A Few Thoughts About Theory

Eugene Burger
Originally published in Behind the Smoke & Mirrors, September, 2001

For me, watching the birth and growth of David's, Smoke and Mirrors, has been a fascinating adventure. From the beginning, the very idea of a journal devoted to magical theory struck me as a breath of fresh air and a perfectly wonderful idea. There was certainly a real need for theoretical exploration in magic, and Smoke and Mirrors was able to attract some genuinely thought provoking essays by some very good magical thinkers, many of whom I am happy to consider my friends.

A journal devoted to magical theory. I still remember — actually, rather fondly in a mischievous sort of way — my own experiences in the early 1980s, when I first decided to begin giving lectures for magicians devoted in large measure to what we call "theory." Not surprisingly, there was a wide range of response. Some magicians found it refreshing and exciting to hear a magician talk about concerns other than how magic tricks work. Others, sometimes in disgust, simply walked out, grumbling that the lecture was "just about theory." The implication, of course, was that being "just about theory," there was very little of interest in these talks for "practically minded" magicians. So what is the place of theory in the practice of magic?

It's a fascinating dichotomy: theory and practice. Like the chicken and the egg, can we really say which came — or comes — first? Probably not. Perhaps, as Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching teaches, they arise together, mutually, in a wholly mysterious and beautiful way.

In my twenties, I was deeply influenced by the traditional Buddhist teaching that right thinking must precede right action. In other words, if our thinking is confused, how can we expect those actions which spring from that thinking to be clear and focused? To me, this has always seemed a most profound question. And the answer Buddhists gave was that we can't expect clarity of action to follow from confusion in thought.If our thinking is confused, our actions must be confused as well. In magic, for example, if my goal is to produce real impact upon an audience, shall I then read the explanation of a magic effect in a book and immediately attempt to perform it without prior practice, rehearsal and thought? If I do, the result will almost always be a disaster. To produce impact on an audience with a magic effect always requires prior thinking. And the better and more cunning our thinking, the greater the impact our magic will have.

At the same time, I also believe that once we move beyond thought and enter the "path of action," our thinking changes and, hopefully, sharpens. We learn to ask better, deeper questions. New and better theories and ideas arise because now our theories are grounded in direct experience and not simply in thoughts about thoughts.

For me, perhaps surprisingly, the end or goal of theory is no-theory. In performance magic, for example, the end or goal of theory is not better theories about performances but better performances. Theories are very much like the Buddhist yana, the vehicle or raft that carries us across a river. Once we arrive at the other side of the river, the Buddha asked, do wise people carry the raft with them — or do they leave it tied to the shore?