Salient Sleight of Hand – On Illumination and the Proper Use of Stage Magic – a brief study of possibility, the placebo effect, and respecting mercurial messengers

Posted in > ANALYSIS by David on December 27, 2018

Image courtesy of Donna Seger/Streets of Salem

Like the progression of many arts the Art of Legerdemain, or sleight of hand, suffers a slow drift  from its origins as a spiritual technique into an abused form of popular entertainment.  Although these days specialization holds court – once upon a time the full expression of science and philosophy encompassed all aspects of life. A relationship with Wisdom was thought to be the basis for everything that follows.

In this light something such as sleight of hand, or the ability to manipulate perception at will, is a powerful psycho-spiritual technology when given the right spin.

Experimenter Effect

One of the laboratory results that is commonly reported in parapsychological research is the experimenter effect and the benefits of positive reinforcement and belief on gaining results. As the researcher John Palmer explains in an article for the Psi Encyclopedia:

Parapsychologists have come to believe that success or failure in psi experiments has as much to do with the experimenter conducting the experiment as with the subjects themselves. These ‘experimenter effects’ may occur simply because certain experimenters are better than others at motivating subjects to produce psi. However, a more serious possibility is that experimenters unconsciously influence the results, according to whether or not they themselves are psi-conducive.(1)

Something similar to this phenomenon can also be observed in the placebo effect, where belief becomes, in some ways, the basic correlative factor in success.

When seeking an explanation for this odd phenomena, some kind of straight materialist cause/effect scenario, it’s proven difficult to develop 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 and spiritual insight 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

Harlan Tarbell

As a member of the audience we are left with wonder at a magicians performance, rarely thinking of the master of mind and body required to practice this rare art. During the early 20th century, Harlan Tarbell, a close friend of Harry Houdini, wrote one of the most enduring courses on the art of 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 dance 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.

To understand the effect mastery in this domain can engender, we need only look at accounts from a visit that Tarbell 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. “  (2)

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.

Krishna-and-KaliyaGoing farther with this, to achieve truly lasting results and reach towards the realm of the Adept, 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,” mirroring advice given by the famed Italian Hermeticist Giordano Bruno in his writing on ritual magic.(3)

Like Krishna dancing on the cosmic serpent Kaliya, 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 a knowledge of performance magic can expose lies and misdirection, 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 fundamentalist skepticism has kept the understanding of these curious areas from reaching their full potential as cultural tools. 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

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.

Stage Magic and Manipulative Priests

In the apocryphal text Bel and the Dragon we find the Prophet Daniel playing a part very similar to a psychical investigator or occult detective, employing a sound understanding of stage magic to overcome the machinations of manipulative priests:

“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, no visionary solution shining through to illuminate the truth, Daniel simply 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

Image from D.A. Freher’s Paradoxa Emblematica (18th century)

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.

The Place of Mystery

“Will you turn to ridicule the experience I have acquired with so much dilligence?”

– from Paracelsus’ Credo

mysterium_magnumThe place of Mystery in the development of culture is too often something that is passed over in a world immersed in the marvels of μηχανή (mekhane), a word which has both the meaning of machine and trickery, from the root word magh which means to be able, or to have power.

“”Everything that occurs in conformity with nature, but of whose cause we are unaware, provokes astonishment; as does everything, that when it occurs in a manner contrary to nature, is produced by technique (tekhne) in the interest of mankind.

For in many cases, nature produces effects that are contrary to our interests, for nature always acts in the same way, and simply, whereas what is useful to us often changes.

Therefore, when an effect contrary to nature must be produced, we are at a loss because of the difficulty of producing such an effect; and the cooperation of tekhne is required. This is why we call the part of tekhne intended to help us in such difficulties “trickery” (mekhane). For the situation is, as the poet Antiphon says, “Through tekhne, we master the things in which we are vanquished by nature.”

– from Problemata mechanica (2nd Century BCE) quoted in The Veil of Isis, by Pierre Hadot

Western medical practitioners have debated the validity of handing someone a sugar pill in order to facilitate healing knowing that for certain conditions the placebo effect would be just as likely as standard medicine to bring about a cure.  Since this wouldn’t be effective if the person knew they were being handed a sugar pill it would entail having to lie to the patient in order for it to work.

In the current medical mindset the linear development of a disease is seen as inevitable. It would be contrary to this linear development to cure the disease, thereby requiring the use of ‘trickery’ or some mechanical means, such as drug therapy or surgery, to bring about healing.

This mindset engenders the necessity of thinking of something like the placebo effect as a lie; what doesn’t have a basis in the technical exists outside of the assumed truth and therefore is false.  Traditionally, however, the disease itself was seen as the deviancy and healing it was seen as a return to the natural order of life and health, in this context the mystery of the placebo effect is seen as a natural occurrence, nature returning to it’s proper state. Healing in this worldview is as simple as water running downhill.

To facilitate this process ritual, herbal remedies, meditations, prayers, dream incubation and a whole host of centering practices were put to use. A person subjected to a disease was seen as having moved out of alignment with the natural order and therefore needed to be returned. There is a certain respect that this way of thinking has for the greater Mystery of life lacking in current Western medical practice.

Where There is Possibility for More

As the magician and illusionist Jeff McBride points out, sleight of hand can be used to break a person out of their habitual patterns and bring them to a place where there is possibility for something more. In a ritual context this can then be directed to return the person to a more holistic position in regards to life.

This is what the shamanic use of sleight of hand is for, to distract and unmoor the ‘evil’ spirits (those patterns that have caused a misalignment in a person’s life) and allow an opening where the traditional healer can bring in new patterns.

We have to remember that spirit in the traditional sense is thought of as the motivating life force connected to the whole, the soul being that point of connection between the individual and the spirit of the whole.  An evil spirit is then a false motivator and not a superstitious bogeyman as the hard line rationalists would like to deem it.

Paracelsus, and most traditional healers, distinguish between diseases caused by physical maladies and those that are caused by spiritual misalignment. Knowing the difference was key to being an effective healer. So long as Western medicine sees all things in line with a wholly mechanistic and fundamental materialist perspective there is no chance for full healing to take place.

Western Medicine

This is not to call on the supernatural, this is to point out that to a large extent the philosophy and direction of Western medicine, and science, has been deeply flawed. Like an unfaithful spouse Western medicine shrinks from Mystery and gives no credence to anything that isn’t predicated by technical power or scientific proof, even if the results prove the treatment as in the case of the placebo effect.

“”If a man rules over other living species, if he delves unremittingly and without respect into the venerable earth, if he has created shelters for himself, and cities with their own laws, it is thanks to all kinds of mekhane.”

– from the chapter In Search of Mechanics in the collection The Greek Pursuit of Knowledge

There is no point in arguing terminology, as some would, and re-framing traditional ideas in a psychological or scientistic framework. We are living in a world created through manipulation, and suffering the pains of having stepped outside of the natural order through the power of our artifice.

A very basic respect for life has been abandoned in order to prove our potency over the natural world.  With this act of hubris we will be judged when, having stretched the malleable prima materia to its maximum extent, it will snap back on us and we will be left to face the fact that our power is merely an illusion. Nothing lies outside the bounds of the natural world, and no amount of mechanical savvy can overcome this fact.

Re-framing traditional ideas is merely an attempt to fit a much simpler and basic relationship with nature into an artificially constructed paradigm. The key is that the traditional ideas were based on a relationship, or as the scholar Arthur Versluis points out in his book The Mystical State: Politics, Gnosis, and Emergent Cultures, on the gnostic marriage of the visible and the invisible, the Divine Union of spirit and matter.  A marriage based on violence and power plays is either miserable or ends in divorce, it takes mutual respect and love for a relationship to be fulfilling.

Between Mystery and Technique

The struggle between proponents of the Mystery and of technique stretches back into prehistory. It can be seen in the split between the mathēmatikoi  ( Μαθηματικοι – “learners”) and the akousmatikoi (Ακουσματικοι -“listeners”), in the Pythagorean school.

As the scholar Christopher Mckintosh shows in his book The Rose Cross and the Age of Reason – Eighteenth-Century Rosicrucianism in Central Europe and its Relationship to the Enlightenment, it can also be seen more recently in the Enlightenment era, during the 17th and 18th centuries,  in the struggle between the mystical Rosicrucian and scientific illuminationist philosophies that fought for prevalence within Freemasonry.

Versluis work explores the question of what would have happened if the mystical side won, or at least was given more prevalence in the cultural development of Western civilization.  There are intimations of the possibilities, but those who develop a relationship with gnosis often leave very little material to trace their passage.

The place of the seership in law giving has been lost in the Western world, although it is as much a part of Greco-Roman philosophy and our Judeao-Christian heritage, as it is at the heart of the traditional cultural models that are drawn on in the development of Neo-Paganism.(4)

What We Have Lost

What we have lost is a respect for possibilities, for potential, and for that Mysterium Magnum which lies at the heart of existence. Mercurial messengers arise in our culture to remind us of the fluidity of life, but we relegate their revelations to rationalizations such as the placebo effect or fraud.

Respect not given willingly is renewed with being overthrown, the adversary we disdain is often the one that conquers us. When the day comes that, as a culture, we reach out in humility and seek to align ourselves with the natural order we will find that for all our failed manipulations there was always another path we could have walked.  If that day does not come of our own volition, humility will be taught through trial and hardship, our heads finally bowed in respect, or broken in defeat.

(1) https://psi-encyclopedia.spr.ac.uk/articles/experimenter-effects
(2) http://mesnil.saint.denis.free.fr/hotes.htm
(3) https://books.google.com/books?id=0E565t7WozQC&dq=Cause+Principle+Unity&source=gbs_navlinks_s
(4) https://youtu.be/Ow-_G26lpOk

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.

This piece was originally published in 2011 as two separate posts on The Eyeless Owl blog.



One Response

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  1. Tom Butler said, on December 27, 2018 at 8:41 pm

    Interesting essay David.

    I wonder if you are not romanticizing magic by conflating it with demonstrably paranormal phenomena. The appearance of an apported object and a magician’s magically producing a coin from behind a child’s ear have similar appearance and effect to the untrained witness but are very different.

    Having been insulted one time too many be magicians claiming expertise in the study of things paranormal because of their expertise in magic, I have come to think of their uninformed judgment as the fallacy of equal similarities. Paraphrasing the old saying that everything looks like a nail to a hammer, it seems all claims of the paranormal looks like fraud to a magician. Somewhere in there is a question of ethics.

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