Friday, December 01, 2006

French Particularities No. 11: Magic

Magic is taken quite seriously in France. I'm not talking here about TV magicians but, in intellectual circles: the cultural phenomenon, and more widely: superstition and the supernatural.

This is one of the surprising things you notice about French bookshops: they have two sections that are normally very large and which hardly exist at all in the UK. One is the comic book section, the other is the supernatural section. Often, the supernatural section can be vast, stuffed with tomes on astrology and encyclopaedia's of the strange.

Why this interest in the supernatural? Is it a by-product of Roman Cathlocism? Is it because France is a very rural country? I don't know. It may be because rational intellectualism has not outlawed it, as has happened in the UK, but rather 'tunnelled under' to try and understand its meaning and significance.

In other words, rather than surpressing magic, the French try to understand it and integrate it.

I began to understand the intellectual significance given to magic by reading Levi-Strauss and discovering him as a sort of human link in a chain of philosophy which stretches back in time through first Marcel Mauss and then Emile Durkheim.

Mauss wrote books on the importance of the exchange of gifts in society. Like the exchange of stone axes dressed in grass skirts that I described here Essentially, the stone axes are the symbolic representations of the women the men are actually exchanging. Mauss also wrote a 'General Theory of Magic'.

Today I began reading a book about French literature and magic 'from Chateaubriand to Rimbaud'. This is an analysis of intellectual thought about magic and what role magic plays in society. It begins by identifying the origin of the magical impulse in the world of the child. As the newborn child starts to develop, it slowly discovers that by making utterances, it can get what it wants. By crying in the night, its mother will come. By saying 'chocolate' it will get a piece of chocolate. This is the ultimate magic. By making an incantation: 'Chocolate', a piece of chocolate arrives in your mouth. The baby does not discriminate between the word and the thing.

But one day the baby says 'chocolate' and the chocolate does not arrive. The baby says 'mother' and the mother does not arrive. It is at this point of intense disappointment that man's efforts to make magic begin. To return to that state of innocence where what they demanded appeared as if by magic.

There are two ways in which this state can be attained.

The first is for the magician to believe so strongly in his/her ability to make something happen that eventually it does happen. I take this to mean that the magician, through training, becomes capable of performing incredible feats. I guess this might be what you'd call a 'stunt magician', the type who traps himself in a block of ice for weeks.

The second is for the magician to underestimate reality. In this model, the people surrounding the magician subjugate themselves to him/her and fulfill his/her wishes. They cooperate in deceiving the magician that he\she retain the same powers they had when they were a child who didn't understand the difference between the word chocolate and the thing chocolate which doesn't, when you annunciate it, necessarily fly off the table and land in your mouth. I think this is the magican who 'pulls tricks out of a hat'. We know he can't possibly have three rabbits in the hat, but we suspend belief and allow ourselves to be deceived.

In these two models, the roles are reversed: in the first, the audience is deceived (because they really believe it is magic) and the magician is convinced. In the second model, the audience is convinced (into suspending belief) and the magician deceives himself (because his magic, in fact, depends on the goodwill of the audience).

Why bother with this? A rational intellect might simply say that this stuff is nonsense and give it up. This underestimates however the human desire for magic, for what we wish for to come true. If we let it, imagination can be constrained by rationality and by trying to remain true to observed facts. Magic and myth and poetry are what lie outside these observed facts and which depend on the power of the unconscious mind to transform the everyday into something beautiful and strange.


Joe Milutis said...

Is this book in French? I'd be interested to take a look. Has the movie _The Prestige_ made its way across seas? Really lovely new film which encapsulates a philosophy of magic.
The goodwilled audience that enjoys threadbare magic seems a healthy bunch. (les non dupes errant)

Jonathan said...

Thank you Joe. This made me laugh. I think poets are probably supposed to prefer the first kind of magic and, therefore, end up rather less healthy.

This is the book in more detail:


Published by GALLIMARD in 1990.

It's in French and, I would say, rather hard work if you're not fluent. I'll try and see the film. I think it is still on general release here in France.

Ms Baroque said...

This is really interesting and of course it is well known that these matters suit the Romantic imagination far better than the phlegmatic Anglo-Saxon one. The origins of magic in the development of the child explain why everyone still has a little of it in them.

There was an interesting popular-culture treatment of some of these ideas a few years back, with that film Fairy Tale: a True Story. The story relates to those two girls who claimed to have photographs of real fairies at the bottom of their garden - the incident is well known as the Coppingley Fairies. But the film, placing the story firmly in the context of the Great War, gives our human need for magic its due. Arthur Conan Doyle (himself bereaved of a son) made the two girls & their fairies famous, and is allied in the film with Harry Houdini (himself a mode of your model 1), played by Harvey Keitel.

I love your photograph, too.

Ms Baroque said...

Cottingley, I mean!

Jonathan said...

Hello Ms Baroque, thanks for your comment.

This is an aspect of magic I hadn't really thought about, I mean the supernatural realm. Wasn't Yeats quite a believer in this sort of thing, around the same sort of time I suppose.

I do think that magic in this sense is a sort of escapism - from the realities of war or whatever. When external order breaks down, humans go inside themselves to create new imaginative rules and order, or to try and make themselves feel more powerful in a world in which they feel powerless.

Ms Baroque said...

Well, it's precisely analagous to your child-development theory, which I agree with, by the way. It's about how you control, or give meaning to, a random universe. Myth serves the same function.

Yeats was WAY into this stuff. As was, of course, Ted Hughes.

Doug Stewart said...

One of the things that really shocked me when I moved from the UK to France was the number of "mediums". If one turns to the classified advertisements of almost any paper, there will not only be one, but in fact a huge number of them competing for space. I had virtually never seen one advertised before I came here and I think the fact that there are so many says something about the French culture (but I'm not sure what).

Karnikova said...

one more comment from me :) i think i will use your idea of "particularities" if you don't mind. My blog, among other themes, talks about Zagreb as well and I think it is a great idea to write about these particularities. Would you mind me using your idea?

Jonathan Wonham said...

Hi Karnikova. No problem. Happy particularising!