Wednesday, March 25, 2015

"Eisenheim the Illusionist"

I was so fascinated by the 2006 film The Illusionist ( that I read “Eisenheim the Illusionist,” a short story by Steven Millhauser (, on which the film is based.  Little did I know that this innocent act would lead me down a rabbit-hole of philosophy, art, literature, history, politics, and religion.  Anyone who has read much of this blog knows, of course, that all those topics are irresistible to me and are probably not be surprised.

In the film, I was struck by the way the story dramatizes the ancient saying that “All may not be as it seems,” not only in a magic show but also in real life.  Deception is at the heart of the illusionist’s craft and, in the film, deception is at the heart of a whole plot line that does not appear in the original.  Turns out that plotline is based on a historical event, which was itself and perhaps still is as mysterious as it is factual, but more of that later.

In any case, the proverbial philosophical debate over art vs. life, illusion vs. reality, and appearance vs. truth is thrown into sharp relief.  In the original story, there is more suggestion of the supernatural, at least in the minds of Eisenheim’s audiences and perhaps in that of the police inspector, who attempts to arrest the magician for “crossing of boundaries,” disturbing “the essence of things,” “shaking the foundations of the universe,“ and “undermining reality.”  When Eisenheim disappears it is “the faithful” who know “that the Master had passed safely out of the crumbling order of history into the indestructible realm of mystery and dream.”  Perhaps that “realm” is that of art and myth, perhaps of something even more timeless and “indestructible.”

In the film Eisenheim’s art is inextricably bound up with his life, indeed the love of his life.  He fashions a necklace for her with a trick chamber that later becomes evidence in her apparent murder, and, of course, the whole story of her murder is an artfully designed deception, which entraps her abusive fiancĂ© (who also happens to be the Crown Prince) and enables the lovers to be reunited.  “All may not be as it seems.”  What seems real may be as illusory as a magician’s trick, and, likewise, the illusion is crafted with the materials of real life. 

When the police inspector realizes the trick and the scales fall from his eyes, I was reminded of that moment in Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady when Isabel sees her husband in a particular pose with Madame Merle and immediately knows all that has been hidden from her in their relationship.  And that moment in Melville’s Benito Cereno when “across the long-benighted mind of Captain Delano, a flash of revelation swept, illuminating in unanticipated clearness his host’s whole mysterious demeanor, with every enigmatic event of the day….” All may not be as it seems.

In Millhauser’s original story, I was reminded of Hawthorne’s oft-used device of “multiple choice” or “alternative explanation” (Washington Irving used it first but for purposes of mockery rather than speculation.).  Some spectators say that when Dimmesdale pulled back his shirt a scarlet letter clearly appeared etched on his breast; others claim to have seen no such thing, affirming that his flesh was as bare as that of a “new-born” infant.  Do we see what we want to see or do we see what is truly there?  In “Eisenheim the Illusionist” there are various theories to explain why “all may not be as it seems,” ranging from ingenious practical, perfectly natural methods of deception to more supernatural theories, such that he had “sold his soul to the devil for the dark gift of magic.” 

This theme of illusion vs. reality is prominent also in The Goldfinch (see Oct. 2014 blog post), in which reality is permeated with illusion and every illusion is created out of factual material.  The painting of the title is a trompe l’oeil or optical illusion in which art objects are made to appear like real life.  The main character of that novel comes to believe that “there’s no truth beyond illusion.  Because, between ‘reality’ on one hand, and the point where the mind strikes reality, there’s a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic.”  We might add, perhaps, it is that space where religion also exists, but more of that later. 

“Stories,” states the narrator of “Eisenheim,” “like conjuring tricks, are invented because history is inadequate to our dreams…”

So, what about history in this rabbit hole of illusion and reality?

Both the film and the short story take place in Austria at the end of the 19th century when magic shows were all the rage.  The Eisenheim character may be based on Robert Houdin, from whom the 20th century Houdini took his name.  At this same time in Austria the Hapsburg dynasty was withering on its vine.  Could that be part of the police inspector’s anxiety over Eisenheim’s increasingly supernatural-seeming illusions?  “For where would the Empire be, once the idea of boundaries became blurred and uncertain?”  Is the decaying Hapsburg Empire the “crumbling order of history” from which Eisenheim escapes?

One of Eisenheim’s illusions is the ghostly appearance of a young woman named Greta.  Among the speculations is that Greta “was really Marie Vetsera, who had died with Crown Prince Rudolph in the bedroom of his hunting lodge at Mayerling.”  There are other speculations, but the Mayerling Incident (, as it came to be called, may be the basis of the murder-suicide plot in the film.  To this day, the historical murder-suicide in Mayerling is shrouded in mystery.  All may not be as it seems.

Another political (and mythic) allusion should also be noted since Eisenheim is Jewish.  The anti-Semitism of the day may have fed the speculation that he had made a pact with the devil.  One commentator has suggested that Eisenheim’s disappearance into “the indestructible realm of mystery and dream” aligns him with the myth of the Wandering Jew (

Which brings us to the “boundary” between history and myth.  Is “official history “all that it seems?  To what extent is it suffused with illusion and myth, just as myth and legend may have a basis or origin in factual history, not to mention in symbolic truth?  To what extent are knowledge and imagination intertwined with one another? 

 “Stories,” states the narrator of “Eisenheim,” “like conjuring tricks, are invented because history is inadequate to our dreams…”

Could that also be the case with religion?  To what extent do the “facts” of history become transformed into the mythic fears and aspirations of human dreams?  To what extent is life bound up with art, reality with illusion?  And to what extent does the blurring of these boundaries create anxiety and tension such as that which led to the inspector’s attempt to police those boundaries by arresting Eisenheim?  To what extent does our uncertainty over truth lead us to police those boundaries ourselves by insisting on reality over illusion if we are atheistic materialists or illusion over reality if we are religious supernaturalists?  And to what extent do such rigid boundaries result in the truth escaping us, just as Eisenheim himself disappeared.

Well, as often happens with rabbit holes, we may have wandered too far from the texts under discussion.  By coincidence, as I was working on this blog post I was also reading The Ironic Christian’s Companion: Finding the Marks of God’s Grace in the World ( by my friend Patrick Henry.  In the following passage Patrick is referencing the disorienting effect of theories in modern astrophysics:

“The more I read about cosmology…the more I am persuaded that Lewis Carroll is the most faithful guide to the world we live in.  As Alice remarks, things get “curiouser and curioser,” less and less commonsensical.  Every new discovery takes us down the hole to Wonderland once more.” 

In science, in religion, in life, in art, in reality, and in illusion, the rabbit hole may lead us where we least expect:  “All may not be as it seems.”

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Girl on the Train

A potboiler is a work created for entertainment primarily to make money, not for artistic purposes.  But, of course, even the cheapest forms of entertainment require some artistry and, I would argue, often embody or represent a serious purpose.  Popular works can tell us something about the public psyche at the time and may even raise serious social and/or philosophical issues.

The detective story, for example, came of age in the 19th century at a time when there was public anxiety and philosophical inquiry concerning human nature.  Are we primarily rational beings, or are we fundamentally irrational creatures with a thin veneer of rational appearance masking our underlying penchant for hostility, aggression, violence, sex, and power?  Gothic fiction of the 18th century could be viewed as an expression of social anxiety over, not only irrational human nature, but also destructive forces in the universe beyond our control.  The detective story serves to reassure us that the use of our rational powers can overcome those forces and restore order to our world.

Most detective stories begin with ordinary, familiar, seemingly innocent reality.  The crime, usually of a violent nature, usually murder (because death is our greatest anxiety), disrupts the rational order, creating a sense of chaos, confusion, and fear, not to mention mystery.  It takes the careful, methodical, reasoned calculation of the controlled and rational detective to solve the mystery and restore order.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins offers a variation on this pattern that undermines our faith in rationality as the means to truth and order, suggesting that the irrational can actually lead us to a restoration of rational order.

It begins, as the detective story (and gothic tale) usually does, with familiar reality.  What could be more ordinary than a young woman on a commuter train passing by the back side of suburban houses on her daily route?  As we get to know this young woman, however, with each layer that is peeled back, we discover less and less rationality and less and less order.  The sense of irrational disorder is well established before the crime occurs.

In this case the official police investigators of the crime, using their methods rational analysis are not very successful.  The successful “detective,” who solves the crime, is considered an “unreliable witness” by the police. 

Her involvement in solving the crime is motivated by her desire to recover her lost memory of something that occurred near the time and place of the crime, but also by her own personal obsessions, fantasies, and generally disordered psychology.

She solves the crime more or less by hit-or-miss accident based on her gradually emerging but hazy memories, rather than logical calculated analysis.

Most detective stories affirm reason and rationality, but this one seems to affirm the role of irrational processes; the official detectives in the case fail to solve the crime, while the irrational “unreliable witness” succeeds.

Most detective stories reassure us that the power of rational order can overcome the irrational, but in this case, we are left with no such reassurance; irrationality is pitted against irrationality and it is through confusion, fantasy, obsession, and disordered thinking/behavior that some semblance of rational order is restored.

Parallel to the detective story is a recovery narrative in which the “detective” moves from emotional instability to health during the process of solving the crime.  Recovery of her lost memories leads to recovery of her health as well as the solution to the crime.  And just as the process of solving the crime is messy, disorderly, and irrational, so is the process of recovery.

The effect is to suggest that the irrational has the power to lead us to truth and healing as much or more than the rational.

We tend to associate reason and rationality with truth and goodness, whereas we associate the irrational with our worst emotional excesses, destructive urges, and false beliefs about reality.  The Girl on the Train reminds us that human reason has its limits.  Not only is it subject to fallacies, it may not see far enough.  It may dismiss out of hand the positive power of emotional energy, imagination, hunches, even dreams, and thereby miss the whole story.

This is not to say that reason and emotion cannot work together but that one may not necessarily be superior to the other.

Philosophy and psychology aside, The Girl on the Train is a well-crafted, suspenseful page-turner with plenty of personal drama thrown in for good measure, just like a good potboiler should be.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

"Desert Places"

Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.

The woods around it have it--it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.

And lonely as it is that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less--
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars--on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

It’s amazing how you can read something multiple times, then come back to it and discover something new.  I’ve often read Robert Frost’s “Desert Places” and admired it for the way it moves from an ordinary winter scene to the vastness of outer space to the familiarity of inner space.  Recently I studied it more closely and found more to appreciate. 

First, let’s note that this “nature” poem is not of the uplifting or sentimental variety.  Instead we get a stark image of human isolation and loneliness in the midst of a desolate scene in which nature is blank and expressionless.  It is striking that this northern winter image is compared to a southern “desert,” but this is but one in a series of striking contrasts.

We have white “snow” and dark “night,” both “falling fast”; “smooth” snow cover with “weeds and stubble” poking through; natural desolation and human “loneliness”; “blanker whiteness” and “benighted snow”; earthly isolation and the emptiness “between stars”; external and internal absence.  The contrasts create a psychic drama as the speaker realizes, not only his own insignificance in the vastness of nature, but also that of the human species on its lonely planet.

This existential image of human isolation is conveyed in Frost’s characteristically familiar style.  The predominately iambic meter, interlocking rhyme scheme, plain diction, sentence fragments, and use of dashes, all make the poem sound conversational, while the occasional irregularity of rhythm, reversal of word order and the use of words like “absent-spirited” and “benighted” offer a slight elevation of style.  The whole is rendered as an ordinary experience that is accompanied by an extra-ordinary shock of recognition.

The winter scene is personified as lonely in stanza two but realistically depicted in stanza three as inanimate, having “nothing to express.”  The emptiness “between planets” is associated with the emptiness of a “desert,” as both of those images, like the winter scene itself, serve as metaphors for psychic absence.  Ironically, this message of disconnection is belied by the speaker’s ability to identify with the external world and the reader’s ability to identify with the speaker. 

A poem about disconnection relies on connecting with disconnection.  The comparative devices of personification and metaphor are used to create a sense of isolation and contrast.  Earthly winter, the human individual, unearthly space, and the earthly desert are all connected by their shared disconnection.  At the heart of human experience is this unavoidable contradiction between alienation (absence) and interconnected relationship (presence).  We are connected in our isolation.

From a socio/political perspective the poem serves to elevate individualism over collectivism, yet it could be read as disrupting this false binary, suggesting that our ability to identify with and relate to what is external to us transcends our isolation and makes social relationships possible, indeed, perhaps redemptive.  As Bertrand Russell wrote, “In human relations one should penetrate to the core of loneliness in each person and speak to that” (Autobiography Vol 1, pp. 219-221).

Viewed from a mythic perspective, the poem may suggest the Fall, death, loss, even apocalypse, but again, as spring is foreshadowed in the winter solstice, so redemption, rebirth, recovery, and resurrection are foreshadowed in the mythic cycle of eternal return. 

All of this may seem to take us far afield from the original poem, but, as we connect with that poem about loneliness, we transcend our individualism; as we identify with human emptiness, we transcend our isolation.