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Sleight of Mouth

Publié le 1 octobre, 2007 | Pas de commentaires

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Contemporary magician Criss Angel and his millions of viewers are examples of the resurgence of magical performances—both on television and in public spaces. Angel’s revelatory DVD and the unveiling of magic secrets by other illusionists re-inflame the question of how magic can keep its secrets in the information age.

Codo, 2007
Certains droits réservés.

On www.crissangel.com, one of many rolling blurbs reads: “Criss Angel is the post-modern Houdini, and the man in whose hands the future of magic lies.” The emphasis here should be on “lies,” if only for their relationship to “deception,” for as visitors scroll past the glut of adulations, they discover the availability of the “New Master Mindfreaks Instructional DVD Series.” In this respect, Criss Angel is hardly unique. In fact, the selling of trade secrets is a heated topic in magic today. The bounty of magical methodology on the Internet has caused deep anxieties for some practitioners, while enabling the expression of others. The “free” circulation of secrets follows in the trend of rapidly uploaded copyrighted material such as music, films, and TV shows, which is problematic, of course, for the originators of the material.

Many magicians oppose Criss Angel’s infidelity, arguing that secrets not only pay the bills by providing a small group of performers exclusive domain over a particular set of tricks, but also form the foundation on which audiences perceive illusions. According to magic designer Jim Steinmeyer (who has designed illusions for Siegfried and Roy and David Copperfield),

“There is magic to illusion […] someone who has just seen, and been awed by, a miracle will feel cheated and cheapened by seeing it revealed as a trick, part optical illusion, part-sliding panel, part bald-faced lie. It’s why magicians guard their secrets, why they get huffy and upset when anyone reveals anything; they don’t want the explanation to take the magic away.(1)

Anyone can purchase Steinmeyer’s book, and many other books like it that provide detailed instructions on the production of magical illusion, by visiting the larger chain bookstores in person or online. The tension between maintaining methodological secrets and selling them raises questions for both those apprenticing and those mentoring in the field. Magicians and illusion-makers must face the problem of simultaneously affirming and negating a particular kind of knowledge within a relatively closed discourse. For example, students of magic need to access historical texts, especially those offering detailed theoretical instruction of sleight of hand artistry. At the same time, restricting knowledge encourages creative thinking and innovation. Perhaps this explains the circuitous citations found in many texts on magic. The trail leads ever inward, providing those with genuine interest a bibliographical path, while dissuading those unwilling to make the effort. In this sense, the magic community functions much like academia.Indeed, the Canadian magician Dia Vernon has for a long time been referred to as “The Professor.”

Is the retention of magic methodology really at issue? Walter B. Gibson points out in his introduction to a collection of Houdini’s writings on magic and escapology that Houdini routinely published the methods behind his routines when he heard of their discovery by a fellow magician. “Houdini was not too secretive regarding his methods. He explained many secrets when they began to become known, or he had replaced them with something better. This was good business in that it lessened the value of such escapes when they were appropriated by Houdini’s rivals.(2)” If a secret will be unraveled in time, what is the problem with disclosing it before your rival does?

Hidden in Plain Sight

In an interview included with his latest DVD, British mentalist Andy Nyman, part of the creative team behind Derren Brown’s mentalism-based television show, Tricks of the Mind, contends that magicians “are absolutely in denial” about the resourcefulness of their audiences (3). “Anyone with half an hour can find out the secret to anything on the Internet.(4)” For magician Jamy Ian Swiss, who calls himself the “Honest Liar”, the audience’s capacity for research into magic is irrelevant. Illusion is made up of “secrets so trivial and accessible that it’s not even necessary to know them. To know they exist is enough.(5)” Nyman, on the other hand, rejects this notion, often referring to the method of one trick as part of the introduction of another as part of his stage routine.

Nyman’s theoretical (and therefore methodological) approach, which he calls “hidden in plain sight,” serves as a means of simultaneously revealing and concealing his machinations. As Nyman’s interviewer, the magician Marc Paul, suggests: “If you make it so implausible, that you would never consider that [as the method], then it leaves [the audience] no place to go.”

The key to understanding the relationship between revealing and concealing the method behind an illusion might be called sleight of mouth, to borrow from the title of Robert Dilts’ textbook on language and persuasion (6). “Honest Liar” Swiss recommends the use of language as a means of “tunneling directly” into an audience’s “unconscious perceptions.(7)

Magician Ricky Jay, on the other hand, employs the rapid speech of the fairground shill, and thus uses words to conceal the absence of concealing. Jay makes legerdemain and subterfuge seem present, when in fact there is none. For example, at one point in his performance, he moves from boomeranging cards into the air, to tossing cards into the “rich, red interior” of a watermelon:

“Many of you will have noticed that my last two shots have landed in the exact same slit in the watermelon. A feat so impressive, I am forced to mention it myself… But I know what you’re saying. You’re saying sure, this man can throw cards into the rich red interior of said melon. Can he penetrate the even thicker, pachydermatous outer melon layer? No! Who the hell could do that? But, encouraged by your approbations, I could attempt to penetrate the even thicker, pachydermatous outer melon layer. Watch me work.(8)

Jay here employs a verbal cliché many magicians use before executing a sleight that will produce a seemingly impossible effect: “If I were to do x, wouldn’t that be an amazing trick? (Yes! begs the audience). I can’t do x (audience feigns disappointment), but for you, I’ll give it a try.” The rhetoric used by the magician disarms the gaze of the audience. From this point on, the magic trick constitutes a fallible scientific experiment, and like the rising of the sun, its success is made all the more amazing by its subsequent failure to fail.


Illusions do indeed involve trickery, but the consensus appears to be, despite small differences in wording, that audiences are aware of the presence of methods in magic. Therefore, illusions require more than mere trickery. As we have seen, a division depends on how the magician handles the audience’s awareness. While Steinmeyer, and to some extent Swiss, seek to create “mystery” by protecting their audiences from perceiving their legerdemain, Nyman openly plays with the notion of keeping secrets by openly exposing his methods offhand, hiding them by revealing them. In both cases, language and choreography shape illusion, and as Darwin Ortiz suggests, “magical impact […] is limited by the nature and design of the magic effect itself. You need effective presentation to bring it out.(9)” Therefore, it hardly matters that Criss Angel, or magicians in general sell their secrets in books, on DVDs or on the internet. It is not the secret, inactive in word form, that really matters in the art of magic, and thus its ready availability online is somewhat moot. Successful magicians create a character for themselves, and focus our attention on “more than illusion.” Sleight of mouth, arguably a magician’s most important tool, involves spectators emotionally and intellectually, whether performed live or on TV. How audiences “think,” according to Ortiz, “is the most important subject in magic.(10)


(1) Steinmeyer, Jim (1998.) Art and Artifice and Other Essays on Illusion. New York: Avalon. Unnumbered.
(2) Houdini, Harry. (1953.) Houdini on Magic. Eds. Walter G. Gibson and Morris N. Young. New York: Dover. p.xiv.
(3) Nyman, Andy. (2004.) Get Nyman: Live in London. DVD. London: Alakazam Magic UK. P.5.
(4) Nyman, 2004, P.5.
(5) Swiss, Jamy Ian. (2002.) Shattering Illusions: Essays on the Ethics, History, and Presentation of Magic. New York: Hermetic Press. P.275. See also his website at http://jamyianswiss.com.
(6) Dilts, Robert. (1999.) Sleight of Mouth: The Magic of Conversational Belief Change. Capitola, CA: Meta Publications.
(7) Swiss, 2002, P.213.
(8) Jay, Ricky. (1996.) Ricky Jay and his 52 Assistants. Dir. David Mamet. HBO.
(9) Ortiz, Darwin. (2006.) Designing Miracles: Creating the Illusion of Impossibility. El Dorado Hill, CA: A-1 Magical Media. P.25.
(10)Ortiz, 1996, P.195.

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