The Illusion of Impossibility by Simon Aronson
By Joshua Jay - Wednesday, April 15, 2020
In this blog I share excerpts from Magic in Mind, a free magic book of essays all around magic theory. Simon Aronson, my dear friend and teacher, passed away in 2019, and so I’ve chosen to share his contribution in this third installment. It remains one of his shorter, but most enduring essays. “There is a world of difference between a spectator’s not knowing how something’s done versus his knowing that it can’t be done.” This simple, beautiful turn-of-phrase forms the foundation of Simon Aronson’s definition of magic—a definition that points to an ideal of deeply impossible material that the spectator completely understands but cannot comprehend.
The essence of magic is “doing the impossible.” The “doing” is accomplished by the performer, but the “impossible” must ultimately be supplied by the audience.
That one has witnessed the impossible is a conclusion, a judgment, a determination that must be reached by each spectator — and this requires the active participation of a spectator’s senses and his mind. A spectator must first be convinced that he is aware of all that has happened: that he has been attentive, that he’s followed everything, that nothing has escaped his notice.
That conviction will then be contrasted against the spectator’s awareness of the laws of nature and the laws of logic — laws which he “knows” like the back of his hand. The resulting dichotomy is the determination of impossibility: he knows what has just happened, and yet also knows that it cannot happen, that it defies the controlling laws that govern our world. And yet, you did it.
A magician’s paramount goal is to manipulate the spectator’s mind and senses to bring about this state of impossibility. You’ll deceive him in any way you can, but you must produce both components, or else the magic will be lost. If the spectator feels he’s missed something, or that you’re “quicker than his eye,” or that something was confusing, then he will not reach the certainty, the absolute conviction, that he knows what happened. Alternatively, even when he’s convinced that he’s carefully followed everything, if he thinks the subject matter is beyond his ken, that it’s susceptible of some kind of scientific explanation (even if he himself can’t articulate it) — indeed, if he believes there’s still any room for possible theorizing — he will not reach the conclusion of impossibility. The magician must affirmatively raise and destroy any hypothetical solution which the spectator might be likely to consider. The spectator must be actively engaged, so that his own mind and senses together eliminate even the possibility that — let alone any explanation of how — the effect could have taken place. There is a world of difference between a spectator’s not knowing how something’s done versus his knowing that it can’t be done.
The performance of magic today attempts to accomplish much: entertainment; the creation of beauty; the audience’s personal engagement and involvement; the creation of a memorable, unique persona or character; the display of skill, of artistry. All of these are laudable goals. They are certainly necessary if the art of magic is to survive in a competitive, demanding, fast-paced world. But they should not overpower or distract from the illusion of impossibility.
The art of magic is limitless. Our creations can be as clever as our intellect, as subtle as our imagination, and as devilish as our will to deceive. The feeling of impossibility is a fragile, ephemeral goal; when achieved, it is transitory, lasting only for an instant. But that sense of impossibility will long be remembered as a uniquely magical moment. It is an ideal for us to strive for in the creation of magical effects. To paraphrase the philosophers, “the impossible is as wonderful as it is rare.”
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