Terminology for Magicians

Part 2 - The Theory of Magic
Chapter 1 - Terminology

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To say that modern magic is dominated by confusion of ideas would scarcely be an overstatement of the case. As a natural consequence, the study of magic is too often conducted upon lines that demand a maximum expenditure of energy in obtaining a minimum of resultant benefit. The student is improperly occupied in a protracted attempt to evolve order out of chaos; endeavoring to straighten out for himself a path which should already have been made straight for him. Instead of being devoted to a definite and straightforward course of study, his mind is condemned to wander aimlessly among a multitude of apparently disconnected details, which are subject to no general laws, and are devoid of everything in the nature of system or order. Indeed, the chaotic state into which the technical side of magic has been allowed to drift leaves the student in much the same plight as that of an untrained boxer who is told to "go in and win."

To many people, indeed, it may come as a surprise to learn that any such thing as a theory of magic can possibly exist. The idea that magic is necessarily an exact science, capable of systematic treatment, seems lost to view as a rule. The commonly accepted notion is that the technical side of magic consists in a heterogeneous conglomeration of odds and ends; of isolated facts and dodges which are beyond correlation. This unsatisfactory state of affairs, of course, is but an obvious consequence of the disorder in which magical science has become involved, throughout its entire constitution.

There is, as we propose to show, no reason why magic should be subjected to this exceptional disadvantage. Its technicalities are no more heterogeneous than are those of physical sciences in general. The facts and principles it embodies are no less amenable to order than are analogous details included in other subjects. In short, the technical side of magic is readily capable of being systematized and coordinated upon a scientific basis, and accordingly reduced to the form of a complete and harmonious system, governed by rational theory.

The false conceptions that prevail in reference to magic are, we believe, largely due to the looseness of phraseology which, among other slipshod characteristics, has been fostered by performers and public alike. In other subjects, no doubt, there often exist matters which are doomed to popular misconception. But probably magic stands preeminent among subjects which are generally misunderstood. In most subjects, however, the theory has been amply investigated, the essential facts and principles have been clearly demonstrated, and the meanings of technical terms definitely prescribed. In magic, on the contrary, such matters have received but scant attention, with the result that chance and not system has governed its development and progress. Thus, we find the subject interwoven with ill-arranged ideas which, in turn, have given rise to a vagueness of definition, making confusion worse confounded.

Take, for example, the word "trick." Apart from magic, everybody knows its meaning. But when used in connection with things magical, the word "trick" becomes not only vague as to its definition, but also a most fertile source of misunderstanding and false judgment. Worst of all, the term is so dear to magical performers that they cherish it, in all its vagueness, as something even more precious and more deeply significant than "that blessed word Mesopotamia." It is made applicable to almost anything and everything relating to magic, apart from either rhyme or reason. The result naturally produced by such folly might readily be foreseen. The public has become educated in the belief that magic consists in the doing of "tricks," and in nothing beyond that (presumably) trivial end. At the same time, as we have already noted previously, there has arisen the habit of associating magical presentations with the appliances or accessories used therein, and of regarding as practically identical all experiments in which a certain accessory or form of procedure is adopted.

Now, it cannot be too clearly understood that magic does not solely consist in the doing of tricks; nor can it be too often impressed upon the public that the object of a magical performance is not the offering of puzzles for solution. But so long as magicians insist upon miscalling their feats by the name of "tricks," so long will the public insist upon regarding magic as being primarily intended to invite speculation upon "how it is done." Professor Hoffmann, the dean of magical writers, has expressed himself in no uncertain tone concerning the persistent misuse of this unfortunate work "trick." To him, the description of a magical feat or experiment as a "trick" is utterly abhorrent. He objects, as we do, to that misuse of the word. He prefers, as we do, the word "experiment." Clearly, in any magical presentation, the "trick" must be the means whereby a certain end is attained or promoted. It is the cause which produces a certain result, and cannot possibly be both means and end together. Therefore, to describe a magical experiment, feat, or presentation as a "trick," is a "terminological inexactitude" of the first order. It is an offense against good sense and artistic propriety, deserving the fullest condemnation. We ourselves are at times compelled to use the word in this illegitimate sense, because it has been incorporated in the titles of certain well known experiments. We do so, however, with extreme reluctance, and only under protest.

It is obvious that, before one can attempt a rational statement of any kind, all parties concerned must definitely understand the meaning attached to the terms in which that statement is to be made. Otherwise, it is impossible to convey accurate information. Hence, at the outset, our treatment of magical theory must embody a few remarks, by way of clearing up some of the misconceptions and slipshod vagaries associated with the terms employed. There is no need to deal categorically with the errors prevalent in this connection; nor, indeed, to do so much as enumerate them. It will be sufficient for us to set down the meanings which ought to be attached to the terms we use, and which are accordingly intended to be understood herein.

The first and most important definition, of course, is that of the term "magic" itself. In ancient times, the word implied the setting aside of natural laws, in some manner or other. But since the ancients had a very limited knowledge of the laws of nature-or, practically, no accurate knowledge whatever, concerning the forces by which the laws of nature are made manifest--"magic" was once a term used to denote the cause of any event or achievement beyond the explanation of popular intelligence. In much the same way, modern investigators of so-called "psychical" phenomena describe as supernormal any event for the occurrence of which physical science is not yet able to account. Nevertheless, we who live in the twentieth century are, or should be, aware that the laws of nature cannot possibly be contravened. They may be set in mutual opposition, but they cannot otherwise be overcome or defied. The forces of nature, humanly speaking, are incapable of either destruction or suspension. Therefore, at the present day the term "magic" must have a meaning very different from that assigned to it in bygone centuries. The only meaning it can now possess must relate to the apparent, not actual defiance of natural laws.

Modern magic, therefore, deals exclusively with the creation of mental impressions. We cannot perform real miracles, as everybody is well aware. We can only perform feats which look like miracles, because the means whereby they are performed have been skillfully screened from observation. Therefore, in order to define the nature of modern magic, we must find some formula that will represent the common foundation of all the apparently miraculous effects we produce. Since those effects are not really, but only apparently, due to miraculous processes, there is no difficulty in arriving at a satisfactory definition of the meaning now applicable to the word "magic." Here it is:-

Magic consists in creating, by misdirection of the senses, the mental impression of supernatural agency at work.

That, and that only, is what modern magic really is, and that meaning alone is now assignable to the term.

The modern magician does not deceive his spectators-that is to say, the legitimate magician. The modern charlatan, of course, has no more conscience than his predecessors. He will deceive anybody who will give him the chance, and he will try to deceive even those who don't; just to make sure of missing no possible opening for chicanery. He and the legitimate magician, however, are as far apart as the poles, in aim and procedure. A legitimate magician never deludes his audiences as to the character of his performance. He makes no claim to the possession of powers beyond the scope of physical science. Neither does he, while rejecting the suggestio falsi, substitute in its place the suppressio veri. That method is one frequently adopted by charlatans in magic. The latter gentry often refrain from committing themselves to any definite statement on the subject of their powers. In effect, they say to their spectators, "We leave you to decide upon the nature of our feats. If you can explain the methods we employ, you will know that what we do is not miraculous. If, on the other hand, you cannot explain our methods you will, of course, know that we have the power to work miracles."

Since the majority of people attending public performances cannot explain the simplest devices used in magic, it is scarcely likely that persons of such limited capability will arrive at any satisfactory explanation of processes involving even a moderate degree of complexity. Consequently, the mere reticence of the charlatan suffices to convince many people that "there is something in it." So there is, no doubt; but, usually, not much-certainly, nothing such as the innocent dupe conceives.

The distinguishing characteristic of a legitimate magician is his straightforwardness. He makes no false pretenses, either by suggestion, implication, or reticence. This present treatise of course, relates only to legitimate magic; and, therefore, our definition of the term is limited to misdirection of the senses, exclusively. We have nothing to do with fraudulent or semi-fraudulent deceptions of intelligence, as practiced by unscrupulous adventurers.

The misdirections of sense which constitute magic as a whole, may be divided into three groups, according to the nature of the processes upon which they are respectively based. Thus, magical processes are, in character, either Manipulative, Mental, or Physical. These groups represent the three technical orders of magic.

Each of these orders may be subdivided into various Classes or Types, according to the general nature of the principles they include.

Each Class or Type may, again, be subdivided into minor groups, according to the particular Principles or Methods respectively involved.

Each of these latter groups may be further subdivided into specific categories, in accordance with the particular tricks or devices in which the various principles or methods are utilized.

Lastly, we have the subdivision of classes into specific groups, determined by the nature of the results attained.

It would of course be possible to classify magical processes still further, in accordance with the objects used in connection with them, and other details of staging and procedure, but no useful purpose could be served by so doing. From the foregoing dissection of magic, we arrive at a number of definitions, as follows:

A magical Process is essentially a means for misdirection of the spectator's senses. It belongs to one of the three Orders of magic: Manipulative, Mental, or Physical.

The Type of a magical process implies the general character of the principles it embodies.

A magical Principle or Method is a basis upon which a number of tricks or devices may be founded.

A magical Trick or Device is an invention, by means of which a certain principle is utilized for the production of a given result.

A magical Effect is the final result, due to the use of a certain trick or tricks in combination.

A Feat of magic consists in the successful performance of a magical experiment-the accomplishment of a magician's intended purpose.

A magical Experiment consists in attempting the production of a magical effect--or, in other words, the attempted accomplishment of a feat of magic.

In accordance with these definitions any magical experiment may be traced to its origin or, at any rate, be assigned to its proper place in the general scheme. It must not, however, be imagined that a magical experiment is necessarily confined within the limits of one group, class, or order. On the contrary, it may embody a number of individual tricks or devices, each of which is referable to its own particular line of origin. This point will become increasingly evident as we proceed. Incidentally, it will serve to demonstrate the utter absurdity of describing a magical experiment as a "trick." Such experiments not only may, but usually do, include quite a number of tricks, entirely diverse in character. The combination of those tricks for the purpose of producing a certain effect constitutes an invention, which could be protected by law. The production of that particular result, by means of that combination of tricks, constitutes a magical feat. The presentation of that feat, with a view to producing an intended effect, constitutes a magical experiment. It is, beyond question, an experiment; because its success must depend upon the performer's ability, coupled with a fortuitous absence of adverse circumstances.

With this preamble, we may now proceed to the systematic dissection of magical theory, upon common-sense lines. We hope to show, presently, the foundations upon which modern magic is based, the manner in which the entire superstructure of magical achievement has been raised, the possibilities awaiting development at the hands of magicians, and also the directions in which future developments may most readily be brought about. We do not aim at the description of any and every magical feat ever performed. The existing literature of magic amply provides for the needs of those who seek to know "how it is done." Rather, we wish to aid originality by giving original explanations and suggesting original ideas.


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