“The Real Work” by Adam Gopnik
Card picked: 2♣ – A Wild Card!
From: The New Yorker, March 17, 2008
For today’s wild card pick, I went to my Pocket queue to browse. Alas, I’m still a little hungover from last weekend’s readathon, and none of the short stories I’d bookmarked caught my attention. Instead, I landed on an essay I had come across in the past, but not had the time to read. It was, not surprisingly, an essay about magic and magicians. Adam Gopnik catches a slice of the magic scene in 2008—about a decade after David Blaine came to prominence as a sort of anti-magic magician—but also explores the eternal question of what is the “real work” in regards to magic as an art.
Gopnik’s main subject is close-up magician and historian Jamy Ian Swiss. Swiss is obviously an advocate for the more traditional aspects of magic, but with a deep understanding that magic isn’t just technique. After all, with magic, technique should be completely invisible. Instead, it’s the magician’s job to engage the audience in agreed upon deception.
Gopnik summarizes Swiss’s philosophy:
Magic is imagination working together with dexterity to persuade experience how limited its experience really is, the heart working with the fingers to remind the head how little it knows.
In contrast, David Blaine dosen’t want magic that looks real. Instead, he states:
“What I want are real things that feel like magic.”
Obviously, these two approaches to magic are quite different, but share much of the same space in the eyes of an audience. Both have a historical pedigree, with Dai Vernon being the patron of Swiss’s effortless sleight of hand, and Houdini the progenitor of Blaine’s death-defying derring-do. The focus though is firmly on Swiss though with perhaps the question of whether the older philosophies of magic might be on the way out, or at least in danger of being destructively appropriated.
Way back when I was first starting to get interested in magic, I had the opportunity to see Jamy Ian Swiss perform and lecture about deception at ASU. And it’s online!