Sometimes mystery is more important than knowledge

I have recently been introduced to ted.com, a great website that features “riveting talks by remarkable people”. One of the talks that I found fascinating is by J.J. Abrams, one of the creators of the TV series Lost. One of the most thought-provoking things he says is:

Sometimes mystery is more important than knowledge.

The absence of knowledge by its very nature characterises a mystery. It is used in all narrative art forms, but none more so than in magic.

We are all educated to strive for knowledge, to remove the mystery from our lives and seek explanations. Having knowledge is rewarded in life, and we are conditioned to favour knowledge over mystery as soon as we go to school. Every problem has an answer, is the adagio of our society.

This striving for knowledge is the reason that magic as a theatre form can be frustrating to people. We are used to possessing knowledge and in contemporary society, knowledge is more democratised than ever before. We no longer tolerate mystery in our lives. Max Weber called this the Entzauberung (disenchantment) of our world.

When people see a magic performance and have absolutely no idea how the trick works, they sometimes just call out whatever solution enters their mind. Magician Tommy Wonder wrote beautifully about this. Finding a solution, no matter how improbable, reduces their cognitive dissonance. This state of mind is a tension created in the spectator’s psyche, caused by the mystery they are confronted with.

I recently performed a magic show for a group of children where this issue was beautifully illustrated. The oldest boy in the group, he was about ten years old, came to me before the show and said:

Are you the magician? … Magic is all fake isn’t it?

I was a bit taken back by his direct approach and replied:

But it is fun isn’t it?

During the show, he was always ready to point out that he knew how the trick was done. He was trying to reduce his cognitive dissonance and also showing the other kids that he was smarter than me.

One of the most difficult aspects of performing magic is not producing the actual effect—anyone with enough stamina can learn the most complicated sleight of hand. The art of magic is in the presentation and contemporary magic also ensuring that the spectator does not leave with a feeling of frustration. I have therefore constructed my magic show for children so that the focus is not on the mystery, but on what happens before and in many cases I act as surprised as they are.

It is the task of the storyteller—and magicians are also storytellers—to let the spectator experience mystery without increasing their cognitive dissonance. This challenge is the key to making magic entertaining.

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