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The Last Word

The Theory and Art of Magic - Series II Logo
-A New Liberal Art
B Y  D R.  L A W R E N C E  H A S S

The word is out, the tickets are on sale: Magic is coming back to Muhlenberg this fall!
Indeed, the College is producing a second series of its nationally recognized, award-winning program, "The Theory and Art of Magic." Being an amateur magician and author of several articles about the philosophy of magic, I created this program to share my passion for this extraordinary art form with the College community.Photo of Dr. Lawrence Hass
My basic idea was to bring to the College a group of brilliant, professional magicians who were also renowned as the leading thinkers and innovators of the art. These "magicians-in-residence" would, of course, perform their unique forms of magic, but they would also teach classes and give lectures about the nature of performance magic and its important place in our lives and cultures.
During the fall of 1999, through the strong support of President Arthur R. Taylor, Dean Curtis Dretsch and many other people at the College, I was able to take this unusual idea and turn it into an extremely successful series of events. So successful, in fact, that I could not resist the invitation to try it again, even bigger than before. To this end, we have arranged visits for the fall of 2002 with some of the most celebrated magicians of our times: Max Maven, Jeff McBride, Eugene Burger, Rene Lavand, Marc DeSouza and Robert E. Neale. Indeed, these are the magicians that magicians enjoy. These are the experts that magicians travel long distances to study with.
Magic is an incredibly ancient art, with images of magicians engraved in the pyramids and tombs of Egypt, with clear references to the art in the Book of Exodus and other ancient texts, with evidence of its practice reaching back to pre-ancient Shamanism. Also, magic is a remarkably universal art. Every human culture we know has a place for performance magic, from the fakirs of India, from the great stages and television screens on six continents, from the mammoth showrooms in Las Vegas, to street corner entertainers the whole world over.
And so the questions emerge: Why do we humans apparently crave magic? Why do we embrace this "art of deception?" Why do we need magic in our lives and cultures? Why do we hold "The Magician" as one of the great archetypes of human possibility?
To me, these are fascinating questions - wonderful, important questions - that interweave with issues in psychology, history, religion, sociology, philosophy, anthropology, communication studies and the theatrical arts. But they are also questions that don't really have a place within the traditional academy. Rest assured that our magicians-in-residence will have a great deal to say about these questions and the issues they raise from a rich variety of perspectives. However in this brief space, as "the last word," let me say one thing to pique your interest: I myself don't think magic is "the art of deception" at all!
I realize this might sound strange. I realize that people talk about magic as "tricks," and it would seem that such things must aim to deceive and fool people. However, I would like to suggest that these notions really "mis-direct" our attention from a deeper secret of magic: that excellent magic of any kind has the power to re-awaken the experience of wonder.
Indeed, I would say that magic, more deeply and richly understood, is the art of wonder, not deception. Illusion plays a role, of course (as it does in all the arts), but that is not its point, not its raison d'etre. Rather, magic is an art of creating and cultivating experiences where our mundane, habituated thoughts about ourselves and the world are shattered, where we find ourselves astonished that the world can be so surprising, where we find deep pleasure in the impossible-made-real. And in these moments of mystery we can find ourselves transformed.
These experiences of astonishing transformation don't merely happen in the magical theater. They happen throughout our human lives in experiences where we wake up from "the everyday" and see the world anew. This happens, for instance, with the birth of a new child. It can occur in the classroom when fresh perspectives or paradigms burst through old habits of thinking. It can happen when experiencing art - great novels, paintings, theatre and poems. However, one thing to say about the art of magic is that it self-consciously works to attain this extraordinary effect. Those moments when our jaw hangs open, when "it makes no sense," when our experience slips off its hinges and we come alive!
Wonder and transformation: in my view these vitally important human experiences are the lifeblood of great performance magic, and they begin to explain why we humans are, and have always been, so deeply and sometimes secretly fascinated by this art. This fall, for your enjoyment and reflection, we will bring this secret art into the open at Muhlenberg. Won't you join us? (For series details and ticket information, visit www.muhlenberg.edu/cultural/magic.)

Dr. Lawrence Hass is an associate professor of philosophy. Along with magic, he teaches and specializes in phenomenology, aesthetic, and post-modern philosophy.


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