Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

A most pitiful ambition

with 3 comments

In Magic and Showmanship, which is one of my favorite books on storytelling of any kind, the magician and polymath Henning Nelms sets forth a principle that ought to be remembered by all artists:

An illusion is, by definition, untrue. In every field, we detect untruth by inconsistency. We recognize statements as false when they contradict themselves. An actor who does something which is not in keeping with his role falls out of character, and the spell of the play is broken. If a conjurer’s words and actions fail to match the powers he claims, he pricks the bubble of illusion; he may still entertain his audience with a trick, but he loses the magic of drama. Consistency is the key to conviction.

Nelms adds that consistency is also the key to entertainment, and that it achieves its greatest impact when all of its resources are directed toward the same goal. He continues:

Consistency implies a standard. We cannot merely be consistent; we must be consistent with something. In creating an illusion, our standard is the theme. Once you realize this, you will find that the theme provides a guide to every detail of your presentation. This is a tremendous asset. It answers many questions almost before you can ask them.

And Nelms concludes with a powerful rule: “Plan a routine as if every element of the theme—personalities, phenomena, purpose, and proof—were literally true.”

To some extent, this is simply a restatement of what John Gardner calls “the vivid and continuous fictional dream.” Any lapse or inconsistency will draw viewers or readers out of the performance, and it can be hard to get them back again. As Nelms puts it:

Although the “as if” rule is an inspiring guide, it is also a strict taskmaster. Consistency is essential to any suspension of disbelief. No conviction is so deep that it cannot be destroyed by a discrepancy in the presentation. On the contrary, the more profoundly the spectators are enthralled by a performance, the more likely they are to be jerked back to reality by anything which is not in harmony with the illusion.

Even more usefully, Nelms frames this rule as a courtesy to the magician himself, since it provides a source of information at times when we might otherwise be lost: “It not only helps us to make decisions, but suggests ideas.” He also helpfully observes that it can be more productive, on a creative level, to focus on eliminating discrepancies, rather than on heightening the elements that are already effective:

My whole procedure as a showman is based on a technique of hunting for faults and ruthlessly eliminating them…The good parts of a play or routine take care of themselves. If I see a way to improve them, I do so. But I never worry about them. Instead, I concentrate on spotting and correcting the flaws. These are the places that offer the greatest opportunities for improvement. Hence, they are also the places where time and effort devoted to improvement will produce the greatest results.

On a practical level, Nelms suggests that you write down an outline of the illusion as if it were literally true, and then see where you have to depart from this ideal for technical reasons—which is where you should concentrate your attention to minimize any obvious discrepancies. This all seems like common sense, and if writers and performers sometimes forget this, it’s because they get attached to inconsistencies that provide some other benefit in the short term. Nelms writes:

Many dramas have been ruined by actors who tried to enliven serious scenes by being funny. The spectators laughed at the comedy, but they were bored by the play. The same law holds true for conjuring: No matter how effective an inconsistent part may be, the damage that it does to the routine as a whole more than offsets whatever advantages it may have in itself.

He continues: “Directors and performers alike are so flattered by hearing an audience laugh or exclaim over some line or action that they blind themselves to the harm it does to the play or the illusion.” This tendency is as old as drama itself, as we see in Hamlet’s advice to the players, and it can have a troubling effect on the audience:

A discrepancy may escape conscious notice and still weaken conviction. The suspension of disbelief is a subconscious process. No one says to himself, “If I am to enjoy this performance to the full, I must accept it as true and close my mind to the fact that I know it to be false.” Spectators can be led to adopt this attitude, but they must do so without thinking—and without realizing that they have done anything of the kind.

Which brings us, unfortunately, to Donald Trump. If you’re a progressive who is convinced that the president is trying to put one over on the public, you also have to confront the fact that he isn’t especially good at it. Not only are the discrepancies glaring, but they occur with a clockwork regularity that would be funny if it weren’t so horrifying. After the Washington Post reported that Trump had disclosed classified information—remember that?—to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador, his national security adviser said: “I was in the room. It did not happen.” The next day, Trump tweeted that he “wanted to share” the facts with Russia, as he had “the absolute right to do.” After James Comey was fired, the White House issued a statement saying that Trump had acted on the advice of the Justice Department, which based its recommendation on Comey’s handling of the investigation into Hilary Clinton’s emails. Two days later, Trump contradicted both points in an interview with Lester Holt: “I was going to fire Comey. My decision…In fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said: ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story.’” And when his staff repeatedly asserted that the refugee order wasn’t a travel ban, only to have Trump insist that it was, it felt like a cutaway gag on Arrested Development. You’ll sometimes see arguments that Trump is a chess master, creating distractions like a magician utilizing the technique of misdirection, which strikes me as a weird form of liberal consolation. (It reminds me of what Cooder the carny says of being grifted by Homer Simpson: “Well, there’s no shame in bein’ beaten by the best.” When his son tries to point out that Homer didn’t seem very smart, Cooder interrupts angrily: “We were beaten by the best.”) But the real answer is close at hand. Let’s look at Hamlet’s speech again:

And let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them, for there be of them that will themselves laugh, to set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh too, though in the meantime some necessary question of the play be then to be considered. That’s villainous and shows a most pitiful ambition in the fool that uses it.

This may be the best thing ever written about the Trump administration. Trump has been trained for years to go for the easy laugh or the quick reaction from the crowd, and he’ll continue to do so, even as “necessary questions” need to be considered. He’s done pretty well with it so far. And he has a receptive audience that seems willing to tell itself exactly what Nelms thought was impossible: “If I am to enjoy this performance to the full, I must accept it as true and close my mind to the fact that I know it to be false.”

Written by nevalalee

June 9, 2017 at 9:02 am

3 Responses

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  1. The beauty of privilege and power is that, if you have enough of them, you don’t have to worry about consistency. But there is always a limit to even the greatest of privilege and power. The question is how far will Trump have to go before he crosses it.

    Also, William S. Burroughs argued that methods of social control can intentionally use contradiction. He partly got his ideas from Alfred Korzybski’s general semantics. But there is some similarity to gaslighting. It’s a way of creating learned helplessness in a population.

    Trump and his administration constantly put on a spectacle of contradiction simply because they can. And who is going to stop them? The story they are telling is one of privilege and power. On that level, there is immense consistency.

  2. @Benjamin David Steele: Thanks for the Burroughs reference—I don’t think I realized that he had studied Korzybski. (I’m about to do a deep dive into his interest in Scientology, so this makes for an interesting data point.)

    nevalalee

    July 17, 2017 at 8:17 pm

  3. His being influenced by Korzybski was closely related to his interest in Scientology. It was all part of his focus on word virus, cut-up technique, etc. I was reading about this recently, from a number of books. There is a collection of writings, Word Virus, that includes a short intellectual biography about Burroughs (“The Name Is Burroughs” by James Grauerholz) and two pieces by Burroughs (“Electronic Revolution” & “Immortality”) that mention Korzybski (Scientology also gets discussed a fair bit).

    Benjamin David Steele

    July 17, 2017 at 9:08 pm


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