"The best general theory of magic we have yet in any literature" - Dr. Lawrence Hass
[From An Essay On Magic, The Introduction]
My belief [is] that Bob Neale’s “An Essay on Magic” is the best general theory of magic we have so far. Now, when I say “general theory” what I mean is that it attempts to understand magic and magic performance as it happens throughout the whole of human life and not only by focusing on what theatrical specialists do on stage.
Indeed, most every “theory of magic” by performing practitioners, such as Maskelyne, Fitzkee, Nelms, and Ortiz (among others), begin and end their considerations with onstage magic only, as if all the other forms of human magic making (magical beliefs, behaviors, and rituals) are completely irrelevant to stage magic. Not only does Bob’s general theory demonstrate that this radical separation is highly suspect and myopic, it also shows that you cannot even adequately understand onstage magic this way.
Without a careful understanding of our everyday offstage magical behaviors, the existence of onstage magicians becomes a mystery. Why do we have magicians at all? Why do they exist in every recorded human culture? If all the rest of our human magics are ignorant superstition or religious hokum (the usual assumptions) then performing magicians are really nothing but liars and deceivers, tricksters and con-men. Yet this vague conclusion (based on assumption) doesn’t square at all with the empirical facts that staged magic performance is ancient, utterly universal, and venerated in most cultures, and that the magician is generally regarded as an archetype of great power and promise.
At the same time, the famous academic scholars of magic who focus on everyday magical thinking, behaviors, and rituals don’t really have “general” theories of magic either. Out of either ignorance of or prejudice against actual theater practice, seminal thinkers such as Frazier, Levi-Straus, Evans-Pritchard, Tambiah, Maus, and Eliade typically divorce their “data” from the long-standing, cross-cultural traditions of magical art-making. They write as if everyday magical behaviors are somehow fundamental, objective “facts,” ignoring how those behaviors are themselves fully informed by the theatrical culture of magic performance that surrounds them.
In the end, then, it is my considered view that the most famous theories of magic by scholars and magicians in the past one hundred and fifty years have merely been “local” theories—that is, focused only on this or that region of magic with little care or even awareness that there are other whole regions that matter. Again, this is exactly the short-sightedness that Bob Neale’s theory attempts to overcome.
As complicated as his general theory is, as tricky as it can be to address multiple regions of magic and then articulate their inter-relationships, he is consciously attempting to offer a truly general account of human magic-making rather than one more local, regional study that assumes and pretends it is general.
Dr. Larry Hass, Pubisher, Theory and Art of Magic Press
Magic Reflecting Magic
Why perform theatrical magic?
Shakespeare offers a clue. Hamlet has no proof that his uncle murdered his father in order to become king, but the appearance of some actors offers an occasion for generating evidence. “The play’s the thing/ Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King” (II, ii). Hamlet advises the players to perform their play in a way that reveals the daily life of his uncle, including the actions that Hamlet believes will expose his guilt. Hamlet states the principle behind his advice: the “purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature” (III, ii). Again, he says, the purpose of playing, of theater, is to “hold the mirror up to nature.”
In his discussion of this principle, Thomas R. Whitaker interprets it as meaning “that the purpose of playing is to hold the mirror up to ‘playing.’” He understands Shakespeare’s play itself to be a deception in which the members of the audience willingly participate. The outcome is to expose the deception that exists in their own lives: If we willingly enter its field of psychological magic, however, we may find there a participatory mirroring of our consciousness that leads toward a kind of self-knowledge. Perhaps that is why so many plays, regardless of their ostensible themes, lead us into a labyrinth of deception—where we may seek and possibly confront a Minotaur called “truth.”
If theatrical playing holds up the mirror to playing, how much more does magic performance hold up the mirror to magic! We might say, “magic is the thing wherein we catch the consciousness of the audience.” This, then, is the basic theme of this first chapter: magic is the mirror of magic.
At first glance, this sentence may appear to be a meaningless tautology in which something is defined in terms of itself. However, magic is a term that refers to more than one thing. So we begin our exploration with a summary of the many magics and continue with some perspective on how they are related. Thereby I hope to reach a tentative conclusion on the meaning of the magic mirror. The purpose is to explore the connection between theatrical magic and all the other magics, especially that which occurs in our daily lives—magic reflecting magic.
1. The Many Magics
Magic! This is a big word like love, god, and democracy. It is so big, with such great breadth and depth, that no simple definition is possible. In another sense, it is so vague as to be empty, easily accepting all sorts of meanings to fill itself up. How are we to determine what we are talking about?
There appear to be two common understandings of magic. One: magic is tricks done for entertainment— what stage performers do. Two: magic is either superstitious nonsense or evil from the devil—what others do, or what I and we used to do.
Commonly understood, then, magic is either superficial or bad. Both conclusions are justified as far as they go, but I believe that more is involved, much more than we realize, and perhaps far more than stage magicians are inclined to acknowledge. In fact, I suspect that there is more magic and more kinds of magic than I can imagine.
When I first tried to think about this, I created a schema that gave as much attention to stage magic as to all the other magics. This is understandable, given the focused interests of myself and my magician readers, but it revealed a quite unbalanced awareness of the quantity of the other magics. At the very least, my new attempt here to tackle the subject should be more cognizant of the breadth and depth of magics. At the same time, I am more humble about the schema I used then to present the varied categories of magic. I put them out there, but with little attention to the connections between them. The reader should feel free to explore their relationships. Above all, please tentatively accept my use of the plural form of the noun “magics.” I do believe that there is an underlying magic for all the magics, but my initial focus is on the many forms of magics. Reference to magic in the singular has probably limited our appreciation of the variety, whereas use of the word “magics,” however awkward it may be, hopefully pushes us to appreciate more and more kinds of magic.
For a quick overview of where we are going, look at the following diagram:
Community — Individual and Group
Acknowledged — Unexplored
Reduced — Restored — Reflexive
(Distractive, Deceptive) (Humanistic, Existential) (Magic about Magic)
As the diagram conveys, magic is divided into four areas for our consideration:
Life magics, however limited our awareness of them, may well be the most prevalent magics we experience as individuals and societies. Traditional and modern magics are also far more pervasive than we are inclined to recognize. Compared with these three categories of magics, stage magics are undoubtedly a tiny drop in the bucket and of practically no concern to anyone other than a small group of people such as me and the readers of this book. In the vast arena of those various magics in human behavior, contemporary stage magic is of very little consequence. It is probably important to recognize this before attempting to be a stage magician of any significance. Moreover, if we proceed with patience and tolerance at the beginning, our look at the many magics may offer both motivation and direction for our stage magic performances.
"Robert E. Neale's grasp of larger themes and bigger ideas feels like a warm and lasting embrace. They resonate and nourish the mind. They are philosophical without being dry, pedantic, or obtrusively technical. Max Maven neatly sums up Neale's approach in a book titled Mind Matters: 'If this book doesn't tickle you, you're not feeling. If this book doesn't annoy you, you're not thinking. If this book doesn't inspire you, you're not breathing.' . . . Bob is a teacher who explains and inspires--a rightful heir to the great theoreticians and practitioners of our time."
by Jon Racherbaumer
"[While] it can be appreciated as the final piece of a comprehensive project, An Essay on Magic stands alone. Indeed, it's one of the best analyses of magic in all its guises to come out in many years. If you are expecting a breakdown of how magic works methodologically--from the intricate details of sleight-of-hand techniques to the psychological principles that underlie every good effect--you may be disappointed. If, however, you are interested in the ways magicians and the public alike relate to magic both on and off the stage, you may be pleasantly, if not disturbingly, surprised."
by Jarod Kopf
"In the opening chapters of this book Robert Neale advances provocative questions. What are the preconditions for magic? Why perform theatrical magic? And what meaning can be brought to magic's performance of impossibilities? These essays might not be for everyone. They are complex and require patience and study to understand. And even then there is the question of how these musings might improve your performance."
"You could argue that magic requires not more philosophical justification than juggling or any other entertainment. It has survived quite well until now without many performers giving it such deep thought. People like to be entertained and the most commercial markets are the ones that cater to the broadest audience."
"On the other hand, as The Mystery School movement has shown, some audiences are just as willing to philosophize as their magicians. And if they are prepared to give magic meaning, perhaps their magicians should too. There isn't just one way to look at magic."
by David Britland
"This is one of the best books Mr. Neale has released to the magic community. Like the other two volumes in this set, An Essay on Magic is heavy on the philosophical aspect of our craft. In fact, the title of this book is somewhat of a misnomer because it is actually three essays on magic. The first is titled "Magic Reflecting Magic," the second is "Play with Mastery." The final one tackles the subject of "Meaningful Impossibility," which, if I have interpreted these texts correctly (I probably haven't), is the underlying theme of this magnus opus, putting meaning into one's magic."
by Master Payne
"While the book has some excellent routines, the initial chapters deal with essays on subjects like the conditions needed to create magic. Drilling down to the very basics of why we do what we do, Neale explores why we should perform theatrical magic. I found the essays thought-provoking and energizing. . . . [While] some may find them dense, [he] is trying to make you think about every aspect of the craft."
by Rolando Santos