Prestige and Foucault

This post brings together two authors not normally placed in conjunction with each other: Christopher Priest and Michel Foucault.

In fact the post discusses ways in which the “author” may be problematized given that Priest’s novel (and to some extent the movie) The Prestige is about magic and the question of authorship (who wrote it, was it in fact “written” as a coherent whole, what about multiple authors and writings such as diaries, letters, first and second person accounts etc.). None of this is meant to be “postmodern” just in case anybody were to infer that, but on the contrary a problem for modernity.

The essay is far-ranging and not entirely coherent itself, but does offer much provocative thinking. It would help if you were familiar with the movie (or better, Priest’s book):

Michel Foucault links “madness” to social conditions of extreme pressure on identity. Few people realize that Foucault trained in psychology with Ludwig Bingswanger, a great Jungian-existentialist therapist. Women sexually assaulted early in life, for example, display pathologies of “repetition and dissociation,” together with schizoid reactions, as means of escape from trauma. Not only is it meaningless to “blame” such women for such reactions, but it is predictable that they will experience them. They can only be helped by understanding and treatment aimed at rebuilding relationships of trust and love in their lives.

One reading of “The Prestige” is that the film dramatizes the universal elements of the human psyche in Jungian archetypal terms. The best measure of the accuracy of accusations directed today against American interrogators, is the quick denial of what is now painfully obvious. “We do not torture people,” former C.I.A. Director George Tenet said to a CBS interviewer. “This was after acknowledging signing off on numerous ‘black-ops’ as well as ‘enhanced interrogations,’ and admitting to knowing what this meant.”

All this stuff about the two characters mirroring/doubling and needing each other is fine up to a point and are part of Priest’s ongoing exploration of the nature of twinship (he has twin daughters). We might be reminded of a slightly different context in which Foucault talks about the authors and his “doubles;” those readings which escape from the initial text.

Alongside identity Priest is also exploring memory-(loss) ie., does lack of memory mean loss or does something else interpose itself (the lead character in the book, not present in the film, has lifelong feelings of having a twin brother though as an adoptee has never met him or found records of him).

PS the “prestige” is a made-up word by Priest deriving from “prestidigitation” but here with the added meaning that prestige is that which is left over after the magic trick: a double meaning in this context which allows Priest to talk about the “prestige materials.”


One Response

  1. […] you may know, has a fascination with magic, doubling and twins, which comes to the fore in his book The Prestige. So any “reveal” will almost certainly be misleading. (Funnily enough there’s a […]

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