The Lost Moment

The Lost Moment, a book published by Bik Van der Pol and Fatos Üstek (as part of a more encompassing project also titled The Lost Moment; contains my text Morning of the Magicians (pp. 88-93). Since the book may be difficult to get hold of and the essay is relatively short, I put it up here in its entirety, in a somewhat edited version:

Morning of the Magicians

In a typically non-linear way, Christopher Nolan’s 2006 film The Prestige recounts the interlocked lives and careers of two Victorian magicians, Christian Bale’s Alfred Borden and his nemesis Robert Angier, a.k.a. the Great Danton, played by Hugh Jackman. Hardly rounded characters, these two magicians are little more than personified lust for revenge, always attempting to outsmart and hurt the other. Throughout the film their old mentor, played by Michael Caine, offers world-wise insights into the workings of stage magic. As he tells the young daughter of Christian Bale’s character, Alfred Borden: 'You’re not really looking. You don’t want to know. You want to be fooled.' The audience, in other words, does not really want to know the trick, which is usually disappointing, but it assumes that there is a trick. As Caine’s character acknowledges in The Prestige, the greatest disappointment would be if there were no trick, if what you saw was real. This is what happens when Robert Angier has a machine built than can actually perform a miracle, a miracle of modern science.

Consumed by jealousy for a trick in which Borden disappears into one cabinet and immediately reappears from another, Angier travels to Colorado Springs to seek out inventor Nikola Tesla, famous for pioneering alternating current (AC) electricity, and for building a hydroelectric power plant at Niagara Falls. In a somewhat haphazard way, Tesla––who, performed by David Bowie, explains his lack of progress with the assertion that 'exact science is not an exact science'––constructs a machine that both makes a perfect three-dimensional copy of anything placed within it, and teleports this copy over some distance. For a hundred nights, Angier uses his Tesla machine to apparently transport himself magically to the back of the theatre; however the 'Great Danton' that shows up triumphant from the back of the theatre is a new copy, whereas the Danto who went into the machine has fallen through a trap door and drowned in a water tank. The next night, the 'New' Danton will go the same way, sacrificing himself to his obsession, yet living on in an identical copy. As Caine says: 'This was not built by a magician. This was built by a wizard.' [1]

This catchy expression presupposes that the term 'magician' denotes entertainers, stage performers—disenchanted wizards who cannot do any actual magic. Of course, the appeal of such magicians largely lies in the uncanny suggestion that they do posses magical powers, that they are true enchanters who just happen to profane their skills on stage. Yet this is clearly make-believe, offered to a complicit audience which is unlikely to regard the performer as a powerful wizard or dangerous sorcerer. While the enjoyment of tricks that are perceived as such is no historical novelty, the widespread acceptance of trick-magic and the creation of a mass audience for it are distinctly modern phenomena that emerged during the latter part of the eighteenth and the first part of the nineteenth century. One contributing factor was the Enlightenment’s attacks on superstition, which led some—like the Göttingen professor Johann Beckmann—to applaud magicians for showing the common folk that magic is just a matter of trickery.[2] More generally speaking, the Enlightenment and its debunking of myths and long-held beliefs created a need for a new kind of disenchanted magic, for a fictitious Nachleben of sorcery that satisfy old mental habits, without actually regressing to discredited beliefs.

Living up to the hopes Beckmann set in them, magicians such as Harry Houdini – who named himself after Robert-Houdin, the man who pretty much defined what modern magic would look like in his triumphs of the 1840s and 1850s—saw it as their task to unmask spiritualist mediums and other alleged miracle workers as frauds.[3] The modern spiritualist, occultist and esoteric tendencies amply demonstrate that as-if magic did not satisfy everyone. Many hoped for a 'morning of the magicians'—to quote the title of the 1960s bestseller by Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier, in which 'magician' does not refer to stage performers but to supposedly genuine magi. Recently, the title has been appropriated by Joachim Koester as the title for a group of works about the Sicilian 'abbey' of Aleister Crowley and his followers. If Koester investigates a historical attempt at reenchanting the world, modern art itself has often been presented as a form of enchantment, and the modern artist as a magus.[4] Pauwels and Bergier presented their own magical-mythic take on history as the next step after Surrealism, and the catalogue of a late Surrealist exhibition from the same year as the original French edition of their book, Surrealist Intrusion in the Enchanters’ Domain, contained a chart which places Surrealism in a genealogy of both 'historical' and fictitious enchanters—apparently a parody of Alfred Barr’s famous chart of Cubism and abstract art.[5]

Elsewhere in the catalogue, Simon Magus—a wizard who in apocryphal stories is said to have challenged Saint Peter by flying, only to crash to death after a prayer by the saint—is represented by a statue of the zoologist and geologist Louis Agassiz at Stanford University after the 1906 earthquake, crashed with its head into the ground. Perhaps there is more to this illustration than the obvious visual pun; one can speculate that Breton and Duchamp, who masterminded the catalogue, were far from displeased with the suggestion that modern science is an inferior form of Ersatz magic that is headed for a dramatic fall. In The Prestige, by contrast, science is presented as being capable of real miracles. Before his transportation act, Angier tells the audience that “What you are about to witness is not magic. It is purely science,” but this is of course part of the game: the audience believes it is witnessing trick, whereas it is in effect being presented with Tesla’s technological wizardry. Interestingly, the historical Tesla in fact performed a kind of science-magic act on stage. Attacked by Thomas Alva Edison–who was himself dubbed 'the wizard of Menlo Park' by the press—over the alleged dangerousness of his alternating current, Tesla appeared on stage with a large light bulb in his hand, which started to glow without being attacked to a wire. Tesla’s own body conducted the electricity, thus proving the safety of the AC current even while mythifying Tesla as a magus who controls the elements.[6] However, more typical than this use of stagecraft by a scientist was the use of advanced technology, mechanical as well as optical, by magicians.

Modern magic is a form of special effects: it is not for nothing that Georges Méliès, the pioneer of special-effects film, was a magician and the proprietor of the Théatre Robert-Houdin. Méliès eventually fell by the wayside for refusing to adopt a less stagy and more 'filmic' approach, which he considered to be too manipulative; his use of trick editing as early as L’impressionniste fin-de-siècle (1899), which shows a stage illusionist who makes himself and a woman disappear and reappear, is distinguished from many later film effects by being a joyful celebration of trickery rather than an act of rhetorical manipulation.[7] The latter form of effects is dominant—and it is not less common in modern and contemporary magic than in effect-ridden blockbuster films, both programming our emotions with temporal tricks and traps. Is our joyful submission to such manipulation of our attention not all too similar to our consumption of politics in the post-democratic USA or EU? Norman M. Klein has characterized a special effect as a “technological marvel [which] controls an illusionistic environment. It has been set up to deliver elaborate shocks. Within these shocks, an allegory emerges. Staged as an epic journey, this script immerses the viewer in a reassuring adventure. This adventure is often about a “marvellous” power larger than life, larger than humans alone can ever hope to be.”[8]

Klein is concerned with the ways in which special effects are complicit with a 'neo-feudal' social and political climate, in which the election of an American president can be forced by an elite which claims that “the people” do not have the patience for a recount, first raising the suspense throughout the evening and then producing a surprising a outcome which seems as magical as the last act of a magic trick—an act called 'the prestige' in Nolan’s film.[9] If the world is enjoyed as special effect, surprising twists and turns need not be questioned, and there is no need to investigate the moment when the trick was planned and executed—what matters is the effect, the willing suspension of disbelief, the complicity with the trick and the trickster.

In his televised shows of the 1980s and 1990s, David Copperfield used television technology to his advantage, showing the apparent disappearance of a plane or even of the Statue of Liberty to large audiences. (Of course, such feats are dependant on the camera angles, the Statue of Liberty trick, which was performed at night, probably involving the imperceptible change in orientation of the platform Copperfield had erected in front of it.) Remarkably, these tricks have led to Copperfield’s inclusion in the weirder products of the self-styled 9/11 truth movement. Conspiracy theorists claim that the 9/11 attacks were feats of sinister illusionism; the theory goes that we are indeed being controlled by effects-masters, by political magicians whose machinations are as imperceptible as that of the magician who makes a bird disappear. Disillusionment with a society in which political events seem completely beyond democratic influence, in which non-elected presidents can wage war on a country with no discernible link to 9/11 to search for non-existent weapons of mass destruction, results in unwillingness to accept at least the physical events of 9/11 at face value. 9/11 becomes a special effect in a magic show.

While it is obvious that 9/11 and its instrumentalization by the Bush administration raise many questions, George Monbiot has rightly attacked 'conspiracy idiots' who destroy the credibility of those who oppose the Bush regime and the war in Iraq: 'To qualify as a true opponent of the Bush regime, you must also now believe that it is capable of magic. It could blast the Pentagon with a cruise missile wile persuading hundreds of onlookers that they saw a plane. It could wire every floor of the twin towers with explosives without attracting attention and prime the charges (though planes had ploughed through the middle of the sequence) to drop each tower in a perfectly timed collapse. It could make Flight 93 disappear into thin air, and somehow ensure that the relatives of the passengers collaborated with the deception. It could recruit tens of thousands of conspirators to participate in these great crimes and induce them all to have kept their mouths shut, for ever.' [10]

If Monbiot polemically accuses the conspiracists of believing in actual wizardry, some conspiracy theorists actually believe that stage magic—as-if magic—may in fact have played a role: 'Advocates of the "blue screen" or "hologram" theory hold that the planes that hit the World Trade Center, or at least Flight 175, were ghost aircraft and that sophisticated image projection technology was used to fake the illusion of them entering the towers', in other words that 'some form of high-tech-hologram technology was utilized as part of a David Copperfield style sound and lights magic show.' [11] Trying to explain why so many people reported that the towers imploded after being hit by planes, whereas this is (according to the conspiracist) 'physically impossible', one author surmises that such delusions 'would be the result of some kind of trickery that remains hidden from researchers. The range of possibilities runs from an airplane fly-by of some kind coordinated with timed explosions inside the tower to David Copperfield on the scene.'[12] Elsewhere, a self-described 'conspiracy nutter' sees Dick Cheney as the evil mastermind behind 9/11, and 'begrudgingly applaud[s] him for his ability to David Copperfield this incident so well.' [13]

Although such explicitly “magic” versions of conspiracy theory are extreme, and absent from popular fare such as Loose Change, they are symptomatic for the failure of the '9/11 truth movement' to arrive at a valid and productive approach to history and politics. It is precisely to those who grandly uncover the conspiracy, those who refuse to be taken in, that Michael Caine’s words seem to apply the most: 'You’re not really looking. You don’t want to know. You want to be fooled.' Is there a surer way to breed political apathy than to create a woldview in which affairs are masterminded by magicians who are modern magicians only at first glance—whose powers are so absolute that their would, in fact, have to be old-fashioned wizards? But in the world of conspiracism, the real tricks pass unnoticed. Nobody is more thoroughly enchanted and complicit than the conspiracy theorist.

Sven Lütticken

[1] On internet forums, some fans fanatically argue that the machine is in fact not supposed to work, and that creating the suggestion that it does is Angier’s (and Nolan’s) ultimate trick. As with 9/11 conspiracy theories, this interpretation is upheld against overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the ‘revelation’ of the truth behind the illusion becoming delusional.
[2] Milbourne and Maurice Christopher, The Illustrated History of Magic, New York, Carroll and Graf, 2006,p. 7.
[3] Christopher, pp. 358-363.
[4] Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier’s Le Matin des magiciens, Paris, Gallimard, 1960; after a previous English edition under a different title, the 1971 American version was called The Morning of the Magicians; Koester’s 2006 works are called Morning of the Magicians, without the definite article.
[5] Exhib. cat. Surrealist Intrusion in the Enchanters’ Domain, New York, D’Arcy Galleries, 1960.
[6] F. David Peat, In Search of Nikola Tesla, London/Bath, Ashgrove, 1993, p. 81.
[7] Birgitte Felderer and Ernst Strouhal use this fact to make exaggerated claims about the alleged incompatibility magic and filmic spectacle; David Copperfield would probably disagree. See their introduction to Rare Künste. Zur Kultur- und Mediengeschichte der Zauberkunst, Vienna/New York, Springer, 2007, p. 14.
[8] Norman M. Klein, The Vatican to Vegas: A History of Special Effects, New York/London, New Press, 2004, p. 13.
[9] Klein, p. 387. For a different take on the manipulation of time by today’s politics and terrorists, see Sven Lütticken, “Suspense and…Surprise”, in: New Left Review no. 40, July/August 2006 pp. 95-101
[10] George Monbiot, “9/11 fantasists pose a mortal danger to popular oppositional campaigns”, in: The Guardian, February 20, 2007,,,2017005,00.html
[11] Paul Joseph Watson, “Fringe Theories Harming 9/11 Truth Movement”, September 5, 2006,
[12] Morgan Reynolds, “How They Did the Plane Trick at WTC2”, August 27, 2006,

Images from top to bottom: Still from Chrisopher Nolan, The Prestige (2006), cover of Randall Stross, The Wizard of Menlo Park (2007), illustration from Surrealist Intrusion in the Enchanters' Domain (1960), and compelling proof of foul play on a conspiracist web site.