Probably my favorite novel concerning magic and magicians is The Prestige by Christopher Priest. While the movie version of the book has its moments, overall it fails to capture the essence of the novel – winner of a World Fantasy award. The obsessive rivalry which propels the main characters is rendered in broad, sometimes clumsy strokes in the movie. Worse, for much of the movie a sympathetic character isn’t present, which isn’t the case in the book.
When the movie first came out it was a natural topic of discussion on the magic forums. What surprised me was how many people saw the film and would post something like this:
It seemed like a good movie, but then it got into all this science fiction stuff and lost me entirely. Just not realistic.
I remember sitting there reading such words thinking, Um, it’s a fantasy. A fantasy story, by nature, is going to contain elements that aren’t realistic.
I think what really bothered me is the definite anti-fantasy vibe I kept picking up on. Stop and consider that for a moment: Magicians, purveyors of magical fantasies, who don’t like fantasy. Ironic, huh?
I mean, maybe I’m making too much of it, but I can’t help but wonder what kind of magic a guy who dislikes fantasy might make. When I do magic, and I think most others are the same, it’s all about pretending. I invite the audience into a pretend world where the natural laws get thrown out the window and anything’s possible. The whole affair becomes a mutual exercise of the imagination – I’m pretending to do the impossible, and the audience is pretending I can. The underlying context is that if I’m able to so easily do the impossible then maybe reality’s broader than the audience might’ve first suspected; maybe they’ll even come away from the experience with a more open view of the universe and a fresh sense of appreciation of just how magical it really is.
Take away the imagination from the equation, take away the fantasy element, and what have you got? I’m going to show you a trick. That’s all it is, a trick. All it means is I have a secret bit of knowledge you aren’t aware of. Put another way, I’m clever and you can’t see what I’m doing. I’m fooling you. Isn’t that fun?
That’s not magic. It’s shit.
Without the compact with an audience in which the imagination is engaged and exercised, you’re left with pointless displays of subterfuge. I know how this works and you don’t. Forget about any kind of meaningful connection; forget about engaging them emotionally. The only engagement will be purely intellectual. Arguably this sort of intellectual engagement can be entertaining, provided the displayer is able to make what he’s displaying interesting. I mean, I don’t know much about holograms, but a good lecture about them with visual demonstrations would probably engage my attention. But it’s not magic. There is no deeper level, no larger meaning. It is what it is.
Could this apparent dearth of imagination be a result of the atheistic philosophy espoused by some in the magic community? I certainly think that’s a reasonable supposition. I simply cannot understand those so intent on demonstrating their superiority of reason that they would leave magic gasping in the dust. Listen, I see no problem with exposing a charlatan who’s bilking the gullible. But when you start insisting there’s no magic, that everything can be explained, that there’s no God – brother, you’ve crossed the line. You’re a magician, ranked slightly more favorably in the entertainment world than a freaking clown. For you to have the hubris to announce there’s no God is ridiculous almost beyond comprehension.
People hunger for mystery. They always have and they always will. Einstein said the most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. Magicians should be purveyors of the mysterious, not its rapists. It seems to me we can leave that task, when it needs to be done, to those more qualified and respected. And we certainly should never be such monumental assholes as to smugly dismiss anyone’s religious beliefs.
Take the imagination out of magic and you take the theater out of it. You’re left with a sterile demonstration of ability. You might as well be juggler or a clown. By removing the imagination from magic you’re removing its spirit.