The fourth selection of Half Half Man’s Book Club was Philip Fisher’s Wonder, the Rainbow, and the Aesthetics of Rare Experiences. For me, it was the most difficult book to read in the book club so far; it was very academic, filled with lengthy complex arguments and philosophical references I hadn’t heard of. Even though it was the smallest in number of pages, it was the largest in my own effort required to reach minimal understanding. However, that effort was well worth it as the connections and concepts useful for magic were really interesting and new for me.
There were three themes that really stood out to me as useful for magic. The first theme is encapsulated in the quote which appears several times in the book: “Philosophy begins in wonder.” In other words, wonder (magic?) is the base for inspiration for science and thinking. The second theme is how wonder inspires a process of systematic thinking, or cyclical errors and knowledge, and this theme is closely related to Juan Tamariz’s “Method of False Solutions” from his book, The Magic Way (1), in which he too talks about the rainbow. The third theme is the power of the visual and how it’s much closer linked to wonder than memory is, and a beautiful illustration and application of this idea to magic is in the effect, “Dr. Daley’s Last Trick” (2).
Wonder (magic!) as inspiration for science
The core question the author asks is, “How do we go from being puzzled to getting something?”
As an explanation of the previous quote about “philosophy,” he says, “Wonder is first of the passions because it is the origin of intellectual life.” He refers to “the template of wonder” because “to be human is to learn.” Throughout the first part of the book, he draws numerous connections between wonder and science. Looking at the same things around us as though they were entirely new often brings discoveries.
Within these connections between wonder and science, he includes many examples of wondrous things and explicitly mentions magic, such as in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Not only can art and wonder inspire science and discovery, but also within art itself, there is similarly a big component of thinking and discovery just like in science.
He also laments that wonder declines with age and repeated exposure to beautiful things. What’s fascinating to me is that magic can keep this sense of wonder alive! In this regard, magic serves an important purpose: bringing joy and opening up people’s eyes to see the world around them fresh and ripe for (re)discovery. There are many magicians who are scientists or have worked in fields where their magic helped their science (Ed Marlo and Persi Diaconis immediately come to mind). One often thinks of magic and art as entertainment and relief from work, science, or thinking, but Philip’s book shows how in fact these more “serious” activities are often inspired and fueled by wonder (and magic!).
Wonder’s inspired process of thinking and the Method of False Solutions
The author describes through three detailed examples (the rainbow, the double of the area of a square, and the weird work of art) how an initial sense of wonder leads the viewer down a process of thinking until the “aha!” moment of “getting it.” In this sense, wonder inspires a process of thinking and discovery. In magic, we want to keep this sense of wonder alive throughout the process, and we want the audience to “get” something, but not the secret. There are thus some very interesting parallels and applications of Fisher’s concepts to magic, albeit with certain adjustments and calibrations.
Fisher describes the process of thinking as going through different phases, each with different “mixtures of knowledge” and “levels of error.” He writes how Descartes wanted each step of thinking to contain one single thought at a time, which is antagonistic to memory which distracts. Taking these careful steps (such as in a geometry proof) leads to explanation and demystification and sometimes a sense of wonder at the final solution. But because the feeling of “getting it” is so unique, the wondrous experience can only occur the same way once (the first time only).
As I read all this, I kept thinking about Tamariz’s Method of False Solutions. In The Magic Way, Tamariz introduces “the magician’s objective” as rendering the spectator “incapable of figuring out any solution” and ideally “not even wanting to figure it out due to the wonder and joy produced by the feeling in the magic rainbow.” He wants to make all solutions rejected as impossible, and he advocates the use of subtlety to cut off paths toward unreal solutions. He teaches how magicians can create false solutions that lead to impossible structures that are rejected right away, and how psychology, technique, and misdirection protect the secret
It’s clear that Tamariz agrees with Fisher about the sanctity of the feeling of wonder as well as the critical intellectual link between wonder and trying to explain what one sees. Tamariz acutely recognizes how automatically we try to invent solutions, and he feeds that natural process with false solutions that must be eventually rejected. However, instead of leaving the spectator frustrated, he wants the overall effect to be so enjoyable that not finding a solution in this case makes the spectator happy (and maybe even inspired to seek the impossible in his or her own life).
Use the visual, instead of memory, to build conviction
Towards the end of the book, Fisher describes how important the visual is to the sense of wonder. He says the visual provides something that memory and narrative cannot: simultaneous intuition or seeing of a whole (instead of bit by bit). The simultaneity and deep intuition lead to the strong relation of the visual to certainty. Fisher explains how the “visual plays a critical part in securing certainty that memory cannot.” He even describes the conceptual moment of “intuition as the visual moment of seeing.” This sort of simultaneous intuition is only possible with something visual.
This provides a critical lesson and practical application (for magic) of the concepts of wonder that Fisher has been developing. The strong sense of certainty and conviction that can be created with the visual is clearly illustrated in Daley's Last Trick.
In this transposition effect, the magician clearly shows four of a kind, such as the Aces. He displays the first one (such as the Ace of Hearts) and places it face down on the spectator’s palm. He then displays the next one of the same color (such as the Ace of Diamonds) and places it face down on the spectator’s palm as well, except this time under the other card that’s on the palm, pointing out this fact to the spectator and even leaving this new card underneath sticking out. He makes a magical gesture and asks the spectator where the Ace of Diamonds is. The spectator, with full certainty, responds that it’s the card underneath resting on her palm. When the spectator flips over that card, she is shocked to see that it’s the Ace of Spades, and the card on top of it is the Ace of Clubs. The magician reveals the Ace of Hearts and Ace of Diamonds in his hand.
This effect uses the power of the visual in multiple ways to strengthen conviction:
- The simplicity and fairness of the beginning image of 4 distinct cards that are all shown front and back
- The slow and straightforward displays of the Aces as they are placed slowly onto the spectator’s palm
- The image of the unsquared Ace of Diamonds placed underneath the Ace of Hearts on the spectator’s palm
And finally, it uses the visual to create a moment of wonder via an element of surprise: The spectator is expecting to see the Ace of Diamonds when flipping over the card underneath (or at worst an Ace of Hearts if she was “fooled”), but instead she sees a black card, which is completely unexpected and magical. This difference in color is seen immediately and registers a strong emotion of surprise because of the strong visual difference.
The lessons about the power of the visual from Fisher’s book and this effect can be applied to make other effects stronger. It’s much better to show than to tell when trying to build conviction. Use less words and rely less on the spectator’s memory and instead use the visual to establish the starting conditions and to demonstrate the magical change.
The fourth selection of Half Half Man’s Book Club was difficult but worth it. The themes of scientific inspiration, thinking process leading to solutions, and the power of the visual have many applications to magic. In his book, Fisher discounts magician’s tricks and connects them with “astonishment,” a lower class emotion than wonder: “Astonishment avoids the intellectual and scientific; it is the pleasure we take in the face of magician's tricks. It never leads to explanation or even to thought. Astonishment is a technique for the enjoyment of the state of not knowing how or why.” While astonishment is useful for entertainment, I believe that truly strong magic can break through this ceiling and reach the level of wonder while still preventing the audience from finding any explanation (and being ok with not seeking one).
1. Juan Tamariz. The Magic Way. 1988.