In a recent article in Prospect Magazine (May Issue 194, pp. 79-82), Laura Marsh argues that the world is witnessing a new kind of magic that is ‘far removed from the circus-style trickery of sawing women in half’, where the cutting edge performers (of which I am pleased to be one) seek to use the methods of magic and mentalism to address larger issues and deeper meanings in people’s lives. This ‘new magic’ is contrasted to the stage and TV magic that features ‘sparkly shirts’ and ‘rabbits being pulled from hats’.
While it is highly flattering to be included in this new category alongside such performers as Derren Brown, David Blaine, and Luke Jermay, I wonder if what I (and a few of my selected magical colleagues) are trying to achieve actually harks back to a much earlier period in the history of magic.
A little over a week ago, on his Radio 4 programme ‘In Our Time’, Melyvn Bragg featured a number of academics talking about the neo-Platonists who sought to rescue Platonic thought of the kind found in Timaeus, where he built a complete theory of humankind, the world, and the universe, with all its correspondences and underlying mathematical foundations.
The neo-Platonists spanned a huge period in history but had great influence on Renaissance magic, as well as the ‘scholar magicians’ of the time, such as Pico de Mirandola, Cornelius Agrippa and John Dee. These great minds engaged in ‘metaphysical plurality’ as they embraced scientific inquiry, philosophical reflection, and esoteric explorations.
Their work sought to address the working of nature and the world, as well as explore the human psyche as it relates to larger ‘unseen’ forces. Their tradition was to be carried forward by other such luminaries as Sir Isaac Newton, who in the latter years after he formulated his Principia Mathematica engaged in alchemical explorations and experimented with the idea of ether; and Jung who developed a large portion of work on psychoanalysis through the study of alchemy (physical and spiritual).
Throughout this period, magicians in many ways were displaced either by science or religion, and were cast out as evil, unacceptable, heretical or irrational. Magicians, witches, cunning folk, and ‘popular magi’ were ostracised, persecuted and even put to death.
In the middle of the 19th Century, a lawyer named Angelo Lewis published a book under his pseudonym Professor Hoffmann called Modern Magic. This book provided encyclopaedic coverage of all manner of magic tricks and led to the creation of the ‘gentleman magician’ who donned a top hat and tail coat, performed in respectable urban theatres, and made sanitized allusions to ‘darker forces’ in their stage shows.
Many have celebrated the advent of the gentleman magician, since it rescued magic from its ridiculed form and made it a respectable art. As stage magic, and its counterparts of close-up and street magic, have evolved, however, less savoury features have developed that culminated in the very trappings of the ‘Old Magic’ to which the Prospect article refers. Gone were the top hats and tuxedos, dinner suits and bow ties. Sparkly tops, glamorous assistants, and cheesy patter took over.
The ‘New Magic’ to which Prospect refers seeks to recapture meaning, substance and mystery. But in my view, it is tapping into the much older tradition of the Renaissance scholar magicians. It is an axiom of the New Magic (or my own sense of the real Old Magic) that audiences are concerned with themselves that they want to learn about things that affect them, and want to explore deep questions and concerns that they have at the forefront of their minds.
There is a wonderfully creative and inspirational set of magical practitioners that are part of Psycrets: The British Society of Mystery Entertainers doing the kind of performances that achieve this kind of depth. Through the use of simple objects and a variety of different means, they engage their audiences in ways that go deep into perennial concerns such as nostalgia, fear, memory, childhood, travel, love, health, among many others.
They have a huge variety of substantive interests beyond mentalism, including philosophy, social constructivism, social science methodology, psychology, law, history of the book, Russian, drama studies, acting, horror, design, computer programning, motivational speaking, coaching, among many others. The intellectual and practical formation of such people means that they engage with their audiences in completely different ways than the mainstream magicians popular on television programmes of the kind referenced in the Prospect article.
And through their performances they are returning magic to its former self: an experience that is crafted to bring about transformation in an audience. Such a transformation can be unsettling and disruptive, but for the audience member (or participant as we prefer to call them) it is guaranteed to be magic with meaning.