Magic In Mind | A Definition of Magic

By Joshua Jay - Tuesday, March 31, 2020

This blog series will explore many intricate aspects of magic, but let’s start with the most basic question. What is magic? Magic means different things to different magicians. And the way you define magic will dictate the way you perform it.

Roberto Giobbi defines magic as, “the theatrical art of wonder obtained through complex means using natural science, psychology, drama, specific principles, and digital dexterity.”

Nevil Maskelyne defined it differently: “Magic consists in creating, by misdirection of the senses, the mental impression of supernatural agency at work.”

And Ferraris Folletto gave us this rather blunt definition: Magic is “the art of @#$%ing with people without seeming like you are.”

But for me, Charles Reynolds said it best: “Magic is the theatrical art of creating the illusion of impossibility in an entertaining way.”

The way you define magic will, more than anything else, affect the way you perform it.

Here’s the late, great Charles Reynolds on the way he defines magic:

On A Definition of Magic

By Charles Reynolds

“Magic is the theatrical art of creating the illusion of impossibility in an entertaining way.” —Charles Reynolds

Magic is one part of theatre. It is a show given for the entertainment of an audience. Bernard Beckerman (Chairman of the Department of English and Theatre Arts Program at Columbia University) has, in his illuminating book Theatrical Presentation, made the distinction between three basic types of shows:

  1. Shows of Glorification: parades, festivals, etc.
  2. Shows of Skill: circus, juggling, acrobatics, etc.
  3. Shows of Illusion: drama and magic

Drama and magic, the only two types of shows of illusion, have many things in common (such as “the willing suspension of disbelief,” which we will discuss later) but they approach them in quite different ways.

Every magic effect can be thought of as a combination of two types of story. The first of these is the tale of wonder: the fairy tale, the myth, the dream. Magic accepted on this level — as story-evoking amazement and astonishment — fills a human need. It satisfies the audience’s appetite for marvels, its deep-seated desire to believe in the miraculous and in a dreamlike world in which (to quote physicist Michael Faraday) “Nothing is too impossible to be true.”

Psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, in his stimulating book The Forgotten Language, discusses those elements which are stored in the subconscious mind as “the common origin of dreams, fairy tales, and myths,” and Carl Sagan in The Dragons of Eden quotes a fifth-century philosopher as saying that “Myths are things that never were but always are.” One could not find a better definition for the effects of magic.

This is, however, a second type of story that is told by every magic effect. It is more akin to the detective story, but instead of asking, “Whodunnit?” it asks, “How was it done?” Audiences can react to either of these elements in a magic performance or, more often, to both of them at the same time.

In a magic show, the impossible apparently becomes possible but the audience knows it is an illusion. The audience can either try to figure out how it is done or they can willingly suspend their disbelief and enjoy the illusion as entertainment. To the inveterate puzzle-solver, to whom a magic performance is a win-or-lose game in which the cleverness of the performer is pitted against the analytical ability of the viewer, this is sadly, a very tough idea to sell.

Robertson Davies, the celebrated Canadian novelist – whose Deptford Trilogy (Fifth Business, The Manticore, and World of Wonder) has a magician as one of its major characters – touched upon this in a lecture given in 1992:

What is magic? Is it not the production of effects for which there appear to be no causes? Behind all magic there is an explanation, but it is unwise to seek it too vigorously; there are lots of things in life which are more enjoyable when they are not completely understood. A good piece of magic is a work of art and should be respected as such; it is a flower, not an alarm clock, and if you pull it to pieces to find out what makes it work, you have destroyed it, and your own pleasure.

The true magical experience should be more about wonder than about wondering (a distinction pointed out to me by sociologist Marcello Truzzi). Magician Simon Aronson has astutely noted that, “There is a great difference between not knowing how something is done and knowing that it can’t be done.” It is only the second of these situations that satisfies the audience’s appetite for marvels — its deep-seated desire to believe in magic.

Many magicians consider their job to be the performing of “tricks” (albeit entertainingly) in order to deceive their audience. I believe that this attitude does more harm to magic than any other single factor.

The immortal Robert-Houdin defined a conjuror as “an actor playing the part of a magician,” and fundamental to the theatrical character of the magician is that he possesses magic powers. It is doubtful that there is any human being who would not like to have magic powers that could be commanded at will, so a theatrical performance which evokes those feelings can be a very powerful one.

The operative word here is “power,” because, from primitive man to audiences of today, the appeal of magic is intimately related to the subconscious desire to control the often intractable world in which we live. (This, incidentally, explains the strong appeal of magic to children of ages seven to adolescence, who are involved in solving the problems of power in their own lives.)

The “power” aspect of magic is also responsible for creating the major problem in successfully presenting it as entertainment to an audience. While everyone would like power, no one likes to have another person have power over them. If someone is “fooled” by a magical effect, it follows, all too logically, that they have been made a “fool” of and, even worse, that they are a “fool.” If they are amazed by a magic “trick,” it follows logically that they have been “tricked.” No one likes to be “tricked.” It is a demeaning experience. Let’s face it - deception has had bad press all the way back to the Garden of Eden.

But is magic really deception? I don’t think so. Instead of being deception, magic is the control of perception for the purpose of entertainment. For real deception to occur, it is essential that the audience not realize that they are being deceived. When a person plays the Three-Card Monte or the Shell Game, as soon as he realizes that he is being bamboozled by sleight-of-hand, the game is over (or should be).

The task of the magician is to make his audience enjoy the impossible because it is impossible, not because they believe it is true. If all art is, as Picasso asserted, “a lie that tells the truth,” then magic is not excluded. British author Martyn Bedford, in his provocative novel The Houdini Girl (1998), points out that the difference between the liar and the magician is that only the liar depends on being believed: “The magician merely conceals the method of his deception; for the liar, this is not enough - he must hide the very fact of it. Another essential difference: once the methodology - the trick, if you like - is exposed, magic ceases to be magical, while a lie remains a lie even after the liar is caught out.”

The initial problem of every magician, other than mastering his craft, is how to diffuse the puzzle aspect of the magical experience, or at least make use of it. There is no doubt that puzzles can be entertaining but only as a challenge to be solved; in magic, if the puzzle is solved, the magic ceases to exist. To treat magic as a contest in which the magician attempts to outwit the spectator is to totally sacrifice the emotional appeal of wonder to the strictly intellectual appeal of the puzzle.

It is, of course, futile to wish that the puzzle appeal of magic will simply go away. For most of the audience, it will not. The only answer is to bring the mythic (right brain) appeal of magic and the puzzle (left brain) appeal into some kind of balance, like the arrow and the bow, and out of this dialectical tension, to create a uniquely magical experience.

If, as the Greek philosopher Heraclitus told us some half a millennium before the birth of Christ, “Beauty and truth are to be found in the tension between opposites,” then perhaps this is where the magical experience is created: in the tension between heart and head, between emotion and intellect.

Good magic, like all art, is a celebration. It celebrates mystery and wonder and the irrefutable fact that we do not know all the answers and that often it is sufficient to simply know the questions. We do not, after all, have to solve the puzzles, and magic, in symbolic form, celebrates many of life’s puzzles such as birth (the rabbit from the hat) and death and possible resurrection (the lady sawed in half and restored again) that remain unsolved.

The good magician, who entertains through his personality and his presentation, presents seemingly impossible feats that (as the Reverend John Booth has pointed out) increase man’s respect for the mysteries of life. The purpose of the magician’s performance is, for a brief period, to reinvest life with a sense of mystery and wonder and strangeness. That is a great need and it is taken away from most of us at a very early age.

Jean Cocteau observed that “The theatre’s nobility is compounded of mystery.” To the degree that magic, a small but not insignificant part of the theatre, can embody that mystery, it will continue to speak to its audiences as it has for thousands of years.

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Reader comments:


Monday, 27 April 2020 09:25 AM - Reply to this comment

That's fantastic. It would be great if Josh can cite the actual sources of these pearls. Which article/ book did Charles Reynold's definition come from?

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