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  • Modernism and Magic: Experiments with Spiritualism, Theosophy and the Occult by Leigh Wilson
  • Thomas Steinfeld
Modernism and Magic: Experiments with Spiritualism, Theosophy and the Occult. Leigh Wilson. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013. Pp. 188. $122.00 (cloth).

”I feel air from another planet,” wrote German poet Stefan George in 1907. He, too, worshipped the idea of “pure sound,” the notion of a word so precious and refined that it need only be whispered to be immediately perceived as the emanation of a superior spirit. George carefully created the proper conditions for such an understanding, creating ritual poetry readings in which he acted as priest and his followers as disciples. A year later, the opening line of George’s [End Page 383] poem “Entrückung” (Rapture) was used by composer Arnold Schönberg in his String Quartet no. 2, the key work in Schönberg’s transition to atonal music. As Schönberg understood it, atonal music was a method of composition that allowed music to become the sound of a higher stage of consciousness; by comparison, tonal music was nothing more than a preliminary exercise. He was profoundly convinced that the future belonged to him: “Don’t underestimate the size of the circle around me,” he told Berlin Radio in 1931. “It will grow out of the desire for knowledge from an idealistic youth, attracted more by the secret than by the ordinary.”1

Certainly not every writer, composer, or painter at work during the early years of the twentieth century took a serious interest in theosophy, anthroposophy, or some other kind of spiritual activity. But a surprising number did, and their proportion increases among more avant-garde artists. From Kazimir Malewich to Ezra Pound, almost all modernists were deeply affected by esoteric theories and practices. In recent years, this affinity has become an increasingly attractive field of interest within the humanities, especially in literature and cultural studies. This research sets the frame for Modernism and Magic, a slim book by British scholar Leigh Wilson. However, while most research has concentrated either on “the loss of faith in representation” during the early twentieth century, or on the (more or less illegitimate) transformation of principles and findings from the experimental sciences (mostly physics) into the supernatural, Wilson turns the argument around by arguing that the principle of mimesis has never been suspended. For her, “non-mimetic” art simply represents different matters—the metaphysical and secret instead of the physical and the ordinary—employing a kind of a “second form of mimesis” (14).

“Loss of faith in representation” has been a motif all-too-established in the history of ideas. The underlying idea is that during the last decades of the nineteenth and early decades of the twentieth centuries, culture was deeply marked by a radical change in all conditions of life, which led to skepticism and relativism, to sincere doubt concerning the integrity of the subject and the “conventional view of the natural world” (8). Abstract art, experimental language, and atonal music have been regarded as consequences of a fundamental commotion. But Wilson argues that there is more to it than that: “At the centre of magic is the collapse of identity between representation and the thing in the world being represented in order to transform the original, not a sundering of representation from the world” (56). In other words, shattered modes of representation and the isolation of material features at the expense of “meaning,” both so typical of early modernist art, are not only documents of loss, but create something new (or recreate something old): a belief in magic, one in full view that magic is ordinarily regarded as “error.” Such works are to bear a higher, more sincere kind of meaning; they are treated as catalysts of a new kind of reality, as true “magic”—representation turned into the thing itself. They are meant to reshape reality. Of course, this “magic” recreates echoes from times far older than modernity—as seen in the numerous references to the “primitive” in early modernist art.

According to Wilson, experimentation lies at the bottom of this idea of “magic”—“The experimental work of art does use magic as technique” (39)—so...


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pp. 383-385
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