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The Magic Cafe Forum Index » » The April 2004 entrée: Wesley James » » Suspension of Disbelief » » TOPIC IS LOCKED (0 Likes) Printer Friendly Version

Wesley James
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Hazlet, New Jersey
372 Posts

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As my week nears its end I thought it would be useful to raise an issue that may survive the end of my visit, providing food for thought and discussion for some time to come and, perhaps, compel some change in the way each reader approaches his/her role as magician. It expresses my opinion, not dogma, but it raises issues that call upon each and all to form their own opinions and bring them forth through their performances. After all, if you don't know what you're trying to communicate you probably shouldn't be communicating.

Suspension of Disbelief

While nearly all who use the expression are in broad agreement on the literal meaning of the term, owing to what appears a fundamental misunderstanding of the oft cited Coleridge statement from which the phrase "suspension of disbelief" derives, some exploration seems to me useful, as it is often misunderstood by magicians, though far less often by theater trained individuals. In Biographia Literaria, Coleridge wrote:

"It was agreed that my endeavors should be directed to persons and characters supernatural or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, that constitutes poetic faith." it is contextually evident he was referring to "persons and characters."

John Spencer Hill, in A Coleridge Companion (1983), explains "It was Coleridge's task to produce poems in which . . . Coleridge was to employ the supernatural as an expressive medium, or symbol, for 'romantic' emotional states (fear, guilt, remorse, etc.) and to imitate these states with such psychological fidelity and dramatic force that the reader, in a version of Aristotelian anagnorisis, would momentarily recognize truths of his own inner being . . ."

It is clear both from Coleridge and Hill that the "willing suspension of disbelief" of which we so often speak does not relate to events. It is a misguided understanding of the "poetic faith" upon which Coleridge hoped to prevail that leads one to endeavor to cause an audience to believe in the events they experience in an artistic enterprise. Beyond misguided, it is a largely thankless task.

In reading the words of Whit Hayden (Chicago Surprise) or by Juan Tamariz in his writings (The Magic Way and Five Points of Magic) this conclusion is suggested. I do not conclude that either of these men necessarily misunderstand, merely that their words may be misunderstood. For example, I seriously question the thesis "An audience is compelled to conclude that because they cannot discover or reason to another method, magic must be the method."

That argued dilemma, "There is no such things as magic/There is no other explanation," which I paraphrase as "It can't be so/It must be so," is an interesting experience for many. It is not, however, an emotional one but an intellectual one. The common, I believe defining, element in all Art is their emotional resonance, however much such resonance may be reached through sensory and/or intellectual avenues. I question, how magic can be considered an Art if its fundamental appeal/goal is intellectual. I do not dispute that this dilemma can be at work, only its role. The dilemma is a core tension in magic. Emotional tension, in whatever form it takes, is evident in all dynamic art forms but in effective magical performances "It can't be so/It must be so" is imperative, if no other conflict. It is this conflict that frames magic.

The problem with relying upon such a broadly defined tension, as perforce we must in magic, is that it provides a source of consternation not invitation. If this dilemma were the goal of magic, it would hold the audience at arms length, searching for clues, objectifying what they experience. This is not the stuff of artistic engagement.

The function of theatrical craft is to circumvent this distancing, to invite and engage. It is in this way and for that reason that magic must call upon the tools of theater to bring vitality to the quandary we offer up as entertainment fare. Moreover, it is the distinction between magic and charlatanism, therefore, magic must be theater. When magic is left to its shaman roots it loses also its ability to compel attention through fear or enigma alone. It is theater that restores it. It is precisely that sacrifice that was initiated by Scott and accepted by Houdin. We are forever burdened by it but we are compelled to accept it lest we revert to being charlatans, jugglers or puzzle-makers. Thus, without theater craft, devoid of an objective correlative, magic can be little more than folly.

I recognize that this is a tack taken by many and, however lamentable to those of us who are serious about magic as art, it can serve in that role, if only as amusement. When one regards magic as Art it takes on the burden of all art, to communicate emotion through manifestation, since it cannot be otherwise transmitted. I fear that, on the one hand, we may set our sights to low for what magic is and/or can be and, on the other, regard what we do, sans theater craft, too highly. As Houdin, long before Maskelyne, recognized, albeit poorly expressed, magic is a sub-set of theater in that it is limited to the tools of theater but it can be a super-set of theater, yielding an emotional response rarely, if ever, achieved through any other performance art. While many conventional and variety arts can elicit marvel at proficiency or prodigeon, no other theater art is capable of producing true "Wonder." Even if another art could, as some special effects endeavor to, they would not place the source of that wonder in the person but would be constrained to the event. It is because we who perform magic are people and can be identified with by our audiences that we allow their creative imagination to soar. We are conjurors of the imagination not compounders of problems to be solved. Our audiences have quite enough problems to solve in their daily lives.

While all performers must be somewhat larger than life to meet the burden of performance, within the walls of performance a balance must be struck between being human and more than human, a vision of the self that others can aspire to but which is believably attainable. The most effective artists are those that reflect a level of achievement about which others can dream in their imagination. It is this that gives substance to the wonder we are tasked to inspire. We can be the vehicle that demonstrates what it would be like to have the powers we profess to have.

There is much conjecture about why people respond to performance magic but it is hard to deny that the roots are primordial and common to the roots of religion, as the term is usually used. Many people have a need to believe there is someone or something greater than themselves, a set of rules beyond those they experience in the world. We can speak to that need by creating a world in which the rules are as we say they are, rather than as they are usually experienced. This is fertile soil for creative imagination which can be triggered by wonder over the things we do, encouraging our audiences to imagine what they could do if we/they had the power we profess. A truly accomplished performer allows the audience to suspend their disbelief that, however momentarily, the performer, as person or character, can do what we suggest we can. Then, to the degree our audiences can identify with us as people, they are given license to imagine what it would be like if they could do what we appear to do.

Wesley James
Tom Cutts
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Northern CA
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If, as I blieve, you are welcoming discussion, I offer the following.

Back many, many years ago when the purpose of contests for me was to win, I realized a very important subtlety. Do what others can not even hope to do, and you are pretty good. Do what others can do but do it far better, and you are great. Wesley, your words put new light on that finding.

It is the tension of knowing the difficulty being achieved due to one's familiarity with the skill at hand that creates the drama, the connection, the interest, the reaction. One has no idea the ability needed to walk on a tightrope unless one has attempted it. As such the skill is little different two inches or two hundred feet from the ground. We all can relate to the drama of falling two hundred feet and there is the emotional hook for tightrope performance. There is the knowing of the focus required and the concerns quieted to actually just be 200 feet in the air.

Some of the most dificult tricks in flying trapeze are the ones which are the least dramatic to an audience. The tricks which require that one hold their body in one graceful, continuous position as they fly through the air are more difficult to do well than many which require all sorts of contortions and compressions of the body while spinning wildly about. Don't get me wrong, they all require great amounts of skill and focus. But the ones people find dramatic (the ones they relate to emotionally) are not necessarily the most difficult to perform. Just like it can be in magic.

If one were to tell a painter, "You painted that tree so perfectly." I believe the painter may be crushed. If the average, uninitiated viewer were to tell an artist that his use of texture and perspective was exceptional, I fear the artist would be aghast. As Artists they, and we, strive for the emotional connection, not the intellectual one. Those who wish to be applauded for their dexterity are like the artists who splatter paint on a canvas in the desire to be rewarded for their "cleverness". There is no art there. Though I do not dispute that there are a few who do achieve art through their splatters.

"momentarily recognize truths of his own inner being" therein lies the crux of what I wish to achieve in my performance. Everything else is just the means to that end.

Thank you, Wesley, for reclarifying this journey.

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