Infinity, Dreams, and Secrets: Magical Inspirations from the Content and Style of Borges’s Ficciones
The first selection of Half Half Man’s book club was Jorge Luis Borges’s Ficciones. I found it to be a collection of thought-provoking and (honestly) weird stories. Though the book was recommended by magicians for magicians, I found them interesting purely from a literary angle, not just in its applications to magic, which are plentiful and the focus of this essay. But before I delve into those, I wanted to mention the value I find in reading classic, timeless literature; I enjoyed each of the short stories as it stood on its own, and I liked discovering the patterns between them when considered together in the collection, conveying a common mood and set of themes.
I found lots of inspiration in the book across both its two major axes: its content and its style. These same two axes apply in exactly the same way to the process of creating and performing magic, where content is equivalent to effect and theme, and where style is equivalent to presentation and showmanship. As I mentioned before, these same inspirations can be drawn from Ficciones by any person who wants to appreciate so many subtleties and interesting questions in life, not just by magicians, though I will focus here on inspirations I felt as a magician. I found inspirations from Borges’s content both for the content of magic and the style of magic, as many of the stories’ themes can be starting points for effects and also inspirations for finding one’s personal style. Similarly, I found inspirations from Borges’s style of writing for both the content (effects) and style (showmanship) of one’s magic performances. Below I catalog the most remarkable things I learned across these two axes from the various stories that stood out most to me.
Inspiration from the Content of Ficciones
Dreams and fantasy: I loved the story about the man who dreamed like it was his job. I was inspired by the idea of dreaming in a serious way, towards a creative purpose. And the twist, surprise ending of reality being the dream of someone else reminded me of my favorite movie, The Matrix. What is magic if not the idea of a fluid, changeable world where dreams can become reality? Many effects already start out with the idea that the magician had a dream of something that actually does occur or tells the story of a dream he had which collides head on with the spectator’s reality. The act of dreaming is already one truly magical experience we all share as humans, and one that science still doesn’t understand; for me, that’s an inspiring and thought-provoking subject for many effects.
Infinity and cycles: There were several stories where Borges explored the cyclical nature of life, numbers, and experience and how this cyclical nature creates infinite possibilities. The two main examples that inspired me in this regard were the “circular” story where the end is the beginning and the story of the infinite library, illustrating infinite possibilities that give us the potential for anything but can also overwhelm us with indecision and a sense of being lost. This concept can directly apply to effects where the odds are so incredibly slim for the magician to succeed or for the coincidence to happen. And the idea of the cycle can be used to create effects where the ending connects directly to the beginning in a novel and impossible way.
Parallel worlds: A related theme that appears in several stories is the idea of multiple definitions and parallel worlds, which made me think of the parallel universe interpretation of quantum mechanics. In a magic effect, the magician’s apparent defiance of physics makes the audience continually wonder, “Are you sure you are seeing what you think you are seeing?” (And that was the same question that ran through my mind as I read so many of Borges’s stories.) This concept can directly inspire an effect where multiple selections happen in parallel with several people, where one of them ends up matching reality, but all of them could’ve been possible and yet only the “right” parallel world ended up being the real one.
Memory and thinking: The idea of memory and the process by which one thinks were recurring explicit themes in a few of the stories. When does one remember, and when does one think? What is the value of focusing on details and inductive thinking and what is the value of generalizing and deductive thinking? There is an entire category of effects where the magician can start with these concepts from Borges’s stories and explore the power of memory, of remembering apparent details, of generalizing to make predictions and spot “patterns,” and of calculating and intentional, rational thinking.
Secrets: I haven’t gone back to verify this, but the word “secret” appears in almost (or maybe exactly) every story in Ficciones! You’d think Borges set out to write a book of stories for lovers of secrets (including, but not limited to, magicians). In his stories, Borges plays the role of the narrator, describing certain fictional (?) secrets about the world and the process of revealing or finding them. There are even stories where the characters seek out to find rumored secrets (like the unknown society in the world). His stories show the value of secrets as inspiration, and magicians’ effects aim to show their power in the same way; for example, many effects purport to share a secret with the audience, teaching them how to perform a trick, or share the experience of uncovering or searching for a secret and the path the magician took to find it.
Symbols: So many of Borges’s stories strike me as symbolic in nature, both in their theme and in their actual plot, characters, and objects. There is even a story that deals with this directly, where words and numbers stand for other words and numbers (very confusing!). It makes me as the reader wonder whether perhaps the words in Borges’s stories actually stand for other words (and stories), and how to decipher his code. A related theme that comes up in a few stories is the power of the indirect method, like talking about some subject without using an obvious or key word. So much in magic is about codes and cryptography, and the entire art of card magic, which Hofzinser called the “poetry of magic” (1), is about symbols: red and black cards for the duality principle of life (day and night, good and evil), four suits as the four seasons, twelve court cards as the twelve months of the year, etc. (2). A magic effect about only a piece of metal (a coin) or a piece of paper (a card) is just a trick which is easily forgotten; but a magic effect about a human connection or experience (like the greed for money or the unpredictability of love), told through a story where the cards or coins are actors and symbols, is much more interesting.
Unexpected connections: A related concept to symbols is the idea of unexpected connections between people and events, and in some stories, these connections are even taken advantage of to communicate a message. Borges’s stories knit an intricate web of connections between times and things, between divergent, convergent, and parallel storylines, and I believe his stories remain so classic in large part due to this richness. Some quick and visual magic effects can create a big pop, but the audience quickly comes down from that sugar high; it is the effects that have multiple parallel stories and levels of interpretation that stick in the minds of the audience like splinters... for days or sometimes for a lifetime.
Randomness and control: Does the future already exist? Can it be controlled or foreseen? These are concepts that Borges’s stories play with, and magicians’ effects can do so in much the same way. One of my favorite stories is the one about the society run by the lottery, where many aspects of life are explicitly decided randomly (including who lives and dies). As psychological researchers have shown us (and casino and slot machine designers have known for a while and now taught to social network designers), there is something inherently addictive to animals in variable, random rewards (3). And so much of what determines one’s path in life and many macro variables around the world is much more logically explained by chance than the narratives we create to make ourselves feel like we understand and are in control (4). However random the world may be, we each still have decisions to make at critical points in our lives, and these are a matter of pure free will and control. The magician can easily take Borges for inspiration in this regard in effects about random orderings, free selections, and mysterious coincidences.
Contradiction: Many (all?) of Borges’s stories are weird and unusual in some regard, but some take this even further and introduce explicit contradictions. I even wrote down the inspiring quote, “Sometimes you need to risk a reasonable contradiction.” This reminded me of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s keen observation that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” (5). Scientists create new knowledge by seeking out contradictions to established “facts,” and it is only in trying to find disconfirming evidence that one is doing real science (6). One of my favorite definitions of the “magical experience” that the magician aims to inspire in the audience comes from Darwin Ortiz: the collision (contradiction?) between the logic in one’s mind and the emotions one feels as a response to the impossibilities one sees with one’s eyes (7-8). My favorite effects are those that explore this idea of contradiction and impossibility head on.
Inspiration from the Style of Ficciones
Dreams and fantasy: What is magic if not the idea of a fluid, changeable world where dreams can become reality? And who is the magician if not the one whose mission it is to dream? In my earlier discussion of inspiration from the theme of dreaming and fantasy, I wrote about the man who dreamed like it was his job (maybe he was a magician!), and it is straightforward to construct effects centering on these themes. Here, in my current discussion of inspiration from Borges’s writing style in application to the magician’s style, the question I explore is different: What does Borges teach (indirectly, of course, and by example) about how a magician should design and perform his or her effects, and what is the value and purpose of magic at all? If anyone is a supporter of magic as a worthwhile pursuit, it is Borges, as he has elevated the act of dreaming and mental creation to a real job. Magic does have important value: by dreaming, one invents and changes the world, first in one’s head and then outside it, and by sharing these dreams with others and inspiring one’s audience to dream in turn, one truly the changes the world for the better and makes dreams come true, directly and indirectly.
Infinity and cycles: Earlier, I mentioned how the explicit themes of infinite possibilities and the cycles in life can be starting points for effects; here, I wish to point out how these same concepts can strengthen the method of a magic effect and the style of the magician. In the same way that Borges constructs some stories where the ending comes back to the beginning in some way and makes the reader remember something from earlier in a new light, the magician can use this same concept, which Keith Johnstone from the world of improv calls “reincorporation” (9), to structure methods and patter to include multiple phases, strengthening conviction by emphasizing infinite possibilities, and connecting the ending of an effect in its style with the beginning.
Deep and worldly expertise: I absolutely loved how Borges was an expert in so many subjects and languages, and this came out indirectly through the diverse topics he wrote about. I loved how he included numerous quotes in foreign languages (some real and some imagined), and I loved how he drew inspiration from the many sources he cited (again, some real and some imagined) both from the world of fictional literature and most importantly from outside that world. Multiple stories reference The Thousand and One Nights, include passages in French, and completely immerse the reader in the worldliness and expertise of Borges across so many fields. (It’s exactly what the Half Half Man Book Club is aiming to achieve: help educate and broaden the horizons of magicians through reading from many disciplines.) The reader, immersed in the expertise and detailed imaginary world created by the author, can’t help but appreciate his care and effort; it is like Juan Tamariz’s 2nd veil of mystery, the “mystery of the knowledge” (10): “If you know more about the trick or its author or its history, the more you know, the more your magic is deep, and people feel this; how they feel this, I don’t know, but they feel it.”
Interweaving reality and fantasy: Borges does an incredible job at mixing real names and places with fictional ones in his stories; he does this within a story and between stories. At a superficial level this confuses the reader, but once the reader has accepted Borges’s welcome and opened his or her mind to appreciating the blended real/fantasy world he has created, the reader develops sincere interest in the fictional parts of Borges’s world and even starts to care about it. A magician in a similar way can mix amazing, yet true facts with fictional stories (dreams?), and he or she can create truly compelling entertainment if this is done in Borges’s style, making the audience care as much about the fiction as the non-fiction.
Commitment to the fantasy world: I have never come across an author so committed to the fantasy world he creates as Borges. By committed, I mean committed in his belief that the world is real. I was deeply impressed by how Borges wrote about fantasy worlds and societies like Tlón as if they were completely real, complete with “authoritative” quotations, citations, and academic endnotes. There are two corollaries of this idea to a magician’s showmanship. The first is the magician’s commitment to his or her onstage character or persona, truly being that character and making every element of wardrobe, speech, gestures, and mannerisms consistent. This is like the breadth of the magician’s commitment and development of his or her character. The second corollary is the depth of the magician’s commitment to his or her character and to the effect in question and its themes; the audience can tell when the magician has complete confidence and belief in what he or she is saying, in the story being conveyed and the phenomena being demonstrated. For the magician, what is the equivalent of Borges’s academic endnotes to a completely made up story? How can an effect be taken that one step further?
The first selection of Half Half Man’s book club was a challenge and also a lot of fun to read. I found the collection of weird, semi-fantastical stories to be inspirational for me as a human, as a writer, and as a magician. The ideas that struck me across the two major axes of content and style reinforced for me the value of reading classic literature and finding sources of inspiration from diverse fields. Borges has left me with a sense of imagination, a desire to dream and fantasize, an appreciation for the infinities, possibilities, and cycles in life, the symbolic and secret connections all around us, and the power of learning and commitment to one’s story.
1. "You see, dear friend, poetry is to literature what cards are to close-up magic." Translated by John Gilliland from an original German letter written by Johann Hofzinzer, dated 1871.
2. Roberto Giobbi. Card College Vol. 1. Hermetic Press, 1995.
3. Susan Weinschenk. “Use Unpredictable Rewards To Keep Behavior Going: Do you know what the casinos know?” Psychology Today. 2013.
4. Nassim Taleb. Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets. Random House, 2005.
5. Ralph Waldo Emerson. “Self-Reliance.” Essays: First Series. 1841.
6. Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts. Mariner Books, 2008.
7. Darwin Ortiz. Strong Magic: Creative Showmanship for the Close-Up Magician. 2011.
8. Darwin Ortiz. Designing Miracles: Creating the Illusion of Impossibility. 2006.
9. Keith Johnstone. Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre. Routledge, 1987.
10. R. Paul Wilson. Our Magic (documentary). 2014.
I'm slowly making progress down Ryan Holiday's list of the best books he read in 2014, and the next one I tackled was Cheryl Strayed's Tiny Beautiful Things.
This was pretty different from the types of books I read, as I normally don't read love/relationship advice columns. It was indeed filled with lots of advice in that department, but I was impressed with how much it touched on much bigger questions of what life is about, how to treat our parents, make difficult decisions, and cope with loss and joy. It was so well written, and I remarked upon how many excellent illustrating examples and how much poetic prose filled this book. It's clear the author has read so much (she says she carries in her all the poems she's read, and it's clear she's integrated them deeply), and I respect that a lot.
Audio was also a great format for reading this book. Read by the author, the (strong, explicit) language and emotion really came alive, and I would be lying if I said I wasn't holding back tears, with a dry mouth and a heavy metal ball in my chest, as I read some of the most touching stories in the book (maybe I'm a hopeless romantic, maybe the writing is just that good). In any case, I learned a lot and enjoyed the book. My notes below highlight some of my favorite little quotes, but I found myself too caught up in the stories to take as many notes as I normally do.