Published on Sunday 16 june 2013 • Post by Mariano Tomatis • Permalink
Magicians are not the only ones cutting women. Advertisers do it in a more subtle way, persuading them to do it by themselves.
Once upon a time, magazines and newspapers were used to print coloured "paper dolls" - elegant silhouettes to be cut out of paper with separate clothes, also made of paper.
Not all of the figures were close to anorexia. The beloved Holly Hobbie sported soft and generous hips, avoiding to hide herself behind suffocating slimming sheath.
The implicit rule was to cut out the figures along the edges. Today, the norm is no longer valid. The sizes of a chubby woman are intolerable, and the new paper dolls spread the message. Two days ago, Il venerdì di Repubblica magazine has offered this silhouette to be cut out:
"Overweight and obesity: current problem? Many Italians have this problem."
Don’t worry, women: where scissors will fail, the advertised dietary product will do the work.
But I am horrified at insinuating the need to reduce the sizes of the (already) beautiful girl in green. shutterstock website agrees with my aesthetic, having titled the photo (1) of the Russian model "Portrait of beautiful plus size curly young blond woman posing on pink with sweet pastry." (2)
Published on Friday 14 june 2013 • Post by Mariano Tomatis • Permalink
Bilocation? Today it is possible. On the evening of June 8th I was in the Teatro Verdi in Florence, to see “Ferite a morte” by Serena Dandini, and at the same time in the Palazzo Vecchio, enjoying the conversation between Umberto Eco and Stefano Bartezzaghi. Miracles of the Internet, which has allowed me to enjoy both events taking place at the same time, thanks to the video made available a few hours after the event on the website of La Repubblica delle idee.
A review by Katia Riccardi arose in me great expectations: their conversation, entitled “Where do we start?”, has been focused on the concept of “incipit”, and in order to describe the meeting, the journalist chose to start with magic:
It was like watching two jugglers of words doing magic tricks. (1)
But in the article, magic was also the last concept cited:
Words are risky. They can change the course of events. Or just be nice to listen to, as they were tonight, as they danced in the hands of two magicians. (2)
Exploring various literary incipit, Bartezzaghi focused on a fragment by Eco taken from the essay Postscript to “The Name of the Rose”:
For two years I have refused to answer idle questions on the order of […] «With which of the characters do you identify?» For God’s sake, with whom does the author identify? With the adverbs, obviously. (3)
Bartezzaghi has pointed out that the first word that appears in The Name of the Rose is an adverb — “naturally” — and commented that probably Eco was not lying: he really identified himself with that word. Eco has confirmed amused.
The Name of the Rose opens with the title “Naturally, a manuscript.” For those who can grasp it, it is an ironic quotation. To pretend the discovery of a manuscript is an old trick, already used by the first Italian novelist — Alessandro Manzoni in his I promessi sposi (“The Betrothed”) — and after him by countless others. But if such a fiction in the 19th century could be proposed with carefree attitude, today there is only one way to offer it again without falling into kitsch: to add (symbolic) quotation marks, declaring the ironic frame and asking the reader to consciously adhere to the game. Since the entire Eco’s novel is full of accomplices winks, addressed to the aware reader, Bartezzaghi is justified in recognizing the author in the word “naturally”, the signal by which — since its opening — The Name of the Rose reveals its own nature and is addressed to those who are able to savor its intertextual taste.
On the left, Stefano Bartezzaghi. On the right, Umberto Eco.
The risk of falling into kitsch is not limited to literature: the artist who ignores what preceded him and revives something unaware of its origins, confines himself in the realm of amateurism. In my last book Te lo leggo nella mente (“I read it in your mind”) I explored this risk in “mentalism” — the branch of conjuring simulating in theatrical form the classic paranormal phenomena related to the powers of the mind.
In the past, mentalists used tricks to convince their audience of having superhuman abilities; today the same premise would be anachronistic. Acknowledging in modern spectators a shrewd intelligence, aware of the limits of human perception, great contemporary mentalists involve them in an exercise of the imagination: the game of “as if”. If Eco uses an adverb to wink at the cunning reader, also the mentalist invokes the complicity of the public through an ironic approach, encouraging a voluntary acceptance of the premise that paranormal phenomena are reproducible at will. In line with these assumptions, the performances offer an alternative version of the world, “as if” mind reading, clairvoyance, precognition, etc. were reality. With such an attitude, writers and mentalists relate to their fans by treating them as individuals aware and disenchanted, without invoking a “naive faith” in the reality of a manuscript or a paranormal dowry. But if many writers (such as Umberto Eco, Thomas Pynchon and Orhan Pamuk) have joined the “postmodernism”, stage magic has some difficulties to free itself from antiquated and out of fashion formulas. We have to look abroad to find artists capable of mastering “quotation marks” and adverbs: Max Maven and Derren Brown among mentalists, Penn&Teller and Leo Bassi among magicians.
It is unrealistic to expect a massive adherence to poetic so aware. Actually irony is a sophisticated weapon. Or — as the two authors commented in Florence during a lightning exchange:
Bartezzaghi: The irony is difficult. Eco: …it selects!
Published on Tuesday 11 june 2013 • Post by Mariano Tomatis • Permalink
I was moved to tears and laughed at the same time. Then I speculated about the trick. How did Serena Dandini produce in me - and in the other 1,500 spectators - such conflicting emotions?
The occasion was the show “Ferite a morte” (“Injured to death”), presented Saturday ago at Teatro Verdi in Florence, as part of “La Repubblica delle Idee” event. Actresses and journalists who took turns on stage (1) read the stories of many women killed by a man, telling - from a hypothetical paradise - the harassment suffered. With the clarity of someone who has abandoned the earthly things, they can each speak in tragicomic tones, which move to laughter and emotion through careful modulation of the narrative register.
In his book The Act of Creation (2)Arthur Koestler tried to explain what happens in those magical moments where opposites meet. In two charts, the philosopher describes the emotionally trend of the spectator when enjoying a tragedy and a comic situation:
The tragedy is based on a crescendo of emotional tension, until its dissolution in catharsis. The humor follows a similar trajectory only in a first part, up to a breaking point - represented by a lightning bolt that stops the action: it’s the joke that breaks the mold and turns everything upside down, causing a laughter.
According to Koestler, some artists are able to combine the two trajectories. The secret
the perceiving of a situation or idea […] in two self-consistent but habitually incompatible frames of reference, [T] and [C]. The event […], in which the two intersect, is made to vibrate simultaneously on two different wavelengths, as it were. While this unusual situation lasts, [the event] is not merely linked to one associative context, but bisociated with two. (3)
In the case of “Ferite a morte,” Serena Dandini has successfully placed each femicide in two opposite contexts, causing them to vibrate in unison and producing that feeling of emotion woven to laugher which so captured me.
An example of this intersection can be found in Paola Cortellesi’s monologue from the show, which happily combines the drama of claustrophobia (she has been killed and thrown in a pit) and a deep nostalgia… for the plasma TV her husband can still enjoy!
(1) Lucia Annunziata, Anna Bandettini, Geppi Cucciari, Annalisa Cuzzocrea, Concita De Gregorio, Orsetta De Rossi, Angela Finocchiaro, Iaia Forte, Silvia Paoli, Laura Pertici, Claudia Riconda e Giulia Santerini
(2) Arthur Koestler, The Act of Creation, Macmillan, New York 1964.
Published on Monday 10 june 2013 • Post by Mariano Tomatis • Permalink
Exploring Italian decadence through magic. We can do it thanks to two movies released half a century away.
In 1963 Federico Fellini directed “8½”. The film is a journey into the mind of a director with a writer’s block. In one scene, the protagonist Guido Anselmi, starring Marcello Mastroianni, runs into an illusionist particularly revved up - Maurice (Ian Dallas). Along with his assistant Maya (Mary Indovino), the shouting magician performs a mind reading effect. When Maurice approaches Guido, the psychic reads in his mind some mysterious words: “ASA NISI MASA.” The scene is followed by a long flashback revealing the origin of the strange words. When he was a child, the director used the phrase as a magic formula; pronounced in the right way, he was able to move the eyes of a man portrait in a painting, making them point in the direction of a hidden treasure.
According to the critic Paul Meehan, the scene would refer to the enigmatic side of the creative process, so as to be impenetrable even to a mind reader. (1)
Fellini’s look on the magician is benevolent, and the scene full of charm. We can hear the echo of the meetings with Gustavo Rol, the alleged psychic from Turin, who not only pretended to read minds, but he could also remotely “change” paintings, using special magic formulas. Again in Turin, the eyes of the Statue of Faith, in front of the Gran Madre di Dio Church, would look in the direction of a mythical treasure - the Holy Grail, buried somewhere in the city. The scene of “Maurice the magician” seems permeated by the themes of the conversations held by Fellini in the charming rooms of Gustavo Rol’s house.
Even “La grande bellezza” by Paolo Sorrentino tells the story of an artist in crisis. Today’s guest of “La Repubblica delle Idee” event, the director has already dedicated to “Silvan the magician” affectionately bitter words in his book Tony Pagoda e i suoi amici (“Tony Pagoda and his friends”). (2)
As in “8½”, the protagonist of “La grande bellezza” - Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) - comes across an illusionist.
The total beauty of the Terme di Caracalla with daylight […] and, against the background of monumental baths, in the meadow, alone with his unreal five feet high, illuminated by the headlights, there is a giraffe. […] Not far from the giraffe, electricians and various laborers, indifferent even to the giraffe, smoke and talk about football as if nothing happened. Jep, his mouth open in astonishment, fixes the giraffe. He approaches a man of about fifty, tall, elegant, surgically “adjusted”, with a slim cigarette in his hands. His name is Arturo. (3)
Another reference to the city of Turin? Arturo Brachetti does not smoke, but is the most fascinating among Italian contemporaries illusionists.
Jep: Arturo, what are you doing here? Arturo: What am I doing? I am preparing my magic show. This is the main effect of tomorrow night. The disappearance of the giraffe. Jep: Will you make the giraffe disappear? Arturo: Of course I do disappear the giraffe. Jep: So, Arturo, why do not you make me disappear too? (4)
Fifty years after Fellini, however, Sorrentino’s magician is powerless. And he does not hide it.
Arturo: Jep, think about it: if you really could make someone disappear, would I still be here, at my age, to do these silly things? It’s just a trick. (5)
A half-century later, the real magic of Maurice has given way to the bitter awareness that it is just a trick. Only a trick. But in spite of its bitterness, Sorrentino gets aspects of enchantment, entrusting Jep a final monologue in which life is captured in its most intense and conflicting fragments:
The silence and the feeling. The excitement and fear. The sparse, erratic flashes of beauty. And then the squalor and the wretched miserable man. All buried by the blanket of the embarrassment of being in the world. (6)
All valuable despite the disenchantment. Despite the awareness that
In the end, it’s just a trick. Yes, it’s just a trick. (7)
(1) Paul Meehan, Cinema of the Psychic Realm: A Critical Survey, 2010, p. 49.
(2) “Eventually, when everyone will die, Silvan will survive. It is immortal, like the rock. If you stare closely into his eyes, in his stuck hair, in his lean physique, you say: he is thirty years old. Look at him a moment later and say he is one hundred and thirty.” in Paolo Sorrentino, Tony Pagoda e i suoi amici, Feltrinelli, Milano 2012, chapter 3.
(3) Paolo Sorrentino e Umberto Contarello, La grande bellezza, Skira 2013.
Published on Sunday 9 june 2013 • Post by Mariano Tomatis • Permalink
How do criminal organizations monitor the election results? With a magician's trick. It is one of the revelations made by Roberto Saviano at "La Repubblica delle idee" event. The method has a specific name. In criminal slang, it is the "ballerina ballot". The term refers to a ballot paper that is lost at the polling station, then used to control the vote. It is voted outside, then given to the first "victim", who puts it in his pocket. At the polling station, the person receives a virgin ballot, goes into the cabin, puts the clear one in his pocket and then deliver that already voted. Then the clear one is brought out, voted properly and given to a second person.
The first reference to this principle, applied to playing cards, appears in a 1593 book written by Horatio Galasso from Arienzo, near Caserta, in the same geographical area where Saviano was born. The method was offered to the reader not for criminal purposes, but to enchant an audience with a demonstration of (alleged) clairvoyance ("The game to guess three cards above three decks.")
Horatio Galasso d’Arienzo, Giuochi di carte bellissimi di regola e di memoria, Venezia, 1593, p. 21. Image provided by The Conjuring Arts Research Center, New York City.
Every trick, however, has its B-side - and we can not exclude that it was used for less legitimate purposes. The suspect raises by reading an English book, published a few years before, whose author wrote to warn the reader - rather than to train him in the art of conjuring. In 1584 Reginald Scot, in his The Discovery Of Witchcraft, avoided the risk of providing illegal means, saying and not saying:
Here I should also mention the particular deceptions used in the casting of lots, and drawing of cuts. I dare not teach the methods used, lest the ungodly make a practice of it in the commonwealth, where many things are decided by such means, which can be done honestly and lawfully. (1)
It was my friend Mauro Ballesio who suggested me the link between the method offered by Galasso and Scot's reference. Mauro is a magician reminiscent of the use of the same principle when he was at his secondary school. Since the chemistry teacher pulled out at random the person to be involved in the interrogation, the method was useful for predicting who would be extracted, in order to minimize the commitment to study:
During the first extraction, not without a good deal of risk and audacity, the student in charge of the draw secretly took two numbers, one (secretly) for himself and one to be handed to the Professor. The first interrogation was sacrificial. But the student indicated by the second number (carefully and secretly kept until the following week) could "plan" the interrogation, knowing for sure that it would be "magically" extracted next time. In fact, the extraction was done in the a manner similar to the first, but this time the student introduced the hand holding the hidden number, took a new one by holding it in secret and handed over the old to professor, who then involved in the interrogation the student who - without being psychic - already knew the outcome of the draw. (2)
Reginald Scot had conceived The Discovery of Witchcraft after witnessing, as a Justice of the Peace, in a trial for witchcraft in Rochester. The tortures sentenced against Margaret Simons impressed him enough to push him to undertake an extensive research of the tricks with which to produce extraordinary effects, excluding the diabolical intervention on which the accusations against the poor witch focused.
With the guidance of the French magician Cautares, Scot therefore produced a monumental work on witchcraft that will go down in history as the first English text to - indirectly - deal with magic tricks. Written with the intent to warn against a too easy application of the adjective "evil" to magical phenomena, the book suffered the same consequences faced by the witches of the time: King James VI of Scotland sentenced to burn all the copies in circulation. Some books were saved from the flames and today the Discovery is a document of inestimable value, not only from the point of view of stage magic: for the time it was published, it was one of the most enlightened attempts to use Reason in the legal field, two centuries before the cornestone Of Crimes and Punishments (1763) by Cesare Beccaria.
Published on Saturday 8 june 2013 • Post by Mariano Tomatis • Permalink
During the Presentation Speech for the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature, awarded to Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish writer was praised for his ability to recreate — in his novels — “credible” narrative places:
You have made your native city an indispensable literary territory, equal to Dostoyevsky’s St. Petersburg, Joyce’s Dublin or Proust’s Paris – a place where readers from all corners of the world can live another life, just as credible as their own. (1)
The emphasis on writer’s “credibility” accosts him to the figure of the magician. Anyone wishing to stage the impossible should, first of all, take care of the “credibility” of the performances: the demonstrations must seem inconceivable, yet completely transparent and authentic. In order to do it, tricks must be kept behind the curtains with care.
The credibility of Pamuk’s literary places emerges from subtle tricks. Beside the ability to evoke the atmosphere of Istanbul with skill, the writer has developed a peculiar style that gained him the adjective “postmodern”: an intricate blend of reality and fiction, achieved through sophisticated means.
If someone were to ask whether a word (hocus-pocus?), a story or a book can shape a tangible reality, his latest novel could be used as a spectacular response.
Some time ago Mario Baudino wrote about the fundraising being held at Edgbaston, Tolkien’s city. The city hosts a high neo-Gothic building, needing extensive repairs. For Lord of the Rings fans, it is a place of worship: Tolkien was inspired by its shape when he created the fortress of Isengard of the famous trilogy.
Baudino is puzzled about the issue:
So a ugly building does become worthy of the greatest interest, because (perhaps) it inspired a good book!? (2)
Hocus-pocus, Tolkien’s words are having a material impact on reality.
A few months ago — relatively speaking — I consulted for a similar operation: the restoration of a tiny shrine in Torre Canavese, Italy. The anonymous monument achieved some celebrity in 1997, when in my book The Holy Grail in Torre Canavese I described its main fresco as if it were the clue to a treasure hunt on the trail of the mythological cup of Christ. Just kidding, but — hocus-pocus! — the restoration was really done.
The conversation between Elena Stancarelli, Marco Ansaldo and Orhan Pamuk — hosted in “La Repubblica delle Idee” event — could not help but dwell on one of the most spectacular contamination between reality and fiction ever made, made in Istanbul by the Turkish writer: its “Museum of Innocence” is both a novel and a museum that confirms its truthfulness, in an ingenious borgesian game. Perplexed about this, the mathematician and writer Piergiorgio Odifreddi commented on Repubblica newspaper:
One question that comes to mind is whether and how a sensible person could spend his life in such an undertaking. And what all this may serve, beside gaining him the Nobel Prize. [...] Another question is what drives many of his readers, actual or potential, to go and visit this museum, paying 10 euro for observing real objects, whose only interest is that they have become fictitious, absolutely equal to all those who are in the other second-hand shops in Istanbul. (3)
When Odifreddi put the question directly to Pamuk, he received a response that emphasized the playful aspects of the operation:
Odifreddi: Are not you bothered [...] that some of your readers go on a pilgrimage to the museum, as readers of Dan Brown who follow the footsteps of Robert Langdon? Pamuk: ...or like those of Tolstoy who go to St. Petersburg on Anna Karenina’s places? Not only it does not bother me, but I built the museum in order to allow it! There is a playful aspect, to create confusion by saying openly that the story is fiction, and at the same time in showing real objects that belong to it. (4)
I visited the Museum of Innocence on December 14, saving the 10 euros thanks to a gift conceived by Pamuk: those who read the novel to the last page, come across a coupon printed directly on the book — a small circle that is stamped at the entrance with a butterfly-symbol of the place. Along with the stamp, the visitor receives a ticket for free.
The interplay between reality and fiction that reigns in the museum brought me back to mind the book by Michael Saler As If — Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality (5).
The Californian scholar offers an in-depth historical interpretation of games like the one by Pamuk, analyzing works and authors belonging to the literary movement of the “New Romance”. Founded as a reaction to the disenchantment of the world theorized by Max Weber, those authors produced works of fiction mimicking scientific treatises. Tolkien added maps and glossaries to his novels, creating alternative worlds whose internal coherence was strictly guaranteed. Lovecraft referred to specific physical concepts to establish terrifying cosmogonies, which had nothing to do with esoteric forces, but were based on electronuclear forces or uncontrolled chemical reactions. Conan Doyle endowed Sherlock Holmes with a hyper-rationality whose implications enabled him to perform stunts close to mind reading. These works were intended to wonder gratifying reason, without asking — in the modern and disenchanted reader — huge leaps of faith.
Literature of this kind can have unexpected consequences: what is astonishing has, often, the power to deceive those who can not distinguish clearly the boundaries between reality and fiction. Conan Doyle knew very well the problem: his existence was doubted by most naive readers, convinced that his detective was more “authentic” than him.
Saler identifies in “irony” the mean to achieve a “delight without delusion”, a state of wonder not resulting in deception. Pamuk totally masters its use.
His novel is full of winks to the aware reader. During a party, his protagonist encounters
...the chain-smocking twenty-three-year-old Orhan [Pamuk], [...] nervous and impatient, affecting a mocking smile. (6)
The mocking smile of the novelist is the minimum gap that reveals the game to those who are able to catch it. In later chapters, Pamuk interacts directly with the protagonist, shaping an Escherian narrative structure, characterized by intertwined frames.
Pamuk believes that the awareness of this game is a fundamental requirements of a modern reader, willing to enjoy a work of fiction in all its nuances. He has even dedicated to the theme his Norton Lectures in 2008, entitled “The Naïve and the Sentimental Novelist.”
The same interplay between reality and fiction is at the heart of the most refined forms of contemporary magic — particularly the one sensitive to the combination of “Magic & Meaning”; developed in contrast to the disenchantment of the world, conjuring offers theatrical experience in which the boundaries between reality and fiction are disrupted. In its more subtle incarnations, its purpose is what Coleridge attributed to the poetry of Wordsworth:
...to excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural, by awakening the mind’s attention from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us. (7)
In the last part of the interview, Pamuk admits the double approach — aesthetic and political — used to conceive many of his writings. About the recent deforestation of a large park in the center of Istanbul, which has given rise to riots across the country, the writer still refers to the narratives: the Turks always meet near the trees, and they tied histories and fragments of their lives to each. Sawing trees means removing the memories and deleting stories. Another confirmation that words can create reality, but changing reality in turn may affect the stories. Or to put it with Alan Moore:
There are people. There are stories. The people think they shape the stories, but the reverse if often closer to the truth. Stories shape the world.
Published on Friday 7 june 2013 • Post by Mariano Tomatis • Permalink
Today La Repubblica delle Idee event has hosted the presentation of the book by Michela Murgia and Loredana LipperiniL’ho uccisa perché l’amavo (“I have killed her for love”), edited by Laterza (Rome). The book deals with femicide and its title comes from the dreadful headline of an article in print, citing the justification given by a man who hit his partner to death. Together with Adriano Sofri, the two authors have extensively analysed the phenomenon, with an approach focused on the way modern narratives shape the perception of sexuality and genders in the public opinion. During the session, they have cited also my documentary “Women in half” as one of the few examples of works on the topic created by a male. (1)
My work has been profoundly inspired by Murgia and Lipperini’s book, and deals with femicide seen through the eyes of a magician studying the history of illusionism and theatrical narratives.
Woman are used as “theatrical props” to confirm the power of a man since the times of Georges Méliès, but the narratives around this use have become more and more cruel. In 1921 the stunt of the “woman sawed in half” wapresented for the first time in London, and it has generated dozens of variations, increasingly grim and gruesome. But if in those years it was a (questionable) political gesture — designed to limit the power of the supporters of the women’s vote — today the symbolic havoc of women lives on undisturbed in theaters all over the world. Women continue to be pierced, impaled, crushed and tortured to applause.
This is the story of men’s strange power requiring the body of a woman to confirm itself:
Director: Mariano Tomatis
Music: Circus Marcus & Silver Process
Many thanks to: Ferdinando Buscema, Iaia Caputo, Francesca Coppa, Lucy Fischer, William Kalush, Loredana Lipperini, Michela Marzano, Michela Murgia, Jim Steinmeyer & Lorella Zanardo
(1) Another being the book by Riccardo Iacona Se questi sono gli uomini, Chiarelettere, 2012.
Published on Thursday 6 june 2013 • Post by Mariano Tomatis • Permalink
When asked why there is no sex in his novels, Dan Brown replies that it would be a dirty trick to capture readers: good novels should be emptied of all that is redundant and gratuitous. In order to stress the idea, he chooses a quote by Alfred Hitchcock — unhappy choice indeed.
Drama is life with the dull bits cut out. (1)
Vittorio Zucconi, the interviewer, seizes the moment replying that, in his humble opinion, there is nothing boring with sex.
It is the only Dan Brown’s answer which violates the typical script we are accustomed with.
The interview opening “La Repubblica delle Idee” is housed in the Hall of the 500 in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. The reader of the novel Inferno perceives a strange loop: in the same room, the protagonist Robert Langdon locates one of the clues that Dan Brown included on the cover of the book — a tiny writing on the fresco by Vasari that today many try to capture with their mobile camera. This loop is also one of the basic elements of its enormous publishing success.
When Samuel Coleridge wrote about “willing suspension of disbelief”, he referred to the disposal of those willing to enjoy a work of fiction — as in a theater, when you forgive a backdrop painted in a summary manner, accepting that it is a forest, or reading about Little Red Riding Hood you temporarily accept the existence a wolf who speaks.
Stage magic is the only art not to request such suspension: the magician using a wire to make an object fly, must be clever enough not to make you see the trick. It is his job to suspend disbelief of the spectator, and it succeeds only when it is really good. During a poor performance, the thread may be seen. In this case, in order to enjoy the show, the audience would be forced to ignore it voluntarily. When everything is running smoothly, the one observing a magician in action is able to witness the impossible without actively suspend his critical spirit. (2)
Dan Brown has a similar approach to writing. The passionate reader can travel the streets of Florence with his book in hand and check the manic topographic accuracy. The same precision is found in most of the historical elements with which the protagonists of his novels have to deal. With The Da Vinci Code we were all surprised by the effeminate face of John the Evangelist on the Last Supper by Leonardo, and the suspicion that it was Mary the Magdalene — raised in the novel — captured also us, living outside the novel.
When the author invites us to observe the fresco by Vasari, we must not suspend any disbelief, but just look up at the words “CERCA TROVA” on the fresco, which are just before our eyes like before those of Robert Langdon.
The gap, the thread to hide, is between the roles of that fresco in our world and in the one of the novel. In the pages of Inferno, it is a clue on an exciting treasure hunt. In our world, the words have more prosaic origins and meanings (wonderfully analyzed by Alfonso Musci (3).)
Dan Brown offers an augmented version of our world, adding a level made of riddles, conspiracies and clues towards cursed treasures. Integrating them in the intricate toys that his novels are, the writer reenchants systematically city squares, artworks, fragments of “La Divina Commedia” and even — in The Lost Symbol — the dollar bills in our pockets, hosting on their surface obscure Masonic references. Even with a popular language and a style far from refined, Dan Brown compels us to look at reality with different eyes, exclaim “Aha!” and participate with him to the game of conspiracies, treasure hunts, and finally saving the world from the clutches of the wicked.
And when the author confirms to seek inspiration by hanging upside down — to oxygenate better head, but also to see the world from a new point of view — it is impossible not to think about Dale Cooper: the bizarre and asexual protagonist of Twin Peaks — birth from David Lynch’s visionary genius — practiced every morning the strange ritual, declaring the same willingness to look at things in unusual ways and questioning about the conspiracy around John Kennedy’s assassination.
Obviously not everyone is able to perceive (and appreciate) the gap. Internet is full of conspiracy theorists, according to which Dan Brown’s novels would reveal — in the form of fiction — otherwise unprintable truths. The discomfort expressed by the Catholic Church for The Da Vinci Code emerged, in part, by the desire to “protect” naive readers by blasphemous thoughts expressed by the author in novelistic form.
Since it is difficult to estimate how many readers enjoy a “naive faith” in his stories, and how much, however, participate in the game in a conscious way (4), the script of Dan Brown’s interviews is quite standard. When Zucconi asks him if he really does believe that Jesus married Mary Magdalene, he openly nods, explicitely saying that — yes, he does. After having reassured the naive believers, he may spend some words for the others, specifying and providing better evidence — for those who are able to understand his ironic tone — that basically it is just a game.
The same pattern is repeated when the journalist tries to catch him in the corner:
Do you really believe in what you write?
The answer is again a strict yes. Followed by a lucid analysis of the tendency to look for (and find) patterns and conspiracies even where there are not, thanks to a natural frame of human mind. But during the entire conversation he runs with the hare and hunt with the hounds. Try to interview any contemporary mindreader after a show (“Is it true what you do?”) and you will get the same mixture of ambiguity, at the core of the personal branding of every magician.
Yet, I am grateful for the quotation by Hitchcock. It reminds me of another one by Edward Gorey, suggested me by an article written by the best mindreader in the world — Max Maven. If Clarke’s advice is based on a bit rough categorization of what we live every day, Gorey better captures a paradoxical aspect of human existence — and the resulting difficulty in translating it into fiction. According to the American illustrator,
Life is intrinsically, well, boring and dangerous at the same time. At any given moment the floor may open up. Of course, it almost never does; that’s what makes it so boring. (5)
(1) Cited in Leslie Halliwell, Hallywell’s Filmgoer’s Companion, HarperCollins, Londra 1984.
(3) Alfonso Musci, “Giorgio Vasari: «cerca trova». La storia dietro il dipinto.” con un’Appendice di Alessandro Savorelli in Rinascimento, N. 51, Olschki Editore, Firenze 2011, pages 237-268.
(4) I owe to Michael Saler the distinction between “naive believers” and “ironic believers”. See Michael Saler, As If — Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality, Oxford University Press, New York 2012.
(5) Max Maven, “Mayday! Mayday!” in Magic Magazine, May 1992, p. 13.
Published on Wednesday 5 june 2013 • Post by Mariano Tomatis • Permalink
Today, the illusionist is an old-fashioned figure. With his balloon sculptures, gaudy handkerchiefs and doves, his aesthetic evokes the pastimes of childhood and village feasts. David Metcalfe frankly commented:
When one thinks of stage magic, speculative metaphysics might not be the first thing that comes to mind. (1)
Metcalfe wrote these words after his meeting with Max Maven, the contemporary magician who — more than anyone else — has elevated the secular magic to a form of modern art, highlighting deep philosophical and cultural implications. Maven is one of the most prolific theorists on the subject. In an article on the role of magic in the U.S. cultural context, the magician commented bitterly:
Three magicians showed up on Forbes magazine’s recent list of the highest paid American entertainers. However, when Newsweek shortly thereafter did a cover story on the one hundred most influential people in American culture there was no one even remotely resembling a conjurer on the list. Conclusion: They’ll pay us, but they won’t listen to us. (2)
Are there the basis for acknowledging to magic a role in the contemporary cultural debate? I personally think so.
I have dedicated my latest book to this issue — a creative course for magicians through Benjamin’s reflections on modern art, Borges’ Harvard lessons, Eco’s witty columns and Duchamp’s provocations.
Despite the time spent on the stage for years, I have left it to improve the perception of magic in public opinion through writing, believing in the possibility of emancipating magic from mere entertainment to a “category of thought.” This recognition will be certainly due to more aware artists and more mature performances, but most of all — out of theaters — the act of writing will play a leading role.
What are the aspects of our society in which magic has something interesting to say? In the coming days I will propose some reflections in the margin of “La Repubblica delle Idee”, the event organized in Florence by the daily newspaper Repubblica on June 6 to 9, 2013 — whose slogan “Writing to restart” is particularly relevant.
Let’s meet in Florence — if you will be there — and on this blog.
Published on Wednesday 29 may 2013 • Post by Mariano Tomatis • Permalink
In his autobiography Nothing Is Impossible, English magician Dynamo describes magic as a tool to emancipate from playground bullying, racial abuse and a difficult family. This kind of narrative is repeatedly stressed in the book:
When you’re a kid life can seem tough; tougher for some than others. But the darkest of times can also be the most enlightening. When his late granddad showed him magic for the first time, Steven Frayne knew there was more to life than hiding from bullies.
In 1993 Dynamo is 11 years old, and Max Maven shows precognitive powers in his article "Febriferous", by anticipating the path towards success of the young magician:
In this culture, the vast majority of those who engage in theatrical conjuring are males, typically beginning between ages seven and twelve. They are introduced to magic through an older friend or relative […] Why, at such a tender age, does their involvement build with such intensity? lt is because they have discovered a highly functional use for magic: Most beginning magicians immerse themselves in magic as a means of coping with some form of social, emotional and/or psychological maladjustment. […] The child has problems dealing with peers, parents, teachers, and so on. Knowing some conjuring secrets and cultivating the skills to perform them provides a crucial access to power for an often otherwise powerless youth. (1)
According to Maven, there is nothing inherently wrong with the scenario. But some implications should not be disregarded. In order to introduce them, Max offers an analogy:
Imagine that you and I are standing in a room, on the wall of which hangs a beautiful tapestry. Suddenly, you burst into fire. So, I quickly tear down the tapestry and wrap it around you, thus smothering the flames and saving your life. Now, is what I’ve done a bad thing? Of course not; in fact, it is morally commendable. In deed, by using the tapestry to rescue you from this predicament I have done something virtuous. However, this was not the principal purpose for which the tapestry was created, and although using it in this manner was clearly beneficial to you, it did not leave the tapestry in very good condition. (2)
Maven draws from this a ruthless lesson:
It is the same with magic. Using this art as a therapeutic tool can provide a figurative life-saving result, which is a fine thing. But such is not the principle purpose of magic; nor does it leave magic in very good condition. (3)
(1) Max Maven, "Febriferous" in Magic, February 1993, page 14.
(3) Ibidem. The topic is also addressed in the next issue of Magic in Maven’s article "The shadow of your simile."