Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Magic III

Magicians tend to focus on deception as if it is the essence of their skills. It's an attitude often reinforced by audiences who have learned to expect very little from magic acts. If a magician manages to fool his audience, most accept that he has done his job - just as if a juggling act is great because the performer didn't drop any balls or a singer is wonderful because she didn't hit any clinkers. With the expectations set so low, most magicians are happy to descend to them.

Like many other kids I probably became interested in magic for misguided reasons, wanting to learn various tricks because they imparted secrets and hoping these secrets might award me a special status among my friends. In books of tricks the recipe is specific - here's the effect and here's the method - implying that executing and concealing the secret is always the ultimate goal of the exercise.

The magician David Devant wrote:

At the risk of offending many proficient conjurers, both amateurs and professionals, I make bold to state that magic does not consist in a few so-called secrets, which can be mastered by any intelligent person within a few hours. To say a man who can show a few tricks is a conjurer is about as absurd as to say that a man who can recite "The Merchant of Venice" by heart is an actor.

I regard a conjurer as a man who can hold the attention of his audience by telling them the most impossible fairy tails and by persuading them into believing that those stories are true by illustrating them with his hands or any object that may be suitable for the purpose.

If magicians have unfortunately come to view their art as deception, they must recognise that used car salesmen , advertising executive and politicians are also artists of deception. In fact, there's not very much art in a pure deception, the big lie or exaggeration. It's true that, at times, magicians might require something just this simple or bold. But usually the deception in a magic act is the negative element, the hole in the middle of a performance. The performance is a sort of inadvertent dance around this hole, with the hope that each spectator will be coaxed to slip through it.

The English landscape painter John Constable once insisted that his art "pleases by reminding, not deceiving." It's the same with magicians. The real art is in the subtle touches of reassurance that surround any deception and disguise it as a positive thing. With a gesture, a suggestion, a feint or a contrivance, the audience is convinced that they are watching a genuine wonder. Great magicians aspire to creating this temporary fantasy.

The end result becomes a little work of theatre, a play with a simple plot that exists on a fairy tale level. The fantasies of a magic show can often be appreciated in everyday life: causing someone to disappear, becoming someone else, acquiring the ability to escape or walk through a wall. The play might be seconds long or be elaborately written to include a full story.

Hiding The Elephant

How Magicians Invented the Impossible

Jim Stein Meyer

Arrow Books 2005

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