Magic is a promiscuous metaphor, powerful and ubiquitous in descriptions of knowledge and skill. We praise scientists and artists alike by hailing them as magicians, and we praise their accomplishments—new technologies, virtuosic performances—as magical or enchanting. Much as magic is an idiom for celebrating states of exceptional ability, it also lends itself to condemning states of exceptional naiveté. Thus financial journalists have attributed the subprime lending fiasco to investors’ “magical thinking,” and cautioned that Ben Bernanke won’t be able to fix the U.S. economy with a “magic wand,” “magic elixir,” or “magical formula.” Is there a common thread unifying the myriad objects and practices we figure as magical in everyday speech? What are the connections between the sources of this metaphor: diabolical occultism, superstition, early modern scientific practices like alchemy and astrology, and stage illusionism? And why is magic so morally ambivalent, culturally resonant with extremes of both intellectual virtue and vice?
Etymology offers some illuminating insights into these questions. From the beginning, magic has been associated with wondrous skill. The ancient Persians called Zoroastrian priests magi. Magh-, the Indo-European root of the Old Persian magi, connotes power or ability (like the English word might). The magi boasted great power—astrological predictions of future events, potent remedies and cures, profound cosmological insight—based on occult knowledge. The encounter between Persia and ancient Greece first brought the term magic into circulation in the West. To the Greeks, the powers of the magi were alien, mysterious, and threatening. They adopted the term magic to denote the arts of the magi; it connoted exotic, inscrutable, but nevertheless magnificent abilities that were a serious source of moral alarm. Historical developments increased the semantic range of magic in modern European languages (French magie, Spanish magia…), but the core notion of strange power, and its equivocal associations with otherness, remain surprisingly in tact.
Magic is the Other of forms of knowledge in many different fields. Theologians have defined it as the perversion of religion (in the Bible, magicians repeatedly crop up as the enemies of God as his messengers). While modern science emerged from early modern natural magic, it developed exclusive claims to authority by aggressively discrediting magical practices. In anthropology, the notion of magic played a pivotal role in differentiating between the primitive and the modern. Victorian anthropologists classified “magical thinking” as a hallmark of the primitive mind, and “rational thinking” as characteristically modern (psychology stated this social evolutionist dichotomy ontogenetically). The efflorescence of entertainment magic in modern Europe ties many of these processes together. In the accounts of European travelers from the sixteenth century onward, non-Western religious ceremonies are often described as magic shows—mere charlatanism coupled with fanatical credulity. The implicit (and often explicit) contrast between the normatively disenchanted Western magician and the pathologically enchanted non-Western ritual experts, made magic a potent marker of modernity.
Recent years have witnessed a huge resurgence of entertainment magic in popular culture. After the success of David Copperfield, whose illusions were virtually unprecedented in terms of scale, cost, and sophistication, David Blaine captured the public eye with simple tricks done in the street for a diverse array of passersby. Magicians often embody fantasies of social elevation; their performances feature the elaborate staging of money, sex, and power. Blaine seems to represent a more egalitarian ideal—an ethnically mixed figure who uses magic to overcome social barriers in everyday settings. His television specials present magic as a kind of micro-sociological voyeurism.
Contemporary fiction has given us many tales of illusionists—Carter Beats the Devil, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, The Magician’s Assistant—and Hollywood has kept pace. Three magic-themed films stand out in recent years: The Illusionist, The Prestige, and Scoop. Taken together, these films tell us much about the figure of the magician in the modern imagination. He is almost invariably a he. His uncommon abilities invite otherworldly comparisons: in Scoop, Woody Allen is an entertainment magician whose illusions become real; The Illusionist strongly suggests that Ed Norton is a real magician masquerading as an entertainer. The magician’s skills at deception can enable him to penetrate the falsity of social life and manipulate others at will. His Faustian pursuit of power can make him sinister (The Prestige), or his Promethean lust for knowledge can make him heroic (The Illusionist). It is telling that these two films set in the nineteenth century depict magicians as substantial, dangerous, figures, whereas Allen’s twenty-first century Sid Waterman, is a kitschy self-parody, an endearing anachronism. While the figure of the conjuror is still rich in weighty associations, in an era dominated by computer generated special effects can also regard magic with bemused nostalgia.
Too often dismissed as culturally trivial, magic has not received its due attention in scholarly circles. Happily, it seems that Princeton is recognizing a subject whose time has come, and may be emerging as the global center for scholarship on all forms of magic. This is largely due to advent of the David A. Gardner ’69 Magic Fund, which, through the Humanities Council, supports faculty projects involving magic. In the last several years the Gardner Fund has created campus-wide excitement and new opportunities for people working on magic to connect with each other.
This issue of P-ROK, generously supported by the Gardner Fund, is case in point. In the feature Interview, historian Tony Grafton describes the proliferation of magical practices, ranging from playful to perfidious, in early modern Europe. In the Inventions section, Psychology Professor Emily Pronin explains how scientists study the phenomenon of “magical thinking” in rational people. The Forum brings together Isabelle Clark-Deces from Anthropology, Francois Rigolot from French and Italian, and Thomas Leonard from Economics to discuss the magic of money, self-deception, enchantment, and teaching. This edition of Comptes Rendus offers an enchanting array of syllabi from recent Princeton history, anthropology, and comparative literature courses that address various forms of magic: witchcraft, magical thinking, and magical realism, respectively. Finally, in 4Q + 4A, Stanley Corngold (German), David Wilcove (Ecology and Evolutionary Biology), and Rena Lederman (Anthropology) respond to the question, “where does the magic happen?” Were the same question put to us, we might say, “at Princeton.”
Graham Jones, Guest Editor