Comment on devient sorcier

That wonderful phrase comes from Robert-Houdin, the conjurer LI mentioned in the last post.

Robert-Houdin is known to most Americans simply because Eric Weiss stole part of his name and added an ‘i’: Houdini. And even those who know that rarely know that Houdini wrote a book in which he supposedly “unmasked” his idol as a pilferer of other people’s tricks. Robert-Houdin has become one of those quiet sites of American-French rivalry – as the French know, Robert-Houdin’s house was lit by incandescent lightbulbs with a filament he invented decades before the Wizard of Menlo Park got around to experimenting on how much of an electrical charge the human hair follicle could take.

His memoirs were once popular, and still are popular among magicians. They are also popularly debunked. As is, for example, the story of how Houdin got into the magic biz in the first place.

Here it is. Houdin was a young man, away from home, an apprentice watchmaker, and son of a watchmaker. One day he got a bad case of food poisoning. He’d nearly collapsed by the side of the road, trying to reach home, when a traveling magic show passed by. The magician was a once famous conjurer named Torrini now in the dumps, accompanied, of course, by a faithful servant, Antonio. Torrini and his servant took the delirious Houdin in, and nursed him back to health. Torrini was so affection because, it transpired, Houdin looked like Torrini’s son. A son about which there was some obvious dark cloud of mystery, since every time Torrini mentioned him, he’d burst into tears. While Houdin learned the mysteries of the craft, he did not learn the mysteries of Torrini until one night he gradually wormed it out of the old man.

Seems like Torrini hadn’t always been just a sawdust floor wizard – at one time, he was a conjuror to princes and popes. He was born into the nobility, you see. But as the years went on, his card tricks began to bore his audiences, and so he searched around for something more… shall we say, more s-sensational.

At this time, Torrini was married and had a boy. His son assisted him, especially in an act Torrini had entitled, Son of William Tell. Torrini claimed to have invented it – like all stage showman, he had a weakness for bogus originality. It was quite simple, really. The boy bit into an apple, and held it there in front of his mouth, and his father shot at him. The bullet, especially marked, lodged in the apple.

Here’s how the bullet catch trick is done. “The bullet was molded of hollow wax, mixed with soot to give it a dark, metallic look. The wax bullet was crushed in the barrel of the pistol and the magician was careful to stand a great distance away.”

It is an old trick. According to James Randi, it was first described by Reverend Thomas Beard in Threats of God’s Judgment in 1631. Anyway, here is how Torrini lost his mind: he kept these wax bullets in a box. All very simple. And yet somehow a leaden bullet was insensibly mixed into this box, and one night the leaden bullet was selected, the boy stood with his apple, and his father took aim and slew him.

And you wondered where William Burroughs got the idea…

After six months in jail and his wife’s desertion, Torrini then wandered the byways of Europe, playing to gawping plebes, out of his head. And then, just as Saul was cured of his Godrogenic stresses by David, Torrini met Robert-Houdin.

Jim Steinmeyer, in his biography of Chung Sing Loo, writes that Torrini never existed. Or nobody has ever found a record of him. But it is an excellent story.

Incidentally, Houdini was famously advised never to do the bullet catch himself, and never did. It is a simple trick, but usually it involves a momentary loss of control of the instrument. Rather than the magician shooting, the magician usually selects someone from the audience to shoot at him.

When Hobbes wrote about nature blood in tooth and claw, he was referring, allegorically, to the audience at magic acts. The first magician who brought the bullet catch trick to America turned around, and in that moment the spectator who held the gun filled it with tacks – and must have had the tacks on hand, too. Anyway, of course, the magician was pelleted. Chung Sing Loo died of the bullet catch act. You can get a partial list here.

Now – interlude for some heavy bellringing as LI goes into a History channel overview re magick – magic in the sixteenth century, whether performed by the savage or the sage woman, was the same kind of stuff, derived from the devil. But by the eighteenth century, there was a fold. At that point the belief in magic, for the governing class of European, fell by the wayside. And so the native magician became ignorant, and the peasant became a tool of some more powerful personage playing on his credulity. Magic as a means of taking and keeping power produced a variation on the reading of the chief, the shaman, the ‘medecine man’, the figure flinger.

Bringing us on the wings of white magic angels to the nineteenth century, and Robert-Houdin, born in 1805 to a watchmaker. It is emblematic that nineteenth century magie blanche should arise from the same cadre that produced steam engines and cotton gins. At the beginning of his memoirs, Houdin breaks out into a nice bit of poetry that tells us a good deal about the 19th century:

“How often, in my infantile dreams, did a benevolent fairy open before me the door of a mysterious El Dorado, where tools of every description were piled up. The delight which these dreams produced on me were the same as any other child feels when his fancy summons up before him a fantastic country where the houses are made of chocolate, the stones of sugar-candy, and the men of gingerbread. It is difficult to understand this fever for tools; the mechanic, the artist, adores them, and would ruin himself to obtain them. Tools, in fact, are to him what a ms. is to the archaeologist, a coin to the antiquary, or a pack of cards to a gambler: in a word, they are the implements by which a ruling passion is fed.”

My brothers have the same unconquerable passion for the El Dorado of tools. Of course, nowadays, we can drive to it. It is called Home Depot.

Actually, Houdin’s memoirs are full of these Stendhal like touches. Perhaps this is why Henri Bergson read him. There is a passage in Energie spirituelle by Bergson I’m gonna translate, and then we are finished with this here post.

“In one of the curious pages of his Confidences, Robert Houdin explains how he proceeded to develop an intuitive and instantaneous memory in his young son. He began by showing the child a domino, the 5/4, asking him the sum total of the points without letting him count them. To this domino he added another, the 4/3, demanding once again an immediate response. He stopped his first lesson there. The next day, he succeeded in adding in the blink of an eye three and four dominos, the next day after five: in adding each day some new progress to that of yesterday’s, he ended up by obtaining instantly the some of the points of a dozen dominoes. “This result acquired, we busied ourselves with a task that was difficult in another way, to which we devoted ourselves for more than a month. We passed, my son and I, rapidly enough before a children’s toy shop, or some other shop which was furnished with various merchandise, and we plunged an attentive look into it. Some steps latter, we drew from our pockets a pencil and piuece of paper, and we each competed separately to see who could describe the greatest number of objects that we grasped in passing… It often happened that my son listed fourteen objects…” The purpose of this special education was to get the child to grasp with a glance, in the seating area of the theater, all the objects carried into it by all the assistants. thus, with a cloth tied over his eyes, he could simulate second sight in describing, given an agreed upon sign by his father, an object chosen at random by one of the audience. This visual memory was developed to such a point that after some moments passed in front of a library/bookstore the boy retained a large number of titles, with the exact places of the corresponding books. He took, in a way, a mental photograph of the whole, which permitted the immediate recall of the parts. But, from the start of the first lesson, and in the interdiction weighing on adding up the points of the dominoes, we see the principle mechanism of this education of the memory. All interpretation of the visual image was excluded from the act of the vision: intelligence was maintained on the level of the visual images.”

Things my old man never did for me… Actually, Houdin’s pedagogical plan is not that different from the plan worked out by Rousseau – spacing the secondary intelligence of culture after the primary intelligence of the senses, with memory that strange human faculty that straddles the divide between nature and culture. And I should say: this is an excellent education for writing. Robert-Houdin's memoir's are supposedly ghostwritten -- but like Torrini, the Ghostwriter has apparently been the victim of one of Robert-Houdin's vanishing acts. Nobody has a name for him, or a record of him.

Anyway, in a coming post, we will get to the hat trick with the cannon balls. Don’t worry!


Amie said…
LI, do take a bow! this is some post!
roger said…
Amie, nice of you to say that! I realize that my posts which concentrate on magicians or ghosts tend to lose readers and never attract comments. I just don't draw a ghost story crowd, helas!

But I must recommend the confidences - even though I can't find them in the French. Robert-Houdin should be read by more people, and quoted by all the great philosophers!
Amie said…
LI, well I for one just can't get nuff of magicians and ghosts. (maybe LI could work up to the one in Werkmeister Harmonies...)
rest assured, Robert-Houdin has been added to my reading list, though i'm way behind in LI influenced reading. but that's what happens i guess when one starts plowing though Saint-Simon...