Breaking the spell: How did a quiet anthropologist infiltrate Paris's secretive Magic Circle?

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

With sleight of hand and lots of luck, Graham Jones tells Mark Piesing

Graham Jones might not have been able to pull a rabbit out of a hat at a kids' party, but he was going to have to make a pain au chocolat appear from nowhere for the Magic Circle of Paris. For five months, the softly spoken anthropologist from MIT, who hadn't performed a magic trick since he was a child, worked hard to master the techniques needed to predict, Derren Brown-style, the pastry someone would choose and to build the props to make the chosen pastry appear on command in front of some of France's greatest magicians.

At stake was an attempt to infiltrate the secret world of magic in Paris, the birthplace of modern magic and the only place in the world where magicians are subsidised by the state.

"I had originally imagined that I could just go up and ask the magicians questions," he says. "But they weren't willing to talk to me because – I realised – magicians form relationships by exchanging secrets and knowledge, and I had none of my own. So I had to become someone who had something to give as well. And it was a big struggle for me as I didn't have that desire to stay up all night working on a single sleight-of-hand movement – I just wanted to use it as my passport into their world."

Now his book Trade of the Tricks: Inside the Magician's Craft seeks to explain what he uncovered behind the magic curtain during the almost two years he spent in Paris. By following some of the world's leading magicians and fully participating in the scene as a kind of sorcerer's apprentice, he shines a light on a male-dominated community that is often trivialised in mainstream culture and yet whose members, he believes, display "a level of specialised knowledge comparable to the James Dysons and Steve Jobses of this world" in a "complex community" of "frenemies" whose sense of a shared identity is built rather perversely on the keeping, sharing and betraying – and destroying – of each other's secrets.

For Jones, the publication of the book marked an end to a journey that had started 10 years before in the rubble of 9/11. "After seeing the towers collapse from Washington State Park and the American war machine gear up, I became really pessimistic about human nature," he says. "And suddenly it seemed important to me to write about something fun and life-affirming and a little bit escapist, too. It was at that moment that I discovered magic."

And for the multilingual anthropologist, Paris was the place to study magic from the inside, as the history and traditions of its scene set it apart from the famous Magic Circle in London, the innovative scene in Madrid and even the big shows in Las Vegas – as did the monthly subsidy paid by the French government in recognition of the magician's role as an artist rather than just an entertainer.

In the end, Jones feels that "he got fairly deep" into the secret world of magicians despite the fact that "anthropologists don't go undercover but try and blend in" and that he hadn't performed a trick of any kind since he was six or seven. But blending in was a trick in its own right in a factional scene that one magician described as "a little world, with its stars, leaders and groups, along with little 'wars' between them".

Jones says: "I told everyone that I was writing a dissertation about magic, but very few people had a realistic idea of what this meant. I think most people saw me as a novice magician who also happened to be a student writing a dissertation about magic. And that was a comfortable role for me because it meant I didn't stand out much or, if I did, only because of my poor magic skills."

He admits that in some ways he only just scratched the surface of the community. "The ability to really appreciate their expertise takes years of study, six to eight hours a day. And even then, only when you have lived and breathed it for decades can you really understand it."

David Stone only realised just what a "perfect spy for a secret world" Graham had been when he read the book. Stone, one of France's youngest and most popular magicians who has two best-selling videos to his name, says: "We did more or less know he was working on what we call un mémoire for a university, but because he got to know everyone we quickly forgot the fact he wasn't a magician. And as most magicians are pretty self-centred and Graham is a good listener, you can understand why most magicians also forgot after a while that he was here to study them."

For Philippe Day, another regular professional magician on the Paris scene, Jones became a sort of magic psychoanalyst to the community and was able, in the end, to dig quite deep.

"It was a pleasure to have long conversations with him as he was the kind of guy who could teach you a lot by asking you questions and making you tell him answers that you didn't know you had in your mind," Day says. "He got to know some of the greatest theorists we have and had access to any secret as every door was open to him." At least, he adds somewhat mysteriously, "the doors most useful for his research".

Jones, though, is only the latest writer since Alciphron in the second century to be fascinated by magic and, on one level, it is not hard to understand why. After all, the same cup-and-balls trick that Alciphron wrote about almost 2,000 years ago can still be seen on our streets today.

Beyond that, Alfred Binet, the French psychologist and inventor of the IQ test, in the 19th century put our fascination with magic down to the need "to be fooled, to experience surprise, that slight mental fluster that comes from seeing a violation of natural law", whereas the magician Paul Curry a few decades later thought it was due to the need to satisfy man's constant curiosity. More modern writers, such as Jones, suggest that it is the the need to find a place for enchantment and wonder in our cynical age, or even just the desire to experience unmediated entertainment in the age of The X Factor.

Whatever the reasons, while in the past many famous names from Thomas Mann to Roland Barthes have written about magic and magicians almost in passing, a new wave of historians and social scientists have been stumbling towards a kind of "ology" of magic, where it is seen as a form of entertainment, or even art, to be analysed in its own right, rather than an extension of occult belief.

Yet despite being poked and prodded by the outside world for millennia, magicians have largely ignored what the outside world has had to say about them and have carried on researching and documenting the history of magic to an almost obsessive extent – whether the development of a particular technique or the biography of a long-dead magician. And the outside world has, in turn, largely ignored what magicians have to say for themselves.

Some of the magicians featured in Trade of the Tricks hope that this book might break down the barriers between the two worlds.

Up on the stage, the trick went well and in the applause Jones felt that he had "gone native", crossing the line between layman and magician, outsider and insider. Later he found himself even playing with concealment and revelation by teaching new magicians the technique of his trick, but not the handling that actually makes it work.

Yet at that moment of his personal triumph, the magic scene is a community in crisis. "The future is uncertain because the magic shops have been devastated by the web and, as you can buy professional props online, you can become a magician without having to participate in this shared community that is so vital for the profession, but which can be so intimidating to outsiders," he says. "For a community based on the sharing of secrets and the shared identity that goes along with it, this potential atomisation is troubling to many magicians. As is the inability to keep secrets and control who to share them with."

But this great leveling may mean that magic can start to move away from its "boys' toys" reputation to make the Magic Circle an ever-more inclusive one.

'Trade of The Tricks' by Graham Jones is out on October 28 (University of California Press)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there