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Scholarly Sleights of Hand

Response to 'Conjuring Asia (Review)'
Chris Goto-Jones, University of Victoria

Perhaps it is in the spirit of magic that I should read Alexis D’Hautcourt’s slightly mysterious review of my recent book, Conjuring Asia, on newbooks.asia. D’Haucourt writes with great confidence, and his review certainly encouraged me to go back through my writing with fresh eyes to see whether it resembled something quite different from what I had intended, or whether I had attempted to trick readers into thinking that it was something that it wasn’t. Such would be an illegitimate kind of magic. In the process, I discovered all kinds of things in those pages (including numerous problems, of course) that I hadn’t noticed before, so I am grateful to him for encouraging this reflection. However, I confess that (to me) the review still feels a little like a brief sequence of misdirections designed to reveal that my book is not the book that it is, or at least not the one that the reviewer had wanted to read.

So, while I’m sorry to have disappointed D’Hautcourt, I wonder whether this is at least in part because he seems uninterested in the book’s main concerns (which, contrary to his summary, revolve around the conceptual and practical implications of magic, orientalism, and modernity, as well as some of the various historical, ideological, and theoretical interrelations between these complex categories). Indeed, lamenting that so much of the book is dedicated to these concerns, D’Hautcourt seems to dismiss them as ‘not rewarding’ and ‘arduous’, and laments that I did not instead write more generally about ‘entertainment’ as a whole in relation to ‘racial ideas’, ideally from the perspective of audiences rather than performers. After some consideration and re-consideration, I feel obliged to affirm that it is true that this book is not about what it is not about; this impression is not a trick or sleight of hand.

As it happens, as I worked through this project, it became clear to me that there were several different groups of stake-holders involved in many of the arguments, each of whom would expect and need something different from the book. For instance, the international community of magicians has its own scholarly institutions, concerns, and conventions, which often come into little contact with the more conventional scholarly academy. Finding ways to take both of these communities seriously and to talk between them was a serious theoretical and methodological challenge. It was also great fun. Openly self-conscious about this, I explain at the start ‘that the book is structured into two parts. While I hope many readers may want to read the whole thing, I’m conscious that the two parts meet rather different needs. It seems conceivable, then, that some readers looking primarily for Asia in these pages might prefer to skip the first part’ (p. 9). On the other hand, readers interested in the possibility of a unified theory of magic, in the false distinction between real and fake magic, in the interactions between magic, technology, and modernity, in the ethical principles of legitimate and illegitimate magic, in the interactions between magic and empire, and in the function of the cultural and ideological category of the ‘Orient’ in relation to magic, might find Part One interesting.

With this in mind, D’Hautcourt’s review becomes very interesting to me as an instance of a response from a reader explicitly uninterested in the concerns of Part One – indeed, he makes no mention of any of these critical issues his review. Instead, he glosses these chapters with the suggestion that my conclusion is that modern ‘magic = illusion + glamour’ (p. 98), noting that he finds this conclusion uninteresting. Sadly, I think being uninterested might have also have led to being slightly inattentive; in fact, while this famous formula does seem to contain many of the most important elements in the ongoing debates about the meaning of modern magic, I cannot (and do not) claim that it is my formula or my conclusion. ‘Magic = illusion + glamour’ was formulated by the influential magician and critic, Sam Sharpe, in 1975, as a contraction of his own elaborate thesis, and I use it as a frame for discussing a ‘Theory of Modern Magic’ in Chapter 2.

The reviewer’s lack of interest in Part One is also reflected in his tone when he seems to suggest that he objects to the practice of documenting a longer, more detailed argument when a formula or summary of it will also be presented afterwards; he suggests that ‘he will be forgiven for thinking it not rewarding’ to read all the detail when there is a summary at the end that he could just read instead. Leaving aside the fact that the conclusion he quotes is not actually mine, he is quite correct that each chapter in Part One ends with a subsection, ‘Summary and Terminology’. I had hoped these pages would be helpful to the reader, since the chapters are rather detailed and intricate, but I can see that D’Hautcourt feels unhappy that the first half of this little book about magic turned out to be about magic after all. He seems to be asking forgiveness for having read a book about a subject that doesn’t interest him. Well, there is nothing to forgive! It seems that my transparent self-consciousness about the structure of the book was not helpful in his case – perhaps I can be forgiven too?

Perhaps more mysterious than this treatment of Part One, at least to me, is the unhappiness of D’Hautcourt about Part Two of the book, which consists of three chapters about magic in/of modern India, modern China, and modern Japan respectively. I can only assume that the reviewer was more interested in these more empirically-driven sections, since he focusses on three small details from the last two chapters without showing much interest in the arguments being made in each chapter or their place in the overall argument of the book as a whole.

In concrete terms, D’Hautcourt suggests that I demonstrate a ‘very remiss treatment of historical sources’ in Part Two, occasioned by what he sees as my neglect of newspaper and archive materials. Since the book is full of references to newspaper and archive materials (albeit presumably with many possible oversights and omissions), I think the best way to understand this accusation is to see it as a more pointed charge that I failed to mention some specific newspaper reviews that D’Hautcourt found with a ‘quick internet search’. I’m immediately willing to believe that I may have missed some interesting material, so I’m grateful that D’Hautcourt offers some suggestions about this. In order to take this seriously, let’s have a look and see how D’Hautcourt’s research can help us understand the historical situation and challenge the arguments of my book.

In the first of his three cases, D’Hautcourt focusses on my description of the way that William Robinson (later to become the ‘Original Chinese Conjuror,’ Chung Ling Soo) felt that his early attempt to adopt a Chinese persona on stage (Hop Sing Loo) was unsuccessful in Paris in 1900. Along with his two main biographers, I suggest that Robinson reformulated his ‘Chinese’ act and persona after Paris and eventually created the internationally acclaimed Chung Ling Soo act. D’Hautcourt believes that this story is wrong because he has found a review in Le Figaro that praises the Paris performance as a success. Quite correctly, D’Hautcourt then casts doubt on the reliability of the review that he found (noting that performers often placed their own paid reviews in newspapers to boost ticket sales), but then claims that this doubtful review ‘proves beyond doubt’ that Robinson’s performance was a success.

While it strikes me as a mysterious move for D’Hautcourt to present evidence that he himself doubts as evidence that is beyond doubt, I’m more than willing to believe that there is genuine evidence that many of Robinson’s audiences enjoyed his performances as Hop Sing Loo – after all, Robinson was an extremely talented magician who would go on to become one of the most successful of all time. However, even were it true that the review in Le Figaro constituted such evidence, the argument in my book is simply that Robinson felt that his performance as Hop Sing Loo didn’t work for him, so he reworked his act and and developed a new version of a ‘Chinese’ persona (eventually Chung Ling Soo).[i] In the context of the wider scholarship about Robinson, this seems to be a relatively uncontroversial position that has the advantage of being historically demonstrable, since it is exactly what happened. Even if the review that D’Hautcourt presents and then doubts turns out to be genuine, it doesn’t challenge the argument at all.

In his second case, D’Hautcourt argues that I am wrong to claim that the great Howard Thurston presented his tour around Asia as a success. To refute my case, D’Hautcourt cites a passage from the Hong Kong Daily Press that he suggests shows that Thurston’s performance of Chinese magic was not successful. For the record, I’m more than willing to believe that Thurston’s performances didn’t please all the critics (although it’s also the case that rival magicians bought negative reviews in newspapers) – Thurston was a colourful character and participated in some controversial cultural politics during his performances of magic in Asia (as well as in Europe and North America). So I was interested to see what D’Hautcourt had discovered. However, I was confused to see that the quotation provided by D’Hautcourt appears not to be critical but actually very positive indeed – certainly Thurston would have seen its description of a ‘subtle atmosphere of mysticism’ and ‘Oriental sumptuousness’ as entirely consistent with his hopes and intentions. The contours of magical Orientalism at the time were extremely elastic, and Thurston would have heard ‘reminiscent of the Arabian nights’ as high praise for his self-consciously Orientalist performance.

So in this case, as with the first case, it’s not clear that D’Hautcourt’s new evidence makes the point that he intends it to make, but it’s also not clear that successfully making that point would have any relevance to the arguments of my book. Here D’Hautcourt seems to seek to establish that Thurston’s performance in Hong Kong wasn’t without its detractors, which is a position I’m happy to accept regardless of the evidence presented.

In fact, the function of my account of Thurston was to show how magicians of that period engaged in fantastical travel writing about their exploits and experiences in Asia in order to bolster the ‘subtle atmosphere of mysticism’ and ‘Oriental sumptuousness’ around them, to help them generate an aura of enchantment for their audiences in Paris, London, and New York.[ii] That is, these accounts were being read as part of the extended process of a magician’s performance – they were a deliberate device of magicians to draw the ‘mystic East’ into the mystique of their stage personas. Indeed, one of the fascinating features of this period was this tendency for magicians to blur the lines between performance and life in this way. In some cases, magicians made claims about their magical time in Asia without ever even having been to Asia. (In a few cases, there are even reviews of these non-existent performances!).

In his final example of my ‘lack of interest’ in ‘social and historical setting’, D’Hautcourt makes another strongly worded but slightly odd claim. Concretely, he asserts that ‘nothing can be further from the truth’ than my contention that Japanese magicians travelled to Europe and North America and performed there on formal occasions in the 1860s, hence representing ‘Japanese magic’ to Western audiences. To confront this position, D’Hautcourt goes on to describe the ‘pariah class’ of hinin entertainers who performed street juggling (daikagura) through the Edo period and into Meiji as examples of performers who did not leave Japan and whom the Japanese authorities would have found embarrassing as representatives of Japan.

Once again, I’m more than happy to accept that D’Hautcourt is making a valid observation about daikagura and street performers in this period. Indeed, it seems to me to be uncontroversial to say that many such performers found themselves without mobility or endorsement. However, once again, the validity of this observation seems to be rather tangential to the concerns of my book, which is not about daikagura or the hinin, but it is about magic, including the complex cultural, theoretical, and performative negotiations about the meaning of ‘magic’ that arose with the colonial and imperial expansion of Europe and the United States into Asia. The assertion that hinin street performers were not internationally mobile in the 1860s does not seem to contradict the observation that a number of Japanese magicians (and other performers) were; while these are not mutual exclusive categories, they are far from being identical.

In the case of Japan, part of this cultural negotiation was indeed that Japanese magicians travelled to Europe and North America, where they performed on major stages in Washington and London in the 1860s, and also at the Japanese Pavilion of the International Exposition in Paris (1867).[iii] None of this is controversial or secret; there is copious documentary evidence. So, while I’m willing to accept that most Japanese performers (including some we might now identify as ‘magicians’) did not (and could not) leave Japan, it is undeniably true that some did, and that they contributed directly to the communication and representation of ‘Japanese magic’ to the West. To claim that ‘nothing can be further from the truth’ than this uncontroversial fact seems to hold us to a very unusual relationship with the idea of distance (or truth, or both).

This rather dizzying situation also leads D’Hautcourt to offer a hypothesis ‘contrary to Goto-Jones’, but which is actually an argument explored in Chapter 6 of the book. Concretely, D’Hautcourt seems to echo my argument that Japanese magicians of the period gained prestige through the adoption of the aesthetics and practices of modern/Western magic in their performances in Japan. In fact, for me, one of the most fascinating features of the encounter between magic, modernity, and imperialism in Japan is precisely the way that the discourse (and performance) of magic touched wider social and ideological issues such as those framed by the notorious kindai no chōkoku (overcoming modernity) debates. Chapter 6 explores how the ‘modern father of Japanese magic’, Shōkyokusai Ten’ichi, brought a new prestige to the performance of magic in Japan (by Japanese magicians) by becoming the first to perform in the costume and style of the Western theatre in Japan (even as he performed in traditional Japanese costume when abroad). The chapter contrasts Ten’ichi’s deliberate manipulation of Orientalist and Occidentalist expectations to enhance the impact of his magic on different audiences with the traditional, hereditary magician Yanagawa Itchōsai (3rd generation), who reflected on the relative merits of Western and Japanese magic and then proposed that the future could be a form of hybridity that he termed konketsuji tejina (mixed-race magic).

Finally, D’Hautcourt suggests that I misrepresent the ‘beautiful’ work of Frederik Schodt, Professor Risley and the Imperial Japanese Troupe (2012). For the record, I thoroughly enjoyed Schodt’s meticulous and entertaining book. However, as far as I can see, I make only one reference to it in a single footnote (p. 272), where I seek to make no representation of it. Evidence for the overseas activities of Japanese magicians is drawn from documentary archives and then corroborated by the impressive work of Matsuyama Mitsunobu. I provide the reference to Schodt in my book for readers who are interested to know more about the Imperial Japanese Troupe, the Japanese Troupe, and the Royal Tycoon Troupe, since these circus troupes are only tangential to the interests of my own book.[iv] If my purpose there was unclear, I apologise.

In the end, then, while I am grateful for the insights that D’Hautcourt has provoked and for the kind opportunity provided by newbooks.asia to address them, I am left pondering the impact and effect of all this. In the final analysis, D’Hautcourt’s confident yet mysterious review seems to me to help us understand what the great Canadian magician, Dai Vernon, meant when he said that we should never mistake the experience of magic for the experience of confusion (p. 71).

[i] The argument developed in this part of the story of Robinson develops one of the theories of Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin (explored in chapter 1), which held that a magician’s success depends at least partially upon his ability to ‘believe in the reality of his factitious statements.’ Hence, the argument is explicitly: ‘no matter what the Orientalist preferences of the Parisian audience, it seems that Robinson failed as the hastily produced Hop Ling Soo at least partially because he didn’t really believe in this identity for himself’ (p. 232).
[ii] Again, this approach to travel writing is explained directly in Part One of the book, where Thurston is even the example: ‘Some magicians, such as Howard “The King of Cards” Thurston (1869-1936) even went so far as to publish excerpts from his memoirs, “Further Adventures in India,” in periodicals such as Tales of Magic and Mystery, which deliberately blended fact and fiction’ (pp. 108-109).
[iii] Just as William Robinson apparently drew his inspiration for his Chung Ling Soo act after witnessing a performance by Ching Ling Foo at the World’s Fair in Chicago, 1893, so a number of European magicians who later adopted Japanese stage personas site the Paris Expo as their first exposure to Japanese magicians and magic.
[iv] The footnote reads, in full: ‘The story of the Imperial Japanese Troupe is recounted in great detail by Frederik Schodt, Professor Risley and the Imperial Japanese Troupe. Berkeley: Stone Bridge Press, 2012’.

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