Real magic under the tablecloth

The End of Magic
May 29, 1998

Ariel Glucklich's The End of Magic, placed where it would be noticed by the friends who were coming to dinner at my apartment, was a prop for a magic show. When, after our meal, a colleague predictably picked the book up and asked about it, I began the trick: "It's a very good book. There's a thorough critical review of the major theories of magic, a judicious delineation of the ideas of Frazer, Malinowski, Durkheim, Freud, Jung and others. And, after assessing the scope and limits of those approaches, Glucklich proposes an insightful theory of his own, an interesting way of understanding magic. He introduces the notion of 'the magical experience', a particular and universal state of consciousness in which we perceive the effects of magical rituals. It's an empathy, an awareness, according to Glucklich, of interconnectedness and wholeness. He deems it the basis of all magic."

To draw attention to the photograph of the Indian magician on the cover, I held the book up and read: "Magic is a unique and subjective state of mind that often defies accurate description because it transcends meaning, the very stuff of our thought. The experience of magical events rests first and foremost on the sensory perception that all elements in the world are interrelatedI in a tapestry of natural interactions."

Setting the text, cover up, on the table, I continued the patter: "I've got a problem. Glucklich acknowledges me as 'the magician from Hawaii', remembered by an informant in Banaras as the man 'who had made a cigarette disappear'. The informant had been happy to hear that Glucklich was not interested in 'that kind of magic', but rather in sorcery and healing - in real magic. But, as far as I'm concerned, vanishing a cigarette is real magic; sorcery, healing and supernatural feats are fake magic. While Glucklich is well aware that there are a lot of con artists in the world of magic, I felt that his morally admirable open-mindedness and empathy, his keen sense of a profound interrelatedness of things, indeed his intelligence and perceptivity, set him up to be fooled by the magic he saw and heard about in India. Of course, that is appropriate - the point of magic is to be tricked. Magic serves an innate human need and universal desire to be deceived."

Under the pretext of testing Glucklich's hypothesis (but actually testing my own), I asked for the cooperation of my guests in a little experiment. After opening another bottle of wine, I lit incense and votive candles, lowered the lights and, as I put on some Indian music, I alluded to Glucklich's observation that magical rituals use chanting, singing and drumming to "weaken the intellectual constraints on the spontaneous experience of events".

I invited my friends to assist me in trying to evoke Glucklich's "magical consciousness", that we might perhaps have the "magical experience". Suggesting that we merge our gazes in the eyes of the magician on the cover of the book on the table and try to feel an interrelatedness, I talked about Glucklich's discussion of mantras and then quoted one directly from his book: "Om hrim klim shrim namah. Maybe we should hold hands. Glucklich says that touch is very important. Okay, now join me in the recitation of the mantra."

After a few moments of chanting, my guests were starting to feel self-conscious, if not ridiculous. But just when they were about to acknowledge that we were incapable of experiencing the kind of magical consciousness that is so rife in India, it happened: Ariel Glucklich's The End of Magic moved! Or seemed to. Just slightly. Or did it? It was still now. But the chanting of the mantra was reinvigorated, and then, all of a sudden, it happened again. Definitely! The book trembled, and then seemed to rise from the table. "Look!'' one of the guests shouted and that broke the ritual spell - magical consciousness is fragile. Someone picked up the book, perhaps suspecting that it was gimmicked or maybe to feel for a radiation of some magical energy.

Everyone was beguiled. One of my colleagues actually believed that our concentrated mental energies had effected a psychokinetic event, two guests agreed that we had, through the power of the music and chanting, as concentrated by my verbal suggestions, collectively entered into a mild hypnotic trance and, in that altered state, had shared the illusion of a levitation. My partner, in on the scam, swore that she had seen the book rise more than six inches above the table, I insisted that I did not know what they were talking about, that I was certain nothing extraordinary or empirically unexplainable had happened. Not believing me, they began to generate interesting, complex, ingenious and even almost brilliant explanations of what had or had not occurred.

The fact was that, concealed under the tablecloth, beneath The End of Magic, there was a flat rubber bladder connected by a tube to a small plastic bulb in my lap. The book moved when I squeezed the bulb. (This cheap little novelty, called a "plate-lifter", comes with Penn and Teller's wonderful book How to Play with Your Food.) No one understood what had happened because the reality was so utterly uninteresting and beneath serious consideration.

The truth about magic is always uninteresting, all too simple and inevitably disappointing. That is why the best books on magic, those articulating the most elegant analyses, compelling theories and profound ideas, are the ones that are the most fundamentally wrong. Ariel Glucklich's The End of Magic is a very good book.

Lee Siegel is professor of Indian religions, University of Hawaii.

The End of Magic

Author - Ariel Glucklich
ISBN - 0 19 510 879 5 and 510 880 9
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £37.99 and £14.99
Pages - 253

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