Fall 2017

"What's the Magic Word?" The Power of Literature

Listed in: French, as FREN-359


Raphael Sigal (Section 01)


The Oxford English Dictionary defines magic as “the use of ritual activities or observances which are intended to influence the course of events or to manipulate the natural world.” Sorcerers use recipes, incantations, and actions, to bend the natural order of things. In this class, we will question why some of the most prominent writers in French modernity have engaged with magical thought in their works. In the nineteenth century, numerous authors used magic as a metaphor to express the irrationality inhibited by a culture obsessed with reason and progress. In the twentieth century, avant-garde movements embraced this trend: writers, poets and artists were avid practitioners of fortune telling, telepathy, astrology and numerology. Concurrently, magic became a prominent subject of modern ethnologists: magical thinking articulated both the dawn of science in religious societies and the persistence of religion in scientific societies, and thus allowed ethnologists to cross-examine two phenomena essential to defining modern societies. Authors took a great interest in these findings. We could link their interest to a desire to produce a language made of words that “do things.” In a way, writers are like magicians whose incantations do not function anymore, as if their language had lost its power. In this class, we will read both literature and ethnology to investigate the ways in which magical thinking infused the birth of literary modernity. We will read literary works by Flaubert (Madame Bovary), Nerval, Artaud, Breton, and Césaire; and critical and ethnographical texts by Mauss, Levi-Strauss, Métraux, De Certeau and Bailly. Conducted in French.

Requisite: One of the following--FREN 207, 208, 311 or equivalent. Fall semester. Professor Sigal.


Attention to Writing, Languages Other Than English


2022-23: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2017, Spring 2021