Psychological Subtleties 3 by Banachek
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii January, 2010)
It is difficult to imagine that when the debut volume of Psychological Subtleties Banachek's first full-length book appeared a little more than a decade ago, the mentalism craze was only just getting up to speed. Barrie Richardson's Theater of the Mind was still in preparation; few if any of us had yet heard of Luke Jermay, whose 7 Deceptions was more than a year away (albeit his second book, but the one that served to introduce him to most of the mentalism community); The Mind and Magic of David Berglas was still several years away (Mr. Berglas contributes a Foreword to the book now at hand); and Derren Brown's debut television project was still a year off as well. Remember the world of mentalism then a hundred or so newly marketed peek wallets ago?
Psychological Subtleties (reviewed in June, 1999 Genii) was an attempt to gather in one substantive volume a variety of the kind of psychological methods that have long been part of the real work of mentalism, but which were generally to be found only in slivers and snippets of disparate information scattered amid the literature of mentalism trick descriptions, and passed along in the oral tradition of the field. Much of this kind of work was underground, not always by intention, but rather because it is difficult to describe, difficult to do, difficult to understand.
Thus while Psychological Subtleties was widely hailed as a breakthrough work, it was also provocative in certain respects, in that some of the material was considered too risky and unpredictable, even while other items were quickly adopted by pros and have since become standard tools in the arsenals of working mentalists. And, too, there was the book's introduction by Teller, which presented a point of view about the artistic and theatrical presentation of mentalism which, it's fair to say, represents an unpopular viewpoint among many of those same working pros.
By the time Psychological Subtleties 2 (reviewed in March, 2007 Genii/ was released in 2006, mentalism had exploded in short order; one prominent full-time pro swore to me that he had witnessed firsthand a birthday party clown doing "The Mother of All Book Tests."
While the first volume of what now comprises a trilogy was filled more with finesse, thoughts, ideas, tips, and touches—often what comprises the real work of performing magic and mentalism alike (and which added in some sense to the somewhat ephemeral nature of that volume) the sequel contained much more in the way of complete routines, including several drawn from Banachek's own current (then and now) working repertoire. As I commented in that review, "If I were to recommend these works to intermediate mentalists and I certainly would—I might suggest this second volume be studied first, since I think it might serve as a more readily grasped introduction to the concepts."
In the course of preparing that volume, the author apparently ended up gathering much more material from other contributors than he was able to use. And this accounts to some extent for the appearance of this third volume, which continues with the work of volume two, presenting contributions, elaborations, expansions, and routines from more than 27 of Banachek's friends, fans, and acolytes. Despite Banachek's longstanding relationship with James Randi and the skeptical movement a relationship which induces unease, confusion, or downright hostility in many mentalists his success as a thinker, creator, and performer of mentalism, as well as his palpable influence on the cur-rent state of mentalism, is unarguable.
And so Psychological Subtleties 3 (or PS 3 if you like) presents 15 chapters with more than 60 new or updated items. In the third chapter, "Subtle Verbal," Leanardo Silverio offers thoughts on the "Pre-Peek Spiel," allowing the performer to begin a reading before even touching the billet containing the information you intend to eventually reveal probably the single most important facet of effective billet work. In "Picture Perfect," Banachek offers a stage routine in which the mentalist asks spectators to guess details of a photo he recently had taken of himself with a friend, including the color of the performer's shirt, the color of the friend's eyes, the time on a clock included in the image, and even the friend's name. The performer than retrieves a photo from his pocket which he hands to the spectator, who confirms the accuracy of the first three details. When he turns the photo over, he reads aloud the correctly matched name of the spectator as well.
In a chapter of "Subtle Drawings," Banachek offers what he dubs the "Cheshire Cat Principle," in which the performer reveals subtle facets of a spectator's drawing, including her thought process and astonishing details about the image. This is the kind of tool that speaks to the essence not only of the Psychological Subtleties series, but of what in my estimation comprises the true difference between mental magic and mentalism, albeit a subject that is long on debate and short on resolution in mentalism circles.
While mental magic has often been thought to be defined by the presence of contrived or obvious props traditional marketed and mechanical versions of "Mental Epic" could well serve as the poster child for mental magic—I believe that the definition is more subtle. (Similarly,1 would dispute the claim that the use of playing cards amounts to an automatic categorization of mental magic.) Teller once commented to me, many years ago, that the reason mentalism is so boring is because it largely concerns itself with the revelation of proper nouns, "a job best left to museums." Considering this observation a step further, I would say that mental magic is the revelation of proper nouns, while mentalism is the revelation of thinking.
This difference accounts somewhat for the gulf of misunderstanding that often divides magicians and mentalists. The magician who owns a book test secretly learns the spectator's word and simply reveals it the proper noun approach. The mentalist reveals details of the spectator's thought process what she might be feeling, picturing, or otherwise imagining before eventually revealing the word itself, which is a finish to the effect, not the effect itself.
This makes mentalism not only more compelling but also far more deceptive, because even if a viewer theorizes that the performer has somehow gained knowledge about or control of the selection of a word or drawing or playing card, there is no apparent explanation for the performer's knowing what the spectator is actually thinking, even in the real-time instant of her thinking it, as she readily and visibly confirms on the stage.
Now I hasten to add that unlike many in the mentalism community, I make no value judgment per se about this difference. I think mental magic is perfectly acceptable and often highly effective in the context of a performance of magic. An excellent example is the infinite array of avail-able prediction effects, which are often extremely effective in the hands of a magician, but which generally suffer today if the attempt is made to present them as pure mentalism. This is due, among other reasons, to the fact that predictions generally lack the portrayal of any sort of mechanism, another facet that today often contributes significantly to the difference between mentalism and mental magic.
But I would also add that while mental magic may be appropriate and effective in a magic act, it can amount to unwitting incompetence in the hands of someone attempting mentalism. As I observed in an essay I contributed to Antinomy magazine (issue 2, 2005], in magic (or mentalism or illusions or any branch of our craft), the method is not the trick. The method is not the trick. Performers attempting mentalism who rely solely upon the raw muscle of the method a glimpse, a force, a gimmick are no different than illusionists who think all they need is a wedge base in order to amaze the masses, or magicians who think that the Egg Bag and Linking Rings and Zombie, among other examples. are tricks that rely entirely on a mechanism rather than far more significantly on manipulation and psychology.
And so I offer the preceding detour in order to further explain what the best work of Banachek's PS books often contain. Further into this latest volume, for example, Brad Henderson contributes an item along similar lines, with his "Animal Brain Game." In this, instead of revealing a letter in a spectator's word (as from a book test), Mr. Henderson asks the spectator that he think of any animal beginning with that letter. The mentalist then proceeds to describe and eventually name that animal, before returning to the further revelation of the thought-of word. This kind of spontaneous mental joy ride can really create the illusion of "mind-reading," as opposed to merely "object or word reading" that is, the mere revelation of proper nouns.
I have elected to describe precious few of the specific entries in Psychological Subtleties 3 because I think it is more important to try to capture the nature of the approach to the content; thus readers who have yet to purchase any volume of the PS trilogy might be better encouraged to appreciate it. For the same reason, specific contents will be of little importance to those who are already fans of these books, as they will already be lining up to get their copies without the need of further endorsement on my or any other's part. Although I have occasional quarrel with Banachek's boundless enthusiasm for his friends and colleagues (can anyone really be considered "the Dai Vernon of peeks and numbers?" Really?), the fact is that if you liked the first two volumes, you'll be delighted to add this third one to your collection. And if you have not yet familiarized yourself with the series, and you want to help yourself try to master the more demanding psychological elements of mental-ism, there are few manuals available that you will find as useful as these.