Reading Steven Millhauser's "Eisenheim the Illusionist" after seeing Neil Burger's The Illusionist is, to say the least, nothing if not disorienting. (I wrote about The Illusionist last year.) Unlike The Illusionist, "Eisenheim the Illusionist" is nearly plotless. The film's romance plot involving Eisenheim's beloved and Crown Prince Leopold is entirely Burger's invention--as is, for that matter, the fictional Crown Prince in question. In place of a plot, "Eisenheim the Illusionist" supplies a mini-history of magic at the fin-de-siecle. Millhauser has chosen his time frame with considerable care: he tells us in the very first sentence that "[i]n the last years of the nineteenth century, when the Empire of the Habsburgs was nearing the end of its long dissolution, the art of magic flourished as never before" (284).* The magic is art, but it is also Art, and its power expands in an age that is both politically and culturally decadent. While the story touches only lightly on politics, to be sure, the reader senses the possibility of some sort of apocalypse, not only in the Empire's supposed "secret desire for annihilation" (284), but also in the more concrete allusions to anti-Semitism. Eisenheim is Jewish; his beloved Sophie's father belongs to an anti-Semitic party (293); and, in medieval fashion, some suspect that "the Jew from Bratislava had sold his soul to the devil for the dark gift of magic" (303). Burger's Leopold sneers at Eisenheim for being, in effect, a peasant, but Millhauser proposes a very different set of prejudices to illuminate Eisenheim's otherness. (Eisenheim's cosmopolitan wanderings, as well as his eventual disappearance into "the indestructible realm of mystery and dream" , suggest an affinity with the Wandering Jew.)
By imposing a romance plot on Millhauser's story, Burger turns Eisenheim into a "rounded" character. We are to sympathize with Burger's Eisenheim, who only wants to regain the girl of his dreams from the clutches of an evil, sexually corrupted symbol of the aristocracy in decay. Millhauser's Eisenheim, however, is anything but rounded; in fact, he verges on being a non-character, in the sense that we learn virtually nothing about him, have no access to his POV, almost never see him outside a theatrical context, and never hear him speak outside of free indirect discourse. (The story contains virtually no direct quotations.) There is nothing here with which to sympathize, let alone identify. Eisenheim, while possibly disruptive in his Jewishness and rootlessness, is nowhere near as important as the effect of his art. The story's title, that is, constitutes its own illusion: it appears to promise us "Eisenheim," but in fact emphasizes the frightening power of Eisenheim's magic.
As it happens, Leopold's attack on democracy in The Illusionist reworks Inspector Uhl's attack on Eisenheim's brand of magic in "Eisenheim the Illusionist." For Leopold, democracy is an impure form of government; what "saves" Burger's Uhl is his willingness to accept that magic can seem to play havoc with the rules of reality. Magic--and, by extension, other forms of art--is itself impure, because it refuses to color inside reality's lines. But in "Eisenheim the Illusionist," Uhl appoints himself the guardian of reality:
The phrase "crossing of boundaries" occurs pejoratively more than once in his notebooks; by 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? (301)
"Eisenheim the Illusionist" makes no political claims for Eisenheim's illusions; they are appropriated for one cause or another by different audiences (the Spiritualists, for example), but we are given no sign in the text that Eisenheim himself intends the illusions to mean anything. Uhl, who thinks the illusions are politically dangerous, is at one with those who believe that Eisenheim conjures up "Marie Vetsera, who had died with Crown Prince Rudolf in the bedroom of his hunting lodge at Mayerling," or "the girlhood spirit of the Empress Elizabeth, who at the age of sixty had been stabbed to death in Geneva by an Italian anarchist" (297). Eisenheim's increasingly frantic and adoring audiences keep trying to ground the illusions in some form of reality, even if it's the reality of the afterlife. In that sense, Uhl is correct. Still, Uhl topples over into absurdity once he starts interpreting the illusions as consciously subversive acts ("deliberately"). Eisenheim's magic isn't instrumental here, as it is in Burger's film; if anything, it is magic for magic's sake. That is, the most disturbing element of Eisenheim's performance, contra Uhl, is that it is purely a performance. It's very difficult to find anyone in the story, however, who is willing to believe such a thing.
* All page numbers are keyed to Steven Millhauser, "Eisenheim the Illusionist," in The Literary Ghost: Great Contemporary Ghost Stories, ed. Larry Dark (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1991).