Belief in magic?

Discuss the historical aspects of magic, including memories, or favorite stories.

Postby Oli Foster » 11/30/10 04:32 PM

This is an area I've always found fascinating and this probably links into the other post on interpreting Houdin's old maxim but, I think warrants its own thread.

What I'm interested in is conditions, throughout the ages, where the illusions created by a magician are perceived as genuinely supernatural feats. We could probably go back as far as our collective knowledge permits but there are a couple of eras I think are particularly interesting.

In biblical times, there's talk of false prophets and when Moses turns his staff into a snake, the Pharoah's wise men are able to duplicate this feat, albeit suggested in an inferior way to Moses. This, to the onlookers cast doubt on divine intervention and moreover suggested that the select accepted the idea of trickery/illusion by casting Moses' alleged miracle in the same light. It's obviously difficult to treat the Bible as a rigidly historical document but this and other passages suggest that, whilst there may have been an emergent belief in miracles, there was also an understanding of trickery.

Some books also refer to the roman and egyptian 'street magicians' performing something akin to cup and ball with pebbles and this also does not appear to have been interpreted as a miracle. Appreciate that the lines blur thougn and that impossible things are reported throughout the ages.

Here we get to the bit that most fascinates me though - European witchcraft of the late 16th/early 17th century. (teaching my grandmother to suck eggs here but) Reginald Scot's Discoverie of Witchcraft of 1584 is famously the first English text on witchcraft but this is interestingly slotted into a book 'exposing' every type of superstition.

Scot's surrounding text appears to be abit of an unveiled and mildly comical rant against catholicism, comparing the more ritualistic elements of the latter to what he's trying to expose as ineffectual and often quite silly folk superstitions. His introduction to his section on 'juggling' contains an apology along the lines that he's sorry to spoil these tricks as they're generally quite entertaing, but felt it a good idea given the general theme of the book, so that others might not be maliciously taken in by them. (forgive this, perhaps subjective, paraphrasing)

Now this is where it's open to interpretation because we know that the reason so few complete copies of Discoverie are thought to exist is that James 1st ordered them to be destroyed because they contradicted his book, Daemonologie, which was published in 1597 (I believe while he was King of Scotland?)

Now, my question is was there a general belief in magic, both wrought by 'jugglers' of the time and generally in witchcraft? A belief in witchcraft doesn't initially seem to be in historical dispute given the numerous deaths in this cause. However, I'm gradually coming to a different interpretation, albeit partially formed.

James 1st was obviously catholic, so he would have naturally found Scot's surrounding text offensive. He was also a champion of the kind of occult hysteria that had spread thtough Europe after the publication of Sprenger and Kramer's Malleus Maleficarum in 1486 - and Daemonology was his own effective re-writing of this book to justify the punishment of witches under his regime.
Natually a book by someone of an opposing - and insulting - religious view wasn't going to be among his favourites.

Where it gets interesting though is if we take his publication with a pinch of salt and imagine that he may have had other motives behind his own book and the surpression of Scot's. It's significant that he also translated the Bible into English (containing the understood-to-be-mistranslated passage, 'thou shallt not suffer a witch to live') and whilst it may be uncharitable to imagine he had any reason other than making religion accessable to his subjects, it firmly associates his name with that of God, even today, as the King James Bible.

So we can perhaps imagine that, like other monarchs, another motive was to assert his divine right as king, which was probably all the more important to him after the reformation and subsequent revival under Elizabeth. My thinking is though, putting myself in the shoes of the average peasant (which is easily done, believe me!), your common man was so far removed from kings and queens in their everyday lives that they were probably indifferent to the subtleties of the different religions and rights. It was more a drudge for survival.

Sermons were in latin and your average man couldn't read these books or any others. I think James was probably aware of this indifference and aware that these weren't the countrymen who would fight for his cause if necessary. Moreover, although it's difficult to determine whether James himself believed his own PR, he would probably have sensed that general support was, at best, not keen.

The folk superstitions that still prevail in some forms today were, I think, innocently adhered to in the same way that they are today - more for nostalgia than anything else. But this in itself was probably a sign that people were not concerned for the more weighty doctrines he had to preach and so, you're average disaffected peasant became a target of perceived 'heresy'.

I think (And this is just a supposition) that far from a general belief in the supernatural, your average man had more material concerns. The language is interesting - that previously a magician was called a 'juggler', which is actually a far more accurate description of what we physically do (and this ties in with Houdin), whereas now we go for the more ambiguous 'magician' (perhaps because there is no longer a perceived supernatural alternative).

So, going back to Mr average, I think he knew that a jugglers tricks were just that and I think James himself knew this and, unable to tie them to the same heretical conspiracies as his other 'witches', accused them of deception, being against the general principles of the bible.

If we go back to actual belief: before the disillusioned Victorians romantically revived and formalised arcane belief systems, there wasn't a rigid belief system behind witchcraft. The church defined it as the evocation of lesser demons, like incubus and sucubus, at the bidding of the devil - which ironically requires a belief in both the devil and god. But the point is that none of this was written down. The alleged practitioners had nothing other than old bits of custom and perhaps the odd folk remedy and charm - and if you look at the actual stuff 'exposed' in discoverie, it's from all over the place - probably for want of sensationalism.

Cornelius Agrippa had written his books on Occult Philosophy, which James also lambasts but, realistically, with their latin blend of magic, philsophy and science, I think this was probably the equivalent of a brief history of time - a shelf ornament that few people actually read or understood.

I think Scot's text is best read as a 'tongue in cheek expose' written to amuse and entertain those who could read and my conclusion from this is that your average man didn't hold any particular views on the occult and didn't hold a literal belief in magic - despite the support of witch trials. Arthur Miller seems to have it right on writing the crucible as an allegory on McCarthyism.

The interesting point is the presentation of magic - why the wand and other seemingly occultish paraphernalia? I think the answer to this is that magic was referencing popular culture in the same way as, for example, plays by Shakespeare and Marlowe and books by Scot and the King.

And it's always sought a 'fringe explanation' - from the pseudo science of 19th century 'professors' to the last unexplored fringes of the mind of this generation's 'psychological illusionsts.'

Obviously, there are figures that cross over - sometimes literally - like in the rise of spiritualism. I find it very interesting that today's spiritualists don't submit themselves to the 'tests' of yesteryear, with incarceration and bodily manifestations - it would make for an entertaining show and I wonder if this shows that we're less credulous these days or whether it's just easier and less risky to cold read to the converted.

It's interesting to be in the audience of somebody like Derren Brown and listen to the remarks from people who take his presentation literally - and to experience this yourself if you ever use patter about using body language etc. I think there is a nostalgic desire to believe that perseveres throughout the ages, resurfacing at times when material concerns would otherwise dominate. Why is this and what do we think about a belief in magic now, or at any time?

Finally, a vaguely relevant anecdote. The president of my local club is a benedictine monk and I was chatting to him about this same thing a while ago and was naturally steered towards the doctrine of trans-substantiation. He interestingly said that he personally reads it as a metaphor but that in his youth, it was literally held to be the physical manifestation blood and body of christ. It's always difficult to judge what other people are actually thinking - particularly in matters of religion - but can there have been such a shift in received belief? I suppose that religion itself is at least suspension of disbelief or at most faith in the face of contradiction (and I mean this positively). It is controversial but what do we think about the connection between religion and other supernatural belief systems? Is there an evolution in belief in the same way as science etc? - Are more particular beliefs outmoded in favour of more universal ones? Is there a profile to believers? Can skeptics be converted?

I'd love to hear what you think!

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Postby magicam » 11/30/10 07:51 PM

[color:#990000]" ... we know that the reason so few complete copies of Discoverie are thought to exist is that James 1st ordered them to be destroyed ... "[/color]

Oli, we don't know that at all. It is probably a myth, but in any case, at present there doesn't seem to be a shred of contemporary evidence supporting that story; it has been uncritically parroted by many magic history writers.

Also, as very old magic books go, Scot's work is by far the most common of the bunch, and is not regarded as a truly rare book by most veteran collectors.
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Postby houdini's ghost » 11/30/10 10:41 PM

There is a very interesting page about the Davenport Bros. at:
http://bellanta.wordpress.com/2009/01/3 ... mic-twist/
Melissa Bellanta points out that the Davenports' Spirit Cabinet act was funny. Spooky? Yes. Mysterious? Yes. But, like every other spirit cabinet act, funny.
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Postby David Alexander » 12/01/10 12:36 AM

A key sentence from the article Pat linked to: "From reviews of their shows in Victoria and South Australia, its clear that audiences roared with laughter throughout the night, watching the brothers make fools of important members of their local communities."

So you can see why people showed up to watch the pompous and self-important get their "just deserts." A sort of "revenge of the common man" on people most couldn't touch. No wonder the Davenport brothers were popular and successful. They gave the audience what they wanted.
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Postby Oli Foster » 12/01/10 10:10 AM

Thanks, that's interesting about the Davenports - that the spirit cabinet routine was just abit of spooky fun to take the mickey out of people rather than anything really connected with spiritualism and they never actually provided any explanation for it themselves. I was interested that, when they performed in the North of England, they had to have new cabinets built because the audience stormed the stage and smashed it up. It looks like different people took it in different ways.

Re the Discoverie of Witchcraft being destroyed by James 1st, it's interesting that this might be a myth and also interesting that this is more readily available than it might seem. James refers to both Scot and Agrippa in Daemonologie so he clearly had issues with their books - one promoting occultism and the other making it look silly. It all reminds me abit of nazism and I think the social psychology of persecution must be similar. As to belief, perhaps this is also comparable. I know it's still a sensitive subject but if we compare it to Nazism, it's probably reasonable to say that active Nazis were outwardly patriotic but didn't necessarily actually 'believe' in the 'ideals' they were acting on - which could probably also be said of anybody in any war. It's probably the same with witch hysteria - that grassing up your neighbour wasn't necessarily inspired by the belief that they were a witch.

I was very interested in Peter Lamont's book on Daniel Dunglas Home, 'the first psychic'. This is a great read with good detail about his various feats and tests, with some speculation about possible methods (I was looking forward to finding out how he flew through that window but was left none the wiser really) Home presents an interesting example of somebody 'who wasn't caught cheating' and made a living by accepting gifts along with his board at the house he was performing at rather than by charging a fee. This probably helped his credibility, which was probably also helped by the invited guests not being overly critical of the entertainment their host had arranged.

So, Falkenstein & Willard performed the spirit cabinet and David Copperfield had a kind of 'illusiony' version but it's interesting we don't see this kind of thing being done anymore - re poltergeist stuff, manifestations, ectoplasm, levitations, orbs, fiery hands etc.

In Derren Brown's first tour, which I think might have been called Mind Control, he had a ouija board spell out the name of a member of a spectator's dead father and then proceeded to describe him. Looking back, this is quite an interesting thing to slot into a mentalist show and you wonder what people really make of it - although the general perception seems to be that he uses psychological principles rather than our more familiar dodges (and this seems to really p*ss certain magicians off)

I was having a conversation about the morality of psychics verses religion. The interesting thing is that most people assume that whilst both a psychic and a priest counsel and advise in the name of their particular brand of belief, the psychic's motives are assumed to be insincere, whereas the priest is assumed to be sincere. Few would assume that both could be bluffing with either good or bad intentions.

Do we think that a belief in magic fulfils the same kind of need as religion?
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Postby Travis » 12/01/10 11:49 PM

The centerpiece of our show is the Spirit Cabinet. The Cabinet is a challenging piece in our day, as spiritualism and light seances are not generally known to people outside magic, so it's necessary to 'get them up to speed', so to speak. It must be done fairly quickly and efficiently, so as not to lose the audience. My routine runs anywhere between 13 and 17 minutes. There is quite a bit that takes place before the effects even begin to occur, but, done well, the set-up is a fascinating journey for the audience, as are the manifestations.
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Postby magicam » 12/02/10 02:47 AM

Oli, based on my modest research, it seems that no official records were kept of royal orders to burn books. While some books were ordered burned while James was king, there are no known contemporary accounts of Scot's book being burned, and not until 1813 well over 200 years after James ascended the English throne is he even associated with the burning of The Discoverie. So while we can't say with certainty that the Scot book burning story is a myth, we can say that the evidence therefor is practically nonexistent based on the most current scholarship. But I do think we can be more certain in saying that the scarcity of Scot's book has nothing to do with any book burning (assuming it actually happened), because in nearly all cases book burnings were symbolic some official (often the common hangman) would publicly burn only one copy.

With respect to rarity, Raymond Toole Stott has been quoted as saying that he saw at least 40 copies while he was traveling and compiling his conjuring bibliography. By comparison, there is only one copy known of Hill's Natural and Artificial Conclusions (1581), fewer than 4 copies known of the 1612 and 1614 editions of Rid's The Art of Jugling, only one copy known of Johnson's Dainty Conceits (1630), and for any early edition of Hocus Pocus Junior (1634, 1635, 1638 and 1654), fewer than 6 six copies are known. So Scot's book is pretty darned common in comparison, and it remains true today that any well-heeled collector can, with a little patience, obtain a copy of the first edition of Scot. I do not even consider a 1584 Scot to be particularly scarce, whereas obtaining copies of the other books mentioned above is practically impossible, no matter how much one may be willing to spend. Such titles are truly rare, both absolutely and in commerce, and note that there are no stories about these books being ordered burned.
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Postby Jonathan Townsend » 12/02/10 09:39 AM

Oli, I believe this matter: "Do we think that a belief in magic fulfils the same kind of need as religion?" transgresses the bounds of civil discourse on this BBS. You can see the raised hackles where I discuss a study of magic(k) per-se as model for our character/effect work - and so expect nothing but trouble down that path of your question.
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Postby magicam » 12/02/10 11:36 AM

^^^ Jonathan, irritation develops because you derail many threads with comments and references that few (if any) people here can comprehend, and you also often ignore sincere questions posed to you or respond to such questions with more apparent logical and linguistic gibberish. For example, here are a couple of serious questions:

1. What is "magic(k) per-se"? What does that term mean?

2. Why do you think it's relevant or important to effect a "study of magic(k) per-se as model for our character/effect"?

If you can't write in a manner which provides meaning to most forum readers, I honestly don't understand why you bother posting. I don't care how many thousands of posts you have on this board or the Cafe, but if I start a thread, I do care about having a reasonable and reasonably comprehensible dialog on the subject matter at hand.
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Postby Jonathan Townsend » 12/02/10 11:57 AM

This should not be a personal matter as yours truly is merely following through on the advice given by none less than Robert-Houdin and the example set, if I recall correctly, in "Our Magic" about the bit player who would spend much time getting the costume and manerisms right even for just a few moments on stage.

Perhaps we disagree about the implication of "actor playing the role of wizard/sorcerer"? I sought out our culture's opinion of what a wizard is and what sort of things they have and know and believe. Perhaps we read the books and interpreted the matters differently?

Now unless dicussing the practical methodology of a trick I feel it appropriate to cite primary source material - or when that is not directly available - the best illustration from available literature. For example the Ottaviani book shows some about the performers, their behavior and communicates some about how other people were directly affected. Similarly the Gaiman and Moore works are IMHO troves of imagery and ideas we might use in our production design of tricks for audiences. These works reference well documented history of magic(k) through the ages and also in the fictional space of comicbook characters, and that makes them all the more appealing to me. Two layers of mythic interpretation - two chances to glean the idea in context.

[grouse]
Do you know and undestand that story about the guy bringing a basket to his friend?
Does Moore's Promethea inspire nothing but ire from you?
[/grouse]
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Postby houdini's ghost » 12/02/10 12:20 PM

This may seem like a non sequiter response to the previous post, but, I am reminded, that in days of the fun factories: Sennett, Roach, et al, the writing staffs would keep a lunatic on the payroll. In those days, the lunatics contributed bizarre ideas for the comedies.
Today, they often hijack threads.
I don't mean to imply that this thread has been hijacked--yet.
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Postby Jonathan Townsend » 12/02/10 12:57 PM

HG - et al,

"The conjuror claims to possess supernatural powers; he holds in his hand a wand the might of which nothing can resist. "

Again, not my words. Same chapter as referenced on the other thread, as translated by Angelo Lewis.
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Postby Oli Foster » 12/03/10 09:48 AM

Magicam, you're probably right about there being a fair few copies of Discoverie in private collections. For example, the first (and only) time I handled a first edition was, oddly enough, in Birmingham University special collections library, along with a copy of Daemonologie. I was very pleasantly surprised!

I've also been surprised by how much the Rodker edition with the Montague Summers foreword sells for compared to the other other Rodker/Montague Summers books and I think this ties in with what I was saying in the other thread about how the prospect of specifically selling to magicians pushes the price up of particular books. For example, somebody with an interest in demonology wouldn't be similarly penalised for buying reprints of equally rare books, not that this is necessarily a bad thing.

Re the Robert Houdin reference to an actor playing the part of a magician, I agree that this was simply Houdin saying that he didn't mean anything supernatural by the word magician in context with the other definitions.

It's very easy to take printed words literally but I think the victorians (including Houdin), like us, presented magic tongue in cheek rather than literally trying to play the part of 'magicians'. If we look at Houdin's presentation of, say, the ethereal suspension, there's a deliberate pun on the word 'ethereal', alongside a pseudo-scientific explanation of the effects of ether. I'm sure that it played as a surprising effect but the point is that Houdin wasn't pretending it was supernatural. The actual explanation was a mystery and the presentation was kind of an amusing tall tale cashing in on the prevailing interest in that kind of thing. I think it's similar to us saying that the specator has chosen an ambitious card that will naturally rise to the top of the deck. We're not trying to convince them that this is true or even create a drama about it being true - it's just a silly bit of patter that provides an idea for the specator to imagine, without believing, while watching the effect.

I'm therefore not sure that there is actually an example to follow with regard to getting into the part of a sorcerer etc. Obviously this kind of thing could apply to an illusion show where things can have a dramatic context but generally magic seems to be a series of effects threaded together by a general idea/persona - and there's no particular reason why that idea/persona should be a supernatural one - in fact, in today's culture, it probably makes more sense that it isn't, as we're looking for a hook for people to relate the effects to - for example that mentalism effects are achieved by an intuitive understanding of body language or that the magician can get away with misdirection under the guise of a bit of a daring jack the lad.

Generally speaking, if we literally pretend to be supernatural, we're just going to look abit silly. The wand was a useful excuse back in the day for palming larger objects in the hand that held it, as well as a presentational device for 'how the magic happens' in the same way that "the hand is quicker than the eye" was found to be a useful idea to explain how the magician moved things imperceptably and more impressively than the actual explanation - but I don't think for a moment that anyone sat and considered this literally.

Just my tuppence worth.
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Postby Jonathan Townsend » 12/03/10 10:18 AM

Oli, the matter of serious belief is one of the lines between our craft and that of the charlatan as regards public performance and our craft and that of the confidence man as regards informal performaces. In a related notion just because the magician made dollar bills turn to blank paper during the show does not mean the audience needs to worry that their wallets will contain blank paper slips after the show. IMHO that's why we get their permission to use the mechanics of guile - they know what we do is only pretend and only during the show.
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Postby magicam » 12/04/10 01:50 AM

Oli:
The demand (and thus high prices) for Scot's book reflects the fact that it appeals to many groups: magicians, social scientists, Shakespeare scholars, Elizabthan scholars, etc. That's why copies of the Rodker Scot are relatively more expensive than other Rodker titles, due to a wider market appeal.

There was a time when some magicians at least looked the part of sorcerers, and this seems most prevalent in the early 19th century. Consider Phillippe, who performed in ornate, long flowing robes and wore a tall, conical-shaped sorcerer's hat. To his audiences, I suspect that he very much resembled their conception of a "real" magician. So there are indeed examples of this.
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Postby John Wilson » 12/05/10 08:03 PM

Magick is defined best by Crowley (who added the k) as any act of true will. This definition points to the fact that the will, if it does exist, violates causal determinism.
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Postby Oli Foster » 12/06/10 10:16 AM

Is the idea of free will verses determinism a paradox? - in that, if everybody has free-will, then nobody does - kind of like the UK election result!

It's odd that both are opposing ideas but they both cancel each other out depending on whether you look at it on an individual or collective scale. Perhaps then, magic(k), is a metaphor for selfishness...
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Postby Jonathan Townsend » 12/06/10 10:31 AM

Okay - how did you get to the notion that "if everybody has free-will, then nobody does"?

In that post, the word selfishness - are you using that referent in the sense of solipsism, sociopathy, psychopathy, Rand, some other sense?

Also, using Satir catagories (or rhetorical) that's called a distraction. IMHO such seem a pretty good indicator that someone (or the group) has trouble approaching an idea or topic of discourse in general. A smarter person might have even gotten a working system of measures or a metric for that in general. For now it seems to me that the closer we get to "you own your actions, which are supposed to be congruent to your intents, which are your will set into action" the more we get such distractions.
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Postby Oli Foster » 12/13/10 09:33 AM

Thanks Jonathan,

To be honest, I'm not sure I understand what you're saying about rhetoric etc?

What I was tring to say about freewill was probably abit blase but the key thing I was about is that a literal belief in magic seems to require a belief in free will, given that magic seems to be broadly defined as a metaphysical realsiation of 'willpower'.

A contrary idea would seem to be determinism which (forgive my lack of reading on this subject) suggests that free will is merely an illusion because all outcomes are simply the consequence of everything that has passed before them.

If freewill is an illusion, it's a pretty convincing one but I feel I can personally relate more to the idea of determinism, given that it also ties in with things like darwinianism etc. I think, these days, alot of people do believe that they are a link in an unending chain of cause and effect.

There's the unending 'nature v nurture' argument that pops up occasionally in the media - normally with reference to criminals etc. Determinism would suggest it's all nature - that we are a product of our genes, whose variations are a combination of every previous variation and individual, microscopic circumstance. Can, anyone, in that case, be held accountable for their actions?

I think the illusion of freewill arises because we are conscious. There appears to be grounds to suggest that we would always have made the choices we made in those particular circumstances because we were predisposed to do so - and the idea of an alternative reality based on other choices only arises because we are capable of understanding that our actions have consequences (because we ourselves are a consequence of previous actions).

It's interesting that the nature of freewill only applies to conscious things, namely humans. Does a tree 'choose' to photosynthesise? No, we're just looking at the thing we call a tree because it survived by this process. This is my point that, "if we all have free will, then nobody does", as what is collective free will? - the choice to survive/coexist? - is that a choice and could the tree therefore also be said to be making that choice? Of course, the argument would be no, because it does not rationalise an alternative, it simply 'is'. However, determinism rationalises that there is no collective alternative because we all simply 'are'.

However, the very fact I'm not entirely selfish (although some would argue to the contrary) persuades me that this argument is flawed, that there is more in the nature of choice than inevitability - that we are inately capable of good things that we know are unlikely to directly or even indirectly benefit ourselves (or even future generations) Why would we be predisposd to make THOSE choices?

Perhaps this is the gap that is filled by faith?
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Postby Jonathan Townsend » 12/13/10 10:30 AM

Oli- I'm going to start a thread on the "magic, what's that?" issue. I'd like to believe folks here are up for more than the "it's what magicians do" or "it's what we find in the catalogs/shelves of magic shops" responses. Just what informs the audience about the part Robert-Houdin asks us to play as wonder workers and where did he (R-H) get the notion of a wand of indefeatable power, now referenced prominently in a movie folks are going to see by the thousands every day based on a work read by millions? I'm going to post my perspective based on research and some opinon as to what that means for us in this craft as regards the popular conception of "magic", then open the discussion for examination of the reasoning and alternative perspectives.

For now, perhaps reading Peter Watt's novel Blindsight and Charles Stross's Palimpsest will do for some informed discourse on the notions of self, free will and determinism in the world at large. Reading Greg Egan's stories including TAP or those which discuss the notion of "dust" may have to wait a bit. Same for Pullman's notion of "dust". Let's just say that there's much more to our 'woofle dust' if we so desire. It happens that the aforementioned fiction writers are also well read in the sciences and philosophy and so point the student to topics of current research.

If you are inclined to do some self-exploration on the matter of congruence, the first few seminar transcripts by Ricard Bandler and John Grinder include discussion of the Satir body-expression categories and also the process by which one can use behavioral methods to form associations between a mental state and a physical stimulus - they call it anchoring. Persuasive rhetoric requires some traction to form or move opinion. Change the nouns and adjectives to leave only the form and you have the start of what one might call spells - and others might have reaction formation and decry as mad-libs. Either way some knowlege of rhetoric is a worthwhile invenstment. Praxis in practice and all that. ;)

More - soon - and I will not to ask anyone to conflate our inner statistical notion of expectation with any spiritual notion of faith. Similarly this is not the time to discuss methods of forming, reinforcing or extinguishing belief. Tis the season to leave those waters calm. There's an ocean of possibilty to explore.

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