“The most beautiful thing you can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. ”
In all of the performing arts, nothing captures the imagination quite like conjuring/magic. It has the power to delight, amaze and enchant people the world over, despite all cultural, age and language barriers. From astrophysicists to jungle tribesmen.
There is no way to determine just how long the idea of magic has been a part of our thinking. It can be argued that magic is as old as man himself (See History of Magic page). Earliest recorded evidence of conjuring magic is around 4,500 years old.
Since its beginnings as a performing artform, its practitioners have jealously guarded their secrets from the general public. This attitude has, at times, cost them dearly. Christian persecution, in the form of inquisitions, witch-hunts and the like, have come, gone and taken their deadly toll. (again, see History page). Despite all this, magic has not only survived as an artform, but has also evolved into a science and global industry enjoyed everywhere by the young and the old, the professional and the hobbyist.
magic under attack?
Yet magic seems to be under attack like never before. In this ‘Information Age,’ where Not-Knowing is considered a liability, mystery and its explanation has become a very marketable commodity. There are few secrets you cannot find on the Internet or through your local magic shop. In fact, I started with two magic books from my local suburban library.
“The role of the artist is always to deepen the mystery”
The attitudes of magicians have also changed radically. Penn and Teller are just two of a growing faction of magicians who regularly reveal secrets during their magic shows. They are some of the fraternity who think of them as the bad boys of magic. Others see them also as bad boys, but in a good way. I am of the latter opinion.
On the streets of Asia, magicians perform magic then sell the secrets to tourists for a few dollars.
A professional magician, Valentino, took some classic magic tricks, donned a mask, became “the Masked Magician” presenting the widely viewed TV series, “Magicians’ Secrets Revealed”. Magicians worldwide have also been publishing books full of secrets for many decades now. The selling of secrets gains momentum. Your local library probably has a couple of books you can borrow for free.
I have had people say “surely this attitude will eventually ensure the death of magic? How can magic survive without its secrets?”
Exposure of secrets is nothing new in Magic.
Exposure of secrets is nothing new in Magic. The first public exposure of magicians’ secrets was in 1584 with the publishing of “The Discoverie of Witchcraft” by a Justice of the Peace, Reginald Scot. This book contained the secrets of magicians of that time and was written to show that those who worked these sort of wonders were not witches and warlocks. The publishing of this book helped save the lives of many magicians and jugglers of the time. Poor jugglers - it was considered impossible to keep 3 balls in the air without the help of demons.
One of the most infamous exposures in the history of magic was done by Ehrich Weiss, who added an “i” to the end of his (then) idol’s name (Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin … the ‘father of modern magic’) and adopted the name, Harry Houdini. Years later, he published a book (specifically for the general public) called “Houdin is a Fake” which exposed how the great French magician did his tricks.
His ploy not only backfired but actually helped to make Robert-Houdin even more famous, much to Harry Houdini’s fury. Why did he turn on his idol and what was the response from his fellow magicians and the secret societies at the time? I don’t have an answer for that … I was just wondering. I don’t imagine it endeared Harry to his fellow magicians.
the joy of not knowing
What if knowing sucks all the joy and wonder out of this ancient artform?
So, as an audience, is it better to know, or to not know ? Can the satisfaction of knowing how it’s done ever be compared to the bittersweet child-like mystery of not knowing, by simpy allowing it to be what it is?
What if knowing sucks all the joy and wonder out of this ancient artform? Not for us magicians but for YOU, the audience. Magic secrets are generally very disappointing once discovered. When you learn how it’s done, the next time you see that trick, it can only ever be “oh, I know how that’s done”, which I admit has a certain payoff but it could NEVER compare with that childlike wonder of total WOW !!!
There has always been an unspoken agreement between audiences and performers, regardless of whether the performer is a magician, a ventriloquist, puppeteer or actor. We all know that it’s not really King Arthur on stage, or on the silver screen, or that it’s really a marionette with strings dangling over it and not a handsome prince, yet we temporarily suspend our disbelief to allow the performer the creative space to hopefully engage and delight our mind, emotions and senses.
Without this mutual agreement, theatre, movies, in fact most of the performing arts would lose their power to move us and would subsequently become devoid of all magic. Yes, conjuring is not the only source of magic.
As we now dip our collective toe into the first waves of the 21st Century, magic continues as a science, an industry and an artform and still offers much.
the magic happens
Magic’s primary objective is still to entertain. On a deeper level, I believe it can reignite and maintain a sense of wonder in people who, on the whole, have become cynical and numb with 21st Century living.
“ … then, for a moment, magic happens. They have no rational explanation for what they’ve seen. The joy that lights up their faces with that momentary realization that maybe magic does exist, has a magical effect on them. They are instantly transformed into startled, beaming children. On the whole, people want to believe in magic. They want the magician to overcome their theories and their cynicism so they can be like children again, with “WOW !!!” all over their faces and glee in their hearts … “maybe magic will happen for me too.”
Maybe it will.