David Copperfield Explains Our Fascination With the Vanishing Act
The famed illusionist examines the impermanence of things through the lens of his iconic show.
I. MAGIC OR CONJURING, as an art form, must defy Mother Nature. I levitate, upsetting the laws of physics. I also pass solid through solid: Every night in my show I make a car magically appear, creating something from nothing. A while back I walked through a certain wall in China. But the effect with the most resonance, the one that hits people right in the guts, is the disappearance, the vanish. People are more affected by the vanish than anything else we do. It doesn’t matter whether the object is large or small, a penny or an elephant. Make it disappear and the audiences keep wondering, Where did it go? I began to think the power lay in the fact that something was left unsolved, unresolved. Something or someone disappeared and didn’t come back.
II. THAT ABSENCE crept into the audience’s mind and stayed there. Closure, in other words, is overrated. I got to test my theory on TV during one of my specials. I vanished an airplane. And didn’t bring it back. I was startled by the response. Viewers throughout the world we transfixed. Part of it was the sheer size of the thing—nothing that large had ever vanished before—but mostly, it was the fact that it never came back. When I made the Statue of Liberty disappear(after promising President Reagan that she would reappear—they used to date, I think), I made sure we went to commercial before I brought her back. We maximized the power of the moment by leaving the audience with the visual void of missing Lady Liberty. That image stayed in the mind during endless commercials before we did the reappearance.
III. I’VE BECOME KNOWN TO SOME as the guy who makes things disappear. It seems everyone blames me when something goes missing. When President Bush was unable to explain the absence of those weapons of mass destruction, one news organization joked that I made them disappear. I was flattered, grateful to have been born long after Amelia Earhart disappeared and ships and planes regularly went missing in the Bermuda Triangle. (And P.S, I have an airtight alibi for where I was on July 30, 1975, the day Jimmy Hofa disappeared.) When Malaysia Airline 370 disappeared, the Twittersphere demanded I find it—a pretty awful joke, but one understood. We find it so baffling and disconcerting when things vanish that it’s natural to imagine their imminent return. Disappearances create a lasting sense of mystery, and that’s what audiences want. Einstein had it right. “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious”, he said. “It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: His eyes are closed.” We need mystery. It forces us to think and wonder and dream. And nothing creates mystery like a sudden disappearance. Absence makes the heart grow fonder and spurs the imagination. Actors like James Dean and Marilyn Monroe were wonderful artists, but it was dying way too soon—disappearing in a way— that elevated them to mythical proportions, and kept us dreaming about what they could have done had they stuck around.
IV. I REGRET THAT THEY LEFT US SO YOUNG, but I don’t know if they would have attained legendary stature had they outlived their beauty and, say, sagged on to The Hollywood Squares. The vanish is a metaphor. Everything disappears. Youth, health, life itself. Bad times and good. The world revolves, gravity holds, things vanish. Impermanence is one of the big, hard lessons. Most of us feel that we have no control over a damned thing. The mail gets lost, the milk turns chunky, it gets harder and harder to fit into last year’s jeans. Magic is hope’s first aid. It’s vitamins for optimism. It’s a metaphor for empowerment. I was transfixed as a kid, watching magicians on The Ed Sullivan Show. But instead of the “I can do something you can’t do” attitude, I wanted the audience to feel part of it. My show always emphasized themes like “Live the impossible” and “Fight for your dreams.” I don’t do 15 shows a week because I have to but because there’s no place I’d rather be than on that stage, looking audiences in the eye, watching them get it, sending them out into the night, inspired. Every disappearance leaves something in its place. Nature, according to Aristotle, abhors a vacuum. You make your fears vanish and what takes their place are your dreams. That’s the real secret, and the true magic.