All grownup craft depends on sustaining a frozen moment from childhood: scientists, it’s said, are forever four years old, wide-eyed and self-centered; writers are forever eight, over-aware and indignant. The magician is a permanent pre-adolescent. At least, all lives of magicians begin with a 12-year-old…—Adam Gopnik
Adam Gopnik has a great article in the March 17th New Yorker called “The Real Work: Modern magic and the meaning of life.” It examines the intellectual side of magic: what magic is and what it’s about. No doubt because Gopnik is a writer and former art critic, I found that things he writes about magic have great relevance to the other arts, especially writing.
Quoting Jamy Ian Swiss on distractions:
Magic only ‘happens’ in a spectator’s mind….Everything else is a distraction. Magic talk on the Internet is a distraction. Magic contests are a distraction. Magic organizations are a distraction. The latest advertisement, the latest trick—distractions. Methods for their own sake are a distraction. You cannot cross over into the world of magic until you put everything else aside and behind you—including your own desires and needs—and focus on bringing an experience to the audience. This is magic. Nothing else.
On technique & transparency:
…the magician is one of the few true artists left on earth, for whom the mastery of technique means more than anything that might be gained by it. He center-deals but makes no money—doesn’t even win prestige points—because nobody knows he’s doing it.
…a magician’s technique must be invisible; if it became visible, we would be insulted by its obviousness. Magic is possible because magicians are smart. And what they’re smart about is mainly how dumb we are, how limited in vision, how narrow in imagination, how resourceless in conjecture, how routinized in our theories of the world, how deadened to possibility. The magician awakens us from the dogmatic slumbers of our daily life…
Quoting Teller on irony:
Magic is the most intrinsically ironic of all the arts…I don’t know what your definition of irony is, but mine is something where, when you are seeing it, you see it in two different and even contradictory ways at the same time. And with magic what you see collides with what you know. That’s why magic, even when merely executed, ends up having intellectual content. It’s intrinsic to the form.
Quoting Teller on illusion:
There’s a moment in your life when you realize the difference between illusion and reality and that you’re being lied to….Santa Claus. The Easter Bunny. After my mother told me that there was no Santa Claus, I made up an entirely fictitious girl in my classroom and told my mother stories about her….If you’re sufficiently preoccupied with the power of a lie, a falsehood, an illusion, you remain interested in magic tricks.
It’s a long piece, and there are lots of other great bits. The article isn’t online, but you can listen to a good 15-minute podcast where he discusses it on the New Yorker site.
- Jamy Ian Swiss
- Shattering Illusions: Essays on the Ethics, History, and Presentation of Magic, by Jamy Ian Swiss
- The Expert At The Card Table by S.W. Erdnase