Look at Life: Magic

6th September 2019

Be Under No Illusion…Magic Always Works Like a Charm

By Deborah Mulhearn

I’m a rationalist. I believe in science, and straightforward explanations for things I don’t understand and probably never will. So when I had a few hours to kill in London between trains recently, I wandered over to the very scientific Wellcome Foundation on Euston Road, where I was surprised to find a quite bewitching exhibition. Smoke and Mirrors: The Psychology of Magic investigates the way magic works in our lives and why we are so fascinated by it.

Surely it belongs to childhood, when the world really is magical and adults encourage us in that belief with their tricks and seemingly supernatural powers. When we were kids, for example, at the height of the space race in the late 1960s, we played a game we called ‘Fly Me to the Moon’. My dad would blindfold us and strap us to a chair, and we’d be launched in the ‘rocket’…

For those of us who were children then, there are few things in living memory more magical (as well as supremely scientific, of course) than the 1969 moon landing. Our game had a frisson of danger when our heads bumped the ceiling, and we could pretend, or believe, that we really had reached the moon. Such were the possibilities of our imaginations, and the power of suggestion.

But all that was fifty years ago. As adults today, we experience magic within the confines of the entertainment industry, where we can marvel at the truly amazing illusions perfected in a controlled environment by magicians like Derren Brown. Their physical dexterity and psychological skills can make us believe all kind of weird and wonderful things. It might be called a magic show, but we know it’s based on observational and behavioural science.

People have given themselves up to a belief in magic from the dawn of human existence, of course. Cavemen thought fire was magic, for example, and women were burned or drowned as witches for seeming to influence people and events in unexplained ways. Things people didn’t understand, particularly if they instilled fear, have always been called magic, and can be harnessed for good, or exploited by charlatans.

But we are so much more sophisticated and less susceptible now, aren’t we? Certainly, it’s amusing, but not shocking, to see the props and accoutrements of Victorian magic at this exhibition – a spirit trumpet, a rapping hand, waxy blobs of ‘ectoplasm’.

People then were drawn to magic in the guise of séances, spiritualism and sorcery, but, the exhibition explains, as religious faith declined, people looked elsewhere to make sense of the world, especially after the traumas of World War One and the devastating 1918 flu epidemic. Even when the proponents were exposed as fakes, as they often were, people still believed that they had seen or heard their deceased loved ones. The effects of ‘magic’ are real, even when the tricks and techniques are revealed.

Magicians’ props – including their glamorous assistants – ‘misdirect’ our attention from what is really going on. Even when we’re looking right at it, we miss the obvious, and this above all else is what magicians know. We see films of their tricks freeze-framed to show them broken down move by silky move.

The fact that I came away from these none the wiser suddenly made me see that the magic lies somewhere other than in the trick. It’s in the desire to believe. We spend our lives navigating the gaps between appearance and reality, and perhaps magic can give us some signposts. It’s deeply rooted in us as individuals, from our parents’ tricks and promises, to whole societies, through fairy tales, folklore and our llinguistic and visual culture.

It’s no coincidence that we say we are charmed by someone, that we’re under their spell, and that when we fall out of love, that the magic has gone. Recourse to potions and spells for the lovelorn is a staple behaviour of all cultures.

My sister tells me she was devastated when she realised, aged eight, that magic didn’t exist, but insists, nevertheless, that she flew down the stairs when she was three. Maybe somehow she had come into contact with mercury, that most mysterious and transformational of elements, which can make you feel you are flying if you ingest it. Most likely she simply has a very active imagination.

And we didn’t really fly to the moon. After all, my dad was only 5’4” tall. We couldn’t possibly have reached the ceiling, never mind the moon. It was a trick, perhaps a book held above our heads. See… always a rational explanation. Isn’t there?

‘Smoke and Mirrors’ is at the Wellcome Collection until 15 September.

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