Modern magic and the meaning of life

August 06, 2011

A wonderfully long and just barely behind-the-scenes dissection of the history of illusion and its masters, and of what magic, at its core, really is and how it succeeds.

[M]agicians know that learning the method is only the beginning of doing the trick. What they call "the real work" isn't the method, which anyone can learn from a book... but the whole of the handling and timing and theatrics of the effect, which are passed along from magician to magician and from generation to generation. The real work is the complete activity, the accumulated practice, the total summing up of tradition and ideas. The real work is what makes a magic effect magical. [...]

[Jamy Ian Swiss, one of the best sleight-of-hand artists ever,] arrived at the idea that magic was, in his words, "an experiment in empathy"--a contest of minds, in which the magician dominates by a superior grasp of the way minds work. The spectator is not a dupe who gets fooled but a rational actor who gets outreasoned.

Relatedly, just last weekend I saw Penn & Teller (who are discussed some in the article) at the Rio in Vegas. The show was, predictably, incredible. Every five minutes I was turning to Sarah with my hands thrown into the air, mouthing "How the hell?!"

The show ended with me feeling better, and dumber, than when it began.

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