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Institute of Advanced Study

Prof Herbert Tucker

COFUND Senior Research Fellow at Van Mildert College (January - March 2017)

After Magic: The Elusive Modernity of Charm.

Tucker writes: “Because my subject resists direct confrontation, I mean to approach it via its entanglement with literary language. Charm is no sooner explained than it is gone; hence our recourse in English to the je-ne-sais-quoi and other half-naturalized terms that indicate, without denoting, what experience has taught us the wisdom of not understanding. In literature, likewise, charm’s elusiveness has for centuries fascinated authors who have met its cognitive challenge with obliquities that coax it into the text by keeping it just out of focus. When a literary work dismantles a given magical order, so as to pluck from its destruction the residual mystique of charm, this formal pattern recapitulates charm’s post-magical modernity. For charm is a ghostly ambience that abides within metropolitan modernity after magical practice has been banished to the margins. The “disenchantment of the world” bears down especially on the Romantic and Victorian literature I know best. That is where the Enlightenment legacy of instrumental reason calls forth, as its dialectical complement, Coleridge’s suspended disbelief; where charm as witching invocation and charm as personal appeal trade places most richly. Modern novels, plays, and above all poems are works that, performing the thing they mean, recover the magician’s lost prerogative to change the world with words.”