Sometimes, for portraits, Harry Houdini wore a loincloth. One photograph dated 1899 shows him standing barefoot on a carpeted floor, a black, spangled triangle of fabric at his waist, his wrists crossed before him in a kind of strongman vogue. Although his stance is steady, his posture is forced forward by the angle of his neck, which is fastened with a padlocked chain that wraps his arms and stomach, drawing his upper body toward his shackled ankles via a system of locks and weights.
Over a hundred years later, the image seems benignly earnest: the chains against Houdini’s pillowy flesh feel platonic; the loincloth reads as camp. Nothing – the point is – up his sleeve. And yet, squarely facing the camera, one eyebrow cocked beneath his curls, Houdini’s expression flickers with defiance. His gaze tilts upward to meet ours. Suddenly, we see that he is not straining but bowing. The gesture of reverence is at once a provocation and a gift.
In a good magic trick, the drama of what could happen overshadows what is happening, and what is happening is only visible in part, such that what we don’t or can’t see gives charge to what we think we are about to. Of course, ‘nothing up his sleeve’ encourages the question, ‘what about the other sleeve?’ So a good magician shows us both sleeves before pointing out that he is not wearing a shirt or jacket. Which might explain why, with all the clarity of hindsight, we can look at Houdini in his near-total exposure and still miss what he is barely hiding: his hands.
According to Vilém Flusser, what remains of the myth of flight after the invention of air travel is the dream of possessing with our whole bodies the three-dimensional, or non-planar, capabilities of a disembodied hand. The only creatures with “the freedom to apprehend, comprehend, conceive, and modify in depth” or in space, he says, are birds. And fish, sort of. Astronauts also come close. But generally, the unique potentiality of “a hand free of a body, a body turned into a hand” remains closed to terrestrial beings.
Imagine now that the spatial field described in Flusser’s proposition was flattened to an image plane, so that apprehension, comprehension, conception and modification took place not “in depth” but on the surface. The disembodied hand retains its mythological freedom, but now this freedom exists only in relationship to the eye. A white dove is loosed from its cage, flies across the stage and disappears. Whatever a disembodied hand makes apparent is as such when there is an audience – when the hand holds our attention and is in turn beheld.
“It’s all about the choreography of attention,” Apollo Robbins told The New Yorker’s Adam Green, after removing Green’s wallet without him noticing. Robbins is famous for his near-supernatural abilities with sleight-of-hand, in which the primary audience is almost always the subject. He not only lifts their wallet but, as demonstrated on The Today Show, replaces their pen cartridge with a $100 note and returns the whole thing to their pocket. “Even though he had explained each step along the way,” Green writes, palpably astonished, “I hadn’t felt a thing.”
Held undivided and choreographed skillfully, attention becomes a material that can be handled and manipulated. On the one hand, attention is the object. On the other, the hand is the only body allowed on stage: the magician makes theatre by challenging bodied-ness – by performing a feat only a disembodied hand could achieve, or by manipulating the audience’s attention so that they begin to question their corporeality: How did I not feel that? What did I just see?
Assistants, in particular, are too distracting to remain intact. They get sawn into segments or penetrated with swords; the magician drowns her (and it is inevitably a ‘her’) or, more contemporarily, themselves. The body on stage is tied up, suspended, buried, scrutinised – only the hand is free.
“What else is the world than a figure?” asks Oliver Haddo, the titular character in W Somerset Maugham’s The Magician.
“When you begin to talk of magic and mysticism I confess that I am out of my depth,” Arthur Burdon, a surgeon, replies.
“Yet magic is no more than the art of employing consciously invisible means to produce visible affects,” says Haddo, “…Magic has but one dogma, namely, that the seen is the measure of the unseen.”
When Maugham’s novel was published in 1908, the practice of surgery was undergoing rapid advancement due to discoveries in anaesthetics, antiseptics and x-ray technology. Paradoxically, science’s vigorous pursuit of the tractable body also renewed public interest in the body as esoteric metaphor, drawing magician and surgeon, operators on the figure, into counterpart. Later, in 1936, Walter Benjamin placed the two in ‘arrangement’ to describe the difference in distance struck by painter and cinematographer in relation to a subject. But at the turn of the century, magician and surgeon were sibling paradigms of proximity.
Sibling – which is to say, not quite twin. At the hands of a surgeon, certain mysteries of corporeal life become material reality; at the hands of a magician, certain material realities mystify. By the end of The Magician, Haddo has subsumed his counterpart’s abilities by successfully breeding homunculi, which he feeds on the virgin blood of Burden’s fiancé Margaret. On discovering Margaret’s fate, Burdon strangles Haddo, only to find that, in a darkened room, without an audience, the body, and therefore the act, has vanished.
Is gesture – taken to be, as Roland Barthes has it, “indeterminate and inexhaustible”, the sum of that which “surrounds the action with an atmosphere” – extricable from a relationship to touch?
Is it possible to consider Louis Althusser’s early notion of “the hand as the agent for the transformation of all matter” without also considering the later bipolar episode in which he strangled his wife while giving her a massage?
“Few theories are pure in their application,” writes David Pocock, advancing a theory in his foreword to Marcel Mauss’s A General Theory of Magic. A gesture is a hypothesis and a prophecy? A hand is a tool and a sign? Distilled to its purest, Althusser’s theoretical gesture wrought the final transformation – the termination – of a human life.
Perhaps the hand’s greater potentiality lies not with its ability to transform matter, but context:
In The Anatomy of Harpo Marx, Wayne Koestenbaum describes the many figures of Harpo, a nonlogician, a mute, a curly-headed catalyst, a victim of violence, an “abstract actor”, at once irrepressibly physical and a shape-shifting metaphor. Frequently without agency, Harpo improvises. Conjecture becomes instrument and vice versa; wave, point, grin. “Harpo’s gestures can’t be reduced to ideology,” Koestenbaum writes. “…Each motion reminds me that I have already encountered it and am free to greet it again.”
Harpo who throws hexes through bunched hands. Harpo who tells that power can be marginal. Harpo who deals in substitution and suggestion, offering his leg for his part in a handshake: ‘The Switch Trick’. “Notice the pleasure that hits when one thing replaces another. You expect a fist. You receive, instead, a flower.”
It’s possible to derive a taxonomy of two-ness from our hands’ synchronous autonomy. Doubling, division, mirroring, difference, contrast, contradiction, transposition, supplementation, inversion, concealment – the whole choreography of agreement and divergence, of left and right, is given to us here. A faculty, in Michel Serres’ terms: not special, never specific. The possibility of doing something in general.
By the mid-1920s, Houdini had become a driven sceptic. In A Magician Among the Spirits, he claims to have attended over 100 séances and exposed as many mediums, fashioning a kind of second act deducing and then revealing to the public the tricks used to falsify contact with the dead.
His most famous target was Mina Crandon. A renowned medium, Crandon was famous for her theatrical ‘proofs’, including an ectoplasmic hand that emanated from her vagina or belly button during séances. (Her surgeon husband, Dr Le Roi Crandon was renowned for a similar trick: appendectomy via the navel.) In photographs, the hand, said to belong to Crandon’s deceased brother Walter, possesses the distinctive color and texture of liver tissue, a little fat around the fingers, not unlike a starfish. In some images, the wrists and arms of attendees enter from beyond the frame, reaching over Mina’s bunched skirt to touch Walter’s fingers or accept his handshake.
Houdini’s eyes hit middle distance this time. He is standing behind a high table or desk, looking collegiate in a shirt and tie. His sleeves are rolled up; he is at work. Surrounded by several large glass beakers, he leans slightly forward into his task, supporting with his left hand and displaying with his right a large wax model, indistinguishable from the real in form yet indicated by three earlier examples on the table below: wax hands, false hands, modeled on Houdini’s own in order to manifest the unreality of the spirit-hands he sought to debunk.
Giorgio Agamben writes: Gesture is the display of mediation, the making visible of a means as such.
Poised between fixity and melt, Houdini’s hands float in process, all surface, at once means and ends and neither wholly both. They drip at the fingers, approximate, impossible, ready to act.