Harry Houdini is remembered first as an escape artist, but he was also a “séance-buster” who despised fraud in the séance room, and did all he could to expose it. His 1924 book, A Magician Among the Spirits, is an account of his experiences with the spirit mediums of his day, and in no case did he discover anything but scams and shams and magic tricks. He conducted his investigations with both an open mind and a wishful heart, as it was the death of his mother that led him to his inquiry into the realm of spirit in the first place. He sincerely hoped that life continued after death and that communication with the departed was possible. He was mortified to discover nothing but hokum, and morally outraged that bereaved people were being fleeced by con men using standard magician’s effects.
While he maintained that he was not a skeptic, his activities as a debunker inspired several generations of skeptical magicians to embrace him as their mascot. There is a branch of magic called “gospel magic” where standard magic tricks are presented with a religious-instructive twist, but in the main magicians are a skeptical bunch. They have direct experience with how easily people can be tricked, controlled, manipulated, and deceived, and using Houdini’s example as something of a guiding light, are in general quite dismissive of spirituality in any form. This is all perfectly understandable, but for someone like myself, an avid reader and tremendous fan of spiritual literature for decades before I took up the study of magic, I entered the world of magic and magicians and found myself a stranger in a land already famously strange.
I don’t “believe in God.” I experience divinity every minute of every day. This has nothing to do with what becomes of us when we shed this mortal coil; this is strictly here-and-now. What’s more, I have zero interest in persuading anybody to join me in my opinions. I don’t see truth as some kind of numbers game, where stacking up the believers makes a truth any truer; indeed, I’m fond of Oscar Wilde’s observation that “A truth ceases to be true when more than one person believes it.” Even if I ardently wished to make you see this splendid world as I view it through my enraptured eyes, I couldn’t do it anyhow. It’s too late, too unique to myself, the road was too long and full of surprise twists to fill you in on all the parts that contributed to “the making of” my point of view. In other words, do your own studying. Or not.
It was therefore with no chip on my shoulder, dragging no soapbox, megaphone, or impulse to convert the heathen that I undertook my study of magic. Like any magician, my personality and private enthusiasms would naturally infuse my performances and influence my course of study, but there was no underlying tone of “WILL NO ONE BELIEVE ME?!?” in my undertaking.
Magic has a reputation for being an obsessive hobby; I certainly found it so. Once in, I found myself thinking about it all the time, practicing moves, plotting magic scenes, reading books and magazines and browsing through magic catalogs. I faithfully attended my local magic club, and served as President for a year. I also found myself irresistibly drawn to attending magic events and conferences, to enjoy spending several days in the company of my fellow magic obsessives.
When the topic of conversation at a magic event was sheer magic – whether the latest news or interesting tidbits from magic history – I found it immensely gratifying. There is nothing to compare to the satisfaction of time with companions who share an obscure interest, especially one with a specialized, esoteric vocabulary and its own roll of heroes who are invisible to the world at large. But if at any time the subject under discussion touched on matters of spirit, however tangentially, there would be an immediate knee-jerk dismissal, a belittling, a brag about the greatness and rightness of being an atheist, and the stupidity of faith. “A man who never alters his opinions is as standing water, and breeds reptiles of the mind,” William Blake tells us, and some of these guys are veritable reptile hatcheries, so long have they, without further reflection, clung to their opinions.
This is a surprise to me. It’s not surprising that magicians are faithless, with Houdini at the helm and their own experiences with psychological manipulation to buffer their stance. I find the idea that “if a thing can be faked, it can never be true” quite faulty logic – but let that pass. I’m surprised by the way magicians disrespect spiritual pursuits because of all of the obsessive focus they themselves pour into their magic.
As a rule, anyone who gives themselves deeply to a pursuit – whatsoever the form of it – will naturally develop respect for study itself. When one has personal experience with what it takes to accumulate information, weigh it, experiment with it, grow with it, master it, one recognizes the like in others, and cannot help but acknowledge, if not admire, the endeavor.
Surely this must hold true for, say, Civil War buffs, or stamp collectors, lovers of art history or growers of orchids. Surely magicians are able to consider all of these as quite valid areas of study, and to esteem their students, without having to embrace any one of them as their “thing.” Yet if your heart pounds at the works of mystics and visionaries, or leaps at sacred texts, why – you’re an idiot.
People don’t pick their obsessions; the obsessions select their votaries, as a calling. I didn’t choose magic. I casually glanced its way, and it moved in completely. The Civil War speaks to people, paintings jump off the wall and communicate with certain viewers, and the first step on an endless path is thereby begun. Spiritual literature is profoundly thrilling to the people who love it, and useful too, and effective, and meaningful. Skeptical magicians will argue that it isn’t “true” and therefore unworthy of time or attention. But is magic “true?” It’s simply fascinating, irresistible, something quite beyond labels like “true” and “false.” A magician could listen to long, logical arguments about the meaningless frivolity of magic, nod politely – and then retreat into a private lair with a deck of cards, unmoved. The attraction, the compulsion, is far outside of reason’s range, and the very same holds true for spiritual study. No one can be talked out of it, or reasoned away from it, or ridiculed enough to drop it, if the heart truly rejoices in it.
II. Why I Am Not An Atheist
I am not an atheist, but I’m often mistaken for one at a magic convention.
I have never affiliated with any particular church or professed any particular creed. In the first place, church strikes me as a place for seekers, and I am a finder. In the second place, any specific “path to God” quickly becomes claustrophobic for me. But nothing could be more intellectually claustrophobic than the stance of an atheist. I tried it on myself in my late teens, painted myself into that psychological corner, and I found the boredom of “case closed” unbearable. My mind thirsted for more, and got it. Case open.
“A true entertainer has no creed,” according to silent film star and lifelong magic enthusiast Harold Lloyd. The audience should be permitted to “relax and believe as they wish.”
Magic is a performing art, and as such must seek to be people-pleasing. There are loner magicians who care only to entertain themselves in the privacy of their lair, and there are hobbyist magicians who love the fun of clever gadgets and inventive thinking, and both of these camps do much to enrich magic itself. But in the wider world, vanishing a coin in front of the bathroom mirror or sitting hunched over the kitchen table working out mathematical principles with a pack of cards has no currency, and magicians have to “give ‘em what they want.”
One of Houdini’s contemporaries, and one of the most colorful figures in magic history, was “The Marvelous Chinese Conjuror” Chung Ling Soo. His advertising posters declared him “A Gift From The Gods To Mortals On Earth To Amuse And Mystify,” and his spectacular death in 1918 attempting the bullet-catch trick did much to assure his magical immortality.
Chung Ling Soo was in fact an American named William Robinson who had discovered that posing as the envoy of the oriental mysteries made for a much better box office than did his true identity. This is the approach of the true professional performer. Don’t like it? I can change. The sheer otherness of Asian culture made it extremely popular with Westerners a century ago, so Mr. Robinson took the hint, donned the robes of a Celestial, and sold it to the back rows.
Most magicians have been magicians since childhood. They saw a magic show, received a magic kit, or walked into a magic shop and were “bitten by the magic bug,” as the saying goes, and there was no turning back. The challenge facing the typical magician, then, is “What can I say with this magic I must do?” Magic is the non-negotiable factor; the patter, the presentation, the performing persona are the details to be worked out. Chung Ling Soo tried it one way (there is a photograph of him in Western eveningwear, with droopy moustache and expression that attempts drawing-room elegance), it didn’t fly, and so he changed direction and made his claim to fame. Savvy magicians of the modern era are no different. They make guesses, read audience feedback, and adjust accordingly. If not, it’s back to the bathroom mirror and the kitchen table.
The “New Age” movement of pop spirituality provided a fresh angle for magicians of the past few decades. You weren’t getting a magic show, folks, you were getting the living, breathing offspring of ancient shamanic tradition. It’s a lovely approach to performance magic, but it’s spiritual in the same way that Chung Ling Soo is Chinese – that is to say, in a show-biz way. Chung Ling Soo did not intend to offend actual Chinese people by the use of his stage persona, and so surely the 21st Century stage shaman means no disrespect to the genuine article.
IV. The Genuine Article
Houdini did much to popularize debunking among magicians throughout the last century, but it didn’t start with him. Even the very first magic book published in the English language – “The Discoverie of Witchcraft,” which appeared in 1584 – was not intended to be a book of magic instruction. It was written to prove that people who claimed to have occult powers were only doing tricks that anybody could learn and do. A cynical person might even suggest that the craze among magicians to debunk stems from nothing more than the urge to ruin their rivals by exposing their methods. Another of Houdini’s contemporaries, the illusion designer Guy Jarrett, was completely dismissive of Houdini’s campaign to discredit spirit mediums, and he didn’t care for the tone of moral and intellectual superiority in it: “Everybody knows it’s hokum. People like good hokum.”
I like good hokum. The world would be a poorer place without ghost stories, crystal balls, seances and seers, haunted castles, and yes – I do want my palm read. These things are fun, and thought provoking, too. They’re a wonderful reminder that spirit itself is playful and friendly. I appreciate and am inspired by the profound, but it’s always good to remember what lies at the core of authentic spirituality: a wink and a grin, the smile at the end of the story.