Wednesday, July 4, 2012

A Tourist in the House of Magic

One of the best writers working in magic is also a working magician.  His name is Jamy Ian Swiss.  Mr. Swiss periodically reviews books for Genii magazine and, in their most recent issue, he reviewed "Fooling Houdini" by Alex Stone.

To provide some context, let me first share a post about Mr. Stone's book, including a video promo, as it was presented on

Now, let me share Mr. Swiss's review as posted on the Genii forum.  The review is posted as part of a discussion regarding the book, so you may have to scroll up to find it.  It was posted by Genii-in-Chief Richard Kaufman.

Finally, historian, magician, actor Ricky Jay wrote this review for the Wall Street Journal.

I started to write this blog in part because I was inspired by the work of Mr. Swiss and driven by the idea that I should write about something I know and which holds my interest.  I post this sequence about Mr. Stone's book because I wonder whether I am not guilty of the same kind of intellectual tourism.

There is no question but that it is fun to imagine oneself on the side of the angels when it comes to picking on a so-called outsider who imagines himself worthy of entry into one of magic's most prestigeous competitions and then publishes a book disclosing tricks and techniques.  It is, however, a form of looting, of saying "are too!" after the primary combatants have staked out their territory.

Truth to tell, I am not so sure where I stand when it comes to the disclosure of secrets.  I have made a point of not doing so in this blog because that was never the point.  I have also written elsewhere that being aware of techniques and methods makes watching the performances of true masters all the more impressive.  It is much the same as how having a visceral sense of what it takes to make a piece of wood do what you want can make you really appreciate the artistry of fine cabinetry.

Does that mean that all secrets to all magic tricks should be disclosed?

Absolutely not.

I don't think that disclosing trade secrets to inflate book sales or television ratings is by any means justified.  It would be like staging car accidents for the benefit of rubberneckers.  Having said that, I think that there was some merit in the rationalization used by Val Valentino in his role as the Masked Magician.  His position is that in disclosing techniques and methods he is hoping to push the art forward, to motivate magicians to create new effects and new methods.


Taken at face value, it would be tough to argue that any endeavor does not benefit from periodic self-examination and reinvention.

Magic will survive this dust-up just as it survived the publication  of earlier "exposes" such as "Great Magician's Tricks" in 1931 and "The Discoverie of Witchcraft" in 1584.

But there may be a bigger point missed in this conversation. 

As I have said before, in and of themselves, the technologies used by magicians to accomplish their effects are uninteresting.  Whereas one might imagine complex technologies employed to accomplish a particular effect, it is more often the case that it is unremarkable--more on the order of a bit of thread and a piece of wax than computers and lasers.  And this might explain why, once the secret is disclosed, the trick as a "trick" loses its appeal. 

While we may all be familiar with thread and wax and mirrors, we lack the skill and experience to combine these items in a way to create a magical effect.  Revealing the secret does not close the gap between magician and audience member, it makes it wider.  As Valentino says in the video, the "secret" of any magic trick is only one small part of the "magic."  In the same way, Mr. Jay writes in his review," that a performance is often the product of a collaboration between a variety of artists and technicians in addition to the performer, the "secret" is but one link in the supply chain that stretches from the conception to the performance of any effect.

Whether performed on a street corner or in a purpose-built venue, magic is a theatrical form where context, light, shadow, sound, choreography, form and textures combine to create the illusion. 

In the same issue of Genii wherein the Swiss review of Mr. Stone's book was published, there is an interview with Spanish magician Miguel Angel Gea.  Early on, he imagines a time when magic competitions such as the FISM contest that Mr. Stone entered will have only one category in which all performances will be judged:  theatricality.

"Fooling Houdini" is a title designed to attract the casual book buyer, but it is also a reference to an encounter between the renowned escapologist Houdini and the Canadian magician Dai Vernon.  Depending on the account, it is said that Houdini was boasting of his expertise with cards and how he began his career billing himself as "King of Cards."  Vernon, who made a lifelong study of card techniques, proceded to show Houdini an Ambitious Card effect that complete fooled the king seven times.

While the trick used to fool Houdini was not new, Vernon's approach, the unique way in which his skills as a performer meshed with his skills as a technician, made the effect into magic.  This is magic's biggest and only real secret.  You cannot pick up a pack of cards and go directly to magic's "Mount Olympus" expecting to be crowned King of Cards.  To expect otherwise is to truly engage in magical thinking.

No comments:

Post a Comment