Subverting Santa and other Enlightenment Pastimes

It’s been a while. I went on vacation to Mexico. And then I came back and worked on a grant application which, as usual, seemed to take ten times longer to edit than expected and neglected my blog completely. I’m aiming for  posts twice a week on Tuesday and Thursday. We’ll see how that goes. Holidays are coming up, but The Engineer and I are planning hanging out at home, eating, catching up on movies and cracking open some of the bottles of wine we have lying about from our visit to Sonoma last year, so my blogging goal should be achievable.

Speaking of holidays, there was a snippet on Jezebel about Justin Bieber, who said in an interview grew up without Santa Claus because his conservative Christian mom worried that when the Biebs figured out Santa wasn’t real, he might begin to question his belief in Jesus. Apparently not an uncommon position among evangelicals. Conversely, some atheist parents rail against Santa Claus out of fear of some sort of supernatural “thin-end-of-the-wedge” phenomenon wherein small children encouraged to believe in one kind of supernatural being will be inculcated in irrational thinking and believe in all kinds of other supernatural beings. Dale McGowan’s Parenting Beyond Belief blog presents different angle on the whole dilemma entirely. Back in 2009 he wrote about techniques that atheist parents might use to make Santa Claus a teachable moment and turn a child’s questions about Santa into a Socratic discourse encouraging the child to examine rationally the evidence for the existence of the jolly present bringer.

A while back, I re-read Leigh Eric Schmidt’s article on ventriloquism and magic shows from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries.(1) Schmidt has done some fascinating work tracing how Enlightenment critics of superstition and priestcraft appropriated the very techniques of hucksters and charlatans – ventriloquism, phantasmagoria and other displays of illusionism – to prove to the credulous how easily the human senses can be deceived by natural phenomena. The enchanter, in effect, became a tool of disenchantment.

Shifting to the ostensible theme of my blog, another magician with an uneasy relationship to disenchantment and enchantment is Lev Grossman’s Quentin Coldwater. After finishing The Magician King, Grossman’s sequel to The Magicians, I noticed the fantasy reading world firmly divided into loathers and lovers of the book. On the side of the loathers, people found Quentin and the other magicians unlikeable and, I think, felt that Grossman had sullied Narnia, and Hogwarts and the other realms into which every dedicated fantasy reader at one time in their life wished to escape. Then there were readers, like myself, who enjoyed the cynical anti-heroes who attended Brakebills school to study magic, and found that the Hogwarts and the Narnia of their childhood daydreams were as real as they hoped, but somehow nothing like what they expected. Magic involved a lot of tedium and back breaking work work to master and, in the end, didn’t insulate the magicians from tragedy. While there were quests and adventures to pursue in the world of Fillory, there was no escape from the pain and disappointment of reality. This isn’t wondrous Hogwarts. It’s graduate school for wizards, with all the hard drinking and disillusionment that goes with it. (*cough* notthatI’d knowanythingaboutthat *coughcough*)

Grossman’s deep affection for and knowledge of the genre is evident on every page of the book. At the same time, the author uses the tropes of enchantment to chart the protagonist’s path to disenchantment, much like nineteenth century ventriloquists and illusionists. I think this is what many fantasy fiction fans find unsettling about the book.

In the ongoing tussle between disenchantment and re-enchantment, and straight out enchantment, the proponents of reason and unreason are rarely aligned were you think they will be.

(1) Leigh Eric Schmidt, “From Demon Possession to Magic Show: Ventriloquism, Religion and the Enlightenment,”Church History 67:2 (1998) pp. 274-304.


~ by medievalness on December 20, 2011.

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