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jay sankey Sadomagicism: An Inquiry Concerning PowerBy Jay 

“Magic produces, or pretends to produce, an alteration in the Primary world, It does not matter by whom it is said to be practiced … it is not an art but a technique: its desire is power in this world, domination of things and wills. The greed for self-centered power is the mark of the mere Magician.” – J.R.R. Tolkien, from his essay, “Tree and Leaf”

The practice of performing a series of feats that seem to defy common notions of what can and cannot be done, a practice which I feel is potentially artistic, has a nature which is uniquely prone to, and in a power struggle between the performer and his audience. The act of deception, essential to what a “magician” is, is an act only achievable by means of the performer knowing or doing something which his audience either does not know or does not see. It is this minor imbalance of knowledge which attracts insecure, and thus power-hungry and abusive individuals to what is usually referred to as “magic.”

Now, for those who feel that this is not the case, that many of those who call themselves “magicians” are only having a little fun and are in fact “entertaining” and making a lot of people happy, it might be a good idea if they spent a little time thinking about such unfortunately common phrases as “They (the audience) were mine!” and “I killed ‘em!” or the now popular “I fried ‘em.” What such phrases have toward their audiences?

I am not suggesting that many people do not derive painless pleasure from watching a magician; of course they do – but just because no one is openly hurt or injured by a performance of magic, it does not mean that there was or is no malevolent intent or attitude on behalf of the performer. In fact, even such instances when an obnoxious performer humiliates and offends his audience, they may very well still go away pleased with the performance. Thus arises the notion of “sadomagicism,” – i.e., a power-struggle for domination or an acceptance of “slave-master” roles between the performer and his audience. Keep in mind that it is not always clear which is the slave and which is the master.

The thrill some individuals get out of merely fooling others is an emotion literally achieved at the expense of or by devaluing others. Some philosophers such as Kant, have suggested that the individual, in this case the performer, achieves this feeling of power or dominance by objectifying others, treating them as mere objects, simply as a means to his own egotistical ends, rather than people who are ends in themselves with feelings and rights.

This idea of the individual desiring power is sometimes defended by the claim that it is a “natural” human instinct. I doubt this is true, but even if it were, it does not follow that because something is “natural” that it is necessarily moral, because as Moore suggested with his Naturalistic Fallacy, the belief that “natural” acts are always moral is based upon the questionable assumption that there is a necessary order in the universe.

The fact that the essence of what we do (i.e., fooling people) contains an inherent and easily abused or corrupted element of secrecy, can be seen in such contemporary examples as “Project Magic,” a program which actively milks the mere act of fooling others for all the thrills it’s worth. The program has the purpose and intent of teaching recently handicapped or otherwise hospitalized individuals to use the easily achieved (cheap?) thrill provided by the inherent element of secrecy in “magic” as a kind of crutch or drug until his or her ego gets back on it feet again.

To quote an article entitled “Healing with Magic” from a recent issue of Maclean’s Magazine: “Although severely depressed by her condition, she responded quickly to the therapy and became enthusiastic about the prospect of tricking her grandson. Said the patient, ‘Now I’ll be able to fool the little sucker.’

Necessity, as they say, is indeed the mother of invention, and I would guess that many individuals in need of some sort of fuel for their deflated ego or low self-esteem, easily take to the psychological clubbing of others by means of “fooling them” – i.e., treating them as fools. And yet the Slap-of Secrecy inherent in the fundamental chant “I know something you don’t know” is a very weak and unjustified device for acquiring a feeling of self-worth (as far as those questionable devices go) because it is purely relative. Nothing conclusive follows from the performer knowing something that the audience does not, because it could either be proof of the audience’s ignorance or the performer’s knowledge; thus, any feeling of power the performer derives from the situation, though it may indeed boost his sickly ego, is in actuality hollow and superficial.

Also, those performers who need to dominate over their spectators, to have power over them, and at their expense, in order to attain a feeling of self-worth, are actually less free and independent than those performers who derive pride and pleasure just from their own personal creative moments and the knowledge of their ability to entertain and bring happiness to others.

Picture two contrasting individuals. They exercise, eat only healthy foods, and in general take extremely good care of their bodies with the result that they are healthy and strong. One individual gains a feeling of pride and achievement only by beating people up with his body and by using it as a means of domination over others.

The other gains a feeling of pride and achievement, not from injuring others and treating them as lesser individuals, but from the fact that he can carry his sons on his back, can spend a whole day chopping wood and not feel tired at the end, and can look in the mirror or take a deep breath and gain pride from how he looks and feels, knowing that he is the cause of it.

The first individual feels good about himself because of how he can destructively affect others, the second feels good about himself because of how he can constructively affect others and also because of a purely self-based feeling of achievement. One of the keys to the idea of power is the idea of freedom, and though the two individuals both have a feeling of freedom and potency, the first wields his power over others rather than for others or for himself; and because he needs to beat up others to gain self-esteem, he is dependent upon them as victims. In contrast, the other individual feels good about himself because of the constructive things he can do for other people (consequently gaining friends) or just for himself and is thus less dependent upon others for his own feeling of self worth. Of the two, he is the most free.

In the foreword to his book Close-Up Seductions, Paul Harris speaks of the intimate relationship in close-up magic between the performer and his spectators as one which can either be abused or nurtured, with the performer either gaining friends or adding to his list of victims. Paul also describes what an abuse of the situation leads to, a description which fits many performances I have personally witnessed, as well as many others I have heard about. This abuse of the performer-audience relationship leads to a battle of egos with, to quote Paul, “The performer trying to prove his mental and digital superiority over the audience – forcing the audience to defend itself.”

Many hecklers, though certainly not all, are created as a result of the performer coming out and immediately letting his ego run rampant, challenging the audience, and the “heckler” is the one who eventually stands up for his own rights and accepts the challenge. The image of a strange ape swinging into a colony of apes and challenging one of them to come forward comes to mind. Both the challenger, and the one who accepts the challenge, slamming their fists against their chest and making a lot of noise while the rest of the spectators immediately take sides.

At present there seems to be two prevalent versions of the master-slave relationship in “magic.” The first is the common one of an insecure and obnoxious performer either subtly, though usually not-so-subtly, making fun of people, treating them as fools, and “making them like it.” He abuses his context as a performer of fiction by using his knowledge of secret workings of his trade as a tool to dominate over his slaves (spectators) and keep them down with his Slap of Secrecy.

The other situation is that of the performer being called over by drunks to amuse them at their leisure, the performer hopping from table to table, working for tips (or little better), a kind of modern-day court jester or slave with either the spectators, or ultimately their money, playing the role of master.

I find these situations rather disheartening, and yet I do not think that things have to be this way. What we as performers must come to realize is that we are not powerful beings who – in the process of a sponge ball trick – actually create and destroy matter. We are but beings who merely appear to do so, and when we use our skills and knowledge to dominate over others we are abusing a kind of mutual agreement between our audiences and ourselves, and thus abusing their trust. We can not force people to believe something, they choose to believe.

The real illusion, and thus our real potency as performers, takes place in the minds of our audience, minds which can either be open or closed to our stories, illusions, and tall tales. Without the consent of our audience, we as performers are impotent. We can coax people to suspend their disbelief, but we cannot force them to. In the end they have the final say, and thus they too are potent, as they can choose to either actively participate in our stories or put up barriers to communication, refuse to select playing cards, and ask their waitress for their cheque as soon as they see us coming.

A successful, constructive and morally sound performance is a matter of mutual respect, and the mutual realization of the interdependency between audience and performer. Certainly we are potent; we can directly and creatively affect people in a special way, but only if they allow us to perform for them. Much of the excessive egotism and many of the domineering performances in our field might be done away with if performers would just come to realize, and yet not be afraid of, their vulnerability and the respect that is paid to them (which they should in turn be grateful for) when someone enthusiastically takes part in their stories. Our craft is potentially filled with joys and pleasures that are not fueled by degrading our audiences, but by lifting them up by means of one or both of the two fundamental acts of pure and nondestructive pleasures our craft has: the entertaining of others, and the personal act of creation; yet even these acts, though not inherently and necessarily destructive, have the potential to be so.

Tolkien’s suggestion of “magicians” as being greedy, self-centered and power-hungry, may, at present, clearly describe a number of the individuals in “magic,” but I honestly feel that by reforming certain general standards concerning what we consider to be “good fiction” and “good performances of fiction” this situation could change. It ultimately seems to come down to a matter of intent. Why do we do what we do? A question of morals. That is the sole factor which separates “Magic” (i.e., what the morally-questionable “magicians” do) from the central desire and aspiration of what Tolkien calls “Human Fantasy.” This motivating impulse, as opposed to the common one of domination, seems clearly to be of a dare I say, more pure kind. Not less self-oriented, just more open, honest, and more constructive than the frequently weaker and more destructive intentions of some” magicians.”?

This creative desire, Tolkien assures, “is only cheated by counterfeits, whether the innocent but clumsy devices of the human dramatist, or the malevolent frauds of the magician. Uncorrupted, it does not seek delusion, nor bewitchment and domination; it seeks shared enrichment, partners in making delight, not slaves?”

Shouldn’t we be seeking this as well?

By Jay Sankey – Be sure to check out Jay’s website:

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