Old tricks appeal in a high-tech age

The sweet mystery of magic is charming audiences, readers

November 05, 2006|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Sun staff

Magic is hot, but not in the way it once was. A few centuries ago, being a great magician might have gotten you burned at the stake. Today, it might land you a permanent gig in Las Vegas.

For proof of magic's resurgent popularity, look no further than your local cineplex, where a magic-based movie, The Prestige, has been topping the box office charts. That follows on the heels of another successful magic movie, The Illusionist.

And those films come after years of our culture creating superstars of magicians like David Copperfield, David Hemmings and Penn and Teller. And then there is the phenomenal appeal of novels about a youngster growing up in a magical world, Harry Potter.

FOR THE RECORD - In an article in the Ideas section Nov. 5 about the history of magic -- "Old tricks appeal in a high-tech age" -- magician Doug Henning was misidentified.
The Sun regrets the errors.

Odd, isn't it, that in this day when we can send space probes to the outer edges of the solar system and map the human genome that we would still be so astounded by those who can make us think we see something that we don't?

For Johns Hopkins English professor Simon During, the relationship that a civilization has to magic says something profound about its culture. He made his case in the 2002 book Modern Enchantments: The Cultural Power of Secular Magic.

"My thesis is that a kind of shift happens when magic stops being connected to religion," says During, a New Zealand native. "Magic had been treated as something that showed an illegitimate relationship to the supernatural.

"But, beginning in the17th and 18th century, when it stops being seen as something from the devil, something dangerous and bad, it becomes available to be fictionalized," he says.

When a culture can look at magic, be amazed and charmed by it, but know that it is not real, something profound happens. "That relationship of a culture to fiction - movies, novels, magic shows - is only possible when magic stops having its great connection to religion," During says.

His argument is that you cannot have a make-believe world until you acknowledge that there is such a thing as make-believe, until you realize that magicians, like novelists and moviemakers, are creating illusions, not revealing another form of reality.

In his book, During traces magic back to the earliest days of recorded history. Early in the Judeo-Christian tradition, there was an attempt to make a distinction between miracles and magic - one the work of God, the other of the devil.

Church leaders dismissed claims that when Moses threw his staff on the ground and it turned into a serpent, he was merely performing a magic trick. At the same time, they banned those who practiced magic. Such people were sorcerers and witches, those who were hanged or drowned or burned or imprisoned, laws that remained enforced up until about 1800.

"Religion still has a problem with magic," During says, pointing to denunciation of the Harry Potter books by some church leaders. "That sort of stuff lingers." But so, for many, does that uneasy separation between miracles and magic.

"Some evangelical religions, then and now, obviously still use these forms of magic," he says. "But the big established churches are all afraid of magic. They would want to say that there are real miracles, but would be down on people claiming to have any sort of supernatural power. Still, there is always a slippery line there."

In some cultures, belief in the constant presence of the supernatural remains widespread. There are those who see, for instance, lightning strikes not as random acts of nature, but as the conscious work of witches. They seek out those who are to blame and kill or banish them.

During notes that European powers who had come to terms with magic used this understanding when colonizing nations, hiring magicians to woo the indigenous crowds. "There was a real history of this," he says. "The French certainly did it in Algeria, where it took on anti-Islamic tones."

The bottom line for During is that until a culture comes to grips with magic, it will not be able to embrace modernity. The ability of a culture to create works of fiction and to recognize them as such is a part of that process. And, at its base, that is what a magic trick is, a work of fiction, making you believe something happened that didn't.

Freed of its religious trappings, magic became the most powerful form of entertainment. In a very real way, magic formed the foundation of what grew into the modern entertainment industry.

"In the period between about 1860 and 1920, magicians were huge stars," During says. "They were making more money than anyone else, more than movie stars."

Houdini, who named himself after the 19th-century French magician Robert-Houdin, was the biggest of these stars, but he was not the conventional magician, creating the appearance of something that wasn't really there.

Houdini's escape-from-certain-doom acts often used illusions, but that was not all they were.

"Most of his were daredevil acts, done in real time," During says. "They weren't completely illusions, as some involved real skills, though Houdini did do magic."

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