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A Magician Speaks Out

August 8, 2008

Magic is an artform about which I know practically nothing. I've enjoyed reading about it in novels like Glen David Gold's Carter Beats the Devil, watching movies about it such as The Illusionist and experiencing magic shows on stage or TV, such as those by Penn and Teller and David Blaine.

One of the most lively evenings I've ever spent in the company of a magician was when I caught San Francisco performer Christian Cagigal's solo magic show, The Pandora Experiment at The Exit Theatre a while ago. (The latest iteration of the show is currently running at The Exit right now through August 16, in fact.)

A few days ago, I read a curious piece in The Boston Globe (via the ArtsJournal website) about the growing relationship between the seemingly disparate worlds of neuroscience and magic. Reporter Drake Bennett writes:

"In the past year, though, a few researchers have begun to realize that magic represents something more: a deep and untapped store of knowledge about the human mind. At a major conference last year in Las Vegas, in a scientific paper published last week and another due out this week, psychologists have argued that magicians, in their age-old quest for better ways to fool people, have been engaging in cutting-edge, if informal, research into how we see and comprehend the world around us. Just as studying the mechanisms of disease reveals the workings of our body's defenses, these psychologists believe that studying the ways a talented magician can short-circuit our perceptual system will allow us to better grasp how the system is put together."

I sent Cagigal a link to the story. Interestingly, he was not particularly impressed with what Bennett had to say, though he formulated a terrific response to the article which, with the author's permission having been granted, I would like to share.

First off all, the magician finds it odd that scientists are only now cottoning on to the idea that magicians might have important insights into human behavior: "Funny. Until this report, I never once thought that everything I've been doing since I was a kid wouldn't already be known to scientists. The first time I read an article on this subject, I thought to myself, 'You mean to say that 'they' never knew that?!'"

Cagigal also took issue with the article in a couple of illuminating ways. He objected to the sentence, "Stage magic, after all, isn't statecraft, but spectacle and entertainment." While acknowledging that the assertion has been very true over the past 150 years (with but a few rarely known exceptions) Cagigal thinks that it's time for magic to be seen in a new light. "I've been trying to fight this idea of magic in people's minds but I've got a long road ahead of me."

Cagigal took further umbrage at a quote from magician Raymond Teller (of Penn and Teller) which says: "The fundamental thing we do every day is ascertain what is reality, it's this diagnosis of what the signals coming into our eyes are supposed to mean. We say, 'That's a fence, I must not walk into it,' or, 'Is that a car coming around the corner? How much can I see of it? Oh, no, it's only a bicycle.'" About Teller's opinion, Cagigal has this to say: "What draws people to magic, Teller believes, is an appreciation of how slippery that seemingly simple diagnosis can be.'They realize,' Teller says in the story, 'that the best way to grasp the power of deception is to do it themselves.' I consider that middle statement to be a rather cynical point of view about magic. But, that is not surprising when you consider that we are talking about half of Penn and Teller. Their take has always been that of 'These are all phony tricks.' While that sentiment is still a important one to be aware of (that we are all being fooled at sometime or another) it's driven by a deep seeded skepticism that has more to do with personal beliefs and issues and less to do with why anybody is attracted to magic."

What I particularly love about Cagigal's response to the Boston Globe article is how he uses it as a jumping point to talk about his personal philosophies about magic. "Some of us get into magic because we want to make magic!" he writes. "We love magic and magical things and giving people a world of magic to live in. If this wasn't so important why would Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter be among the biggest movie franchises? And that's to say nothing of Dungeons and Dragons and the multitude of fantasy genre entertainment and toys and clothes and stuff!"

Rounding off his passionate discussion, Cagigal wrote about a lecture he attended given by Eugene Burger, a respected magician (albeit lesser known to the public.) During the lecture, someone asked Burger, "Why in our day and age of faster, better, cooler technology do we still like magic and magic shows? Why do still pay money to see magic?" Burger's answer, according to Cagigal, was simple: "Because the human heart cries out for magic."

"Lets face it, that's true," Cagigal says. "I can't really say why that's true. That point can be analyzed for hours. Folks like Penn and Teller don't seem to understand that. (Even though when Teller is left alone on stage to perform it's the most beautiful magical stuff ever created. But, those moments are rare. Usually, Penn's with him and it's tricks and cynicism all the time.)"

"The worst cynics and skeptics are magicians," says Cagigal by way of conclusion. "Funnily enough, I also think that cynics are nothing more than people who really want to believe in magic, they just don't want to be fooled."


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