An unstable contest of minds

I was reading last week’s New Yorker, and this passage by Adam Gopnik – part of a long piece about professional magicians – caught my attention. I really agree with this:

Whatever the context, the empathetic interchange between minds is satisfying only when it is “dynamic,” unfinished, unresolved. Friendships, flirtations, even love affairs depend, like magic tricks, on a constant exchange of incomplete but tantalizing information. We are always reducing the claim or raising the proof. The magician teaches us that romance lies in an unstable contest of minds that leaves us knowing it’s a trick but not which one it is, and being impressed by the other person’s ability to let the trickery go on. Frauds master our minds; magicians, like poets and lovers, engage them in a permanent maze of possibilities. The trick is to renew the possibilities, to keep them from becoming schematized, to let them be imperfect, and the question between us is always “Who’s the magician?” When we say that love is magic, we are telling a truth deeper, and more ambiguous, than we know. . . .

The magicians have the boys for a moment, between their escape from their fathers and their pursuit of girls. After that, they become sexual, outwardly so, and learn that women (or other men) cannot be impressed by tricks of any kind: if they are watching at all, they are as interested as they are ever going to be and tricks are of no help. You cannot woo anyone with magic; the magic that you have consciously mastered is the least interesting magic you have.

The essay doesn’t seem to be online, but they have an interview with Gopnik about his experience researching and writing it.


  1. #1 RNB
    March 24, 2008

    Interesting. Probably less scientific than your post, but I think all magicians are essentially actors – and as with actors (and some other professions), the best ones are those who most make you forget about “reality”. Those who claim that they they are not actors (that they really are magicians) are cheats, liars and worse. But real magic is great.

  2. #2 rhett
    March 25, 2008

    At it’s root, most performances are lies. Any work of imagination is strictly an untruth, as are most interpretations of past events as they are distorted by perspective and purpose. The best magic shows are not ones that come clean and say “it’s all trickery!” they are the ones that not only claim to arise from supernatural fores but consistently frustrate a skeptic’s efforts to expose the trickery.

    Any scientist, when faced with new phenomena, is forced to theorize explanations. Whether they recoil at the thought or not, the supernatural must rank as an option (if an unlikely one). That, I feel, is the value of a magic show. When exposed to a new trick, the skeptic must, even if for only a short time, be willing to expand their mind to accept the improbable, but possible. For those moments their mind is opened to the world of what might be, to a world of unknown and wondrous possibilities. That is the road to and of imagination, and it’s well worth it in my opinion.

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