Academic journal article African American Review

'Sorcery Is Dialectical:' Plato and Jean Toomer in Charles Johnson's 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice.' (Philosopher; Authors)

Academic journal article African American Review

'Sorcery Is Dialectical:' Plato and Jean Toomer in Charles Johnson's 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice.' (Philosopher; Authors)

Article excerpt

"The Sorcerer's Apprentice"

Johnson's collection of "tales and conjurations" ends uncannily in a conjuration with an uncertain outcome. With all the good intentions in the world Allan Jackson has finished his apprenticeship to the Allmuseri sorcerer Rubin Bailey, who once healed his father's hand and now in old age seeks to pass on his art. In the way of good sons, Allan aims high to repay what his father Richard lost in slavery and thereby instill pride, since paternal affection is not forthcoming. This zealous student was once seized - literally seized - by early success, though it "made him feel unessential, anonymous, like a tool in which the spell sang itself" (156). He remains impatient, unsure of his skills, and adamant that his White Magic must know no taint or ambiguity. He must "unfailingly do good" (157).

From Goethe's "Zauberlehrling" and Disney's Fantasia we know the trouble that over-eager apprentices get into when left to the sorcerer's devices. Ritual pyrotechnics have been mentioned. The terrors of All Hell Breaking Loose are a required part of the curriculum for Faith, Hawk, and Rutherford, the youthful seekers of Johnson's novels. Though respectively charred, caught by the Soulcatcher, or trapped in the belly of the beast, these other phenomenological pilgrims come to see differently and live to tell about it.

Yet for Allan, nothing. There are demons to be sure, but they will not have him. Failing to cure a client sent by Rubin and thereby falling short of his own steep standards for White Magic, Allan has despairingly consigned himself to the powers of darkness. After seven tales we are entitled to a conjuration. Yet Allan's ordeal sounds like nothing so much as the thesis defense from hell, with professional credentials, rather than a soul, hanging in the balance:

"Because," said the demon of the West, "to love the good, the beautiful is right, but to labor on and will the work when you are obviously beneath this service is to parody them, twist them beyond recognition, to lay hold of what was once beautiful and make it a monstrosity. It becomes black magic. Sorcery is relative, student - dialectical, if you like expensive speech. And this, exactly, is what you have done with the teachings of Rubin Bailey." (167)

At the story's end the demons leave, "seeking better game" (169).

Here, against tradition, is a sorcerer's apprentice who dabbles in dark powers and gets less, much less, than he bargained for. Instead of an easeful fall into damnation, Allan gets an earful of recycled Platonic distinctions: Black magic is not a "what" - the devilish antithesis of white magic - but a "how" - the good pursued wrongly and loved insufficiently. Yet as the magister ludi Johnson vanishes from his own abruptly ending text, might not his readers feel that they are getting less than they bargained for? On the shelf beside the three novels, a volume entitled The Sorcerer's Apprentice promises something like another Bildungsroman. Not until this final story do we see the world unfolding through sincere young eyes like those of Faith, Hawk, and Rutherford, and even here it remains unclear how the epiphany has transformed Allan's experience. Unclaimed of either the Good or the Evil that he sets so firmly apart, Allan seems to end up in narrative limbo as well. His worried father has come looking for him and at Allan's comforting gesture falls "heavily toward his son" (169), giving the demons their exit cue. We can only wonder why Richard falls: in rescue? in recognition? in death? No clear-cut moral leaps out at us. Bring on the dancing brooms.

I propose to work from this cliffhanger to some observations about how, within the traditions of philosophical fiction, short forms end. Be they parables, fables, short stories, or memoirs - to cite only the forms in The Sorcerer's Apprentice - such narratives must of course close without foreclosing the author's ongoing speculative and, in Johnson's case, mythopoetic undertaking; that is, (in "expensive speech") without short circuiting the dialectic. …

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