The Escape Artist to the Magician

Harry Houdini confronts predecessors, past illusions, and posers of the moment.

burning candles on street at night

On this day in 1926, Harry Houdini gave his final performance, at The Garrick Theatre in Detroit. To mark the occasion, I spent some time exploring what I could of several books he left behind. I was interested to learn that Houdini had suffered a period of deep disillusionment when he discovered that much of the appeal of the artist who inspired him, Robert Houdin, was artifice assembled from the work of countless unnamed others. Houdini set out to name these in The Unmasking of Robert Houdin. Later, he devoted much of his non-performance time to debunking the claims of many of the leading mentalists of his time, a process he describes in A Magician Among the Spirits. This is an imagined monologue in which the escape artist considers the toll of his lost belief, even as he remains steadfast in revealing the truth. It includes borrowed phrases from both texts.

Do you think I imagined nothing of soaring heights? My first act was the trapeze. I was nine, and my father had lost his job, and all we knew then was how to live on the edge. It should go without saying that not all edges are the same. Some you walk by necessity; others are brandished by the charmer, those swords and weapons not for protection or battle, but merely to catch the light, wow an audience, earn applause.

With some people, greater intimacy only yields greater discoveries, the rewards like that of earth itself: the closer you look, the more there is. With others, these sword-bearing magician illusionists, the effect is the opposite. The more you look, the less there is to see. Looking long enough, the familiar patterns and tired tricks reveal themselves. Finally, broken hearted, the once and future believer has no choice but to accept. The emperor wears no clothes.

I have been interested! I held seances, surprised clients. It was a lark! My ambition, my love was gratified. Moving forward, some hallowed reverence advanced with age, and I was chagrined.  I became more plastic, interested to discover if it was possible to return from beyond the veil.

What lengths I have gone to, by now. How many compacts I have made with the living: when you go, will you reach me? They agreed. I have waited, watched. No one can accuse me of being unwilling to receive a sign.

To be clear, I am a sceptic, not a scoffer. My heart softens still to remember the believer I once was, the unsuspecting heart of inexperience. I sometimes wish I could return. It is not so unusual, after all, for the senses to mislead. A little sign, appealing to the waiting imagination, the endless promises and guarantees of charlatans claiming special insight, heightened vision––becomes a menace to health and sanity.

No doubt some are sincere. Even my trained mind can be deceived, how much more susceptible the ordinary observer. Magician, you are lost to me since I have seen you. I thought knowing, as with all good things, would only enhance appreciation. I could blame you for pretending to be what you are not, but now who is the fool? I was told I had no finesse for illusion, not enough sleight in my hand. I lacked the guile that came naturally to you; it was your daily bread.  

I’d prefer not to look, but there are others at risk. My purpose is to warn them. After all, I was never the magician, only the escape artist. I have escaped the nailed box, the sealed coffin, the underwater milk jug, the chains, and now I fly from the illusion that you were ever anything like the promise you pretended to be. It hurts my sore wings, long cramped. I’d rather not do it, but there is an audience, after all, and their attendant faith. If my loyalty runs parallel to the seed of this faith, then my exodus is the sacrament at hand. Blame the moon for peeling back the veil; blame the intensity of my childhood will, to believe. Blame the failure of the blinders that you counted on, to hold. Blame the persistent posture of looking; I learned this as a matter of devotion early on. Try as I might, even in the early days of watching you perform, I could not unlearn it, not completely, until now. 

Author: Stacey C. Johnson

I am here to wonder out loud. The point is not to get a clear answer, a complete picture, but to remember how incomplete the picture is, to embrace the process once again, of discovery, of questions, to notice the stirrings of wonder. To leave crumbs behind, for the next traveler.

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