Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The surface level of “Eisenheim the Illusionist” is what might be called Uhl’s level: to see Eisenheim and his career as metaphors for the collapse and dissolution of the Hapsburg Empire. Uhl fears that Eisenheim’s boundary-breaking performances unsettle the public and its support of the stasis of empire. Uhl is not entirely mistaken: Some of Eisenheim’s audience, in their longing for the lost unifying personalities of the empire, speculate that one of the images that he summons in the last stage of his career is actually the dead inamorata of the crown prince who killed himself at Mayerling or the spirit of the assassinated Empress Elizabeth. Eisenheim’s dismissal as a suitor because of his Jewish ancestry foreshadows the barbarism that a later Austrian anti-Semite would inflict on the territories of the empire.

An extension of this surface view implies the future fissioning of all Europe, with its reliance on a Newtonian worldview and the primacy of realism, in the face of mechanized war, mechanized genocide, the disappearance of belief, and the intimations of a quantum universe. Normal stage magicians rely on sleight of hand, combined with exquisitely constructed mechanical props, which, while imitating a violation of the laws of nature, must nevertheless obey these mechanistic laws to engender their illusions. Eisenheim’s eventual dismissal of these props, his abjuring of the customary panoply that accompany such illusions, imply on the surface a bargain with the traditional powers of darkness. Underneath, his seeming mastery of the laws of time and space hint at the fear of another Jewish product of German-speaking Europe, Albert Einstein: that God...

(The entire section is 687 words.)