Book Review, OUCH: The Theban Oracle
The Theban Oracle
By Greg Jenkins, Ph.D.
Weiser Books, May 1, 2014
Reviewer: Patrick Dunn
This book is set on an intriguing foundation: take the symbols of the Theban alphabet, assign each to a famous occult figure, and use them for divination. This idea is so rich and interesting, it’s easy to imagine productively pondering the biography of some famous occultist, and trying to weave his or her life into your own in a relevant and meaningful way.
I wish I could say The Theban Oracle lives up to that very rich premise. But it just doesn’t. Worse, it pollutes the whole concept.
Greg Jenkins has plagiarized portions of The Theban Oracle. For example, in the entry on Paracelsus, we read
“At the age of sixteen, Paracelsus began his formal education at the university of Basel, where he studied alchemy, surgery, and medicine. . . . By adulthood, he had become known as the precursor of modern chemical pharmacology and therapeutics, and as the most original medical thinker of the century.” (134)
Alchemylab.com’s page on Paracelsus has this to say: “At the age of sixteen, Paracelsus entered the University at Basle [sic] where he applied himself to the study of alchemy, surgery, and medicine” and “Manly Hall called him ‘the precursor of chemical pharmacology and therapeutics and the most original medical thinker of the sixteenth century.'”
If you have a Ph.D., and if you choose to advertise that fact on the cover of your book, and if you make a statement in the introduction about being “engaged in the task of scholarly research” (XI), then you do not get to copy people’s exact words and claim them as your own, whether those words come from the internet or a published book. And changing a few words around does not make it your own words. College sophomores know this. High-school freshmen know this, for goodness’s sake!
Sometimes the plagiarism is a little better disguised, such as here:
“By the late 16th century, when the plague gripped London Simon Forman remained to help the sick, while the doctors who condemned him fled for personal safety. This act of bravery, along with saving many lives, including his own as a result of his alternative medicines, would forever place his image in the light of god, in spite of the many insults he endured from his detractors” (116)
Compare with the Mysterious Britain website:
“When the plague gripped London in 1592 and 1594, Dr. Forman remained in the city whilst a great many members of the medical profession left. This act of courage (although other circumstances may have been behind his stay) aided his reputation, and during those days he saved many lives, including his own; After contracting the plague, Dr. Forman cured himself with his own medicinal waters, quite a feat and one that raised his profile in the eyes of the London people.”
That’s more subtle, certainly, but the ideas come in a particular order, and even the sentence-structure is similar. Rearranging the words of a sentence is not a valid paraphrase, and taking other people’s ideas without citation is, indeed, plagiarism.
Other times, it’s clear that the author has used the thesaurus to disguise the plagiarism, but of course as many a student learns, this is not the same as having your own thought, and can sometimes lead to some ridiculous prose:
From Alchemy Lab, again:
“This high-handed behavior, coupled with his very original ideas, made him countless enemies. The fact that the cures he performed with his mineral medicines justified his teachings merely served further to antagonize the medical faculty, infuriated at their authority and prestige being undermined by the teachings of such a “heretic” and “usurper.””
and from The Theban Oracle:
“By denouncing the revered works of Galen and the standard practice of medicine as a whole, as well as the teachings of his own university, he become [sic] so unalterable in nature that school officials and other authorities would come to consider him a heretic and a despot” (134).
“Despot” and “usurper” are, of course, synonyms — but that doesn’t mean they mean the same thing. Paracelsus might indeed have been seen has trying to usurp Galen’s place. I doubt anyone mistook him for an absolute ruler, which is what a despot is. It’s also likely that “unalterable” is a thesaurus substitution for the word “intractable,” which actually would make sense there. I suspect there are other sources, probably print sources, that I have not found.
When the author is writing his own prose, it is often turgid, sometimes bizarre. Take this example from early in the book: “In what appears to be a simple cipherlike code, and having no bearing in any known language, nor able to form the necessary elements to create verbiage as we might understand it, the alphabet has no other purpose other than to code common words” (21). I read that four times (five, as I copied it here), and I still have no idea what it might mean. A “cipherlike code” — well, a cipher is a kind of code, so does that just mean “cipher”? How does something have “no bearing in . . . “? Don’t things usually have a bearing on, rather than a bearing in, and moreover, what does that mean? Does that mean we can’t link it to a known language? But of course we can! It’s clearly meant to write Latin; it is essentially the Latin alphabet (with one highly impractical and unlikely punctuation mark). It certainly has the “necessary elements” to “create verbiage as we might understand it,” but I’m not sure that this author does.
This example of prose is representative of the whole. It’s not that the style isn’t very good — it’s not, being far too adjective-heavy, but I give that a pass. It’s that the style is nearly opaque to meaning. Words take on meanings they never have had before, and are put together in sentences that defy the laws of syntax. But I’d give all that a pass, with the exception of the plagiarism, which is unforgivable.
The real question is, how does it work? And the answer is — not terribly well. The biographical descriptions are oddly brief and lack detail: we’re told pretty much everyone was loved and honored, until murdered by someone or other, in a rather cavalier fashion, and then some pieties about how wonderful they were, unless they weren’t. There’s a general narrative thread of a liberal, proto-New-Age, gentle soul being savaged by poor, ignorant, usually Christian, fools. Historical facts are glossed over. It matters why the church killed Giordano Bruno, and it had little to do with his magical work. Sometimes minor facts are also changed. I always thought it was a snowstorm, not a thunderstorm, that sent Trithemius back to the monastery. If, of course, the author had cited his sources, I could perhaps find out that my memory is faulty. Similarly, the author makes it sound as if Pietro De Abano was forced to deny the existence of spirits by the inquisition, when of course he was actually charged with heresy for denying the existence of spirits and angels, which according to standard Catholic doctrine at the time, existed.
Every figure’s life is reduced to a few ideas or concepts, a kind of reductionism that might be a bit simplistic. Hypatia is, for example, “The Sovereign Female Spirit, Inward Wisdom, Search for Enlightenment.” The first one is obvious: she’s one of only three women in the whole alphabet. One other, Joan of Arc, is apparently “The Journey Ahead, Change, a New Development.” The third is Bethany (Bethany who? A citation would be more than handy here, since Googling reveals nothing). But why is Hypatia “Inward Wisdom”? Why not “Math”? And who in this list, with the possible exception of some of the frauds (whose fraudulent behavior is often glossed over), isn’t seeking Enlightenment of some kind? Moreover, why isn’t Joan of Arc something like “purpose” or “divine mission” or “absolutely insane”?
The author admits that there are just far too many “luminaries” to include, which is fair. But those sensitive to diversity at all will be disappointed by the inclusion of only three women and few people of color. This dead-white-man list might be due, in large part, to the time-period he has selected from which to draw the names of important figures; but since this time period stretches back to Hypatia, perhaps there could be room for one or two other important women, here or there. There’s also no clear rhyme or reason why certain figures are assigned to certain letters.
These last points — the lack of diversity, the inadequate biographies, the lack of citations, the impenetrable prose — are quibbles in the face of the plagiarism. It is possible for an author to be confused, to forget that a set of notes were copied verbatim rather than original, or just lose track of citations between drafts. This kind of carelessness is forgivable. However, when an author puts Ph.D. after his or her name, it’s a promise of a certain kind of intellectual training and carefulness. Even a Ph.D. may make an accidental slip. But a Ph.D. should know that you cannot use another author’s unique words or ideas without quotation marks and a citation, and you cannot use another author’s ideas without indicating their origin. Basic integrity demands that you do not make use of the work of another without giving them credit. Writing is hard work, and the products of that work deserve respect.
Review ©2014 by Patrick Dunn