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  • Le Comte de Gabalis, ou Entretiens sur les sciences secretes
  • Lawrence M. Principe
Didier Kahn , ed. Le Comte de Gabalis, ou Entretiens sur les sciences secretes. Paris: Honoré Champion, 2010. Pp. 307.

In 1670, a curious book appeared anonymously in Paris. The work contained five conversations between a narrator, skeptical of magic and related [End Page 235] arts, and a mysterious Comte de Gabalis, a master of "the secret sciences." The count spoke in particular about the four classes of spiritual beings—sylphs, nymphs, gnomes, and salamanders—that inhabited the four elements of air, water, earth, and fire, respectively, and urged his host not only to contact these beings, but to engage one of them in marriage. The anonymous author of this text was one Henri de Montfaucon de Villars, a native of the south of France who was murdered on his way to Lyons in 1673. His book gained great popularity and spawned sequels from the pens of later authors as well as a theatrical piece performed in 1681—La Pierre Philosophale—by Thomas Corneille and Jean Donneau de Visé (and probably Bernard de Fontenelle), with music by Marc-Antoine Charpentier. The book, its author, and even its fictional Comte subsequently accreted their own legends, and these misguided notions have for a long time served to obscure Le Comte de Gabalis' place in literary and intellectual history, as well as in the history of the "occult." Indeed, some occultists have come to believe that the book is a serious, even sacred, text that reveals arcane secrets, that the Comte de Gabalis was a real person, and even that Montfaucon de Villars was killed as a punishment for revealing privileged knowledge about the elemental spirits.

The present volume contains the complete text of Le Comte de Gabalis, framed with a range of relevant ancillary material and an extensive (148 pp.) and erudite introduction by Didier Kahn. The primary text is heavily and usefully annotated; its orthography has been modernized, which many scholars will rightly lament as quite unnecessary, but which is in conformity with the extensive series of edited primary texts produced by Champion. Kahn's introduction begins with a critical biography of Montfaucon de Villars that corrects numerous errors and debunks several myths (for example, he was killed as part of a long-standing family feud, not by aggrieved spirits). It continues with an analysis of the book's dual purpose as a parody of those who pursue the "secret sciences" and an expression of libertinism. Kahn then examines what counted as "secret sciences" in late seventeenth-century France, and performs the highly valuable task of assessing critically and contextually exactly what was meant by such fluid terms as "cabala," "magic," "alchemy," and other such terms at the time. He also explores the sources Montfaucon de Villars drew upon in writing his parody—some of them fairly obvious and others much more difficult to identify. While the ultimate source is certainly Paracelsus' Liber de nymphis, Kahn shows persuasively that Mont-faucon de Villars's immediate source was a 1583 paraphrase of this text by Blaise de Vigenère, which is usefully reprinted as an appendix for the reader's convenience. The introduction then explores the book's Parisian context, its reception, editions, translations, and its afterlife in literary, occultist, and other [End Page 236] circles. The introduction is enriched with a variety of primary source documents that shed new light on Montfaucon de Villars and his literary production. Finally, the book concludes with something lamentably rare in French publications: an index, and indeed, a detailed and reader-friendly one.

Kahn argues that Le Comte de Gabalis played an important role in the discrediting of a wide range of "secret" knowledge, from magic and necromancy to alchemy. Certainly, contemporary readers enjoyed many a laugh at the expense of those who believed in the efficacy of such arts, and it would have been difficult after its publication to address such issues with any degree of seriousness without provoking memories of the abbé de Villars's parody. Indeed, Kahn notes how even the serious "conferences" held in late seventeenth-century Paris by the Cartesian physicist Jacques Rohault provided the stage...


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