I’ve seen “mere puzzle” and “merely a puzzle” used in writings by venerated magicians including Tamirez, Maven, and Kaufman, all more or less with the same point - that if a spectator of magic perceives a magic trick as a puzzle, then the magician has failed, specifically, to mystify. Perhaps the puzzle in and of itself, magicians conclude, is not necessarily inferior to magic, but magic, they say, should never be confused with a puzzle - for in that context it is an inferior experience - a “mere puzzle.”
While I appreciate the reasoning behind differentiating magic with puzzles, the negative mere puzzle sentiment has not sat well with me over the years, and so I was intrigued when I read a quote by Stuart James (from The Essential Stewart James) where he proclaimed, “The simplest puzzle is far cleverer than the most brilliant trick. You can’t cheat to arrive at the solution to a puzzle. A magician invariably cheats in order to complete a trick.”
Malcolm Gladwell wrote a piece about Enron years ago for the New Yorker where he postulated the differences between a mystery and a puzzle. He concluded that it was a matter of information. With a puzzle you know the information is available, you just need to find it. Whereas with a mystery, you’re not even sure the information exists.
In magic, there is an intense moment of astonishment - as spectators we don’t know if information exists to explain what we’ve just experienced - it is a mystery. But soon after, inevitably, we begin to puzzle over the trick, knowing (from our logical perception of our world) there must be a solution. But magicians want us to minimize the puzzling feeling. They want us to indefinitely suspend disbelief in our knowledge system of the world so that we can remain in a blissfully ignorant state of mystery - a feeling they claim is qualitatively better than one of puzzlement (pondering the answer/secret/solution).
For some, puzzlement is an enjoyable feeling. However, magicians believe this aftereffect of a magic trick is a lesser feeling than that of being resignedly mystified. So they endeavor to avoid and defer the most common reaction to magic trick, “How did you do that?” believing it is a misplaced (and lesser) reaction, befit to someone who wants to solve a “mere puzzle.”
For puzzles, the act of solving is the pleasure. This seems to inherently contradict magic’s fundamental pleasure, which is not solving. Never the twain shall meet, according to magicians. The minute a person begins to try and ‘solve’ a magic trick they enter into puzzle territory, a misguided and inappropriate activity under the prescribed circumstances (a mystery).
Again, while I understand how a magician might want a magic experience to be exclusively about mystery, I don’t feel that puzzlement (as defined by the dictionary: to solve or understand something by thinking hard) as an additional reaction should be construed as a negative outcome. As magicians, why not welcome ‘puzzling’ as an appreciation rather than embarrassment?
Remember, a “mere puzzle” might end up being the brilliant magic trick you hoped for.