The Magical Imagination: Magic and Modernity in Urban England 1780-1914
Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2012, ISBN: 9781107002005; 308pp.; Price: £60.00
University of Queensland
Date accessed: 1 June, 2023
Magic is difficult to historicize. There are many reasons for this. To begin with, it has long been scorned by both rationalists and the religious, so that people are often reluctant to confess to believing in it. Indeed in the period of this study many of its forms were illegal, at least as soon as they were used to make money. At the very least, it tended to possess a negative value as cultural capital. As a consequence, those interested in ferreting it out were often baffled.
In the 1920s, for instance, the urban folklorist Edward Lovett observed while collecting magic amulets:
The collector in search of folk-beliefs and articles connected with them meets with far more difficulties than the collector of old china or other merely material objects. The objections to giving him information arise from a double set of motives, those of the ardent believer who will not expose sacred things to an outsider, and those of the unbeliever who refuses information about what he considers to be degrading superstitions or discreditable survivals.(1)
Thinking like this, Lovett often suspected his subjects of dissimulation when they denied believing in magic. But were they in fact dissimulating? It seems precipitate simply to suppose so.
Magic is conceptually elusive for deeper and more philosophical reasons too. It is closely, indeed constitutively, connected to ‘belief’. When it comes to magic the first step is always ‘do you believe in it?’, with the officially approved answer long being ‘no’ of course. But it is not easy to ascertain whether someone – including oneself – believes in magic or not.
I buy an untested anti-aging cream for my skin. Magic? I like to wear a particular pair of shorts when I run a marathon. More magic? I avoid walking under ladders. Magic again? I wonder whether aliens might be communicating through crop circles. Magic too? Are genuine irrational beliefs involved in all these cases? Or might they be – just to float some possibilities – ways of cheering myself up, or of entertaining myself in a kind of fantasy, or of structuring my life around rituals, activities which do not necessarily suppose that anti-aging creams work, or one pair of shorts is as better than another when it comes to running competitively, or ladders actually cause bad luck, or even that crop circles aren’t also a hoax.
Difficulties like this encroach upon Karl Bell’s book. He has written a very useful account of popular magic’s survival in urban England in the long century after the Enlightenment (although he concentrates in the period around 1900). But as contemporary academic historiography strongly encourages, he positions his argument as a revisionist one. He wants to correct what he calls, following Joshua Landy and Michael Saler, ’ironic’ or ’antinomian‘ understandings of modern magic. The ironic or secular magic thesis emphasizes that in the post-Enlightenment world we have the capacity simultaneously to stand in and out of magic, to believe and not to believe it, which is also to say we can engage in it ‘as if’ it were true. This new paradigm, was developed in Terry Castle’s The Female Thermometer: Eighteenth-Century Culture and the Invention of the Uncanny and James Cook’s The Arts of Deception: Playing with Fraud in the Age of Barnum; it was first conceptualized in the terms I have just outlined in my own Modern Enchantments: the Cultural Power of Secular Magic; it was further extended by Landy and Saler in their edited collection Re-Enchantment of the World: Secular Magic in a Rational Age and more recently still in Michael Saler’s powerful and innovative As if: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality (2). It has the advantage (amongst other things) of being able to deal with the huge increase in commercially produced fictional forms of magic from the 18th century on – whether in magic conjuring shows, or special-effects spectacles, ghost stories or the like, as well as with more ambiguous magic forms like the spiritualist séance. Bell sometimes seems to believe that the antinomian account of magic makes the division between ’real’ and pretend magic harder. In fact it doesn’t, it puts all kinds of magic into a zone of ambiguity where (largely because of the problem in locating belief) both can be true at once. In this it is, to use a current term, ’post-secular’.
At any rate Karl Bell stands against the secular/post-secular magic tide. He insists that, especially when one shifts attention away from the middle class, it is possible to uncover 'the previously underestimated extent of genuine belief in the fantastical in the nineteenth century' (p. 6). In particular he contends that the urban ’plebeian magical imagination‘ (as he calls it) used magic without irony – seriously, genuinely – in order to negotiate the various situations in which the working class now found itself. This was possible because urban modernity did not constitute a radical break with older plebeian life-ways, but was rather a continuing set of transformations of them. (This is a ’long revolution’ argument that I for one find wholly persuasive.)
Thus to cite just one of Bell’s concrete examples: beliefs in ghosts and the supernatural were used ’to animate and dramatize perceptions of social and moral divides in nineteenth-century English cities‘ (p. 224), as when ghost ballads expressed or predicted violence against class enemies. The picture then is of an urban working class using older folk magic beliefs and practices to deal with the increasingly industrialized, massified and commercialized urban life in which relations between classes were rapidly mutating.
I am fairly convinced by this larger case, though it is worth noting that the countervailing tendency among the working class towards increased engagement in non-magical, non-folkloric knowledges and cultures, their will to rationality as it were (as spelled out in Jonathan Rose’s The Intellectual Life of the British Working-Classes for instance(3)), is not addressed. Could it be that different working-class fractions were driven in different directions in this regard? Or could it be (as the secular magic thesis would lead one to suppose) that members of the working class could be simultaneously more involved in rationality and education into rationality and more (or anyway not less) involved in magic?
So I am not sure that the evidence that Bell presents, or the functionalist argument that he makes, requires, or even harmonizes with, his revisionist argument against ironic or secular understandings of modern magic. Much of his evidence is secondary, as it must be in this difficult historiographical field. It is taken from newspaper reports about magic events and formations, from legal evidence in trials against fortune tellers and others, from ballads and stories. That is an archive at some remove from actual magical practices, and therefore is not especially useful in helping us to discover how ’genuine‘ plebeian magic beliefs actually were. As we have seen, even those in direct contact with magic practitioners like Edward Lovett found that hard to figure out. (For some reason, Lovett is not one of Bell’s sources.) But in the end I cannot see that it really matters. We tend to overestimate the genuineness or seriousness even of pre-modern magic ’beliefs’. Certainly the degree to which, in the 19th century, plebeian Londoners who visited fortune tellers, or bought lucky charms, or avoided haunted houses actually ‘believed‘ in supernatural powers is all but immaterial in examining the uses to which their involvement in this culture was put. It’s not just that one cannot know, it is also that that structural ignorance is of little account.
It is also the case that Bell’s revisionist argument takes us back some way to those older understandings of magic according to which it was the poor and uneducated or the ’primitive‘ who were mired in magic beliefs and superstition and the bourgeoisie and the educated and the Westerners who were freed from them. The secular magic argument undoes that hard division, which is one reason why it was developed in the first place.
There is another important question that Bell’s study raises, and indeed goes some way to answering, even if Bell himself does not place it at his argument’s centre. That question is, why did the ‘plebeian magical imagination’ gradually dissolve? The answer Bell suggests is that its commercialization and ‘democratization’ weakened it. During the period, it was drawn into the apparatuses of consumption and entertainment. That too strikes me as a persuasive argument, once more not at odds with the secular magic thesis. But nonetheless it ignores magic’s persistence.
After all, it is not as if we are today less magical than they were in the 19th century. We still use lucky charms. We consult fortune tellers (or Tarot card readers or horoscopes). We purchase an extraordinary range of magical remedies, from penis extenders to baldness cures and anti-aging skin creams, as well as many ‘health food‘ products. A whole ’metaphysical‘ culture has been built around semi-precious stones, crystals, and astrology. Yet something has changed. Magic belongs to the various worlds of therapy, self-development, entertainment, spirituality, shopping-lifestyles. But these practices and formations have been removed from the term ’magic‘ itself, and, by the same stroke, from the incubus of ‘superstition’. Non-magic magic’s cultural-capital value would appear now to be, not a negative number, but rather close to zero.
Given this, it would have been interesting had Bell thought less about plebeian magic as a survival, and more about it in relation to the origins of modern non-magic magic. Those origins are to be found, I’d reckon, in the 19th-century worlds of esotericism and spiritualism. Those worlds might then have been too bourgeois for Bell’s project. But even if we concede that, had he more fully attended to them, he might have offered us a richer analysis of differences and connections between plebeian and bourgeois magics in the period. This, of course, is not to underestimate the real new contribution to our knowledge of urban plebeian cultures and lifeways that The Magical Imagination provides.
- E. Lovett, 'Amulets from costers' barrows in London, Rome, and Naples', Folklore, 20, 1 (March 30 1909), 70–1.Back to (1)
- Terry Castle, The Female Thermometer: Eighteenth-Century Culture and the Invention of the Uncanny (Oxford, 1995); James Cook, The Arts of Deception: Playing with Fraud in the Age of Barnum (Cambridge, MA, 2001); Simon During, Modern Enchantments: the Cultural Power of Secular Magic (Cambridge, MA, 2002); Re-Enchantment of the World: Secular Magic in a Rational Age, ed. Joshua Landy and Michael Saler (Berkeley, CA, 2009); Michael Saler, As if: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality (Oxford, 2012).Back to (2)
- Jonathan Rose, The Intellectual Life of the British Working-Classes (New Haven, CT, 2000).Back to (3)
I would like to thank Professor During for taking the time to read my book and for writing the review. He clearly recognizes the difficulties that confront historians of magic and popular mentalities and one would not dispute his comments about the conceptual elusiveness of such matters. He also astutely grasps some of the underlying arguments that I was trying to develop and I appreciate his generally positive responses to these ideas. I must, however, take issue with some of the more sweeping summary comments made about the book as these may give readers a misleading impression of what I was attempting to achieve in this work. I would like to note that while I may criticise the review for misrepresenting some of my ideas and arguments, I wholly accept the reviewer’s right to his opinions if he feels I have not articulated my views with sufficient clarity. Again, this is something I hope other readers will judge for themselves.
During reads The Magical Imagination as a study of magic’s survival in urban England. There are loaded connotations around the word ‘survival’ that may not be immediately apparent to the non-specialist. Of course, in one way this book is about the survival of magical ideas and practices in that it explores their persistence but, importantly, it also argues for their transformative and adaptive qualities within the 19th-century city. In doing so the first half of the book aims to revise the historiographical position inherited from Victorian elites, namely that popular magical ideas in the modern period were mere survivals. In this interpretation magic was perceived as simply residual beliefs and practices left over from a former age, cultural fossils that were slowly being eroded by the advance of a rational modernity. It is this second and, I would argue, erroneous interpretation which During seems to imply when he refers to my study of ‘plebeian magic as a survival’. This misrepresents my argument. The emphasis throughout the book is on magic and the supernatural’s ‘ongoing applicability as valuable cultural inheritances’ (p. 2).
The review also places a misdirected emphasis on the possibility and historical value of attempting to gauge magical beliefs. I would be one of the first to agree with During’s view that magical beliefs are both hard to gauge and (probably) less important than the cultural uses to which they were put. Indeed, it was my stated aim not to gauge magical beliefs but to explore their perception and function in the modernising city (again, see bottom p. 2). As explicitly expressed in several later chapters, such functions did not necessarily require genuine belief to make them useful to urban dwellers. As such, whilst During goes to some considerable length to argue that he cannot see that genuine belief really mattered I would suggest that a closer reading of the last two chapters may demonstrate that we are largely in agreement. Unfortunately this issue becomes something of a red herring that overshadows During’s consideration of the more central concerns of the book. In fixating on the difficulties of capturing magical beliefs he seems to miss the point that this book is as much a study of urbanisation and the experience of modernisation as it is about magic in the long 19th century. Owen Davies’ Witchcraft, Magic and Culture 1736–1951 (1) has already provided us with an important assessment of magic in this period. Rather than simply reiterating Davies’ research my book was attempting to use magical mentalities as a fresh way in which to approach urbanisation and popular understandings of modernity.
More than anything else it was During’s comment that this book takes us back to an older understanding of magic fostered around neat class divides (plebeian believers and rational bourgeois sceptics) that prompted me to respond to what for the most part is a fair and generally positive review. This statement was rather disingenuous and it certainly misrepresents what the book was trying to do. My attempts to explore magical ideas beyond the more familiar (and acceptable?) scholarly topics of 19th-century occultism and spiritualism necessarily led me into a vibrant 19th-century culture of popular magical thought. However, this wish to examine a plebeian engagement with supernatural ideas should not simply be equated with attempting to reiterate the contemporary elite’s view that the lower classes wallowed in superstition and irrationality.
I never claimed or even suggested that all within the lower classes were believers or (as During reasonably proposes) that they were not open to the possibility of simultaneously embracing rational entertainments, education, and both secular and ethnographic magics. Chapter three’s clear attempt to address the existence of both working-class sceptics and middle-class believers necessarily undermines During’s claims about the ‘hard division’ I was supposedly attempting to restore. He seems to miss the point that whilst engaging with crude class dichotomies founded, in this case, upon belief in magic and the supernatural, this chapter is grounded in a study of contemporary perceptions of belief, modernity, class, and self-identity, not belief itself. Furthermore, the obviously untenable nature of such sweeping class-based claims meant that my emphasis in later chapters could not focus on identifiable working-class applications of magic and the supernatural. Instead, when looking at the magical imagination’s function in aiding group formation or memory mapping in the city my emphasis was necessarily on smaller social units, localised urban communities, which often consisted of a mixture of classes (and certainly individual opinions on the supernatural).
I agree with During’s point about the value of a richer analysis of differences and connections between ethnographic magic and ‘modern non-magic magic’. This is certainly a promising avenue for future research and I have already touched upon it in an earlier publication.(2) However, this is to largely judge the book on what During would have liked it to be about rather than what it actually set out to do. There was little room for these undoubtedly interesting issues when my emphasis was on attempting to forge new insights into differing perceptions of modernity and the role the magical imagination played in the communal, spatial, and temporal experiences of urban inhabitants in the long 19th century.
During somewhat simplifies my engagement with the antinomian paradigm of modern magic and in the spirit of the Reviews in History feature I would like to move away from defending particular points in the review to try and extend the debate a little. The Magical Imagination was not (or was certainly not intended as) an attack on this paradigm. I certainly value antinomian approaches, not least because (thanks to the efforts of Castle, Cook, Saler and During) we now have a conceptual formulation of magic and modernity that is both far more challenging and far more sophisticated than previous historiographical interpretations. What my book did attempt to do was to advance the suggestion that, in certain circumstances (the use of ethnographic magic) we might need to reconsider the dynamics within that paradigm.
The secular magic thesis moves beyond the simple either/or dichotomy (belief or disbelief) to offer an and/also approach in which one can both believe and not believe, can engage with magic but in a knowing way, as if it were true. As During states, the antinomian approach ‘puts all kinds of magic into a zone of ambiguity where [“real” and pretend magic can] both be true at once’. My issue with this is that ‘real’ and pretend magic do not seem to have parity within that zone. Its ambiguity seems to tacitly favour a playing with magical ideas and a downplaying of genuine belief. Certainly in terms of evidence one is more likely to find people who are inclined to use that ambiguity to adopt the accepted and acceptable stance of knowing engagement (or at least to state as much to others). Ambiguity is not an inherently neutral state here and in the antinomian formulation there appear to be (rational) assertions and tacit ideological stances concealed within the haze. Obvious hints of this are to be found in antinomian terms such as ‘secular magic’ and ‘non-magical magic’, the latter’s rather awkward syntax both labouring the point whilst attempting to distance itself from what I suppose would have to be termed magical magic.
Perhaps the test of any good paradigm is how well it can accommodate or respond to ideas, cultural practices or experiences that were not originally present in its formulation. The historians cited above constructed their paradigm on the basis of studies of commercial fictions and magical entertainments (including séances) and it works well in these contexts. It appears to work less well in matters of life-threatening illness (after death is a slightly different matter and I am more willing to accept antinomian interpretations of spiritualist séances). 19th-century accounts of the use of ‘magical’ solutions to deal with illness certainly lack the ironic detachment and sometimes even the ambiguity that During wishes to envelop all magic in. Whilst never a first choice for trying to cure a loved one magic was certainly a last resort once all ‘rational’ solutions had been exhausted. One cannot make any clear statements about magical belief here (it suggests more about human desperation than magic though the two are bonded in the desire for influence) but numerous sources reiterate magic’s function as a psychological crutch. While those who were willing to pay a cunning man or wise woman to concoct some ‘magical’ solution might later deny belief in its efficacy (especially if the patient worsened or died) their resort to such measures frequently lacked the knowing ‘as if it was true’ dimension of antinomian interpretations. Conversely, if the patient recovered, ambiguity might well shift towards belief, given the existence of ‘proof’.
Despite the valuable insights to be gained from the antinomian paradigm its insistence on ambiguity can, perhaps somewhat oddly given the nature of ambiguity, seem to encourage a confined conceptual rigidity since belief and non-belief must necessarily be contained together; without one or the other the ambiguity dissolves. This may be a little too harsh. It is perhaps fairer to say that it promotes an unwillingness to accept that in some circumstances peoples’ supernatural experiences can cause them to oscillate wildly outside the bounds of the ‘zone of ambiguity’ and into the realms of fervent belief or disbelief. Of course we cannot and should not return to old dichotomies of belief or disbelief; the antinomian paradigm has convincingly demonstrated the limitations of such a formulation. I would suggest, however, that (from our position of a slightly smug, post-modern knowingness) we need to recognise that belief and disbelief do exist on a spectrum that, for the most part, is defined by ambiguity and the operation of an antinomian dynamic. As inhabitants of a post-modern age we have grown weary (and wary) of belief and have become infatuated with ironic stances whereby we can invest in, play with, and adopt postures without fear of commitment. This may be our condition in the 21st century but we risk misunderstanding and perhaps doing an injustice to the importance and validity of ideas and cultures in the past if we try to read our 19th-century ancestors as proto-post-modern ironists.
- Owen Davies, Witchcraft, Magic and Culture 1736–1951 (MUP, 1999).Back to (1)
- See Karl Bell, ‘Remaking magic: the “Wizard of the North” and contested magical mentalities in the mid-nineteenth century magic show’, Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft, 4, 1 (2009), pp. 26–53.Back to (2)