Literature as "Magic"

        Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus exclaimed, "A sound [skillful] Magician is a mighty god" (A-Text, Scene 1).  The Reader-Response theorist might reply, "Nay, but rather, a sound author is a mighty magician, and the readers are the audience for the magician's illusions."  Just like magicians, authors must be able, consciously or unconsciously, to anticipate their readers' responses and to manipulate them to make the illusion of "the work" appear.

        Magicians long have known that mere tricks, including the most ingenious apparatus involving mirrors and hidden assistants, do not, in themselves, cause audiences to believe magic has been performed. Belief in supernatural causation depends upon the audience's willing participation (and resistance to) the drama surrounding the tricks. Jim Steinmeyer, a historian of magicians and magic's technology, describes the "art" which induces belief: "The success of a magician lies in making a human connection [between the audience and] the magic, the precise focus that creates a fully realized illusion in the minds of the audience. [ . . . ] A great magic performance consists of a collection of tiny lies, in words and deeds, that are stacked and arranged ingeniously to form the battlement for an illusion. It's a delicate battle of wits--an audience that welcomes being deceived, then dares to be fooled, alternately questioning, prodding, and surrendering. A great magician seems always to play catch-up to their thoughts but secretly must stay two steps ahead--not only solicitous and anticipating, but suggesting" (Hiding the Elephant: How Magicians Invented the Impossible and Learned to Disappear. N.Y.: Carroll & Graff, 2003, p. 17).

        Or, as students in my English 211 section have often heard me say, "in literature, there is no clock."  The Renwick Museum's "Ghost Clock" (the hyperlink) creates the illusion of a grandfather clock swathed in a sheet so that viewers will have the delight of discovering that the whole mass is carved from solid mahogany, stained and painted to create the illusion of something like "time suspended."  It stands in the center of a room on a pedestal, but other than that odd location, nothing identifies it as "art" rather than a covered timepiece.  Like the "Ghost Clock," literature often coaxes its audience to take its special status (Culler, "different from real life") for granted, lulling the audience into a false sense of expectation so that the "magic revelation" can be disclosed.  Try turning the plot of any great literature into a cause-effect proposition like a newspaper headline and you'll discover the difference between literature, which confuses us and delights us with revelations, and life, which operates according to its own horribly familiar rules: Son of Deceased King Loathes Step-Father, Suspects Murder: Mass Killing in Danish Court (Hamlet); Kids' Vacation Trip and Idyllic Childhood Spoiled by Weather, Time, and War [For a related story, see Arts Section, "Local Artist Finishes Painting"] (To the Lighthouse);  "So when am I going to be a grandmother?" Local Aristo Mom Asks Son (Shakespeare sonnet 1).  To see a visual artist's reversal of that process in a successful conversion of a common financial instrument into a work of art, consider Marcel Duchamp's "Tzanck Check."  Art is a game played between artist and audience, and both have to know the rules, but successful "play" often involves manipulating the rules in creative fashions.  Reader-Response critics are, like the sportscasters calling a great game's best plays, alerting audiences to how they are being set-up and slam-dunked by the text.