Why do people all over the world, and at all times, want marvels that defy all verifiable fact? And are the marvels brought into being by their desire, or is their desire an assurance rising from some deep knowledge, not to be directly experienced and questioned, that the marvelous is indeed an aspect of the real?
–Ramsay in Robertson Davies’s Fifth Business
I. The Hollywood Psychic
I’d become curious about clairvoyants. It seemed that people in books were always visiting palmists: Richard Ford’s Bascombe on a regular basis in his second (and best) volume, graphic memoirist Nicole Georges once, but to astonishing effect. I began asking around, wondering if anyone I knew had gotten a fortune told. But no one had so much as looked into their tea leaves; even a friend who’d based her name’s spelling on numerology didn’t heed the horoscopes. I’d often passed two different psychic practices near my home, one to the east and one to the west. I remembered reading an LA Times writer and fellow baseball fan who’d visited the eastern one, where the woman gave him an abstract card reading and a definite answer to whether the Dodgers would make the World Series (“No”). But she’d also told him that Rupert Murdoch would buy the Times, which he ultimately didn’t for legal reasons. And with multiple staff, how did the business decide who was psychic enough to work there? I looked online for reviews of the other office, and they were positive. Better still, the proprietress offered a promotional discount.
I showed up in gym clothes, with my dog, at the same time as a pizza delivery man. The three of us stood outside, acting neighborly but a little self-conscious, while the owner corralled tip money and a young child behind the screen door. I remembered my friend Adam having his car blessed at a Hindu place up north: “Car puja’s walk-in puja,” they’d told him over the phone, “come by any time.” Once she’d dispatched the pizza man, the lady brought me inside and herded her protesting daughter into another room, where the girl commenced to wail and beat the door. “Your dog’s energy might affect the reading,” the psychic told me. I wasn’t worried. “Palms up on the table,” she ordered. I’d written a grocery list on one; she agreed to read the other. She looked like an ethnic Gypsy, which I took as a good sign and later confirmed.
The session was brief and mostly as I’d expected. She correctly intuited that I was loyal to others and that I exercised strong judgments, evidence of past struggles and more surprisingly, that one had been my health. She commented generally on my professional situation, and sadly did not predict that I’d come into sudden wealth. Finally she asked about my relationships, to which I answered, “Well, it’s complicated.” She replied emphatically, “It shouldn’t be.”
Here was my predicament: An old flame had shown up at my door, ten years after I’d known him. In that time, he’d lived conventionally—but now, ready for a more authentic life, he’d turned to me. I’d met him at my happiest point, and he was a link to that time. Now I was struggling to publish my first book after laboring on it for years, and he was supportive of my project. There were major obstacles: he was still entangled elsewhere, and I liked more independence than he did. Even so, we made plans to be together.
I hadn’t foreseen (though the psychic surely had) that she would recommend spiritual intervention. For a certain fee, she’d “make prayers” for a few days, settling matters by spring. Novel and intriguing though I found the offer, I didn’t have that kind of money, and felt fairly confident that things would go fine regardless. If I purchased a spell, how then would I know it succeeded? I asked about her crystal ball, resting on a shelf. “That gets pretty supernatural,” she said. “It’s mostly for contacting dead people.”
I didn’t really know any I wanted to see, and she’d already noted that I wasn’t a victim of witchcraft. (I’d forgotten until she mentioned it, but I’d once wondered after an unsolicited warning from a Vodou priest in Haiti.) In going to her temple on my behalf, would she be practicing witchcraft? If that were the case, might this even be a “hire me to watch your car” thing? Her pizza was getting cold. I paid my bill and thanked her, pledging to come back if I changed my mind. “Have you always done this work?” I asked. “Fourth generation in my family. The fifth already wants to join readings,” she nodded toward the howling door. I later described the experience with its costly prescription to a couple of friends, amusing them both.
About six weeks later, the obstacles I’d mentioned abruptly turned from problemita to problemolla. It seemed my lover had only taken a detour and not embarked on a new path at all. As the issue fell beyond my control, I felt helpless and hopeless, until I thought of the psychic. She’d seemed so confident in her ability to meddle with third parties’ affairs, and her long history in the business must at least have given her some insights. I remembered scoffing at word of a New York socialite who’d sued a soothsayer after handing over a chunk of her fortune for the service. (The rich woman had determined with help from a lawyer that the devil’s head in an eggshell was—surprise!—a trick). I thought of possible loopholes and hidden fees, and questions to detect them before committing to a course of treatment. I mused on supernatural remedies gone haywire, from Blithe Spirit’s mismanaged séance to Wide Sargasso Sea’s failed love potion—the latter of which backfired so spectacularly as to haunt Rochester, Eyre, and my terrified twelve-year-old self years later. Then I parked, and rang the psychic’s bell.
“It’s an emergency,” I told her. She chuckled. “Prevention always saves in the long run.” I’d figured. I’d just received a class action settlement in the mail from my decade-old arrest at the Republican National Convention in New York. The check was for twice the amount I’d expected, so I could go ahead and avail myself of the spirit-work. I left with three candles to burn, two nondescript and the other of which looked like Snow White’s apple. I agreed to return for weekly tarot readings (and payments toward my balance) until a month later, when the transformation would be complete. I obtained a measure of peace this way, so it already felt worthwhile. The fact stood that the four sessions with the psychic cost the same as four meetings with a therapist.
The tarot deck was intriguing; thick and hard to shuffle, it contained figures from Greek and Norse mythology as well as medieval literature—I was alternately represented by Psyche, Brunhilde, and Scheherazade. The Gypsy woman’s readings also contained a fair amount of Eastern jargon about chakras and such; those things seem to hold traction with a wider swath of the population. (When my tech-consultant tenant recently told me she’d had her bungalow “doused,” it took me several minutes of conversation to grasp that there wasn’t a pest problem.) I asked the astrologer about her temple. “Purity and Light,” she answered. “Non-denominational, for spiritualist members only, twenty-four hours.”
I felt comfortable with my psychic because there was no elaborate ruse, no heads in eggs. She didn’t promise an unthinkable turn of events, but one that had become unlikely. Her assurance gave me needed hope while I adjusted to circumstances, keeping me from worse ways of coping. But when at the end of a month progress wasn’t forthcoming, and she advised a regimen of moonlight rituals, I had to draw the line. When examining practices of shamanism and animism a century ago, sociologist Marcel Mauss noted that in its focus on tangible results, paranormal magic is more like science than religion. Having no a priori belief in the phenomena, I measured outcomes by the most basic empirical criteria.
II. The Magic Castle
I was utterly unaware of myself, whirled into a new sort of comprehension of life by what I saw.
–Eisengrim in Robertson Davies’s World of Wonders
After seeing the fortune-teller, I began to reflect on her profession’s tenuous relationship with illusion. Penn & Teller made their own series of disproving the supernatural. Magic man Alexander the Crystal Seer of the 1920s and ‘30s debunked phony medium work, but held to the idea of a true spiritualism and spent much time exploring it. Practitioners of both arts can pull off the coups of awakening wonderment in stoic inquisitors, people like me. A sense of possibility is the real métier of magic—and that sense is just what I sought.
The same acquaintances I’d asked about psychics knew even less about magicians. Their answers usually amounted to a snort or smirk. The clerk at my local video store shared my affinity for Bergman’s Magician; he himself dresses all in black and makes for an eerie presence. But when I asked my question, he smiled sardonically and shook his head. “I think they move in different circles.”
There are the amateur tricksters from the Dungeons & Dragons set, the professionals resembling Liberace, and the eccentric, wise-cracking kind. “Magic suffers from the people who do magic,” admitted Derek DelGaudio in a profile, discussing his celebrated production “Nothing to Hide” at the Geffen Playhouse with costar Helder Guimarães. That event’s presentation and publicity were geared toward an idea of hipness designed to ditch memories of school talent shows; with their skinny ties and cigarettes, the thirty-ish men looked more like bebop musicians than sorcerers. The show attracted A-list celebrities, and enough attendees that it sold out its six weeks there, after four weekend bookings at Los Angeles’s Magic Castle, with two- or three-hour waits for each engagement. While I had no shot at tickets, the to-do caught my attention, since the Geffen tends to book highbrow material: the show played right before Miss Julie.
Having danced cabaret in San Francisco, I once knew a handful of fire-breathers, sword-swallowers and such. Many had a skill for calm under pressure, or willful defiance of the survival instinct, but I never liked watching those things. Even the masters tempted fate once too often: Houdini in an unanticipated blow to the bowels as he rested backstage, already ill but bent on performing, and Chung Ling Soo with a bullet catch gone wrong when he’d been careless about cleaning out his gun. I disliked my video clerk’s film choice, The Prestige (referring to a magic effect’s third and final component), because it centered on such meetings of ego and violence rather than magic’s moments of wonder.
Coming across present-day illusionist Ricky Jay altered my own perception of magicians, because his work is elegant and not gimmicky. He studied with the late “Professor” Dai Vernon, a Canadian fixture at the Castle. The two followed the tradition of Euro-American legerdemain masters Cardini, Malini, and Slydini; their path ran parallel to that of American stage illusion greats Kellar (“the Dean”), Thurston and Carter. In a documentary about Jay, a retired sheriff-turned-martial arts expert and a BBC reporter both relate personal experiences in which Jay casually produced effects they still consider impossible. To see these two worldly, seasoned people speaking wide-eyed about those small but unbelievable events is in itself moving. One describes bursting into tears at the sheer glory of reality’s sudden subversion. To achieve this response in our age of technology is no small feat.
After pulling some strings, I managed a visit to the Castle. I was overwhelmed there, not necessarily in the way I’d hoped. The private theater at Brookledge, the Castle founders’ family home in Mid-City, had been a more manageable spectacle when I’d seen it years before: ornate but not grandiose, with a single bill of attractions onstage and a genial cash bar in the garden. It was also pointedly exclusive, the province of a tight-knit community and its members’ personal guests. That I’d landed there essentially by chance, tagging along with an invited visitor, made it all the more magical. When I later tried to find the spot on a map, I couldn’t; the location was lost to me amongst the rows of tasteful facades on their quiet residential streets. No search I ran turned up an address.
When I was growing up, my mother belonged to a women’s society for which her chapter held monthly meetings. Even when these took place in our living room, my siblings and I were strictly forbidden from passing through. My father always told us our mother was “hobnobbing with her fellow wizards.” As the clubhouse of the Academy of Magical Arts, I envisioned the Castle as the exclusive hangout of real-life wizard types. But corporate reservations guarantee visiting groups access to the shows, squeezing out those who don’t sit for a three-course dinner (eating in the downstairs pub, with its $11 pre-cut french fries, doesn’t count). This is a sore point among magicians: outsiders lack members’ profound appreciation for originality, technique, and historical relevance.
On the plus side, though kept to its designated positions, there is still plenty of magic: bartenders perform with cards, an invisible pianist takes requests, and past conjurors’ artifacts line the walls alongside memorabilia from their famous fans (Cary Grant, Tippi Hedren, Dean Martin). And for those who do secure seats, the four theaters on site hold special and revolving delights. I’d waited weeks for the opportunity to see a couple of women magicians there, and they didn’t disappoint. One was an Asian lady from San Francisco who made comedic use of her Chinese background in her parlor routine: a volunteer’s vanished wedding ring turned up inside a fortune cookie from a takeout package across the stage. The prestidigitator, Jade, shared how she’d gotten her start as a newly immigrated teenager, working at a magic shop on Fisherman’s Wharf. The mistress of ceremonies told us that Jade had performed for the royal family of Monaco, among illustrious others.
For the evening I had mended my Special Occasion dress: knee-length, half-sleeved, high-waisted black lace, which I wore with stockings and heels. I added my favorite earrings and trademark orange-red lipstick. Upon arrival I checked my trench coat. The Castle maintains a famously strict dress code, which is essentially suit and tie or evening gown. It makes a few very specific allowances, which for men include jeweled collars and leather pants.
No strings or coins could measure up to what I saw, albeit late that night, within the Victorian proscenium for grand illusion. John Gaughan, an avuncular and esteemed classicist of the form, described how Academy members had located and restored several clockwork automata from the inestimable Robert-Houdin. They’d resurrected the pieces from the collection of his disciple, early filmmaker Georges Méliès. While the first one we saw was a mechanical acrobat, the second shared imagery with A Trip to the Moon. The 150-year-old self-propelling trapeze artist had been enchanting to behold, drawing exclamations from the crowd. But the audience went silent when Gaughan introduced a live reenactment of Robert-Houdin’s moon-and-Pierrot piece, in which an English magician named Mystina floated beside a talking, three-dimensional crescent. The woman danced and somersaulted above the floor, and easily passed through a ring Gaughan held before he slipped into the wings—no ropes. And despite the anti-gravity, spacewalk conceit, Mystina’s ponytail hung straight toward the floor when she turned upside down—so there were no mirrors or light tricks falsely orienting her image.
The most striking part to me was that the same thing happens in my dreams. But rather than laugh and play and serenade the heavenly bodies, I try to go on with my daily business. That I can’t keep my feet on the ground is anywhere from an inconvenience to a serious hazard, and since no one else has the same power or affliction, others lose patience. Over time I’ve developed enough control to keep from hitting ceilings, and I manage that by paddling through the air, though far less gracefully than Mystina.
On good nights, I can compensate for my gravitational non-conformity by scouting out parking spaces for my street-level acquaintances. Occasionally I’ve built scaffolding they could stand on to hang out with me. Once I convinced an old friend to trust me and hold on tight while I inevitably rose above the floor, towing him in a kind of desperate slow-dance. A few times I’ve had the comfort of a hoverboard (the kind that acts like a magic carpet, not the glorified Segway), but never other hoverboarders. Why couldn’t I occupy a hospitable scene like Mystina’s?
People around me in the theater stood to applaud when she finished. Regardless of how she’d done it, she must have practiced quite a bit, and she still risked falling on her head with the act’s each iteration. But I don’t know if anyone else had been startled, disturbed, and transfixed in quite the way I was. Mystina’s example made me think twice about my own struggles with levitation: what if I were to stop struggling?
At one point I landed by luck on a bar stool beside Milt Larsen, the Castle’s octogenarian founder. While I ate my fries and waited for the next event, he told me how his family of magicians had purchased and restored the mansion in the 1960s. He now spends part of each week in Santa Barbara, and part haunting the Castle. I asked if anything still surprises him. “All the time,” he met my eyes. “Otherwise, why keep on living?”
III. The Magian (not Magician) World View
We have agreed, have we not, that everything that makes man great, as opposed to a merely sentient creature, is fanciful when tested by what people call common sense? That common sense often means no more than yesterday’s opinions? That every great advance began in the realm of the fanciful?
–Haller in Robertson Davies’s The Manticore
Largely by coincidence, while waiting for my Castle night to arrive and my psychic’s magic spell to work, I read Robertson Davies’s Deptford Trilogy. Davies lived the better part of the 20th century, and published the Deptford books shortly before his death in the 1970s. The series’ primary narrator, Dunstan Ramsay, is a contemporary and, one suspects, a stand-in for the author: a learned, slightly peculiar man. The first volume relates the events of Ramsay’s life in Ontario, the trenches of World War I, and beyond. The second is the psychoanalytic diary of David Staunton, adult son of Ramsay’s wealthy, recently deceased frenemy Boy Staunton. And the third, while in Ramsay’s voice, recounts the memories of Ramsay’s friend Paul Dempster (who takes on the name Magnus Eisengrim after running away with the circus). Ramsay studies obscure saints, David is an alcoholic barrister seeking clarity, and Magnus is a world-famous magician, sharing his story for a film, in fact by a Swedish auteur. Running through all three stories is an incident involving young Boy Staunton and Magnus/Paul’s mother, Mary Dempster—the latter of whom Ramsay believes to be a bona fide miracle-worker—and a later, sort of inverse episode that I won’t spoil here.
Between Davies’s saint, illusionist, and Jungian doctor, we witness three kinds of magic. The Swiss Dr. von Haller takes David through the process of dream interpretation based on what she learns of his past, and together they identify his cast of archetypes in order to move beyond them: Shadow, Anima, Persona, and so on, much like my tarot characters. Indeed, Jung studied occult superstitions and saw them, like other forms of spirituality, as useful for accessing the unconscious and understanding its contents. Davies’s protagonists arrive at what one of them calls, after Spengler, “the Magian World View”—an embrace of the potential always lurking in what we dismiss as fantasy. The view transcends distinctions of “gaff,” the magicians’ name for tricks’ false elements, by acknowledging the ambiguity inherent in the material world.
The tensions between one type of magic and another are the basis of much fear, fascination, and even litigation. As a child in a religious household, I was forbidden to play with Ouija boards, which my mother believed to traffic in the occult, but allowed use of the more obviously spurious Magic 8 Ball. (Those my age will remember asking questions of the toy and shaking it to see an inner polyhedron float to the top, inscribed with answers like “ALL SIGNS POINT TO MAYBE”). In the Enlightenment era, England adopted an updated Witchcraft Act, which must have seemed bracingly rational at the time, establishing that presumptive psychics could be fined as cons but no longer charged as witches.
On the tabletop level, what do we consider cheating today? Some moves will eject a person from a casino, and others will land her in a cell. LA police broke up a shell game not long ago. Traditionally played with a dried pea under a walnut shell, the trick bears relation to Dai Vernon’s cups-and-balls maneuvers, and functions much like Three Card Monte (or “Follow the Lady,” when revolving around a queen). Participants bet that the performer can’t fool them with sleight of hand, and for this the law considers the latter a thief. I see this much like prosecuting fortune-tellers; to me their activities fall well short of true confidence artistry. In these examples, those laying down money are entering a social contract with someone whose job it is to put on a show. The supposed victims have no objective reason to trust the perpetrators—quite the opposite.
Stanford statistician Persi Diaconis is best known for determining that a card deck requires seven shuffles. But he got his start as an apprentice to Vernon, with whom he ran away to tour at fourteen (Vernon’s own mentor Kellar had also run away with a magic show as a boy, and so had Kellar’s counterpart Thurston: this appears to be a normal career step). From there Diaconis made his living gambling against passengers on ocean liners between New York and South America. As an adult, he has sometimes consulted for casinos seeking to protect their riches from card counters like him. This strikes me as even stranger, since in other pursuits, we enshrine study as the most legitimate way to advance one’s interests and garner a higher income.
However, when researching recent Magic Castle performers in an effort to plan my visit, I was alarmed to discover that one was a champion poker player. It calls up the question: what if one uses not just knowledge, but illusion, in a professional game? It’s illegal, unlike counting cards, but there may be a fine line between memorizing the deck and manipulating it. If a player under intense scrutiny can pull off a forbidden move, has she perhaps earned her winnings just the same?
A grander illusion and higher stakes game throw the matter into sharper relief. In 1856, Louis-Napoleon called Robert-Houdin to Algeria to help quell rising rebellion amongst the superstitious Marabouts. The magician used the nascent science of electromagnetism to foil the strongest warriors in a contest of might. Explaining it to them made it no less impressive. In deference to this mastery, or so the story goes, the tribe’s leaders renewed their French allegiance. Even now, Ampere’s Law only describes electromagnetism. As with so much of science, the phenomenon’s very existence seems indeed nothing short of miraculous.
If Nietzsche was right that we need our illusions, I’ll go one further and posit that we need our illusionists: to disprove our eyes, investigate our dreams, and sometimes charm the money from our pockets. And what of my work with the psychic? Not a whole lot, it seemed. For the following year, I retreated into solitude. But when I re-emerged unsuspecting, there was my kindred spirit: two blocks away, newly liberated, and independent as I. Now I share Sufi mystic Inayat Khan’s view that for magic to succeed, “each person can only wish for something equal to his evolution; he could not properly wish for something which is beneath his evolution, even if he were told to do so.” The spell had brought me a better man.