Lie There, My Art: Magic, Will, and Ego


The magic happens, but where does it come from?

In traditional stage magic, it comes from one place—the magician. The will of the magician, to be more precise. The beginning student magician is told that if s/he is going to enact the part of conjurer, then there must always be a moment during each effect when the magic is accounted for, when seemingly that will has  been exerted.

The Abracadabra, the hocus-pocus moment—when the magic happens—or so the magician would like you to think–represents the moment when the magician is exerting will. The plot is almost always this: something impossible is about to happen, and the will of the magician is what makes it happen. The magic moment is invoked and the magic occurs. The impossible conclusion is revealed.

Stephen Greenblatt has written a wonderful book about William Shakespeare, his life and his plays, and how each informed the other. The name of the book is Will in the World, and Greenblatt consciously uses the word Will in the same punny way that Will did. Humankind’s need to exert will is a constant theme in Shakespeare’s plays.

Whole worlds are created by will. Prospero, the magician from The Tempest manipulates a magical world, just as Will did, and all writers do. The power of creating a universe from one’s will is a heady potion indeed.

How does the magician get such power? Sometimes the power is not in the magician per se, but contained in the artifacts of the magician—the magic wand, the woofle dust, the incantation. But Shakespeare gives away the secret of the magic: when Prospero decides to be a magician no more, he puts down his magic staff, and utters the words, “Lie there, my art.”

“Lie there, my art.” I love the multiple meanings in that phrase. It is Prospero’s and Shakespeare’s secret: art is a lie. That is, a series of carefully planned and calculated lies. Harold Clurman, the influential stage director and critic, entitled his autobiography, “Lies Like Truth.”  The magic “as if.” Treat that cardboard tree “as if ” it were real. The imagination brought into play with the act of will.

There is a problem, however, with all this exercise of Will. The artist might become obnoxious and swell-headed. Fortunately, in a good play, the author’s personality and ego are subsumed by her or his characters. The audience does not have to deal directly with the willful artist.

In a magic show, however, the creative ego is not as easily hidden. After all, in the traditional magic show, the magician’s ego is often the point, plot, and theme of the show—“Look at what I can do. Look how strong my magical will is!”

This can be entertaining for a while, but it can also be highly irritating. Okay, you showed us once you can do the impossible, now what. Oh again? And again? And Again? Boring. How does the magic performer get out of the trap of constantly displaying, over and over, his or her naked will in the world?

When I first delved into magic more seriously as an adult, I was infatuated with the idea of what I then called “Accidental Magic.” My idea was this: I didn’t exactly do magic, but magic seemed to happen when I was around. Example (I never actually did this, I just thought it would be neat): I would just happen to be having a casual conversation in a restaurant with a friend. I steer the talk to asking him to name his favorite card. He does, and all of a sudden the music playing in the background has a lyric about that card. Or, I am at the beach with a friend and as we walk together along on the shore, he discovers a newspaper with the exact date of his birth. Well, I may have been infatuated with that idea, but it turns out magician Gerry Deutsch was doing this way before I had thought of it. He called it “Perverse Magic.” And he has since come up with literally dozens and dozens of such effects, the defining feature of which is that the magic is not caused by the magician’s will. Like Mickey Mouse in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, the magic is situated elsewhere, outside of the performer. The audience can’t get tired of the magician’s ego, because the magician makes no ego claims at all.

Here are a couple of Gerry Deutsch effects from the Genii Forum. The how-to is not really important. We will leave that as an exercise for the reader (I’ve always wanted to write that).

“I have a card selected and say it will come to the top and it’s not there — another card (say 4C) is there. I bury the 4C and try again but again the 4C is there. I spell the selected card but at the end it’s the 4C. Finally I say I’ll do the trick with the 4C and say it will go to my pocket but when I reach into my pocket it’s the selected card. I’m surprised and frustrated.”

And for outdoors: “You give out a cry of pain and look at your right foot as if that’s the cause of your pain. You pull your shoe off with your left hand and dump out a rock the size of a strawberry. The right hand then reaches into the same shoe and pulls out another rock, this one the length of a playing card . . .  You shake your head as you limp along.”

Little sketches of eccentric happenings.

No one’s Will or ego. Just whimsy and fantasy and lies.

The stuff that dreams are made on.

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