Johnny America


An­oth­er Per­spec­tive: Magic


I’m sad­dened to ad­mit that gold­en age of mag­ic is long past now. Is it be­cause we, as au­di­ences, have be­come too jad­ed, too cyn­i­cal? Are we no longer able to sus­pend dis­be­lief for par­lor tricks? Or maybe we are so used to be­ing fooled by spe­cial ef­fects that we’ll “be­lieve” mag­ic when we see it, but are no longer im­pressed by the illusion.

In fact, I be­lieve that the fall of mag­ic is the fault of ma­gi­cians them­selves. Con­sid­er mag­ic in the past: at one time, it was con­sid­ered a rep­utable form of en­ter­tain­ment, and even per­sons of high so­ci­ety would en­joy a night of be­ing en­ter­tained by a slight-of-hand artist. How­ev­er, the ma­gi­cian him­self was con­sid­ered a rather ques­tion­able fel­low; it would be im­prop­er to in­vite him to tea (though he might be hired to en­ter­tain at par­ties). He was a bach­e­lor who as­so­ci­at­ed with his shady coun­ter­parts in dark­ened red-vel­vet rooms. They ate bland din­ners, shar­ing ways to store play­ing cards in their mouths and per­haps dark­er se­crets as well. Then our ma­gi­cian would put on an over­coat, walk through the fog­gy evening, and fi­nal­ly re­tire to his dingy, one-room apart­ment. The man’s se­cre­tive gyp­sy mys­tique added to the ap­peal of the ma­gi­cian and the mag­ic — even though the stereo­type was like­ly com­plete­ly inaccurate.

Sim­i­lar­ly, for a young per­son who as­pired to a ca­reer in mag­ic, learn­ing the tricks of the trade would re­quire years of ap­pren­tice­ship un­der a prac­tic­ing ma­gi­cian. You shine his shoes, he shows you a card trick, et cetera. Thus the se­crets of mag­ic were passed from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion, known on­ly to the de­vot­ed prac­ti­tion­ers and nev­er, ever di­vulged to outsiders.

And then, some­one wrote a mag­ic book.

I have no idea who wrote it, or what it was, but it set a dan­ger­ous prece­dent. That mag­ic book, and all the ones that came af­ter it, tell how tricks are done. And they’re avail­able to any­one with mon­ey or ac­cess to a li­brary. And now, the in­ter­net pro­vides those an­swers for free. Sell­ing your pro­fes­sion’s se­crets is bad prof­it, not to men­tion that this es­sen­tial­ly robbed mag­ic of its “mag­ic.” But to make them avail­able for free is even worse. Do you know the say­ing: “give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day; teach a man to fish, and he will eat for a life­time”? Not such a good idea if you’re a fish­er­man. Cur­rent mag­ic in­struc­tion, even more hu­mil­i­at­ing­ly, is mar­ket­ed pri­mar­i­ly to chil­dren. Chil­dren, of course, do not have the pa­tience or mo­tor skills to per­form slight-of-hand suc­cess­ful­ly. This makes things even worse for the world of mag­ic — it’s child’s‑play, no longer mys­te­ri­ous, and most­ly boring.

So con­tem­po­rary ma­gi­cians find them­selves in a dou­ble bind. They must in­vent new tricks or per­form old ones with the knowl­edge that much of their au­di­ence will know the se­crets be­hind them. Al­ter­nate­ly, they can use a trick for a few years un­til it gets played out, then put it in their new mag­ic book and turn a prof­it. It’s cyclical.

Ma­gi­cians, we can’t help you. You’ve got to be re­spon­si­ble for re-cre­at­ing the mys­tique of past per­for­mances. The world craves the kind of mag­ic we can’t solve with our over-log­i­cal mind and vast in­for­ma­tion net­works. We don’t want dis­clo­sure, and we don’t want a les­son. If you were to ask for my ad­vice, here’s what I’d say: or­ga­nize your­selves, and pre­pare to em­bark on a mis­sion to trans­form so­ci­ety. Fol­low these steps:

  1. Ob­tain and de­stroy all ex­ist­ing mag­ic books, ex­cept­ing those in ma­gi­cians’ per­son­al collections.
  2. Train some among your num­bers to be ex­pert com­put­er hack­ers, and re­move all ref­er­ences to mag­ic tricks that oc­cur on the in­ter­net. Be vigilant!
  3. Don’t work children’s par­ties, or if you must work children’s par­ties, play to the adults in at­ten­dance. Work­ing “blue” is al­lowed if the kids don’t know what you’re say­ing. Please, don’t de­grade your­selves with clown­ery like bal­loon animals.
  4. Cre­ate a so­cial club in (at least) all ma­jor cities where you can get to­geth­er and trade ideas. Let this be your haven; do not bring fam­i­ly or friends. Cre­ate your com­mu­ni­ty, strength­en one an­oth­er, and re­mem­ber: trade se­crets are more to you than to any oth­er profession.

If you use these rec­om­men­da­tions, with­in one gen­er­a­tion much of your pre­vi­ous glo­ry will be re­gained. It will be dif­fi­cult, but by no means im­pos­si­ble. There are young men and women out there wait­ing to be your ap­pren­tices. They are ex­cel­lent at de­stroy­ing books (but not at keep­ing se­crets, so save that for when they’re a lit­tle old­er). And, come on, you’re ma­gi­cians! Noth­ing is be­yond your grasp.

Filed under Commentary on January 14th, 2005

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