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Entertaining deception

June 22, 2003|Crispin Sartwell | Crispin Sartwell is the author of "End of Story: Toward an Annihilation of Language and History." He teaches philosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

Shattering Illusions: Essays on the Ethics, History, and Presentation of Magic, Jamy Ian Swiss, Hermetic Books: 276 pp., $35

The reasons we are entertained by the performance of magic are a bit mysterious. "Magic," writes Jamy Ian Swiss, "has a great deal to do with deception: with how we are deceived in our lives, by others and by ourselves." Yet deception is dangerous in every arena from international relations to marriage. It is fundamental to power: to deceive people is to be in a superior position, a position to manipulate them. The art of conjuring and the figure of the conjurer have power in virtue of the artistry of their deceptions and, we might say, their honesty. In magic, duping people becomes explicitly a form of play and entertainment, which at once mitigates its threat and gives us unique opportunities for its ethical exploration.

As Swiss points out in this opinionated and absorbing set of essays, many of which first appeared in the magazine Genii, being deceived in most circumstances is anything but pleasurable. But the deceptions of stage and close-up magic are not supposed to stick; watching a magician, we are meant to know that there is a natural, mechanical explanation for every illusion. Indeed, magicians (Swiss, by all accounts an excellent card handler, among them) notoriously tend to be scientific rationalists. Houdini and James Randi forged careers exposing false claims of the paranormal; Martin Gardner brings to conjuring the precision and demand for proof of the mathematician; as Teller dematerializes from a box and appears elsewhere, Penn ridicules the very idea of a human soul.

Of course, part of the entertainment value can arise from pure glitz: scantily clad assistants and circus staging. Siegfried and Roy try to overwhelm you with costumes and props and albino tigers, while Lance Burton is in the habit of instantaneously producing and disappearing a Corvette, driving it around the stage between times. But at the heart of these entertainments is still the trick and its peculiar variety of wonder.

Indeed, on a recent trip to Las Vegas, I was puzzled by the Corvette, but I was overwhelmed by Burton's more modest and traditional dove productions and levitations. At one point he set a spherical birdcage spinning in midair, then put a hoop around its prime meridian and spun the hoop. Yow.

Magic itself is a cult with its ministers and acolytes and arcane knowledge, its lectures and conventions and freaks. You can't even find Swiss' book on; it's published by the aptly named Hermetic Press (try the Web site or your local magic shop) and essentially intended for a quasi-secret cadre of serious magicians who still guard even published secrets with some jealousy.

But there are no tricks or secrets in "Shattering Illusions," only meditations on the what and how of magic and the place of its pursuit in the life of the performer and the audience. Thus, in a world of boutique publishing that includes thousands of books of tricks, it joins a small group of volumes -- including Nevil Maskelyne and David Devant's "Our Magic" and Dariel Fitzkee's "Magic by Misdirection" -- that use magic as a lever into the human condition: perceptual, aesthetic and ethical.

Swiss insists that magic is an art form, on par with music, painting or literature, and that magic is not a mere skill, though certainly part of its effect derives from the impression that its performers give of uncanny facility. Swiss quotes fellow card man Darwin Ortiz: "I have found that if one wants to create the impression of great skill, it is advantageous actually to possess great skill."

A fundamental response to the skilled performance of a good trick has got to be "how did he do that?" But though the masters of the form elicit that question easily and often, they also, according to Swiss, "transcend the technique," use trickery to create art that moves us to wonder. Partly this is a result of using instruments soaked in history and significance, including wands, caskets, blades. Swiss points out that a deck of playing cards calls to mind "chance, fate, gambling, skill, fortunetelling, money, love, sex." But aside from this, magic can also possess lyricism, simplicity and profundity.

Swiss took to magic, by his own account, at a nerdy age 7. His father demonstrated the Color Vision Box, which rendered young Jamy speechless. But when his father revealed the mechanics, he writes, "I felt a stunning sense of disappointment -- the secret, far from being diabolically clever or inscrutably complex, was so simple as to be simple-minded." But that contrast between essential simplicity and mundaneness of means with rich or bewildering effect is the key to good work in many arts. I intend never to find out exactly what Lance Burton did with that cage.

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