Big Friday sale

Modern Enchantments by Simon During

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii March, 2003)


Simon During is an English professor at the University of Melbourne, the author of several books, and also the editor of The Cultural Studies Reader, a 1993 collection that is now considered a standard text in the field. What is cultural studies? Well, suffice it to say (and indeed, it may not suffice, but it will have to under the circumstances), cultural studies is an interdisciplinary approach to close criticism of contemporary (and thereby, often popular) culture. An academic phenomenon largely of the latter half of the 20th century, cultural studies was home of the political left, and often reflects counter-cultural approaches to its subjects, incorporating elements of anthropology, sociology, gender studies, feminism, literary criticism, history, and psychoanalysis in its non-conformist and intellectually eclectic take on culture.

Hence it is quite within the domain dare I say it, within the tradition of cultural studies to take a look at a subject like conjuring, traditionally a matter taken lightly if at all by academia, and claim that all those stuffy academics have missed the boat, and that conjuring has indeed had a profound effect on the evolution of popular culture and the arts, and that throughout its history, (quoting here from the dust-jacket copy) "magic performances have drawn together heterogeneous audiences, contributed to the molding of cultural hierarchies, and extended cultural technologies and media at key moments, sometimes introducing spectators into rationality and helping to disseminate skepticism and publicize scientific innovation. Enchantments shows that magic entertainments have increased the sway of fictions in our culture and helped define modern society's image of itself." So there. Put that on your business card and book a party.

Does Professor During manage to prove his case? Well, I'd like to say he does, since it's a nice thought, but I'm not so certain. It's always curious to read what serious (and occasionally not-so-serious) thinkers think about magic, especially those who know nothing about it—or to be more fair, come at it entirely from the outside—and this book is no exception. While many magicians will doubtless find themselves in unfamiliar territory here, what with our beloved conjuring being mixed and matched with the likes of Duchamp and Spinoza, most magicians could do themselves far more good than harm by branching out a bit from their usual haunts and, like our mothers told us to, broadening our horizons. While it must be said it might be even better to travel even farther afield than the borderlines of Prof. During's concerns, his make for a perfectly fine stopover.

Excluding its 38 pages of footnotes and the index, of the book's primary MI of 287 pages, almost two-thirds is taken up primarily with a selected history of magic, intended to familiarize the unfamiliar reader while laying the groundwork for his claims, to be largely substantiated later. The first chapter provides an extremely broad historical overview of magic, of many meanings and eras, eventually arriving at the concept of what the author refers to as "secular magic," meaning in essence "entertainment magic" or conjuring. The author asserts that one of the reasons that magic has not been studied academically is that much of its history has been written by its own practitioners. in primarily anecdotal form. He cites in this tradition the readily recognizable (among magicians) names of Harry Houdini, Milbourne Christopher, and Ricky Jay; but surely the history of magic, while admittedly not substantially written by academics per se, is more substantive that those limited citations would suggest.

When the author moves on to a less conceptual and more narrative history of magic, we begin to recognize more and more of the tale. After discussing early performers like Fawkes, Comus, and Pinetti, much space is allotted in particular to John Henry Anderson, Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin, and Harry Houdini and this in itself may result in an oddly skewed history, since the ways in which even these three individuals made their marks on magic are vastly different from one another. The author seems to recognize this to some extent addressing Anderson's approach to promotion and "the show business," and Robert-Houdin's inventive and artistic sense of originality but Houdini’s career as a Vaudeville performer may be somewhat out of place here, as while the author does seem to under-stand why Houdini was eventually unsuccessful as a film star, it is not clear that he grasps how Houdini did (and did not) substantially influence his art. Although Prof. During does briefly address the subject of 19th-century spiritualism (mentioning the Davenport Brothers and J. N. Maskelyne), he does not appear to acknowledge the significant point that Kenneth Silverman makes in his biography, Houdini!!!, namely that one of Houdini's greatest artistic contributions was to secularize the rope escapes and other effects of spiritual-ism and bring them to the conjuror's stage.

None of this may be entirely damning of Prof. During's efforts, given the nature of the various and disparate cultural elements that he does attempt to integrate with conjuring. Thus in his discussion of the "magic assemblage," conjuring is given context as it finds its place among other performing arts over the centuries. And after pointing out at the start that magic natural, real, illusory or otherwise often inhabits the borderlines between real and imaginary worlds, corporeal and spirit worlds, and indeed, the worlds of the living and the dead by the time we make the heyday of late 19th century stage magic, the author suggests that it is the fundamental rationality, the inherent skepticism of magic as it were, that may leave a clue as to why magic's illusions often contain an element of violent imagery: "...the materialism of magic is ultimately what causes it to linger over cruelty. Because secular magic belongs to a world in which such beliefs as the transmigration of souls are contestable, it focuses repeatedly on the materiality of death, human flesh without life's spark. The conjurer's magic, being just a trick, turns away from spirituality. The secular fun and levity of the trick is mirrored in that cruelty and horror which cannot be disavowed by those who expect no redemption or transfiguration except in magic entertainments." Or, for that matter, in the "violence" of a Bugs Bunny cartoon, or a contemporary "slasher" film all of which serve to thumb their rational noses simultaneously at the unpredictable genuine hazards of real life as well as the irrational threats of the mystic's imaginary world.

Finally, at page 178, as the author begins a chapter on "Magic and Literature," he seems to step forward and attempt to present his case in full. Almost immediately he addresses the work of Edgar Allan Poe, drawing connections between the literary "tricks" that Poe used in his work, and the magic tricks of the stage conjuror. Indeed, any magician who was an early Poe addict will find him or herself happily vindicated here; when I was 11 or 12 I used to lug a Poe collected works around with me until I had eventually managed to read it all. (It may be interesting to note that author Ken Silverman, prior to writing the aforementioned biography of Houdini, wrote a well-received biography of Poe.) However, During seems to imply that Poe correctly "unmasked" the von Kempelen chess-playing automaton; in fact, while Poe may have drawn some attention for attempting to do so, he failed to determine the correct solution.

The author then takes a lengthy foray into a discussion of two ground-breaking writers, E.T.A. Hoffman (no relation to Angelo Lewis, although the latter drew his nom de plume from the former), and Raymond Roussel. Here the author launches fully into his complex and multi-faceted agenda, full of historical coincidence and concurrence. However, as he initiates his case for the connections between these literary stylists and magic, his very first point about Hoffman seems especially apt: "Hoffman's tales are arresting and unsettling because, although magical events and personages tend to be focused through the point of view of a particular character, they are described with the matter of factness of a fairy tale or realist story, rather than with a dreamlike interiority. 'The whole is intended to become fairy-like and wonderful,' Hoffman declared of the stories in his first book, and 'yet it is to enter boldly into ordinary everyday existence and capture its characters'."

This argument reminds me significantly of my fondness for the novels of Stephen King; although I am not at all a fan of the genre of horror fiction which most typically tends to begin with a fantastical premise on the first page—I have long found myself attracted to King's work because it is so reminiscent of conjuring. King's approach (with the notable exceptions of the work under his alias of Richard Bachman) tends to begin with a rational premise; then, perhaps a quarter to a third of a way into the book, after slowly building the case for the improbable in the face of all manner of apparent skepticism, finally making the leap into the land of the impossible, with the reader now thoroughly in tow. This progressive strategy is not at all unlike John Kennedy slowly rubbing a dollar bill on his sleeve, creating a bit of static electricity, getting it to stick to his finger, then perhaps wobble a bit, and finally, at long last, leaping into the air across the resistant threshold of gravity.

And so it is perhaps in this "search for a literary equivalent to secular magic" that the author is at his most interesting and convincing. Subsequently During brings the book to a conclusion by exploring "Spinozism in relation to the emergence of three optical apparatuses important to the history of the magic assemblage: magic-lantern images, photographs, and film." Certainly it will come as no surprise to students of conjuring history that magicians were at the forefront of filmmaking technology and art. But at this climax of the book, During wishes to establish that magic lanterns and the like eventually served to overcome the metaphysics of Spinozism, and helped to move popular culture to progress in the manner in which it addresses the endless if irritating question of life after death; that is, to a point where the question is examined rationally, instead of supernaturally—" which means that I have been balancing that cultural history on the threshold of the knowable and the meaningful."

This is certainly an interesting claim and one that will be new to many if not most in the academic world. A question that repeatedly comes to mind is whether magic earns itself a role of cause or tends to keep pace as effect, and perhaps there is too much noise in the signal to fully distill an answer. Certainly, putting conjuring In the context of the cultural search for reason is a useful and challenging exercise, and for this attempt I enjoyed the good professor's efforts; although I don't think he has much if any understanding of the individual conjuror's actual relationship to such issues in his day-to-day work, perhaps it is not necessary to possess such insight iv order to attempt to make his case. Nonetheless, I have long maintained that conjuring has always been on the cusp of rationality in its time from Reginald Scot to the present for reasons that may not be obvious to the laity but make perfect sense to those who share a passion for the exquisite juxtaposition of the mysteries of conjuring and the mysteries of the universe both ultimately knowable and all the more beautiful in the knowing.

336 pages • 14 illustrations • Hardbound with dustjacket • Harvard University Press • 2002