Elliott Terral

The Magic of Meaning

This is an excerpt from the first chapter of Henning Nelms' Magic and Showmanship: A Handbook for Conjuring, an absolute must-read in our list of important magical publications.

No matter how astonishing a trick may be, it suffers from one major fault - it has no point. Suppose you could work miracles. Suppose that, without coming near me, you simply gestured toward my pocket and told me to put my hand in it. I did so and took out a ham sandwich. This would no doubt amaze me, but after I had recovered from my surprise my only feeling would be, "So What?"

But suppose I say, "I'm hungry," and you reply, "I can fix that. Look in your left coat pocket." When I do so, I find a sandwich. This has a point. It makes sense. You cannot work that sort of miracle, but you can add meaning to your conjuring.

Even the celebrated classics of conjuring have no point. The spectator may say, "Marvelous." However, he then shrugs his shoulders and adds mentally, "But what of it?" This is why many people find tricks dull. They feel that any form of entertainment should have meaning. When they can find none in a trick, they yawn.

Consider the well-known Four Ace Trick for example. The Aces are dealt on a table. Three indifferent cards are placed on each Ace. A pile is chosen by a spectator. When it is turned over, it is found to contain call four Aces and the other piles are shown to consist of indifferent cards. The audience may be amazed, but the trick makes little impression because it has no significance. If you could perform real magic, even very minor magic, would you waste it on an effect like that?

An illusion is entirely different. The fact that the performer claims a supernormal power, and proposes to demonstrate it, arouses attention. It gives the spectators a definite idea on which to focus: Can this man substantiate his incredible claim? The mental attitude of the audience watching an illusion is far removed from that of one watching a mere trick.

Interest depends entirely on the meaning. The degree of interest that spectators take in any performance is in direct proportion to its meaning for them. The more meaning you can pack into a presentation, the more interest it will excite. An illusion creates interest because the conjurer gives it meaning by proposing to demonstrate some remarkable power. A typical trick has no meaning beyond the fact that it presents a puzzle and challenges the audience to find a solution.

Many people find puzzles dull. Even the enthusiast is bored by some types of puzzles. Conjuring puzzles are not likely to fascinate anyone who is not a conjuring-puzzle addict.

Conjuring puzzles have a special weakness. When a spectator meets the challenge by solving the puzzle, the conjurer loses. When the spectator fails, he regards the conjuring puzzle like any other puzzle; he gives up and feels entitled to be told the answer. This places the performer in an insolvable dilemma. If he refuses to divulge his secret, the spectators feel frustrated and resentful; if the conjurer yields, the explanation seems so trivial that they feel let down.

When we supply meaning, we eliminate the challenge, and the puzzle becomes secondary. After the climax, the spectator may wonder how it was achieved. But even then, the puzzle element is greatly weakened. In fact, if the meaning is made strong enough, many spectators may not realize that there is any puzzle to solve...

Dan Buck

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