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Why Magic

My first experience of seeing a magician in action was at the perfectly uncomfortable age of 22. I was walking toward a job that hinted to me that I might spend an entire lifetime at the halfway point of fulfilment, and there on my left was a man in a block of ice. My eyes were half-grey from insomnia, life didn’t seem quite right, and here was my first exposure to the world of magic: Blaine encased in hard, clear, lonely water.

For a long while my idea of magic was only this soggy stunt, but when I finally saw magic performed – close-up, magnificent, the world flipping upside down for just a minute in my hands – it was more like a kick in the face. Things moved strangely, and the magician could read my thoughts; I was seeing the impossible, that infrequent flash of something genuinely new that didn’t have a corner of my mind to fit into. If I’d known it was out there, I would have been craving it.

Falling for magic was like developing a persistent, pointless fever. My mind would race, not searching for answers but trapped in the shock of the experience. Magic gives you this moment: Facing that what you saw, what you remember, must be wrong. That your view is always a construction, a guess, full of your own hope or misery.

It’s rare that we’re faced so fully with our unknowing. Making self-assured guesses, we tend toward certainty. Whatever it is, our endless analysis or our faith, all of it takes what is unimaginably large and tries to create something stable that fits in our mind. In a good magic performance, we are faced with the reality: We do not know. We have misunderstood; we have made assumptions without even intending to think them. It reminds us that we are built this way: To misunderstand one another; to constantly misread the workings of the world through our limited view; and to crave answers where there will never be any.

I’m sluggishly attempting to feel comfortable with the fact that for our most imperative, imposing questions, there will be no end point and no resolution. But in magic, I knew that the answers were actually out there. Instead of an ultimate void at the end of each question, in magic I could know.

Perhaps the least surprising spoiler in the world is that the answers in magic are almost always disappointing. You’re forced to learn all over again that the simplest things can trip us up or make us teeter on the brink of irrational belief.

But ultimately my experience of magic wasn’t in the answers – it was in the space before the answers, that unimaginable infinity, possibility and impossibility at once. Magic takes stranglehold of the unknown and renders it beautiful… or perhaps just reminds us of the magnificence in our struggle with not knowing. It brings us face to face with our ultimate experience of the world, which no matter what way we fight against it, is not to know the answers.

It’s like leaving the city, glancing at the sky and being startled by the endless expanse of stars that are normally squelched by city lights. The stars were always there, but in the city we’d forgotten and now it seems impossible to believe. How could such vastness exist, and us so unable to conceptualise it?

Perhaps I can’t say this is what magic is, only what it continues to be for me…this moment of being in the vastness, aware of our own small version of events. In a quick gasp of wonder and amazement, magic takes the stars from the black canvas sky and puts them for a moment in our hands. It places us face to face with our great attribute: the mysterious capacity we have to feel beauty in the face of not knowing.