"Thinking About Magic"


Lawrence Hass

MAGIC Magazine, September 2007

Greetings! Welcome to the first installment of “magic class”!

What’s this? Magic class? Don’t worry: there are no exams, and the homework is optional. However, what there will be in these pages for the next year are ideas and insights that I hope will enrich your thinking about magic and enhance your practice of the art.

Let me introduce myself: I am a philosophy professor who specializes in aesthetics and phenomenology, and I have been teaching college-level courses on magic performance and theory at Muhlenberg College for nearly ten years. I teach these courses as part of the ongoing symposium I direct there, The Theory and Art of Magic [see “Majoring in Magic,” MAGIC Magazine, February 2007].

Since 1999, Muhlenberg has hosted the world’s greatest performers, teachers, and philosophers of magic — people such as Eugene Burger, René Lavand, Max Maven, Jeff McBride, Juan Tamariz, and Teller, among many others. I can tell you from long experience, as both a teacher of magic and a student of these masters, that thinking about magic has the power to bring more enjoy­ment to one’s experience of the art and more success to one’s performances.

I understand that this may sound strange. How could thinking bring about better magic? Isn’t magic primarily something we do and the less thinking, the better? Doesn’t thinking too much diminish the enjoyment of things?

My answer to these rather natural ques­tions is that it all depends upon the kind of thinking that we do. One familiar way of thinking about things is to analyze them. That is, to try and understand something by break­ing it down into parts: “The tip of your right first finger goes on the outer left corner of the deck,” etc. While analytic thinking can be use­ful, for example in learning a new sleight or in science class, it also has an obvious limitation: to dissect something into parts is precisely to not grasp how it works as a dynamic whole.

Another way of thinking about things is to make generalizations, to make sweeping claims or rules that leave the bothersome details behind. For instance: “Never do a trick with a double lift!” The problem here, however, is that attention to details and making reason­able distinctions is essential to carrying out complex actions in the world. Thus generaliza­tions and rules often feel divorced from life as we know it; they tend to feel abstract.

Dissecting analysis and sweeping abstraction: these are two familiar ways of thinking about things, yet each of them has a distinct, even distasteful limitation. When magicians are suspicious or dismis­sive about thinking too much or magic theory, I suspect they have one of these two notions of thinking in mind. And given the limitations, I can’t say I blame them.

However, these are not the only ways to think about magic and they are not the way I plan for these pages. Indeed, if the word theory has become too loaded with negative associations for magicians, I would suggest we use the term practical theo­ry for the kind of thinking I have in mind. For me, practical theory is nothing highfalutin’ or fancy, nothing abstract. It is not about rules, but tools. That is, it is about creating and explor­ing concepts, plain old good ideas, that have the potential to enrich the things we do, in this case, our magical practices and performance.

On my model of thinking — practical the­ory — there is no dichotomy between thinking and enjoyment, between theory and practice; the two of them work together to yield more success in the things we do. In this approach, I am inspired by Aristotle, who tells us that we must be like archers in our activities: we can’t possibly hit the target unless we first grasp, through thoughtful attention, what the target is.

To see an example of this thoughtful ap­proach to magic, consider Arturo Ascanio’s idea of an “in-transit action” [The Magic of Ascanio 1]. Ascanio uses this term to refer to an action that is done “on the way” to a final action, for example, picking up the cards in order to dis­play their faces. Ascanio’s breakthrough idea, his “practical concept,” is that an audience pays less attention to actions “on the way” than to a final action; thus, he says, sleights should be performed in-transit, “on the off-beat.”

What a fantastic idea! And when we use this practical concept as a target, we can cre­ate a performance that is more seamless, one in which the sleight of hand is far more invis­ible. I was privileged to see Arturo perform, and this concept truly works in practice — he used it to create routines of great beau­ty and power. And so too, can we.

Practical theory, practical concepts, plain old good ideas to be applied to our work as magicians: that is what this column will try to offer every month. I believe that this kind of thinking about magic has the power to transform your practices in positive ways.

When you come back to magic class next month, we will explore a few of Tommy Wonder’s groundbreaking ideas. In the mean­time, as your optional homework, consider if there is a trick in your repertoire that can be strengthened by shifting one of the secret ma­nipulations to an in-transit action. Then try it! I think you will like the results.