The Dead Fly, the Charlatan & the Magician – Part I
When I was six or so growing up in Tennessee, my older brother and I and a couple of other neighborhood kids were invited by a fourteen-year-old to come over to his house and see something really “neat.” This was in the mid-50’s.
The older boy had a little chemistry laboratory on the workbench in his basement and had gathered us to witness an “experiment.”
He showed us a little tube of a white powder which he said he had “created.”
He wanted to find a way to keep people young, and this was his secret formula.
He went to the window seal and picked up a dead fly. He brought it over to the workbench and laid it on the surface. He covered it gently with the crystallized powder, and we all waited.
After a minute or two, nothing happened. He took a pencil and pushed away some of the powder, and suddenly there was movement! The fly stumbled out and walked around in a dizzy circle. Then he dusted himself off and flew away!
We were all dumbfounded and shaken. I don’t think I ever talked about this experience with anyone until years later, after I found out how I had been taken.
That fourteen-year-old was a charlatan and a trickster. I was a sucker. Fell for it completely.
I thought about the experience often. It was the source of much wonder and inductive thought.
What if we could bring the dead back to life? What would that mean? What if people could live forever?
What would it mean to discover something like that?
Could a kid have done that? Could I do something like that?
It was as if I had been in a fantasy story, like a Twilight Zone episode, but the memory of the whole thing was real. I even sometimes assumed I had dreamed it.
When I became a magician, and learned the secret from an old Blackstone book for kids, I wasn’t disappointed so much as relieved and excited. The Great Blackstone said he thought it was the best magic trick in the world.
Now I had to reconsider my older neighbor and what he had been up to—he wasn’t the genius that I thought, but what he did was so wicked and delightful.
What an interesting thing to do. He created a totally fake story, put us in it, and left us with it. He didn’t have any other motivation than to create an experience for us for the fun of it. I don’t remember much ever even talking to him again after that incident.
Was this experience good or bad? Is it art?
When magic tends toward charlatanry–when it is presented seriously and without disclaimers–it seems that the dilemma is weakened. The audience may be convinced that the impossible has actually happened, and that what they know to be true about the world was wrong.
It seems unfriendly and wrong to do this to anyone, even if the intent is not to obtain other reward than fee for a performance. It doesn’t seem like it could be art, because the purpose is not truth through illusion, but to create a lie that the illusion is true.
On the other hand, perhaps we can trust the dilemma to the society at large. The challenge of approaching charlatanry in our magic is that it provokes the exposer.
The Uri Geller type of phenomena seems to demand a response from someone like Randi that tries to expose it. The dilemma arises because the fraud is challenged. The debate within the society provokes the discussion and the dialogue.
In some ways, performance magic might be a corrective. When the society falls into superstition and error, we may need a magician that will challenge that and scoff at that–a Penn and Teller type presentation that mimics, unmasks and burlesques the charlatans.
When the society becomes too materialistic and sure of itself, it may need a Uri Geller or David Blaine.
It seems to me that magic that gets close to charlatanry can be artistic, if its goal is to prod and challenge the culture and its beliefs.
~ Pop Haydn, 2017
Posted on March 14, 2017, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.