Ours is a Magical Age

Ours is a Magical Age

Dr Amy Wygent (University of Glasgow)

Ours is a magical age. As I write, we find ourselves in the midst of Channel 4's Magic Month, awaiting the consequences of the last chapter, 'The Second War Begins', of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and greeting with pleasure and pride a new on-line journal welcoming submissions from post-graduates and entirely edited by post-graduate students at Glasgow University. eSharp's first issue is devoted to magic.

None of this has anything to do with rabbits and hats. On the contrary, there is a new, literally deadly serious magic afoot. As for Channel 4, the format of 'Derren Brown Plays Russian Roulette Live' on 5 October called for a volunteer to load a bullet into a six-chambered handgun and for Brown to point it at his own head and rely on his 'mind-reading' powers to ensure that he did not die on camera. (He didn't.) The programme was broadcast from a foreign country and with a slight delay, just in case. The escapologist Thomas Solomon seemingly extricated himself from shackles and chains and a locked safe underwater, and, in a stunt which has positioned him as both a shyster and a mystic, David Blaine has finally emerged after 44 days suspended in a transparent box from a crane near Tower Bridge. Public reaction to his performance has been widespread and marks out the two limit cases of the magical spectrum: Either this is science, a kind of clever illusion - and one of the Sunday broadsheets remarked, after Blaine had 'apparently' gone without food for 31 days, that he didn't appear to have lost much weight - or Blaine has become our sign of metamorphosis and the christological, giving us his body in plain sight, before our very eyes, for our ...what? Stupefaction? Salvation? The crowds at Tower Bridge were so large that extra security had to be engaged, putting the cost of the event up from 1.4 to 2 million pounds, and the Metropolitan police had to patrol the site on weekends. For his next trick, Blaine plans to leap off the Brooklyn Bridge and come to the surface several miles away.

There is, as the Times noted, 'a new wave of magic. It is edgy, dark and unsettling, recalling the risks run by showmen such as Houdini.' Indeed, at the beginning of this month, one of America's most famous magicians, Roy Horn, of the Las Vegas illusionist team Siegfried and Roy, was bitten and mauled and nearly killed by one of his own white tigers while on stage performing. Horn is expected to recover, and the tiger is being held in quarantine at the hotel named for an illusion which has been home to the act for more than thirty years, the Mirage. As he was being taken away in the ambulance, Horn is reported to have said, 'Don't kill the cat.' This is magic as beast fable.

As for Harry Potter, it is now perfectly clear that either his life or that of the great dark wizard Voldemort will be forfeit; it will be one or the other; someone is going to die.

Extrication (of Peter Pan) from confinement, the uncertain border between meditation and ecstasy (in a cemetery and a Zen garden), and the possibility of a properly textual magic (Or is it just a love triangle?) are all forms of this new dark magic that contributors to this splendid first issue take on. But, of all of the darknesses of these dark corners - and they include shape-shifters, magical mirrors, alchemists, and magi - none is darker than the magic of the double. This is so because, as we also read here, our doubles are ambivalent and difficult to categorize. In the double we can find and love ourselves, for doubles can be, in our fond Freudian fantasy, our exact duplications. And in the double we can lose and annihilate ourselves, for they can be rogue schizo-bits of us, split off and running amuck. They are our twins, our twinning, our Twin Towers. As the Glasgow post-graduates were in the final stages of planning 'Magic: The Conference' at the end of March, 2002, the world ostensibly heard from Osama bin Laden for the first time since shortly after the 9/11 atrocities. The communication was in the form of an email sent from a server in Karachi to the London-based Arabic newspaper al-Quds, and it read in part, 'then came the New York military expedition to set afire the homes of today's Hubal, crushing its towers, disgracing its arrogance, undoing its magic, stripping all the banners that marched behind it and proclaiming the beginning of its downfall, God willing' (emphasis added).

Freud was careful to point out that, if there was magic in the love of one's own double, a love which Freud called narcissism, referring to Ovid's beautiful story of metamorphosis in which a youth falls fatally in love with his image in a pool, then that magic is the magic of representation. Narcissism, Freud had claimed in the 1914 Introduction to Narcissism, could be the name for the attitude of the individual whose libido and interest have been withdrawn from the objects of the external world, taking as love object the self or some part of it. But the person in love forfeits some narcissism, which can only be replaced by being loved in return, and, in some kind of odd magical tele-transfer, filling up the tank once more. Wer liebt, hat sozusagen ein Stück seines Narzißmus eingebüst und kann es erst durch das Geliebtwerden ersetzt erhalten. What, exactly, is this narcissism which can be broken into pieces, Stücke? Freud's text is extremely careful about this dynamic. The subject of this discussion is not the actual establishment of a happy love in something like the real, but rather, as Freud later corrected his own text, its representation. The libido which fills up the tank can only be gained by being withdrawn from its objects, and this return does not establish a happy love once more, as Freud wrote in the first edition of his paper (herstellt, 1914), but rather represents it, as all editions after the first edition read (stellt gleichsam wieder eine glüchlicke Liebe dar).

Now the final paragraph of Freud's essay turns precisely to society. The ego ideal projected before the narcissist, Freud writes, has a social side (einen sozialen Anteil); it is also the common ideal of a family, a class, or a nation. And there would be two points to be emphasized in connection with his observations, the love of the twins, and the historical moment which has produced the fine dark work which is offered here. Firstly, if narcissism is now a generalized social structure, if the Twin Towers, that is, are a magical mirror, then the battles fought over them are in fact being fought over representation. The above-mentioned expedition, banners, and proclamations are enough evidence of this. And secondly, if this narcissism is magic, then this is a magic which cannot be and, as I write, manifestly has not been, undone. Disaster it may be, but disaster, as the very word tells us, falls des astres, and responds finally to Blanchot's pointed question in L'écriture du désastre, 'Qu'est-ce qui ne serait pas narcissique?' This is what is means to claim that ours is a magical age. It means the Millennium Bug and messianic revolution, that amusing coupling of illusion and the cosmetic, David Copperfield and Claudia Schiffer, all of the arts of deception, and the thinking with and about tricks, or, in another discourse, with and about epistemological tools, of the wonderful contributions to this first issue of eSharp. May the post-graduates use these tools finally to see beyond the ancient struggle of dark magic and white magic. May they, and all the rest of us too, turn base metals into gold.

eSharp issue: autumn 2003. ISSN 1742-4542.