Ask most magicians about Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin and they’ll tell you that he revolutionized magic into the craft we know today. Ask Graham Jones, and he’ll tell you that the French conjuror had a similar impact on anthropology.
Jones is an anthropologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and he has a new book out called Magic’s Reason that delves into one of the more peculiar tales from Robert-Houdin’s life. The magician was asked by the French government to visit Algeria, which was a potential conquest to be had by the European country. His goal was to convince the locals of the superiority of French magic over the displays performed by local religious figures called Marabouts.
Robert-Houdin performed for the locals and even adapted his act to make the strongest men of the local tribes look weak, playing the participants for comedy rather than drama. He then brought home tales of the Algerians, depicting them as superstitious and believing in the supernatural. In other words, Jones says, as inferior to the French.
“Robert-Houdin…contributed actively to the ideological apparatus of Western imperialism, helping articulate a rationale for colonialism in terms of the cognitive supremacy of rational, modern Euro-Americans whom they compared to irrational, non-modern others,” Jones writes in his book.
Perceiving the Algerians’ superstition as inferior is part of how Robert-Houdin was such a transformative force in magic. Before his time, magic was the work of carnivals and con men, not a high-class art form. Robert-Houdin never claimed supernatural powers, and in fact was taken more seriously as an artist by French salons because of that disavowal.
“The modes of debunking supernatural beliefs that stage magicians pioneered and promulgated were not only complementary to the attitudes of disdain that anthropology exhibited toward the supernatural, but I think they provided a basis for the ways that anthropologists reasoned about magic and, by extension, culture,” Jones says.