To Be A Magician

“Magicians are born, not made.” — Carl Herrman, Personal Recollections

It’s an experience most of us have in common.

My first recollection of understanding of the uses of magic was many years ago on an exploratory walk through the east side ghetto of my hometown of Newburgh, New York. A child of maybe six was sitting on a dirty stoop in the middle of a deserted block, crying her beautiful little eyes out. I couldn’t do anything to take her away from the squalor, but my heart was touched. A swell of realization welled up within me-that I did have something to give. I leaned down, startling the little girl at first, then making my best magical gestures, pulled a nickel out of her ear. She stopped crying, brightened up, and could barely believe it when I gave her the nickel. I could hear her squeals of joy to her family as I walked on. My own mood was better, and the joy in her face brought me an immense happiness. I fortunately was long gone before the little girl grew up and she remembered it as an easy little trick.

That was a small scene, but the child was elated and all her problems seemed to vanish. Strangely enough, mine did too. At least, own problems seemed simple enough to solve. And as I grew, continued to perform and got progressively better, I found that the wonder and joy the audience experienced from my magic was equaled if not excelled by the inner joy I experienced from the performance. That too is an experience we have in common, I’m sure, the “rush” of the performance. What a tremendous responsibility to be a magician, I thought, this must be among the most personally joyous of all theatrical professions! As the conjuring grew to be more of an obsession than a hobby, I was amazed at how much it taught me of human nature.

If there is a single philosophic lesson to be learned in being a magician, perhaps it’s that “the experience” of amazing magic can lead those who watch completely out of their mundane lives (for a fleeting moment). The brief revelry they enter is one that they want to believe in, whether they know it or not. We all know this, at least while we’re new in the work and have not yet become too cynical to remember.

Consider how the psychology of deception plays upon both parties love of fantasy and mystery. It amuses the spectator, but often does wonders for the magician as well. The art, or artistry, required to bring this about forms a bond of imaginative trust between performer and performee. This magic feeling that exists for a fleeting moment may be explained as a sort of subjective reality, depending very much upon the world of everyday reality, the product of a sort of psychic deal the magician cuts with the spectator. This is the “willing suspension of disbelief” in Coleridge’s oft quoted phrase. It’s important to remember that the effect is temporary, usually only for a very brief time in reaction to the individual effect, though some performers have been able to extend it to an entire act. (the actual phrase was “willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.”) During the tiny space of time his or her disbelief is suspended the audience member experiences the magical events as real, and is caught up into what is sometimes called “the enchanted state.”

For that very brief time the figure of the magician himself is the bridge between the worlds, fusing the sublime and the comic in a purposeful making of things only dreamed of. The spectator contributes to this charm of making by watching the performance; and as imaginative beings, participating in the demonstration of impossible events, making visions of fantasy immediately effective by the will. To imaginatively experience the fantasy of a magic performance is to accept, imaginatively, the intrusion of the impossible into everyday life before the heavy door of disbelief slams shut again. Once that happens, it’s of course once again just tricks.

The show is over, the bond is broken, and the magician becomes just a trickster in the eyes of the audience once again. If the job is done well the audience is happy and grateful, despite the deception. The fantasy author Tolkien called this phenomenon “Consolation”, in which the reader (audience) knows it was all just a story (trick) but the result is a strange sort of joy. It becomes refreshing and rewarding to be fooled! The possibilities of the supernatural that man wishes so badly to believe in are given a reminder. Our senses, and the habits formed on the basis of what our senses tell us, guide us to understand the world…a magician addles our senses and reminds us that there’s just more than we realize. We accept momentarily the reality that lies beyond the external facts of time and space.

Ideally, all this happens for the magician as well!

It’s old news that most magic shows never seek to attain or consider these kind of precious, Henning-esque ideals. Of course, magic is capable of evoking enchanted states of consciousness; but what’s the value of these pseudo-psychological discussions? Magic is just light entertainment, right?

But we can dream, can’t we? We can imagine that the direction of imaginative power that makes our simple deceptions possible allows the audience to enter (briefly) a world where dreams are unleashed and made real. The power to lift people’s minds beyond mundane affairs for a few moments can help them realize that there are forces at work in the Universe beyond the ken of man. Through illusion, impossible reality is made true.

This is of course all an ideal. As already stated, when this “enchantment” occurs for the spectator it is brief, fleeting. If it occurs for the magician, it is a subconscious realization at best. Most magicians stay firmly insulated against the fantastic reality that they are demonstrating. Immunity to the magical atmosphere we create is a dear price to pay, indeed.

But again, we can dream, can’t we? Can we see a higher purpose served by magic — a means of our own expanded vision and imagination? Ideally, the value of a magic performance might be stated in almost spiritual terms: the “awakening (of) some mysterious indefinable faculty in the soul which seems to perceive things our physical senses are unable to transmit to ordinary consciousness.” (S.H. Sharpe) That is, the conscious and regular entering of a world of belief, where the power to discover meaning through the imagination might enable man to realize the images and archetypes deeply embedded within us. This magical world view would thereby give form and value to our nature and transcend the “facts” of our existence.

Sharpe spoke of insightful magicians striving to be “born again” on some spiritual plane, striving by brief flights of fancy to clarify their visions so they’ll be clearer to themselves. Magicians trying to fulfill this strange goal of theatrical deception as a means to personal awareness or even enlightenment…wouldn’t those magicians find themselves deeply rewarded by experiencing the magic that the little girl on the sidewalk felt so many years ago?

And don’t you, dear reader, want to experience that magic again (or for the first time) too?

Originally published in David London’s Smoke and Mirrors.

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