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Simon During - Modern Enchantments

"God is revealed to prophets only in accordance with the nature of their imagination." --Spinoza (as quoted on page 15)
So I sit down in the Monterey, Mexico airport to wait out what was supposed to be a five hour layover. Not something to look forward to, to be sure, but I thought Mr. During could get me through it with a smile on my face at the end. Seven hours later I'm still in the same airport, feeling the onset of a horrible case of food poisoning, and not very enthralled with Modern Enchantments. In fact, I'm mostly bored to death with During's frequent bouts of verbal diarrhea.

I must admit to not reading every word of this book. Almost half was skimmed. I just couldn't take it. The first 73 pages, while dealing with an interesting subject, are difficult to wade through. They should have been edited down to about 10 - 15 pages. If you can make to Chapter 3, beginning on page 74, things get better. The next hundred pages aren't horrible, but they certainly could have been better with a bit more flair, editing, and consistent timeline.

During jumps from period to period with reckless abandon, making an understanding of the history of magic difficult to follow--to say the least. Another annoying technique, from an English professor no less, is During's habit of the run-on paragraph. I believe his paragraph structure consists of starting a new one once he has hit about 20 lines. Few pages have more than two paragraphs on them.

Pieces of this book are very interesting--more because of the subject matter than anything else. For instance, the history of Houdini and the passion of some of the other magicians are not without merit. During ends the section on Houdini with

Houdini's collection--with its unprecedented coverage of witchcraft and spiritualism, its magic books and posters--becomes not so much a monument to himself as an archive of texts and debris left behind by one [of] the greatest of all the West's failed projects, namely the solicitation and application of forces "beyond" nature. (p. 177)
There must certainly be better histories of magic out there. But if you are up for a challenge, or you are suffering from insomnia, then this is the book for you.
"Religion cannot be secularized and remain religion. But this is not true of magic." (p. 2)
from the publisher:
Magic, Simon During suggests, has helped shape modern culture. Devoted to this deceptively simple proposition, During's superlative work, written over the course of a decade, gets at the aesthetic questions at the very heart of the study of culture. How can the most ordinary arts--and by "magic," During means not the supernatural, but the special effects and conjurings of magic shows--affect people?

Modern Enchantments takes us deeply into the history and workings of modern secular magic, from the legerdemain of Isaac Fawkes in 1720, to the return of real magic in nineteenth-century spiritualism, to the role of magic in the emergence of the cinema. Through the course of this history, During shows how magic performances have drawn together heterogeneous audiences, contributed to the molding of cultural hierarchies, and extended cultural technologies and media at key moments, sometimes introducing spectators into rationality and helping to disseminate skepticism and publicize scientific innovation. In a more revealing argument still, Modern Enchantments shows that magic entertainments have increased the sway of fictions in our culture and helped define modern society's image of itself.

Modern Enchantments is a magisterial, breathtaking book. Magic is everywhere, During notes, from the simple act of naming to the complicated technologies of the cinema. By connecting performance and religion, he brilliantly shows how older forms of ritual magic find a new and different space in modern culture, reappearing as show business, advertising, and fiction making. This dazzling and stimulating book is sure to rekindle wide interest in spiritualism and magic as makers of modern culture. Modern Enchantments is cultural history at its best. --Gauri Viswanathan, author of Outside the Fold: Conversion, Modernity, and Belief
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