"The best general theory of magic we have yet in any literature" - Dr. Lawrence Hass
"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.
(This essay was first published in October 2021 issue of The Linking Ring Magazine, the official magazine of the International Brotherhood of Magicians, pages 18-23. It is shared here by permission, lightly revised by the author for presentation here.)
In June of this year, Robert E. Neale—“Bob” to one and all—became ninety-two years young. That he is still actively creating his distinctive magic is simply one more amazing thing in his life of amazing things.
As Bob’s close friend, publisher, and elaborator, I have been thinking of 2021 as the “Year of Bob.” In January, I released his latest book, Magic Inside Out. In March, I offered an online course through the McBride Magic & Mystery School where forty of us did a “Deep Study” of Bob’s magic and philosophy of magic. And it is now my pleasure to write this essay and share two of Bob’s unpublished magic routines.
Starting Out and Crossing Borders
Born near Detroit in1929, Bob Neale’s first magician was no less than Harlan Tarbell. Bob distinctly remembers being bewildered by Tarbell’s Cut and Restored Rope and blindfold act, and the “hook” was set. As a boy and teenager, Bob voraciously read every magic magazine and book he could lay his hands on (a practice he has followed his entire life). And he looked forward every year to Abbott’s Get Together in nearby Colon, where he could see and even meet the great magicians: Blackstone and Dante, among many others.
Because of his access to magic, Bob says he was consumed by wanting to learn secrets, secrets, and more secrets—to learn all the deep ways the world worked that could produce astonishing or surprising results. Obviously, magic was a perfect focus for this, but it also brought paper-folding into his life. In the early 1960s, this combination of interests yielded a little something called “Bunny Bill,” which remains in the working repertoire of magicians around the world.
Meanwhile, after completing graduate school at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, Bob was hired to the faculty there as Professor of Psychiatry and Religion. In that primary career, Bob published some acclaimed books, such as In Praise of Play (1969) and The Art of Dying (1973). At the same time, he was creating highly original magic and paper-folds that were published in the leading magic journals of the day, such as Ibidem, Pallbearers Review, and Epilogue. Karl Fulves, in particular, was a big fan of Bob’s early work, and Fulves wrote and published a book about one of his breakthrough creations, Robert E. Neale’s Trapdoor Card (1983).
Between magic, origami, and recreational mathematics (especially inspired by Martin Gardner), Bob’s side activities were bringing him great recognition. His love of magical play also led his academic pursuits to the Trickster tradition in world religions and cultures, which he actively sought to emulate in his writings, presentations, and classes. However, tricksters do not sit easily in the hallowed halls of the Academy. Thus in 1985, at the age of fifty-seven, after a twenty-four-year academic career, Professor Neale retired early from Union to pursue his deepest interests as a creator of weird and wonderful things.
Bob and his lovely wife Gail moved to Vermont, where he launched into a daily creative practice that continues to this day. Applying all his passions, unconstrained by disciplinary “shoulds” and “have tos,” Bob created a litany of tricks, paper-folds, and topological conundrums, each one with a fully developed, often thought-provoking presentation. Bob also started writing books that both featured these unusual creations and offered philosophical reflections about their place in human life.
Early books from this period include such tantalizing titles as Entertaining Impossibilities, Opening the Closed, and The Book of Objects. Playful, irreverent, and highly original, they defied the comfortable categories of mainstream publishers, so they went unpublished. However, in 1991 two things of exceptional importance happened. First, one of Bob’s books of weird mysteries, Tricks of the Imagination, was published by Stephen Minch. Even though it was a bit “out of the box” for some magicians—featuring storytelling, origami folds, and trickster tales—many of the methods and presentational insights were recognized as highly original, even brilliant, and the book received very strong reviews.
But something still more significant happened, for 1991 is when, on a lark, Bob sent in his application to attend some unheard-of new event by Jeff McBride in upstate New York. Enigmatically called “Mystery School,” its stated purpose was to explore deeper dimensions of magic—its history in shamanism, its connection to ritual and folklore, and its place in human life. Since it, too, seemed interested in boundary crossing, Bob attended the first Mystery School (in 1992) and immediately became one of its leading teachers and voices. Bob has always said that finding the Magic & Mystery School was like coming home. Even though he is no longer able to attend our annual conferences in Las Vegas, the fact is that Bob Neale has never left. He is honored by us with the prestigious title of Faculty Emeritus.
The Roaring ‘90s and Beyond
For Bob, the first years of the 1990s served as a launchpad: what followed was an explosion of creative work, along with international recognition and acclaim. For instance, in 1995 Bob and Eugene Burger published their award-winning book, Magic and Meaning. Shortly thereafter followed Life, Death & Other Card Tricks (2000) and The Magic Mirror(2002). Several routines in these books became famous: “Sole Survivor,” “The Last Dream,” “The Five Gifts of Life,” and “Walking Through a Wall” (among others).
What most magicians didn’t realize was that these books and routines were merely the tip of an iceberg. Bob’s daily creative process was turning out hundreds of new routines. Some of them involved wild new methods or principles. Others turned traditional props upside down to shake something new out of them. And the routines came with carefully crafted scripts and presentations, which were happy to explore a wide range of human emotions and experiences: from joy and laughter, to ironic social commentary and wisdom, to darkness and horror. There were literary allusions and poetry, con-games and ribald jokes, bleak visions and soaring inspirations. In other words, Bob was treating magic like any other form of art: unlimited in terms of what could be expressed with it.
As if that wasn’t boundary-breaking enough, in 1999 Bob started writing three extended “essays”—books, really—that sought to elucidate the three foundational human experiences connected to our art: Wonder, Illusion, and Magic itself. Written for magicians to empower and enrich their work, this “trilogy” was completed in 2002. It consists of The Magic of Celebrating Illusion (published in 2013), The Sense of Wonder(2014), and An Essay on Magic (2015). Each “essay” is illustrated with dozens of Bob’s creative routines, but more important is the fact that these three books, taken together, carry us into the heart of Bob Neale’s joyful, humane vision of magical art: why it exists at all and what it does for us.
After completing the “trilogy,” Bob composed several other manuscripts of his creations. (That’s what a daily creative practice does for you!) One of these, Magic Matters (2009), was the first book of Bob’s that I published, and I have released seven other collections since. But Bob as a creator is faster than me as a publisher: there are hundreds of Bob Neale routines that haven’t yet seen the light of day.
An Expansive Thinker
As all of this begins to convey, Bob Neale’s work is a little overwhelming. His creative output is prolific, wide-ranging, and often out-of-the box. Many magicians love this fact and celebrate the fresh perspectives and performing possibilities Bob brings to the table. Indeed, everybook of his I’ve published has received spectacular reviews. And he has received glowing accolades from such leading minds as Max Maven, Michael Weber, Barrie Richardson, Jon Racherbaumer, and that special genius, Martin Gardner (Bob’s own hero). As Gardner said, “Bob Neale is a wonder. How [he] manages to think of such things is a mystery hard to fathom.”
Even so, I occasionally hear a magician say they “don’t get it” or they don’t “like” what Bob is doing. They say things like, “It’s all about death and despair,” or “He thinks magic has to have deep meaning,” or “He says magic has to be a story.” When this isn’t based on hearsay, the magician might point to one or two routines that support their claim.
In a way, all that is perfectly fine. Everyone is entitled to their opinion and “different strokes,” you know? At the same time, let me assure you that each of those specific criticisms is, in fact, mistaken. There are so many of Bob’s routines that defy each of those generalizations. There are many routines about life and laughter, that celebrate nonsense and light play, and that aren’t stories at all. Indeed, with each of those critical opinions, the person has mistaken one thin slice of what they’ve read for the whole feast.
In my experience, when magicians get stuck with Bob’s work, this is the most common problem: they have read something—one routine or claim—that makes them feel uncomfortable or doesn’t fit their notion of what magic is, and they stop right there. But with an excessive, expansive creator like Bob Neale that never works—it’s never correct. In such conversations, I typically invite the person to open their mind and just keep reading.
This is why I think the first step to entering Bob’s world is to understand there’s always more going on than you think. By the way, this is true for me, too: I have been reading and studying Bob’s work for over twenty-five years, and it’s always an adventure. Bob never ceases to surprise me with his ideas about magic, his mind-bending methods, and his thoughtful presentations—which are, at turns, delightful, dark, beautiful, hilarious, literate, disturbing, whimsical, or inspiring. And who knows what the next trick or book will bring? This is why whenever I feel tempted to summarize Bob’s work, to put it in a little box, I always remind myself that what I’m about to say is only “one thin slice.”
In other words, Bob Neale’s restless, expansive, border-crossing exploration of magic beyond our usual notions and comfortable habits is the very essence of how he thinks, and it is part of what makes his works so important for magicians. Because, to say it another way, they just might blow (open) your mind to new performing possibilities and ideas about what your magic might be.
Where to Begin?
I hope this essay has brought you some fresh insights about Bob Neale’s distinctive contributions to our field. I hope it has inspired you to pick up one of his books, perhaps with fresh eyes, to explore an overflowing feast of tricks, oddities, creations, and ideas you won’t find anywhere else in magic.
Many of you will have favorite Nealean books and tricks to explore. But if you are new to Bob’s magic—or so far have only tasted a small portion of the feast—you might be wondering where to go next, or where to begin?
To some extent, the answer is dependent on your special areas of interest. For instance, card magicians might start with Life, Death & Other Card Tricks; recreational mathe-magicians might go to This Is Not a Book. Those interested in Bob’s philosophy of magic might pick up The Magic of Celebrating Illusion. And so on.
But I have recently come to see that an especially good doorway into Bob’s wild world is his latest book, Magic Inside Out. Bob and I didn’t plan or intend it to be “an introduction to Neale,” but in retrospect, as several reviewers have observed, it serves this function nicely. It features a range of strong unpublished routines with simple objects (paper, bills, playing cards, oh and underpants) and includes presentations about life, fortunetelling, con-artists, the magic of relationships, the Vietnam War, and the very “Possibility of Paradise.” This last routine—a recent creation—might get you right to work or touch your heart, or both.
Wherever you decide to plunge into Bob’s work, I hope you will enjoy the mind-bending, magic-bending routines that await you. But always remember that each of them is only one thin slice.
Larry Hass, Ph.D. is the Dean of McBride’s Magic & Mystery School in Las Vegas and the Publisher of Theory and Art of Magic Press. He makes his home in Washington, D.C.
[Note: for further insight into Bob's life, enjoy reading Larry's interview with Bob, published in Chapter 15: "Work, Life, Play, & Joy" in Magic: Inside Out (2021), pages 111-149.]
“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