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The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

By Richard Marshall.

Jack Zipes, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Princeton, 2017

Jack Zipes: ‘ Tales about magical transformation will persist as long as voices of resistance to domination and exploitation continue to make themselves heard.’

Zipes collects a phenotypic story-marker about our metaphysical, objective, fundamental, psychopathological fracture. The story pours out a contemporary topographic of violated, expelled senses and wounded psychosis. It confronts a politics of totalitarian imperative, a psychotic infinite distance of peripheral psychological space linking the sexual and physical abuse of children with illegal and secret politico/ecological traumas via an encoded master/slave dynamic.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice story either gives grief-stricken trace lines an irrevocable source of resistance, or else anomalous forms of persistent humiliation. It works to estimate the situation. It’s a habit of secrecy being brokered over centuries. Narratives of intense corporeal excavations take place in night ears but are experienced in daylight eyes. Deranged adults and wounded children perform annulment stories in silence. The insane interrogative research of intense pressure seeks the other side of suffering, where the suffering ends not because it has been expelled or exonerated but rather because it has been liberated from its opposite.

Narratives need to just writhe in front of us in strange raptures. There is not that much else that needs to be understood because oracles and such like are rarely unequivocal if they’re worth their salt. Zipes sees the archetypical sorcerer’s apprentice story as a story offering strong magic against birth-child-violence imagery familiar in readings of, say, JC Jung: ‘The Puer Aeternus is simply the personification of the infantile side of our character….[This] little boy ought to be brought up, educated, perhaps spanked … In mythology, the figure … has an almost divine creative character… In Faust he has three forms: Boy-guide, Homonculus, Euphorion. They were all destroyed by fire… Fire puts an end to everything, even an end to the world.’ The humiliated child resists this narrative of fiery immolation through an alternative magic of transformations, sleight of hands, play, trickster gambles and downright stories. David Lynch captures this in his enigmatic dream-tatoo ‘ fire walk with me’ currently making a third progression in ‘Twin Peaks.’

The apprentice stories are games of chance played with shredded ipsiety, that minimum minimum of basic self-experience. A hyper-reflexivity exaggerates the self-consciousness of processes that would normally remain tacit. It simultaneously diminishes self-affection. The story sees slave/master dialectic as a core. This can also serve as a reminder that a self’s unity may be exaggerated and that contradictory, fragmentary and confusing agentive roles are what our traumas bequeath. Marcia Cavell says in a therapeutic relationship it’s the struggle for self-expression that creates the thing to be expressed. The self comes into being in its attempt to be understood by the other. Better this be no evil guardian. Hobson and Rochat say that the self is generated from the beginning in its social relationships but for Cavell there is no initial self. What there is emerges from social life and its unity is determined by the degree of continuity of the life led. The traumatized life fragments and shreds any initial unity. The resultant minimal self retains a frenzied unity, a screaming, nightmarish horror. This can be creative, it can be pathological. The sorcerer’s apprentice is about this intra-psychic conflict. Its alternative is the process whereby repression and dissociation leaves layers of meaning in the dark and the fragmentation becomes pathological. Cavell calls this a kind of vertical repression where the self comes apart in layers. New experiences – a new lover, job, role, room, order – disorientating the self, these are horizontal repressions.

If the sorcerer’s apprentice stories involve the existence of minimal subjects, what are these ‘minimal subjects’? They are the subject that remains when everything but the ‘being of experience’ has been stripped away. It may last for only a short time. It might not be self-conscious. Ethics may have no hold on it in any conventional sense. The minimal self is a metaphysical self, a metaphysical consciousness. A proponent of the minimum self, philosopher Galen Strawson, lines up this kind of being alongside Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant, Nietzsche, Russell, Whitehead, Ramsey and others. He rejects ‘… the view that there is a fundamental ontological categorical distinction between the being of a candidate thing/object/substance , like a human being or a chair, considered at any time, and the being of its propertiedness, considered at any time.’ And it is something existing in a materialism that includes real experience as part of the real universe. Real naturalism is the same as real materialism. It is hard-nosed about consciousness in the way that behaviourists, functionalists and representationalists aren’t. These last three positions define our conscious experiences in ways that excludes what the term actually means. Dan Dennett’s functionalism is the parade case. Wittgenstein may be the ultimate case.

Real naturalist materialists understand experiences – such as the taste of ice cream, the experience of blue – in the same way as 5 year olds. Contemporaries Block, Chalmers, Fodor, Jackson, Lockwood, Levine, McGinn, Nagel, Kripke, Parfit and Searle are real materialist naturalists like Strawson. Experiences are always for someone or something. It is always false to say ‘there is an experience but no experiencer.’ Subjectivity is synonymous with experientiality. It’s always like something to have subjectivity. The subject of any experience is the minimal self. A thin subject exists if and only if experience exists that it is a subject of. Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza, Kant, Fichte, James and Husserl all endorse thin subjectivity. Hume thinks it exists but doesn’t endorse it, says Strawson, because he thinks the nature of the mind is mysterious. All minimal subjects are thin subjects, and all thin subjects are minimal. A minimal and thin subject exists for at least the shortest period of time in which experience can go on. Its experiences are always necessarily unified. Experience is fundamentally single. Fundamentally single unified experience is a metaphysical objective fact about the universe. The problem of non-experiencing metaphysical reality is removed if panpsychism is adopted. In panpsychism everything described by a completed physics is experiential.

A universe of experiential phenomena slices away dualism and gives credence to a metaphysics that claims fundamental alterations in the universe are fundamental alterations to experientiality. The traumatic experience of the minimal thin self is not carved away separately from the universe but is part of its very metaphysical and objective nature. David Lynch identifies the first test of nuclear power in 1945 as such a trauma. The bad dreams and stories of the minimal thin self are dreams and stories of the universe. Disorders of the minimal self, a disturbance of the basic, lived sense of subjectivity raises imagination itself as a sphere of contestation. The late Derek Walcott wrote: ‘ … the imagination is a territory as subject to invasion and seizure as any far province of Empire…’ For Walcott, of course, it was the Afro-Caribbean history of violence and trauma that led many to feel working with such a history was working with wounds beyond repair. Philosopher Wilson Harris however, recognizes the role of the imagination as transcending the brutal material events, writing: ‘ I believe that the possibility exists for us to become involved in perspectives of renascence which can bring into play a figurative meaning beyond an apparently real world or prison of history. I believe a philosophy of history may well lie buried in the arts of the imagination.’

The story of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice is the story of the fundamental traumas of the thin self understood in this way. It is a story about the fundamental reality. Since the 1940s there have been many versions in English speaking countries. There’s a clear division between those aimed at four to ten, and those written for young adults and adults. The young are given the humiliation/conformity version – ‘curiosity killed the cat’ etc – from Disney, Golden Books, Ladybird Books etc.

Older children and young adults get humiliation/ rebellion to replace the younger’s humiliation/ conformity, where the narratives ‘… are concerned with the physical, sexual, and psychological abuse of young people who are cultivated to serve masters and a master narrative.’ Many are optimistic and hopeful like Harry Potter. Others are more pessimistic about the power of rebellion such as Francois Augieras’s novella of 1964 ‘L’apprenti sorcier’; Charles Johnson’s 1986 version, Susanna Clarke’s novel ‘Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell’ and Elif Shafak’s 2014 ‘The Architect’s Apprentice.’ Lynch’s ‘Twin Peaks’ is the most sophisticated metaphysical version to date.

Augieras’s novella has rape, masochism and child abuse and ‘twists the tale type… into a celebration of “pure” pedophilia, a sickness that has plagued the catholic Church and its legions of priests for quite some time, not to mention its tradition of authoritarianism.’Johnson’s story is pessimism about race where the apprentice ‘… is not humiliated. He is belittled by demons who think he is not worthy of their attention.’ Clarke’s novel ends with ‘… an ongoing negative dialectic or dialogue, for the two magicians do not want to destroy each other. Rather they must bring light to themselves and other people to emerge from darkness. Their solipsistic and petty debate about the origins of magic and competition for laurels is transformed into a search for shared enlightenment.’
Shafak’s historical romance has toleration, cooperation and devotion to art as the way to define the apprentice. Le Guin’s ‘Earthsea’ novels hark back to the tales of Greco-Roman period and mediaeval Europe where ‘self-knowledge is obtained by absorbing the other which is actually part of oneself not by effacing it.’ Zipes finds the same in Harry Potter and Margaret Mahy’s ‘The magician of Hoard.’ Lynch’s Black Lodge/White Lodge annex hums with this in ‘Twin Peaks.’

‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ is a story in many guises. They are all stories of opposition to wicked sorcerers. Zipes knows they speak to child abuse, mentorship, exploitation and misuse of cultural and political power, writing:
‘For example, during the past thirty years there has been a worldwide crisis that involves the maltreatment of young people by sorcerers, the degeneration of public education, slave labour, child abandonment, poverty, violence.’ Elisabeth Young-Bruehl in ‘Childism’ shows adults treating children as slaves and possessions. As childism spread early through societies alongside magic, so the stories pick up the conflicts between children and adults through a magical prism. Bernd-Christian Otto and Michael Stausberg explain that:

‘”Magic” belongs to the conceptual legacy of fifth-century Greece (BCE). Etymologically the terms apparently derived from contact with the main political enemy of the period, the Persians, and “magic” has ever since served as a marker of alterity, dangerous, foreign, illicit, suspicious but potentially powerful things done by others (and/or done differently). From referring to concrete objects and practices, “magic” eventually turned into a rather abstract category…”magic” has been a term with an extremely versatile and ambivalent semantics: it is the art of the devil or a path to the gods, it is of natural or supernatural origin, a testimony to human folly or the crowning achievement of scientific audacity, a sin or a virtue, harmful or beneficent, overpowering or empowering, and an act of othering or of self-assertion.’

Pierre Bourdieu says our self knowledge is gained by experiencing ‘slavery’ and what it entails. He sees it as a Hegelian dialectical battle to the death with our ‘habitus’. Zipes points out that most tales of the sorcerer’s apprentice type are from the slave perspective. Key sources of this are Sara Forsdyke’s ‘Slaves Tell Tales and Other Episodes in the Politics of Popular Culture in Ancient Greece’ and Richard Dorson’s ‘ Negro Folktales in Michigan’ where he writes:

‘Seemingly these unified and highly localized Old Marster tales grew on Southern soil from American Negro experience, but actually they come from the ends of the earth. By the mysterious selective process of folklore, jousts between masters and servants recounted centuries ago in Europe or West Africa have found their way into slave traditions… From India comes the wonderful tale of the Sorcerers Apprentice, with its magical transformation combat between the wizard and his pupil, to surface in Michigan in a unique text brilliantly adjusted to Negro slave life, with Old Marster out-hoodoing John at each step.’

The stories don’t provide a solution, nor do they prescribe one. For Ernst Bloch:

‘The fairy tale narrates a wish-fulfillment that is not bound by its own time, and the apparel of its contents. In contrast to the legend, which is always tied to a particular locale. The fairy tale remains unbound. Not only does the folk tale remain as fresh as longing and love, but the demonically evil, which is abundant in the fairy tale, is still seen at work here in the present, and the happiness of ‘once upon a time’, which is even more abundant, still affects our visions of the future.’

Zipes argues that the Sorcerer’s Apprentice is made up of a ‘memeplex’ of two major tale types: ‘The Humiliated Apprentice’ and ‘The Rebellious Apprentice’ The first fosters authoritarianism and enslavement, the second empowerment and self-awareness. They are in endless conflict with each other. He looks at tales from eighteenth century Central Europe called Sorbia or Lusatia. The ‘Krabat’ tales are woven into German culture. As he reads the stories he works with several premises.

The first premise is about the role of belief in magic and ‘mana’ ‘to delineate religion and science while forging a crucial critique of secularization in the modern world.’ I’m not sure that ‘belief’ here is quite right here. It seems more a stance rather than a belief, but that’s a quibble for another time. Randall Styers writes:
‘Magic and supernaturalism of all sorts pervade modernity, eagerly adapting modern modes of knowledge and technology and actively engaging the anxieties and discontents of the modern world. Indeed modernity has depended on its own specific forms of mystification – commodification, mass entertainment, celebrity culture, and much more. The desire to suppress or expel magic has been such a formative component of efforts to produce the modern world that it becomes impossible to grasp the nature of modernity without acknowledging the active magical undercurrents that pervade the contemporary world.’

WR Halliday in “The Force of Initiative In Magical Conflict” comments:

‘It is now widely admitted by anthropologists that magic is based on power. A rite which has efficacy in se is exactly analogous to word of power. It is by his power or mana that a sorcerer or medicine man works his will. But it is important to notice in the lower culture the sorcerer’s power differs not so much in kind as degree from that of the ordinary man. Everyone has some power, some personality.’

And RG Collingwood agrees that magic is crucial, this time in ‘The Philosophy of Enchantment’;

‘In order to understand fairy tales… we must give an account of magic which will show that in its essence it is a thing familiar to ourselves, not as a spectacle, but as an experience: something which we habitually do, something which plays a part in our social and personal life, not as a mere survival of savagery, but as an essential feature of civilization.’

Zipes admits that he missed something when appraising the success of the Harry Potter books the first time he wrote of it. He missed that they ‘harked back to stories about magicians and their apprentices…’ of what William Alexander Clouson calls the ‘magical conflict root.’ Clousen says:

‘The stem of… “The Magical Conflict Root” has spread its branches far and wide in the shape of popular fictions in which two or more persons possessing nearly equal powers of changing themselves into whatever forms they please, engage in a life-or-death struggle. It seems to me that popular belief in men capable of acquiring such powers should sufficiently account for the universal prevalence of stories of this class, without seeking for their origin in primitive conceptions of the phenomena of physical nature, such as sunrise, sunset, clouds, lightening and so forth.’

The question asked of all sorcerers is how they will use their powers, for themselves or for the good of all. ‘The appeal of the magic in fairy tales stems from the manner in which it is contested.’ Zipes reads Harry Potter as a fairy tale, and as a version of ‘The Magician and his Pupil.’ Hans-Jorg Uther in ‘ The Types of International Folktales’ shows that this type generalizes this sequence of plot functions, seven in all, starting with an exchange for magic. So we get, typically, a poor father apprenticing his son at a school for magic – the boy is enslaved and the sorcerer wants to keep him. The boy can’t be released unless recognized by parents in his transformed state. Then the son flees and shows how the parents can recognize him. Once free, but with some magic knowledge learned from his time with the sorcerer, the son finds a way of using the magic for monetary gain: he transforms himself into an animal that the father can sell for money and then later escapes each time to return to the father in human form so long as the father binds him. They become rich. The sorcerer seeks revenge at the market, buys the son and a halter to bind him. The sorcerer imprisons and tortures the apprentice and intends to kill him. The pupil uses cunning to escape and the sorcerer comes after him. They have a shape shifting battle. The sorcerer transforms into a rooster, the pupil a fox and so forth, so that fatally the sorcerer transforms into something weaker than whatever the apprentice has changed into. The apprentice as a fox bites off the sorcerer as rooster’s head. The pupil returns to the father or else marries a princess. We’re not told how he will use his powers in the future but there’s no reason to think he’ll be evil.

Alongside this type there is also another type Zipe draws attention to, “The Apprentice and the Ghosts’ type, or ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.’ The master sorcerer leaves the house of magic and the apprentice reads a forbidden book of magic or overhears spells and then alone tries to imitate the magician. Demons are called forth. Chaos happens, the sorcerer returns to stop the chaos, and punishes, and sometimes kills, the apprentice. This is clearly a humiliated/conformist apprentice version. The first is oppositional, the rebellious apprentice type.

Both ‘The Magician as His Pupil’ and ‘The Apprentice and the Ghosts’ have roots in India, Mongolia, Egypt, Siberia, Turkey, Greece and Italy. The first version of the Humiliated Apprentice perhaps starts with Lucian’s ‘The Lover of Lies.’ An Egyptian setting is the first of a nine point schema Lucian develops: a student apprentice, keen to master sorcery goes to the studio of the sorcerer to learn; there’s a failed attempt to master the magic/technology; a magical book he tries to steal; there’s the figure of the old priest/magician the sorcerer; the younger man gradually working his way into confidence and friendship; the young man beseeching the sorcerer for revelation; his failure to control the magic; and the final revelation in the cave of the key and/or punishment that follows.

Apuleius’s ‘Golden Ass’ resembles this. Translated into Latin in fifteenth century, and into European vernacular in late 18th and early 19th centuries it led to Goethe writing a brief poem Der Zauberlehrling in 1797, in imitation of Lucian. In it the apprentice conjures ghosts which flood the sorcerer’s house. When he returns he banishes them. Robert Southey’s ‘Cornelius Agripa’s Bloody Book’ (1801) depicts what happens when a young man’s curiosity gets the better of him. Sir Walter Scott’s ‘The Last Exorciser’ (1838), Bernhard Baader’s ‘Magic Book‘ (1851), Sabine Baring-Gould’s ‘The Master and His Pupil‘ (1866), Sheykh-Zada’s ‘The Lady’s Fifth Story‘ of 1886 and Edith Hodgett’s ‘The Blacksmith and the Devil (1890) were all variations. The apprentice never achieves his goal. The sorcerers, even when the devil, are not depicted as evil. They have magic and inspire awe. In 1897 Goethe’s short poem was turned into a symphonic poem by Paul Dukas in 1896-7 – ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: Scherzo Based on a Balled by Goethe.’ Walt Disney used this for his version in 1940. Disney took much from an earlier film version from 1930 directed by Sidney Levee, produced by William Carmen Menzies. Disney included it in ‘Fantasia’ to resurrect Mickey Mouse whose popularity had faltered since 1930. At the end the sorcerer says ‘Don’t start what you can’t finish’ and Mickey goes off to work as a slave. Disney infantalises the tale, turning an adult tale into a story for children. Disney’s version says that young people should obey omnipotent people and if they try and use powers before they are ready they will bring chaos and demons into the world. The Humiliated Apprentice presents omnipotence as a thing of awe.

Richard Rostron’s version of 1941, Nancy Willard’s of 1993 and Barbara Hazan’s version of 1969 demean the apprentice. ‘The struggle between master and pupil is always won by the master…’ The Rebellious Apprentice have found its motifs in Hesiod, Ovid, ancient Mongolian, Turkey, and Indian and Asian folklore of the early medieval period. Shapeshifting and metamorphosis is the way the struggle between master and apprentice is worked out. Stith Thompson writes of this struggle: ‘… it has three parts that have remained firmly associated , namely , the circumstances leading to an apprenticeship, the boy’s return home, where he shows his father how he can be sold for profit by transmitting himself into various costly animals, and his metamorphosis contest that arises as the master seeks to destroy his pupil.’

Early versions the shape-shifters were women trying to avoid marriage and/or rape. Elaine Fatham writes that ‘ … Shapeshifters feature in the mythologies of many nations, but as Forbes Irving has argued in his recent study of Greek mythology, their capacity to move swiftly through a baffling series of transformations distinguishes them from either gods or mortals, who can merely transform or disguise themselves on occasions. What seems to have attracted Ovid to choose those figures for his narrative was the autonomy of the self-transformer, whose powers enabled him or her to shape his or her own tale.’

Mestra is a key figure here. Mestra has the ability to metamorphose as she wishes, defeats a genie in a vicious battle but dies saving the life of a prince changed in the shape of an ape. For Kirk Ormond ‘ The story of Mestra belongs to a set of myths about female shape-shifters, and like them, represents certain wide ranging anxieties about women’s sexual power in ancient Greece. Shape-shifting myths seem to be keyed in to gender…for males it is not linked to a single moment or place in their lives… [but it is for] … female characters … [who]… lose the ability in certain circumstances… their shape-shifting always take place in the context of trying to avoid marriage…’ and so the Mestra story is slightly different: ‘… The trope of female instability is used in this story to reflect concerns about women’s social mobility that are tied to the specific social milieu of archaic Athens and… to Athenian marriage laws.’ Oddly Zipes detects no sorcerer’s apprentice, master/slave dynamic as such in Mestra.

What happens next is that in the medieval period the gender of the shape-shifter changes and a ritualistic background is revealed alongside a pursuit of magic. The Mongolian Siddhi-Kur derived from an earlier Indian Sanskrit tale is about the son of a Khan who steals a key from seven magicians. His older brother has been sent to learn the magic but is no good. The younger brother brings him food, glances at the spells lying about and learns them instantly. They leave, the younger brother turns into a horse and asks his elder brother to sell him and get back home with the money. But jealousy and stupidity means the elder sells him to the magicians who want to kill him. The young brother evades them through transforming himself into a fish, a dove and then a bead with the help of Nagarg’una, a wise Buddhist, the 15th patriarch in the Buddhist succession who played a leading role in conflict between Buddhism and Brahminism. As a worm the magicians turn into chickens to eat the worms, the brother turns into himself with a sword and kills the chickens. In recompense for the murder the Buddhist sends him out to find the Siddhi-Kur – the enchanted corpse. He does, tells eleven stories and then escapes from the Buddhist.

The rebellious apprentice, according to Emmanuel Cosquin, works with a different set of components: the hero is entrusted to a magician; the father and son encounter a sorcerer called Oh! or Ah! when they breath deeply; sometimes the son is promised before birth to magician; when alone the young man sometimes finds the magician; in the magicians’ haunted or mysterious house the apprentice is helped by a friend or woman; the magician displays powers in the house, and there are many transformations; there’s a combat between the apprentice and magician that involves several transformations; the apprentice learns the magic to escape; the magician wants revenge and to kill the apprentice; it’s kill or be killed, the apprentice uses magic skill to defeat magician. There are many of these tales from all over – Middle east, Asia, northern Africa, Europe as well as the Indian varieties and they were taken forward into the renaissance orally until Giovan Francesco Straparola’s ‘Maestro Lattantio and his Apprentice Dionigo’ of 1550 became ‘the first known literary work that artfully combined all the different motifs…’

The master/slave relationship became rampant in Europe and the rebellious apprentice in particular was rife. It was diverse, international, written and told mainly for adults. Magic was accepted as a way of survival for the impoverished, a tool to fight oppression and struggle against trauma. The female protagonist of the stories was not afraid of sexual relationships with the apprenticeship in her bedroom and is active in saving him. In some versions both sorcerer and apprentice die, in others the sorcerer is allowed to live, in some the princess kills the sorcerer, and the oral tales were established as part of the cultural memory of individual societies responding to traumas of slave/master conflict at all levels. Modernity continued to shape new versions: Hans Heinz Ewer’s ‘ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ (1907); Edith Nesbit’s ‘ The Magician’s Heart’ (1912), Herman Hesse’s ‘The Forest Dweller’ (1917); Heywood Broun’s ‘Red Magic’ (1921), Lord Dunsany’s ‘ The Charwoman’s Shadow’ (1926)… Susanna Clarke’s ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell’ (2004) right up to Lynch’s dark version, a story that Zipes says ‘… is a life and death struggle to know ourselves, our desires, and our talents… based on patterns of “magicity”, leads readers to grasp how difficult it is to become narrators of our lives when neglected, enslaved, or abused, and how important it is to engage masters in a bloody battle…’

Zipes argues that Hegel’s ‘Master-Slave Dialectic helps us understand the enormous response readers have to the story. He sees the sorcerer/apprentice story as using magic to fight back, but are essentially wish-fulfiment stories – they comprise resistance per se rather than offer a solution. Full self-knowledge is never guaranteed and only a modicum is realized by the end. The apprentice character can never fully know himself because he submits and conforms to the power of the sorcerer. The magic could only be a solution if democratic sharing was an option so for the main the tales raise consciousness rather than offer solutions. ‘The ending of most narratives that feature a rebellious apprentice ends in resistance – perpetual resistance.’

Adorno called for a negative dialectic to oppose Hegel’s conservative one. Hegel’s pessimistic master-slave dialectic required understanding the other in order to grasp self-understanding so ‘… self-consciousness is thus certain of itself only by superseding this other that presents itself to self-consciousness as an independent life; self-consciousness is desire. Certain of the nothingness of this other, it explicitly affirms that this nothingness is for it the truth of the other; it destroys the independent object and thereby gives itself the certainty of itself as a true certainty, a certainty which has become explicit for self-consciousness itself in an objective manner… the reaction of the two self-conscious individuals is such that they prove themselves and each other through a life-and-death struggle. They must engage in this struggle, for they must raise their certainty of being for themselves to truth, both in the case of the other and in their own case.’

Neither must die or else neither can achieve self-consciousness and we’re left with the master slave relationship where the master never achieves self-consciousness because he loses touch with real conditions of living and working in bondage whereas the slave does ‘… through work, the bondsman becomes conscious of what he truly is… it is precisely in his work wherein he seemed to have only an alienated existence that he acquires a mind of his own.’ It’s a deeply conservative vision. As Nicolas Laos comments: ‘Hegel’s historical and, hence, secular teleology implies that the universality of civilization is equivalent to and stems from the total dominance of the state over society… Hegel’s political thought is concerned with the improvement of humanity, but, in contrast to classical Greek political thought, it ignores the improvement of man as a person, and, therefore, it legitimates absolutism and totalitarianism.’

Adorno’s ‘negative dialectics’ attacks Hegel: ‘Cognition aims at the particular, not at the universal. It seeks its true object in the possible determination of the difference of that particular – even from the universal which it criticizes as nonetheless inalienable. But if the mediation of the universal by the particular is reduced to the abstract form of mediation as such, the particular has to pay the price, down to its authoritarian dismissal in the material parts of the Hegelian system…’

‘If Hegel had carried the doctrine of identity of universal farther, to a dialectic in the particular itself, the particular – which to him is simply the mediated particular – would have been granted the same right as the universal. That he depreciates this right into a mere urge and psychologically blackens the right of man as narcissism – like a father chiding his son, “Maybe you think you’re something special” –this is not an individual lapse on the philosopher’s part. Idealistically, there is no carrying out the dialectic of the particular which he envisions.’

Adorno argues that self-consciousness and critical-thinking was through antagonism and resistance writing that ‘… history is the unity of continuity and discontinuity. Society stays alive, not despite its antagonism but by means of it… This also implies the reconciling side of the irreconcilable; since nothing else else permits men to live, not even a changed life would be possible without it.’ ‘Negative dialectics is the motor of history and knowledge without end.’ ‘… if negative dialectics calls for the self-reflection of thinking, the tangible implication is that if thinking is to be true – if it is to be true today, in any case – it must be a thinking against itself.’

For Zipes the sorcerer’s apprentice stories are all about metamorphosis through conflict and antagonism: ‘Antagonism is a historical necessity in the “Rebellious Apprentice” tales, and even though most of them end in the killing of the sorcerer, the apprentice preserves the categorical imperative to think and act to negate the absolute dictatorship of the sorcerer and the forces that cast harmful spells on people so that they cannot think for themselves.’

This is in line with what Alexandre Kojeve says on this matter: ‘Man can only free himself from the given World that does not satisfy him only if this world, in its totality, belongs properly to a (real or “sublimated”) Master. Now, as long as the Master lives, he himself is always enslavedby the World of which he is the Master. Since the Master transcends the given World only in and by the risk of his life, it is only his death that ‘realises’ his freedom. As long as he lives, therefore, he never attains the freedom that would raise him above the given World. The master can never detach himself from the World in which he lives, and if this world perishes, he perishes with it. Only the Slave can transcend the World that forms him and fixes him in slavery and create the World that forms him and fixes him in slavery and create the World that he has formed in which he will be free.’

If the Sorcerers’ Apprentice present magic as ‘a stable value of transformation that allows for self-consciousness and self-fashioning’ its through the magic tales the master-slave dialectic is interrogated. Elisabeth Young-Bruehl in ‘Childism: Confronting Prejudice against Children’ writes :

‘People… mistreat children in order to fulfill certain needs through them, to project internal conflicts and self-hatreds outward, or to assert themselves when they feel their authority has been questioned… they all rely upon a societal prejudice against children to justify themselves and legitimate their behaviour.’… Aristotle’s assumptions about children – that they are possessions and lack reasoning ability – are childist… The idea that children are by nature meant to be owned by their male parent and that they lack reason has justified treating them like slaves and like immature, unformed persons without the active qualities, the developmental thrust, the proto reasoning and choosing, and the individuality that contemporary developmentalists now recognize in them… childism… is a belief system that reverses the biological and psychological order of nature, in which adults are responsible for meeting the irreducible needs of children… Adults have needs of various kinds – and fantasies about those needs – that childist adults imagine children could and, further, should serve.’

Magic is the key to understanding the stories, where magic works as a cultural memory in which people continue to believe the stories help children to ‘learn how to shape-shift, mutate, and transform so that they will not be sacrificed or killed by the insidious forces seeking to control them. Of course, the ‘Humiliated Apprentice’ reinforces the illusion of absolute omnipotence but the rebels give us hope. The rebels come from central Europe, in particular the figure of Krabat in Sorbian and German folk tales. Sorbs are Western Slavs – East German, Polish, Czech, and have two languages – Wendish and Lusatian – still spoken by 60,000 people. The Thirty Years War (1618-48) devastated Lusatia. From the Congress of Vienna settlement in 1815 much of Lusatia went to Saxony and the Sorbian language was banned. By 1871 Upper Sorbia became absorbed into Prussia, Lower Sorbia into Saxony but the Nazis crushed a growing Sorbian revival from the 1930s until after war. In East Germany and Poland Sorbian is strengthening again. It was the Germans who were in Sorbian folk tales the colonizing masters from 1600 to 1900 and anyone watching contemporary Europe this history isn’t to be sniffed at.

Susanne Hose is clear that the Krabat stories don’t stop coming: ‘ In contrast to other Sorbian folk tales, those about the Sorerer Krabat have been recorded in a relatively continual way and by different writers since the nineteenth century, as in the oral tales of Johann Schadowitz, Lord of Sarchen, which transformed him from an evil figure into a hero. He was the original Krabat buried in 1704, on May 29th in Wittichenau; later his sword was found when folks were burying another man in 1795. The stories of the Croat (now changed to Krabat) were told of his conjuring soldiers who stood to attention at the church. This figure now was a close friend of August I, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, with whom he lunched at noon and flew through the air to Dresden, crashed into the church steeple at Kamenz and bent it and rescued the Elector from Turks using magic. These stories continued, were transformed and developed, and get reconfigured to be about the poor apprentice called Krabat who learns enough magic to kill the master sorcerer. The tale was written for the first time by Joachim Leopold Haupt who in turn had read Goethe’s ‘Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ (or Lucien’s version). By the time we get to the twentieth century it had become a fairy tale with an emphasis on the poor young man as the sorcerer’s apprentice who rebels, as we find, for example, in Georg Pilk’s ‘The Wendish Faust legend’ of 1900, written under the influence of Goethe’s ‘Faust’. It moved from being a rebel story for adults to a children’s book, but nevertheless retained its master-slave dialectic. Jurij Brezan’s ‘The Black Mill’, by the foremost Sorbian writer of the twentieth century, had the motto : ‘whoever knows can do anything’ and was a hybrid fairy tale with an anti-fascist subtext making the master-slave dialectic known in East Germany and Central Europe from the 1950’s through the 70’s. Presrler writes that this Krabat tale was written ‘… to recall the brutality of the Nazi and Stalinist periods and demonstrate how acts of human compassion and love can bring hope…. Krabat as apprentice has learned that the art and knowledge of black magic are too destructive to build humane relationships. Like the best of the apprentices in the tale type of “The Rebellious Apprentice”, he is a rebel with a cause.’

The Walt Disney version of ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ transforms the humiliated apprentice version of the story into a children’s tale and for Zipes ‘warps, if not perverts, folklore to induct children into authoritarian civilising processes.’ Unlike the Disney version, the rebellious apprentice films of German and Czech filmmakers have not been widely distributed in the USA and UK. ‘The Black Mill’ of 1975, Karel Zeman’s ‘ Krabat or The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ of 1978 and Marco Kreuzpaintner’s ‘Krabat or Krabat and the Legend of the Black Mill’ of 2008 are key examples. These are all rebellious apprentice films. Resistance and hope are key themes. Zipes enthuses about them, saying : ‘ All three films were made by Germans and Czechs who suffered through World War 11 or have memories of World War 11 and were very familiar with conditions in the Communist-bloc countries in the post-war period. Overcoming the rampant evil of sorcerers was a struggle keenly felt and represented in these films.’

In bleak contrast, US and UK films tend to celebrate the power of the sorcerer. Zipes notes exceptions to this desolate trend: ‘… of course this is not true in all the films up to the present, especially in the Harry Potter films … Ursula Le Guin’s ‘Earthsea‘ and stories that stem from the Merlin legends’ but it remains depressing that UK and USA children’s fare threads the humiliated/conformist version of the tale in much of what it offers.

Interestingly, the first US apprentice film was not Disney’s but Sidney Levee’s ‘The Wizard’s Apprentice’ in 1930, a ten minute black and white film with animation. It was very influential on Disney. The sorcerer reprimands the apprentice but that is that. In Disney’s version the master-slave relationship is a static relationship, one that is not to change. In the Disney version we get a celebration of both Authoritarianism and celebrity. The wizard is called Yen-Sid (Disney backwards) and as Zipes notes: ‘Characteristic of almost all Disney films, even after Walt’s death, is a celebration of elitism and dismissal of small people’s needs and wants. In “Fantasia 2000” (1900), introduced well after Walt’s death, the only episode retained from the original 1940 film was “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” , and the only change made to this episode was the infantile and stupid introduction by the entertainers Penn and Teller , who made a mockery of magic…’ By the time we get to the 3rd Disney film version in 2010 ‘… the apprentice is not humiliated… learns to use the knowledge of magic to do good in the world, even if it means killing…’

For Zipes the most interesting film version since 1940 is a ballet by Michael Powell in 1955, a version of eerie and dark black magic of which Zipes writes: ‘More than the Disney version of the Goethe’s poem, this film represents the master-slave dialectic, which ends in total submission of the young pupil…’ He notes Peter Sander’s ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ of 1980, narrated by Vincent Price, as another noteworthy version with an open, hopeful ending.

As we know from Zipes’ work on fairy tales and folk tales generally, it was the oral tradition that spawned the literary tradition of tales. RG Collingwood gets this when he writes:

‘To distinguish the folktale as a traditional narrative, passively transmitted by a process from which creative imagination is absent, from the literary as the creation of an individual artist, is therefore to deal in shadows and frustrate in advance any attempt to construct a rational theory of fairy tales. The folktale and the literary fairytale are in this respect on the same footing. Each of them uses traditional themes and handles them by traditional methods; in each, the teller or writer modifies both the themes and the methods in the course of his work, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse; in neither case does he leave them exactly as he found them.’ He goes on to say;

‘… tradition is a creative process, in which the transmitter is more than a medium through which the story conserves itself (or, if it be a distorting medium, fails to conserve itself and suffers degradation); he is a sharer in the work of invention. This is the only conception of tradition that will fit the known facts of human history; if the science of folklore has failed to attain it, that may be partly serve to explain why the science of folklore occupies so unsatisfactory a place among the historical sciences.’

Lynch, I contend, is working in this arena with his latest project, the eighteen episodes of series three of ‘Twin Peaks’, picking up twenty six years after series two ended. Zipes collection begins with the humiliated apprentice stories but the majority in the collection are the rebellious apprentice because he just couldn’t find as many of the humiliated apprenticeship stories. So a question is which version of the story is Lynch working through? Series Two seemed to end bleakly, with a sense that the sorcerer had defeated the apprentice. But now we can see that the story has reached the contest element whereby both sorcerer and apprentice shape-shift in order to be. The original trauma that tears apart of the metaphysical world is identified as the atom bomb. Magic ghosts and demons are released, linked to (among many other things) three Native American nations, including the Nez Perce. Fleaced of their land in a 19th century treaty the world war against the Nazis proved a perfect excuse to fleace the Nez Perce a second time. ‘Once the Manhattan Project split the atom, the B Reactor the government built at Hanford produced most of the plutonium used in the bomb dropped at Nagasaki, as well as in most of the nuclear weapons America continued to manufacture throughout the Cold War.’ Hanford is a mysterious presence in the backstory , as is the mysterious burning river incident of 1902.

Why is all this so uncannily strange? Possibly the strange inversion of saturated and unsaturated assertions which sometimes makes substantive explanations magical. A saturated assertion is something you can say – and therefore has a truth value. An unsaturated assertion is something you say about something where the truth value attaches to whatever you’re attaching it to but without the attachment is bereft of truth value. Where an unsaturated assertion is granted truth we are working with assertions that should ‘darken metaphysical council’. But the sorcerer is evil because evil is taken as the metaphysical explanation of the fact that the sorcerer is evil. Against the view that there are efficient causes of the evil of the sorcerer, involving parental abuse as a child, say, and formal-causal explanations involving the absorption of psycho-sexual perversion and so on, something else is provided and accepted, a word sequence purporting to be some metaphysical unraveling. This is one element of the use of magic in this world. In Lynch-world and sorcerer’s apprentice world the master/slave dialectic horror is detected in the use of a magical saturated assertion where without magic an unsaturated one would suffice.

Zipes has captured the trace lines of a complex, heterogeneous space that’s all trivial and public, esteemed and anecdotal, imaginary and real, brought together in familiar and ancillary commentaries, stories written out of no longer existing settings, plans, projects and clairvoyance, the opposite of an overloaded brain absorbing information. Not that, but the anticipating, predicting brain that in the words of Andy Clark, ‘surfs reality’, guessing what the world is going to be like a seer who sees everything profoundly and knows what’s going to happen again is again going to be intolerable. There is an abjectness at the heart of the sorcerer’s apprentice despite everything, as if the fact that there are more mortals to exit the planet than ever before is somehow its shadow. Too many uncanny events, too much salient strangeness, fear in the night, altered body states, hunger, thirst, generalized arousal, looping interactions and huge complexes of cognitive-emotional-action-orientated economics guiding a multi-level, multi-area flow of narrativity, neuropsychological disturbances superficially distinct now bound up in the same story template. The chilling predictive dimension and the choice – conformity or rebellion – grandstands all humanity, all vast history and all intimate space. It’s in these stories we can expect ourselves.

Sporns writes: ‘The architecture of the brain … and the statistics of the environment are not fixed. Rather, brain-connectivity is subject to a broad spectrum of input-, experience-and activity dependent processes which shape and structure its patterning and strengths’ and the double life of words, as both communication vehicles and as unfolders and developers of our thoughts and ideas. Tuning in the the master/slave dimension of the narratives will alter the tuning of neuronal populations, shift the character sensitivity of neorons and ensembles in the direction of the attended content. Here, then, we must end our reading of Zipes’ magisterial work with a countervailing reading, one for whom the story speaks to ‘ … the foundation of things … fallen into a bottomless void.’

Bataille’s reflection on ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ begins with identifying the most pernicious horror with that of anything causing ‘silent decomposition.’ The terror is rooted in this: ‘… there is no cure for the insufficiency that diminishes anyone who refuses to become a whole…, in order to be nothing more than one of the functions of human society.’ This is the harm experienced as smug bliss. ‘Harm appears only if the persistence of “amor fati” makes a man a stranger to the present world.’ If the human domain has expanded it is because of ‘a crippled existence.’ The truths of science are meaningless, and those of the artist and writer fugitive, shadowy and overlaid by hypocrisy. The ego of the writer and artist ‘commits him to place fictions in the service of some more solid reality.’ The fictions become nothing more than the boring reflections of a fragmentary world, which are required, through action, to be made true. They break life into art, science or politics and this denies life. ‘A totality of life has little to do with a collection of abilities and areas of expertise.’ In this context, the full existence is tied to any image that arouses hope and terror. For Bataille, this is the role of the Loved One. He writes: ‘ if this world were not ceaselessly traversed by the convulsive movements of beings who seek each other, if it were not transfigured by the face “whose absence is painful” , it would still appear as a mockery to those it causes to be born…’ The image of the loved one is illusory, belonging to the unsettling world of dreams but miraculous luck suffices to make it true. In the formula, ‘ Life risks itself’, destiny is realized, and does so through a transformation that takes the Loved One and turns it into a living myth. ‘Myth remains at the disposal of one who cannot be satisfied by art, science, or politics.’ Ritually lived, a myth reveals true being. What the apprentice in this context does is accustom himself to the rigor of the sacred feelings of rigorous collective invention. ‘Secrecy, in the domain where he advances, is no less necessary to his strange procedures than it is to the transports of eroticism (the total world of myth, the world of being, is separated from the dissociated world by the very limits that separate the sacred from the profane).’

Bataille nourishes the perspective of Zipes and if this is all, in the end, a plenum of obscurity, then smile that Zipes has yet again reminded us of such darkness. ‘The obscurity of such projects only expresses the disconcerting reorientation necessary at the paradoxical moment of despair’ his master/slave stories enact. It’s a matter of retuning to the old human house.

Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

Buy his new book here or his first book here to keep him biding!

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, July 8th, 2017.