Friday, 20 April 2012

Houdini's Quest for Mystery

 A Crowd can feel spiritually restored after a great show. It has all the ingredients; deep group connection and a charismatic leader standing elevated before the crowd, guiding them through mysteries and good times. It is religion, it is showbiz, it is Life.
The Crowd has witnessed magic, they have glimpsed mystery. The showman knows just how much they all long for someone to tell them, and demonstrate, with ‘undeniable proof,’ that mind reading, contacting the dead, or any other supernatural feat, is indeed possible.
As the curtains come down and the lights come up the Crowd feels closer to the Truth, whilst the Showman sometimes feel further from truth and community than ever. If you are the one giving guidance and answers, who guides you?

Eric Weisz.
Erik Weisz was born in Budapest, Hungary on March 24, 1874. His family was Jewish and he loved his mother very much. As a young boy he read Robert-Houdin, the French father of modern magic's, autobiography. In it the aging conjuror recounts the tale of how he was sent to Africa to represent his country in a standoff between the two nation's greatest magicians.
"In 1856, the Marabouts, who controlled the will of the tribesmen by dazzling them with feats of magic, had all of Algeria on the brink of revolt. In a wise decision the colonial administration decided to try to beat the Marabouts at their own game and sent for Robert-Houdin, who had been entertaining the courts of Europe and had gained a reputation as the greatest magician in all the continent."
 (Read the full story here.)

Robert Houdin.
Robert-Houdin won the challenge in a clever use of technology. With electromagnetism and electric shocks he left the Marabouts awestruck. This chapter in Robert-Houdin's book made the young Eric Weisz decide that he wanted to become a magician. With unparallelled tenacity he set out to become the greatest magician of all time. But one can't conquer the world with a name like Eric Weiz, and like so many showmen before him he transformed himself into a Showman. Erik Weisz became Harry Houdini,who went on to become so famous his name can now be found the dictionary.
Although he started as a magician, the King of Cards,  and did a brief stint as a wildman, it was his escapes which would make him the King for which he is remembered: The King of Escapes.

Houdini as a young magician.
Houdini was very attached to his mother. This connection was so strong, Houdini feared that his mother's eventual death might drive him insane. As strange as this might sound it started a cascade of events which led our hero onto the next phase of his career; a debunker of spiritists and mediums. But where did this antagonism for spiritism come from?

The tools and demonstrations of the spiritist movement are Real Magic, meaning secular magic, the type that pulls rabbits out of hats. Effects such as tables levitating, ESP, spoon bending, and strange knocking on tables in the dark with messages from beyond, are all the domain of a branch of Real Magic called mentalism. This subdivision of magicians deal with telepathy, telekinesis, and so forth. So why did he attack fellow Craftsmen? Hasn’t a magician sworn not to divulge the secrets of magic to the Crowd?

'My two sweathearts'
 Houdini, Wife and Mother.
Houdini loved magic. He fastidiously researched the magic arts. Part of his study was a fervent collecting of any book, article, or mention of magic of any kind. He purchased several private collections and with his considerable wealth, wide acclaim and wide travel, he soon amassed perhaps the world's greatest library of magic; occult, alchemical and otherwise. But with each subsequent initiation of secular magic for the ever inquisitive, if not down right obsessive Houdini, the boundaries of supernatural magic was pushed before him.

Houdini in his famed library.

Houdini’s fear of madness hovered in the back of his mind. He began visiting asylums and graves of famous magician's and mystics. Eventually he met Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the archdeacon of Spiritualism. 
In the late 1800’s this was a great obsession of the western world. It was not presented as stage magic, this was the foundation stones for a spiritual movement. It was like a religion grown from late night magic shows in carnivals. Tricks and illusions performed in the dark, whilst the participants held hands around a table, ghostly spirit-like lights would appear, ectoplasm, a ghostly manifestation, spewed forth from the spirit's mouth and onto the table, it was a great night out. 
People would be able to talk to their loved ones who had passed on. Unsaid things and unfinished business could come to final resolution. It was beautiful and heartfelt and much needed by the Crowd, but what was the story of the the presenters of these strange shows? The Showmen who created these very peculiar shows, what did they think they were doing?
Did they believe what they did was real? Were they just fraudsters making a quick buck when the popular imagination swung into their field of expertise? And finally: Did their intent make the Crowd's experience of the seance any less real?

Then his mother died. He had worried himself sick over this and then it happened. He was grief stricken. But since he didn't immediately descend into madness, at least not so that he has to be locked up in an Asylum, Houdini dug deeper and deeper into the spiritualist movement to find one real medium amongst the fraudsters and showmen. But there was none. Each new con-man pretending to be the voice of his departed mother added to his grief.

Perhaps this is where we find why Houdini, the magician, could debunk his fellow magicians, something a magician swears not to do. Of course he was angry and disappointed, but there was more to it than that. He picked up on a subtle difference between the mediums and mentalists.
The mediums claimed not to be magicians and used their knowledge of the magic Craft to make them spiritual gurus. This is nothing new, it's been done since the dawn of time, but they abused the Showman's Craft. This made them fair game. Houdini could as a magician debunk the mediums with good conscience. 
(The very fine line of spiritual guidance using the power of tricks to move Crowds gave birth to the Shaman, Showman and perhaps religion itself.) 
Houdini also debunked spiritualists, shown here 
demonstrating how illusions could be used to make it 
seem as if he is mollifying the vengeful ghost of Abraham
Lincoln with a book on modern rail splitting techniques.

"Houdini said that no medium had convinced him of his or her genuineness, as much as he would like to believe that spiritualism is a possibility. He gave instances of media who had admitted being frauds. Many, he said, are “plain crazy.” 

Every tale and every lead brought before him by spiritualists, Yogis or esoteric wizards would crumble before the showman’s knowledge. He sought a different magic and thought he had found it in the spiritist movement. Perhaps this is not so strange since his friend Conan Doyle was the one spinning the tricks and illusions of the séance mediums into story. I have myself been under this man's spell in his world of Sherlock Holmes. Who would not be swayed by the story telling prowess of Conan Doyle? Houdini wanted to believe, but couldn't.
There was no proof of any supernatural events having occurred that were not immediately explainable by the Craft. He really wanted to know. He wanted to discover supernatural magic so bad it increased the fervor of his search for a way to communicate with his mother on the other side. His disappointment with each successive medium began to infuriate him and turned him against the many charlatans praying on those weakened by grief and without knowledge of Real Magic. He now made himself the champion of these uninitiated people and took to the stage claiming that he would recreate any trick of any medium immediately right there on stage to prove them charlatans and cheaters.
Until the untimely end of his life Houdini never found even the tiniest shred of evidence that there was any other magic than the one that he, so spectacularly, had mastered.

 “During his life, Houdini, never escaped into genuine magical tradition, though not for a lack of trying: a man inspired, he was also a man who never identified his inspiration. His psychic struggle that ran through his life like a ghostly parallel to his physical efforts was directed towards plumbing a great mystery.”

If Houdini couldn’t find any so-called supernatural magic, if the king of magicians can’t find it, who can? Who would be better qualified to separate charlatans from the real deal? Without the knowledge of the Showman’s arts, how could anyone expect to know secular magic from miracles or supernatural events?

The truth Houdini discovered was perhaps the most terrible of all: the core of mystery is like the onion, empty but for the layers surrounding it. Peeling them back stings the eyes, tears will blind you, but if you persist to the core you will find a sweet nothing. (How Zen.) And this sweet nothing must be filled by us. We must live our lives fully aware of this absurdity. We want and crave inherent meaning in things, but upon inspection the architects of this meaning turns out to be ourselves.
This is the fate of the showman. The one who knows all the tricks of the Craft has ‘proofs’ of the impossible for the Crowd, but not for himself. He must stand alone and find a different kind of solace. 
Houdini was schooled, better than most, in the Craft. He found that the spiritists were but mirror images of himself. Where he had expected and hoped to find something more he found nothing but his own Craft. The snake bites its tale. It is perfect.
He glimpsed a truth from the Way of the Showman: there is sacrifice necessary for the good of others and this sacrifice creates real meaning for both the ones who give and those who receive. Meaning made by Man for Man, so it is artificial, but real non-the-less.

“Houdini could see from the reaction of his audiences that they expected and received much more than mere entertainment from his performances. Like him, they wanted answers to big questions; release from the doubts that plagued them; escape from the physical boundaries that imprisoned them. And they loved and worshipped him for the stupendous efforts he made on their behalf. Such a life certainly proves one thing: Showbiz, whether it likes it or even knows it, is bound by unbreakable chains to the shaman’s enduring magic. Even Harry Houdini could not escape from that.”

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