When describing how governments divide up the powers of a sovereign entity, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (c. 1712-1778) likened it to dismemberment (such as one limb is the legislative branch and another is the executive branch, so on and so forth). This thought caused Rousseau to divert into a peculiar digression in which he told a tale about certain magician-jugglers who put on a magic show of supposed Japanese origin. In his Social Contract, Rousseau wrote, “We are told that the jugglers of Japan dismember a child before the eyes of spectators; then they throw all the members into the air one after the another, and the child falls down alive and whole. The conjuring tricks of our political theorists are very like that; they first dismember the body politic by an illusion worthy of a fair, and then join it together again we know not how” (Rousseau, Social Contract, Book II, Chapter II). Evidently, 18th-century Europeans had odd beliefs about Japanese jugglers, or possibly there was a troupe of magician performers who were making a name for themselves, even impressing Rousseau. As told by the philosopher, these so-called “jugglers of Japan” put on a show in which they made it seem like they chopped up a child—it must have been similar to magic shows where it looks like a person is sawed in half or skewered by swords. After the illusion of the dismemberment was performed, they would go on to juggle materials that looked like pieces of a body. Last, as the grand finale, the magicians would throw the pieces high in the air, and by the time the flying parts fell back down to the floor, the magicians would have arranged for the child to make his or her dramatic resurrection.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Jugglers Passing Carnival, attributed to Jan Miel (1599-1663,1664), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the National Museum in Warsaw).
- The Social Contract by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Translated and published by the Great Books Foundation (Chicago, Illinois, 1948).