Content on this page requires a newer version of Adobe Flash Player.

Get Adobe Flash player

Eugene Burger

COPYRIGHT CANADIAN BROADCASTING CORPORATION

MAN ALIVE

"MAGIC"

PART ONE

INTERVIEW WITH EUGENE BURGER T:

WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF THE MYSTERY SCHOOL?

Well the mystery school is a convention that is also an experiential retreat where magicians, people who are interested in stage magic and also magic, can come and reflect upon their involvement and hopefully in the process discover new ideas and grow. And of course when we grow, things change.

IS CHANGE POSSIBLE?

Yes, I think it is. Maybe not for everybody but I think for some people change is possible, you know.

WHAT KIND OF CHANGE IS MYSTERY SCHOOL ABOUT?

During the 20th century magic became - fell under the rubric of comedy and as the comedy quotient in a magic routine goes up, very often but not always, I mean there are exceptional cases but very often the msytery quotient goes down. And so we find ourselves at the end of the 20th century involved in conjuring magic, sleight of hand, stage magic wherein there's not very much mystry any more. It's all about comedy. And although I think that is wonderful, I think there's room for a lot of people at the table. And my work does have comedic elements certainly but I think there's mystery in life and in magic. I want to bring more of that into my own work.

YOU SAID MAGIC IS ABOUT MYSTERY NOT TRICKS.

Magic is about mystery not tricks. Yes I think that's true. Ah magic takes places place in people's minds. The trick provides the catalyst for a magical experience sometimes. But again, if you're not aiming for a magical experience you just might get a laugh and a laugh is not always a magical experience, though on rare occasions it might be.

IN WHICH SENSE IS MAGIC ABOUT MYSTERY?

In the sense that magic, magic is about mystery in the sense that magic like all human behaviour is representational and symbolic. It points beyond itself. When we look at, for instance, neanderthal barrios, these people being buried in certain ways with certain artifacts with them and then we discover that not only were they buried that way one place, they were buried that way several places separated in time and space. Well then we say, well look, this behaviour, this human behaviour, has to have had some meaning for the people who did it. Now whether we can recapture that meaning, that's a very different question but positing the fact that human behaviour is symbolic and meaningful for the people who perform it. Now magic is a symbolic activity as well. In the earliest forms of magic, shamanism, magic, you know, as we talk here, grew up around the fires, the camp fires of paleolithic hunter-gatherers. And their magic pointed beyond itself. The trick pointed beyond the trick to a larger mystery, a mystery about life, mystery in life. And that's what I mean when I say that magic is symbolic, that all behaviour is symbolic. It points beyond itself to meanings and that's part of what contemporary magicians have lost. They're looking for a laugh and they're not looking to connect their audience emotionally with larger meanings. Now of course there are exceptions and those exceptions are wonderful exceptions but they're few.

LET'S GET INTO THE MEANING THAT'S BEING POINTED TOWARDS.

The meaning that's being pointed toward is perhaps different for every pointer. And one of the aims of mystery school is the theme fellowship across differences. We're not looking to have my view or Jeff McBride's view or anyone's view superimposed on people. People come to the mystery school with their own meanings. Now they don't always - they're not always in touch with those meanings and part of the mystery school is activities that will help unlock that for people so that they can get in touch with their own meanings, the meanings that they want their magic to display. And so this is very different than a school that has a curriculum that's factual or data wise. No, no, we're trying to set up experiences so that people can get in touch with the magic that they want to produce, not imitations of my magic or someone else's magic.

WHAT KIND OF PEOPLE COME?

It's an interesting range of people. We've had Hindus and Buddhists and Orthodox Jews and Christian ministers, ex-ministers, witches, pagans, you name it. And that's part of the real excitement about this as a magic convention, that and the fact that it's a small convention by magic standards. So that you have a chance to really talk to people during the course of it. You know, at a large magic convention like probably any convention you spend a lot of time saying to people, well it's nice seeing you, we have to get together and talk before this is over. And yet the vast number of people we say that to are people we never get a chance to talk to. Here you have a small number of people that have a chance to interreact and talk. And that's good because it points out the fact that the faculty here is not giving you answers. We're trying to pry open questions and let people find their own answers. And of course everyone coming, as people do, with different intellectual backgrounds, people find different answers and I think that's wonderful. Because again, magic is a world phenomena and in America we've lost sight of that. And of course one of the things of mystery school is to put people in touch with the fact that magic is a world phenomena and fascinating on that point.

(background talk)

IS THERE A DIFFERENCE BETWEEN PERFORMANCE MAGIC OR STAGE MAGIC AND REAL MAGIC?

Well real magic is that I suppose to which stage magic points. Now what is real magic and of course that's a rather difficult question isn't it? One of the people on the faculty of mystery school, Bob Neal, gives a wonderful example of magic in everyday life. When he was in seminary, he lived in a small one room apartment and they kept the baby in the closet where it slept. And of course every so often at 5 in the morning it would wake up and begin screaming. And what do you do? Well you pick up the baby and you hold it and you say, that's all right. Well of course it's not all right because it's 5 in the morning and you have things to do. But the word creates the transformation and suddenly the baby is quiet. And Bob of course tells in his later work in life with not just dying people, you do the same thing when you're with a person who's dying. You take their hand and you say, it's all right. And that is again the word seeking magical transformation and probably with some people it happens and with others it doesn't. They go out screaming and others go out in peace.[ 07:11:1-2070]

IS TRANSFORMATION THE KEY WORD?

With magic? I think it is yes, yes. Magic is about transformation and probably you could take every magic effect and redescribe it in ways that were - where the primary category was a transformative one. Yeah.

ALL RIGHT. MAX'S BRAIN IS THINKING NOW. HE'S READY TO JUMP. (LAUGHTER) ....

MAGICAL EFFECTS SPEAK TO PEOPLE ON SYMBOLIC LEVELS.

Magical effects speakt to people not always rationally consciously but on symbolic unconscious levels. Take, for example, the famous trick that we've all seen where the magician has the rings and links them together magically. Well that's about so many things. I'll just give you a couple of examples of meanings for it. One would be that that which is separate can be joined. What a message of hope. Another message going on in this is that which is impenetrable can be penetrated. Whoa, another message of hope. And when we look at magical messages they tend to be very hopeful messages. Now when the magician links the rings, I suppose not everybody in the audience thinks of those kinds of things. But if given the space to think and to respond and unfortunately many ... magicians don't give people space. They're doing their joke lines all the way through the routine, but if given space to respond, I think people can respond to those kinds of symbols and images and feelings and maybe don't even know consciously what's going on but they have a connection with it, an emotional connection with the stage magic that they're seeing.

THERE'S A KEY WORD THAT I THINK IS RELATED TO HOPE AND THAT EVERY MAGICIAN REALLY KNOSW ABOUT AND SOME DON'T PLAY WITH IT TOO MUCH AS A CONCEPT. BUT I THINK YOU WOULD PROBABLY AGREE THAT IT'S INSTRUMENTAL TO WHAT MAGIC IS ALL ABOUT AND THAT'S THE ELEMENT OF AWE.

Yes. Yes. Because, you know, philosophy began in wonder, said Plato and Aristotle. Why is there something and not nothing? Why is there anything at all? And to wonder about that, wonder about it deeply not be looking necessarily for an answer to it but just to be caught up in the state of whoa. Plato and Aristotle said that's the beginning of philosophy but it's also part of the magician's ball game, part of his bag of tricks, isn't it. The magician who's successful, we leave the audience and we look at the world in a new way, a new way. And of course that's what all art is about perhaps you know, seeing things. And then seeing what we've always seen but seeing it new.

... A WORD THAT OCCURS AND THAT'S THE CHILD.

Yeah but I think the child is a good thing yeah. But you know children - there's - what child are we talking about? I think there are several children in me. There's the innocent, wondrous child and then there's the petulant brat. And too often when we talk about this child thing, you know, we're just encouraging people to be grownup little brats. So I want to know what child we want to tap into. I think there is an innocent child, yes but whether that individual has a great need for magic or whether magic is part of their ball game, part of their perceptual process anyway, I don't know. Maybe adults need magic.

I THIND ADULTS DO NEED MAGIC. I THINK CHILDREN DWELL IN MAGIC.

Yes. When you talk to children as magicians, as I do, there are a lot of effects I suppose that don't connect with children. Children like productions of things but if I were to pass a ribbon through my neck, for instance, they wouldn't necessarily - I'm told since I do not do a lot of children's magic - in fact I do it hardly at all, ah the - that there are some effects that don't have this connection with children, they tell me.

I'M JUST THINKING ABOUT THOSE FACES WE WERE WATCHING LAST NIGHT AND THE WONDER. JEFF I'M SURE WILL TALK ABOUT THAT. LET'S MOVE ON TO SOMETHING ELSE. THERE'S SOME LOVELY THINGS YOU SAID .... NECESSARY FOR PERFORMANCE MAGIC TO COME FROM WITHIN.

Yes. That's one of the things that's interesting about magicians is how do they find their tricks. And I suppose most of them find their tricks by looking through magic catalogues and reading books and so on. And very often, you know, when David Copperfield presents a special on TV and does a little closeup trick, the magicians all over America are in the magic store that following Saturday trying to buy it. So there is in magic a great imitative element. Little monkeys, you know, doing what they see other people do. But then, there's also trying to find out who you are and what is the magic that you need and want to express. And that's a very difficult process isn't it? And we don't have any definite way that I can tell you to get to it. And mystery school in a sense is about that very process, trying to help each person find out what is the magic that they want and need to express. And so this is magic that's coming from within you and not looking at what other magicians do and then just copying it.

THAT MEANS YOU HAVE TO BE HONEST IN WHAT YOU DO.

Yes. The magician, you know, is the only person in this society that we have - that can lie to us and it's okay. (laughter) And yet even though magicians are those people that can lie and it's okay, they still have to tell the truth to themselves if they want to be good magicians.

WITH RUTHLESS-

With ruthless honesty, said Rudolf Boltman the great New Testament theologian. Yes, with ruthless honesty. But that's true for any performer. All performers have to look at their work with honesty don't they? And find out what are they seeking to achieve and are you achieving it? Or are you not. Well that's the essence of putting on a show for people, whatever kind of show.

WHAT DO WE SUFFER FROM AS A PEOPLE THAT LIMITS US? WHAT LIMITS US?

Nathan Scott who taught at the Divinity School of University of Chicago earlier in this century said that the modern problem was a failure of the imagination. That our dreams are too small. And so that of course feeds right into one of the magician's functions doesn't it because the magician shows us that what we thought was possible, might be more than - or impossible, I'm sorry. Let's erase that. Where did I start.

START AGAIN.

Nathan Scott who taught at the Divinity School at the University of Chicago said that the modern failure is a failure of the imagination, that our dreams are too small. Now this is where magic connects in because the magician says, look, what you thought was impossible might be possible after all. We get into ruts don't we? We live in these ruts and our lives don't have much element say of surprise, another key element in the magician's bag of tricks. The magician surprises us and that comes as a gift and a challenge. It's a gift but it's also a challenge because it says to me, hey, Eugene, do you have surprises in your life? And so it's an interesting gift, it's a gift of surprise. Because it's a gift that raises a question, an existential question that I think I need to answer. The same with possibility and impossibility. And also the same with mystery and problem. I suppose one of the reasons that things that makes magic interesting is that we have so few, so little contact with mystery in life that we've turned all mysteries into problems and problems need to be solved. But you know, as I think, if we were to wake up tomorrow morning and every problem were solved we could drink all the water on the planet the air was clean to breathe and people were being nice to each other, there would still be an irreducible element of mystery in life that you can't explain, but you can experience and the experiencing of this mystery has a transformative power.

CHANGE TAPE.

INTERVIEW WITH EUGENE BURGER 2 T:

LET'S BEGIN WITH A QUOTATION AND ELABORATION FROM THAT QUOTATION. FOR NO MATTER HOW LOUDLY WE CLAMMER FOR MAGIC IN OUR LIVES WE ARE REALLY AFRAID TO PURSUE AN EXISTENCE ....

Antoine Artaud said: for no matter how loudly we clammer for magic in our lives,[ 08:00:4-2080] we're all afraid to live an existence solely under its power and sign. And I think that's true because to say to yourself, hey you need some surprises, hey what you think is impossible isn't impossible at all, that's kind of scary stuff. Because whenever I find out how free I am, there's kind of a little scariness to it isn't there. As Art said, dreadful freedom, when you realize the implications of being free. Well when you realize the implications that you've created your life into a much tinier box than it needs to be lived in that comes as a gift and a challenge and all challengers are a little bit scary.

(interruption)

NO MATTER HOW LOUDLY WE CLAMMER FOR MAGIC IN OUR LIVES, WE ARE REALLY AFRAID TO PURSUE AN EXISTENCE UNDER ITS INFLUENCE AND SIGNS. DO YOU WANT ME TO -

No. Antoine Artaud, the great director, said: For no matter how loudly we clammer for magic in our lives, we're really afraid to live an existence solely under its influence and sign. And I think that there is something scary about magic because look, if the magician says to me, you don't have much surprise in your life or if the magician shows me that what I thought was impossible really is possible, if the magician comes and says, hey look the little box you're living in is too small, that's a gift, but it's also a challenge and all challengers are a little scary.

IS IT TO DO WITH THE UNKNOWN?

Oh yes I think so, it's absolutely about the unknown because suprise means the unknown becomes known doesn't it? And there's an element of scariness to that because we all want to be good. There's a part of us, you know, that the way we're raised in school, we all want to be good automatons that don't get in trouble. And insofar as we're successful in that, we're leading very shallow lives.

LET'S STOP FOR JUST A SECOND.

YOU CAN TELL THE TAROT CARD STORY A LITTLE BIT.

When I was a child there was a great Japanese magician, Hedinkai, who came to the United States and actually lived here for a period of about 20 some years. And he came to Chicago when I was a kid and I saw him on television. And to this very day I can remember exactly what he did. There was such great focus to it, where sometimes the magic acts I saw a month ago, are actually cloudy. But this man was a master of magic. And one of the things he said which has stayed with me is that magic is not tricks, it is a way, a magic way, a path to follow. And I think that's true. I think that there's something very profound and deep about magic. Now I'll just stop there.

I THOUGHT YOU WERE REALLY COOKING.

...

YOU SURPRISED ME THERE.

I know when it's time to stop David rather than just babbling on.

GOOD.

YOU CAN ACTUALLY SAY THAT. MAGICIANS USED TO BE SOUGHT OUT AS GODS. NOW THEY DO TRICKS FOR $5 -

Okay I can do something like that.

See one of the things that happened in the 20th century particularly is that the magician who began as the wise man or the wise woman has been completely transformed, turned inside out, whatever, and has become the wise guy. And this is particularly true of male magicians. They bring people out of the audience and they're insulting, rude, obnoxiousj. They go for jokes at the expense of people's feelings and this whole dreadful procedure that we've all witnessed if we've witnessed magic. How did that happen? And maybe that isn't even the question. Maybe the question is how can we - how can we turn this around a little bit.

BUT HOW DID IT HAPPEN? LET'S SPECULATE A LITTLE BIT.

How did it happen? I suppose it's part of the general secularization of life that the 19th adn 20th centuries produced and have convinced us of is what's real, you know. As we - and it's interesting that this interest in the mystery school with - going back to the roots of magic and looking for the deeper symbolic meanings that this is happening towards the end of the millenium where these kinds of behaviours do seem to happen. At least we have one example at 1000 A.D. where the 10 years before there were lots of people looking for deeper things here. So maybe this is part of that. Hard to say, very hard to say. It will be interesting to see what happens to magic in the 21st century. Myself I think it has two ways to go really. There's more flash pots, more explosions, more big effects, you know, special effects as one path that magic will probably go. And then there's the other path which is the only thing on this planet that can compete with special effects, the power of the human personality. And so you'll have - that's the other side, personality where the magician is an interesting special person in and of him or her self. And we are interested in them even though they're not surrounded by flaming swords. (chuckles)

... FLAMING SWORDS ARE ....

Oh I like flaming swords. We're not saying flaming swords are bad.

WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE THE MYSTERY SCHOOL BECOME?

Well what I'd like to see the mystery school become would be I'd like more people to come and that's going to happen as this continues on. I'd like it to be a place where magicians can take time out of their lives and just reflect upon what they're doing without anyone giving them an answer of what they should be doing,[ 08:08:4-2080] you know. Because to do that is to cut their creativity. Now this is a place, this is a place to come and just kind of have lots of ideas thrown at you and a little time for those ideas to percolate and then we'll see what happens. But I don't have a concept of what I want to happen because that would take the surprise out of what can happen wouldn't it? I want to be surprised too about what's going to happen and I think what's going to happen is something that we can't even imagine today. How exciting for magic.

(CUT)

... THE MYSTERY IN THE MYSTERY SCHOOL, THE SECRETNESS OF IT. THE SECRETNESS THAT'S INHERENT ....

You see, during the Hellentistic period, actually from about 100 B.C. to 200 A.D. there were these schools that existed in Rome called the mystery schools in Grecian Rome and these were essentially initiation operations as best we know because one of the wonderful things about them is that people who belonged to them kept their secrets. And - but we do know this and this is very fascinating and ties into our idea at our mystery school about fellowship across difference, that you could belong to many mystery schools. They weren't in any way exclusive. Help me, I just lost the train, the question.

WHY THE SECRET?

At our mystery school, one of the things we explore is secret keeping. Now this might surprise you but I believe that after government workers, magicians are the worst secret keepers on the planet. And so we practice keeping secrets and so there are parts of mystery school that we decided should be secret. And it's not that there's - it's not so much about them as it's about us, you know. It's not about the secret so much as learning to keep a secret. And that at least for a magician is an important thing to learn. Now of course it might be an important thing for all of us to learn. But at least as magicians we should learn it.

LET ME THROW THIS AT YOU, WHY? WHY SHOULD ANYTHING BE SECRET?

WEll because everybody isn't ready for everything. For me for instance the rules of football are a minor mystery. I don't understand it. I've had several football players try to explain this game to me but I really don't get it.[ 08:12:1-2080] The workings of an automobile are completely mysterious to me because I don't know anything about it and I don't care. So there are some things that as people we're just not interested in and why not just have those things be kept secret (laughter) from us. Why should we learn to keep secrets? Well because everyone shouldn't be told everything. Isn't that - (laughter)

WHY?

Well because they're not ready for it. You can only receive something when you're ready for it. You can't receive it until you are ready for it. If you had told me back when I was a 16-year-old magician that magic had a deeper meaning beyond these tricks, I might have understood the words but I would not have understood the meaning because at that stage in my life, I wasn't ready even to explore magic as a deeper phenomenon. And I must say you know a lot of contemporary writing and film that kind of gives us some of these ideas that begin making us start looking at magic in a new way. So, everyone is not ready to understand everything and that's why we have secrets.

ONE OF THE THINGS THAT I THINK IS GOING TO BE DIFFICULT TO COMMUNICATE IS THAT OKAY, IT'S A SECRET BUT WHAT'S THE NATURE OF THE SECRET? WHAT'S THIS ALL ABOUT? ....

Can the mystery of the mystery school be made more concrete? I don't think so. Because to be able to make it concrete is to circumscribe the mystery and yet mystery by definition is that which cannot be circumscribed. Mystery is the wall that human reason bumps up against and reason wants to figure out every way it can to get around that wall and get over it. And yet it can't. And that comes as a real shock to the reason's nervous system and some people never even get over it, I'm sure. So mystery can't be made - can't even perhaps be verbalized. When I get a sense of mystery, my talk about it later is but a poor approximation. So no, I don't think it can be made concrete. I think mystery and the experience of mystery is a true individual thing and that when a person experiences mystery in life, they can't always talk about it and make it clearer to the rational mind.

AND ON THAT NOTE.