Breaking the Magician’s Code

Last night I watched an episode of Breaking the Magician’s Code: Magic’s Biggest Secrets Finally Revealed. It’s notable for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that the direction the narrator received must have been, “Bored! You’ve never been so bored! Just read your lines like you don’t care about anything!”

The basic premise is contained in the title. Someone who went by the stage name “The Masked Magician” revealed how to do a number of very old magic tricks. But the approach is very curious: they don’t approach this with any sort of excitement or awe, but rather a sort of bored annoyance.

Now, the thing I find very interesting about that is the timing. Breaking the Code was released from 1997-1998. That precedes the emergence of the New Atheism by around 8 years, but of course the New Atheism would be better called the Warmed Over Atheism, and the market for the books which would come to define the New Atheism was forming over this time period.

I’m not asserting any sort of causal link between the two, but I do see a similarity of attitude. In particular, Breaking the Code was dismissive and very reductionist. It took an air of superiority, though to what was unclear. And more importantly, it presented tricks as if there was only one way of doing them, without variations. Yet I myself have seen plenty of variations which the explanation given did not cover, and I don’t watch much magic. I’m not, of course, claiming that there are real magicians practicing for entertainment—among other things, if a man had the power to levitate people, I don’t think he would be all that interested in being a stage magician. But I do think that there may be clever tricks involved in some stage magic, while the attitude taken by Breaking the Code is that magic is all really dumb, simple stuff. And that faith—that whatever has happened, it must be trivial—is very familiar from dealing with atheists.

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