Using French magicians’ engagements with North African ritual performers as a case study, Jones shows how magic became enshrined in anthropological reasoning. Acknowledging the residue of magic’s colonial origins doesn’t require us to dispense with it. Rather, through this radical reassessment of classic anthropological ideas, Magic’s Reason develops a new perspective on the promise and peril of cross-cultural comparison.
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The War on Miracles
On September 16, 1856, gentleman illusionist Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin boarded a steamship in Marseille bound for the embattled French colony of Algeria. Thirty-six hours later, a detachment of French soldiers met him in the port of Algiers. Recently retired as an entertainer to pursue research in optics and the emerging field of applied electricity, Robert-Houdin was about to return to the stage in a series of magic performances that a French general later called the single most important campaign in the pacification of indigenous Algeria (Chavigny 1970: 134).
Although France had captured Algiers over twenty years earlier, in 1830, Algeria remained a tinderbox of anticolonial resistance. The political director of the Bureau of Arab Affairs, army colonel François-Edouard de Neveu, was particularly concerned about the subversive influence of charismatic Muslim religious figures whom he identified as marabouts. According to his intelligence, some of these marabouts feigned supernatural powers with conjuring tricks, gaining religious veneration as living saints and using their influence to oppose the French. Faced with what appeared to be a dangerous form of charlatanism, de Neveu, with possible encouragement from Emperor Napoléon III himself (Fechner 2002: 39–40), solicited the help of France's most famous magician, Robert-Houdin. It took de Neveu nearly two years and three requests to sway him, but Robert-Houdin eventually agreed to undertake an improbable mission. His task was to counteract the sway of wonder-working holy men by performing modern, European magic for Algeria's Arab elites.
Two years later, Robert-Houdin wrote extensively about this experience in his memoirs, Confidences d'un prestidigitateur (A Conjuror's Confessions). Cunningly devised to solidify its author's reputation as the greatest magician of all time, this magical bildungsroman also functions to magnify the status of entertainment magic by aligning it with values of science, progress, and modernity. A vivid cast of transgressive Others populate the Confessions, violating Robert-Houdin's elevated standards of propriety and proficiency, and serving as rhetorical foils for his own brand of enlightened illusionism. The marabouts embody the narrative's most extreme form of alterity, inverting the progressive principles Robert-Houdin posits as the quintessence of modern magic. As he describes it, these
intriguers claiming inspiration from the Prophet, and whom the Arabs regard as God's messengers on Earth, incited most of the revolts that have had to be suppressed in Algeria ... Now, these false prophets, these holy marabouts, are no more sorcerers than I am (indeed, even less so), but nevertheless succeed in igniting the fanaticism of their coreligionists with the help of conjuring tricks as primitive as the audiences for whom they are performed ... It was hoped, with reason, that my performances would lead the Arabs to understand that the marabouts' trickery is naught but simple child's play and could not, given its crudeness, be the work of real heavenly emissaries. Naturally, this entailed demonstrating our superiority in everything and showing that, as far as sorcerers are concerned, there is no match for the French. (Robert-Houdin 1859, vol. 2: 249–50)
This description suggests a tension between activities of disenchanting local modes of religious authority and enchanting European dominion that ultimately remains unresolved in Robert-Houdin's narrative.
Beginning with an account of the overall significance of Robert-Houdin's Confessions as perhaps the ultimate statement of what and how modern entertainment magic signifies, this chapter goes on to analyze the place of his Algerian mission within the narrative. In the next chapter, I examine the cultural logic behind the French Army's curious choice of magic as a mode of "imperial spectacle" (Apter 2002), arguing that it hinged on the way colonial ethnographers had already used entertainment magic as an analogy for describing Algerian religious practices. I ultimately want to suggest that one of the reasons modern magic could creep into ethnographic texts as a tropological resource for contrastive interpretations was because contemporaneous cultural producers like Robert-Houdin were working so hard to elaborate the secular meaning of their marvelous performances, to provide audiences with normative interpretive frames, and to burnish their overall image as heralds of modernity.
The Ur-Text of Modern Magic
The most influential illusionist in nineteenth-century Europe, and the most famous French illusionist of all time, Robert-Houdin is a pivotal figure in the historiography of magic (Cook 2001; During 2002; Mangan 2007; Metzner 1998; Steinmeyer 2003). In the recent estimation of one historian, "with his fascination with all that was scientific and technological, his promotion of strict and detailed rules of conduct for a successful magic show, and his interest in the supernatural drama" of the Spiritualist controversy, "Robert-Houdin personified this era in which conjurers presented their magic as entertaining and spectacular but also instructive and respectable" (Lachapelle 2015: 136).
It is difficult to distinguish Robert-Houdin's impact as a performer on the history of magic from the indelible mark he left as a writer on the historiography of magic. His literary output includes a tantalizing exposé of cardsharpers' techniques (Robert-Houdin 1861) and a book many consider the first comprehensive primer on the art of conjuring, Les secrets de la prestidigitation et de la magie (1868). In that latter work, he famously proclaimed that "the illusionist is not a juggler, but an actor playing the role of a magician" (54). This clever dictum reflects the aesthetic predilections of a figure who strove to transform illusionism from a disreputable popular amusement into legitimate theatrical entertainment. It also encapsulates a worldview in which the appropriate experience of anything magical lies within a circumscribed arena of suspended disbelief, safely sequestered from real pre-, non-, or antimodern belief.
It is Robert-Houdin's extraordinary autobiography, the Confessions, that remains the definitive objectification and crowning achievement of a career. In that book, Robert-Houdin presents himself as reforming magic into a respectable form of bourgeois entertainment by purging it of its problematic associations with low culture, the criminal demimonde, and backwards superstition. That the Confessions inspired a young American reader to take the stage name "Houdini" only begins to suggest the impact of the book on the cultural history of magic.
Written after his retirement from the professional stage, the Confessions are a meditation on the meaning of a career, animated by Robert-Houdin's desire to establish the magician as a respectable figure and magic as a respectable profession in distinctively modern terms. Surveying gushing contemporary reviews of the English-language translation, James Cook affirms that "what these opinions documented most of all was Robert-Houdin's virtuosity as a maker of powerful new literary images" (2001: 194). Referring to the "long shadow" Robert-Houdin cast over subsequent generations, magic historian Jim Steinmeyer calls him "the model magician ... because, more than anything else, magicians had been captivated by his astounding memoirs, an inspiring piece of literature that painted the portrait of a magician as an artist. It might be the most influential book in the world of magic" (2003: 141).
A contemporary reading like Steinmeyer's, emphasizing the romantic model of the creative artist as the ultimate measure of cultural distinction, appears somewhat anachronistic; Robert-Houdin emerges from the Confessions as an author much more concerned with securing his status as an inventor and man of science. Participation in industrial and scientific activity was central to nineteenth-century French notions of bourgeois masculinity. During this period, "science, as both a discursive field and a realm of social practice, was capable of making bourgeois manhood appear a solid, homogenous unity set in opposition to the more frivolous occupations of women and noblemen" (Harrison 1999: 64). To harness the legitimizing prestige of science, Robert-Houdin, both in print and onstage, drew attention to his technological savvy as an inventor and craftsman, figuring himself as a reformer who could refashion the relatively anonymous folk tradition of magic, mired as it was in out-of-date techniques, into a modern profession propelled forward by striving individual talent — not unlike the revolution Tylor purported to effect in anthropology. In so doing, Robert-Houdin induced magicians and their audiences to think in new ways about progress as central to the cultural significance of magic as a form of cultural production.
Robert-Houdin depicts his predecessors as "mystifiers" who compensate for their lack of technical skill with crass hijinks and crude stagecraft, and similarly decries the intellectual shortcomings of spectators who succumb to mystification. In the relationships of correspondence he plots between modes of apprehending magic and spectators' social stations, the male monarch, Louis-Philippe, typifies an appropriate attitude of playful, self-reflexive detachment, and members of the working class, women, and African colonial subjects embody naïve, uncritical perspectives. The Algerian episode serves not only to burnish the author's reputation as a national hero, but also to buttress his distinction between modern magic — a harmless mode of entertainment amenable to bourgeois sensibilities — and retrograde charlatanism linked with superstitious fanaticism. For Robert-Houdin, narrating the confrontation with the marabouts was therefore part of a broader strategy of staking out professional status and establishing illusionism as a legitimate form of expertise, compatible with a scientific worldview and opposed to unscientific forms of knowledge.
Robert-Houdin's memoirs make explicit a normative assumption that the performance of a trick should always elicit from spectators a line of etiological reasoning leading back to the magician's skill and intelligence. Magicians invite audiences to speculate about their methods even as they systematically thwart possible hypotheses (Jones 2011: 57). As Robert-Houdin himself puts it elsewhere, "Nothing should be neglected which can help mislead the minds of the spectators: therefore, when you perform any trick, try to induce spectators to attribute the effect produced to any cause other than the real one" (1868: 45).
Modern conjurors, while often dabbling in occult iconography (Robert-Houdin's calling card, for instance, depicted a devil signing his name), generally do not intend audiences to perceive in their performances the action of supernatural forces or agents. Far from it — they want individual credit for their technical prowess (Metzner 1998). Thus, in Robert-Houdin's narrative, misconstruing tricks as evidence of anything other than the conjuror's manual dexterity or mechanical ingenuity becomes a potential mark of unreason or even insanity. By contrast, the ability to marvel self-reflexively at an illusionist's displays of sophisticated skill reflects both intellectual and cultural sophistication, and indeed comes to serve as a metonym for modernity writ large.
The Confessions themselves function like precisely this kind of magic act, demanding playful self-reflexivity from its readers: key to Robert-Houdin's literary self-fashioning (and to the text's cultural impact) is a parallelism between the theatrical performance of magic and the writerly performance of biography. In the preface, Robert-Houdin alerts the reader to the use of literary artifice, describing the memoirs as a "continuation of the performances of yesteryear in a new form" with "the reader as an audience, the volume as a stage" (Robert-Houdin 1859, vol. 1: vii). The autobiography-as-magic-act conceit justifies the fanciful confections that constitute some of the text's most memorable episodes, but poses serious challenges for using it as anything like factually accurate historical record. For instance, the valiant efforts of generations of magic historians have failed to surface even the slightest trace of the dashing aristocratic figure who purportedly mentored Robert-Houdin — save for the hundred-odd pages devoted to him in the Confessions. Most have reluctantly concluded that he is a fictional character (Jones 2008: 42).
There are ample sources corroborating that Robert-Houdin indeed went to Algeria at the army's behest, but besides the Confessions, few of them provide much detail about the precise nature of his activities there. I have chosen to set aside some of the more questionable (if most colorful) episodes in Robert-Houdin's narrative, focusing on details that strike me as reasonably plausible given other established facts. Still, his narration of even plausible events is colored by his objectives as an unabashedly self-aggrandizing raconteur. Although I use the Confessions as the primary source for describing Robert-Houdin's exploits in Algeria, I want it to be clear that my ultimate object of analysis is not the events themselves (which want for corroborating testimonials), but rather the cultural logic of Robert-Houdin's textual representations thereof, and the web of intertextual, interdiscursive (Silverstein 2005) relationships that he establishes as a writer. For, although Robert-Houdin is not a reliable narrator when it comes to reporting facts, he is steadfastly consistent in articulating a self-servingly idealized vision of himself and of modern magic.
The French Marabout
Robert-Houdin reports that his magic shows in Algeria were scheduled to coincide with an annual festival honoring Arab chiefs, on evenings of the second and third days of extravagant equestrian games. By the time the magician and his wife reached Algeria, however, armed rebellion had broken out in Kabylia, to the west of Algiers; military operations would postpone his performances for five weeks, until October 28. The evening of the first show found Robert-Houdin restless with anticipation. He recalls anxiously peering out from the wings of the cavernous Theater of Algiers at the Arab chiefs, with their large entourages and flowing burnouses, squirming uncomfortably in the unaccustomed seats (Robert-Houdin 1859, vol. 2: 261). When the show finally began, the magician confesses, "I felt a bit like laughing ... presenting myself as I was, with a magic wand and all the gravitas of a veritable sorcerer. I didn't give in. This wasn't a matter of entertaining a curious and receptive audience, but of striking a powerful impression on crude imaginations and backwards minds. I was playing the role of a French marabout" (262).
Unsure how this untested audience would respond, Robert-Houdin says that he proceeded cautiously, opening with his most trusted material from the genteel magic act that had made him the toast of European polite society. The spectators were impassive at first, but when he produced cannonballs from an ordinary hat, he says, they began to thaw, expressing, as the conjuror puts it, "their joyous admiration through the strangest and most energetic gestures" (263). Encouraged, he moved on to La corne d'abondance ("The Horn of Plenty"), a trick depicted in the upper left cameo of the poster infigure 3. He held an ornate lacquered metal cornucopia up for all to see. It was clearly empty. The audience was amazed when he then pulled dozens of small presents from within the mysterious object and distributed them throughout the theater. More cheers. A seasoned professional, Robert-Houdin knew exactly how to choose tricks that would win over a diffident — and, in this case, potentially hostile — audience, even in an unfamiliar cultural setting. In Europe, one of his trademark routines, called "The Inexhaustible Bottle," consisted in serving seemingly limitless amounts of any liquor the audience requested from an improbably small receptacle. Respecting Muslim prohibitions on alcohol, he instead magically filled an empty tureen with piping hot coffee. At first reluctant to ingest a seemingly diabolical beverage, Robert-Houdin says that the spectators were soon "unwittingly seduced by the perfume of their favorite liquor" (265) and the temptation of accompanying sweets, also magically procured.
Excerpted from "Magic's Reason"
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Table of ContentsList of Figures
Introduction: Dangerous Doubles
Chapter 1: The War on Miracles
Chapter 2: Disanalogy
Chapter 3: Conjuring Equivalences
Chapter 4: Counteranalogy
Chapter 5: An Anthropologist among the Spirits
Chapter 6: The Magic of Analogy
Chapter 7: Meta-Analogy, or, Once More with Meaning
Conclusion: Regimes of Enchantment