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Telling Civilians the Secrets

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I usually find that Adam Gopnik’s New Yorker pieces resonant on levels that go beyond his ostensible subject. In a recent New Yorker piece (March 17, 2008, to be precise), Gopnik writes about magic and magicians in The Real Work: Modern Magic and the Meaning of Life. Here are a few snippets:

What makes a trick work is not the inherent astoundingness of its effect but the magician’s ability to suggest any number of possible explanations, none of them conclusive, and none of them quite obvious.

…magic works best when the illusions it creates are open-ended enough to invite the viewer into a credibly imperfect world.

people participate in their own illusions.

And here’s the magician Jamy Ian Swiss talking about lessons learned when a cousin begged him to explain the secret of a trick:

She kept begging me and begging me to show her how I did it, and at last I did. And she was furious – absolutely furious! The trick was so simple, even stupid. I learned a huge lesson that day, and not just to not tell civilians the secrets. It was more complicated and ambiguous than that, and it’s taken me years to work out all of its meanings. It was that the trick was not the trick, and that it was the interchange between us that was the source of the effect.

Gopnik writes that one of the common threads that seems to link great magicians is their relationship to their audience; great magicians don’t work on their audiences, they work with them. As I read The Real Work, my mind kept sliding over into literature. Literature works best when it is a collaborative effort between writer and reader, a relationship that begins anew with every reader. This implies, of course, that a significant part of the way we talk about and evaluate literature must remain subjective. The failure to recognize this is one of the chief failures of any form of literary criticism that spends much of its time telling civilians all the “secrets.” Perhaps the ideal form of literary diagnostics would be one that creates a parallel activity, which alludes to and serves as commentary on a text while leaving the literary text intact and inviolate; an exploratory practice that contains possible explanations, none of which are conclusive. Such a practice requires a generous reader/practitioner unconcerned with being right.

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