A monumental treatise on magic--""a complete explanatory account of the whole thing, past and present, all the...


STOLEN LIGHTNING: The Social Theory of Magic

A monumental treatise on magic--""a complete explanatory account of the whole thing, past and present, all the provinces""--so powerfully and elaborately developed it threatens to become muscle-bound. O'Keefe seems to have devoured whole libraries of sociology, anthropology, philosophy, and literature. His command of the relevant material in these fields is attested to by hundreds of pointed quotations and literally thousands of footnotes. One is inevitably reminded of Sir James Frazer (whom O'Keefe challenges on various issues): like Frazer, O'Keefe has made a titanic survey of patterns of ""primitive"" behavior that he dislikes, not to say detests, despite their fascination. To give a bare-bones outline of his thesis: magic is social action, broken down into seven categories of medical, black, ceremonial, and religious magic, occult sciences, the paranormal, and magical cults and sects. Magic social action is made up essentially of symbolic performances, a process to which linguistic symbolism is the key. Magic is ""rigidly scripted"" (having stolen its scripts from re-religion, it ""rigidities them to retain their efficacy""). These scripts work mostly through a prior agreement to relax the social-cognitive framework (as in hypnosis sessions). In borrowing symbolism from religion--from which it is derived in the first place--magic engages in a dialectic that renews religion. In this conclusion, O'Keefe argues that magic is a mode of self-defense for the individual (which perhaps accounts for its remarkable powers of survival); indeed, it helped to create the ""institution"" of the individual. Magic, particularly black magic, is a barometer of social pressures on the self. Though in principle an eclectic, O'Keefe draws heavily upon Durkheim and his followers, notably Marcel Mauss. He would have made things easier for everyone, including himself, if he hadn't insisted in bringing in everything--from Egyptian theurgy to Zande witchcraft--with any relevance to his topic. But he has produced a work of unmatched scope and, for all its density, highly animated scholarship.

Pub Date: June 1, 1982


Page Count: -

Publisher: Continuum

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 1982