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The letter that gives life: Magic, writing, and the teaching of writing

Julia Ellen Wagner, University of Massachusetts Amherst


Magic, writing, rhetoric, and poetry have been associated from their beginnings. Today, in the throes of a rationalistic view of language, we see words as having an arbitrary relationship to things, as transcriptions of an objective reality. But language actually operates as a tension between magic and logic. The history of rhetoric and composition is the history of a discipline attempting to form itself while continuously attempting to cast out the magical aspect of language. Plato was suspicious of the early orator/rhetorician, pointing to the “wizardry” in his power to convince people of falsehoods, and argued that we should aspire to be philosophers before becoming orators, so that we might employ “true” magic. This distinction between “true” and “false” magic, however, proves to be problematic. Derrida's notion of language as pharmakon, as a volatile substance that is both poison and remedy, provides us with a more accurate description of how the magical aspect of language operates. The realm of the oral attracts magic. Although some academics are skeptical about the orality-literacy shift theory and tend to avoid discussions of the sacred sound/orality, others attempt to reach across the oral-literate divide to gain access to the lost features of orality. Poetry, first and foremost the language of spells and charms, is still often characterized as spellbinding, magic. The Orphic poetic tradition describes the miracle-working power of poetry and song. In Trilogy, however, H.D. exemplifies a different kind of magic, one that might be called a literate magic. Trilogy is a successful attempt to establish, explore, and problematize correspondences between words and gods as well as the correspondences between words and the damage done by patriarchy. Since magic is inextricably bound with writing, writing classrooms inevitably attract it, and a healthy respect for this magic should play a role, small or large, in every writing course. We can invite magic with faith in its ability to remedy and examine magic with wariness of its capacity to poison, no matter what other assumptions shape the course. Writing professors and teachers can court magic mildly or aggressively in their courses.

Subject Area

Rhetoric|Composition|American literature|Language arts

Recommended Citation

Wagner, Julia Ellen, "The letter that gives life: Magic, writing, and the teaching of writing" (2002). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3056285.