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Neo-Magic Artistry by S. H. Sharpe

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii November, 2000)


Sam Sharpe's Neo-Magic is widely considered to be one of the best—and by some lights, the best—theory book in all the literature of conjuring. Yet you, Constant Reader, have probably not read it—and that may not be your fault, because it has been damnably difficult to obtain one of the mere 1,250 copies ever produced (many of which are no doubt lost entirely), consisting of 500 copies of the 1932 first addition and 750 copies of the 1946 second edition. When I finally located a copy of my own in the 1970s, I found the book arresting, challenging, inspiring, and occasionally puzzling. Now, so can you!

Todd Karr, a professional magician and journalist who came to know Sharpe personally late in his life (Sharpe died in 1992), has now reprinted the long unavailable treasure known as Neo-Magic in a lovely new edition, accompanied by reprints of Sharpe's Magical Artistry Series, published circa 1936 through 1938, consisting of the manuscripts entitled Conjured Up, Good Conjuring, and Great Magic.

S.H. "Sam" Sharpe spent most of his life in a small town in the English countryside, where he operated a poultry farm and apiary. Of delicate health throughout most of his life, he lived most robustly a life of the mind: reading, writing, and indulging a lifelong passion for magic. His magic-related literary output was prodigious, eventually producing more than a dozen books, hundreds of journal contributions, the English translation of Ponsin's Nouvelle Magic Blanche Dévoilée known as Ponsin on Conjuring, and even teaching himself German in order to translate (if somewhat inelegantly) what became Ottokar Fischer's IIV. Hofzinser Card Conjuring (e.g., J.N. Hofzinser Kartenkuenste).

Following in the path initially forged by Maskelyne and Devant's Our Magic, Sharpe argued throughout his life that magic was a fine art, and should be treated as such by its practitioners and audiences alike. He believed that a magician could have no greater aspiration than to evoke and instill a sense of wonder in his audience, that magicians should at all times attempt to portray the inexplicably super-natural rather than skillful jugglery, yet all the while present such abilities as theatrical fiction and declaim any paranormal ability, considering this a kind of low con artistry that sullied magic's purity. And finally, Sharpe believed that magic should be approached on a high intellectual plane, in an attempt to codify and deconstruct its myriad artistic, philosophical, and intellectual complexities.

Although Sharpe pursued these missions passionately and indeed prolifically, including the eventual publication in the 1980s of his substantial three-volume Secret Science series (Conjurers' Psychological Stmts. Conjurers' Hydraulic el, Pneumatic Secrets, and Conjurers' Mechanical Secrets), and while he continued the theoretical direction of Neo-Magic throughout the 1930s with his Magic Artistry series reprinted here, it is my opinion that he never presented his ideas better than in his seminal and original text, Neo-Magic.

When I first read Neo-Magic, I was captivated by its attempt to understand the art of conjuring through logical intellectual analysis. Thus it was mildly surprising to me when, in 1984, Sharpe's Words on Wonder was published including an introduction by then superstar magician/mystic Doug Henning. Not known for his rigor as a critical thinker, nevertheless Henning had clearly found something in Sharpe's work that was different from that which appealed to me. Indeed, it is interesting to see how strongly Sharpe's legacy has been embraced (if not temporarily appropriated) by what is today a far more visible segment of the conjuring community (than in the 1980s, that is) that explicitly embraces the spiritual and mystical side of conjuring's roots; Henning's 1984 introduction is reprinted here, along with a new essay about Sharpe's writings contributed by Jeff McBride, who briefly addresses both the practical and spiritual sides of Sharpe's influence and insights. (An introduction is also contributed by Vito Lupo.)

It is interesting to have now reread Neo-Magic more than 2() years after my first encounter with it. At that time I was still an amateur magician, deeply and simultaneously entrenched in the theoretical and technical literature of conjuring, trying to navigate my way through both. More than two decades have passed, much of which I have spent before paying audiences, which is bound to alter and adjust one's point of view in countless ways. Sharpe remained an amateur throughout his life—a critic, to use his term—and in suggesting that few magicians excel in more than one role during a life in conjuring, he would no doubt have allowed that in fact his primary role was as critic, and that his interests in amateur performance would certainly take a back seat to his role as theoretical commentator. Rereading the book now, I am still impressed and inspired by much of Sharpe's intellectual attack; I am also frequently distracted by opinions and ideas that clearly stem from his unarguably amateur status and point of view, in ways that I did not find as noticeable a couple of decades ago.

One learns in the new 18-page autobiography that begins this new volume that Sharpe was not only interested in classical philosophy but was also favorably inclined toward mysticism of a sort, being a fan, for example, of the famed spiritualist, H.P. Blavatsky, founder of the occult philosophical mish-mash known as Theosophy. Widely read, Sharpe's books are littered with quotations from Plato, Aristotle, Shaw, the Bhagavad-Gita, and most commonly, Shakespeare. The writing is unabashedly Edwardian—graced by all the charm that implies, and bogged down by a certain lack of worldliness that was an intimate part of the author's make-up. He was a rational thinker, to be sure—uncompromisingly opposed to conjurors laying any claim to paranormal ability, as he argues in his "preface to the third edition," written in 1988. He writes, "When the magician's end is to entertain or quicken the spirit through the medium of wonder, his art is social, but if he claims or implies supernatural power which enable him (or her) to accomplish results beyond the powers of ordinary mortals, for personal gain or glory, he is being anti-social." It is an interesting combination of philosophical tenets, when one considers for example that Sharpe apparently took Madame Blavatsky seriously, whom most reasonable commentators would admit surely trafficked in some degree of psychic fraud.

As I suppose any polemicist should (and I speak here with some experience), Sharpe stated his opinions unequivocally, leaving little room for alternate interpretations. This didacticism is not always obvious at first reading, because his attempts to define terms—the terms of magic and art, especially—are high-minded and lofty. But when he states flatly that "there must be a total absence of visible trickery and skill" in order for any conjurer to reach the highest pinnacles of his art, one must step back and ask if this is really true. It is a perfectly reasonable ideal to strive for—but it is not, I would suggest, the only ideal.

In fact, Sharpe was smitten with a plethora of such biases, repeatedly insisting that while it was perfectly understandable if one chose to use magic as a comedic form, one could never attain its highest ideals, because after all, comedy is always, by its very nature, trivial. Now, I do not for an instant agree with this boldly and repeatedly stated prejudice—I'll gladly take the high art of George Carlin's comedy over the low art of television soap opera drama—but if nothing else, it does serve to explain why comedies never win the Oscar for Best Picture, and why great comedy magic acts don't get as much respect as straight ones. Such is the nature of intellectual snobbery and prejudice.

On the other hand, Sharpe was egalitarian in his attempts to define fine art, including much of what some would call craft; properly (to my mind) ascribing to art any choice of personal taste that extended beyond mere function—such as the color or decorative form of a piece of furniture. Sharpe might well have agreed with my own view that most attempts to define "Art" with a capital "A" tend to get distracted by attempts to differentiate good art from bad art, a task as impossible as attempting to define pornography. Were it up to me, let us simply admit and agree that everything creative—that which does not serve a practical function—is art, and be done with it. Then we can swiftly move on to acknowledging that most art is simply bad, and we can perhaps spend the rest of our lives arguing about what we think is "good."

I point out what I consider to be these flaws not because I am no longer enamored of this book—in fact, I still am—but because my perspective has changed with experience and time, and because the book is in fact limited by the confirmed amateur and removed ivory tower status of its author: there is no real politick here, and one must adjust for the lack of it. Nevertheless, there is much wisdom to be found in these pages, and examples so abound that only a fragment can be cited. When Sharpe analyzes elements of art that include the "amusing, instructional, and inspiring," he offers much good advice for any serious artist to consider. His thoughtful conclusion: "The most desirable form of Art, it seems, is that of Amusement flavored with Inspiration and maybe a little Instruction, provided the latter will pass unnoticed by the majority; otherwise, they are likely to jump up and slay this amusing dragon for mingling advice with its entertaining capers." I'd find it difficult to argue with any of that; indeed, I'm inclined to cheer this point of view, as I wish it was more often reflected in the art—both conjuring and otherwise—that I encounter.

There is much to ponder when Sharpe attempts to classify conjurors, a section that fascinated me when I first came upon it. Sharpe states that conjurors fall into five categories, in essence (and abbreviated here): Originators; Inventors; Manufacturers; Executive Conjurers; and Critics. It will be immediately helpful here to add that he defines Executive Conjurors as those "who interpret before the public the work of the Originators," and he defines Critics as including "not only students and magical cognoscenti in general, but also every attentive member of the audience." He then adds (forebodingly, to some of us!) that "Though some conjurers may be classed in several categories, it is rare to find a man excelling in more than one." Later, in a section entitled "Conjured Up" (part one of Good Conjuring), Sharpe expands on his definition of "The Essence of Magic Criticism," a section I highly recommend to readers, authors, and even publishers, who may find themselves mystified by the monthly contents of this column.

Following fast on the heels of this segment is Sharpe's "Systematic Invention of Effects." Here he classifies most conjuring effects (not quite all, as he adds an additional category for certain "bio-magic" oddities) into six fundamental categories, including Productions, Disappearances, Transformations, Transpositions, Natural Science Laws Defied or Extended, and Mental Phenomena. I would go so far as to declare that this section comprises required reading for any practitioner who supposes to take conjuring seriously.

These categories may sound distantly familiar to you—and perhaps even reminiscent of Dariel Fitzkee's list of 19 basic effects in his book, The Trick Brain. Although Fitzkee's Magic by Misdirection (his greatest work, in my estimation, although apparently Sharpe disagreed) is an invaluable treatise on its named subject, I had long been beset by decidedly mixed feelings concerning The Trick Brain—that is, until I read Neo-Magic, whereupon it all became clear to me. Indeed, Fitzkee provides Sharpe's list in the opening pages of The Trick Brain, before embarking on his own adventure into systematic nomenclature. But clearly, obviously—irrefutably!—Fitzkee had been strongly influenced by Sharpe, just as Sharpe had been influenced by Our Magic, and while Fitzkee's system eventually drowns in its drearily mechanistic and arcane approach, Sharpe's comprehensive yet manageable take is practical and elegant. Upon my first reading of Sharpe, I realized that much of Fitzkee's best ideas had come from Sharpe—while most of his bad ideas were his own. (Interestingly, this volume closes with some brief comments, penned in 1989, which Sharpe offers concerning Fitzkee's trilogy. The phrase "damning with faint praise" comes to mind.)

Sharpe was like most of us very much a creature of his time. His magical expertise was forged in the crucible of a short list of books by authors to whom he repeatedly refers—Robert-Houdin, Hoffman, Devant, Hofzinser. These all represent abundantly worthy volumes, to be sure, and students unfortunately unfamiliar with first-hand knowledge of these indispensable texts may perhaps be inspired to investigate their timeless greatness further. But his tastes are also limited by the era, and it would be wise to reconsider all of his pronouncements in the light of the decades that have passed since they were first made. What he finds "revolting" would have excluded much of what we consider great magic of even two and three decades ago. He warns against advising students to create original presentations, yet the tendency to perform magic as written in books (and more recently demonstrated on video) has long served as one of the greatest obstacles to the advancement of magic as an art.

But before we dismiss too much of the book as being dated or provincial, read Sharpe's comments on exposure, that could not be more pertinent than in a time when we are beset and obsessed by the subject. Sharpe posits that "It is the simple tricks—by which I mean those which require little or no misdirection—which suffer through being exposed ... I doubt very much whether any harm would come of exposing sleight-of-hand effects ..." Here as elsewhere, Sharpe is a sufficiently apt student of the past to appear prescient about the future.

Sam Sharpe was a thoughtful, passionate, intellectual cheerleader for magic. He loved this art as his own, and brought to it a distinctly personal point of view, yet one that has and will undoubtedly continue to speak to countless practitioners who lay beyond Sharpe's small town home, and now even beyond his time. He strove to raise magic's consciousness, if you will—he even has a chapter heading entitled, "Wake Up, Magic!"—and he may shake you out of your complacency if you give him the opportunity. The examples of tricks and presentations in the later works are far less compelling or useful than the analytical content of Neo-Magic, but they do lend insight into what he imagined magic's greatest potential might be. Even given his some-times narrow tastes, toward the closing pages of this collected works, Sharpe opines that "... art is not always soothing and pleasant, for sometimes it makes people feel uncomfortable by showing them their frailties, or the grim side of reality, or how far short they themselves fall of human possibility. It urges them on to wider knowledge and higher ideals." Now who—and whose art—couldn't use a dose of such good medicine?

Neo-Magic Artistry • by S.H. Sharpe • 5" x 8" hardbound • 390 pages • lightly illustrated • 2000