Some magic just deserves parody. And who else but Steve Martin? The Great Flydini doesn’t have anything up his sleeve. The fly give access to a much bigger cache of magic.
In the mid-19th century the celebrated French conjurer Robert-Houdin produced a magnificent magic effect. He created an orange tree that produced flowers and fruit right before the audience’s eyes.
Here, British magician Paul Daniels reproduces Rober-Houdin’s illusion.
Card tricks can be great. Ok, not card tricks that involve five minutes of dealing into piles, those are awful. But many card tricks are marvellous, baffling and entertaining.
But usually, they’re not so magical.
And along comes Shin Lim. Shin won the prestigious 2015 FISM (Fédération Internationale des Sociétés Magiques) close-up magic competition with his Dream Act.
I don’t have a video of the FISM performance, but here is the act, filmed in Beijing. Enjoy.
Robertson Davies’s 1970 masterpiece Fifth Business is something of a manual for the deceptive arts.
The first curious bit of sleight of hand is the title: what the heck is “fifth business”? Davies helpfully quotes the 19th century Danish theatre scholar Thomas Overskou.
“Those roles which, being neither those of hero nor Heroine, Confidante nor Villain, but which were none the less essential to bring about the Recognition or the denouement were called the Fifth Business in drama and Opera companies organized according to the old style; the player who acted these parts was often referred to as Fifth Business.”–Thomas Overskou, Den Danske Skueplads.
Ok, we think. That’s cool. It’s about a character—Dunstan Ramsay—who is not a central character in the narrative, but who is essential to it. Sure. Makes sense. There is nary a clue in the novel to let us know that Davies just made that up. There is no theatre tradition of calling a character “fifth business” and Overskou—who really did exist—never wrote the quoted passage. I discovered this tidbit more than 30 years after reading it, all the while believing that the phrase was exactly what Davies had told me.
One of the recurring themes in Fifth Business is that “story truth” isn’t the same as “world truth”. Dunstan Ramsay ghost wrote the official autobiography of the great magician Magnus Eisengrim. Every word of the autobiography is a lie, including the claim that it is an autobiography. We poor readers are stuck in the bigger lie of Fifth Business and never get to read it. What’s worse, Fifth Business is also narrated by Ramsay, and we know that he’s a liar.
But hold your horses there, John. Fifth Business is a novel. It’s a big pack of lies. Aren’t writers little more than paid liars?
And magicians. Aren’t they paid liars too?
Let me deceive you to reveal a truth.
Earlier, I wrote briefly about Robert-Houdin, who elevated the performance of magic from a crowd-gathering spectacle for the purpose of sales to a fine entertainment for the wealthy. In what has probably become the most frequently repeated magical quotation of all time, Robert-Houdin wrote that the sleight of hand artist is not juggler; rather, he is an actor playing the role of magician. I tried to put the line in the context of Robert-Houdin’s culture and times.
As with any great line, this one has taken on a life of its own, and 20th and 21st century entertainers have struggled to make sense of it in our times. So let’s put aside whatever we think Robert-Houdin intended or however we think his 19th century audience interpreted his words. Let’s look at it using our modern notions of magician and actor to see where it takes us.
Modern actors are steeped in the tradition of “method acting”. Method actors attempt to “become” their portrayed character by training themselves to think like the character, to understand the character’s life before the story even began, to move, to act, to desire to aspire just as that character would. The method actor becomes as close to really being that character as possible. From the audience’s point of view, we stop watching the actor and begin seeing the character.
Watch some older movies and you can begin to see the contrast between pre-method-acting and method-acting. I love the jarring effect of The Maltese Falcon, where Humphrey Bogart looks and acts like we expect a modern character actor to look and act. Most of the rest of the cast, however, are “old school” and are declaiming their lines in an awkward and hammy fit of over-acting (to our eyes and ears, at least).
Built into modern stage and cinema is the modern audience. When we watch a play or a movie, we have come to expect that characters emerge in a certain way. A Victorian actor, no matter how magnificent, would be jarring, awkward and unbelievable to the modern audience. We do have a few “character actors” who play pretty much the same character in every role, and that’s simply a special case today. Successful theatre and film today rely on the coordination of acting (and directing) styles with audience expectations and understanding.
Now think of the modern magician. I don’t mean your friend who just learned a few tricks (and she might be great, BTW). I mean somebody in the big leagues. David Copperfield. Derren Brown. Criss Angel. Each of these magicians has a well-defined character. When they perform, we know the kind of person they are, the sorts of things they say, the kinds of powers they exhibit. Deep down, everybody knows that they really don’t have extra-human powers. But when you watch them, you let go for a moment. You see the Magician do the impossible. And you believe. At least for a moment. And this is what Robert-Houdin means to me in the 21st century.
None of these famous magicians are jugglers or finger-flickers. They are all capable; don’t kid yourself. But what makes them magical is that they are actors, they have created a sort of “magical reality” in which we watch their characters do things that only the magical can achieve. If we’re stubborn, the magic recedes and we’re left with puzzles. Good puzzles, but not psychologically satisfying ones. When we let go, when we believe in the character on stage, we experience the thrill of living in a world of real magic, where a real magician showed us powers beyond mere mortals.
Nineteenth century audiences watched 19th century acting and they experienced a kind of magic that is no longer available to us. We need to believe that the magical character has the power to bring us 21st century magic.
I’ll close with a clip from one of my favourite magical method actors—the inimitable Pop Haydn. Pop’s skills are undeniable. But it’s his acting the part of a magician (with all sorts of human character flaws) that really makes the act memorable.
Un prestidigitateur n’est point un jongleur; c’est un acteur jouant un rôle de magicien. — Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin
The great 19th century French conjuror Robert-Houdin (1805-1871) is widely credited for getting magic out of the streets and into the theatres of Europe and, ultimately, the rest of the world. Rather than manipulating objects to gather a crowd on the street—and then selling the crowd healing ointments or pomade or some such—Robert-Houdin donned the tailcoat of the noble and monied classes and filled the theatres with mystery and, of course, profit. (So great was Robert-Houdin’s reputation, that a young magician named Ehrich Weiss adopted the stage name Houdini both as a tribute and as a marketing ploy. In a sad twist of fame, Microsoft’s spell checker keeps trying to “correct” Houdin to Houdini.)
Now what about that quotation at the top of this post? “A (sleight of hand) magician is not a juggler; (s)he’s an actor playing the role of magician.” For magical insiders, this is probably the most often-quoted line in the magical literature, and we’re still fighting over what it means. As a practitioner of the art of deception, I find this state of affairs absolutely intoxicating. How could such a seemingly simple sentiment be so difficult to understand?
First, it’s rarely read in context. Robert-Houdin goes on to contrast the jongleur’s rapid hand movements—presumably a show of skill to impress the audience—with the prestidigitateur’s more subdued actions. The difference is clear: the former is making a display of skill to impress, while the latter is hiding his skill in order to deceive. The irony is that the word prestidigitation was introduced into French (and English and most European languages) from its Latin roots, meaning “fast finger movement”.
But there’ s more to the origin than just the banal observation that magicians are deceivers and not jugglers. It’s important to remember what differentiated acting from street performing in 19th century Europe. Actors were stars. Their names were known to all. They performed in the best theatres, they were well paid, and they were the company of nobility and the wealthy classes. Actors were not from these classes, to be sure; but acting offered the possibility of upward social mobility. Jongleurs, on the other hand, were common people, performing for common people and selling products to common people for modest compensation. Robert-Houdin saw a way upwards.
It is also important to remember that acting in the mid-19th century was nothing like it is today. If you could travel back in time to see drama before, say, the 1890s, you’d be shocked by what you saw. Method acting is a 20th century phenomenon. Today, actors become their roles. They try to create the illusion that you are watching the character, not the actor. Not so in the past. People went to see their favourite actors be themselves, not become characters. Actors did not change shape and history for their audiences; they declaimed lines loudly and deliberately. They were more like your favourite uncle telling a story over the dinner table than they were like the characters in the story.
Robert-Houdin saw the opportunity to be an actor in this sense. He could stand in front of a theatre audience and be the character Robert-Houdin. And this character was larger than life. He claimed to have power over man and beast, the civilized and the uncivilized. He could see without his eyes, he could master nature and make an orange tree grow and produce fruit on command, he could transform and handkerchief into butterflies. Robert-Houdin could stand centre stage and declaim his lines. And everyone knew exactly what to expect and how to enjoy it.
So what does all this have to do with The Power of Wonder? I’m getting there. But you’ll have to wait until my next post. Until then, here’s a teaser. By misunderstanding Robert-Houdin, the modern illusionist finds a powerful way to momentarily bend reality for the modern audience.
Two minutes on Facebook is all it takes to remind us of how gullible so many of us are. Fake news stories generate outrage. Church signs and protest placards are photoshopped to say outrageous (and sometimes outrageously funny) things. We have an appalling local phenomenon as I write this: somebody posted a picture of a thin puppy at a local pet store, claimed that the dog is malnourished and maltreated. Suddenly thousands of people are believing everything that is on Facebook. Even after the examining veterinarian provided a letter explaining that the dog is thin, but healthy and is being treated for a parasite, the indignant simply post that the veterinarian must be wrong. Worse yet, the public began entering the store and verbally abusing the staff. This isn’t open-mindedness; this is simple and vile dogmatism fed by willful gullibility. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I wrote the other day about the glories of being open to new experiences. When trying to understand or to know, it is important to be open-minded. What we currently believe might, indeed, turn out to be wrong. And in all kinds of situations, we aren’t open-minded in the sense that we are trying to gain knowledge by considering alternatives, we are being open to whatever the experience presents to us. I still believe this; today I want to temper openness and open-mindedness with a refusal to be gullible.
The big deal is an awareness of consequences. In many of my shows, I perform feats of “thought reading”. While you’re in the room with me, you’ll swear that I can tell what someone is thinking, that I can predict the future, that I can move physical objects with my mind. From the distance of a blog, it’s pretty easy to see that I’m a house hippo. It’s theatre. It’s entertainment. While I’m on stage and you’re psychologically engaged in the show all those things happen. Not only is it OK to let your mind go there; it’s great. It’s really great to be held in the great open space of wonder while the impossible occurs. But don’t go opening your wallet to everyone who gives you this experience. Pay for the ticket to get in, and don’t join the cult.
You see, in the theatre, the only thing that is at stake is your experience. And the stronger you can believe in the experience while it’s happening, the stronger your experience will be. You have nothing to lose, and a fantastically moving experience to gain.
But when someone posts a picture and accusation on line, there’s everything at stake. Someone can be hurt. The truth matters in the real world. In the safe and secluded psychological space of the magical arts, the truth is a barely noticed observer on the perimeter. In the physical world, the health of the dog and the care it’s getting is decisive; how we feel about it is only a matter for our own experience.
Enjoy the show. Love the world. Love it, guided by reason, by reasonableness and with a sense of fairness.
There were a number of lovely subtleties to the old X-Files TV program. For example, Fox Mulder lived in apartment number 42: nicely played X-Files writers! But the little bit of business I’m interested in today is the ever-present poster on the office wall. I want to believe.
I want to believe many things. That life is worth living. That experiences are worth having. That love and thought and life are meaningful, even if they are only temporary. But what are beliefs? I propose that beliefs are wonderful things that are simultaneously experiences and propositions.
Experiences are neither true nor false; they do not have what the logicians call “truth value”. Propositions have truth value, and they may or may not be meaningful. In the Power of Wonder blog, I’m not particularly interested in talking about truth (although I think truth is very important, and my writing is full of propositions that I believe to be true).
So what about this belief business? When I believe something, I’m doing two things. First I am holding a thought about the way things are. I believe that the red spot of Jupiter is a huge storm. I believe that I’m going to have fish for dinner. I believe that it is morally wrong to be wantonly cruel. These are all things that are either true or false. The red spot may or may not be a storm; I might have fish, but I might have something else; it could be that I am wrong about the morality of cruelty. I think I’m right about all these things; that’s why I believe them. But I might be deceived, or deluded, or simply mistaken. This is the thinking, the aware, the cautious part of belief.
But it’s the other part of belief that’s important to me today. Belief is also a psychological state. When I believe, I am experiencing something. Why would I be thinking about the Jupiter’s red spot? Because it’s interesting. Because it holds my imagination. Because thinking about Jupiter simultaneously reminds me of how small we are in this universe, and yet how we are—or can be if we put in the effort—connected to people, places, objects, ideas that are far away in space, time and reality.
Mulder wanted to believe because it would be awesome to live in a world that was visited by aliens. Mulder couldn’t believe because the proposition “aliens are visiting us” just didn’t have enough evidence for him to accept it as true. But he could believe if he just let go the proposition long enough to fully experience the belief. Mulder had moments of great joy when he stopped worrying about what is true, and allowed himself to live in the mental experience of belief.
When we experience magic, artfully performed, we get a taste of that experience. I know that the ball didn’t simply disintegrate, travel outside of space and time, and get itself under that cup. I know that nobody can really read minds. With the propositions front and centre, there is no magic; there is no worthwhile experience. But if I can let go of propositions, even for a few moments, I can experience Fox Mulder’s wide-eyed wonderment. I want to believe. At least for a few minutes.
Wonder and an open mind
Philosophers have taken an interest in open-mindedness in recent years, both for reasons that are interesting to me, but also that point me in a slightly different direction. In the literature, open-mindedness is seen as an important intellectual virtue. Open-mindedness, they say, is a useful state of being because it permits a thinker to consider possibilities, to challenge previously held beliefs, and to allow for careful weighing and adjudication of evidence.
I’m cool with all that. But it seems to me that this kind of thinking narrows us.
Can we be intellectually virtuous without making judgments? Without weighing alternatives? Without even caring about the truth? At least for a moment. And if we can, can we call it open-mindedness?
This is what I’m thinking. Open-mindedness is essential to the experience of wonder.
Wonder comes out of that white-light moment of not thinking. Wonder is the experience of not knowing what to think, of just hanging in between appearance and reality and not knowing. And being ok with not knowing.
Have you ever stared into deep space through a telescope? There are two different kinds of experiences in the same viewing. There’s the rational—what am I looking at?—experience. This is the science part. The curiosity part. Sometimes you count, sometimes you compare, sometimes you note colour. But then, sometimes it occurs to you that you are staring thousand of light years into space. And that means that you are looking thousands of years into the past. Suddenly the rational part of your mind cuts out.
I am looking thousands of years into the past. I still get a thrill every time it occurs to me. Thinking nearly stops. I am at once minuscule and insignificant, while simultaneously feeling touching my connection to the deepest tissues of reality. I am. Alive. In an incredible universe.
The wonder passes and my mind, wide open a few seconds ago, slowly narrows the opening and grasps rationality again.
I want to remember wonder. I want to live in wonder for greater amounts of time. Can wonder touch our lives, longer and more deeply? I wonder.