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Magic & Meaning by Eugene Burger and Robert E. Neale

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii April, 2005)


I have been a fan and friend of Eugene Burger's for more than a decade. The influences of his books, lectures, and performance—on both the culture of close-up magic on the whole, and my own theory and practice—have been substantial. I believe that those who truly desire to learn about the performance of closeup magic simply must turn to the work of Eugene Burger. Robert Neale also possesses a distinctive voice, demonstrated in his book Tricks of the Imagination, and recently in an excellent feature issue of Genii (September, 1994). Clearly these two men have much in common, not the least of which is their shared backgrounds in magic, philosophy, and theology. In this unusual volume, they combine these and other mutual interests to create a contemplative and provocative book, distinctly different from the vast bulk of conjuring literature.

What is this book about? The dustjacket leads with the rather sensational phrase, "In defense of real magic." Frankly, I wish I knew what the hell that is supposed to mean. Mr. Burger, in his introduction, gives us some rather more useful clues about the book's direction, in a series of questions which include, "What is magic? When did it begin? Why did it appear? What is the meaning of its symbolism? And how can theatrical magic and illusion best be presented before intelligent audiences as we move into the twenty- first century?"

The authors consider these and other questions—and while they answer some, they do far more "considering" than they do "answering"—in 14 chapters, eight by Mr. Neale, and the remainder by Mr. Burger. (One minor disappointment is the lack of even a single jointly written chapter. A conversation, an introduction or an epilogue— clarifying both the authors' points of agreement and disagreement—might have best emphasized the dynamic of these two voices, and would have been an appreciated addition.) The discussion roams from history and anthropology to psychology and philosphy, theater and literature, and even includes seven performance routines contributed by Mr. Neale.

Much of the book's most interesting and substantive content concerns the history and anthropology of "magic," including explorations by both authors of the origins of occult and religious magic in early and pre-historical human culture. These well-researched and imaginatively conceived chapters offer much that will be new to conjurors, and will perhaps cast serious doubts on some of the conventional but limited wisdom that has been previously offered by and to magicians. How relevant these historical ruminations may be—or even should be— to a contemporary performance of Matrix, remains an open question, one that readers must answer for themselves. Those who are most concerned with historical and even quasitheological questions will doubtless find this book of particular interest. So will those interested in the use of symbolism, in a broad sense, as fodder for the theatrical presentation of magic.

Despite Mr. Maven's comment in his introduction that "... the authors of this book do not seem to be particularly interested in anything practical," there is in fact much that is quite practical indeed. Mr. Neale's eminently practical card tricks notwithstanding, two of Mr. Burger's chapters serve good purpose here. In "Are Card Tricks Card Magic?", he examines this question, one that is quite appropriate for him considering that he makes the bulk of his professional living by doing just that, namely card tricks (or perhaps I should say, card magic). In "Meaning in Magic," Mr. Burger discusses the difference between the presentational strategies of "literal" versus "symbolic demonstration"—that is, bare descriptive patter versus metaphorical presentation—and how to turn one into the other. Here, Mr. Burger skips lightly away from the metaphysical sparks that he strikes elsewhere in these pages, pausing to douse potential fires with a soothing endorsement of more prosaic approaches to conjuring symbolism and presentation. He not only validates the place of literal demonstration in the presentation of closeup magic, but goes so far as to provide a baseball-themed alternative to the otherwise darkly cosmic and elegant presentation that Mr. Neale offers for his trick Sole Survivor.

Far be it for me to restrain Mr. Burger's apparently expansive view of how best to present magic. But I find myself at times confused and distracted from what I suspect is the book's main thesis by Mr. Burger's occasional forays into more vague and even mystic realms. Hence I find portions of his discussion of "the magical experience" to be problematic and even troubling at times. I must confess that the words "the magical experience," in the context in which Mr. Burger explores them, is the kind of language that slides through my brain and leaves no detectable residue, much like a fried egg on teflon. In his introduction, wherein we first come upon the phrase "conjuring and the magical worldview," Mr. Burger briefly acknowledges that "These are troublesome words and we must never forget that men and women have been tortured and killed because of them." Subsequently, in his chapter "The Magical Experience," he acknowledges that "... it is exceedingly difficult to state in detail what the magical worldview is. Perhaps a simple starting point is that... there is a mysterious interaction between what we have come to think of as unrelated elements of the universe." But the mistaken identification of such mysterious—and all too often nonexistent—interactions is precisely what leads people down the path to belief in astrology, faith-healing, and witchcraft, while the scientific method is a way of accurately identifying interactions and avoiding the often appealing but at times disastrous contusion between correlation and causality.

I also found myself guessing at times whether Mr. Burger was merely reporting on alternative worldviews, or in fact describing or even endorsing those of his own. When one speaks on behalf "non-rationality," for example, one had best spend some time clarifying the difference between non-rationality and irrationality, lest he be branded a proponent of the latter by a skeptic or embraced as a comrade by the mystic. Hence Mr. Burger may appear to be taking a passing slap at science—"and its offspring, technology"—in his comment that, "In the twentieth century, when the bitter effects of technology on the life and health of the planet have become apparent, for many people the idea of 'progress' has fallen under a cloud of suspicion." One wonders if he is offering a sincere reflection of his own Luddite inclinations, or merely an objective observation of contemporary anti-science cavils. Of course, it is quite possible that Mr. Burger is describing beliefs he does not personally embrace, or perhaps is merely expressing his own reservations about the potential drawbacks of a scientific and technological society that he substantially supports and enjoys. But one cannot deny that this book reaches us in the midst of a larger cultural context; a Zeitgeist rich with mushy New Age theosophy, reflexive science-bashing, and the ever-present passion for the irrational. In light of these undeniable (and to some of us, regrettable) conditions, and given references to "real magic," the "magical worldview," the fact of both authors' involvement in "Mystery School" and a dedication to Jeff McBride—the school's founder and a prominent icon in the "neo-gospel" (as Richard Robinson has wryly dubbed it) magic movement—the reader craves clarity lest confusion be left to reign. And when opportunities for such clarity are neglected—when the authors coyly flirt with muddying the lines between well-defined theatrical issues and issues of metaphysical belief—I fear that they imperil their more rational messages.

"Yes, I have paid more attention to the context than to the tricks. Go and do likewise. The magic of tricks lies in their context. "—Robert E. Neale, Magic and Meaning

Thus if Mr. Burger includes himself in his description of the cloud of progress-targeted suspicions of "many people," I would inquire whether his personal cloud extends to the tools of his book-writing, including his word processor, or, for that matter, his eyeglasses—technological progress that amounts to nothing less than applied science. And I would remind him that we would do well to highlight rather than muddy the distinctions between "belief and conjuring: the tortured and killed men and women he so briefly acknowledges did not suffer or die at hands of science, but rather at the hands of religion and mysticism.

Similarly, some may chafe at Mr. Burger's mention of James Randi, quoted as having written, "To mix our data input with childish notions of magic and fantasy is to cripple our perception of the world around us." Mr. Burger responds that "...we must ask ourselves whether there is a proper place for the nonrational, for fantasy and imagination, for intuition and wonder and magic in our lives—or whether, instead, these are but 'childish notions' that adults must put behind them." But this attack is a disingenuous one; Mr. Burger either deliberately takes Mr. Randi out of context, or else has deeply misunderstood the noted skeptic's concerns. Mr. Randi does not indicate in the selected quotation that "childish notions of magic and fantasy" have no appropriate place whatsoever in our lives. Rather, he is specifically addressing the need for critical thinking tools in assessing the truth of testable claims—a particular kind of definable truth. The noted science-promoter has spent most of his life as a professional magician, and I can personally attest to the fact that, like any good magician, he takes a childlike delight in experiencing and presenting the mysteries of magic. As a lover of science, and a skeptic myself, I feel genuine awe and wonder when I consider the annual 1,000 to 2,500 mile migration of the Monarch Butterfly, an insect whose brain is no larger than the period which marks the end of this sentence. I do not yet know how the butterfly manages this feat, but my confidence that the mystery is knowable does nothing to dilute my sense of wonder and delight at the fact of its existence—and neither, when it comes, will the explanation.

How is one to reconcile ephemeral meanderings about matters spiritual with the simplicity of Mr. Burger's discussion of card tricks, and the ringing clarity of Mr. Neale's card routines? What if anything does "the magical worldview" have to do with how "theatrical magic and illusion [can] best be presented before intelligent audiences as we move into the twenty-first century?" I think the overarching problem lies with the very use of the term "magic." The word itself can be extremely confusing, because common usage presents us with a schizophrenic set of definitions, ranging from "the supernatural" to "sleight of hand." Yet how can these things be the same? The fact is, they probably cannot— and while Mssrs. Burger and Neale have written a volume which includes valiant attempts to resolve these disparate meanings, there are those of us who would prefer to clarify and even separate the differences between them rather than confuse the issue further.

For me, "magic" is conjuring—that is, the demonstration of the impossible by deem of clearly natural means. The audience does not know the exact means, but they clearly do know that the means are ordinary. This is precisely what makes theatrical conjuring the uniquely intellectual and even moral art that it is. This is a definition and a performance context that is quite clear and unequivocal. (Jay Sankey once proposed that instead of "magician" we adopt the term "material fictionist;" an interesting but unfortunate example of the cure being worse than the disease.) Once the element of metaphysical belief—or even a confusion about such matters—is introduced to a magical performance, conjuring risks blurring into religion. This is the sort of confusion that some mentalists exploit, but it is a muddling of which I want no part. When an audience is confident that mentalism, along with bizarre, gospel or "neo-gospel" magic, is accomplished by means as clearly and intentionally deceptive as those of contemporary "magic"—in short, is deliberately "impossible", rather than "real"—then all such performances become as theatrically legitimate as those of modern conjuring. This is contrary to the conventional wisdom that mentalism thrives only in a context of what Mr. Burger calls, in his discussion of Bizarre Magick, "not knowing"—that is, "...to leave the audience in the state of not knowing for sure whether what they had just experienced was a clever illusion or reality." (And here again, one can only guess whether Mr. Burger endorses this approach, or has reverted to the role of dispassionate reporter.) In fact, this theory of the alleged advantages of deliberately cultivating confusion about whether the effects demonstrated are illusionary creations or putative supernatural abilities is a theory historically voiced far more often by mentalism's amateur writers rather than its professional performers—and may well be the fatal error that has prevented mentalism from achieving the widespread popularity that magic enjoys today.

Fortunately, the book is not overwhelmed by fog-bound mysticism. Much of the subject matter is presented clearly and even rationally. This is delightfully true where one might least expect it, for example in Mr. Neale's versions of "gospel magic," not a field noted for objective inquiry. Then again, practitioners of gospel magic may find themselves less than enchanted by Mr. Neale's subversive approach to this material, and indeed, those that are enchanted might be well advised to go back and read it again more carefully.

Mr. Neale has both a unique conceptual approach to magic and a clear talent for turning technically simple tricks into effective performance material. He employs clear thinking, a deep search for logical motivations for otherwise contrived procedures or plots, and genuinely creative presentations. His trick Sole Survivor is a sparkling example of these talents, providing a deliciously dark presentation and intelligent justifications for what in lesser hands would make for the most pedestrian of tricks. (Mr. Burger possesses similar abilities, but in this volume he seems to have given Mr. Neale his opportunity to shine, and Mr. Burger declines to present us with any of his own wonderful magic routines.) In his chapter "Matinee Magic," Mr. Neale considers, among other things, the reasons why the Sawing illusion is so compelling, and while he leaves many of the conclusions to the reader, implicit in this chapter is a strong critique of the theatrical trivialization of conjuring. His chapter on "Parable Magic" (which includes his take on gospel magic) manages to be entertainingly well-written, while simultaneously leaving the reader with more puzzles than solutions. His final chapter, "Many Magics," presents a highly theoretical analysis of magic—or more properly, "magics"—which represents the book's boldest attempts to resolve the above mentioned disparity between the many confusing and conflicting definitions of "magic."

It should be clear by now that this is a book that veers from the daring to the dreary, the laudable to the laughable—"the sublime and the goofy," in Mr. Maven's words—and back again. Have Mssrs. Neale and Burger provided the Holy Grail that will forever unite the various magics? No. But neither do they claim to have done so, and herein lie both similarities and differences between this volume and another recent thought- provoking and controversial work, Darwin Ortiz's Strong Magic. Like Mr. Ortiz, these authors present important questions that all magicians could do well to consider. They provide some, although by no means all, of the answers. But as I wrote of Strong Magic ( Genii , July 1994): The questions are for us all to consider. The answers are for each of us to discover.

Does this book speak to these points any better than some of the authors' own previous works? That may have more to do with the reader's personal tastes, and how an individual connects with this particular set of source material and examples. Thus for some this book may strike a resonant chord; for others, Mr. Burger's Haunted Deck or Mr. Neale's Endless Chain routine may serve as more enticing lures. Regardless, anything that serves to encourage and inspire magicians to expand beyond the story of the Magician vs the Gambler should probably be lauded. This book is yet another call for art in magic; more specifically, it is also a call for the injection of content via symbolism, along with one set of examples from which to draw. There are countless alternatives, if the specific tastes of these authors do not match with your own—as they often do not match with my personal tastes and philosophical bend. But your own bookshelves are likely filled with similar source material—everywhere but on the magic shelves! As a teacher and director, I have helped fishermen put fishing in their magic, golfers their golf, sons their fathers and lovers their loves. The mission is to put your life and experience, passions and point of view, into your magic—lest you become just another of the countless nameless, faceless wonders who have three pieces of rope, each a different length....

For those who take the time and effort to read and ponder this work, the result will likely differ substantially from the study of most other conjuring literature. Even though there are a few tricks included, you will not be running out the next day to try them on your family or coworkers, much less at the local magic meeting (the very prospect of the latter is probably too horrifying to even consider). In fact, you will be hard-pressed, I suspect, to gloss over this work in an evening and then remand it to a shelf. Rather—and much like any good literature or art—this book demands more than it offers, and answers less than it asks. What you get out of it will eventually depend far more on the effort you are willing to expend, rather than on the considerable efforts of the authors.

6" x 9" cloth hardcover, with three-color laminated dustwrapper; 189 pages; various illustrations, including line drawings; 1995; Published by Hermetic Press