happy with all the copying.

Of course Newton and Boyle started out on this stuff; but they are interesting only where they gave it up and did real science instead.

2 thoughts on “Aegypt”

  1. Little, Big has a pointless ending!? You call the few of them who didn’t get killed off being wafted off to live happily ever after in fairyland while the rest of the world goes to hell in a handbasket *pointless*? Sheesh. 🙂

    P.S. – The above reminds me to mention that the only bumpersticker my partner has on her car reads: “Where are we going, and why am I in this handbasket?” It seems to resonate with a lot of people, although not everyone gets it.


  2. Regarding the Hermes Trismegistus business, the ability of humans to think in such terms seems to me to have changed very little. The difference between the past and the present is that such thinking is no longer intellectually respectable (not that there aren’t a lot of seemingly bright people still engaged in it, often but not always under the guise of religion). I would put forward as one example Karl Rove’s theory (as it were) of inventing reality (not the terms in which he describes it, of course). All you have to do is squint a little to imagine Karl decked out as a court astrologer. The only bright side of this is that policies based on that kind of thinking tend toward catastrophic failure in the short term.


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