The scholarly literature on modern ceremonial magic is scanty, to say the least, so the appearance of any volume dealing with the topic is welcome. It is especially welcome when the book is well-written and comprehensively covers the area in question in ways that are helpful for both scholars and more casual readers. Egil Asprem’s new book, Arguing with Angels, covers those bases, though it might have been able to yield something more.
This is not to say that this is a problematic work. It does an admirable job of covering the complexities of Enochian magic, both in regard to the system itself and the textual transmission thereof. Beginning with the spirit conjuring of Dee and Kelley, our author moves through the seventeenth-century publication of their material by Casaubon, its influence on the nineteenth-century occult revival, its influence on Aleister Crowley, its appearance in the Satanic Bible, and the numerous works published more recently and their reception in online spiritual communities.
In addition, the work takes on a broader significance, as Asprem uses Enochian to discuss the issue of authenticity in occultism. Does a practitioner work with material as close to the earliest sources as possible, or does he or she seek a later synthesis that might be based on others’ practice? What role does individual practice play? With a system as time-intensive as some Enochian practice, it’s hard to simply say, “People do what works,” as several choices have to be made as to what authors are considered authoritative on the topic before any actual rites are conducted. In addition, Asprem discusses the practice in light of scholarly debate over whether modern society should be considered “disenchanted” or “re-enchanted,” eventually concluding that blanket statements of one or the other conceal the real complexity of the matter.
That is not to say that some of the reasoning in the book is entirely sound, but Asprem’s thoroughness usually makes up for this. For example, Asprem labels it unlikely that some of the owners of Dee’s manuscripts would have allowed magicians to see them. Nevertheless, he does not discuss the other owners and whether they might have been possibilities. This is a minor point, as he is able to demonstrate that most of the magical material in 17th century grimoires in fact derives from Casaubon’s work rather than Dee’s originals. He also points to another author’s conclusion that Kelley was not a fraud because he did not behave as one. I’ve found that the question “If this person was trying to fool us, why would he do X?” answers itself. Still, Asprem goes on to note that Dee also employed other scryers, so his operations cannot simply be attributed to Kelley.
The book also does not deliver some elements that I missed very much. For instance, it’s odd to see a book on Enochian magic never grapple with the identity of Enoch or the books attributed to him that were missing at Dee’s time. Such material would not only have helped the reader with regard to the Biblical roots of Dee’s project, it might have illuminated a portion of his thought processes as he went forward with his experiment.
In addition, it might be interesting to note how the Enochian system fits into the mental maps of its modern practitioners, aside from that of LaVey and his followers. What was a Christian-based ritual magic, part of Dee’s broader program of British national supremacy, has been appropriated and adapted for the use of those of other belief systems and political views, and exploring that change would have been most desirable.
Finally, some note of the appropriation of Enochian language and symbolism in popular culture – most notably in the works of Marilyn Manson and Tool – might have helped to broaden the scope of the discussion and demonstrate how occultism has infused popular culture.
This is not to say that Arguing with Angels is not a good book – it certainly is, for anyone interested in the history of magic or in Enochian in particular. I simply think that it had the potential to do more, and I’m slightly disappointed that it did not.