Magicians and Illusionists: the boundaries of truth and illusion
Magicians and Illusionists: the boundaries of truth and illusion
A cross culture and cinematic review
One of the most famous magicians in the Bible is Balaam, the son of Beor; and yet, his profession or his status is not mentioned in the Bible. It is not even hinted at1. Furthermore, chapter 22 in the Book of Numbers proves that in spite of his seemingly great power, Balaam was completely subservient to the Lord, like a marionette, against his wishes2.
Even the episode with the ass proves that Balaam was not gifted with supernatural vision, as one could have expected from such a powerful wizard: the simple animal saw what he himself did not.
However, the mission that Balaam did not achieve with magic was accomplished by his conniving advice3.
Balaam was indeed known as the greatest warlock of his time, by other nations in the known world. In 1967 an inscription was found in Deir Alla, Jordan, datimg from 800 BCE. On it were two stories: the first described Balaam addressing his family and the head of the community about a delegation of good gods who came to him and exposed a diabolical scheme of evil demons, to destroy the world and the human race.
The second talked of the appearance of a newly deceased soul in the underworld, who had passed away after working in order to prevent that same diabolical scheme from happening. According to this evidence, it was thought to be Balaam who had used his powers in order to save humanity from annihilation, and paid for it with his life.
How can we reconcile the tension between realistic perception, which considers “magic” to be nothing but a trick of deception, and the unrealistic power of the imagination, which tends to believe in things it cannot explain?
A magician, by very definition, embodies the conflict between reality and fantasy. It is not a question of hallucination or daydreaming, but a presentation of the seemingly impossible – as the truth.
By reviewing magicians themselves – their lives, their thoughts, their fantasies – as they are represented in the art of literature and cinema, this contradiction can be approached.
The Israeli movie Pick A Card4 unfolds the story of David, a simple and unsuccessful magician, who insists on not continuing the family business but making his own way in life by fulfilling his personal and professional dream – to be a magician. Batya, his wife, refuses to accept his repeated failures and decides to leave him in order to encourage her husband to come back to his senses.
For David, to be a magician is to give himself a better life: his yearning is that the illusion of magic will create a positive change in his ordinary routine. For him, the better the magician – the more he would be able to realize his personal aspirations.
In his world, imagination makes dream a reality.
In contrast to the above, in which there is humble ambition, Christopher Nolan’s glorious film, The Prestige5, tells the story of two magicians who constantly compete against each other: Robert Angier and Alfred Borden.
Angier accuses Borden of the death of his wife, during the famous “Houdini trick”. His desire to punish and retaliate is reinforced by Borden’s great ambition to be crowned as the most successful magician of all time.
Angier and Borden continually try to perfect an exceptional performance called “The Transported Man” in which the magician, who stands on the stage, disappears at one moment and then immediately appears somewhere else.
At the beginning of the movie it is evident that neither Angier nor Borden are gifted with magical powers. They are both creative conjurers, exercising complex hoaxes in order to persuade the audience of their miraculous skills.
For the audience it is entertainment.
For Borden and Angier the desire to entertain has become a fixation and then becomes madness. Both of them endanger their lives and later the lives of their loved ones in order to fulfill their goal, be the cost as high as it may.
The exposition of the film has a famous magician, who appears old and weak, when in fact he is extremely strong. He wishes to appear feeble in order to deceive his audience. As the movie’s end unfolds, it becomes clear that Borden has also deceived his audience – he was not one person but two: twins, Alfred and Fallon. The Borden brothers decided to pretend to be one individual, so that they could – for one moment – perform the most remarkable trick of all.
In the name of a successful show, the twins divide life between them – each having only half a life. For that one moment of the performance they repress their own desires and sacrifice their freedom.
In spite of their deceptive appearances as one person, the Borden brothers do not lose their individual personalities: before learning about the duplicity, the apparent single personality of Borden was characterized by powerful contrast between two extremes of temperament: one calm and loving, and the other untamed. With the discovery of the truth, it becomes clear that each persona belonged to a different brother – the settled and the undisciplined, whose irresponsibility eventually lead to his own death.
Robert Angier’s obsession for revenge later turned to an obsession to defeat his sworn rival. Thus, he uses the same idea, allegedly, but with one significant difference: he creates a double for himself. Unlike twins with separate personalities, his duplicate is not born and raised biologically, but is an accurate copy of himself, a creation out of thin air. He is a real person with his own identity, who does not want to die, certainly not to be murdered, a fraction of a second after being brought to life. Angier, in the name of madness to hear louder applause than that given to Borden, sacrifices the life of a double, show after show. Every duplicate he created jeopardized Angier’s own life and his own identity, as he never knew who would be sent to his death at the end of the trick and who would appear, alive and triumphant.
Alfred and Fallon Borden created an existence for themselves in which one sacrifices his individuality to the success of a make-believe goal and they become enslaved to the lie. When they clash with Robert Angier, the failure of all three leads to unavoidable disaster.
Another example of a magician who goes to extremes with his magic is the film The Illusionist6.
In Vienna of early 19th century, performs an illusionist called Eisenheim. He does not present himself as a magician and even makes it abundantly clear that all he does is merely hoax and deceive. Yet, his shows are a great success. As a young boy, Eisenheim had fallen in love with Sophie, the Duchess von Teschen. However, due to the fact that Eisenheim was the son of a poor cabinetmaker, they two were forbidden to meet and Eisenheim left town.
Sophie’s request from Eisenheim was to make them both disappear. This materializes fifteen years later, when Eisenheim returns, this time as an illusionist, and successfully performs. She is destined to marry The Crown Prince Leopold, but when Eisenheim and Sophie rediscover each another, they refuse to give up their love and Eisenheim finds a way to free themselves from the chains of reality using his illusionist skills.
When he was young, Eisenheim had met a genuine magician, who introduced him to magic, before disappearing entirely – with the tree underneath which he sat.
The pivotal question – hoax or magic, reality or imagination – gnaws in the viewer’s mind, both in the film and in Eisenheim’s show. More important is the way in which Eisenheim skillfully uses illusion for his own benefit. Unlike Borden and Angier, Eisenheim is not swept away with the desire to demonstrate his strength, but wisely manipulates this skill to achieve a higher goal7.
In one of their meetings, he tells Sophie that he had wandered for fifteen years around the world and saw miraculous things, but never found the true magic to order his heart to stop loving her.]. Eisenheim, unlike Borden and Angier, recognizes when make believe begins and more importantly – when it ends. Thus he proves that the most vital characteristic of a magician is precisely the ability to remain focused and rational, and not to fall in the snare of imaginary perceptions.
This is a lesson that the great Harry Houdini, in the movie Death Defying Acts8, has yet to learn.
Harry Houdini is considered to be the most famous magician in the world, after performing his marvelous escape tricks, which were really a dangerous, requiring both physical and mental strength9.
Houdini, the great illusionist, knows perfectly well that his acts are a false presentation of the truth, but in his heart he seeks after genuine magic – a connection with the after life. Harry searches for “the real thing”: someone who would be able to reveal to him the last words of his dying mother.
Mary McGarvie has a similar profession to Harry Houdini: she impersonates a woman with magical powers. She is also a deprived single mother, who is drawn to the financial temptation that Houdini offers. She decides to try to deceive him.
Mary fails, but Houdini is not left empty–handed. Through the connection with Mary, which turns in to relationship, it is revealed that Mary’s daughter, Benji, had actual powers. The young girl was able to answer Houdini’s burning question and thus redeem his tormented soul.
Intellectual skepticism versus the existence of supernatural powers is very well expressed in the film Red Lights10. This movie revolves around Dr. Tom Buckley, a physicist, who joins Dr. Margaret Matheson, an academic psychologist, to assist in trying to refute paranormal phenomenon and expose it for what it really is: an illusion.
Dr. Buckley is equally motivated to prove that no man is gifted with mystical powers, not even those who think that their powers are beyond human understanding.
In spite of the fact, that the university does not allocate any research budget. Dr. Matheson and Dr. Buckley are both eager to demonstrate, that paranormal abilities do not exist. Each has their reason.
A famous psychic, Simon Silver, returns unexpectedly to the public arena, after years of absence. Blind Silver is considered to be the specialist in his field11 and his reappearance undermines the somewhat dull routine of Dr. Matheson and Dr. Buckley as he compels them to confront their innermost fears and beliefs.
Dr. Matheson is driven from personal impulse: her investigations are a way to cope with disaster: her son is in a vegetative coma. Dr. Matheson refuses to cut off his life support, fearing that by doing so, she would send him to the unknown, which is to her nothing at all. Her efforts to show that there is no “after life” are justifications to defend herself and her attitude towards her son. If she were to find even a shred of evidence, she would allow him to die.
Dr. Buckley is driven by a different argument: his relentless endeavor to refute the truthfulness of Silver’s powers, result from his self-denunciation of his own powers.
Just like in the films Pick a Card, The Prestige, and Death Defying Acts – the essential aspect of illusion is the spectacular show it creates, vision in which imagery is perceived to be real. Illusionists and supernatural performers touch the most sensitive core in their audiences. The performers are extremely popular with people in distress, who yearn for any possible salvation.
Reality is much less of a spectacle.
Case 3912 is fairly ordinary psychological horror movie: Emily Jenkins, a kind-hearted social worker, who is already swamped with work, agrees to accept one more case: a suspicion for negligence and sever abuse of a young girl by her parents, who are accused of trying to murder her. Emily works relentlessly to help the seemingly innocent girl. Due to the emotional closeness she feels towards her, she even adopts her as her own daughter. However, from that moment on, things begin to change in Emily’s safe, quiet world. The girl manipulates people around her, not by hurting them physically but by making them believe that their imagination and their greatest fears are genuine. They are brought to kill themselves whilst trying to escape the imagined threats.
The only possibility of overcoming the girls’ wickedness and dangerous influence is by doing what Emily eventually does: connect with reality and understand that everything else is mere fantasy. She conquers her fear by simply not to believing in the illusion.
The audience in a “magic” show knows the truth, and yet enjoys the charade.
People want to believe in the good of magic, not in the evil of spells.
People want to believe in magic’s ability to help, rescue and improve their lives. However, when belief in magic and supernatural powers becomes a dogma of one’s life, then the balance between reality and fantasy is shattered. This instability can lead to delusion, madness and living hell.
As a result, a belief in the existence of a supernatural world must therefore turn out to be false.