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Saturday, October 21, 2006

Data Mining: Millhauser's Eisenheim the Illusionist

So the Chicago Reader is apparently unimpressed with both Christopher Nolan and The Prestige. What amuses both me and M about this is that the reviewer lays narrative flaws at Nolan's feet, rather than at the feet of Christopher Priest, the author of the novel.

Also on the amuseomometer, more comparisons to The Illusionist. Of course, M and I are eager to see The Prestige precisely because we want to see Nolan's treatment of Priest's highly problematic text. Similarly, after seeing The Illusionist, I was eager to see how many of the narrative niggles I had with it were attributable to Neil Burger (director) and how many should be attributed to Steven Millhauser (author) and the original text.

The Barnum Museum collection of stories (published in 1990) are out of print and my attempts to buy it on ABE Books was unsuccessful (and saddled me with a different collection, and I'm not sure I want that one now). I did pick it up at U of C's library, though, and resisted the temptation to skip directly to "Eisenheim," which is the last story in the volume.

It's kind of irrelevant whether or not I liked the volume overall. That's good, because I'm not sure that I can say one way or the other. Several of the stories read, quite literally, like writing exercises in describing the environment. The detail is sometimes exquisite, sometimes tedious; the metaphors are sometimes mind altering, sometimes evidence of being so open minded that one's brain falls out. While reading many, I'm afraid I was so gauche as to want something—ANYTHING—to happen, rather than being subjected to the umpteenth character's postmodern viewpoint on the dust on the windowsill.

The peak of that groundling impatience was reached during "The Eighth Voyage of Sinbad," and I scaled that Everest again during "Alice, Falling." I really SHOULD have liked these, and my brain was definitely falling out with all the open mindedness and desire to like them. They're about the disconnect between the life-changing experience, the memory of the life-changing experience (which is illuminated by the changed life, of course), the narrative of the life-changing experience, the narrative tailored to the audience whose lives the narrator is attempting to change, all marching through an infinite hall of mirrors. And they are bloody tiresome.

Others, like the title story, "A Game of Clue," and "Behind the Blue Curtain" are appealing enough that the utter lack of plot or point is less grating. "Eisenheim the Illusionist" is easily the best story in the volume and also the oddest fit for it. I suppose it bears superficial similarity to "The Sepia Postcard" and to "The Invention of Robert Herendeen" (the former is pretty good, the latter is not), but those are both jarring in the context of the rest, too.

I'm mostly done beating up on Millhauser and will turn my ramblings to the actual story and the movie now. Even given my problems with the movie's narrative, I would say that Burger's screenplay is more ambitious and satisfying than Millhauser's story. I don't know whether that excuses some of the muddled ethical elements or not, but as Browning and Aaron Sorkin remind us, "A man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?" So whether my personal thumbs up or thumbs down is relevant or not to the relative merits of story versus film, I'd rather have Burger's passionate ambition than Millhauser's cool observations.

In terms of factual inventory, the love story between Eisenheim and Sophie is more or less Burger's invention. There is a brief subplot in which Eisenheim, having retired from the first phase of his magical career, courts a woman named Sophie, who marries another at the last minute. When Eisenheim "graduates" into his spirt manifestations, one of the first individuals he produces is "Fraulein Greta." As Vienna goes mad for her, some speculate that she is, in fact, Marie Vetsera, the Prince's mistress who died with him at Mayerling (others speculate that she is the girlhood spirit of Empress "Sisi"). In terms of the childhood sweetheart aspects of their relationship, I suppose Burger could have been elaborating on the relationship between two of Eisenheim's later manifestations, children named "Elis" and "Rosa."

Certainly Burger's conflation of these elements into a love interest can be problematic. Adding a love story is tediously Hollywood, of course, but in this instance I think it is (or was meant to be) a window to Eisenheim's soul. Millhauser's story keeps us distant from Eisenheim from beginning to end. In fact, the final line of the story is
All agreed that it was a sign of the times, and as precise memories faded, and the everyday world of coffee cups, doctors' visits, and war rumors returned, a secret relief penetrated the souls of the faithful, who knew that the Master had passed safely out of the crumbling order of the history into the indestructible realm of mystery and dream.

But Millhauser never shows us Eisenheim outside of that context; in fact, there seems to be no objective Eisenheim who exists outside the minds of the public.

One interesting aside that is omitted from Burger's film: At one point in the story, Eisenheim systematically demolishes all rivals with the escalation of his illusions. This culminates in a rivalry with a magician who turns out to be none other than Eisenheim himself, playing his own antagonist. I can understand why Burger left it out, but it makes for more interesting and direct comparisons to The Prestige.

Burger's Eisenheim is elusive, but ultimately substantial. He has needs, desire, wants, and motivations, even if those are not always revealed to us in a wholly unproblematic way. Edward Norton plays Eisenheim beautifully in line with Burger's vision. His intensity is so provocative and relentless that there's a fierce satisfaction in seeing into his heart of hearts. Yes, what we're shown is fractured and obscured; it might be mundane and personal or extraordinary and social (and true to Millhauser's postmodernity, it may be many other things, depending on what one does with it), but there is, for lack of a better metaphor, a text to anchor the reading.

In terms of the politics of the story versus those of the film, the Hapsburgs are definitely on Millhauser's mind:
It as the age of levitations and decapitations, of ghostly apparitions and sudden vanishings, as if the tottering Empire were revealing through the medium of its magicians a secret desire for annihilation.

Even more distant from the reader than Eisenheim, though, is Uhl. Far from being an ambitious man in the service of the corrupt Crown Prince (who is dead before the story's beginning), he is simply a magic enthusiast, the Chief of Viennese Police, and apparently a model citizen of the Hapsburgs. His personal interaction with Eisenheim (when Eisenheim does a trick called "The Pied Piper of Hamelin" and controls the children in the audience) occurs "offscreen," robbing Millhauser's story of one of the great strengths of Burger's: The relationship between two men, emergent as powerful figures in different ways.

Near the end of the story we learn that, of his own volition, Uhl has been keeping notebooks on Eisenheim, ultimately deciding that Eisenheim "disturbing the public order" was not the real problem, but rather:
No, what disturbed Herr Uhl was something else, something for which he had difficulty finding a name. The phrase "crossing of boundaries" occurs pejoratively more than once in his notebooks; but it he appears to mean that certain distinctions must be strictly maintained. Art and life constituted one such distinction; illusion and reality another. Eisenheim deliberately crossed boundaries and therefore disturbed the essence of things. In effect, Herr Uhl was accusing Eisenheim of shaking the foundations of the universe, of undermining reality, and in consequence of doing something far worse: subverting the Empire. For where would the Empire be, once the idea of boundaries became blurred and uncertain?

I think Burger's Uhl is an excellent elaboration and illumination of Millhauser's. The paragraph above strikes me as something impossible to convert to a visual medium, but I think Burger's transformation of it remains true to the spirit of the story. And for Millhauser's part, it has come close to relieving me of the burden of thinking of Burger's Eisenheim as, ultimately, a manipulative charlatan. As Millhauser's Uhl views him, Eisenheim is more shaman than shyster. He creates an altered state in his audience and shifts the consciousness of Vienna's working class. I still dig in my heels at Sophie's ultimately false implication of the Prince in her nonexistent murder, certainly, but I at least see Burger trying to pull off a subtle point, rather than missing an obvious and troubling one.

In any case, I'm glad to have read the story if not entirely pleased to have lived through the entire volume. But perhaps my postmodern alteregos will have something different to say.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I must agree that "Eisenheim the Illusionist" was the top piece in a generally spotty collection. The endless catalog of cutesy and repetitive details that do indeed mar "Alice, Falling" and the like make me wonder if the author should've followed his magician's example. I refer of course to the fact that Eisenheim pares down his act to nothing more than a chair and his spirit in the end and pulls off the most fanatastic of feats-- the creation of stirring characters and the dissolution of self. That's day one in fiction class, right?

11:08 PM  
Blogger Matilda said...

It is day one of fiction class, and a great way of viewing the story. It makes it recursive, of course: In creating a character out of self, Eisenheim is continually writing and rewriting his own story on the canvas of the public consciousness.

In that view, though, it makes the rest of the collection (with a few exceptions) look even paler by comparison.

Thanks for the insight.

11:53 PM  

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