"The best general theory of magic we have yet in any literature" - Dr. Lawrence Hass
"Bob Neale is my hero.... It astonishes me how he can transform even some of the darkest situations of the human condition into light, humor, and inspiration."
"Bob reminds us that there are many ways to experience and perform magic. Our job is not to believe or disbelieve, but to 'make' believe. When one enters into a relationship with magic in this mind-set, it opens up new possibilities."
"Robert E. Neale is a prolific creator of magic tricks and presentations, which are performed by magicians all over the world. He is also a leading philosopher of magic whose theoretical writings are helping performers better understand the work they do and expand its range to be more interesting, diverse, and meaningful."
"Robert Neale [gives us books] full of ways and means by which we can... more clearly see the real magic that exists in the world. Long live magic, long live Robert Neale."
"Reading Bob Neale's work is always an adventure. He tugs and pushes us beyond what we think we know and suddenly rearranges things in a completely unexpected way...."
"Bob Neale has a rare ability to create magic with an intellectual whimsy. The result is simultaneously provocative, profound, and just plain fun."
"Bob Neale is a wonder. How Neale manages to think of such things is a mystery hard to fathom."
"Bob Neale, one of the most creative thinkers on this planet, takes us into an Alice In Wonderland world where impossible things happen."
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“But it is not necessarily the case that the audience believes a miracle has happened. They probably know it’s a trick—and there is plenty of evidence that they know that—but who cares? It is the meaning of it that is important.” Robert E. Neale
Geoff Grimes and I have been attending the “Magic and Meaning Conference” in Las Vegas for a number of years. It is a small annual conference at the Mc Bride Magic & Mystery School. Through the years I have noticed the responses of both laypeople and magicians to the word “Meaning” attached to “Magic.”
People have no difficulty understanding that I am attending a magic conference in Las Vegas. But many people, including fellow magicians, are puzzled and curious about the word “Meaning.” The following are some of my observations and interpretations of people’s responses.
I’ve noticed that talking openly about “meaning” makes many of us somewhat uncomfortable. It seems to both repel us and attract us; we want to talk about, and we don’t want to talk about. If that is so—and I think it is—why is that so? For one thing, the term “meaning” is subjective, and some wonder if it denotes anything substantial. They often think it is hopelessly vague.
The definition of “meaning” as a noun is “what is meant by a word, text, concept, or action,” as in “The meaning of the word_____ is ____.” As an adjective it is “intended to communicate something that is not directly expressed,” as in “I see what you mean.” Once the question of meaning is asked, the answer never seems to be settled, like the child that keeps asking “why” after every explanation that a parent provides.
For others, meaning sounds grandiose and audacious. Our culture is uncomfortable with high-sounding abstractions like Truth, Reality, and Meaning. It can seem fanatical (religious?) to some and not very practical. We are more comfortable with how questions and not why questions. For some magicians the question of meaning is embarrassing because it is experienced as a challenge, as in “you ought to know” whether your magic presentations have meaning or not.
The question of meaning and magic was introduced to me by Eugene Burger and Robert Neale in their book, Magic and Meaning, 1995 and 2009. The first Magic and Meaning Conference was held in 2006. I first attended the Magic and Meaning Conference in 2014. The reason I continue to attend is because it raises the question of meaning as applied to the art of magic.
Eugene Burger asked over and over, “What does your magic mean to you?” and “What do you want from your magic?” There are many ways to ask and begin to answer this question. Do I perform magic to please myself? If so, what is it about performing that pleases me? And why? If I perform magic as light entertainment, what is my motive? Why magic and not some other variety art? If I perform magic because I see it as an art form that allows me to share something about myself with others, what and why do I want to share about myself? What fears keep me from sharing myself in my magic?
Notice that most of the above questions are “why” and “what” questions, not “how” questions. I believe the “why” and “what” questions are as important as the “how” questions of life. This is why I keep returning to the conference. The participants come from various backgrounds—the literary, performing, and visual arts, social and physical sciences, technology, religious and philosophical, and education—disciplines that often ask why and what questions.
Along the way we discover some answers—answers that help us push ourselves and our magic in new directions. For example, I’ve discovered that I want to use my magic to tell my personal and relational story and help others see that it is also their story. I’ve developed a 45 minute act for an adult “thinking” audience entitled “The Wizard of Us.” In it I explore themes of wonder and mystery in life, “the stuff as dreams are made of,” things are not always what they seem, gift giving and receiving, loving, caring and forgiving one another, the preciousness of our time, and hope in a broken world. I’ve picked strong classics of magic that are at the center of my skill set. With a “light touch” I present them with meanings that are universal to all of us.
So, I leave you with two brief but powerful questions. The first is from stage and film director Peter Brook’s book The Empty Space, “When a performance is over, what remains?” The second is Eugene’s question, “What does your magic mean?”
Note: In personal correspondence with me after reading the article below, Bob Neale wrote, “You are quite correct about the influence of Otto on me. What you wrote is a fine reminder to me about how important Otto was and remains for me. He provided me with a fundamental focus on the experience of the holy. It is so basic in so many different realms that I feel stimulated to freely explore them widely and also appreciate how our reactions to them can be supportive and/or destructive.”
“There has been at all times, and there still is to-day, a ‘natural’ magic, that is to say, modes of behavior exhibiting some simple analogy and carried out quite unreflectively and without any basis in theory, whose object is to influence and regulate an event in accordance with the wishes of the agent.” Rudolf Otto (1)
These words are from the 1917 book, The Idea of the Holy (Das Heilige) by Rudolf Otto. Otto (1889- 1937) was a German Lutheran phenomenological theologian and philosopher who is still regarded as a major influence in the science, philosophy, and history of religion, especially the psychology of religion. Otto is perhaps best known for his concept of the numinous, the profound emotional experience found in all religions that both attracts and awes and is felt to be other than ourselves. For Otto the numinous is the “non-rational, non-sensory experience or feeling whose primary and immediate object is outside the self.” Another major idea found in The Idea of the Holy is mysterium tremendum facinans, which is perhaps best summarized with the question, “What makes you tremble?”
For Otto magic is historically one of the earliest manifestations of the numinous. For him ‘natural’ magic is a preliminary to world religions but is still present in our modern culture. Otto used his observations at a bowling alley as an example of ‘natural’ magic. On pages 117 and 118 he says, “A bowler aims and plays his bowl, wishing it to run true and hit the jack. He watches eagerly as it rolls, nodding his head, his body bent sideways, stands balancing on one leg, jerks over violently to the other side as the critical point is reached, makes as though to push the ball on with hand or foot, gives a last jerk—and the end is reached. . . . . He was not simply imitating the course of the ball; he meant to prescribe and determine it, but obviously without any reflection on his queer behavior, without the belief of the primitive man in ‘universal animism,’ and without a belief in some sympathetic rapport between his own ‘soul’ power and the ‘soul’ of the ball. His action was merely naively analogical, for the attainment of a wish.”
The above observations and interpretation is one example of what Bob Neale refers to as “many magics.” Bob also refers to the examples from ordinary life experiences as “life magic” (2). In addition to Bob’s works other examples of life magic can be found in Life Magic: Ideas and Mysteries by Lawrence Hass, Ph.D. Hass, following Neale’s lead, says, “I believe there are many of these life magics—subtle spells rituals, illusion, and incantations that play an indispensable part of in a happy, healthy, and flourishing life” (3). These different expressions of life magic experiences can be a significant part of most organized religions’ rituals and worship experiences which can in turn be an entry into the numinous.
Otto believed that the various arts are one of the key ways the numinous can be expressed and experienced. He said that “In the arts nearly everywhere the most effective means of representing the numinous is ‘the sublime.’ He continued, “In great art the point is reached at which we may no longer speak of the ‘magical’, but rather are confronted with the numinous itself, with all its impelling motive power, transcending reason, expressed in sweeping lines and rhythm” (p. 67).
Doesn’t the above sound like what Bob is trying to say with backstage magic, the magic beyond the magic? I think so. Bob says in correspondence with Geoffrey Grimes, “Magic is so very vast and yet so very intimate.” Bob, in An Essay on Magic, quotes Otto as saying that “magic in an attempt to control the sacred" and that the holy is “a force that knows not stint or stay, which is urgent, active, compelling, and alive” (p. 111). Larry Hass, in personal correspondence, suggested that his main problem with Otto’s perspective is that he “assumes magic is a degraded form of the numinous- which is larger, richer, and more transcendent—rather than the numinous being one particular manifestation of magic. . . . This demotion magic is exceedingly common among philosophers, theologians, and the phenomenologists. But I suspect that it is their religious upbringing speaking more than anything else. The binary between magic and religion is as old as the hills.”
Two of the thinkers that Otto influenced were clinical psychologist, Paul Pruyser and existentialist theologian Paul Tillich. Pruyser and Tillich, both, in turn, had an influence on Bob Neale and his understanding of life magic.
Paul Pruyser (1916-1987) was a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst with the Menninger Foundation who focused on psychology of religion, especially the psychodynamics of religion. He was strongly influenced by Sigmund Freud, William James, D. W. Winnicott, and Rudolf Otto. Pruyser’s focus on rituals and on what he called his “Three Worlds” perspective (4) has had a profound impact on Neale. Elements of Neale’s metamagic can be found in all three of Pruyser’s worlds (autistic, illusionistic, and realistic), but especially in the illusionistic world. Bob cited these three worlds in four of his own books. (5)
Otto also had an impact on Paul Tillich (1886-1965), a Protestant German existential theologian and philosopher. During World War I Tillich read The Idea of the Holy and was very impressed with how the experience of the numinous conveyed Tillich’s concept of “depth of being.” According to Tillich, this book determined his method in philosophy of religion. In 1924 Tillich became an associate professor of theology at the University of Marburg where Rudolf Otto was the chair of the theology department. Otto remained at Marburg until his retirement in 1929.
In the 1950s Bob was first a student and then a faculty member at Union Theological Seminary in New York City where he taught psychology of religion. During Bob’s student days Tillich taught at Union. In personal correspondence with me about Tillich, Bob says, “I know that Tillich has a powerful and lasting influence on me, related to the theme of Ultimate Concern and the role of symbols in human life.” Bob’s friend, magician Eugene Burger (1939-2017), also a former divinity student, was also influenced by Tillich. They were both drawn to Tillich's "respect for the power of symbols and stories as transforming agents in human life." (6)
Later Tillich taught at Harvard University and the University of Chicago. Like Otto, Tillich was very interested in the arts, especially Expressionism. The meanings of the visual and performance arts for Tillich are not just to express subject or content but also to express the dimension of depth that shines through them. Hopefully our art form, the creation and performance of magic experiences, can also have some meaning shining through them.
I conclude with Otto’s own words about art and magic: “Beyond dispute art has a means of creating a unique impression—that of the magical—apart from and independent of reflection. Now the magical is nothing but a suppressed and dimmed form of the numinous, a crude form of it which great art purifies and ennobles (pp. 66-67).
(1)Otto, Rudolf. The Idea of the Holy. Translated by W. Harvey. (Oxford University Press, 1923), p. 117.
(2)Neale, Robert E. An Essay on Magic. (Theory and Art of Magic Press, 2015), pp. 50- 54.
(3)Hass, Lawrence, PhD. Life Magic: Ideas and Mysteries, (Theory and Art of Magic Press, 2018), pp. 28-32.
(4)Pruyser, Paul. The Play of the Imagination: Toward Psychoanalysis of Culture. (International Universities, Press, Inc., 1983) pp. 60-67; 163-168.
(5)The Magic Mirror (Hermetic Press, 2002), pp. 48-50.
Magic Matters,(Theory and Art of Magic Press, 2009), pp. 90-92.
The Magic of Celebrating Illusion (Theory and Art of Magic Press, 2013), pp. 101-109.
An Essay on Magic, (Theory and Art of Magic Press), pp. 126-132.
(6) Burger, Eugene and Robert E. Neale. Magic and Meaning Expanded (Heretic Press, 1995, 2009), p. xii.
“You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than a year of conversation.”
“Almost all creativity involves purposeful play.”
“In every real man a child is hidden that wants to play.”
I discovered these above quotes some years ago as I was studying and practicing “play therapy” as a part of my family therapy practice. Play therapy is a form of therapy for children who are ages 3 to 12 years old. Basically, play therapy uses play, the natural language of children, to help a therapist understand and help the child resolve emotional and developmental problems. Mr. Rogers once said, “Play gives children a chance to practice what they are learning.”
I often used magic in play therapy with older children to help enhance their social skills. It helped break the ice, create a relaxed, trusting relationship with me, encouraged interactions between us while passing the defenses of the child, as well creating a sense of enchantment. Magic effects also became powerful metaphors for life experiences. Magic helps a child to learn to tell a story, enhance self-esteem, get positive attention and make a connection with others, develop patience and self-control, problem solve, develop creative and critical thinking skills, and develop hobbies.
Now, this is the heart of what I want to say. Magic is our play. Look at the above list again. Aren’t we story- tellers with our magic? Don’t we enhance our self-esteem when we perform? Hopefully, we get positive attention and make connections with our audiences. Get the idea? We all need play in our lives. Unfortunately, in our culture “play” is not as valued as “work.” How many young people are discouraged from pursuing the “arts” because “you have to make a living?” Even the arts remind us that to make a living we have to become “commercial.” Of course, there is the need to make a living (and some of us do so with magic), but the arts, play and recreation are very important. In fact, doesn’t recreation literally mean “re-create?” Imagination (make-believe) and creativity often come when we are “playing around” with an idea, experience or object. Make-believe theatrical productions are called “plays.” George Bernard Shaw reminds us that “we don’t stop playing because we grow old . . . . we grow old because we stop playing.”
I first encountered the thinking about play from Bob Neale in the early 1970s when I came across his very first book, In Praise of Play: Toward a Psychology of Religion (1969). Bob, an ordained minister, was at that time Professor of Psychiatry and Religion at Union Seminary in New York City. The book, which was first his PhD dissertation, is an exploration of the psychology of play. In the second half he argues that healthy play can be a way for a mature religion “to prompt the celebration of every aspect of our life.” He believes that “each of us has had some glimpses of the vision of play, and if we can sort out and develop the elements of play, the Age of Leisure might indeed dwell among us.” In his 2015 book An Essay on Magic Bob has a long chapter (chapter two) on play in which he defines magic as “the performance exercise of imaginative mastery that grants symbolic power over life and death by means of ritual control over change in the artful play of the impossible effects of being, doing, and relating.” His short definition is “magic is play with mastery” (p.120). Play is those illusionistic experiences that fall between our dreaming and working worlds. It relies on fantasy, adventurous thinking, imagination, symbols, and creativeness.
To summarize and end this discussion let me use the words of Larry Hass when he says, “. . . magic is play. It is the very activity children do with such selfless zest and which as adults we often forget amidst the reality pressures of out day. Magic is play—and a wonderful, high form of play at that.”