"The best general theory of magic we have yet in any literature" - Dr. Lawrence Hass
Robert Edward Neale is a teacher, minister, story-teller, magician, origamist, and trickster. He was born on June 23, 1929 in Mount Clemens, Michigan into a family of two parents and one older brother. His father was a lawyer and his mother was a family and community person. He began doing magic at age 10 after seeing Harlan Tarbell do the cut and restored rope and Eyeless Vision. He continued his interest in magic and performed through his teens, attending several Abbott’s Magic Get-Togethers.
During college and seminary he dropped his interest in magic but resumed it after seminary. At Amherst College he studied philosophy, philosophy of religion, and history of religion. At Union Theological Seminary his favorite teacher was the great German existentialist theologian, Paul Tillich.
Bob became an ordained United Church of Christ minister and after seminary served a congregation for three years in Vermont. Along the way Bob married and had three children. He returned to Union for doctorate work in psychology of religion and began teaching in 1962 as an instructor in the newly created department of Psychiatry and Religion. In 1964 he received his doctorate and became a professor at Union Theological Seminary.
Also in 1964 Bob’s brother was stricken with a debilitating five year terminal illness. Bob began to focus on death, dying and bereavement and worked one summer as a chaplain in a New York hospital. He was one of the first U. S. academicians to study the Hospice movement and spent a sabbatical as a chaplain at St. Christopher’s Hospice in England.
Back at Union Bob taught courses in depth psychology, group dynamics, history of healing, and play. He also began to explore such subjects as the psychology of deception, the paranormal, the occult, telepathy, hypnosis, and I Ching.
Bob’s experience with magic led him “to many conclusions about human nature, especially in relation to religion.” Bob is a Border-Crosser and trickster. Border crossers often can point out the assumptions that academic disciplines use to separate themselves from areas they don’t want to talk about (i.e. magic and religion) and are also “feared” sometimes because they see the foundational dogmatism in these disciplines.
After twenty-four years, in 1986, Bob retired early from teaching and became a free-lance writer, philosopher, and creator of magic and origami pieces. Bob attended the very first McBride Mystery School Conference in 1992. Since then he has served on the faculty of the McBride Magic & Mystery School in Las Vegas. In 2014 Bob was the recipient of a Special Fellowship from the Academy of Magical Arts in Hollywood (the Magic Castle). He currently makes his home in Vermont with his wife Gail.
Bob Neale is a phenomenologist. Phenomenology is the study of the subjective, literally meaning “as it appears to us.” It is interested in the broad study of perception, human experiences, and consciousness and is very closely related to existentialism.
Neale’s works draw upon insights from psychology, philosophy, theology, cultural anthropology, mythology, literature, and sociology. However, his primary interests is on the human experiences of play, imagination, magic, mystery, wonder, awe, enchantment, illusion, story-telling, meaning making, the spiritual, evil, suffering, and life and death. He has created a phenomenological/existential inspired psychological classification of magic- being, doing, and relating.
“Magic is 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 impossible effects of being, doing, and relating.”
(Essay on Magic, Robert E. Neale)
Symbolic power over life and death: This is Robert E. Neale’s overarching perspective on magic. His complete definition is in the above statement. This perspective includes his philosophical, theological, and psychological writings; especially his early works in philosophy and psychology of religion as well as his later works on origami and performance magic.
It also resonates with his friend, Eugene Burger who once said, “The enchantments of magic point beyond mere illusion to the Great Mystery of life, the eternal transformation of life, death and rebirth.” Most of the world religions have some notion of some kind of rebirth after death. Christianity, especially at the time of Lent and Easter, talks of resurrection while other religions have concepts of reincarnation and rebirth. The season of spring with the coming of nature’s new life reminds us of emphasis of rebirth, and new beginnings.
I, for one, in March 2021, am ready for a new beginning after all the isolation and anxiety we have been through this past year or so—the health and economic losses related to the pandemic (over 500,000 deaths), weather related suffering, racial injustice episodes, and the political and civic turmoil, unrest, and violence. All these experiences remind us of how fragile life can be. In the midst of all this we have been forced to face our mortality. The vaccines with the increases in vaccinations and others health measures that have led to the declines of Covid-19 cases and deaths are all signs of new beginnings.
In all Bob Neale’s writings there is a deep awareness of life in all of its beauty, ugliness, messiness, and absurdity as well as the ultimate awareness that “one day we all die.” Like Prospero, the magician in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, we all have to let go of our “magic” in order to step into the deeper mystery of life and death and what may beyond death (see Bob’s book, Breaking Our Magic Wands).
I conclude with these words from Bob’s book, Life and Death and Other Card Tricks. Writing about Albert Camus’ existential classic novel, The Plague, Bob says, “The novel is a chronicle of heroism. In the face of suffering and death we are to love, endure and heal. In a crisis of life and death, people may meet and grow to love each other. This is the hope and this is the ultimate reward. For Camus, there is meaning in this and there is no meaning greater than this.”
Bob continues by writing, “Death does prompt us to hold one another, to heal one another- and to create card tricks. In response to my brother, my dying friend, Camus and to the experience of death itself, my card trick ‘Sole Survivor’ came into being.”
May we, even as we do our card tricks, “meet and grow to love each other.”
Michael Smith, Co-Curator
Creating Illusions: The Magic of Robert E. Neale