Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Gopnik on Magic

Magicians are, in their relations with one another, both extremely generous and extremely jealous. Just as chefs know that recipes are of little value in themselves, magicians know that learning the method is only the beginning of doing the trick. What they call “the real work” isn’t the method, which anyone can learn from a book (and, anyway, all decent magicians know roughly how most tricks are done), but the whole of the handling and timing and theatrics of the effect, which are passed along from magician to magician and from generation to generation. The real work is the complete activity, the accumulated practice, the total summing up of tradition and ideas. The real work is what makes a magic effect magical. (Adam Gopnik, "The Real Work: Modern Magic and the Meaning of Life," The New Yorker, March 17, 2008)

Of course, I really should have commented on this back in March or April, but this article is not as timely as the Hilary Clinton article in the same issue of The New Yorker!

Anyway, this was an excellent article by Adam Gopnik on magicians and how they understand what they do, and it was full of passages like this that seem to touch on the magic of other arts as well, including poetry. The "real work" is what separates the great magicians from the decent ones, and one could argue that it is a similar "real work" of "handling and timing and theatrics" that makes a great poet.

And that "real work" involves not just the timing of the individual performance (read, the individual poem), but a sense of "the complete activity, the accumulated practice, the total summing up of tradition and ideas"—that is, an understanding of what magic (or poetry) has already done, and what one's own contribution to that activity, that practice, that tradition, and its ideas is.


In the process of looking up that article, I discovered that one of my all-time favorite New Yorker profiles is also online: this one about the magician and actor Ricky Jay, from 1993. Now if only they had the David Mamet profile online, too (and there's a connection here, since Jay was in at least two of Mamet's movies, "The Spanish Prisoner" and "House of Games").

"Man is the animal who dreams. And when he dreams, he dreams of money." (Ricky Jay in "The Spanish Prisoner")

1 comment:

Joannie Stangeland said...

I REMEMBER reading that profile, but then I forgot the magician's name (I had a newborn baby at the time). Thank you for posting the link.