Diversity of Magic in Snow Crash
In his cyberpunk classic, Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson conjures the neurolinguistic hacker. He, following in the steps of many scholars, supposes that a Sumerian priest/king (or en) named Enki is responsible for a Tower of Babel division of languages. Neurolinguistic hacking is creating a nam-shub: a speech with magical force that goes against a singular mainstream me, or set of social mores. In other words, this hacker diversifies magic.
The history lessons in the novel are an attempt to identify the mother tongue—Sumerian—and, therein, the first magical text: the ur, or proto, grimoire. As noted by Cavendish in A History of Magic, most occult books are amalgamations of other texts. He speaks of the Sefer Yetsirah, or Book of Creation, that “mingles Jewish, gnostic, Pythagorean and possibly Neoplatonist ideas.” In Occult Philosophy, Agrippa cites his sources as the Sefer Yetsirah alongside “books with feigned titles, under the names of Adam, Abel, Enoch, Abraham, Solomon, also Paul, Honorus, Cyprianus, Albertus, Thomas, Hierome, and a certain man of York.” Voodoo, in Robert Farris Thompson’s words, is “a vibrant, sophisticated synthesis of the traditional religions of Dahomey, Yorubaland, and Kongo with an infusion of Roman Catholicism.” Stephenson’s Librarian seeks the root of these grimoires, the one that cites no sources.
This radical search inspires Snow Crash’s Hiro Protagonist to praise the diversity that Enki’s nam-shub created. The eclectic nature of magic—seen in modern incarnations of witchcraft as well as alchemy and voodoo—resists group thought and blind allegiance to me. While critics often condemn paganism for its bastardization of a variety of previous magical traditions, it is this very bastardization that encourages independent thought and personal responsibility. Since the Sumerian mother tongue was split, practitioners of magic have drawn upon diverse sources. Magicians research a variety of nam-shubs to create new grimoires and therein critically examine texts and mores.
Hiro argues that neurolinguistic hacking—creating new nam-shubs—is becoming “a fully conscious human being.” Writing grimoires with diverse citations is the opposite of being virally infected with me. Instead of being disciples to an unquestionable system of rules, magic users, beginning with Enki, are free thinkers.
Marjorie Jensen holds an MFA from Mills College. She is an educator, writer, and witch.