Gustav Kuhn, Experiencing the Impossible: The Science of Magic & Matthew L. Tompkins, The Spectacle of Illusion: Magic, the Paranormal & the Complicity of the Mind

Gustav Kuhn, Experiencing the Impossible: The Science of Magic (London: The MIT Press, 2019), xiii + 276 pp., £20.00 (GBP), ISBN: 9780262039468

Matthew L. Tompkins, The Spectacle of Illusion: Magic, the Paranormal & the Complicity of the Mind (London: Thames & Hudson, 2019), 224 pp., £19.95 (GBP), ISBN: 9780500022429

Both Gustav Kuhn’s Experiencing the Impossible and Matthew Tompkins’ The Spectacle of Illusion explore an area of magic research which has received arguably the biggest expansion in recent years: the psychology of performance magic and conjuring. Tompkins’s text is half history of magic, half visual catalogue for the recent exhibition it accompanies at the Wellcome Collection (‘Smoke and Mirrors’, 2019), whereas Kuhn’s acts more as a summary of the work of psychologists analysing magic and specifically the work of his own psychological research unit at Goldsmiths, University of London. It should also be noted that Tompkins and Kuhn are colleagues and clearly aware of each other’s work: both texts by these authors mention the other by name at least once. The production value of both books is also of an extremely high quality, Tompkins’s book in particular is only matched in terms of visual quality by the large TASCHEN volume, Magic: 1400s-1950s (2009), which reproduces a many images and posters associated with magicians across the last five hundred years in incredibly high resolution.

Kuhn’s text is, as its subtitle suggests, primarily concerned with exploring what the author himself describes as a potential framework for the scientific study of performance magic. Noting that this is a perhaps controversial opinion within the science of magic circles, particularly those concerned with psychology (Peter Lamont, as Kuhn states, has argued that there is ‘too little structure’ in tricks to allow for a systematic study (p. 215)), but at several points throughout the text the author does make valid claims for such an overhaul of the scientific approach to magic. Experiencing’s structure, however, whilst perhaps useful for general readers is unfortunately not as helpful as it could be in directing an argument. The book’s reliance on a question and answer system means that some points become slightly beleaguered or that content begins to overlap.

Experiencing does engage with the history of magic, primarily at the beginning of each chapter, but would benefit from a more detailed consideration of how conjuring’s past connects with its modern day, increasingly scientific future. The author chooses the key moments of magic history which he utilises wisely (Robert-Houdin’s Ethereal Suspension trick, Pepper’s Ghost, von Kempelen’s automata to name a few) and notes how they relate to a contemporary audience. Kuhn also astutely engages with the triadic connection of magic, deception and historically criminality, but again these points would benefit from slightly more nuance. He notes, as many magic scholars do, that nineteenth-century performers such as Robert-Houdin ‘brought magic to the upper classes of society and, in doing so, distanced it from crooks and swindlers’ (p. 195). A more complex approach might take into consideration that several other prominent Victorian magicians, such as Signor Antonio Blitz, openly engaged with and actively benefitted from the criminal associations of magic in their acts. The text’s historical engagement also shows a potential factual error: it is stated that ‘George Méliès became fascinated by magic after seeing Jasper Maskelyne perform in London’ (p. 199),

Some of the text’s highlights include a detailed consideration of the ways in which modern magicians, such as Derren Brown, engage with and often incorporate historical tricks and movements such as Spiritualism into their acts, and how these performances continue to appeal to contemporary audiences. The section ‘How Much Do We Really See?’ is equally informative and interesting, particularly in light of Robert-Houdin’s own interest in the science of vision, seen in his later watercolour studies of his own eyes and interest in the neural structure of the iris (reproduced in Cabinet, p. 95), which resonate with the scientific diagrams displayed in the text. This section expands upon why the blind spot of the human eye is significant for certain illusions and how magic can utilise the limitations of sight to its advantage, a fact which has clearly interested magicians across the centuries. Kuhn’s consideration of the physiological aspects and effects of conjuring provides a great connection to nineteenth-century magic’s past focus on visuality and the optical nature of tricks, often crossing the boundary between science and popular entertainment. 

Kuhn also engages with the gender disparity which continues to persist in magic today, stating that ‘women […] need to tailor the presentation [of a trick] to their own gender’ when considering how it has historically been ‘relatively easy for male magicians to simply copy another man’s performance style’ (p. 232). This section would perhaps benefit from some expansion upon why it is still the case in modern magic that women must ‘tailor’ tricks rather than performing the same copies as their male counterparts. Kuhn states towards the beginning of the book that his ultimate aim with Experiencing is to ‘encourage a constructive debate’ (p. 35) within the field of the science of magic, which is undoubtedly ‘now a field of its own’ (p. 2), and this text will no doubt play a vital role in expanding conversations within that branch of research.

Tompkins’ text more explicitly engages with the history of magic at large and has a dual role in acting as a catalogue of sorts to the Wellcome exhibition. Tompkins’ text is also, like the exhibition itself, interactive in some ways, including optical illusions such as Akiyoshi Kitaoka’s ‘Rotating Snakes’. Whilst Tompkins’ writing and content is notable in itself, it is without a doubt the images which make this text exceptional. It offers several rare full double page posters in colour and a range of rare photographs such as an 1890 image of Maskelyne and Cooke’s Egyptian Hall. The high visual quality of the text aside, it offers a more typically chronological consideration of the development of performance magic, but deviates from this tradition in a number of ways.

Spectacle is, for instance, particularly strong in its inclusivity and resituation of some of the forgotten characters of magic history, including for instance a striking poster used for the African American magician Black Herman, and rare images of female contributors such as Eusapia Palladino. The text also shows a good consideration of how performance magic, both onstage and used more subtly in Spiritualist practices, impacted radical movements, noting that ‘Spiritualism was also strongly associated with progressive political causes such as abolitionism and women’s suffrage’ (p. 49). The recent Science & Spiritualism conference at Leeds Trinity University noted the importance of re-centring the contributions of female figures in the spiritual and occult movements of the nineteenth century, and this text, with its visual emphasis on the proliferation of women operating planchettes and other items, contributes to this effort. Tompkins also notes the impact of the psychologist Elizabeth Loftus upon ever-evolving field of the science of magic, with her coining of the term ‘misinformation effect’ relating to how false information can impact witnesses’ recollections in the 1970s. As a result, Tompkins offers more diversity than is usually present in standard histories of magic.

Spectacle also picks up on the often violent imagery of magic and its preoccupation with death, noting that it was Houdini’s ‘incorporation of the possibility that he might actually die during one of his shows that led to some of his best-remembered performances’ (p. 92) and that nineteenth-century mentalist performer Washington Irving Bishop’s ‘ambiguous boasts about his abilities may have actually contributed to his own death’ (p. 103). Houdini did reportedly once summarise the appeal of potential death himself, stating that ‘the easiest way to attract a crowd is to let it be known that […] someone is going to attempt something that in the event of failure will mean sudden death’ (quoted in Brandon, p. 153). The implicit constant threat of violence in death-defying acts is also seen in what Tompkins incisively notes is often the literal ‘weaponiz[ing]’ (p. 61) of tricks, as was the case in Robert-Houdin’s famous deployment to Algeria in order to influence the Marabout community using performance magic.

Both texts undoubtedly appeal to different strands of magic research and to a general readership, with both embodying Tompkins’ closing statement that ‘just because something is a trick or an illusion, does not mean it cannot be wonderful’ (p. 215). These texts show that the increasing interest in the explanation and exposure of the science behind magic does not mean that researchers and readers alike must lose the excitement of the unexpected which has made magic such a popular entertainment for hundreds of years.

Beatrice Ashton-Lelliott, University of Portsmouth


Works Cited

Brandon, R. The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini. UK: Random House, 1993.

Cabinet: A Quarterly of Art and Culture. Issue 26: Magic, 2007.

Daniel, N. (ed.) Magic, 1400s-1950s. UK: TASCHEN, 2009.

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