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  • Modern Enchantments: The Cultural Power of Secular Magic
  • Brian Reed (bio)
Modern Enchantments: The Cultural Power of Secular Magic. By Simon During. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002. x + 336 pp.

Simon During's Modern Enchantments recounts the history of "secular magic" from the late seventeenth to the early twentieth centuries in Europe and the United States, with a focus on Great Britain. "From about 1700," he argues, "magic slowly became disconnected from supernature" (14). The result was a "self-consciously illusory magic" that developed venues, rituals, traditions, institutions, and publication outlets that distinguished it from such superficially related social practices as organized religion, occultism, and spiritualism (27). Indissociable from the rise of "show business as a creative force" in the modern era, secular magic became popular as leisure time and surplus capital reached sufficient amounts, up and down the social scale, to render "barely aestheticized commercial entertainment" a lucrative pursuit (66).

Secular magic is particularly worthy of our attention, During asserts, because it "signifies a residual irrationality" in modern societies otherwise bent on rationalizing every sphere of human activity (26). Through its "lightness" and "triviality," stage magic has served as a classic case of misdirection, a ploy by which the experiences and emotions that "massively exceed" the rationally defensible have been granted a haven (27). Not coincidentally, in the last few centuries, adjectives such as charming, entrancing, fascinating, prestigious, and glamorous—all originating as descriptors of kinds of magic—have supplemented or even displaced in everyday speech "such established philosophical and aesthetic concepts as the sublime and the beautiful" (40). "Secular magic," During concludes, has become "a pivotal component of modern culture" because it has been "interiorized and made available for a systematic and complex mutation" into other forms of cultural production (45).

Modern Enchantments possesses a three-part structure. The opening chapters introduce and delimit its topic. During takes pains, for instance, to distance himself from "compensation theory" by demonstrating that "entertainment-magic audiences seek experiences which are not merely surrogates for supernaturalism" (64). Next, Modern Enchantments offers a chronological survey of stage magic from the Restoration to World War I, concentrating on the lives and careers of the most eminent European and American prestidigitators: Isaac Fawkes, Comus (Nicholas Ledru), Giovanni Pinetti, Ludwig Döbler, John Henry Anderson, Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, and Harry Houdini [End Page 605] (Ehrich Weiss). During traces such key changes as the increasing centrality of showmanship and gadgetry, the growing importance of magic lanterns and optical illusions, and the transition from fairs to fixed sites as performance locales. Along the way we learn stray but striking facts. We discover, for example, when magicians began to pull rabbits out of hats (c. 1800) and when they began to wear fashionable evening dress (1845, at the start of Robert-Houdin's seven-year run at the Soirées Fantastiques in the Palais Royal).

The third part of Modern Enchantments comprises a series of thematic investigations: "From Magic to Film," "Magic and Literature," "Magic Places." These chapters treat a wide variety of art, literature, and performance, from high- to lowbrow. On occasion During offers analyses of canonical texts, among them Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Emile (1762), Fanny Burney's Evelina (1778), Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), E. T. A. Hoffmann's Tomcat Murr (1819-21), Edgar Allan Poe's "Gold-Bug" (1843), and Raymond Roussel's "Parmi les noirs" (1935). More typically, he explores the kinds of spectacle and writerly production associated with secular magic. He discusses the deluxe automata of Cox's Museum (1772-75); the conjuring acts, panoramas, waxworks, and monologists of the London Lyceum (c. 1780-1816); the optical illusions and multimedia literary adaptations of the London Polytechnic (1838-80); and the special-effects extravaganzas at John Nevil Maskelyne's House of Mysteries in Piccadilly (1873-1904). He touches on such causes célèbres as the Bottle Conjurer, the Cock Lane Ghost, the Fox sisters' table rappings, and Washington Irving Bishop's mind-reading act. Throughout, During evinces a particular fascination with Georges Méliès, the director of such early films as Journey to the Moon (1902) and An Impossible Voyage (1904). For During, Méliès, who...


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pp. 605-608
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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Archived 2004
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