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Hermetic Literature

Posted on by Wouter Hanegraaff

Last week I re-read Helmut Krausser’s novel Melodien (Melodies, 1993), and realized once again that the “hermetic” dimension of modern literature is a highly important but seriously under-investigated topic. Krausser’s book is a masterpiece of modern German literature, and as far as I’m concerned it should be on the standard reading list of anybody interested in Hermeticism and related traditions. Although it has been translated into several modern languages, surprisingly enough it is still not available in English. Its subtitle, Nachträge zum quecksilbernen Zeitalter, almost looks like a deliberate pun that already anticipates on such a translation: “Appendices to the Mercurial Age”. The German word Quecksilber refers to the chemical element of Mercury, but of course, Mercury in English refers to the Latin name (Mercurius) of Hermes Trismegistus. Krausser shows a very impressive erudition throughout his novel, and he must have been perfectly aware of these connotations when he wrote it: Melodien is permeated from beginning to end with hints, hidden allusions, and explicit or implicit references to the mythical and magical dimensions of the Italian Renaissance.

I do not want to spoil the pleasure of future readers by spilling the many secrets of this magnificent story and giving away the plot, but it is safe to say that it is heavily concerned with the complicated interrelatedness of Myth, Magic, Music, and Madness (in the sense of mania: not so much insanity but, rather, an “altered” state of mystical exaltation or “divine frenzy” as famously described by Plato in his Phaedrus and inherited by many Renaissance thinkers, including Ficino and Bruno). Not unlike the fictional characters in Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum – but without wishing to denigrate that famous novel, it must be said that Melodien is of considerably higher quality from both a literary and an intellectual point of view – those in Krausser’s novel are searching for a forgotten secret, only to discover when it is too late that they have been playing with powers that are stronger than themselves. They begin from a safe position of scholarly curiosity, but gradually fall under the spell of myth. As the novel moves almost imperceptibly into dark and very disturbing territory, the protagonists find that from observers they have become participants in a story that is larger than they are and over which they no longer have any control. Something similar happens in Foucault’s Pendulum, but the differences are at least as interesting as the similarities. Eco’s protagonists fall victim to a paranoid process of “over-interpretation”, and the novel carries a moralistic message of warning against the “dangers of the occult”. Krausser’s protagonists are in serious danger as well, but for a different reason: they discover that certain domains of human ingenuity which we tend to see as interesting but essentially harmless forms of “art” are actually vehicles of numinous power. Krausser’s novel is written with a strong touch of (post)modern irony, and neither defends nor tries to debunk a hermetic or esoteric worldview, but it does suggest strongly that a mysterious “magical” power is at work in myth and music, and that one plays with it at one’s own peril. Finally, Melodien is also about yet another power: that of history. Its protagonists learn the same lesson as the protagonists in Paul Thomas Anderson’s magnificent movie Magnolia (1999): “We may be through with the past, but the past isn’t through with us”.

4 Responses to Hermetic Literature

  1. Julian W G says:

    It looks to be an extremely interesting book.
    I found interesting The Zelator, A modern initiate explores the ancient misteries, by Mark Hedsel with an introduction and notes by David Ovason, Century Books LTD 1998, Random House UK
    as well
    The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, by Richard Zimler, The Overlook Press, Woodstock and New York,
    Kind regards,

  2. Hans van den Hooff says:

    Interesting review. Seems like a worthwhile read. A remark: The word mercury in English not only refers to Hermes as deity but also to the chemical element Hg. That would make for the possible translation of the subtitle to something Hermetically ambiguous like: Appendices to the Age of Mercury.

  3. Wouter Hanegraaff Wouter Hanegraaff says:

    Yes, absolutely. It could be “Appendices to the Mercurial Age” but also “to the Age of Mercury”, leaving the reader to decide whether that refers to the chemical element or to Hermes (or both). Incidentally, I just discovered that Melodien has in fact been translated into English, but so far it has been rejected by English and American publishers because of the length of the novel.

  4. Oscar Strik says:

    Lovely recommendation! I got it from the library, and I hope to find some time for it soon.

    The meanings and etymologies of Mercury and related terms are fascinating, by the way. Is there an interplay between the nomenclature and properties of the element and the perception of the mythological or spiritual figure of Mercury/Hermes in later esoteric traditions and alchemy?

    The Dutch/German name for the element – ‘kwik(zilver)/quecksilber’ – seems to be a more or less direct translation of the classical name hydrargyros (Hg) ‘water-silver’, as is the older English term ‘quicksilver’. In this older context, ‘quick/kwik/queck’ means ‘alive’ or ‘moving’.

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