What magic it would take for Erich ben Samuel, an Austria-Hungarian born Jew from a rabbinical lineage, to become the most famous magician of all times and an all-American patriot?
That kind of magic only Harry Houdini could perform – and that’s exactly what he did.
Erich’s surname by birth was Weisz, while Houdini was adopted after one of the most important magicians who ever lived – Robert Houdin, regarded as the father of modern magic for it was he – Frenchman born in 1805, who discovered magic by accident, did not start performing until the age of 40 and had a professional career of only 11 years, who made the magic respectable.
Before Houdin, magic was performed only in circuses, alongside “freaks of nature” – the bias inherited from Middle Ages and bigotry of Scholasticism were still strong.
It was Houdin who first used his knowledge of science to develop illusions – and it was Houdin who at the same time skillfully mocked both his audience and the science itself by backing up his magic with pseudo-science; like when he performed the first levitation - he made his son breeze ether and had persuaded the audience that smelling ether was making man lighter.
Anyway, his magic worked and his explanations were accepted, the stigma was removed and thus – the door through which Harry Houdini entered the history – ajared.
It’s been said that the greatest of all Hudini’s escapes was the escape from back then backwater town of Appleton in Wisconsin; but if seriously, it’s his escapes from straitjackets and milk cans that made him famous – it seemed that his mind was firmly ruling over matter, dissolving the physical hindrances and making the impossible – possible.
I can’t recommend it strongly enough because the greatest showman ever was at the same time a remarkable philanthrop and patriot with a heart of purest gold.
Somewhere ‘at the crossroads of Science and Mystery, the heart and the mind, the “old days” and the modern age’ – the Great Houdini will encounter Vaudeville itself. (1)
As the story goes, “in the spring of 1899, twenty-five-year-old Harry Houdini was ready to retire as an entertainer. For six years he had traveled ceaselessly, performing in small-time dime museums and medicine shows, sharing the stage with physical anomalies and other assorted freaks. For five of those years, his wife Bess had shared his meager lot, performing with him as he desperately sought an act that might lead to greater success and a life in high-class vaudeville. Acrobat, illusionist, hypnotist, and puppeteer – Houdini had tried all of these and more, and nothing had worked. Then he met Martin Beck, “(2) owner of a chain of Vaudeville theaters and the rest is history.
Personally, i am ever fascinated by the genre – in theater and in literature – and i dedicated my third book and my first collection of poetry to it.
As a side note – don’t get me wrong – i am not using this opportunity to promote my own work, rather to explain it further – the book THANKS GOODNESS wasn’t a commercial project in the first place; my third – “Devil, an unauthorized biography” published together with Francisco J. Campos’ amazing “Vaudeville Tarot” was financed by Montenegrin Ministry of Culture, after the expert committee had evaluated it as ‘a work of art, contributing to Montenegrin cultural heritage’.
During launches i often get asked “how did you get such cool people to contribute to the book?” Namely – besides Francisco – the famous Spanish artist who created the deck; mystical British poet and avantgarde philosopher Stephen J. Mangan – who is enviably popular in not-easy-to-impress international tribe of Tarot connoiscieurs - contributed selflessly to the book; so did Sanjin Sorel, leading Croatian linguist and poet; Tanja Bakic – poetess and world renown Blake scholar and others.
So, i often get asked “how come”?! It’s “simple” – it’s magic , it’s the strange ways of Tarot and Vaudeville itself.
(Scans of the deck and the review of the book by everyone’s favorite author and mystic Bonnie Cehovet are here .)
“Mystery attracts Mystery”, as H.P. Lovecraft puts it. The genius writer’s work is in public domain and if you haven’t yet – you can enjoy his short story on Hudini which the statement opens – “Under the Pyramids.”
Lovecraft sets the story in 1910, in Egypt, where Houdini is kidnapped by a tour guide – a lookalike of an ancient Pharaoh – and thrown into a deep pit near the Great Sphinx of Giza. While trying to escape, he stumbles upon a huge cavern where he meets the deity that inspired the building of the Sphinx.
Apropos, Houdini himself loved the story and worked with Lovecraft on several projects afterwards – until his death in 1926.
Had Lovecraft written only this short story and not a sentence more – i believe he would have rightfully earned all the admiration and popularity he enjoys nowadays (sadly – like with many geniuses from the past – it was not the case during his lifetime.)
I’ve been to Egypt and with my interest in the occult you can imagine what profound impact it had on me – yet i never wrote a single line about it; simply – it’s already being done – and in a way that hardly can be surpassed: “ Old Cairo is itself a story-book and a dream—labyrinths of narrow alleys redolent of aromatic secrets; Arabesque balconies and oriels nearly meeting above the cobbled streets; maelstroms of Oriental traffic with strange cries, cracking whips, rattling carts, jingling money, and braying donkeys; kaleidoscopes of polychrome robes, veils, turbans, and tarbushes; water-carriers and dervishes, dogs and cats, soothsayers and barbers; and over all the whining of blind beggars crouched in alcoves, and the sonorous chanting of muezzins from minarets limned delicately against a sky of deep, unchanging blue.
The roofed, quieter bazaars were hardly less alluring. Spice, perfume, incense, beads, rugs, silks, and brass—old Mahmoud Suleiman squats cross-legged amidst his gummy bottles while chattering youths pulverise mustard in the hollowed-out capital of an ancient classic column—a Roman Corinthian, perhaps from neighbouring Heliopolis, where Augustus stationed one of his three Egyptian legions. Antiquity begins to mingle with exoticism. And then the mosques and the museum—we saw them all, and tried not to let our Arabian revel succumb to the darker charm of Pharaonic Egypt which the museum’s priceless treasures offered. That was to be our climax, and for the present we concentrated on the mediaeval Saracenic glories of the Caliphs whose magnificent tomb-mosques form a glittering faery necropolis on the edge of the Arabian Desert.”
If you read this two paragraphs by Lovecraft – you too have been to Cairo, you strolled along the cobbled alleys of its bazaars, you sipped on your coffee on Nile and listened to the city talk about yet another Saudi prince who fell head over heels in love with the famous belly dancer and spent his fortune in the process.
As charming as Cairo is – traditionally the task of the Kabbalist is to escape his/her own Egypt or Mizraim as is is called in Hebrew; of course – as meitzar (מיצר), means “sea strait” and also ”boundaries, limits, restrictions” – we are not speaking here of an actual country, but of our own egos made of fears and doubts.
Have i mentioned that Lovecraft’s fiction inspired one of my favorite decks of all times, which is immensely helping me to cross over my personal abyss?
Here is the image of 8 of Swords from Dark Grimoire Tarot:
In Bonnie Cehovet’s words: ” The basis of this deck is the concept of Grimoires – the ancient texts of magic, witchcraft and rituals that over time many people have looked on as being books of Black Magic…
Here the Tarot is presented as a possible book of magic – inspired by the dream worlds of fantasy literature, by grimoires (real and imaginary), by the nightmares that they may have generated and continue to generate in the depths of the subconscious. “
This is the traditional depiction of 8 of Swords, from Waite Smith deck: :
The girl depicted in the card has wandered far away from her home – the castle in the background – surrounded by seemingly inescapable fence of her own self-limiting thoughts which swords symbolize, hands bound, eyes blinded…
She needs a miracle to free herself – and that’s what all of us need to cross the abyss which Aleister Crowley considered to be the main purpose of the (occult) magician’s career; in his Little Essays Toward Truth he says:
“This doctrine is extremely difficult to explain; but it corresponds more or less to the gap in thought between the Real, which is ideal, and the Unreal, which is actual. In the Abyss all things exist, indeed, at least in posse, but are without any possible meaning; for they lack the substratum of spiritual Reality. They are appearances without Law. They are thus Insane Delusions. Now the Abyss being thus the great storehouse of Phenomena, it is the source of all impressions.”
In terms of Jewish Kabbalah we are speaking of Da’at and B’tzelem Elohim - the “image of God embedded in humanity” – an omnipresent idea in the Jewish thought; Nahmanaides explained it in terms of human soul being immortal, Rashi said it stood for our quality of discernment, while Martin Buber stated that God exists in the space between “I and Though” - in a direct interpersonal relation which is not mediated by any intervening system of ideas (or, as Kabbalists would put it – in the unconditional love for thy neighbour – neighbors of all ethnicities, nationalities, religions, of all sexual identities and of all social statutes included.)
In the Bible, Da’at is mentioned for the first time when we are told that Adam “knew” Eve and she conceived – except being a brilliant metaphor – it’s at the same time quite precise depiction of how an idea (Chochma) develops fully (Binah) and becomes a concrete reality (Da’at).
Da’at is also used to describe prophet’s connection to the Divine, prophet been referred to as haskel vayodea Oti – one who “perceives and knows Me.”
Another question i get asked often is whether Jews believe in this and that prophet - we don’t believe in any other prophets, except the forty eight male, seven female and one gentile prophet, who are recorded in the Bible.
When it comes to my personal believes – i believe in the magic of art, i believe that Houdini, who could thread 30 needles inside his stomach – did have abilities well out of the ordinary and, on my good days, i believe that every woman and every man, tied in ropes and bounded by circumstances and by fears – is capable of Houdini - like spectacular GREAT ESCAPE.
Upside Down King as Art Muse :
(1) Stars of Vaudeville:
(2) Martin Beck, the American Experience:
photo of the book ‘Devil, an unauthorized biography’: courtesy of Jim Maher ©2012, All Right Reserved