On June 22, 2003, an incredible event took place: one that, its believed, has never before occurred in the history of the art of magic. The event of which I write was that Shattering Illusions
by Jamy Ian Swiss (Hermetic Press, 2002) was reviewed in the Los Angeles Times
. In case you are wondering why this is such a big deal, allow me a moment to point out a couple things: First, The LA Times
is one of a few newspapers with a national (even global) reach. Second, for a book written strictly for the relatively miniscule cottage industry we call magic to be reviewed in a newspaper of such stature is remarkable. It just dont happen folks: Unless, of course, there is something very special about the book. Even if the reviewer (Crispin Sartwell) has a relationship with Mr. Swiss, and I dont know that he does, the point is irrelevant: an editor made the ultimate decision to run a review of a book about magic
in some of the most valuable space in all of publishing.
Before anyone cries foul and points out that books such as Magic for Dummies
and the likepast and presenthave appeared in reviews in major papers, keep in mind that these books were written expressly for the public and sold in mainstream book stores (that buy advertising space in those same newspapers). Shattering Illusions
written for the general public and, as pointed out by the reviewer, one can't even find Swiss' book on Amazon.com. Shattering Illusions
was written for a very specific audience and a very narrow one at that. That Sartwell felt that his readers might be interested in the subject matter covered in the book is very
significant: Not only for the rightfully proud author (Swiss) and publisher (Stephen Minch), but for the art of magic as well.Shattering Illusions
is a collection of twenty essayswritten over a span of fifteen yearsthat address a range of subjects that include ethics, performance theory and the authors life experiences (magical and otherwise) and how they shaped (and continue to shape) his art. Sixteen of the essays originally appeared within the pages of Genii
magazine, mostly during the 1990s (but also into the new century). Many here might remember these from their original appearances. For me, the book was my first experience with them. During the 90s I was rather frugal with my magic buck looking to get the biggest bang for it as I could. Continuing my subscription to Genii
wasnt in the cards. Clearly I didnt know what I was missing.
Four of the pieces make their first appearance in the book and the others have been either updated slightly and/or have had an addendum pieceaptly titled AND FURTHERMORE added at the end of the original. The book is divided into three distinct sections, CANNON FODDER, YESTERDAYS and A MAGICIAN PREPARES. While the section titles give us clues to the subject matter of the essays that fall within them, there is, in fact, some overlap. Of course, art has a way of insisting upon such an occurrence and anyone who chooses to address the issues that face art in such a head-on manner is obligated to accept it. But not only does Swiss accept it, he embraces it.
By definition, cannon fodder is the military personnel who are considered expendablethe first up the hill as it were. I dont believe that Swiss feels the pieces in this section expendable, so what I take from this title heading is that these are his more controversial works: works some might think come from the mind of a loose cannon who is presenting us with the raw materials (fodder) necessary for how we might view the state of our art (in both a sense of community and self).
Why Magic Sucks is a brutal (but heartfelt) look at magic through the eyes of a realist. Swiss strips away the candy coating and lets us have it. There is, after all, nothing wrong with magic, just quite a few of its practitioners who are so concerned with what they perceive as the core elements of magic (to detriment of all the others) that theywehave deluded ourselves into thinking that we are actually a part of the whole art. This thought provoking piece is tough love to be sure, and there is good news to follow, for there is
hope, should you care enough to search it out and put in the work necessary to extricate yourself from the mire of mediocrity. Some of that help can be found in the pieces later in the book.
Mentalism Grows Up, one of the four pieces written for the book, is also perhaps his most controversial, though its difficult for me to understand why. All he does is strike out at those who would allow their audiences to go away believing that what they witnessed was real and not theater. How this belief can be confused as an attack on all mentalism and mentalists is beyond my grasp.
If being involved with magic required a license (and I think it should), the issues discussed in Odometer Ethics would carry substantial weight on the final exam. I could go on, but I wont. Go read the essay for yourself (again, if you already have). If you dont own the book, order it from HermeticPress.com right now. GoI can wait: this will still be here when you get back.
Decent Exposure is a fascinating piece onwhat elsethe exposure of magics precious secrets. While Shattering Illusions
is not a book about secrets (relative to tricks), it does indeed discuss the secrets to a handful of effects. So, there now may be some readers who are thinking that the LA Times
review resulted in the exposure of those secrets to the laity. To those who might think this, I would remind them that Maskelyne and Devants Our Magic
had far more secrets within its pages, as does Jim Steinmeyers Hiding the Elephant
and (though published generations apart) these books were written for the general public with the same goal in mind: to instill an appreciation of the performance art
called magic. Its all about context
. I should also point out that, while there are secrets discussed in Shattering Illusions
, Sartwell, in his review, says that there are no secrets to be found in the book! And in a moment that refers to a trip to Las Vegas, Sartwell says, I intend never to find out exactly what Lance Burton did with that cage. This reaction from the laity is precisely what Maskelyne, Devant and Steinmeyer were hoping for from the publication of their books. Whether or not his intention, Swiss garners it as well, proving that exposure in the proper context can actually serve the art well.
Magic in the Age of Information completes the first section of the book and does it admirably by taking some of the elements from each of the preceding three essays, adds the element of the current glut of magical information (and mis
information) and wraps it all up with a nice tidy bow on top.
YESTERDAYS and its three essays, Real Secrets, A Brief History of Magic Bar and The Writing on the Wall, is my favorite section in the book. I have read it many times because each time I read these essays my own memories wash over me like a warm, soothing bath: its a feeling I relish. Its amazing to me how several of Swiss experiences and my own are so similar. Of course, it shouldnt be surprising since, by our very nature as human beings, we will have similar experiences. For example, we all have our first loves and as magicians we will want to use that as a tool to impress the target of our desires. And, as we will learn later in the book, such emotional hooks are the essence of artall art: even magic. That important human element of art is one that is grossly underestimated by the vast majority of magicians. And, while on the surface these pieces serve to share with the reader the experiences of the authors youth and developmental years, they also serve to teach the readerat least this reader
the importance of humanizing
a magical performance.
The remaining twelve essays make up the final section, A MAGICIAN PREPARES. Thus begins the theoretical portion of the book: or does it?
When I finished reading the book the first time (late in 2002), it dawned on me that I would have to rethink the category in which I placed this book in my library database. I had originally categorized it under theory, but upon completing the book I knew that this was not completely accurate. Yes, Swiss shares his theories on the performance of magic (stress performance
), but the overall book, including those essays dedicated to theory, is one of commentary.
Thus, Shattering Illusions
became the first and (thus far) only book in my library in that category.
Its possible that some readers might be off-put by what might be perceived as a this is how it is attitude about the essays. However, this would be a failure on the part of the reader, not the author. This reader would have failed in his ability to read between the linesto extrapolate the subtext of the authors words (this, I fear, is one of the dreadful side effects of the information in quick-takes and sound-bites society in which we live). While Swiss makes no secret that he staunchly believes what he writes (of course), he also never lets the reader forget that these beliefs he presents as truths are still his opinion
(I should add that this holds true for the entire book). And, unlike some who express their opinions as truths, Swiss thoroughly and effectively supports his arguments: he lets you know why
he believes his opinions are truth. This is an important distinction: he letsin fact expectsthe reader to think for his or her self and decide whether or not his commentary holds true for the reader
as well as they do for Swiss.
These theoretical commentary essays are not just a nuts and bolts/how-to manual of how to perform magic: Far from it. They are thought provoking tools designed to equip the would-be performer with the wherewithal to prepare for the journey he/she must embark upon once the decision is made to be a performer
of magic. In Audience Members and Other Props, Swiss addresses the issue of the use (and unfortunate abuse
) of audience members. He provides examples of successful and unsuccessful use of volunteers and examines why the tactics chosen succeed or fail. Old, New, Borrowed and Blue touches on sources of material selection and though Swiss promises to avoid the ubiquitous listings of relevant works, fortunately for us he mentions those books that might
make such lists and thus reveals to us a long list of books from which to garner material (and knowledge) while only listing sixas promised.
Sleights, Lies and Videotape is another piece some may find contentious given the number of times video vs. books debates have been waged over the last decade, particularly in Internet forums such as this one. Again, one needs to look beneath the surface of the argument (which is difficult to do if all one is taking away from the piece is an attack on magic instruction on videotape). The authors main point, and it is well made, is that books provide a more complete and stable foundation upon which the aspiring performer can build. It is the authors opinion that videotape, in all its glitz and glamour, falls short in this respect.
In one of the other new essays in the book, First Do No Harm, Swiss, like a knight on his trusty steed, gallops to the rescue of his, and many others, damsel in distress: card tricks. Card magic has, by and far, the most appeal among the practitioners of magic but, amazingly, also has the worst reputation. Of course, this reputation springs forth from those who, well, just dont get it. However, while well written, its my belief that with this essay Mr. Swiss is only preaching to those of us in the choir. But thats okay by me, for all the reasons set forth in the essays final paragraph.
Good Trick, Bad Trick tackles the query, is there such a thing as good tricks and bad tricks.
To answer, the author goes to great lengths to help the reader understand the real
question at work here: what is it that makes
a trick good or bad?
In 1970, a magician named Rick Johnsson penned (and Jon Racherbaumer published it in 1971 in his periodical Hierophant
) what has become, depending on what side of the argument one allies ones self, either a bedrock theory governing the selection and performance of magic or a compelling but dead wrong hypothesis. The argument rages on and perhaps always will as long as there are magicians thinking
about what they perform and how they perform it. Swiss reprises and then expands upon his August 2001 Genii
piece, The Too-Perfect Theory in Action, that was but one of several scholarly looks at this theory. The late Mr. Johnsson would be proud of his accomplishment.
In case you have just crawled forth from under a cozy rock and are not aware, it might interest you to know that Jamy Ian Swiss is an unabashed proponent of sleight of hand. Not just with cards, mind you, but anything that can be manipulated in such a way as to help cast an air of mystery over an audience. The essay In Defense of Technique is Swiss answer(s) to the rallying cry of those who eschew difficult technique; I just entertain em. Weve all heard it, the often overused catch-phrase that can occasionally be equated with ineptitude, laziness or both. Again, Swiss treads shaky ground here. And while he does so with admirable clarity and depth of purpose, I again fear that he may be attempting to convert the already converted. However, if a novice magician reads this piece before
the choice of which road to take is made, Swiss may indeed save their artistic soul from a purgatory of technical mediocrity.
Occasionally I will happen upon a piece written by someone else that makes me say, Damn, I wish I had written that. Unnatural Acts: Invoking the Supra-natural is one such piece. In it, Swiss is able to articulate something that I have known for many years but was unable to articulate. In this essay, Swiss takes a deep look at the concept of being natural during a magical performance. In particular, he (I believe) correctly clarifies just what Dai Vernon meant when he admonished the magical collective to be natural. To do so, he offers and defines another word, supra-natural.
Whether or not he knows it, Swiss applies acting theory to his notions. As its not the only time he does so in the book, I suspect that he does
know it, but chooses not to worry his readers with that fact. Its not yet essential (for his purposes) that they discover that they are learning part of an elemental craft needed for the artistic performance of magic. I believe Swiss instinctively trusts that those who embrace the concepts put forth in this essay (and others), will eventually be enlightened through self-discovery. (I liken it to not telling your child that you have not been holding the seat of the bicycle for quite some time the first time they ride without training wheels.)
In A Commercial Message Swiss once again unloads on a concept that is generally misinterpreted, particularly in our current over-marketed, hyped to the hilt magic-land we inhabit. Here he offers a clear definition of commercial magic, delving into the underlying causal realities that make up what really is commercial while doing so.
Lessons and Learning is a fascinating study of the teacher and student of magic: both of which, it can be said of Mr. Swiss, he happens to be. The most effective teachers (no matter the subject) are those who consider themselves students. In this piece, Swiss shares with the reader his personal growth as teacher and what he expects from his students.
The penultimate piece in the book is one of the most rousing. Though not the first time its referenced in the book, The Elements of Style is the first in-depth analysis of style and character: the two most distinguishable elements of a magical performance. Distinguishable because they are the only visible
elements of a magic performance (well, at least they are supposed to be the only visible elements). So, it should go without saying, that this is what sets magicians apart from one another. It should
go without saying, but the fact that this important message continues to go disturbingly unnoticed, Mr. Swiss found it necessary to put to paper this essay (and he is not the first to do sothank goodness for big favors). Also in this essay, Swiss returns to what is the common thread which runs through virtually all of the essays (sometimes expressed, other times only implied) and that is that the performance of magic is a single entity made up of many elements, none of which are more important than the other.
In fact, these elements, which include (but are not limited to) material selection, technique and presentation (script, style, character and staging), are dependant upon each other for the performance to be effective and artistic. The fact that these same rules apply to virtually all forms of performance art proves beyond any doubt that good magic is
a legitimate performance art. Its up to its practitioners to do what it takes to move magic into that lofty realm, not the other way around.
The final essay, The Search for Mystery opens with one of my favorite questions in the book: When you do magicwhat are you doing?
At first the question appears simplistic. Its not until well into the essay do we realize the depth and commitment to self-exploration one must go to really answer the question. Swiss gives us his
answer, but not before breaking down the question into its complex elements and exploring each one. Each step of the way the we go deeper into a darkened labyrinth and then realize the importance of searching for the lightthe illuminating answer to what was at first perceived as a simple question. And it is here that we also discover that the answer is not at all simple. Its answered only after a journey of the aforementioned self-exploration. But we also come to the realization that the journey did not just begin and it doesnt really endit progresses
. The trip started the day magic became a part of our soul, and many of the pieces to the puzzle are already there for us to fit together. The rest await us on the roads ahead, and the best part is they never end.
Quite often (especially on Internet forums), experienced magicians are asked what books are the best for a novice magician to read. Many of us have our favorites: those books that helped develop us during our own formative years. I am convinced, however, that if the novice is in his or her mid-teenage years or beyond (as so many are these daysor so it seems), Shattering Illusions
should be on that list. Its subject matter is not beyond the grasp of someone able and willing to apply the thought this book requires. The earlier magicians are exposed to these essays, the more productive their travels on magics roads of learning and growth will be.
PS: A slightly edited version of Crispin Sartwells LA Times
review can be found on Jamy Ian Swiss web site: http://www.jamyianswiss.com
Its worth noting that the paragraph left out did indeed carry a small negative remark. But the remark is inconsequential and in fact a misguided one since the reviewer clearly does not appreciate the level of reverence the magic communityand specifically Jamy Ian Swissreserves for Dai Vernon and Tony Slydini.