The Theory and Art of Magic

Last month in these pages I presented an overview of “The Theory and Art of Magic” program that was held at Muhlenberg College during September and October of 1999. This month we begin running a series of talks drawn from the program with the first of two pieces by Eugene Burger.

As most readers know, Eugene Burger is one of the brightest stars in contemporary magic. He is two- time winner of the awards for “The Close-Up Magician of the Year” and “Lecturer of the Year” by the Academy of Magical Arts in Hollywood, California. He is the author of 15 books on magic, including: The Experience of Magic, The Performance of Close-up Magic, Magic and Meaning (with Robert E. Neale), and Spirit Theater books that have profoundly shaped the way magicians think about and perform their art.

He has performed magic around the world, and his television credits include specials on ARE, PBS, The Learning Channel, CNN, and TBS. In October of 1998 he starred in Hauntings: A Shakespearean Seance produced by the Shakespeare Festival of Los Angeles. In April of 2000, he starred with Jeff McBride in The Forbidden Secret of Magic at Magicopolis in Los Angeles. Last year MAGIC magazine named Eugene Burger one of the “One Hundred Most Influential Magicians of the Twentieth Century.”

When I began conceiving this program some years ago the first thing I did was call Eugene to see if he would come to inaugurate it. He enthusiastically agreed, and provided sage counsel throughout the entire production process. Eugene and Margaret Steele opened the program with a performance-lecture entitled An Introduction to the Art of Magic. Later in the week he presented the following talk to the campus community. – Lawrence Hass

The topic today is “Who is the Magician?” I believe that if we look at magic metaphorically and symbolically we get a surprising answer to that question. This is what I want to explore with you.

I think the central image of magic, the central metaphor, is transformation. And ‘I thought it would be interesting to take an example of something that I think is magical thinking and to look at it specifically to see what is going on, because all of us indulge in magical thinking at one time or another. All you have to do is buy a lottery ticket and you are in the midst of magical thinking: All reason tells me that I am not going to win, and yet whenever I buy a lottery ticket it’s the only time I enjoy giving money to the State!

I would like to talk about a person who clearly seemed to indulge in magical thinking and his name was Emil Coue. Coue was born in 1857 and died in 1926. He was an obscure pharmacist in France. Around the turn of the century his interests turned to hypnosis and autosuggestion. In 1922, he wrote a rather famous book called Self-Mastery Through Auto-Suggestion. He made trips to England and to the United States and claimed to have effected many rather remarkable cures for people.

In his book Self Mastery Through Autosuggestion, he encouraged something that is essentially magical thinking, that every morning you should say twenty times, “Day by day, in every way, I am better and better.” What a fantastic idea! “Day by day in every way I am better and better.” What makes it even more magical is that he said you should say this mindlessly, without necessarily thinking about it, and you should say it twenty times every day. And so you wouldn’t have to be counting, Coue suggested that you take a piece of string and tie twenty knots in it. Then when you are taking a shower in the morning or wherever you happen to be, all you do is take this string and every time your fingers hit a knot you say “Day by day, in every way, I am better and better,” and you keep going down the string like that.

What a strange idea! What a strange idea on one level. Of course at a lot of universities people talk about Emil Coue only to make fun of him, but here’s the payoff: I think there is really something sensible going on here. For what you have to understand is Coue’s presupposition. That presupposition is that our mental lives, our inner lives, are not in balance — that is his premise. And they are not in balance for the following reason: Most of us are caught up in negative thought.

By negative thought, I mean the chatter in the skull, the little voice in the head that tells me I won’t succeed, that I must inevitably fail, that I couldn’t be having any interesting ideas of my own and therefore I have to turn to somebody else for authority. Negative thought quite clearly limits my possibilities; it limits my action. Again, by negative thought I mean negative reinforcement, worrying about this or that — whether I am going to pass the test, whether I am going to understand the book, worrying about death, my death, somebody else’s death, worrying about money, the past, present, or future.

Fritz Pearls, the founder of Gestalt therapy, wrote about people who play the game of “catastrophic expectation.” That is when people forever tell themselves that things are going to turn out for the worst. That they will never amount to anything. That the most dreaded and horrible catastrophic fantasies are really going to come true. That life generally is headed toward inevitable disaster. Well, Coue’s idea is this: most of us are already caught up in negative thought and so his little exercise is really a way of trying to put our inner lives in some kind of balance by consciously giving ourselves positive reinforcement.

What a strange idea, what a fascinating example of magical thinking! It is thinking that seems to go against all reason and rationality. Now you might wonder whether this thing works. Rather than tell you that it does or doesn’t work, I would just say that if you find this interesting or of some possible use, try it yourself tomorrow morning. Say to yourself: “I give myself permission to be powerful.” Or tomorrow morning when you take your shower tie those twenty knots in a length of string and say, “Day by day, in every way, I am better and better.” Yes, it is absolutely indulging in magical thinking, but if Coue was right that our inner lives are already out of balance, and that this is merely a technique by which we can perhaps begin to put these things back into perspective, then maybe it works. I think because something is called magical thinking we just assume, thereby, that it doesn’t work.

I said at the outset that I think the primary metaphor of magic is transformation. I think you could probably take any effect of magic and restate it as an instance of transformation; it is a primary symbol of magic. And of course, we all want transformation, don’t we? We grow up in a society where we are constantly being told indirectly that we are not right, we are too fat, we don’t have enough hair, we are too thin, and we grow up learning that we need to make changes.

I bet if we did an inventory of every student and every faculty member and we asked them, “Do you think you need some changes in your life?” that everybody would say “yes.” How could we not? We have been totally conditioned in this area. And here we come to what I think is the nub of the human problem: everybody wants change, but nobody wants to do anything differently. That is a tension with which all of us live. We want to quit smoking, we want to lose weight, we want to do this and that, but we don’t want to do anything differently. Or take it the other way around: we all want to be different, but we don’t want to change anything. So I think that is a part of the human problem.

I don’t think this is necessarily an innate problem. I think that we’ve been sold a bill of goods about our own inadequacies so that marketers can sell us products — grim but true! So magic in our lives is about transformation. And in traditional, ritual, or ceremonial magic, one of the key techniques for this is visualization. It is about visualizing something differently, visualizing it concretely, and Coue is, in a sense, playing the same game. The idea is that through directed, conscious choice, you can imagine and then actualize a better state and that’s magical thinking.

If that’s all true, then I think we can restate the game of performance magic this way: that the performance magician is telling you that you are the magician in your own life. You are the agent of transformation, your own transformation, and other peoples’ transformation — the people whom you come into contact with, the people you love. You are the agent of transformation; you are the magician and that is a fabulous, liberating, and even a little scary notion, because it puts all of the responsibility back on me. If I want my life to be different, I am the magician and I must make this happen. If I want a relationship to be improved, I am the magician and it’s up to me, I can’t wait for the other person.

So it comes as a great gift, and it is also a kind of shocking challenge because I think many people don’t want to be the magician. They fight it. It’s much easier to play the roll in life of the victim, “poor me.” Magic says “no more poor me.” It says, “you are the magician, and what are you going to do to make your life more magical?”

A couple of years ago I gave a talk in Aspen, Colorado for the president and five vice-presidents of the Williams-Sonoma Company. They were having a little paw-wow and I was the novelty speaker for their event. At one point we ‘were discussing how to make the work place more magical. I said there are three magic words that really work and the first one is “recognition.” Recognize people. Recognize people who are lower than you in the power structure. Say “hello” to them and not just pass them in the hallway. The second word was “appreciation.” Overtly appreciate what people are doing. That’s pretty magical when you think about it. And finally “praise.” Praise people for what they do well. I think that if more businesses in America were to adopt these magic words, “recognition,” “appreciation,” and “praise,” not only would the work place be more magical, but it would be a lot more fun and workers would be more productive.

But let me stop there and hear what you have to say….

Question: You were talking the other night about magic as deception. How do you understand the relationship between magic as transformation and magic as deception?
Eugene: Well, the method of the stage magician is deception, but I think the metaphors and the symbols are independent of that. It’s interesting because there is a principle that magicians hold, or at least some of them, that it is fun to be fooled. Magicians sometimes put that on their business card. There was a magic bar in Chicago that had that phrase written on their awning, “it’s fun to be fooled.” Well, maybe it is and maybe it isn’t. There is a marvelous book by a guy named Loyal Rule called By Grace of Guile, and his whole point in this book is that it’s not fun to be fooled. In fact, it is very bad to be fooled!

Question: You say the symbols of magic, the metaphors, explain it better than deception, but when you get down to it, isn’t magic just tricks? I mean, there is actually a way you do it that isn’t symbolic, but it’s [only] your presentation that makes it magical.
Eugene: Absolutely — magic tricks by themselves are just tricks. But magic is what you are going to do from there on. I can do a trick for you and the response that it generates in you is “what a jerk this guy is,” because perhaps the whole premise of my presentation is, “I know something that you don’t know.” That is kind of irritating. Who wants to be around that kind of person for very long? A person who knows things that I don’t know and then rubs my nose in it. Very unpleasant.

It seems to me the same magic trick that generates that kind of response can generate a very different kind of response. Why is that? Part of it is people watch magic with two minds. The aim of a magician, if he or she is a good magician, is to upgrade one and downgrade the other. It is to get you out of the analytical frame of mind so that you are able to experience this amazing effect. If I’m a good magician, by my definition, I am trying to get you to suspend your analytic frame of mind. Not for ever and ever, because you need that mind, for instance, when you cross the street, when you sign up for classes, when you take final exams, and so on. It’s not a matter of your getting rid of something, rather it’s about seeing that the human psyche is more than simply rationality.

We tend to do everything in dichotomies. There is rational and irrational, and one of the things that a liberal arts education teaches you is that irrational is bad or at least not as good as the rational. My view is that the dichotomy is suspect. First of all some of the most rational beliefs have irrational elements, and vice versa. But also the dichotomy itself is kind of crazy.

I think there is another category that we ought to talk about called the “non-rational.” The non-rational is not irrational, it’s not counter to reason, it’s just different. I think there is a non-rational aspect to life. And I think one of the things magic tries to do is to tap into that so that you are able to experience wonder. As Aristotle said, philosophy begins in wonder, even though that was pretty well lost on Aristotle and the later scholastics as well. So yes, I think the presentation is always the key to creating a sense of magic.

Let’s talk, for instance, about the Linking Rings. The way it is usually done is that the magician will bring somebody up on stage and the kid will constantly fail, and then the magician will link two rings and give them to the kid and the kid will stand there and try to pull them apart and the magician is urging him on and of course he is going to fail and that generates laughs. Of course it generates laughs — at this kid’s expense. But when the Linking Rings trick is presented in that context I don’t think any symbols come through or at least that the symbols that do come through are pretty awful ones. They’re about putting people down, having power over people in a negative kind of way, using other people as the butt of my jokes, for my applause and laughter….

On the other hand when Margaret [Steele] did the Linking Rings the other night, you didn’t see any of that nonsense, and I think there is a greater possibility that people tune into the metaphor of what is going on. Why? Because the magician didn’t get in the way. That’s a very hard thing for most magicians to learn, that sometimes we get in the way of the innate symbols that are already present in our work, and therefore we’re never communicating them.

When I say “communicate them,” I don’t mean that all of this stuff is necessarily taking place on the conscious level. I think one could watch Margaret’s performance of the Linking Rings and one might not have any conscious thoughts of the separate being joined. But I think that the way she presents it in such a beautiful way, with gorgeous music, and lovely staging and choreography, I think the symbols have a greater possibility of seeping through to people. Whereas if I am just getting in the middle of all this and being a jerk, making fun of little kids, and torturing them psychologically, then I don’t think the message gets through at all. So that means the problem for the performing magician is to have enough respect for what they are performing.

Margaret and I have a dear friend whose name is Max Maven who has a theory that little boys get into magic because of what we might call character disorders. I’m sure Max has a better phrase here! But this happens usually just before puberty. Here’s this little boy who is powerless, whose parents might be hassling him, whose teachers are a pain in the neck, whose friends might be problematic as well and this kid is powerless and now he discovers magic. It’s interesting how little boys go through a magic period very often. Not everybody, but certainly a lot more than you think. This little magic period, some of them get out of it. Others like Margaret and me get drawn into it. The idea is, here’s this powerless kid, eleven or twelve years old. What gives him power? Well, having a secret.

We should talk about the phenomenology of the secret. What does the secret do to a person? Knowing a secret is power. So we have this little kid who is having all these problems in life, not terrible problems, but problems of estrangement, problems with parents, teachers and peers. This kid learns a couple of magic tricks, he can make a coin disappear, and that’s power.

Now what happens is that many magicians never get out of that stage. As Margaret was saying the other day, when they are presenting their magic they revert to being that ten year-old. So the magic they perform is essentially a power display. And power displays are fine for thirteen year-old little kids, but they are less interesting in twenty-one year-olds. Knowing a secret is power…. And I have to say that for a long time my presentations in magic were adolescent power displays too — probably all the way up to college I bet that’s what I was doing.

But after a point it’s time to grow up. Then we realize that magic is really a deep art, that there is a great depth to it, that the symbols are profound. And the symbols have to do not with external things, but with our own lives. Who is the agent of transformation? Will we make the transformation? Will we accept responsibility for it? Will we become the magicians in our own lives?

Question: I’ve been puzzling over something you said earlier about how it can be fun to be fooled in this society where we have such a long tradition of fighting deception. What Plato had to say about beauty was that beauty is a sham; it disappears over time. But at the same time, it can serve the function of helping us to find other forms of beauty and maybe deception and magic do the same thing. Maybe that’s why it’s fun for us to be fooled.
Eugene: See, I don’t think it is fun to be fooled; I don’t think that at all. I think it’s fun to have a magical experience, but if the experience is all about fooling it primarily engages the analytic mind. The analytic mind, whenever it finds a problem it wants to solve it. So now the magician comes around with this card trick and if the audience is in the analytic mind then their primary interest is in solving it and figuring out how it’s done.

This issue is really about performers and the kind of audiences they want to create. As a magician I create my audiences. It’s not that there’s just an audience out there. No. What I do and what I say create the kind of audience that I have. If, for instance, I start with a trick where I challenge you, where you feel personally like I’m challenging you, then you’re going to be in the analytic mind. On the other hand, if I can put you in a non-rational state, then you let go of some of your analyticity of trying to figure it out and just have this experience.

For example, you just watch the woman floating in the air and are not concerned with all the wires or pipes or whatever, but just the sheer beauty of this woman’s body floating in the air. That’s a rather profound Shamanistic symbol because it’s the Shaman who travels out and floats into this other world. If I’m not in the analytic frame of mind and if I’m watching the sheer magic of the effect, then it’s not about figuring it out, it’s about enjoying it, and letting it speak to me on a number of different levels, both conscious and unconscious. No, I don’t think it’s fun to be fooled.

I’d like to say that this has been very enjoyable for me; I know it has been for Margaret also. I’d like to thank Larry for setting this up; he’s been a wonderful host. And thanks to all of you for being here!

Coordinated for Muhlenburg College by Dr. Lawrence Hass

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