Salient Sleight of Hand – On Illumination & the Proper Use of Stage Magic

Like the progression of many Arts the Art of Legerdemain suffers a slow drift  from its origins as a spiritual technique into an abused form of popular entertainment. Theatre, poetry, sculpture, painting, all have their basis in ritual. As Rachael Blyth, of the ritual theatre ensemble Foolish People, points out in her exploration of ritual media Inside the Temple of Cinema, even modified by contemporary technology, the sacred root of Art remains approachable to those who know where to find it.

Philosophy, when fully expressed, encompasses all aspects of life. A relationship with Wisdom provides the basis for everything that follows, and properly aligned all experience and action come under it’s guidance. Something such as sleight of hand, the ability to manipulate perception, is a powerful spiritual technique when given the right spin.

One of the laboratory results that is commonly reported in experiments with Ψ (Psi) is the observer effect, and the benefits of positive reinforcement and belief on gaining results. This can be observed in the Placebo Effect as well, where belief becomes, in some ways, the basic motivating factor of success.

When seeking an explanation for phenomena, or a straight materialist cause/effect scenario, these tendencies do not provide an an adequate basis for a proper scientific model. However, if we  seek to understand and utilize these factors in our lives no model is necessary, merely a grasp of the situational and atmospheric requirements to induce the phenomenon.

The fact that devotees of Elvis report miraculous healing shows the power of a charismatic stage presence goes a long way. When that presence is guided by sound Philosophy that power can be used to move beyond selling albums into more refined realms of social change.  Imagine the ability for a full expression of Art, one which moves beyond the separate practices of visual arts, music, poetry, dance and combines these with a mastery of perception.

The Miracle of Sugar

During the early 20th century, Harlan Tarbell, a close friend of Harry Houdini, wrote one of the most enduring courses on stage magic.  A unique aspect of Tarbell’s course was it’s focus on physical exercises to encourage greater body control. Similar to preset routines practiced in the martial arts, or formal ballet practice, these exercises prepare students for future situations and allow muscle memory to take over when the magician’s focus is required elsewhere to direct their performance. As with any repeated physical exercise these routines also aid in a deeper understanding of our interconnection between body and mind, and if extended further, of the spirit. In some ways Tarbell endorsed a sort of Yoga for practicing illusionists.

It is interesting to note accounts from a visit he made shortly after World War I to Le Mesnil-Saint-Denis in the north of France:

“”Il y a quelques années, un Cagliostro vint au château des Husson. C’était un étranger, personne ne l’avait vu avant, ni ne savait exactement d’où il venait et où il allait. Mais il fit des miracles. Un jour, Madame Husson avait des invités à dîner ; elle dit qu’elle regrettait de ne pouvoir servir du sucre avec le café. Alors cet homme étrange, Cagliostro, se leva et trouva dans l’air, assez de sucre pour tous les invités. Ensuite il alla au Monastère et pris de pitié pour les Soeurs, les orphelines et les blessés, il leva les mains et produisit encore du sucre. Ensuite une centaine de livres de sucre arriva chez les Soeurs qui purent conserver tous les fruits. Le sucre était apparut dans l’air, Monsieur, matérialisé dans l’air. Oui, Monsieur, matérialisé dans l’air. Oui, Monsieur nous avons vu un miracle”.

“”A few years ago, Cagliostro came to Husson Castle. He was a stranger, nobody had seen him before, nor knew exactly where he came from and where he went. But he did wonders. One day, Madame Husson had guests for dinner and she said she regretted not being able to serve the sugar with the coffee. Then this strange man, Cagliostro, got up and found in the air, enough sugar for all of the guests. Then he went to the monastery and had compassion for the nuns, orphans and wounded, he raised his hands and  produced sugar. Then a hundred pounds of sugar arrived so they were able to retain all the fruit. The sugar appeared in the air, sir, materialized in the air. Yes, sir, materialized in the air. Yes, sir, we saw a miracle. “ (Apologies for the muddy translation – DM)

– from villagers accounts of Tarbell’s visit to Le Mesnil-Saint-Denis

As Master Magician Jeff McBride teaches, the principles of stage magic require a thorough knowledge of optics, psychology, body control, set and setting. To perform sleight of hand one must truly be on intimate terms with the ways in which the physical world interacts with the mind. Going farther with this, to achieve truly lasting results, one must have mastered the very illusion of the world that surrounds us. Mcbride puts it succinctly when he says “To make magic, one has to have experienced magic.

Like Krishna dancing on the World Serpent, one who has mastered the art of perception gains the ability to create effects in the world by altering the perception of witnesses. Comparing a stage magician to Krishna may seem grandiose, but the use that this knowledge has played in debunking fraud and exposing hoaxes shows that such an understanding can be used as a powerful tool for exposing the truth. As much as it can expose, it can also foster a connection to the truth. When we think of the full potential of this it becomes obvious that the path of legerdemain leads into very interesting spiritual territory.

Bitter Misdirection

The bitterness of the fundamentalist skeptics has kept this understanding from reaching it’s full potential as a cultural tool. When accounts of traditional healers using sleight of hand are retold it is usually with disdain for the practice. Similarly when we think of sleight of hand it’s often in the context of annoying party tricks, or an older relative whose abusive coin materialization lost it’s charm on the 100th go round.

Gustavo Rol, an Italian enigma whose admirers included the filmmaker Federico Fellini, stated that the purpose of his ‘abilities’ was to foster belief in something greater. Rol’s psychical demonstrations have provided ample fodder for skeptics, but what is continuously missed is the atmosphere of possibility that his demonstrations engendered.

The storyteller brings the story to life through controlling an audiences’ perception. This can encompass the entire spectrum of perception and needn’t include only words and sounds. By using sleight of hand and other techniques to induce phenomenon the audience is not only allowed to imagine the possibilities of the story, but to engage with them directly as they break into mundane reality through materialization, precognitive revelations, and other outre events. Whether this is done through a magic trick or through innate ability, the result in the life of the observer is the same unless they choose to discount their feelings based on some skeptical sense of propriety.

Within the dominant religious groups we can see traces of this connection between Illumination and Illusion. There is the austere Moses of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but there is also Moses the Conjurer from the African Diaspora traditions. The ‘Hoodoo’ Moses gains his abilities not through some vague notion of Divine intervention, but through a practical connection to Divine Wisdom which works on all levels of reality.

In the apocryphal text Bel and the Dragon we find the Prophet Daniel playing a part very similar to a psychical investigator:

“23 And in that same place there was a great dragon, which they of Babylon worshipped.

24 And the king said unto Daniel, Wilt thou also say that this is of brass? lo, he liveth, he eateth and drinketh; thou canst not say that he is no living god: therefore worship him.

25 Then said Daniel unto the king, I will worship the Lord my God: for he is the living God.

26 But give me leave, O king, and I shall slay this dragon without sword or staff. The king said, I give thee leave.

27 Then Daniel took pitch, and fat, and hair, and did seethe them together, and made lumps thereof: this he put in the dragon’s mouth, and so the dragon burst in sunder : and Daniel said, Lo, these are the gods ye worship.”

– Bel and the Dragon 1:23-27

There is no mysterious Deus Ex Machina here, Daniel uses an understanding of mechanics and incendiary devices to expose the fraud. Earlier in the text when he is confronted with Bel, another construct that uses innovative manipulations to ‘eat’ it’s offerings, he uses flour spread on the floor to expose foot prints leading to hidden doors in the temple used to produce the effect.

Beyond Divisions

The Master Magician Eugene Burger has written extensively on how some of the most common magic tricks explore greater truths in profound ways. One example that he gives is the Ring Trick in which rings are manipulated to appear as if they are able to join and disjoin without breaking the circle of any one ring. As a common trick this has been used for centuries, however Berger points out that it also resonates deeply with the nature of reality, separate parts uniting in a whole while maintaining their individual divisions.

The rejection of sleight of hand and the various techniques of stage magic as legitimate tools for revelation represents a failure of the dualistic mindset embedded in our culture. We are lead to reject what we experience when the means of that experience are shown to be something unexpected. That small moment of possibility that could open up a life time of deeper union with reality is thrown out by our antagonism towards the methods used to invoke it.

As a tool for engendering the ground of belief these techniques provide unique opportunities to encourage the sense of Mystery necessary for the opening of any spiritual quest. Beyond illusory phenomenon lies the root of truth, and confronting these illusions in an active way we gain a deeper understanding of ourselves and the world we share.

Here is a short introduction to McBride’s Magic and Mystery School, run by Jeff McBride and Eugene Berger, where this deeper sense of magic is actively explored:

Note: Thank you to Mariano Tomatis for introducing me to the history of Gustavo Rol, and to Mariano,  Ferdinando Buscema and Jeff McBride for exposing me to the depth of the magical tradition.

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