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Trade of the Tricks: Inside the Magician's Craft

by Graham M. Jones
University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 2011
308 pp. Trade, $65:00; paper, $26.95
ISBN: 9780520270466; ISBN: 9780520270473.

Reviewed by Brian Reffin Smith

We are fooled no longer by magic, we suppose. We know that it is applied psychology. Unless we are extremely innocent, we look left when the magician would have us look right. We keep our eye on the ball even when apparently far more interesting action is happening in the hat. We know that we must, as quickly as we can during this performance, suspend, reverse, question and deconstruct our normal ways of looking at the world, at least if we are to have a hope of working out how he or she does it. But we almost never succeed. Even if we know for sure - we suppose - what… that at this moment, he is really doing that in the other hand, we still cannot see how it is done.

And so, despite our cunning, despite many magicians even playing with this, giving us meta-level or false distractions and signs, clues that are not clues but then again might be, even telling us not to be distracted…despite all this, we end up where and what we were before, lost and suckers.

Only once have I been able - I supposed - to work out in real time what was going on. It was on a TED video of a magician, who moved his hands over a person who couldn’t see the movements, and the person told us what the magician had done. I saw the performer rub his hands on his jacket just before, and assumed that there must be static electricity involved, making the participant’s skin tingle or hairs on her arms stand on end. Then - the so-and-so - the magician did it in a way that showed it could not possibly have been done like that, and I was curiously relieved.

There are several books, and numerous articles in the scientific and popular press, on how cognitive psychologists, not to mention the intelligence services, are learning from and collaborating with magicians, who have insights into our ways of making sense of the world that conventional investigators might not. This book does not address that issue directly, but rather returns to the craft, illuminated by a psychological and, especially, anthropological approach. And this is excellent, because surely we are, in ‘reality’, in so many areas of our lives, research and art, bouncing back and forth between the how and the what, the theory and the practice, always knowing we need both, always able to focus only on the one or the other, grooving round the circle or, better, spiral of deduction and induction, the old separation. The magician… ah! The magician knows this! The magician can multi-task! She has realised the alchemists’ dream, and reunited opposites in a sparkling flash of gold, or at least iron pyrites, fool’s gold. The inner becomes the outer, the male and female are (re-)united, heaven and earth are no longer rent asunder, that which was concealed is made visible whilst that which was in sight disappears and the rabbit was in the hat all along, except, no, it couldn’t have been. Or, to return to a recurrent theme of these reviews, perhaps not a rabbit in a hat but a cat in a box, you know which one I mean.

The Trade of the Tricks, subtitled ‘Inside the Magician’s craft’, involved its author living with the tribe, as some anthropologists insist one should. He apprenticed himself, met many magicians, did shows, and became a member of the Fédération Française des Artistes Prestidigitateurs, for almost the entire story is set in France, one of the main centres of old and ‘new’ magic, with sometimes firm support from the Ministère de la Culture.

The book is full of delights of the tricks, in many senses, of the magic artists. They cunningly steal, dissemble, hide, and flaunt their mysteries (how unlike other artists, not to mention scientists). They endlessly discuss magic, to the point of entirely ignoring performances to sit at the back manipulating coins or cards.

One of the ‘new’ magicians (though with a long working history) he discusses is Abdul Alafrez, whom I had the privilege of inviting a couple of times to the art school in which I taught in France where he stayed for hours helping the students in a makeshift but astoundingly effective magic workshop to partially disappear. He also uses computer programs, advanced technology of all kinds, and has worked with musicians, theatres, opera, scientists and artists: this book not only fascinatingly lays bare the craft, mores, sociology, anthropology and tendencies of magic; it also reminds us how magic, in numerous ways, can inform the whole gamut of fields in which Leonardo readers might be interested. It’s also quite funny.

Last Updated 3 June, 2012

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