Real Magic

Monday November 19, 2007


Recently I received a copy of Lee Siegel’s book Net of Magic from America, and it’s a truly wonderful read. Siegel is a scholar and a magician, and the book – about his research with Indian street magicians – is a fascinating read. The central theme of Siegel’s book is that of deception, about the “human need and longing to be deceived and about the pleasures of deception” (p. 5).

Often we tell ourselves that we seek to overcome and avoid deceptions, but Siegel’s book is interesting in exploring the pleasures – questionable pleasures, perhaps, but certainly very human ones – of being deceived. In the book, Siegel explores a huge range of material, from fieldwork with street magicians to ancient texts in Pali and Sanskrit. Towards the end, in a selection of field notes, he makes the following observation:

“I’m writing a book on magic,” I explain, and I’m asked, “Real magic?” By real magic people mean miracles, thaumaturgical acts, and supernatural powers. “No,” I answer: “Conjuring tricks, not real magic.” Real magic, in other words, refers to the magic that is
not real, while the magic that is real, that can actually be done, is not real magic. (p. 425)

This is an insightful comment, I think. Magic takes place in a curious world of paradox. When seeing a clever magical trick, the delight is in the fact that we don’t know how it is done, that we can permit ourselves the sneaking suspicion, if only for a moment, that perhaps, at last, here is some real magic, that there are no hidden wires, no rigged props, no stooges in the audience, but what we are witnessing is one hundred percent, real, authentic magic. And then, if and when the trick is unveiled, we are disappointed. It’s not real magic at all. The pleasure is in the ambivalence. And the idea of real magic hovers just out of reach, claims to its existence almost impossible to counter, because it occupies a twilight realm of anecdote, rumour and endless tales about what a friend of a friend saw.

Magicians, of course, make a living by playing on this ambivalence: is it a trick? is it real magic? In Siegel’s book, one of the street magicians with whom he worked – a man who lived through the practice of deception, through exploiting the frisson of uncertainty as we wonder if this magic is real or not – was uncompromisingly frank on the possibility of real magic.

“Are there people with real power” I asked. “Is there real magic?” And both Shankar and Naseeb were eager to answer. Naseeb said no: “No, but I shouldn’t ever say it. I earn a living only if people believe these things, only if they believe in at least the possibility of miracles. But there are no real miracles, and all the holy men and god-men, Sai Baba and Jesus and other men like them, are just doing tricks…” (p. 43)

Naseeb is perceptive: it is not necessary to believe strongly in this or that trick, only to allow the possibility that, on at least some occasions, miracles do happen. And here he makes a living, playing upon the tension between his audience’s everyday sense of the world, and the hope or fear or suspicion that, just sometimes, real magic is, after all, possible.

However, far from the entertainments of the street conjurers, in the realm of religion, belief in real magic is widespread. Buddhism is rife with it – from the lists of magical practices in the Pali texts (many of them tricks that are well known in the Indian tradition) to the frankly dubious magical practices of the Tantra to the sale of protective amulets in Thailand. A recent example is the recent case of the Magic Monk of Cambodia (brought to you by Al-Jazeera, via YouTube).

Belief in real magic is widespread not only in traditional Buddhist countries, but also amongst Western practitioners. I have lost count of the number of conversations I have had with Buddhist practitioners in which the assertion that the Buddha couldn’t fly (the Dalai Lama can, thanks to Air India, but the Buddha couldn’t) seemed to be a controversial and shocking statement, or in which various august practitioners (who always seemed to have just left town, or to be unavailable for interview, or to be too deep in meditation to be disturbed by an impious attempt to corroborate their outlandish claims) were credited with powers such as levitation, clairaudience, clairvoyance or what have you.

For a number of reasons I think that religious belief in real magic is to be strongly and vigorously resisted. The first is that, in religious circles, claims to real magic are generally spoken in earnest, without the ironies of a good, (dis)honest magic show. Siegel writes that “Lies are exonerated the moment they become ironies: the magic show is informed with ironies” (p. 438), but religious claims to real magic are often free of any kind of irony whatsoever, and indeed they are often advanced as evidence, even if only obliquely, of the truth of one or other set of religious claims. Sadly, this earnestness and commitment to evidence is rarely accompanied by the openness to systematic inquiry for which one might hope.

This leads us to the question of power. When claims to real magic are allied with more systematic attempts to exert power over others – whether over their conduct, over their thought, over their hearts or over their wallets – then things become more alarming. As Siegel’s book makes clear, claims to “real magic” are often a cover for all too real deceptions, and the street magicians he worked with are scathing in their dismissal of many of India’s religious practitioners who perform the very same tricks that they themselves do, but who do it in earnest, without a trace of the irony and ambivalence.

The third reason that such claims should be resisted is, I think, that it is simply unwise to tear up everything that we know to be true of the world – that painstaking knowledge gained through close observation and careful inference – just to support one or another spurious claim. Of course, if somebody approaches us and they believe that have come across a genuinely testable phenomenon such as Tummo (the Tibetan practice of using meditation practices to alter body temperature. See the article here), then we should take notice; but we shouldn’t be too ready to throw away the hard-won knowledge that we have accumulated. And once we understand how this new phenomenon works, then it is no longer magic – whether real or unreal – at all, but simply another part of our naturalistic understanding of the world and of ourselves.

This leads to my final concern about the tendency to believe in real magic. And that is that in hoping for real magic, we can become blind to what is really going on, we tend to forget what it is to be attentive to the extraordinary richness of the world in which we find ourselves, preferring to drift of into fantasies of other worlds that we might, for whatever reason, prefer. The idea that without real magic the world is a hollow and empty place is, it seems to me, the result of an impoverished sense of the world, and the assumption that the world in which we find ourselves needs somehow to be compensated for by something unworldly is, perhaps, an error born of not looking closely enough. Siegel writes:

The aging conjurer refused to perform now. Now, often to the annoyance of his family, he had become prone to philosophical reflection. “The magic show teaches us to believe something we shouldn’t believe,” he muttered with a laugh that mitigated the pomposity and arrogance implicit in the pontification. “In the performance, behind the illusion, beyond what seems marvellous, there’s always something absolutely ordinary, some simple sleight or gimmick – a thread, a magnet, a bit of wax. What amazes s really not amazing at all. But in our lives, it’s just the reverse. What seems ordinary is really extraordinary. Behind what seems simple to the eye is something very magical, absolutely amazing, and wholly marvellous.”

Image: Hieronymus Bosch. The Conjurer. Wikimedia Commons

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#1 · Tom

19 November 2007

Beautiful last quote there. The conclusion of this post is so very true. Yet it is so difficult to make people see the wonders around. They will only see them when they are ready themselves.

#2 · Peter

20 November 2007

Beautifully written essay, Will! The last paragraph and quote says it all for me.

Oh! I’m saying the same as Tom! So there’s at least three of us who are very happy!

#3 · Ed

20 November 2007

This brings to mind Evelyn Underhill’s quote at the beginning of her magnificent tome “Mysticism” from “The Rod, the Root, and the Flower” by Coventry Patmore…“What the world, which truly knows nothing, calls ‘mysticism’ is the science of ultimates…the science of self-evident Reality, which cannot be ‘reasoned about,’ because it is the object of pure reason or perception. The Babe sucking its mother’s breast, and the Lover returning, after twenty year’s separation, to his home and food in the same bosom, are the types and princes of Mystics.” To those who are blind or see only dimly, or are asleep, those who
are awake and see seem to be doing magic. Beginning in the “Axial Age”(see Karen Armstrong’s “the Great Transformation”) the spiritual shift was from magic to enlightenment. If we could only clean the mud off our glasses we too could see.

#4 · dale

21 November 2007

It’s the power-worship that dismays me most about the magic in (some, not all) religious stories. If the Buddha isn’t wonderful because he achieved enlightenment, he’s not wonderful at all, no matter how much he may have flown about and been able to see people’s past lives and so forth.

The idea that “real” knowledge and wisdom can be measured by how much you control you can exert over worldly phenomena is a disaster in religion. As it is in science, or in politics, or in human relationships generally, for that matter.

#5 · pramila

22 November 2007

Magic and maya seem so closely related as words! Anyway, it is all magic in a way – different interpretations of ‘reality’, of what is observed and who is observing and the consensus – sometimes the shaman, and sometimes the scientist. As Alan Watts seems to point out[?] [I think ‘Zen and psychotherapy?’ ]- there is a collusion, an interaction, between the performer/therapist/scientist/witch doctor/magician and the audience/patient/lay-person. Nothing wrong in this – if it helps in liberating the person from the confines of so-called ‘reality’allowing a transcendence while remaining grounded. Magic is re-interpreting ‘received wisdom’ ‘perceived realiity’. Whether it liberates or imprisions, that is the question.

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