A Question of Magic

One of my favorite movies is Funny Bones with Oliver Platt, who plays a character that desperately wants to be funny but isn’t. What’s worse, he’s living in the shadow of his famous comedian father, played by Jerry Lewis. In one scene, the father explains to his son, “There are two types of comedians, a funny bones comedian and a non-funny bones comedian. They’re both funny. One is funny, the other tells funny.”

I think there are magic bones magicians and non-magic bones magicians. Both can fool you and both are entertaining. One makes you say “how did you do that?” The other makes you say, “who the f#@k let you out of your bottle.”

This is an important distinction and has something to do with why magic is on my mind lately.

Asking “how did you do that?” is a common response to watching a magic trick. But when you’re watching a magic bones magician your initial response is not “how did you just trick me?” The most common initial response is disbelief, which actually means your very first response is to believe. You question your senses and even your sanity. You don’t wonder what the secret is or what is happening that you can’t see. You wonder when the seams at the corners of reality are going to be sewn back together.

When you watch people watching a magic bones magician, they do things like reaching out to the person next to them to steady themselves, or scream, or simply walk away. They almost always have a physical reaction, bending over, crouching, jumping, spinning, as if they need their body to help them absorb the force of the impact. One of the most innovative things about the street magic David Blaine filmed for TV in the 1990’s, beyond whittling the magician’s presenting premise and need to talk down to almost nothing, was to focus on these types of reaction.

If a magic bones magician is performing for a large audience, the applause comes slowly because people must remember themselves, where they are and the appropriate social response. They gasp; they look at their neighbor to see if their neighbor saw the same things and they wonder if they are dreaming, then they applaud.

The non-magic bones magician may be very skilled, a master technician, even a true sleight of hand artist and a talented entertainer. But almost everyone in his audience believes that if they knew the secrets, owned the proper accoutrements, and practiced; they could do the tricks too.

The magic bones magician makes you ashamed that you ever even owned that Mark Wilson magic set when you were seven and makes you vow never again to pull a quarter from a child’s ear.

When I was in high school I had the good fortune, by pure happenstance I think, to not only work at a magic shop but to meet, hear lectures from, and on occasion receive personal instruction from a group of magic bones magicians. You would not recognize any of their names. If you are a professional magician, you would recognize them all.

You know, I never recovered from that.

Good magicians (whether it is in their bones or not) walk a tight line of dynamic tension between your need and their own, your need for wonderment and their own need to travel secret passages that are near meaningless apart from the presence of those who do not know they exist. The fact that they are willing or actually desire to provide you with wonderment is what sets them apart from con artists. The fact that they have these secrets, some of them surprisingly profound in their wider implications, sets them apart from jugglers or acrobats or flamenco guitarists.

If there are tiers to these secret passages, and I believe there are…at Chilean miner depths, then I suppose I never saw more than a few top levels. But I have never forgotten what I saw there and the things I learned. Most of the time, I keep these things neatly tucked away and don’t think about them much. Maybe I even avoid them.

I generally stay out of magic shops, but if I should happen into one I am overwhelmed with the feeling of loss. It’s not really the feeling of personal loss; it’s a feeling of loss around the emptiness inside most magic shops. The secrets are not there. You can buy every trick in the place and learn them all and you will be a collection of paraphernalia and moves and people will ask you how you do it but no one will reach out for a shoulder to steady them when they watch. If you’re a magic bones magician in waiting, my guess is the first clue will be when you set aside the objects acquired from the magic shop and carry the principles you’ve learned to other things and other frames.

The feeling of loss I experience in magic shops is only personal to the extent that there is nothing in those places for me to recapture. Even if I decided to return to a proper study of magic, the things that I want to understand are not found in magic shops or on YouTube, and they most certainly don’t involve a deck of cards. Some of them are found in books, but only if you know how to read between the lines and past the last page. Still, I am a great fan of all sorts of magic, whether it comes from the bones or not, whether it is corny or stupefying, as long as it honors the places and people from which it came. And I appreciate anyone willing to walk that line of dynamic tension. I don’t care if you’re dressed like Fred Astaire in evening attire and putting together and pulling apart giant metal rings that serve no earthly purpose outside of a magic act, or if you’re dressed like a 1980’s glam rocker, I’ll watch if you’re willing to stand up and declare you’re a magician.

But my favorite magic is magic that happens along the way, magic with very little premise beyond circumstances that appear to be a part of going about our everyday lives. Years ago I was walking down the street with friends. I took the stir stick from one of their coffee cups and made it disappear right in front of their eyes. It vanished. It was as gone as gone can be. They all started cussing and looking around for the stir stick. That must have been eight years ago but those people still talk about it. They had never seen me do a magic trick before then and they have not seen me do one since. The satisfaction of that moment, when everything was right, was worth forgoing a manufactured repeat.

That trick was taught to me 30 years ago by a magic bones magician. That day was not the only time I had done the trick, but I really think it was the moment for which the trick was taught to me and, I have to admit, probably the only time the teaching was earned. I was disappointed to find the method, which to my mind is something like a haiku poem in its beauty and simplicity…even in its meter, described in a recently published book of magic, but that is how it goes. I’m sure it is not its first appearance in a book and I know it won’t be the last. For all their talk about keeping secrets, magicians love to write books and a stunning number have been published over the last 300 years. Despite this, very few secrets have taken up permanent residence in the public consciousness. I think the only real secret of magic that just about everyone believes they understand is the concept of misdirection.

The gap between what most people believe misdirection to be and what it is in all its fullness as used by magicians is part of the pact we (ye ol’ laypeople) make with the performers. We don’t want to know, we really don’t.

The 2006 movie, The Prestige, openly presents a great secret of magic as part of the narrative, indeed, as a completely overt theme within the movie. But it is easy to capture only the implications that float on the surface if you don’t ask the second and third questions and then ask those questions again outside the context of viewing the movie. But most of us won’t ask those questions outside the context of a given scene, let alone the context of the movie or while watching a magician in some other place and time. That is the gift, after all these years, which was given to me by my brief but very intense career in magic and by the magic bones magicians I met. I learned to ask another question. Then, ask another question. Then, ask another question. Long before the poet Rilke taught me to love the questions over the answers, I loved the wondering of how magic happened more than I loved the knowing. I think this is why I would always pick a magician’s biography or a magic history over a how-to book. One is full of questions and the other is all answers.

The one question I never ask is, “How did you do that?”

November 2010