I’m curious about the beginnings of street magic. And, before we get too far off track here, I’m not talking about how court magicians of long ago would practice their art as a way to invoke fear into a populace or gain favor with some pharaoh. I’m talking about simple slight-of-hand used on dirty street corners and massive lavish theatres, picking cards in a deck and sawing a lady in half.
If I was the cynical sort (I’m normally not), I’d mine the data and discover what you and I would have probably suspected all along: magic is an effective tool for removing a person from their money. The best magicians, therefore, have always been master manipulators staging spectacular shows in an attempt to convince the average person that, yes, it is worth $25 to have someone sell us a lie. A grand lie, but a lie nonetheless.
Just maybe, however, street magicians come from a long line of observers of human nature who intimately understand what makes people tick, and they know that a certain style of performance could cause a person to transcend the doldrums of their everyday existence with something out of the ordinary, even un-natural. When the participant experience delight in connection with this transcendence, he implicitly appreciates the value of deception. In this moment, the magician recognizes and takes advantage of truth as old as time: Mundus vult decipi. The world wants to be deceived.
Mundus vult decipi.
For those of you Christopher Nolan fans, you’ll recognize the undertones of this Latin phrase at the beginning and end of The Prestige (2006), when one of the central players explains the essence of magic. He says, “Every magic trick consists of three parts, or acts. The first part is called The Pledge. The magician shows you something ordinary … but, of course, it probably isn’t. The second act is called The Turn. The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now, you’re looking for the secret, but you won’t find it. Because, of course, you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn’t clap yet, because making something disappear isn’t enough. You have to bring it back. That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part…the part we call The Prestige.”
Somehow the world has mastered the first two acts, the pledge and the turn, and completely forgot the part about the prestige. We have a world of deception, filled with dead goldfinches and empty (yet still grand) overtures.
And you know this to be true, at least in part. How many times does it take for us to hear this-or-that political candidate promise something bold, and how many times (if the politician holds to our particular brand of ideology) do we get excited that maybe, just maybe, this candidate will fix the country’s problems by actually fulfilling those promises? Then, like a codependent relationship, we return back to the party, justify the candidate’s failings, and get excited about the next man up all over again. We’re Rocky minus the glory: we get pummeled, leave the gym bloodied and confused, then return to the ring for more abuse the next day.
Such deceptions are tiered.
- The half-truths. ‘He’s got a great personality.’
- The not-the-whole-stories. Think of MSNBC or FOX News trying to describe an event before cutting to commercial.
- The happy lies. The fairy tale ending. The nerdy guy gets the pretty girl. Santa Claus.
- The peace-keeping lies. ‘Honey, do I look fat in this?’ (your answer)
It’s not just the political arena. We willingly believe the lie that girls are supposed to look like that, which has been culture’s scorched earth tactic against the average teenage girl. We willingly believe that our neighborhood is safe in order to protect our fragile sense of belonging there. We willingly believe that our enemies abroad are vile because such conviction will absolve us of the guilt when we bomb them. Some lies are truer than others.
I think there is some value to reformulating the translation above. It’s not quite right to declare the world as a place that wants to be deceived. I think a more accurate statement might be this:
In the absence of a compelling truth, the world will accept an attractive lie in its place.
“In the absence of a compelling truth, the world will accept an attractive lie in its place.“
If you’ve had any contact with academia in the last ten years, you’ll know that your textbooks and professors like to throw around the term, ‘postmodernism,’ as a way to explain what’s happening to the Western world from a philosophical point-of-view. Postmoderns, we’ve been told, reject the hard-core individualism that flourished in modernism. They reject absolute claims to truth, they do not assume progress is the bee’s knees, and prefer communities of interpretation. One of more influential insights came from a dude named Jean-François Lyotard, who effectively argued that postmoderns have come to reject the notion of a meta-narrative. In other words, we no longer order our lives by one, all-encompassing explanatory myth. This would include the Christian claim found in the Bible. Rather, Lyotard suggests that the particularity of people—the vast contextualities that make for unique human experiences—forces us to accept a less-than-grand alternative.
My guess is that Lyotard was trying to get modernism—even the all-encompassing narrative of science’s explanation of the world—to identify its deep biases. No particular part has the authority to fully understand the whole, if you will. This ‘incredulity of meta-narratives’ has led, intentionally or unintentionally, to a corpus of scholarship that attempts to break down what I think is central to the life of the individual: the absolute need to be in a compelling narrative—even if it is a false, even if it is incomplete.
The cynicism of our age is borne, in part, on the broader hesitation to call something true. It’s infinitely easier to revert back to a default position that assumes every story, every narrative, every explanation is just an attempt to manipulate. Assuming everyone is a liar is less threatening than risking belief in a truth which will (in all probability) turn out to be a lie, too. Finding out what’s true is hard work, after all.
Where does that leave the Christian? Consider this a call to hopeful discernment. The world not only wants to be deceived, it often acts as an accomplice of the Deceiver, who attempts to sell us the final lie: Nothing is true. The Gospel of John reminds us that Jesus came from the Father, full of grace and truth (1:14). We might not ever know Truth as God knows Truth; sin has a way of screwing up our understanding of such lofty things. But we sure as heck can proclaim a risen Christ with confidence to a world so inundated with ‘magic’ that it no longer has an ability to recognize the exposed wonder of the cross and the empty tomb.
© Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.