On Magic

Bro, do you even magic? Creative Commons License by Eschiupl

Bro, do you even magic?
Creative Commons License by Eschiupl

The writer Mark Twain once said that having mapped the Mississippi river, it had lost its magic. By knowing the geography so well that it was second nature, Mark Twain felt a certain magic had been taken away. The art of awe and unknowing can only exist in a world where we do not know what is going, “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” or the magician stacking the deck of cards. We are amazed, when the card is changed, the person is not sawed truly sawed in half, or disappears only to be found at the front of the audience. There’s a sense of shock, of newness, of unbelievable worlds suddenly fragmenting our perception of the very existence we so normally hold on to in order to order our starbucks coffees and cross when the light turns green. In a sense, it’s a form of mind expanding/breaking novelty. If we were to know the trick, we would not be blown away in the same way, because it would bring us back to the idea that the world had certain rules, the Mississippi was just a river, physics can’t be denied. In a way, knowing how a trick works is one of the most heartbreaking things we can think of. Mark Twain was disillusioned with the Mississippi, it had lost its novelty.

I imagine Twain is scowling at losing that Mississippi magic.

I imagine Twain is scowling at losing that Mississippi magic.

The artist, the performer, the illusionist, all have one thing in common, namely, they have given up that sense of being blown away by “the trick”. The paint stroked in a specific way creates that image of clouds, writing the great American novel is done with a particular gift to the written word, the creation of magic or the understanding of how it was done is foiled for the very person who will enchant everyone else. Is that an intrinsically negative thing? Working off Mark Twain’s response to the Mississippi, Robert M. Pirsig in Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance argues that while knowing the trick means that we lose something, it means we gain a new appreciation for the underlying way things work. When we learn a secret knowledge, become a particularly good dancer, or magician, we gain a deep respect and insight that is beautiful in the same way that washing your bowl is a movement of mindfulness in zen buddhism. Why else would people learn magic, if not to enjoy the mind blowing capabilities that are brought with the art of the performance? Knowing that you carry the capacity to temporarily obliterate peoples understanding, and arrive at a new one is fantastic. Yet, sometimes I still want the magic to be there.


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