For an anthropologist and astronomer, Aveni (Conversing with the Planets, 1992, etc.) displays an encouraging though...


BEHIND THE CRYSTAL BALL: Magic and Science from Antiquity through the New Age

For an anthropologist and astronomer, Aveni (Conversing with the Planets, 1992, etc.) displays an encouraging though sometimes excessive openness of mind about things magical in this dash through the history of Western mysticism and hokum, from the Gnostics to the alchemists to the New Age. While he recognizes the many benign uses of magic--as religion, as ritual, as epistemology--Aveni is also far too accepting of the innumerable abuses. Pulling the usual flea-bitten rhetorical rabbits out of his hat (science is limited, magic is nonempirical, etc.), he clumsily seeks to excuse all manner of mountebanks and charlatans: ""When we compare magic's by-laws to those of science, it becomes very clear why the two constitute ways of knowing that are totally at odds with one another concerning both what knowledge is valid and how that knowledge gets passed on."" Yet as Aveni acknowledges, the two have sometimes become entwined. Further, he believes that as science supposedly becomes less rational (cf. quantum mechanics), it will once again meld with magic. Interestingly, while science changes constantly, magic has altered very little over the centuries, with old beliefs constantly ""being rediscovered and dressed up in brand-new clothing."" Though Aveni's erudition is impressively vast, he doesn't know when to rein it in, as he hies off after even the most obscure flummeries. Yet he manages to slight both non-Western magic and the history of science. In short, this is one of those works that seem both too long and too incomplete. Certainly, it is far removed from the benchmark history of mysticism, Charles Mackay's entertaining 19th-century classic, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. Still, saw this book in half, suspend some of Aveni's credulity, and presto chango, you just might conjure up a highly readable book.

Pub Date: Aug. 1, 1996


Page Count: 432

Publisher: Times

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1996