Nietzsche's Wille Zur Mustache, 1875
Near the end of the nineteenth century, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously declared, “God is dead.” This statement was not simply an assertion of his personal atheism, but a broader historical judgment about the capacity of modern man —his gender bias, not mine — to believe in the supernatural: the humanism and science that had emerged during the Renaissance and Enlightenment had rendered him unable to maintain the faith of his ancient and medieval ancestors; by then modern man had discovered too many principles of the natural world to place his trust any longer in myths that contravened them. The challenge for post-Enlightenment humans, Nietzsche argued, would be seizing the opportunity to create meaning for themselves in the absence of a deity that might have provided it for them.
Nietzsche made this argument after Newton, Maxwell, and Darwin. In the twentieth century that followed Nietzsche’s death, Einstein’s relativity, then quantum mechanics, and the Big Bang theory would further expand our view of the universe and shrink our religious faith. The Information Age inaugurated by computing, the internet, and mobile technologies has spread our knowledge of the cosmos to a much wider number and diversity of earthlings.
Most recently, we have begun exploring “in here” with the same fervor and precision pointed “out there” during the last century. An explosion of new research in neuroscience is dispensing with long-held superstitions about our own minds, giving us new insights into our perceptions, emotional responses, and reasoning.
fMRI brain scan.
With all of this advancement in the sciences, and the retreat of supernatural beliefs wherever the science is allowed to penetrate, we might guess that one ancient practice should be waning as well: magic. Yet, conjuring of all sorts, from sleight-of-hand tricks on the street to grand illusions on stage, seems to enjoy more popularity than ever.
The increasing rationality and scientific sophistication of people living in the developed world, strangely, might be responsible for magic’s growth. Pre-scientific people responded to magicians with some delight, but often with a greater measure of fear; here was a rare person who seemed to possess an extraordinary understanding of the mysterious forces of nature and therefore great power. For this reason, ancient people either gave magicians privileged places in society or drove them away.
Reasonable, scientifically informed people likely experience magic in the opposite proportion. For an instant, we feel the same instinctive fear, but then the rational portions of our minds take over, calm us, and begin considering how the trick might be achieved by clever, though entirely natural means. Rather than spoiling a magic act, our scientific outlook doubles the delight by engaging these two brain systems. In this way, magic has left behind the exclusivity and severity of the ancient and medieval periods and entered the rational, scientific, and democratic traditions of recent human history. Modern people can treat magic as harmless entertainment.
Zan Zig performing, 1899.
Magic has become the subject of many movies and television programs, of course. The least interesting, for me, are works of fiction that look backward to our superstitious past: the magician’s performance defies all natural explanations; he or she really possesses special powers! Most of these productions belong to the horror and fantasy genres. A few, aimed at younger audiences, play as supernatural comedies.
Instead, I recommend below a few non-fiction films and tv shows that explore the art and science of magic as well as the magic of art and science.
First is Penn &Teller: Fool Us, airing Mondays at 8:00pm EST on the CW network and streaming on its home site. Originally a British program, but now broadcast from Las Vegas, Fool Us invites magicians from around the the world to perform one brief routine before a live audience that includes the world famous magic duo. At the end of each routine, which regularly amazes the general audience, Penn and Teller quietly conference with one another, sometimes jotting notes or drawing diagrams on a notepad, then carefully suggest to the magician waiting onstage the solution to his or her trick without revealing its mechanics entirely. A magician who manages to baffle the expert hosts hosts receives a garish trophy with the capital letters “F-U” and an invitation to perform again as part of Penn & Teller’s regular Las Vegas show. At the end of each episode, the hosts perform performing a trick of their own. Fool Us may be the best of all the short-run shows filling the television networks’ summer schedules.
Next is Tim’s Vermeer (2013), directed by Teller with appearances by Penn. Tim Jenison is a mutual friend and self-described geek who has made a career in computer generated graphics. He is also a great admirer of the seventeenth century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, renowned for levels of detail and precision in his work that that seem almost beyond human ability. Taking his lead from contemporary British artist David Hockney, who has shaken art historians by arguing that Renaissance painters used early optical instruments to create their masterpieces, Tim begins speculating that Vermeer too achieved the spectacular look of his paintings with mechanical assistance. To test this hypothesis, Tim sets out to reproduce a Vermeer by himself, without any experience in painting, and relying instead on a carefully positioned mirror. The results are simply magical. Tim’s Vermeer is available on DVD from Netflix and instantly on Amazon and iTunes.
Ricky Jay operates on the same level of practice and scholarship as Penn & Teller. Film fans and tv addicts may recognize him from more than thirty years of supporting roles on large and small screens, often in crime stories. Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay (2012), however, is a biographical documentary about his mastery of the magician’s craft, especially sleight-of-hand card tricks. Like so many other artists, Jay’s career begins with feelings of not fitting into the larger society, benefits from an obsessive-compulsive mind, and, even as a celebrity performer at the height of his powers, remains mostly a matter of ordinary, ceaseless labor. Here are important lessons for those considering a life in any creative field. Deceptive Practice is available instantly from Netflix, Amazon, and iTunes.
Next is another biographical documentary, An Honest Liar (2015). Fleeing from a loveless childhood, James “the Amazing” Randi followed in the footsteps of his hero Harry Houdini and became an escape artist. He gained national attention from appearances on televised variety and talk shows in the 1960s and ‘70s with feats that, in some magicians’ estimations, exceeded the masters’ powers, until age and injuries compelled him to retire. At the same time, faith healers and New Age gurus began using television to capture new audiences and their money. Randi, disgusted by these charlatans, dedicated his talents to exposing them. As a consummate magician, though, he did so by fooling them and their followers first, raising ethical concerns for some outside observers. All the while, Randi maintained a personal secret of his own. An Honest Liar is available instantly from Netflix, Amazon, and iTunes.
Finally, for those interested in further reading, I recommend my friend Graham Jones’ book Trade of the Tricks: Inside the Magician’s Craft (University of California Press, 2011). Dr. Jones, Professor of Linguistic Anthropology at MIT, spent months in the company of practicing magicians, from street performers to stage illusionists, primarily in the city of Paris, France.To gain their acceptance, he picked up some fundamental skills himself.
The result is a careful study and enjoyable read about the personalities, relationships, and transmission of information within their subculture. Like the movies above, Trade of the Tricks demonstrates that the all-too-human mechanics of the magic arts, parsed by the scientific method, are more life-affirming and wonderful than the genuine superstitions of the ancient past.