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The Modern Sorcerer


One of the more intriguing accounts of the life of the inimitable Jane Austen emerged in the pages of The Times in 1926 with the publication of a letter which had been carefully guarded and passed on within her family up until then. The document hailed from the time of Austen’s near-fatal illness in the late winter of 1815-16, just after she had finished up Emma and rushed it to the printers. She had turned delirious, but, in a moment of lucidity, she suddenly began to mouth some rather fantastic words in French. “Mon sortilège a été le pouvoir que les âmes fortes doivent avoir sur les esprits faibles,” she said, “My magic spell was the power that strong spirits may have upon the weak.”Claire Tomalin, Jane Austen: A Life, p. 268-69 & n.15 (1998).

These were the words that Voltaire put in the mouth of Eléonore Galigaï de Concini, a favorite of Maria de’ Medici, who was accused of witchcraft and was executed in 1617.Voltaire, Essai sur les mœurs et l’esprit des nations et sur les principaux faits de l’histoire, depuis Charlemagne jusqu’à Louis XIII, ch clxxiv, 7ème lettre (1756) in Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, vol. xii/3. What Voltaire had in mind was clear enough—he was an exhaustive chronicler of the barbaric practices that followed from superstitions like witchcraft. Galigaï was certainly not a witch; she and her husband had been dabbling in high politics with Maria de’ Medici, who had turned on them to protect herself when the plot was exposed. In the end the young Louis XIII took the affair as cause for the internal exile of his mother.

So this “sorcery,” Voltaire reminds us, is the sort of manipulation to which high politics is accustomed. It is the modern sort of sorcery. This is one of several passages in Voltaire’s historical opus where a seemingly innocent observation is vested with dramatic power; it seems to fly off the page as the perception of a deep human truth behind the historic pageant.

And, as we learn, the words had just this influence on the mature Jane Austen. We don’t know how or when she came across them. We do know that they penetrated deeply into her conscience. In fact, the timing makes clear that Austen had been thinking a great deal of this passage as she completed one of her greatest, and darkest novels: Emma.

It’s a quaint, domestic work, recounting a tale of ordinary life far from the reach of the great and powerful. But this indeed is part of the greatness of Jane Austen, her ability to show us that important moral choices occur in the every day world of the little people, not just among the high born and powerful. Emma is a person well-liked in her community, and a person who thinks very well of herself. She is also one of Austen’s most flawed characters. Emma was cast as a demonstration of the courtroom words of Eléonore Galigaï.

The novel turns on Emma’s robust, assertive, and clearly snobbish character. Emma fancies herself a matchmaker, indeed she suggests that the game amuses her. She exercises her influence on Harriet Smith, the naïve and rather simple illegitimate daughter of a “somebody” (at least this is what Emma presumes, though, as we learn near the end, her natural father is merely a tradesman). Harriet has a suitor whom she likes, but Emma intervenes to persuade her that the suitor is “beneath” her. Harriet gives way to Emma’s stronger will, though the decision leaves her unsettled and unhappy.

Emma’s strong-willed snobbery and inclination to meddling leads her astray several more times, and causes her to visit unhappiness on several other friends as the novel winds on. Indeed, her misdeeds make for one of Austen’s more complexly interwoven plots. It seems, even as we approach the end, likely to be the first Austen novel with a truly gloomy ending. But in the final chapters, a chastised Emma recognizes that her manipulative and coldhearted conduct has brought unhappiness on her friends. She rights her course, and the novel ends with reconciliation, marriage and bright good cheer.

Jane Austen, her family tell us, expressed revulsion over the infidelities and excesses of the Prince Regent, detested the death penalty, considered slavery and the slave trade an abomination, thought her local Tory M.P. a hopeless boor—and beyond this was utterly indifferent to politics. But in a sense of course, her novels are subtle and ironic portraits of the society of her times, filled with profound moral assessments. What seems at first trivial or inconsequential is really the stuff of the moral judgments that people of her time and circumstances were called upon to make. Her treatment of these matters is witty and bright, but it is also infinitely serious. (Edward Said, of course, though recognizing the seriousness of Austen’s writing in Mansfield Park also finds that it show her the willing beneficiary of the luxurious life that the slave trade brought to slaveholders. But Said understates Austen criticism of slavery and the slavetrade in Mansfield Park.)Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism, p. 88 (1994). The rules of human interaction that Austen explores on a small scale can be transposed without too much difficulty on the greater stage of life that we call “political.”

On the political stage, the modern sorcery involves no supernatural powers, but it does entail people of strong will influencing the weak. In particular, the strong-willed are the political strategists and the weak are the journalists who uncritically write about them. The unchallenged master of political manipulation and gamesmanship in recent times is Bush’s “brain,” Karl Rove. His full tool chest is impressive, and many of the tools he uses are legitimate. Others, and in fact, his forte, fall under the heading of “dirty tricks.”

But today we see the sorcerer pushing his skills to the breaking point. In an appearance on the “Charlie Rose Show,” Karl Rove decided to explain the origins of the Iraq War. This war has been the Bush Administration’s grand misadventure, and Rove shamelessly turned it into partisan political fodder like no war in prior American history. But with public opinion now turned on the president and the Republican Party over its handling of the war, Rove decided it was time to rewrite history. Here’s the exchange:

And here’s a transcript of the key exchange:

ROVE: The administration was opposed to voting on it in the fall of 2002.

ROSE: But you were opposed to the vote.

ROVE: It happened. We don’t determine when the Congress vote on things. The Congress does.

ROSE: You wish it hadn’t happened at that time. You would have preferred it did not happen at that time.

ROVE: That’s right.

So evidently the White House was stampeded into the war by overzealous Democrats in Congress. Apparently they’re the same Democrats who in prior Rove formulations treasonously shortchanged the White House with their support of the war effort.

Obviously, Rove follows the same formula he’s used since his cadet days in the Nixon campaign. Tell a falsehood, but tell it firmly, unequivocally and forcefully enough, and the weak-minded will actually believe you. Rove has proven that this formula works. Hell, he’s even elected a president using it.

But in the end how good a sorcerer is Rove?Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Der Zauberlehrling (1797): Die ich rief, die Geister,/werd’ ich nun nicht los. His sorcery affects the minds of the intellectually feeble. But it has no impact on the reality beyond that. Is Rove not in fact like the sorcerer’s apprentice whose half-baked spells have run amok, creating the disaster that now looms over the country and the world? Will it not ultimately prove his unmaking?

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